What is groundedness?

More thoughts from fb, inspired by recent time in Herrang.

Jo asked in the fb teaching group:

I recently had a student ask me to define what being grounded was and said that a lot of teachers use this as a buzzword, but never actually explain what it was nor how to get there. I found this quite interesting. So, my fellow instructors, how would you define “being grounded” and what are some of your favorite exercises you use to teach it?
If there is a thread that has already discussed this, please feel free to link as my search came up empty. :D

And I replied:

In my head, I use this concept a lot, but I never teach with it.
So I guess I’d have to nut through what makes a dancer look ‘grounded’…
This will no doubt be another huge post. Soz not soz.

– I often say when watching a dancer that I really like the way their feet touch the ground. Their feet are under their body, and they _use_ it to push off, they make conscious choices about which part of their foot touches the ground (like a tapper), and they make very clear weight changes.

They also bend joints, and have ‘loose knees’, rather than straight legs. All this bending and collecting and angles and so on brings the eye _down_ rather than up. It’s also very functional, as it makes it easier to respond quickly.
But this is often a matter of aesthetics, as tap dancers and dancers from Ghana Guinea (thanks for the heads up, Bert) are both grounded (as in they use the ground), but also capable of great jumps and lifts – a sense of defying gravity. In the case of tap, I’ve noticed (and had to learn) that tappers have a superior sense of where their weight is at any one time, and don’t settle for just ‘split or committed’ weight. They have varying degrees of weight commitment, and can do what seems like hold themselves in mid air. I often notice it when I watch Sakarias Larsson dance: he is both supremely grounded and using the ground, but also seems to hang from the bottom of his rib cage, able to hold himself higher if he needs to.

We talk a lot about ‘seeing the rhythm’ when someone dances.
I usually mean this to involve a really engaged core (ie movement coming from the middle of the body, or particular muscle groups within the body), or nice combinations and engagements of muscles*. Rather than just arms flapping about in the air or feet slippering about all over the floor while the torso does nothing. We did some work on this with eWa and Lennart in the teachers’ track – how to make the shim sham a rhythm rather than figures.
I think that it’s also important to really begin and finish movements clearly, referring always to the music. And by movements I mean very small segments of time (eg half a beat or less). So the dancer really needs to know what they’re doing rhythmically, not just moving through shapes. ie if we’re serious about rhythm, we don’t just work with beats and half beats. We don’t just have swung time, we also work with straight time. And so on. The physical manifestation of rhythm requires sophisticated and very clean, clear engagement of particular muscles at the right time, so it also requires good proprioception (am I doing what I think I’m doing) as well as the ability to engage or turn off particular muscles at the right time.
-> all of this involves a very clear use of the ‘ground’ and gravity

In ballet, dancers aim to look light and airy and the opposite of grounded. This is about aesthetics, though. There’s a cool article about this called “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance” by Joann Kealiinohomoku (What Is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism Eds. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. 533 – 49). Kealiinohomoku does a close textual analysis of ballet as ethnicised dance, and the stuff that makes ballerinas look ‘light’: hyper-extended, straight legs and arms (vs bent knees and joints which are essential to african and african american vernacular dance); pointed toes and extended hands and fingers, elongated necks and lifted chins, lifted rib cages and turned out hips to flatten the buttocks and make them look flatter and longer. Even the clothes they wear (there are some grooving photos illustrating this here, where Balanchine works with ballet dancers).

-> there’s some really fantastic work on the black american choreographers and dancers of the 20s-40s, and their part in the Harlem Renaissance and then black arts movements. Their integration of black cultural history with white high art (ballet) really saw a playing with the ‘airy’ lightness of traditional ballet with the ‘grounded’ aesthetics of other dance traditions. Katherine Dunham is the big name here, but also Balanchine (his work on Cabin in the Sky with lindy hoppers and jazz dancers, for example), and Alvin Ailey.
I actually see similar innovations in black Australian dance companies like Bangarra Dance Theatre.

RE how do I teach dancers to be grounded?

I do a lot of solo jazz work.
So, for example, the last block I taught we began each intermediate class with a phrase of the shim sham, looking at how to make the rhythms clear, the weight changes crisp or functional, how to remember and dance the sequence rather than just copying the teacher, etc etc.
I noticed that all the class in the rest of the session were really grounded and very clear in their movements. And their leading and following was much better.
I think that the solo work makes you much more confident, but also forces you to make very clear weight changes, and to know where your weight is at any one point. Teaching the shim sham as series of weight changes (ie fancy walking) also makes it easier to dance. This then transfers directly to lindy hop (ie fancy walking holding hands).

Rhythm games like I-go, you-go, where the teacher dances a two bar rhythm, then the students come in immediately on the next bar.
This makes them watch, observe, understand, then remember and reproduce. As they get better at it, they stop consciously mapping the rhythm and movements with their brain, and let their pattern-matching brain bits do the work. Particularly with longer sequences. It’s HARD. But also very, very good. I have found in my own dancing that this tap work is making me much better at learning sequences in lindy hop, so when I dance them, I’m much more confident and commit my weight properly, rather than trying to play it safe and dither about uncertainly between feet.

Where is your weight?
In my own work, tap is teaching me to really make confident choices about where my weight is. I have been really focussing on how to know when to commit my weight completely to one foot, to just commit 50% of it, or 20% or whatever, and THEN to be able to change that amount within a particular time limit (ie quickly or slowly or within a full beat, half beat, third of a beat, whatevs). I find this very challenging, and I’m struggling a lot. But it’s making my lindy hop SO much better.

Gimme de kneebone bent.
(to quote Malone). ie soft knees (with a little bend), avoiding pointed toes and extended ankles (unless it’s intended for contrast), bent hips, experimenting with bands and angles in the torso at the hip and waist, and with rotation, extremely angled shoulders (as in a shorty george), bent elbows and wrists, turning the head and using gaze to direct the eye. ie charleston, pecking, shorty george, fish tail, rocking, etc etc.

Don’t fall down
We use the ‘traveling on the bus’ example to demonstrate groundedness. We ask them to think about this when they’re next on the bus. How do they keep their balance when they’re standing up if they can’t reach a bar? They relax their knees, feet shoulder width apart, and think ‘down’ rather than ‘up and tippy’.

*Entirely unrelatedly, I think the ‘arm v body lead’ distinction is a false dichotomy. Arms are attached to bodies, so every arm lead is a body lead. BUT, we can use our arms in lots of ways. So I can let my shoulders rise up towards my ears when I lift my arms, and this then makes the movement happen more in my arms. Or I can keep my shoulder blades down ‘in my body’ as I raise my arms, which then engages the muscles from my shoulders to my spine, and my spine to my hips, which is super good for leading and following. But both are legit, and can give very different visual effects for solo performance in particular. The former can look very funny if you bend at the waist 45*.
This relates to groundedness because the arms that have dropped shoulder blades look more ‘contained’ and give a clearer sense of what the torso is doing while the arms are moving. But of course it is far, far more complex (and wonderful than that):

(The Charles Moore Dance Theatre: “Ostrich” choreography by Asadata Dafora (1932))

Not everything I believe is true.

I’m still thinking about the the issues that came up in the teaching dance fb group.
Specifically the importance of fixing meaning.

It’s nice to advocate for the idea of gender or identity in dance as fluid and defying a fixed meaning. The sentiment that ‘anything is true’ is very appealing. But I’ve been thinking a lot about how having a fixed, authoritative meaning is important for radical or resistant politics. Of course, if this idea of fixed or essential identity is used by dominant ideology, by patriarchy, it doesn’t go well for queer folk and people of colour.

I would like very much to quote some of the comments and attribute sources from this fb discussion, but I’m not sure how these people would like their words used out of context, so I’m going to have to go all stealth on you. Sorry, and I’ll add names and attributions on request.

There are two points of view which really caught my eye. One of them was raised by a friend who is a little/lot/enough genderflex, and who posited that the leading and following are not as distinct as we like to insist. This was in response to this piece Why Leading Is Not More Difficult Than Following, and How to Make It True from the always-dodgy-and-a-little-bit-shit clickbait site Joy In Motion. That piece has been giving me the living shits.
This friend’s post began:

Regarding the “leading is not harder” article, ambidancing pedagogy, leading and following being different skill sets, and whether we should use lead/follow as nouns or just verbs.
I think I think about all this really differently, like super differently*. I completely agree that leading (as a verb) and following (as a verb) are different skill sets to learn, practice and use, but I really struggle with the conflating of skill set and role within the dance – the rigid assignment and division of these skill sets by role.

And it continued with some really great thinking and passionate points.

In sum, the key points were:
– leading and following are abilities/skill sets
– these skills aren’t welded to the role or lead or follow; they are transportable
The implicit ideology at work here (which all the people in that fb group are familiar with if not on board with), is that leading and following aren’t innately gendered, but are practically gendered by cultural context.

So this position can be read as an argument for skills/qualities being culturally associated with specific gender roles, but not innately gendered or associated with leads or follows.

Not a particularly controversial point, and it’s one I agree with.
I’ll say here, though, that this is as far as I’ll go on this one. I know there are people who argue that the role of lead and follow are essentially the same, and that we then just negotiate who does ‘some leading’ and ‘some following’ within each partnership. I don’t 100% dig on this, just as I don’t 100% dig on much of the ambidancetrous discourse floating about, particularly within the blues and fusion scenes.

I personally feel that within lindy hop, as a dance out of history, there are specific biomechanic, structural, and role-related qualities which defining leading and following. So while a follow may initiate a move or rhythm, I believe that ‘leading’ – being a lead – is about initiating and suggesting movements. The individual lead may enact this potential in different ways – from the leader who really asks the follow to do as they ask, to the leader who assumes a more open role of suggesting movements or shapes or speeds that the follow then chooses (or chooses not to) execute.
I believe that the acts of leading and following are different. And within lindy hop, we give those ‘leading’ elements to the leader role, and the following elements to the follow role. These have been historically gendered, but I am not on board with any bullshit about women being innately ‘better’ at following or men innately ‘better’ at leading. That’s patently not true.

My own physical understanding of leading is that it is not like following. I believe leaders in lindy hop have a different relationship to the beat than follows. They tend to be closer to the beat, while the follow is a little behind. By the nature of ‘following’. Though of course decent jazz dancers can adjust and play with this relationship to time and the beat. And should!
here are various characteristics of led and followed movement that mean the lead is often the pivot point or centre of a smaller point of rotation than follows (though obviously not always). As an example, the follow and lead move around a shared pivot point, and when things are working well, both move equal amounts. But many traditional or ‘heritage’ lindy hop moves or figures use the lead as a physical pivot point.
Leads often do more movement on a vertical plane, and follows more on a horizontal. I feel a bit shaky on this one, as this is purely a regional cultural thing, or specific to particular historical dancers. eg Jewel McGowan’s swivels rotate on a horizontal plain, while Frankie Manning’s swing out often uses a very vertical layout where he kicks back behind him. But it’s hard to pin this one down, as we can immediately think of a hundred exceptions to this rule. I wonder as well if the way we operate on vertical and horizontal planes is more informed by the biomechanics of particular lifestyles and particular cultural agents and individuals, than by some essential physics. In other words, we all live such individual lives and lifestyles with such unique bodies, and so few of us operate at our physical peak or potential, that our dancing cannot help but be individual and defy grouping at a very essential level.

Specific leads like Frankie Manning use the space within the reach of their own arms as ‘their space’ on the dance floor that they share with their partners, and while they are aware of and work with their partner’s body and reach and limits, this ‘space’ is primarily defined by the way the lead suggests and initiates movement within that specific range. The space might move across the floor, but is defined by that particular person’s body, range of motion, step size, gait, etc etc etc. When things are working well, it fits the lead and follow well, and a lead makes adjustments to their dancing and space to accommodate the follow and their creative expression and physical presence.

But let’s set all that aside. This is all stuff that I’m wading through in my own brain, mostly in relation to my own dancing. I have been lindy hopping for twenty years now, and I don’t suck. But I am certainly not operating anywhere near my physical peak, nor do I make best use of my body’s potential. I don’t train, I don’t care a heap about technical accuracy, and I tend to be driven my music and improvisation than by making an effort to refine what I do. So I tend to dance in a way that gets the job done for me, now. So the way I lead now is not the way I led when I was 23. I’m older, fatter, less fit, and more ornery now. But I’m also a better dancer now, and more efficient in my movements (because lazy), and I have pilates and yoga and lots of other experience under my belt.
But in my experience, following uses my body in different ways than leading. I have a different connection with the ground in each role. And most importantly (and elusively), my muscles and unconscious physical responses are completely different when I lead and follow. So if you look at my body and the way my muscles are engaged or look ‘in neutral’ as a lead vs as a follow, they’re completely different. I find that if I work on one role intensively, avoiding the other, I get much better at that role. And my unconscious reactions change. If I then swap bak (especially if I’m going from leading to following), my following tends to suck a bit. I tend to take the initiative more, initiating movements in a way a follow doesn’t. Because it interrupts what the lead is doing.
So I don’t know if my opinion on all this is just anecdata limited by sample size of one human’s first hand experience.

Which is exactly my point. Each human’s experience is the most important thing in their world.

So when my friend makes their point about leading and following being skills rather than innate qualities, they are mapping their own lived experience onto lindy hop. And that is vitally important. To make that statement is so, so important. Because it is a lived expression of their sense of self and of identity.
And there is nothing we can say that can make that untrue, or to disprove that.

So while I might go on and on about how leading and following are completely different, it doesn’t make my friend’s points any less true.

And I quite like that. I find it quite exciting to hold that idea in my head: my ideas can be 100% true at the same time as my friend’s somewhat contradictory ideas can also be 100% true.

This gets even more interesting when we look at a reply to this post from a black American woman. She and my friend discuss this issue in the most civil, most interesting conversation. They have fundamentally different understandings/experiences of identity, but they are listening and discussing. And both understand that these two different approaches are both valid and ‘true’, may conflict in theory, but in practice can quite happily live alongside each other on the dance floor.
Here are some excerpts from the second person’s responses:

I can’t disagree more. They are roles for a reason. Just because I have a voice as follow doesn’t make me “leading”. It means I have voice. Equal but different voice. Being able to do both is valid but saying they’re are no rules only dancing is not how this dance works. There are fundamental ideas of what makes a dance in black culture and how our culture shows up in them. Changing that is creating a new, and valid, but different dance.

The roles are tied to what you do in the world. I would never disrespect my partner by doing their time and ignoring my responsibilities as a follow.

If you take that out, it might as well be a dance from a different culture and therefore different rules and values. Aka a different dance

I dance both roles equally and teach with out gender (mostly blues now but hey). I have found most people who desire to share movement initiation either 1 feel like bored/limited in following and want to affect the dance more or 2 they are trying to upend the “follow is passive” concept. But both issues stop existing if you approach the rules in the cultural context of those who created it. I love all that comes with leading and all that comes with following. But I feel no need to mix them. My teammate/partner has that covered in this dance. A dance with different values and my feelings change

This is how I got to that post Muddling through thoughts about ethnicity and dance and gender. Alex had chimed in to say “I think there’s a lot of room for reasonable people to disagree on this”. And I agree with him. As I was writing that previous post, I was struck by just how comprehensively my experience and understanding of lindy hop is informed by my experiences as a white middle class woman living in urban Australia in the late 20th and early 21st century. I could see the privilege just leaking out of the screen each time I wrote ‘we’ when what I should have written was ‘me.’

For me, lindy hop is, ultimately, a discourse. It is a place and site and act of discussion and negotiation of ideology – ideas about the world. And some of those ideologies do not play well with others. In my brain, the part of me that did all that work on discourse analysis and models of public discourse for my phd, it’s ok for all these ideas to swirl about. It’s ok for me because being able to float along with conflicting ideas is a marker of privilege. My own lived experience isn’t disavowed by a genderflex understanding of leading and following.
But for a black woman, dancing today, a dance that developed in the social spaces of her people, her community, has gender and roles informed by that community. Because making these differences and distinctions disappear is an act of colonialism. Of oppression. It is exactly the sort of work that slavery did to suppress black culture on plantations and in domestic servitude. So I cannot and will not argue with a black American woman who is telling me what lindy hop is and means. I won’t even say “I can accept that and still hold my own beliefs, even in they disagree.” I simply have to shut up and accept this story about the way things are, this truth. Because it is a radical act of allydom to stop telling your own story, and to stop occupying public discourse. To cede it to the words and stories of another.

I think that this is the best bit. At the same time as I take this position, I can also believe that the genderflex approach to leading and following is true. Because I believe that when we dance, when we tell these stories, we make it true. And we need to keep telling and retelling our stories, which change and grow as we do. So if I want to believe my own ideas about dance, I have to get out there and dance them. And when I’m teaching – which is the key part of this whole thing – I have a duty and responsibility to remember the black history of these dances and tell these stories. Which is why I don’t think we should abandon the original names of historic jazz steps. Why I think we should namecheck OGs.
So when I teach, I let students figure out how they want to think about these issues. I can set them up with information about how to find out more about ideas – who to talk to about black dance history, which OGs were dancing when and were – but I definitely won’t tell them how to think about it.

At the end of the day, though, I think that genderflex and black American stories about lindy hop have much more in common with each other than with the dominant white patriarchal stories about lindy hop. They are both operating from positions of resistance, and lindy hop is very good for resistance and transgression.

More power to you all, sisters.

Where I fall in love with jazz all over again.

I’m going to go on and on about the music at Little Big Weekend 2017 for quite a long time, so best to give you some facts.

Andrew Dickeson and I are big jazz nerds, who love swinging jazz and live in the same neighbourhood. So we’ve been collaborating on putting together live music programs for dancers that make musicians happy. Which means we go to each other’s houses and argue about which songs we should play (ever tried to narrow your favourites down to a dozen?), argue about whether cats or dogs are better, and sigh over Duke Ellington.

We began working on these projects in 2014 at Jazz BANG, a solo jazz weekend here in Sydney. And we’ve done a zillion gigs since. Each gig we seem to pick up another musician who almost cryfeels about the experience of working on this type of music with this band leader, and this crowd. And each gig we see more musos flying or driving to Sydney to be part of it.
You must understand that all these musicians are trained professionals who’ve been playing for years and years, and have recorded heaps of music. Ones like Bob Henderson have been playing since the 50s. Andrew is a lecturer at the most prestigious tertiary institute for music in Australia – the Sydney Conservatorium of Music – where he teaches jazz history. Georgia is a hardcore dancer, teacher, and performer, as well as a trained musician, vocal teacher and performer.

To my mind, the success of the Blue Rhythm Band lies in the relationship between the band leader Andrew Dickeson, and his bff Brad Child. Andrew is a drummer who knows when not to play. He doesn’t bang pots in the kitchen; he places cups and plates on the table, moves them around, rearranges the flowers so everyone can see. When the band sets up on stage, he’s right in the middle, where he can see everyone. And where everyone can see and hear him. So Andrew brings structure, clarity, and direction to the band.

Brad is more about the feels. Standing near the band (or sometimes right in the middle of it when I’m working), you can hear Brad yelling out things like “There, now, I’m going in!” and then pumping the energy. Or, “Back off, back it off, nice and gentle!” He has the sort of unerring ear and eye for energy and vibe which I’ve only seen in one or two exceptional DJs. It’s truly a rare talent. He’s not just watching the crowd, he’s feeling the crowd, and the band, and he’s bringing them all together, on a very nice trip through jazz.

When you add responsive, clever, talented musicians to that pair, you get a lovely, vibrant, powerful band. A solid group who take improvisational risks, but are still very solid. Sound. Or, if you’re thinking about lindy hop, this band has very tight rhythms, excellent timing, but knows that it’s ok to relax and just improvise around simple shapes rather than trying to jam complex figures into one dance. And they know how to look at their partners. :D

But this weekend was the most ambitious. I was collaborating with Sharon Hanley on the dancing parts. Sharon is a long-time balboa nut, and she was bringing some very good balboa dancers to town, dancers strongly rooted in the history of the dance, and who understand swinging jazz. I was bringing two teachers who are all about lindy hop and solo jazz dances. Also very much informed by jazz dance history. Sharon and I run separate dance businesses in Sydney – Swing Time Australia (Sharon), and Swing Dance Sydney (me). These businesses focus on our dance and musical interests. We’ve worked together lots of times in the past, mostly on DJing, and on running parties. This was our first large project together.

It never occurred to us that balboa and lindy hop couldn’t have fun together on the same dance floor. It’s the same music, right? Solid, swinging jazz. After all, when we DJ together, we’re into the same music. And it never occurred to us that east coast influenced swing dances (lindy hop, balboa, shag) couldn’t sit well with Harlem-centred swing dances (lindy hop, solo, tap, etc). After all, that’s how Sydney works: all these dances play well together at our parties and live music gigs.

For me, it’s the music that makes the point of all this. Working with musicians, musicians working together, dancers working together. It’s all about improvisation, playing games, having fun, and just being filled up by that good sound. Andrew and I have just had so much fun doing these parties, and we just LOVE the music so much, and the relaxed fun of social dancing with live music, we just figure: let’s do MORE!
I want to do more and more and more of this. I can see how it could become addictive. I can see how musicians have problems with drugs – uppers to keep you going. Downers to help you finally sleep. Putting together a few little shows for the weekend, I just thought ‘Ha! There are some serious talents coming, I’ll just set it up and let them go!’ and then we set it up, and let them go, and it was amazing. Musicians and dancers. I really do love this approach to events and dancing: get some solid framework in place, then let people improvise on top. And make sure everyone has a lot of fun and feels good and safe. Amongst friends.

So what did we actually do?

Friday: the usual Blue Rhythm Band line up (Brad Child (sax), Peter Locke (piano), Mark Elton (bass), Andrew (drums), Georgia Brooks (vocals).
AND we did a little introduction performance where we introduced our artists (musicians and dancers (Marie N’diaye, Anders Sihlberg, Kate Hedin, Bobby White)) one at a time. It was SPLENDID.

I had a few goals with this performance.
1. I wanted to place the musicians right in there on the same level as our guest teachers. I wanted dancers to see them, know their names, and hear how they added to the band. So we did a ‘Now you has jazz‘ style intro, where we began with Andrew, then literally had the musicians walk in one at at time and start playing. When that bass hit. WOW. The room just LEAPT. I couldn’t believe how effective it was.
2. I wanted to really begin the weekend, not just have it stagger up to speed. So we had a bit of mellow music, lots of snacks and drinks and conversation as people arrived, and THEN we introduced the band and the teachers.
3. I wanted the vocalist (Georgia) to introduce everyone, and to sing. Which was just magical. When she sang that chorus of Honeysuckle Rose, we just sighed.
4. I wanted a well known song that feels nice. Honeysuckle Rose is a lovely song, about loving someone. It’s my favourite. And it can be funny. So it’s perfect for an intro.

This just went off so well. I loved it. I was so happy. Such talented artists!

Saturday: we got super ambitious. Because this Little Big Weekend is a balboa/lindy hop event, we had two bands. We had a swinging combo (Brad, Peter, Mark, Andrew, Bob Henderson (trumpet), Chuck Morgan (guitar)). Adding a guitar: the band was pretty much perfect.
THEN we decided to get all Benny Goodman on our crowd (because balboa dancers – and everyone sensible) loves Goodman’s small group. VIBRAMAPHONE! (Glenn Henrick) and Brad played clarinet.
THIS was pretty freaking amazing. Vibraphones! It’s a magical instrument. I had no idea just how wonderful it sounds in a big room. It just feels all velvety and vibratey, and you can almost feel it on your skin. In the band, it just sort of filled in all the gaps in the music, softening the edges and really feeling like that gorgeous mushy-strong feeling of a good connection between partners.

But then it got better.

ALL the musicians were on stage together, not playing from charts, but paying close attention to Andrew’s leadership, and listening very carefully to each other.

The huge, ugly 70s ballroom (with amazing acoustics and raised seating for non-dancing punters, and a full bar) was just crammed with happy people and great music. Musicians brought their friends and family, and we had a very good time.

With this night, I wanted to really marry the two dances (balboa and lindy hop), by making it clear that we really did love the same music. While Goodman’s small groups are popular with balboa dancers, it’s also wonderful for lindy hop.
And when the band played a beautiful ballad (Moonglow!) people didn’t think ‘oh no, I don’t blues dance!’ they said (SHOUTED in some cases), “I LOVE THIS SONG!” and then just found a person and just enjoyed the song.

…thinking about it now is making me tear up. It was quite magical.

SUNDAY the band was pared back to the Blue Rhythm Band format again, and we just danced and danced.
But first we did a little ‘story of jazz’ performance, where the band showed us how jazz changed from the 20s to the 50s, and our guest teachers showed us how the dancing changed. Tap. Balboa. Pure bal. Bal swing. Lindy hop. Charleston. Breakaway. All of it. And at the end, we all got up and swung out to Shiny Stockings, and some people cried.

Here, my plan was:
1. Make it clear that the music literally comes first,
2. Show that the dance styles may be different, but they’re still the same in that they listen to the music.
3. Invite everyone onto the dance floor together. Literally. We ended with Shiny Stockings, and when I said, “And in the 50s, band leaders like Basie reminded us to dance together… so if you feel the urge, join in and dance with us,” everyone leapt to their feet and danced. It was a very special moment.

One of the best bits happened next. We were doing this as a snowball, to make sure we had everyone feeling welcome. But I added ‘slow motion!’ and ‘Freeze!’ and ‘snowball’ as calls. At first I could hear the musicians saying to each other, “What’re we doing?” and replying “Snowball means change partners!” and then they all got INTO it. When I called ‘freeze!’ the second time, the band literally froze. And then we picked up in perfect time. And everyone in the room laughed and cheered. It was totally improvised, but it felt really, really good. Because we were improvising and playing a game.

Things I loved about the weekend:
– The band was so good, everyone danced to any old song. They don’t worry about speed or who they’re dancing with; they just get up and have some fun.
– The floor was full of all the dances. Balboa, lindy hop, solo, shag, people just holding hands and swaying.
– the noise level from the crowd. Shouting out to the musicians, talking, laughing, cheering, clapping, whooping, hollering.
– the musicians’ massive smiley faces, and the way they’d talk to the dancers or yell out to each other.

This song Benny’s Bugle is important, because the original Goodman small group included Benny Goodman, Cootie Williams, George Auld, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Artie Bernstein, Harry Jaeger. So Basie’s powerhouse rhythm section got together with Goodman’s perfectionist control, and then they made an amazing song. There are some very interesting outtakes from this recording session, available on box sets like Charlie Christian:Genius of the Electric Guitar. And you can listen to it on youtube here.

Andrew Dickeson’s Blue Rhythm Band is strongly influenced by Basie’s rhythm section. And we all know how lindy hoppers feel about Basie. Goodman is just perfect for balboa, because he has that precise, clever instrumentation matched with a glorious swinging timing. That’s balboa, right?

So this song is important: balboa and lindy hop = <3

When and why to ban offenders, and when to commit to rehabilitation

Another post growing from a fb discussion.

I’m not the hugest fan of Clem Ford, but I’ve mulling over this very point RE offenders in the dance scene:

…people with criminal convictions have the moral right to reintegrate into society once their sentence has been served. But being entitled to access basic needs like employment, housing and amenities is starkly different to being supported to re-enter spaces that automatically confer privilege and power (Clementine Ford, What it means to be a good bloke).

Thomas pointed out in response to this,

This thread’s on point. If a criminal conviction can limit someone’s ability to travel, it’s difficult to see how they shouldn’t be limited in their access to positions of power as well.

and Liam replied

Agreed, but Ford is confusing criminal punishment and social shunning, which are both at work, or not at work. Shunning of transgressors is a social punishment there aren’t any rights against (which is why it’s so powerful/dangerous, and sometimes called for).

The issue within the lindy hop world (and the wider world implicitly), is that most rapes don’t go to court. More precisely: very few of all rapes and assaults go to court. So in most cases there aren’t any criminal charges to enforce or take into account. In the dance world the nearest equivalent is a public report and then community-based action.

The modern lindy hop world has a very strong (certainly evangelical) ethos of ‘growing the scene’. This is rooted in the myth that lindy hop has ‘died out’ and needs to be ‘revived’ or ‘kept alive’. The specific reasons why it should be kept alive are harder to pin down.
But this push to ‘grow the scene’ is often employed by less ethical organisers to justify everyone supporting their events or classes (eg ‘we should support all the classes because we want to grow the scene‘). And it plays a very important part in many community members’ refusal to ban or blacklist offenders: we must ‘keep’ big name/talented/famous dancers (especially ones who were involved in historical research, people like Steven Mitchell) because we have to ‘keep lindy hop alive’ and honour these roots.

This last point is the most worrying for many of us. We are encouraged to venerate original groovers and historians because they are so important to a preservationist/revivalist project. Many dancers resist blacklisting or shunning these dancers because there is a sense that… fuck, it a clear belief that ‘preserving the dance’ is more important than women’s safety.

Steven Mitchell’s systematic grooming and assault of a large number of women and girls was facilitated by dancers who excused his behaviour because he was important for ‘reviving lindy hop’.

Within the dance scene, social shunning is almost the only response to assault by community members. And it is super powerful, because it’s usually achieved by:

  • Blacklisting teachers and DJs (so they don’t get gigs and aren’t put in a position where they can hurt people);
  • Blacklisting/boycotting organisers’ events (if they offend or hire offenders, or don’t ban offenders);
  • Banning offenders from attending big events, and smaller local classes and parties;
  • Excluding offenders from fb groups and discussion lists (which are really super important for community participation where the dance floor itself precludes a lot of talk).

…and so on.

The issues within the dance scene at the moment are:

  • Who carries out and enforces these bans, boycotts, and blacklists;
  • When and who decides it’s time to lift these bans;
  • How to organisers share info with other organisers and with the general punters about who’s been banned (and do they have an obligation to share this information);
  • Who will share information about offenders with whom, and which of these sources is ‘reliable’;
  • What role women reporting offenders should play in this process. eg are they obliged to forgo anonymity and risk physical danger (this seems to be a preponderant view among male organisers, and more conservative organisers);
  • Organisers’ not knowing how, or when, they should enforce bans, and being faced with financial loss and face when discovering a contractor is an offender.

I must point out, that while there’s quite a bit of chatter on the fb about how we should act on these issues, the vast bulk of the practical work is being done by women.
Which brings me back to Ford’s original point: why aren’t men stepping the fuck up on this?

My final points: if we are supposed to commit to rehabilitation of offenders within the community, who exactly is going to do this unpaid labour? And why is their rehabilitation given great value than the mental and physical wellbeing of the women who survived their criminal violence?

What if that teacher you’ve hired is reported for assault?

I think that a lot of organisers are currently terrified of this scenario. What if the teacher you’ve booked is reported for assault before your event? During your event? What do you do? You’ve invented $20 000 in an event, you’ve never had to face this issue before, you’re upset, stressed, and kind of freaking.

The best option is to plan ahead. Don’t ‘wait and see’ or deal with it ‘on a case by case basis’. Plan. Develop policies.

And of course, before you hire someone, find out about them. Ask other teachers, experienced and well-known, well-travelled dancers and DJs. Develop networks before you start booking people.

Make sure you’re known as someone who will listen when an assault is reported. And you do that by having a code of conduct, by speaking often and quite confidently in public about your position on this issue. This sort of reputation (for being a good egg rather than an enabler or apologist) will encourage people to speak to you about known offenders.

Get your priorities right: protect the reporter’s safety. They are putting themselves in physical danger by reporting. So you need to be on their side.
Protect your employees, your contractors and volunteers, your friends, your family, yourself: having a known offender at your event is placing all these people at risk.

So let’s look at a pretty shitty situation. It’s a month out from your event, and you discover (privately or publicly) that one of your headline teachers has been reported for sexual assault by a number of people in different countries.

Here’s a tip: don’t try to hide it. That’s stupid and it endangers other people. Make a plan, so you can respond sensibly if this happens.

I really don’t know how I’d deal with this issue, so I’ve started doing some thinking. Here are my first thoughts.

What I’d do in this situation (and I’m living in dread of the day it’ll be me):

  1. I’d cancel that teacher immediately;
  2. I’d get the teacher’s partner to get another partner stat, or decide to cancel them as well (they may, after all, have been enabling their partner);
  3. I’d make a public announcement that we are not hiring the teacher for this gig. I’d think about whether we announce why. If we did announce why, I’d have a fallout plan in place.
  4. I’d develop a fallout plan. ie a way to handle the financial loss, the PR shock, and my own personal worry and distress.

And I’d just deal with the fact that I’m $2000 worth of airfares out of pocket.
To be honest, I occasionally drop an extra $1500 on an event for things like extra live music, so it’s not that far out of the realm of budgetry possibilities. $2000 seems like a massive amount of money. But it’s a much smaller price than the inevitable PR wreck you’re left with when your covering up this incident is discovered.

Dealing with it promptly = good PR. And there’s a chance you’ll pick up extra registrations from people who see you do take this position, as you’re saying, quite clearly: “I am serious about safety.”

And think about this very carefully: if you still bring a teacher into the country under a visa like a 408, you are bringing a known offender and criminal into the country. This is a very serious issue in Australia, and Border Force will discover this. You are breaking the law. You are also breaking industrial relations law, which requires you to actively work to prevent sexual assault and harassment in the workplace.

Not to mention the fact that if you don’t act on this, you are placing your friends, family, and employees at risk. Making you a dickbag.

What if one of your teachers is reported for sexual assault during your event?
This happened during Swing Camp Oz a couple of years ago when Steven Mitchell was publicly reported for sexual assault. And Joel Plys handled this issue very badly.
Firstly, Mitchell was allowed to speak to the dancers at the camp, going to each class individually to ‘apologise’.
This is unethical: you are allowing a known offender to make direct contact with your punters and staff in small groups.

Secondly, Mitchell was sent to the airport and out of the country.
This is not only illegal, but also dangerously unethical. You are aiding a known offender in crossing an international border.

What should have happened?
I’m not entirely sure. But one of the clearest options would have been to contact the local police for advice.

One of the most important measures this organiser should have taken was to be sure that all the teachers and the organiser had current, appropriate visas for working in Australia, and had a clear and well thought out code of conduct and OH&S policy. Clearly none of this was the case.

who should you tell about this?
This is a tricky one. Since I’ve started being pro-active in speaking to other organisers about known offenders (ie sending emails to organisers making them aware of persons X, Y, and Z, what they’ve done, and what my response is), I have received personal threats of physical violence and legal action. The former really doesn’t scare me that much: what’s new about being threatened with violence? Rape is violence, and I live with that threat every day. By acting on this, speaking out, I’m actually reducing the threat of violence in my community.
The latter scared me at first, as I had no legal experience. But I spoke to some experienced journalist friends (who are used to dealing with threats of defamation), and found a lawyer. The threat of legal action did not eventuate, and an initial letter from the ‘lawyer’ of an offender I’d reported turned out to be an empty threat.

I also saw some of the local organisers being openly resistant to and highly critical of this semi-public discussion of sexual assault. A large number wanted to talk to the reporting woman (I would not put them in contact, as her anonymous safety was more important); wanted to speak to the offender first (like they didn’t know what he’d say); and openly dismissed my efforts as a ‘witch hunt’ or ‘Sam being a bitch’.
This response was what terrified me: so many Australian organisers who openly defended a rapist, publicly questioned a woman’s report, and my acting as her agent in this issue, and made it clear that they thought it wasn’t ‘that serious’.
What was interesting, though, is that I received a large number of emails from women organisers offering support, and saying that they did not agree with the critical comments. In fact, most of the Australian organisers were feeling the way I was: that this shit cannot be tolerated.

All this in addition to the usual round of hate emails, fb messages, and blog comments.

Would I do it all again?
Yep. Because even though this shit scares and upsets me, it’s nothing compared to what these women are dealing with every day. And it makes me SO ANGRY that these men get away with it, and that other men protect them.

But now I am far, far more concerned about the people who protect known rapists. And if you’re not acting on reports, you are protecting and enabling men. Which is why, when you discover one of your guest teachers has been reported for assault, you need to act on it. Because ignoring it will not make it go away; it will enable that man and tell the world you’re ok with it.

We are all good dancers: in praise of jazz and critique of jargon

Lindy hop is a social dance. That means that ordinary people already have the skills they need to do this dance.

Our job as teachers is to just to remind them of this. Because they knew this when they were children.
If we ‘correct’ students and use jargon to make something simple complicated, they feel bad and think dancing is really hard. Dancing isn’t. Lindy hop is really simple.

So I just don’t use that ‘tension/tone’ paradigm for understanding lindy hop. I just have three rules:
take care of your partner
take care of the music
take care of yourself.

Sheryl asked this good question on fb (as part of a discussion about rough leads and safety):

What difference do you think different terms like tone/ tension/ activate/ turning off make? Honestly to me the main difference I think of between tone and tension is how muscles feel when exercising vs when my muscles are sore. Which is tension is my muscles doing the same thing just one is when it shouldn’t be.

I don’t really know how to address that issue using those terms (I’m just not good enough at this stuff). Mostly I just reject that entire paradigm. I don’t think of dancing that way, so I don’t use those words.

But from the POV of teaching new dancers, when you say ‘tension’, they interpret it using their own experiences (and many of them won’t have done any serious or consistent exercise or training). So they’ll think ‘tense’ as a bad thing, and recreate a tense, tight muscle. Same with the word ‘frame’: they’ll think of a picture frame, or the frame of a chair – something fixed, solid, unmoving, unchanging. And that’s absolutely not what we want in lindy hop. Or humans.

I don’t like ‘tone/tension’ because it’s applied to all muscles and all actions in the same way. It also makes it clear that students know nothing and must rely on their teacher 100% to learn to dance. It also makes classes very wordy and focussed on talking rather than dancing. I want students to figure things out on their own. I want them to know that they have the skills they need to learn to dance: they know how to hold someone in their arms, how to find the beat in music, how to stand on one leg, how to walk, how to look at someone, how to take care of someone. They’re also brilliant pattern matchers so they’ll figure out rhythms and patterns quite quickly. And most importantly: this is FUN. It’s dancing, not maths.

So I prefer to come at it from the opposite direction.

What do you want them to do?

Hold hands? Then ask them to hold hands, but hold hands like they’re holding hands with their elderly nanna who needs some support, but is still an independent human being. So gentle, but reassuring. Or like they’re holding hands with a little kid who needs direction because they get distracted, but knows how to walk. Or hold hands with someone they want to move around a small confined space with to music. BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT THEY’RE DOING.

People know how to do this. And they understand the difference between holding hands like that and holding hands so tight it hurts someone. In our classes we then follow up this sort of instruction by saying “Check in with your body. Look at your hands. Are the knuckles white? Too tight a grip. Are your shoulders sore? You’re working too hard.” And we say “Check in with your partner. Look at them. Do they have a scared face on? Are they angry? Is their hand clenched really tight? Change what you’re doing and see what response it has.”
Or as Frankie would say: “You are in love for 3 minutes.” So you look at them, you look at them with admiration. Which orients your body towards them and gives you good ‘dance posture’ and connection, but also tells you how to hold their hand. You wouldn’t yank your beloved’s arm out of the socket. You look at them and interact with them.

We know how to do all this.

So we want them to hold hands with intention. We always use the example : you want your follow to come with you. So you lead them. It’s like you’re saying ‘hey, let’s go to the snack table!’ and you lead them to the snack table with purpose.
This way you get to the important stuff: moving your body first, holding hands, moving with purpose, making sure you take them with you. And there’s corresponding stuff for follows.
The rhythm is just the tool for moving you around the floor. If there’s no room to move, you dance on the spot. A fancy rhythm is just a fancy way of walking. And the music tells you what rhythms are nice, and paying attention to your partner gives you inspiration and marks the parameters of this dance.
The other people on the dance floor give you limits: a crowded floor means you do smaller shapes. A floor full of noobs and drinkers and kids tells you to be super safe. An empty floor lets you stretch out. You adapt.

Too many dancers learn a set of figures in class in a ‘perfect’ studio environment. Then when they social dance they just try to reproduce those moves in the same way on the social dance floor. Which isn’t sociable at all.
We need to use all our potential as flexible, responsive, reactive, creative improvising humans. Not just reproduce the same figures the same way all the time, regardless of song, other people on the floor, or our partner.

(This is where I rant about leads who only like follows who execute their moves perfectly: they’re not good leads. They’re very limited leads. So those guys who hurt you demonstrated an inability to change what they were doing to suit their partner’s needs and body and creativity. Same with follows who think a ‘good lead’ is a lead who only leads complex series of moves that work perfectly.)

I think that in lindy hop we focus too much on our arms, rather than thinking of our arms as a medium for a message. They’re like the cables that signals coming from our core pass through to reach our partner. They’re not the place where signals begin. Our arms join us together. They’re just one of the ways we share rhythms: we use our eyes (which is why I don’t like exercises where we close our eyes in class), we use our bodies, our ears, our connection with the floor, and then we use all the points where we touch, not just our arms or hands. And then finally (or first of all) the music connects us: we have a shared sense of time that keeps us together. Even when we’re not touching and can’t see each other, we know when to come back together – the 1 or the phrase or the bridge tells us!

So in nerd terms, I want relaxed, alert but not alarmed arms. Much more importantly, I want my weight on the front part of my foot (but not tippy toes), I want a neutral spine (so my bum muscles can relax unless they’re needed), which means my bum can be ‘out’ (to give me better ‘squat’ posture to engage my core and protect my knees), my knees are soft, my upper body is open and directed towards my partner. My embrace (closed position) is an embrace, where I touch my partner a lot (ie the follow isn’t clamping my bicep with a vice like grip) and our bodies make a v-shape at the closed side.
I’m aiming for relaxed contact, as relaxed as I can. But my pelvic floor is ON.
But these are ideal conditions. If I’m constantly working towards this ‘ideal’, I’ll never get there and I’ll never enjoy dancing. I’ll never be ‘good enough’. We are all good dancers, and we can all do this, right from our first class. We need to accept that we are all different, with different bodies (not this mythical ideal), so we see these variations as creative posbilities, not limitations.

To be honest, I don’t think a dance class is where you learn this muscle stuff. I think you need to do pilates or good strength training with a trainer to learn how to turn muscles on and off, and to be more efficient. Then you go to dance class. Just as the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers all had active physical jobs and lifestyles (because young, working class, African American people) during the day. Most lindy hoppers today have desk jobs, or less active lifestyles, so we’re working with a different physicality.
But none of that matters if you’re not focussed on becoming a competition winning queen.

Because I’m rhythm-focussed rather than move-focussed, I want that relaxed connection to let the signals move through my and my partner’s body so we can communicate. I don’t want to have to micro-manage my partner’s movements. I can have a most excellent dance with just circles, closed position, gliding. We needn’t even get into open position. And you can do that with anyone.

But when I’m talking to beginner dancers, I don’t give them all that talk. It’s just a bunch of words and too much info.
We demonstrate how to do closed position by hugging our partner then turning slightly. They mightn’t do that (too intense for a first class), but they see the example.

We demonstrate open position by holding hands then moving away; the connection is made by the distance, not by ‘tensing’ our muscles. It’s an active connection because our cores are on, and we have a 3/4 orientation to our partner (ie not facing away, not squaring up).

I don’t say all that, though, I just say, ‘look at your partner as you move into open’ and that keeps them at that 3/4 orientation towards their partner, and keeps their heads up, which keeps their shoulders open and the signal from their core through their arms unimpeded. If they’re comfortable with the rhythm by then (which they usually are), doing that rhythm will turn on their core and allow their upper bodies to relax a bit. If they’re having fun they will be relaxed.

If the follow doesn’t move into open, I ask the leads, “Did you stop moving? If you stopped moving, the follow will stop too.” And they realise they’d stopped the rhythm and were standing still.

If I want more core engagement, I don’t say ‘turn on your core’, I get them to do a one-legged jazz step (charleston), or ‘shake it down’ (ie Frankie’s bum jiggle into the ground). Because those steps require core engagement for balance and control – you can’t do them without your core on. Or I distract them with a joke so they relax and laugh and suddenly: core is on. Laughing: core activation. If they’re super tense so their partners can’t feel their core, I let them dance for a veeeery long time with that partner so that they stop being worried and relax. Talk. Enjoy the music.

If they’re too tense in their upper bodies and dragging their partners around, it’s because they’re relying on their partner for balance, and are not hauling arse. In other words, a rough, yanky lead is not moving their body enough, and is relying on their arms to drag the follow into position. If instead you haul arse and move yourself, the follow will come with you because it’s just the easiest option: “Come to the snacks table – they have ice cream!” Skye is a good example of this, so is Sakarias, and so is Frankie. They achieve great shapes by moving their own bodies first, which creates interesting shapes by the time the follow moves.

I think jargon works as exclusive language. It shuts people out of dancing. It gives power and privilege to the people who ‘know’ these words. And I don’t like that.

Actually illegal things that lindy hoppers do

I’ve just been reading this post, Jeepers, peepers, what to do with your creepers by Dan Newsome, and I was struck by a particular list, where Dan lists things that contribute to a situation being ‘unsafe’ (there are other lists (sexist, creepy, coercive, etc).)

Just plain illegal
– Seeking physical affection from another person when that person is inebriated or otherwise incapacitated
– Drugging
– Using threats
– Using physical force
– Continuing to contact someone when they’ve drawn a boundary
– Having relationships with someone below the age of consent

This bit rang a bell for me, because there are many cases where lindy hoppers excuse this behaviour.

‘Using physical force’: The ‘rough’ lead.
All of us know a lead who is so rough he routinely hurts his partners. Yet our response is women either avoiding him or tolerating it. A lot of dancers excuse the rough lead as ‘a beginner’, or ‘just how he is’.
But if we won’t tolerate a stranger physically yanking us about in a cafe, or a man grabbing a handful of our flesh in a supermarket, why do we tolerate it in during a dance? When we say yes to a dance, we aren’t giving our partner permission to hurt us.

If you’re teaching lindy hop, your number one priority should be safety. People come to dance classes knowing how not to hurt people. So if they leave your dance class having hurt people, you’re responsible for that.
If you see someone hurting their partner, say something to them! You don’t have to be a teacher or a famous person. Make a polite script, practice it, then do it.

‘Continuing to contact someone when they’ve drawn a boundary’: keeps asking you to dance person.
If someone says ‘No thank you’ when you ask them to dance, deal with it. Be ok with with that.
If you don’t want to dance with someone, it’s totally ok to say “No thank you,” and leave it at that. You don’t need to give a reason or excuse.

If you see someone hassling someone to dance (the ‘dragging her onto the floor guy’, the ‘needy pleading girl’… and vice versa), say something. “Hey mate, be cool.” You don’t need to step in and dance with that annoying person (though we often do this). Australian slang has the perfect expression for stepping in: “Steady on, mate.”

I-go, you-go, we-go teaching method.

So, I feel like a bit of a doofus for just realising this, but this call-and-response approach to teaching is a feature of folk music, isn’t it? It’s how we learn folk songs, and how we participate in folk music and dance (including religious services).
I only figured it out when I was watching this video of Natalie Merchant teaching an audience how to sing a folk song (from 20.08):


I know that if you’ve grown up with this sort of teaching and learning you’re better at it, but even total noobs can figure it out quickly. And it’s quite exciting. It’s also a much more dynamic, creative way of learning music and dance than having stuff broken down into tiny pieces.
People are learning about timing (they all keep the time really well), and all that technical stuff, it’s just not articulated. Which suggests that the shared experience of making music/dance is more important than the technical stuff.

Coda: I feel like I’m unlearning 20 years of my own lindy hop learning to teach in a more fun way. And that the way we teach lindy hop today is a product of it being commodified by white, m/c urban folks.

When I watch our students on the social dance floor teaching their friends steps they’ve learnt in class I think ‘Yep, this is how it’s meant to go. You can ‘teach’ a step in a loud, busy environment if you use the i-go, you-go, we-go approach. This is a social learning skill.’ Unlike the word-focussed approach to teaching which requires a quiet room.

Occupying space

Someone posted a photo of a man ‘manspreading’ on the tram to facebook, and there was a good discussion about it. For me, manspreading is a physical version of mansplaining, or of patriarchy. A (male) friend made this comment about the original post:

I sit like that..but i would 100% sit less comfortably so that i dont put others out like that. I find both men and women go about thier day unmaliciously unaware about how inconsiderate they are towards other people across a range of general day to day activities. I think if everyone made an effort to be empathetic in general things like this wouldnt happen..

This is a very sensible and reasonable response. It’s what I tend to think of as a humanist or individualist response to a feminist critique. On one level, I’m in agreement. But on another, I don’t think this approach actually captures the nuance of human relationships. Feminism begins with the assumption that men and women experience the social world in different ways. And these experiences are shaped by social forces and institutions which favour men.
I like to add detail to this, by adding the notion of ‘patriarchy’. Patriarchy is an organising force or ideology that organises institutions (schools, business, markets, hospitals), discourses (discussion, media, the exchange of ideas, things), and lived reality (our physical experiences). One of the key features of patriarchy is that people are organised not just by hierarchies of gender (where men have more power than women). They’re also organised by class (rich men have more power than poor men), by race (white men have more power than men of colour), by sexuality (straight men have more power than queer men), by age (middle aged men have more power than teenaged men) and so on. The ‘most powerful’ man, then, is rich, white, straight, and middle aged. We describe this type of ‘most powerful’ man as hegemonic masculinity.
It’s important to note the difference between ‘man’ and ‘masculinity’. ‘Man’ is about biological sex. Masculinity is a social construct. That means masculinity is a product of the way boys are taught and learn to act as men through formal institutions like schools, churches, and armies, and informal relations like families and peer groups.

Most recent feminist talk has approached this issue in terms of ‘intersectionality’. In the late 80s the more common term was ‘diversity politics’ or even postmodern feminism. But that thinking has been refined and developed to become intersectionality. The word gives us the image of a number of sphere or lines ‘intersecting’ at a particular point. Here’s an example. Let’s imagine a woman called May who has Shanghainese parents, is a lesbian, was born in Australia, and is the mother of two children.

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 12.52.51 PM

All of these things make her the person she is. Let’s also imagine May identifies as a Chinese-Australian lesbian mum. This identity is the intersection of the traits that May considers most relevant (to this conversation at this time).
Of course, May’s person is the intersection of many more characteristics.

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 12.50.38 PM

She’s also tertiary educated, cisfemale, middle class, lives in urban Sydney, and is able-bodied. At any time she may identify as one or a combination of these characteristics. This is important: choosing how to identify, is a mark of social power.

If we return to our hegemonic masculinity, we can see that this identity also exists at the intersection of a number of characteristics:

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 1.05.36 PM

The important point here, is that the power of this hegemonic masculinity lies in not recognising the different elements that contribute to this status. A man like this, occupying a position of power and influence, a businessman for example, might describe himself as a ‘hardworking, self-made man.’ He may attribute his position of power to working hard all his life. Which may be true. But his gender, class, ethnicity, and sexual identity mean that he is allowed to marry the person he wants, has access to better housing and health care, and has not faced racial discrimination.
Not acknowledging these advantages is an important part of patriarchy. The myth that power and success comes from hard work (rather than privilege) is an important part of capitalism as well.

So let’s go back to manspreading.
How is this an example of patriarchy at work?

I replied to that comment above with this

It’s partly about how men and women feel about occupying public space. Women are trained to take up as little space as possible – to be smaller, to talk softer, to be less confident, to avoid conflict by becoming invisible. Whereas men are trained to sit wider, stand wider, talk louder, disagree, to ‘stake their claim’ on space and ideas, to ward off conflict with a show of strength, take up more physical and audible space.

If a woman does break these rules – is louder, bigger, more confident, more visible – we have lots of ways to shut her down. Slut shaming, comments about being ‘strident’ or ‘shrill’, etc etc.

So manspreading enrages women because it’s about men being so comfortable with occupying space they don’t even to stop to consider their behaviour.

NB this is culturally specific.

When I talk about ‘public space’, I’m placing it in opposition to ‘private space’. Public space includes inside public transport like a tram, on the street, in shops (though these are technically private spaces, they function as publics), in the media, online, in parks, and so on. Private space includes the home, family, inside a car, personal email.
When I say ‘men and women’, I am talking about the men and women of urban Australia, a post-colonial, space in the modern, white-dominated developed world. The photo of a white man manspreading was taken on a Melbourne tram, where he is occupying more than half a seat he shares with a white woman:
Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 1.12.23 PM
Using textual analysis and an understanding of discursive context, we can identify them both as white, probably white-collar workers in urban Australia. We could make some guesses about age, and we could probably extrapolate about sexual preference. But the most important features here are gender and posture. He occupies more space with his wide legs, his relaxed, open shoulders, his joined hands, extended elbows, forward-facing posture, raised chin. She takes up less space with her closed legs, drawn-in elbows, compressed pecs, biceps and shoulders, her bag across her shoulder and in her lap. And so on. She also ‘closes’ herself to him by turning away and speaking on the phone. His ‘open’ posture suggests confidence and almost challenge (considering the context).

This sort of posture is not something that you see on peak hour trains in Seoul. Because Seoul commuters (the same class and age as these two) are taught culturally and socially to share space in a more communitarian way. There are certainly hierarchies of age and gender in the Seoul underground, but they operate in different ways.

Why is this the case?
If we follow the individualist reading, we could argue that the man has ‘won’ more space by being more confident, and by simply ‘stepping up’. But there is extensive research and observation proving otherwise.
Women in our culture are trained to think of public space as ‘dangerous’. They’re taught to be wary of rapists and physical assault, to preserve their ‘modesty’ and avoid unwelcome sexual attention by covering skin and literally keeping their legs together. They’re taught to avoid interaction and conflict by not ‘challenging’ others by using more than their ‘fare share’ of public space on a seat or in a tram. This includes speaking softly, not making eye contact, keeping their body ‘contained’ and ‘covered’, not speaking to or challenging men, not expressing their opinions, not laughing loudly, not swearing, not moving in a free way.

Women who don’t follow these ‘rules’ are disciplined with a range of strategies: men may ogle them, comment on their appearance, touch them, or interact with them despite being told to stop. These women are seen as having forfeited their ‘right to autonomy’ by being in public in particular way. Other women may be less overt, more effectively censorious: they may sneer at a woman’s body (she’s too fat!), eye her clothing (it’s too revealing!), mutter about her (she’s too loud!), draw away to avoid touching her (she’s contagious!)
The most important thing that I can say about this process, is that it is impossible for a woman to every behave or dress or be in a way that keeps her ‘safe’ from male attention and female policing. Because, despite the insistent slutshaming mythology of our culture, she is not responsible for men’s behaviour. Men are responsible for the way they disrespect women, though they are rarely held accountable. This is a very important point, because it makes women complicit in their own oppression. It makes women feel guilty for and accountable for men’s behaviour. It treats men’s behaviour as ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable’.

Even more importantly: if women are busy feeling guilty and vulnerable and taking responsibility for men’s behaviour, it stops them being confident and capable and asserting themselves. And this is how patriarchy polices women: we are convinced that we don’t deserve equal space on the seat, equal time in the conversation, safety in our homes, safety in public spaces.

Of course, power and privilege are largely invisible to those who have it. That white man on the tram probably has no idea he’s pushing that woman off the seat, or that the observing photographer is judging him. He might move over if you ask him to. Or he may be just as likely to huff and make a fuss about being inconvenienced by having to share. Because ‘when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels Like oppression‘.
Women, though, are far more likely to be aware of this inequity. Women are hyper-vigilant about their safety and bodies in public space. They sit in a particular part of the tram in a particular way to avoid conflict (note that woman’s almost apologetic use of the seat, her attention diverted by her phone to avoid a challenge). They avoid eye contact with strangers. They won’t tell an intrusive man to fuck off if he hassles her. Women wear coats over a skimpy dress in public, they don’t laugh loudly, they don’t ask these manspreaders to move over and share the seat. Because that manspreader is likely to see this request for equity as an injustice or challenge.
And here, of course, is the clincher. Women are trained to see themselves as vulnerable. Women are trained not to confront men about seat sharing, because they are afraid that man will hit them, shout at them, or humiliate them. Or – not impossibly – wait for them when they get off the train, then punish them verbally or physically. Women are taught to carry their bodies as though they were weak and vulnerable. To not ‘challenge’ male dominance with open, strong posture or direct eye contact.

This is where mansplaining comes in.
This dominance of physical space extends to verbal or intellectual space. Men are taught that their ideas are more valid, more important, more urgent than anyone else’s. More importantly, they are taught not to notice this, and to see this as normal. So when they do have to ‘share the floor’, they perceive an equal distribution of speaking time as inequity. And they respond to this as a challenge to their…status? Virility? Power? Who knows.
There’s a vast body of literature (primarily in linguistics and spoken discourse analysis – an area I did some work in during my MA work, and later employed in my analysis of online talk in my Phd) studying exactly how men and women talk in same-sex and mixed-sex groups in different settings. This somewhat dodgy post gives some interesting links (do make sure you read to the end.) Men and women use language in different ways, and they talk in different ways. I think it’s absolutely fascinating.

I have extended this model to my analyses of dance. Because I approach social dance as a public discourse: a place for the exchange of ideas and discussion and articular of identity. Through dance. So I see manspreading and mansplaining as two examples of male dominance of public space/discourse. Verbal/audio space and physical/visible space.

How does this relate to dance specifically? Well, we can look at the way some leads perceive the idea of ‘sharing improvisation time’. They may feel they are giving the follow equal time, but they do not see the power dynamic at work. Firstly, they do not understand that ‘giving a follow space’ is an articulation of the idea that the lead is the ‘boss’, rationing out ‘space’. This policing of improvisational space actually ensures that the lead is always in control of the whole dance. And of the follow’s body and creative voice. Secondly, their notion of ‘sharing fairly’ is skewed; it is not an equal division of time and space at all. In this situation I’d argue that this whole paradigm is poop.

This is partly why I really dislike the ‘dance is a conversation’ analogy. Because the type of conversation many men imagine they are having with their partner has more in common with mansplaining and manspreading: there is formal turn taking, but men interrupt more, take more time, and are more defensive and more aggressive, discouraging women from doing or ‘saying’ anything that could potentially embarrass or challenge a male partner. Deborah Tannen (linked to in the post linked above) points out that women and men use interruption in a different way. Women are more about collaborative meaning making (interrupting to exclaim “Oh my god, no way!” vs interrupting to mansplain and paraphrase a woman).

I would like to remind you that we need to think about intersectionally, here. While I’m saying ‘men’ and ‘women’, I should be saying hegemonic masculinity and talking about whiteness and class. The lead-follow relationships in modern Australian and American lindy hop are marked by class and race and gender and power. Much as people may like to pretend they are recreating the Savoy, they are in fact continuing the thinking and behaviour and relationships of their wider lives in the current moment.

As an example, listen to Frankie Manning’s discussion of leading and following as challenge in this video. He makes it clear that he enjoys being challenged by female partners. He also relies on women partners to help him get through improvisation. And he listens to his women partners’ improvisation and timing. It’s not exactly feminist talk, but Manning is articulating (and embodying) a masculinity that is an intersection of other identity markers: heterosexual working class masculinity of early 20th century urban Harlem New York jazz dance culture.

I’d like to add an addendum here:
In my experience, women who speak up about injustice – who question men’s behaviour or ask for equity – are attacked. Verbally. Physically. Legally. Financially.
I very rarely attack specific men personally for their behaviour, and if and when I do, it is always with bountiful evidence and with the express purpose of protecting women from his actions. Yet I am continually bombarded with emails, facebook messages, blog comments, letters, shouting down and interruption in public. I’m not particularly rude and I’m not aggressive. But I am perceived as such, because I’m not actually sitting down and being quiet.

It can be scary, but now that it’s happened so many times, it’s not scary any more. It’s just irritating. And I’ve also discovered that women are just much better at this public talk and action than men. Bitches get shit done.

(mis)uses of power in responding to sexual harassment

A clever point was raised in the teaching swing dance fb group I’m part of.
This group has an excellent vibe: mutual respect, constructive talk, be nice.

Here is a question asked by one member of this group (I’ll keep her anonymous in case she needs to be, but will happily add her name later if necessary).

…there has long been a culture of “dominance” and coercive sexuality based on dance prowess or fame … in the swing scene. And it is absolutely tied to the rockstar status within subcultures.

What do we do to shut down the rock star culture, while still honoring those who are stellar teachers? What can International teachers do to take the focus off them as celebrities while the community at large promotes their contribution to dance and their value as teachers? (and I suppose we need to ask this of the competitor population, too, but I think the crossover population is the actually the one in question)
In conclusion, what can we each bring to our pool to help build a better community that supports our often juxtaposing desires?

This is what I wrote in response. The first paragraph is the most important, I think.

I don’t think the dance world is any worse than the rest of the world for assault and harassment. I actually think we do quite well on reporting and responding – hence the number of reports coming up in the last two years since we saw the public response to Steven Mitchell.

We are quite active and getting well organised in Australia, with almost all events and schools having codes of conduct, and a few events having really, really good response, reporting, and prevention strategies. Vivi Kalman and her MLX safety champs crew are well and truly leading the way on this.

Despite the awesomeness of some organisers, we do have some recalcitrant bastards who are either supporting accused men, or refusing to act beyond setting up dodgy cut and past codes of conduct.
But, well, baby steps.

We’ve also found in Australia that most reports of assault or harassment haven’t been reporting high profile or powerful male teachers. Offenders all sorts of men, most of whom are operating ‘under the radar’ for event organisers, but are well known among the more ‘intermediate’ or general dance population.

Personally, and as an organising person, I am much more worried about organisers and other teachers who cover for offenders. There is clearly a culture of hide-and-ignore protecting high profile male teachers who sexually assault women. There were certainly organisers who protected Steven Mitchell, and we have seen that other teachers protected Max Pitruzella.

So while I’m all for undoing some of the hero-worship and unquestioning adulation for teachers, I’m actually much more concerned about the way organisers protect known offenders. I think that organisers gain a lot of status from ‘getting’ the A-list teachers, and I know that organisers also risk money and status when they put on an event.

I’ve also seen that the worst offenders are booked by organisers who run events with exploitative conditions: underpaying or not paying teachers, DJs, staff; not making workplaces safe; overworking staff and volunteers, etc etc etc.

So I think that one very important way to combat this issue is to think of sexual assault and harassment as issues of power and exploitation (not sex), and that they are just one point on a spectrum of exploitation. So to prevent assault and harassment, we need to address broader issues of power and exploitation.

eg if you don’t run your event legit (eg don’t get visas for teachers, don’t pay tax, don’t pay people properly, don’t invoice properly), you’re less likely to call the police if you an assault is reported at your event. I’ve seen organisers botch things very badly when assaults are reported. eg letting an offender ‘apologise’ to classes before putting them on a plane. That’s a whole series of unethical and illegal actions there.

And one of the biggest issues in all of this, is that inexperienced people run events, and don’t know about half the issues that need addressing – from music use licences to OH&S, and beyond to writing agreements/contracts and how to manage people.
The dodgiest teachers (and why are there so many in the blues scene?) target these inexperienced people, saying they’ll pay their own flights over, if the local person puts on an event. The local person feels super flattered, puts on the event, and then all manner of bad shit goes down.