New thoughts about the long term sustainability of dance projects

Oh! Exciting! Last night Alice and I launched our new weekly class in Petersham… I say that as though it was just us two there working the door, making up lead numbers (we only needed one more lead!), buying drinks, laughing and talking and filling the room, bringing our friends along just to see what dancing’s like, offering advice on PR, working the bar and making food. We really couldn’t have pulled it off without lots of help from all of our friends, from our respective kissing-partners (my Squeeze gets mad props for being a gun working the door, Alice’s for filling in lead numbers and both of them for being ridiculously chillaxed and having no doubt of our abilities), from the lovely Petersham Bowling Club staff, from, well, everyone we know. We are so grateful for the work people have put in, even (or most particularly) those people who were patient enough to sit through one of our rambling conversations full of what-ifs and low-number-anxiety.

Basically, we had support and help from pretty much everyone we know. And we’re so grateful. Running a dance event is a social enterprise, from beginning to end, and even though it’s a cliche, we absolutely couldn’t have gotten even this far without everyone’s support and encouragement.

I now have lots of things to write about here about teaching and running classes and volunteer labour and the economics of running weekly classes and the relationship between social and class dancing and… well, lots of things. But it’s not really cool for me to write about what is, essentially, other people’s business here on my blog. I’ll let it all percolate a little more and see if I can come up with something that’s not going to be indiscrete or inpolitic.

I’d love to talk about how we might use various media to promote our event. That’s the sort of thing my academic phd brain loves thinking about most. I spent so long researching and writing about media use in a capitalist, patriarchal culture, I just can’t stop myself then applying that work to the practical public relations strategies for a (highly gendered) dance class in a multimedia cultural environment.
I’m fascinated by the relationships between digital, print, face to face/word of mouth, radio and audio visual texts and media. I’m so interested in the way brands can be developed at a small, seriously local/micro level. I’m all a twitter with ideas about developing a sustainable business model centred on collaborative creative practice.

Every time we put together a Faceplant ad or print a poster or make an announcement at a dance or simply dance in public my brain kind of explodes with the wonderfulness of how humans work together and tailor media for our very particular uses. But I also have to stop and calm myself down: baby steps, yo.
While it’s possible to run on ahead at a million miles a minute when you’re thinking through ideas for a bit of academic writing, the actual practice of all this theory requires a slower pace. As my design subjects and dance practice have taught me, you learn a lot from actually doing something, and thinking about that thing isn’t actually all that helpful for understanding, really knowing how that thing works. I need to put the practice before the theory, but at the same time let the critical and theoretical work inform what I do. Nothing new for a feminist who sees dance itself as a feminist project. But something new for the lecturer/writer/tutor who spent so much time working on advertising and media discourse.

I guess the thing that I’m most struck by now, and will no doubt come to obsess me, is the difference between running a one-off event and a weekly event that goes on and on and on and on and on and on. Running a one-off gig is tiring and anxiety-making, but it’s over after a few months or a year. With a long-term gig like a weekly dance or class, you need stamina, and the work you do must be sustainable. You can’t make yourself ill with overwork; you can’t live in a state of high anxiety/alert or you’ll go nuts. Your work needs to be sustainable. And that means that there are all sorts of different labour politics, issues surrounding professional and personal networking, skill development and PR practices to think about.
It’s fascinating for me, because I’m so used to doing one-off gigs. Big weekend exchanges. One-night dances. One-off classes. Coordinating DJs for our local events is a long-term gig, but it’s a pretty simple one (though do remind me to talk about how we’re going to encourage and foster new DJing talent as a long term project). I have to say, right now I’m really interested in the dynamics of making a weekly gig sustainable – environmentally, culturally, socially, economically.

That first one is important because our venue, the Petersham Bowling Club, has a strong commitment to environmental sustainability, having secured some grant money for installing rain tanks, solar power and other lovely things. This is especially important for a venue that is a bowling green. Greens are traditionally environmentally and economically expensive. I’m also interested in the way dances are quite energy wasteful. We use a lot of electricity for cooling, for sound systems, for lighting. Yet we don’t harvest any of the (masses and masses) of energy our bodies expend on the dance floor. We don’t use that piezoelectricity generated by impact on the dancefloor the way some Dutch doods do. We don’t harvest the energy in the heat generated by our bodies. And that’s a lot of heat. Nor do we collect the moisture in the air from all those sweating bodies. The PBC isn’t the only venue in Sydney interested in environmental sustainability. The Red Rattler is also prioritising these things. I tend to spend more time thinking about social justice than environmentalism when I’m doing dance stuff, but I have noticed that the two issues tend to overlap in the priorities of particular venues. And the Petersham/Marrickville/inner west area is kind of keen on this stuff. As the Greens and other lefty political entities have realised.

I also think a weekly event has to be culturally sustainable. You have to offer something that not only suits your market/community in that first launch moment, but is also responsive to the changes in the wider dance community as well as individual students’ and social dancers’ needs. I think it’s important that a weekly event be responsive to the musical, cultural and creative requirements of dancers over the long term, whether they are students in the class or social dancers. That might mean adjusting class content to suit students’ interests and skills, or creating promotional material that correctly targets that preferred demograph, but it also means doing things like making musical choices that reflect broader dance community interests and responding to dance style fads and vintage/contemporary fashion overlaps.

Weekly events have to be socially sustainable as well. That means responding to the social needs and context of the local geographic area (Petersham, and inner-western Sydney) and to the social needs of dancers already in the scene. To put it clumsily (and to suit my own approach, rather than a broader critical or theoretical model), cultural sustainability is about the creative and functional things we do and make, as dancers, while social sustainability is about the interactive, human to human relationships and living. Weekly dance events can’t just be about dancing or dance-related cultural practice. They also have to be about social context and practice. Events have to be socially relevant and positioned carefully for longevity. The fact that some of our students came to their very first class simply because they’d seen a poster at the venue during the week is testament to the fact that matching venue to event is very important in targeting your preferred demograph. Dancers who aren’t coming to class are going to need a space that’s offering more than just a dance floor, if you want your event to be truly socially sustainable. That means thinking about food and drink, transport and safety, opening and closing hours and the shared values and interpersonal relationships at work in dancers’ lives. You can see how environmental sustainability can overlap with social sustainability.

And finally, weekly events have to be economically sustainable. This is perhaps the most important issue. I’m a big fat hippy socialist feminist, and I love nonprofit, community-run and ethically responsible dance events. I won’t have anything to do with an event that exploits workers or punters, or that articulates racist, sexist, homophobic or other hateful sentiments. I’m happy to do things ‘for the love of dance’, ‘for charity’ or ‘for the sake of art’, so long as that thing is a source of pleasure (rather than pain), ethically sound and socially responsible. But at the end of the day, financial responsibility is part of being a socially, culturally and ethically sustainable project.
You need to be able to cover your costs, you need to offer your host venue a sensible profit so they can justify your working relationship. You need to provide facilities that are safe, efficient and effective, and that means spending some money. And at the end of the day, if you’re doing this gig every single week, putting on classes or social dancing with all the preparation that involves (and there’s a lot of it, even if you’re ‘just’ doing a social dance), you need to give your workers – your teachers, DJs and staff – some sort of financial reward. Even if it’s just another way to show that you value their work. Even minimal pay can help relieve rent anxiety or defray the costs of transport and time and resources. Running short of money can be a serious source of anxiety for organisers, and being economically sustainable can help relieve that. Not to mention pay the bills and make the whole thing possible.

So, as you can see, I have lots to say, and lots to think about. But I can’t talk specifically at the moment, because this isn’t just my project. There are other folk involved, and sometimes knowing when to stop talking is just as important as knowing when to speak up.

(Try To) Write About Jazz

(Photo of Amiri Baraka by Pat A. Robinson, stoled from here).

Long time no post. I’ve been busy with a few different projects lately, most of them impeded by vast quantities of randomly-generated anxiety. I’m bossing some DJs for MLX11, I’m bossing some DJs locally, I’m sorting some solo dance practices, I’m looking at venues, I went to Church City Blues, I’m doing lots and lots of exercises to help my knees, I’m trying to improve my own DJing, and I’m working on at least two websites. They’re actually all the fun things. Also, we’ve started cooking meat at our house. The less said about that the better.

Perhaps the most challenging part of all this is trying to get my brain in gear for writing coherent sentences. More than one at a time. Ones that link up and make paragraphs. Anything more than that is really a little too ambitious right now. Writing. Why are you so demanding? The hardest thing in the world is writing properly when your brain won’t stop buzzing and fretting. Dance workshops? Actually quite good when you can’t make your brain shush. Forty minutes of slow, careful strengthening and stretching exercises every day? Quite calming, actually. But anything creative or requiring sustained creative thought – choreography, writing, editing… that shit is impossible. So here is something messy. Because it’s like learning to dance fast. If you never actually do it, you’ll never be any good at it.

Right now I’m thinking about writing about music. Again. I think it’s because I like to write about music. I’m also a woman. Wait – that last part is important (have vag will type). And because the things people write and say about music shape the way dancers and DJs think about music. And that affects the way they dance to music, which bands and DJs they hire to play their events, whether and how much they pay musicians and DJs, and what sort of music they put into the event programs. I know this is kind of old school literary studies/cultural studies/media studies stuff. And I even wrote about it in my PhD.

But now, I want to write and think about it again. Because I am organising DJs for MLX, and because I’ve noticed a clear trickle down (or bleed out?) affect from the developing online dancer discourse to the face-to-face. Yes. My PhD has come to life. Basically, Faceplant, blogs, podcast, youtube and all those other goodies are having a clear effect on face-to-face dance practice. Dancers are writing more about music (and dance), Faceplant has increased the penetration of this writing, and dancers are now reading more about music and dance. And this is having clear effects on how dance events are run. And on the interpersonal and institutional relationships and power dynamics of the international lindy hop scene. Yes, I will make that call. I can’t help it. I’m trained to see words as articulating power and ideology. And discourse as at once articulating ideology and creating it. I CAN’T HELP IT. I HAVE LEARNT TO USE MY BRAIN. ALL THIS THINKING WILL NO DOUBT RESULT IN THE COLLAPSE OF CIVILISATION AND RISE OF OUR FELINE OVERLORDS (WORSHIP THEM).

So what I’m saying, here, is that I’m getting that niggly tingly itchy feeling in the back of my brain that tells me there’s something going on that I need to pay attention to. Some dots are being joined. Unfortunately not by my conscious, rational brain, so you’re going to have to muddle through some fairly irritatingly vague, malformed or downright wrongtown blog posts til I get it together. If this was a magazine or an academic journal you’d be reading coherent sentences. But it’s not. So you’re getting dodgy stuff, but sooner. The fact that I’m still managing all those buzzing-brain anxiety issues means that it’s going to take me longer than usual to make this all into proper paragraphs. But then, I figure it’s a goddamn improvement on the past few months that I’m actually able to set fingertips to keyboard and make with the sentencing.

Words: why are you so demanding?!

I’ve been trying to get an idea of how jazz journalism works, both in historical and contemporary contexts. I’ve read a bit about the history of jazz journalism/criticism, a lot of which is really concerning. Lots of white, middle class guys writing about jazz, to paraphrase Amiri Baraka. Very few not-men, very few not-white anyones. To quote Baraka:

Most jazz critics began as hobbyists or boyishly brash members of the American petite bourgeoisie, whose only claim to any understanding about the music was that they knew it was different; or else they had once been brave enough to make a trip into a Negro slum to hear their favorite instrumentalists defame Western musical tradition. Most jazz critics were (and are) not only white middle-class Americans, but middle-brows as well. (Baraka, Amiri, “Jazz and the white critic”, The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, ed. O’Meally, Robert G. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998: 137-142. pp 140)

Yeah! Baraka brings the smackdown! Old school 60s politics style!

What I have read has, for the most part, been really annoying. It’s kind of frustrating to see jazz studies – jazz criticism – failing to really get a grasp on gender and race politics. It’s like the 60s didn’t happen for so many of these guys. And it’s maddening to read the arguments that jazz histories emphasising black contributions are ‘racist’. Reminds me of those fuckwit people who try to argue that affirmative action policies are ‘reverse sexism’. …wait, I’m going to derail here for a bit of a rant:

IF we were all starting from the same place on the running track, it might be reverse sexism. But, dumbarse, we are working within PATRIARCHY, so affirmative action policy isn’t ‘reverse-sexism’, it’s simply an attempt to get us all at least onto the running track together. Of course, you’ve got to be a real ninja to actually pull off that sort of affirmative action effectively. So it’s ok, dickhead. Your power and privilege really aren’t in a whole lot of danger. We still have quite a bit of work to do. And anyway, most of our most important successes have been sneaky, and you haven’t noticed them. But, FYI, just like that beefcake guy in that rubbish film Crazy Stupid Love says, convincing women they’re learning to pole dance ‘for fitness’, that’s not a feminist victory. Convincing women stripping for money is empowering: that is not feminism. That’s old school sexism. So you’ve pretty much scored a point there.

…but back to my story.

Some of these jazz writer guys are entirely lacking in a sense of cultural and social context. And they really, really need to do a few introductory gender/race studies classes. Hellz, some introductory literary studies subjects.

But it’s worth having a look about at what has been written about race and class and gender and ethnicity in reference to and within jazz criticism. Queer studies? Yeah, don’t hold your breath, buddy.

So there is some critical (in the sense that these authors are engaging with the ideology and assumptions at work, rather than ‘being negative’) attention to jazz histories and jazz criticism/journalism. I’ve written a little bit about it before (in the post the trouble with linear jazz narratives + more and New Orleans jazz?), but I’m certainly not well read on this topic.

(Photo of Ellen Willis (with Bessie Smith), feminist and music journalist stoled from Ellen Willis tumblr)

That was made quite clear when I bitched (yet again) about the lack of women jazz journalists on twitter. @hawleyrose suggested I talk to @elementsofjazz (herself a woman jazz writer), who then hooked me up with Nate Chinen’s article On women in jazz (criticism) and Angelika Beener’s article Nice Work If We Can Get It: Women Writing on Jazz. Then I followed a million links from each of those articles to many more articles. The bottom line, here is that I mouthed off without researching the topic properly. I fell into that old ‘invisible women’ trap. Because I didn’t see women writing for big name jazz publications, I figured they didn’t exist. Just like that arsehat who recently bleated that there weren’t any women bloggers or tweeters writing about politics. With that bloke, the problem was a) that he defined ‘politics’ using the usual, very limited party-politics-institutions-and-polls definition and b) that he didn’t bother with bloggers and tweeters outside his usual sphere.

So my problem was a) I wasn’t looking in the right places (I was only looking in the conservative ‘official’ jazz journalism public sphere), and b) I hadn’t bothered to do much work to find those women journalists. Now I know better. And I’m delighted to be wrong. There are lots of women jazz journalists. Particularly when you broaden your definitions and include independent media, especially online media.

I think it’s worth talking about the history of jazz criticism here. And how small independent print publications were so important to the development of jazz criticism and writing from the turn of the century. But it’s also worth giving an eye (or ear) to the larger print publications like Esquire and Downbeat. I’ve written about this before, quite a few times, so I won’t go into it here (search for ‘magazines’ and you’ll find some old posts, or follow the links from More Esquire Talk).

What I do want to say, here, is that I’ve been thinking perhaps I should be asking “Are there any women writing about early jazz?” I’m wondering if the usual industrial and labour divisions of the early 20th century made it harder not only for women to get published, but for women to get read in the early days. And if there’s a resistance to writing about early jazz in the modern jazz publications and sites. Surely I’m once again voluntarily making women writers invisible. Surely. Time for more research, yes? YES!

Interesting Links

Matthew Bailes, one of the scientists who discovered that diamond planet writes about how his experiences would have been a bit different if he’d been a climate scientist in the article Diamond planets, climate change and the scientific method.

Where newspapers thrive is Judy Muller’s story about local newspapers, news values and journalism in small towns. I’m especially interested in this because I did my MA on state based newspaper coverage of gender, and then conceived my PhD project as a study of ‘local’ or community-based media. How do you tell controversial stories in a tiny community where your words will affect the lives of people you know, but also affect your life as part of that community?

A Difficult Conversation About Sexual Violence in Swing Dance Communities

[EDIT 13/6/13: It makes me very sad that this post is still relevant. It’s been linked up again, by a few different people around the place, because those people are having bad times with arseholes in their dance scenes. So I think it’s worth bumping this post again. This is such heartbreaking stuff to talk about. But we have to. We HAVE to.

Please, if you’re in strife and need some help, call one of the lines I’ve listed below. And if you want to change things in your own scene, start working on constructive plans with women, not for them. We don’t need no white knights, here. And if you’re in a bad way, and need some help, I know that services like Beyond Blue here in Australia can help if you’re having trouble with anxiety and/or depression. And god knows the only sensible response to this issue is sadness.]

[EDIT 4/4/12: I receive emails about this post, or comments on this post every couple of weeks. I published it almost a year ago. It breaks my heart that this issue is still one we need to address.

Please, if you need help, don’t hesitate to call someone. Doesn’t matter whether something happened years ago or this morning – there are people who have got your back. Give them a call.

If you’re in Canada, Europe, Japan, Korea, Singapore, or somewhere else, please do google ‘rape help line’.]

It was inevitable, really. But my thinking about slutwalk and my thinking about dance have finally gotten together in my brainz and become the Difficult Conversation About Sexual Violence in Swing Dance Communities. Despite my mixed feelings about slutwalk, it has meant that I’ve had more conversations about gender, violence, safety and community since it hit the media than I have in years and years. And most of those conversations have been with dancers who do not openly identify as feminist, or who aren’t otherwise politically engaged. To me, this is a marvellous thing.

Tim linked me up with this article about slutwalk by Jacinda Woodhead and Stephanie Convery, which links in turn to 4523.0 – Sexual Assault in Australia: A Statistical Overview, 2004, a 2004 ABS report on sexual assault in Australia. If you’ve been paying attention, most of the information in the report is depressingly familiar, yet in direct counterpoint to the myths surrounding sexual assault circulated in mainstream discourse. Key points for my post today are summed up on page 13 of this report:

For most victims of sexual assault reported to the police, the perpetrator is likely to be known to them. The most commonly reported location where the offence occurs is a residential setting.

This point is expanded on pg 24:

  • All available data sources indicate that over half of perpetrators of sexual assault are known to their victims. NCSS 2002 estimated that 52% of all adult victims knew the offenders in the most recent incident in the previous 12 months; 58% of female victims and 19% of male victims knew the offenders.
  • The most commonly reported location of sexual assault is residential, often the victim’s own home.

It’s important to note that these are reported assaults, and that most assaults are not reported to the police at all. The report continues (pg 13-14):

There is evidence that most victims of sexual assault do not report the crime to police, and that many do not access the services available to provide support. Factors affecting the decision to report sexual assault include the closeness of the victim-offender relationship and the victim’s perception of the seriousness of the crime.

Victims are more likely to report sexual assault to police if: the perpetrator was a stranger; the victim was physically injured; or the victim was born in Australia.

The ABS report also points out (on pg 32) that in assaults in the last 12 months, 60% did not involve alcohol, 38% did. The figures don’t indicate where the perpetrator or victim had consumed alcohol.

The following facts are also noted:

In Women’s Safety Survey 1996 data :

  • approximately one in six Australian women (16%) reported that they had experienced sexual assault at some time since the age of 15
  • one in six Australian women (15%) reported that they had been stalked during their lifetime
  • one in four Australian women (27%) reported that they had experienced sexual harassment in the previous 12 months.

It’s important to point out that men are also victims of sexual violence, though at lower rates, and with far smaller numbers of assaults reported.

It’s also important to remember that ‘sexual violence’ and sexually threatening behaviour is broader than the conventionally heterosexual definition of penetrative intercourse (where the p3nis penetrates the vag1na). So ‘rape’ or ‘assault’ leaks out beyond the heterosexual notion of ‘sex’. To talk about sexual assault, we need to expand our definitions of rape, and of sexual activity and of violence. This then allows us to talk about men as victims of assault (as well as perpetrators), and men as the victims of male and female violence. I think it’s also important to remember that the sexual abuse of children constitutes rape.

So, then, a useful point from the slutwalk protests and discussions around the place:

What you (male or female) wear is not the reason you were assaulted.


Yes means yes and no means no, whatever we wear, wherever we go.


Most assaults happen in the home (or domestic spaces), not darkened alleys, and most people are raped/assaulted by people they know. In most instances there’s no alcohol involved.

How does all this relate to dancing?

Sexual assault and harassment happens in the lindy hop world
Firstly, there have been sexual assaults in dance scenes all over the world. Most are no doubt not reported. I have personally heard of one incidence in Melbourne, where community discussion of the assault was not terribly useful, largely phrased in terms of a woman ‘being violated’. I don’t know if she knew her assailant. Perhaps the most widely discussed (in the United States and online) sex offence was Bill Borgida’s arrest for possession of illegal pornography (specifically pornography featuring children). This was discussed at length in the Yehoodi thread ‘Bill Borgida: Two Counts: Child Porn’. Borgida responded to the issue with a public letter to ‘the dance community’, also posted on Yehoodi, in the thread A letter to the Dance Community from Bill Borgida.

This second issue is particularly disturbing, as Borgida travelled internationally, visiting Australia as well as many other countries. I knew him quite well, and my own feelings about this issue are fraught. I felt furious, upset, sad, hurt, betrayed, guilty, anxious, angry, confused. I want nothing more to do with him, ever. But the responses in the open letter thread on Yehoodi are more complex. Many people feel still support him and forgive him. I cannot.

Most significantly, I’ve been stunned by many people’s regard for the possession of prnography as a relatively victimless crime. There seems to be a vast chasm between consumption and production in this thinking. They cannot seem to grasp the idea that possessing and consuming pornography featuring children is at once supporting a market for the material and endorsing its production. The production is beyond reprehensible: this is sexual assault. Of children. Many, many children, over many years. All recorded and distributed for adults’ pleasure. Possession of this material is equivalent to producing it.

I don’t want to suggest that using prnography is the same as raping, or that using prn leads to raping people. It doesn’t. But the way we use prn and produce prn, and our attitudes towards sexual activities are informed by broader issues of gender and power and identity. So sexual assault becomes a symptom of, or expression of, a perpetrator’s ideas or feelings about power. Having it, not having it, taking it, fighting it. Child abuse, then, is about perpetrators with power harming less powerful people – children. Using child prnography is about finding violent power sexually exciting. These sorts of ideas and feelings about power and other people do not stay safely partitioned in your ‘private life’.

I’ve also been suprised by many dancers’ willingness to separate what happens on the dance floor from what people do off the dance floor, or in their ‘private lives’. I can’t. I increasingly believe that the way we dance reflects our broader ideas about the world, and about the way we feel about other people. For example, the rough or inconsiderate lead is frequently socially inept or clumsy and disrespectful of women off the dance floor. I am unwilling to disassociate dance from cultural context.

But I shouldn’t be surprised. Thinking about people you know – and like – committing acts of sexualised violence on other people you know – and like! – is really difficult. It’s so difficult and horrifying that many of us would just rather not think about it at all. If we make it disappear by defining rape in a way that simply ignores most assaults, the problem become manageable and less frightening. It won’t happen to me if I don’t wear a short skirt, if I drive a car, if I don’t drink, if I don’t talk to strangers. My wife/sister/friend/lover/daughter is safe if I walk her to her car or I fight off an attacker in the street.

Dancers do not challenge sexually inappropriate behaviour often enough.

I also frequently come across the sentiment in dance discourse (online and face to face) that swing dancers are ‘good people’. Yes, many of them are. But I am certain that many of them are also capable of, and do perpetrate, sexual assault. I think this is a difficult idea to talk about in dancing. So much of what we do is dependent upon the idea that we are all ‘good people’ who just want to ‘enjoy themselves’ in ‘harmless dancing’. We also trust the person we are dancing with, who we touch, intimately, and who we work with, creatively. I find it deeply disturbing to think about being in a closed embrace with someone who is capable of sexual violence.

There is very little violence at social dance events. I’ve only ever witnessed one incidence, in extreme circumstances. But I have witnessed many incidences of bullying and sexual harassment. There are endless stories about leads who physically handle women into lifts or air steps in dangerous contexts. Or followers who do not take responsibility for their own balance or kicks. We’ve all got a story about the guy with the tent in his pants who presses too closely to uncomfortable women in the blues room. We’ve all got a story about that guy who always ‘accidentally’ does the boob swipe in class or on the dance floor. Many of us also have stories about women who perpetrate an unwelcome ‘beaver clamp’ in the blues room or spend too much time draped over men off the dance floor. Though it’s difficult to compare men’s and women’s inappropriate behaviour, and they work in different ways within a broader context of patriarchal society.

Most disturbingly, swing dance culture advocates tolerance of these sorts of actions. We are told, repeatedly that we should never say no to a dance. Women in particular are encouraged in most scenes to wait for a man to ask her to dance, and then to be so grateful for the dance she should tolerate all sorts of inappropriate behaviour just to be dancing. Women are also discouraged from dancing with other women, where they might have the opportunity to dance in a clearly nonsexual partnership. And, just as worryingly, it is very, very rare for a man to talk to his friends or other women about women’s inappropriate behaviour. Men are expected a) to enjoy sexual attention, and b) to not feel threatened by women. I mean, when I wrote, explicitly and in detail about particular men in the post Hot Male Bodies, was I crossing a line? Was that inappropriate?

This raises yet another issue in dance. What does sexualised dancing mean? Is this public or private space? Is it appropriate to take something from the dance floor and then decontextualise it, take it away from the dancer themselves? Dancers seem to negotiate this stuff every day in sophisticated ways. I mean, there are millions of amateur clips of performances, but it’s much less common to find footage of social dancing. It is as though most of us have agreed that social dancing is ‘private’, even when it’s conducted in the exact same spaces with the exact same people. If it is regarded as private, then, is that why we have so much difficulty making clear, hardline condemnations of sexual harassment on the dance floor – the tentpants, boobswipes and beaverclamps which make us so uneasy, but are so unlikely to be openly and immediately censured? After all, our broader societies find it so difficult to legislate domestic violence and sexual assault…

There are covert methods for dealing with this sexual harassment and bullying. We tee up a friend to quickly intervene and take us to the dance floor if a ‘dodgy’ person approaches. We learn to physically ‘block’ a partner who wants to get too close. We hide ourselves in a crowd to make approach from ‘undesirables’ difficult.
I’ve also learnt how to deal with men want to bully me in a professional setting. I’ve figured out, for example, how to a) not let male DJs (and they are always male) bully me into letting them DJ when and how they want when I am working to an event coordinator’s brief, b) not feel obliged to hire difficult or bullying DJs, c) make sure everyone pays entry fee when they are required to, regardless of ‘status’, d) not to end up being overworked and exploited by event organisers (either by their design or their incompetence).
It’s important to note that most volunteers at dance events are women. And that we are engaged at all levels in the management and running of events. We have also managed to develop non-confrontational methods for dealing with difficult people. Unfortunately, these methods are usually ‘invisible’, so avoiding the public demonstrations of women’s conflict resolution skills. Their invisibility also maintains the idea that swing scenes are always ‘nice’ and ‘friendly’ and ‘safe’.

I’m framing these ‘everyday’ instances of sexually inappropriate behaviour as sexual harassment and bullying for a reason. Let’s remember those points from the ABS data. Most perpetrators of sexual assault are known to their victims. If we insist that sexual violence only occurs in public places, is only perpetrated by ‘strangers’ with weapons while women risk their safety wear revealing clothes on the street, we make real rapes invisible. We hide the fact that we are more likely to be assaulted by the man who has driven us home, walked us to our door, gone out to dinner with us many times before. We also discourage women from speaking up about inappropriate actions. Don’t make a scene – the Uppity Woman will not get another dance! It’s not sexual harassment if a man continually touches your breasts on the dance floor?! In this context, the sexual assault by a known person in your own home is also disappeared. The perpetrator doesn’t believe he’s raped someone. The victim is left wondering what she did to deserve this. After all, she’s learnt that she’s not to speak up if she’s touched in a way she doesn’t like or want.

So what are we to do?

This is all bloody depressing. It’s fucking horrible to think about my dance community this way. I do not want to think about the idea that people I know and dance with or share a room with, assault or harass people. I hate the thought that I knew and travelled and danced with Bill Borgida. But I’m certain he’s not the only person who has done these sorts of things. It’s not statistically possible. It’s like last night’s episode of 4Corners about live animal trade, A Bloody Business (Mon 30th May 2011). These things are happening in my community. I’m participating in their continuing by not asking about it, by not looking, by not watching. And, awfully, sexual assault and harassment can happen to me or to people I know and care about. Someone I know could do these things to me. Sexual harassment and assault are a real, immediate, visible part of my life.

So, really, what are we to do? What can we do?

Firstly, I think it’s important to think about broader social and cultural context. This is why I bang on about women dancing and the way we think about women dancing. Do we encourage passivity, acceptance, submission in women dancers? I think we do. Do we also encourage, or at least enable, inappropriate behaviour by men? I think we do. I also think we need to talk about these issues. And to do what we can. For me, that’s meant learning to lead. But it’s also meant asking questions about things like unequal divisions of labour in the dance community. Who is always working the door at social events? Do they actually want to be sitting there all night? Who does get paid and who doesn’t? Why don’t people get paid?

Secondly, I think that going on and on and on about the shitty stuff, getting angrier and angrier and feeling more and more upset without doing something is disempowering. It weakens us with despair. So we need to a) pay attention and ask questions, b) talk about this stuff and then, most importantly, c) DO SOMETHING. I’m a big fan of small, localised change and action. A rally was cool for getting us talking. But it’s not enough. We need to saddle up, friends.

There are things we can do.

I want to talk about how we get home from dancing, because it’s about getting from ‘private’ place to ‘public’ places. This is a tricky one. We’re out late at night, usually on public transport or walking to our cars alone. We’re out with a large group of people, some we know well, many we don’t. All sorts of people come to swing dances. Many of them are socially awkward or inept. Many of them already ring our internal discomfort alarms and have us avoid dancing with them. We go out to drinks or meals after dancing with large groups of people, many we only know by first name even though we see them every week. At the end of the night, how do we get to our cars, to our homes?

My usual instinct is to get a ride with someone in a car, or to organise a group to go via public transport, and then to call Dave so he can meet me at the station. But is it really such a good idea to get a ride with someone from dancing? Even if you’ve seen them every week for a year, what do you really know about them? This is where it gets really tricky. I don’t want to advocate mistrusting every man just because they’re a man. This is why it’s attractive to think ‘only strangers are a threat’. It’s impossible to be wary all the time. And being wary all the time is disempowering. If we’re spending all our time being angry or worrying about being raped, we don’t have time to be excellently powerful and strong. But it also makes sense to think about safety and to be safe. To be aware of our surroundings.

Perhaps a solution is to organise groups of women to travel home together, and to have clear sets of rules for how you get home. No one walks to the station or their car alone. Send a text message to keep in contact. Or to get help. I’m not sure how this should work, but I think we should organise these sorts of things! Sometimes it’s hard to get to know other women at dancing well enough to develop these sorts of support networks and practices. We dance mostly with men in class and socially, we women don’t develop solid peer networks of trust and confidence in each other. Although I have always found that leading, and doing solo stuff with women socially is a key part of developing creative and personal relationships with other women in dancing.

But this talk about ‘getting home’ is still accepting that myth that sexual assault is only done by strangers, only happens in public places, late at night. We should think about the idea that sexual assaults happen at dance events. When we walk to the toilets through the gardens to the toilets at the back of the hall. In the toilets. In the carpark. In dressing rooms. In empty ‘breakout’ rooms at late night dances. At the reception desk while everyone is in dance classes.
These thoughts are far, far more frightening than the idea that we’re only at risk for that 40 minutes on our way from dance to home.

We need to think about safety at dances. And, much more importantly, about dance culture.

So here is what I do.

  • I pay attention to the people at the dance venue. Who is in the room? Who are they watching? How are they acting? If a man slips into the blues venue on Friday night, asking me to “hold the door” which is usually locked, do I know him? If I don’t, where does he go? It’s harder to pay attention to the whole room when I’m dancing than when I’m DJing. When I’m DJing, I’m constantly watching the people in the room. I notice who sits and does nothing. I see the guys who watch women dance and move and sit and talk and walk. I recognise the difference between a sort of general interest and an unnervingly close attention. I take note of the men who boobswipe or target the less confident women, the newer women dancers, the younger women. I pay attention to men who only dance with these type of women or who stand too close to them. There’s often a reason these men are avoided by women dancers who’ve been around. Sometimes it’s just social awkwardness that sets them apart. But sometimes it’s a nameless, discomforting creepiness.
  • I call people on their bullshit. This makes me less popular. But what the fuck. I’m not 20. I don’t need everyone to be my friend. And if I see some guy picking up a shyer, less confident girl and tossing her into some sort of bullshit lift, I’m going to say to him “Stop that.” And I’ll say to her “He’ll hurt you. Don’t let him do that.” Then I’ll make sure I talk to her later, about other stuff, so she knows I’m not shitty with her. I won’t (for the most part) let some dickhead chuck me around. I will call attention to a boobswipe, even it’s to make a joke, even if it’s an accidental boobswipe. I’ll also call guys on sexist jokes or crude, cruel comments. I try to be gentle, but I’m often quite confrontational. This does mean that I’m not going to be asked to dance by some men, many of whom are the ‘best dancers’ or high status. But who gives a shit? And why would I want to dance with that arsehat anyway?
  • I’m also equally determined to appreciate and show my appreciation for positive, excellent behaviour and attitudes. I think it’s like applauding awesome boogie backs when you want to encourage solo dance. It’s easy to get angry. But it’s healthier to get constructive. Carrot rather than stick. This is where men come in handy. If we want men to be the most excellent men they can be, we need excellent men to model excellent behaviour. On the dance floor and off it. Men should call other men on bullshit talk or actions. They needn’t be stroppy. Jokes are very powerful. More importantly, men are excellent, and when they do excellent things and we all applaud them for their metaphoric boogie backs, we are showing other men that being excellent is a lucrative business. We need to change cultures of masculinity, not ridicule men. The challenge, then, becomes how we go about doing this. How, for example, should men express their sexual interest to women? Or appreciate a particularly fine frame on the dance floor? How should men and women do heterosexuality in a positive, empowering ways? We’re creative people, right? We can figure this out.
  • Dance classes are important. Dance classes are a key point in the socialising of new dancers. How do the male lead and female follower model appropriate behaviour on and off the dance floor? Who does most of the talking in class? Who interrupts who, and how often, and how? Who makes the jokes? Who’s the butt of the joke? What type of jokes are they? Is there sexualised talk or joking? What sort of language do teachers use to refer to gender or to leading and following? What analogies do they use? How do they dress? How old are they? What are their relative ages? Where are they teaching? What material are they teaching? Who are the dancers they mention?

I could go on and on and on with this. But I think it’s important to figure out ways of making this work in your own life, and own social context. But, mostly, we need to be Excellent To Each Other.

We also need to be aware of the fact that dance scenes are not all flowers and ponies. Bad shit does happen, and we should do something about it.

race, food, bikes, gender

Another reminder that green/feminist movements are as marked by gender and class as right wing politics…

I’m seeing correlations between slutwalk discourse and this little trail of articles dealing with race/food politics/gardening/environmentalism/cycling. While I’m fascinated by discussions of food and health and environmentalism as a socialist project, for a while now I’ve had a little voice in the back of my brain saying “Dood, where’s race in all this? Can we talk about ethnicity a little bit more? And not in a ‘Mysteries of the Orient’ Food Safari way?” I stumbled over The Doree Chronicles’ post ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Eating: How the Food Culture War Affects Black America’ on Tumblr, then traced its references back. This post read as a sort of snippet of idea, in the context of a general Tumblr blog dealing with all sorts of things the author found interesting. Tumblr shits me a bit as this sort of backtracking is unnecessarily complex, but I guess that’s a consequence of personal sites which encourage a ‘collector’ approach rather than a ‘writerly’ approach.

From that little post linking food politics, race, ethnicity and the bike movement, I found Erika Nicole Kendall’s post ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Eating: How The Food Culture War Affects Black America’ on the Black Girls Guide To Weight Loss site. This post framed the discussion within a broader discussion of race and gender and weight loss as a health issue.

This post led me to Janani Balasubramanian’s piece ‘Sustainable Food and Privilege: Why is Green Always White (and Male and Upper-Class)’ which linked the bike movement talk to race and gender and environmentalism and food politics. I like this piece for the way it links gender to food production, and I like the question:

Can Pollan not drive home the point that Americans need to cook more often without guilting American feminists?

I’m really not up to speed with food politics’ talk, but I feel as though all this talk is echoing some of my reservations about slutwalk, and some of my thoughts about food politics. It also reminds me of some things I’ve read about the civil rights movement in America in the 60s, where the peace movement in particular was also quite sexist. In that context, the ‘free love’ discourse was a double-edge sword. While the pill gave women contraceptive control of their sexuality and bodies, there was also an attendant shift in the way many men began thinking about these women as ‘sexually available’. I wonder if we should perhaps be a little sceptical of a new women’s movement (or new stream in a broader feminism) that lauds heterosexual freedom in such uncomplicated ways. Because of course the pill didn’t function the same way, ideologically, for lesbian women that it did for straight women.

I feel as though we’re also revisiting issues raised (and continually raised) by women of colour from that period and recently. For those women race was a far more pressing concern, organising their activism in a way that gender did not. And these women were very critical of ‘mainstream’ feminists for not interrogating their own privilege. Or, more simply, for not noticing that everyone signing books in the wimminz bookshops was white.

I’m of course thinking about bell hooks and Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, but I’ve also heard Australian Aboriginal women like Marcia Langton make similar arguments. I haven’t found it, but I’d be certain there’d be some cool stuff written about ‘bush tucker’, the Northern Territory intervention (where government pensions are ‘retained’ specifically for buying food), gender and equity. I’m also certain that there’d be some really interesting stuff by migrant women writers in Australia (and elsewhere) about food, gender, class and social (as well as bodily) ‘health’. Someone has to have taken the bike movement to task as well? I mean, if I’m banging on about it on Faceplant when people say stupid things like “There is no excuse not to ride distances under 10km”, then surely someone else has made the same points more cleverly?

I’ve just had a quick look but I CAN’T find that interesting study a Victorian university group did recently where they found that if women felt safe cycling in a city, then the numbers of cyclists in that city over all were higher. I was telling this story to some hardcore environmentalist/sustainable energy types at a party the other week, and they were all “Oh shit, I’d never thought of that!” And I was thinking ‘That’s because you’re over-achieving, able bodied, young, male engineers living in well-serviced cities who dismiss feminism as ‘something for women’.’ But I didn’t say that out loud. Instead I laboured through a gentle (and brief) point that environmental movements have to be socially sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable. I wanted to talk about how birth control for women in developing countries is directly related to environmentally sustainable development in those same countries, but I didn’t.

I think there are also some really important points to be made about ‘food security’ for children in poor communities and families in big cities, and how food security is directly related to educational and social achievements, and how getting enough to eat (let alone eating ‘well’) is directly related to justice and equity in relation to gender and race and all those other lovely identity markers. I don’t know much about this at all, but I heard an interesting Health Report podcast about this and started thinking about the relationships between organic gardening, social justice, ethnicity and economic power. And goddamn bicycles.

To sum up this messy, ill-informed, poorly researched and unsubstantiated introduction to my mess of thoughts, I direct your attention to Tammi Jonas, who’s trekking through the American wilds with the Jonai clan in glorious 70s campervanning style, writing and thinking about food and family as she goes. Her progress is written up at Crikey, but I quite like the posts on her blog. Tammi is all over these issues.

I’d also suggest some time with Cristy Clark who’s exploring ecotarianism in real-family settings (ie, her own), and of course do drop in at Progressive Dinner Party to see related issues taken up. If you’re especially interested in kids and food, then PDP’s Head Cook Zoe is a good source, not to mention the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, which is all about kids, food and well-being.

Hippity hop: In which I get jiggy

Last Monday I did my first hip hop class. I went to a studio we’ve been using for our solo jazz practice and late night dances, and I went because I was curious, but mostly because I like going to the studio. The studio is run by a young man and his friends, and it’s in the guts of the city, in the Chinatown bit. They run lots of classes and workshops (almost all in street dances like hip hop or house or locking), see lots and lots and lots of students through the door, and are generally treated as a sort of drop-in social space as well as a class venue. Most of the students are ‘Asian’, and many are international university students. ‘Asian’ is one of those difficultly broad terms, and I don’t think it’s that useful in this context: these kids are from all over China, Hong Kong, South-East Asia, Japan, Korea and beyond. A lot of younger kids use the studio space – younger as in high school – and it really feels like a well-used space.

I always enjoy going there. There’re always people bustling about, and the reception desk is planted right in the middle of the room, directly opposite the lift doors, so you’re greeted immediately as you enter the room. People are always friendly. I’m getting to know people there, and it’s really nice to get a friendly “Hi Sam!” as I arrive. It feels like an energetic, creative space. But not in one of those desperately hip ‘art’ spaces. This is functional creativity. Functional in that this music and these dancers are part of these kids’ everyday lives, and dancing isn’t just a ‘hobby’ that they do one night a week.

There are regular classes, but the studio (which has three separate practice spaces as well as the main foyer space) is used for casual ‘jams’, which you pay for with a gold coin donation (presented as a ‘donation’ for upkeep of the studio), and there’s always music running in that jam space. The ‘jam’ is really a practice, a bit like a tango practica, where you go to test out what you know and are learning, not in a workshop or class environment, but in a more social space. This isn’t ‘social dancing’, though, the dancers are focussed and really experimenting with movement.

Dancers use the studio as an inbetween or meeting place before going off to the ‘battles’ down in a public piazza somewhere on Friday nights (this is real street dance) or out for a night clubbing. Uni students drop in between lectures, and high school girls turn up in their uniforms after school and before dance class to practice. Dance crews also use the space to meet up and touch base or to practice. The idea of ‘crews’ as a real thing is new to me. I’ve seen them in films: a group of dancers who work together in competitions or battles. But I’d thought they were exaggerated or made up for films. But they’re not. The nearest equivalent in lindy hop is a dance troupe, with all the attendant friendship and peer support functions. But crews feel less contrived and more organic, based on creative similarity, friendships and shared values rather than a formal dance school promotional function.

I first met the owner and venue when we used the space for a late night dance. I was working with a guy who was running the late night event and was also involved in the hip hop scene. He knew the studio through hip hop classes and the local scene. It was really wonderful to walk into a studio that felt like a living, breathing social space. Most dance studios feel a bit lame or a bit empty, socially. The dances people practice are formalised by their position as ‘commodity’ and they’re definitely a ‘hobby’ or ‘career’ rather than lifestyle. But at the hip hop studio, the dancing is tied in with all the other parts of people’s lives – music, fashion, media (particularly digital media), eating, drinking, socialising. LeeEllen Friedland talks about this continuum of cultural practice. But, really, this studio and dancing are just points in everyday life.

That first event we ran at the studio went off wonderfully. The dancers who turned up really liked the feel of the venue. We were very happy with the studio manager and with the layout and feel of the venue. This isn’t a cold, professional studio or a dirty, dingey bar like most late night venues. It made the dancing wonderful.

Isn’t it strange to think like that? I can’t explain, really, why it made such a difference. But I found DJing really exciting, and as a punter I had a BRILLIANT time. But a space made place really makes for excellent social dancing.

Anyway, we needed a place for our solo practice, and while we’ve tried a few other places, I pushed for us to use this studio as an experiment at least. It’s not the cheapest venue (I pay $30 for 2 hours at a church hall near me that has no mirrors or sound system, I’ve paid $20 per hour at a clean, well-lit place with mirrors, a good floor and sound system), but it has good mirrors, good floors, decent sound proofing, and feels great.

When we finish practicing, it’s hard to just leave. There are people who’re interested in what we’re doing. Interested just as part of being polite and sociable, but also interested in a creative sense. I’ve already had a few exciting conversations with hip hop people where we’ve compared moves that we have in common. Mine are a hundred years old. Theirs are brand new. But they’re the same. It’s thrilling.
This studio feels like Herrang. At Herrang, which runs for about 4 weeks (give or take), there’s always someone dancing or practicing or talking about dancing or music. You can join in with strangers, and the whole place feels alive with music and dance and rhythm. It seeps into your pores. The studio feels like that. And this is exactly what swing dancing – lindy hop, balboa, blues, charleston, all of it – really needs. A vibrant cultural, social space where dancers hang out and experiment and socialise. But not in a forced way. In a natural way that results from shared interests and a welcoming space. It’s tricky with jazz dances, though, as these are dead dances. They’re not connected to popular music and culture anymore, so it’s harder to find them, to make them part of your everyday.

At any rate, it’s not a surprise that I ended up doing a hip hop class. I had a spare afternoon/evening, and just felt so comfortable at the studio, I figured I’d just turn up and see what happened. There were two classes on, and I really didn’t plan which one I’d do. I guess I’m lucky it was hip hop and not breaking. There was ‘girl hip hop’ and ‘hip hop’ on. The girl hip hop studio was full of teenage girls in school uniforms practicing to girly rnb. That class was taught by the teacher I know, a bloke. I paid for my class, and settled on the couch as I was a bit early. When I went to join the class as it started, I was directed, “No, no Sam, you do the Hip Hop class” by the teacher. I was ‘Sure, whatevs’ and changed studio. I asked another teacher/dancer as I passed the registration desk “What’s the difference?” and she replied “It’s pretty girly. You’d like hip hop more, I reckon.” I’m sure that’s because I am built like a brick shithouse, not at all girly, and not sixteen. I don’t exactly scream sexed up nightclub dancing.
I’m glad I did do the ‘hip hop’ class. There were just two of us in there with the teacher. I was the only girl, and they were both Chinese, the teacher in his twenties, the other student in his late teens or possibly early twenties. I was the tallest, the whitest, the femalest, the oldest. Which was pretty much as I’d expected.
The class was FUN but also challenging, and a real culture difference.

Firstly, the music was on all the time, and it was quite loud. I’m used to lots of talking in classes, but that’s not how we worked. Spoken instructions were few and shouted over the music. I was kind of relieved to have so much music in the room. I don’t know any modern music, and hip hop is so far from my usual musical listening, I really needed a crash course in its rhythms and structure. Thankfully, it’s like simplified jazz, structurally, but has a different feel.

At first I stood a little behind the teacher (who had his back to us, with the other student to his right hand side, in a row). Because I’m used to standing behind the teacher to shadow what I see them doing. But almost immediately I was told to “Look up! Look at yourself in the mirror!” This was a revelation. This is the difference between partner dancing and solo dance. I was there to present myself, so I had to see what I was doing to assess my own skills. Many of the movements we did involved very clear hand and finger gestures. Our arms had to end at the end of our fingers (in clenched fists, in flowing sweeps, in sharp chops), and I needed to see myself in the mirror to be sure I was doing this all properly. I moved up beside the teacher.

He began the class by explaining how movements worked, but as he realised I could pick up the movements from what he was doing, and as the other student was much more advanced than me, he stopped explaining, except when I needed something clarified. If you’ve done a lot of dance classes, you can follow along with the choreography and movements really without thinking about it. You move with the other people in the room, turning when they turn, sinking when they sink and so on. In those moments thinking is actually a real problem. You don’t want to have to think your way through each movement before you do it. You want to just do it. I’m not a talented dancer, and I’m quite a slow learner, but all this lindy hop and solo stuff has taught me how to know how to move my body at least a little bit.

So learning the choreography wasn’t too complicated. I could get the rhythms quickly (they were much, much, much simpler than lindy hop or jazz stuff), I could turn when I should, I could face the right direction. But watching myself, I thought “This is what ballet dancers look like when they start lindy hop.” I looked like I was floating, like a really upright, ungrounded ballet dancer. And I’m usually pretty grounded in my lindy hop. But hip hop required a lot more in the ground. You get this look by bending your knees, but hip hop – this type of hip hop – requires a lot of shoulder action and a very different type of bounce.

I know, in my brains, they’re the same principles of biomechanics, but it was really difficult to figure out what the teacher was doing to get that look while also learning choreography. I realised that I had to control my hips and core, and hold them very stable and still. Instead, I had to use my shoulders, arms and upper body in much more definite, bigger ways. I had to sink down into the floor by bending my knees, but without sticking my arse out. I had to hold my chest and shoulders in a way that held my bust still and stopped it bouncing.

It was a matter of at once learning a different dance aesthetic, and also dancing ‘like a man’ rather than ‘like a woman’. I’ve had similar issues learning to lead, if I’ve been interested in leading ‘like a man’. It’s very interesting to see how gender is played out through which parts of your body you emphasise. It’s not at all genetic; this is a learned thing.

I also found that some of the movements involved hyperflexing of the joints, especially at the shoulders and elbows. This is something professional dancers learn. It’s something we try to avoid in lindy hop, because it’s about hyper-straight arms, and lindy likes right angles. But hyperflexing is something a lot of Asian kids do, in part because of genetics, but also because of cultural factors. I am very tight in my arms and shoulders, because I sit on my arse all day and type. It’s also a very anglo thing to do – to carry tension in the upper body like that. So I had to at once learn to release and relax my upper body to allow liquid, extended range of movement in my arms, but also to engage my core and upper body so that I could also do sharper, more abrupt, more ‘masculine’ movements.

After an hour I was queen of sweat.

I found I could do most of the things we learnt, except a couple of moves that were almost exactly the same as ones we do in lindy hop/jazz. We learnt a step very like a camel walk, except beginning with the toes pointed up and weight on the heel, rather than toe down, with the weight on the heel. This really melted my brain, especially as we were doing a flowing, released arm movement at the same time. I just couldn’t get it right.

But this really taught me some things: I do those ‘standard’ jazz movements without thinking about what I’m doing. I’m not conscious of my body and muscles in an active way. So I’m really not dancing very well. I’m actually doing habitual motions. Being aware of what you’re doing, and moving muscles independently and in groups in a conscious way is central to being able to dance well, to respond quickly, and to adjust to suit the music and partner. So having to learn a very similar movement really made me aware of the weaknesses in my dancing.

It was really interesting to see how those combined steps (flowing arms, sharp, syncopated footwork) reflected the music: flowing melody, grace and balance coupled with abrupt, sharp lower body movements. I had to rethink my habitual dance movements, but also the gendered movements and muscle use which I was utterly unconscious of. Our movements are marked by gender and culture, ethnicity, age, class, experience. It’s in our interests, as social animals, that these movements become unconscious, so that we ‘fit in’, and give the ‘right signals’ to the people around us.

If you think for example, of how someone who sits too close to us on the bus makes us feel, then you kind of get the idea. That’s just a tiny example, but the way someone holds their body while sitting in a public, shared space, tells you about how they think and act about shared space (especially crowded shared space), and how they use muscle tension to delineate shared space. I mean, to be even clearer, if I want to crowd out someone on a shared bus seat, I ‘land and expand’. I sit down with control, but gradually relax my muscles so I gradually take up more space. This makes my seat mate feel ‘crowded’, so they move over. This even works on male suits in peak hour.

I think that my being aware of these issues is a disadvantage most of the time. It’s better to stop thinking and to let your body figure out what to do. If you have to think your way through every single movement, you’re going to be slow and your movement will look ‘unnatural’ and make people feel uncomfortable.

Finally, then, I have to say that this class was wonderful. I felt very welcome, and I liked the way the class was quite quickly paced and felt ‘all business’. We didn’t fuck around with fake jokes, we got on and danced, all the time. I liked the way the other student modelled respect for the teacher, so I knew how I was supposed to act. I also liked the way we could relax these relationships when we got outside the classroom. Out there it was all rowdiness and comparing movements and excited, adrenaline-charged, dance-high loud talk. And not just from me.

I’m definitely going back for more. Though I suspect this will be a long, challenging road for me. Perhaps I should buy some music?

women talking about their own bodies and how this issue was trolled or women dancers wearing high heels and talking about it

My attention was caught yesterday by a thread on Yehoodi about a blog post by Sarah Breck titled Why women should wear heels. Sarah took down the original post and replaced it with another, but I’ve just had another look and seen that the post is back up again. My post, here, is about the way this issue fits into a bigger story about how dancers control their online, public image.

A brief long time line:

  • Sarah writes Why women should wear heels about women wearing high heels while dancing;
  • there’s some comment on that blog post in the comments section;
  • Manu links to the post in a thread on Yehoodi;
  • Yehoodi readers click through to Sarah’s blog post and read it;
  • there’s a heap of commentary in the yehoodi thread;
  • the people clicking through from yehoodi comment on Sarah’s post in the blog’s comments;
  • Sarah’s dance partner and boyfriend Dax (who co-writes the blog featuring the original post) defends Sarah’s argument in the comments section of Sarah’s blog post;
  • some people write posts on their own blogs linking to Sarah’s post (taint what you do, ann mony, short girl blog);
  • Sarah deletes her original post;
  • Sarah writes another post on the issue called “altho I guarantee every follow I have seen wear tennis shoes and heels always look better in heels and that should be reason enough”;
  • Dax writes a post called Why Men Should Wear Heels (How Wearing Slick Leather Shoes Made Me A Better Dancer);
  • there’s more to-ing and fro-ing on their post on this topic;
  • I read @ryanswift’s tweet linking to his tumblr post linking to the yehoodi thread;
  • I gabble a bit about it on twitter late last night after dancing;
  • I have bizarre dreams about shoes last night;
  • I decide to read up on this issue today, write a few drafts of this post, then write this post;
  • I think about @ryanswift’s implication that women dancers’ decision to wear heels (or not) should/is influenced by historical evidence of what women dancers wore in the ‘swing era’;
  • I think about the Harlem Hot Shots and how they wear whatever they like (including heels), but don’t look like Sarah (or the other women in her post) dancing in heels;
  • I think about the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers wearing sneakers and heels at different times in different contexts;
  • I think about a comment in Malcolm X’s bio about women at the Savoy arriving in nice heels then changing into sneakers to dance seriously;
  • I do the half hour blocks of exercises my physio gave me to strengthen my abs, glutes, hip joints, knees, etc so that I can relieve pressure on my calf muscle which I’ve recently torn because I overwork my calves dancing on the ball of my foot in flat shoes;
  • I resolve never to wear heels, ever again, because they are tools of the patriarchy and because I am out to fuck up The Man. Also, because my physio would give me that ‘are you on crack?’ face;
  • I think about all the Women’s History Month posts I’ve done lately, and particularly about the heels in the white dancers’ clips, and the flats in the black dancers’ clips, and I think about how heels make you look as though your toes are always pointed, and I think about how pointed toes and straight legs embody culturally specific ideals of feminine beauty;
  • I write this post.

I think Sarah has the right to retract her statement. Though good luck to her – retracting comments from the intertubes is pretty much impossible. I might include the content from both of Sarah’s posts (which I’ve just copied and pasted at 1.55pm Sat 26th March 2011) in another post, but I’ll think about it carefully before I do. If I do reproduce her posts, I’ll engage with her arguments carefully, as I think she’s making a knowledgeable contribution to a discussion about women and dance.

I was disappointed to see Sarah take down the original post, as I think she has a perfect right to express her opinion. I also think that opinion is worth exploring, as Sarah is an excellent dancer, and a big name, influential teacher. She teaches other women how to dance, and she provides an influential contribution to dance discourse. I’d have preferred she didn’t take down her post, as it disturbs the narrative ‘flow’ of this wider discussion (there are a bundle of other blog posts from other people as well as the Yehoodi thread already), but then that’s really my problem, not hers. The absence of her post is itself a statement: she wanted to disassociate herself from that public statement, perhaps, while she might still stand by her original point.

I also understand why she might like to take the post down. Manu’s original link to her post seemed a little trolly (and was the second link he’s recently made to an inflamatory statement of traditional gender roles, not counting the segment on the Yehoodi talk show), and and this sent people to Sarah’s post in a fairly antagonistic frame of mind. Sarah didn’t really get the better end of this (desperate metaphoric) stick, and there were some firey comments and discussions.

As I read it, the debate on Yehoodi and in responding blog posts (taint what you do, ann mony, short girl blog) seemed to be polarised between conservative blokes valorising traditional, patriarchal notions of femininity and leftish women firing up and attacking Sarah’s comments. I’m not sure Sarah has that much experience with online debates (going by the style of her writing and her responses to comments), and suddenly being at the centre of what was becoming a shit storm would have upset me. And I’m used to shit storms on dance discussion boards. So, frankly, I think her decision to take down the post was probably a good one. It’s her blog, she’s the boss, and frankly, she has a right to say ‘fuck that shit’ and opt out.

I can’t help but think of the (currently raging) debate surrounding Dilbert author Scott Adams’ scary, misogynist blog post which was brought to my attention by Kate Beaton (of Hark a Vagrant) on twitter. Incidentally, I like the way Beaton’s discussion of being a woman comic author in her tweeting prefaced my reading about the Scott Adams issue: I approached this as a talk about comics authors. You can read his original post here and follow that post to the discussion on Feministe, where things get mighty angry (and Adams chimes in in the comments). Scott Adams wrote the post, sparked a furore, then took down the post. He wrote a post which was doing its best to support and promote scary gender politics and roles.

Sarah’s post, though, while it might also have been promoting conservative gender identities and roles, was not aggressively misogynist, woman-hating bile. It was the measured opinion of one woman posting a comment in a public forum. Yet her writing style was gendered (just as Scott Adams’ was): she is unaggressive, non-confrontational, quick to appease and conciliate. Her male partner chimes in in the comments to defend her. Scott Adams’ style, in contrast, is aggressive, confrontational and fairly unpleasant. Different genders, similarly gendered public talk. Or, perhaps, just as interestingly, Adams’ uses the gendered language of the ‘official’ public sphere: assertive statements, aggressive arguments, attacks and defenses rather than collaboration and cooperation.

In principle, I have some real problems with the content of Sarah’s post. I disagree quite thoroughly. But I am actually very interested in her opinions and discussion: I’ve been thinking about high heeled shoes and women dancers, and I want to read more on this topic. Scott Adams, however, spews vile hate-talk that discourages me from engaging with that discussion.

Sarah is somewhat disadvantaged by her writing skills. The original post has lots of problems, simply as a piece of writing. And the most immediate consequence of this is that it makes it difficult for Sarah to communicate her points clearly and effectively. Another consequence is that Sarah’s status as a knowledgeable dancer and teacher is implicitly destabilised by her writing. While those of us with half a brain realise that being a good dancer and teacher is not at all related to being a good writerer, the weaknesses of her writing imply weaknesses in her logic and argument.

I think there are weaknesses in her argument, but these are unrelated to her writing and – more importantly – thinking skills.

This recent event also reflects a wider issue that’s been in the back of my mind for a while. The last year or two has seen a leap in the number of blogs written and maintained by high profile international dancers. Most of these dancers are what I think of as younger American ‘rock stars’. Rock stars in the sense that they have a modicum of celebrity: well-known, high-profile, fashionable with some dancers, younger, often American. Most of them have had their websites designed and implemented by only a very small number of web nerds, and all have implemented various social media tools.

This is where things get really interesting. I’d argue that these websites have included social media tools – blogs, Faceplant plug ins, twitter feeds, etc – not as part of a carefully planned media strategy, but as a response to a general trend in website design. Yes, social media tools do raise your profile, and do ‘get you out there’. But as with all public relations tools, exposure is a double edged sword. If it were me, I’d vet my contributions to broader discourses very carefully. In fact, I’m not sure I’d even post personal blog posts on my official ‘business’ website – the website promoting my professional persona. I would use my twitter feed fairly prosaicly: updates on my travel and appearances at international and local events, perhaps. I’d also be very careful about my links.

Word of mouth is the most powerful and important promotional tool in international lindy hop. It can make or break a reputation. But a good PR strategy is about knowing how to limit talk as well as encourage it.

This leaves me with some questions.

Firstly, what responsibility should the web designers who produce these multi-media/cross-discourse sites take for their implementation? In any other industry, I’d say “none.” But many of these designers are also members of this community. Should they not take some sort of responsibility for not making sure their clients’ understand how to use their sites, not only practically, but also discursively?

I’ve talked about my own experiences with these sorts of website designers in the post ‘Am I being paranoid or is this dodgy?’, and I think my concerns about aggregated content bare revisiting. Particularly as Manu has also (trolling again?) drawn attention to, in another Yehoodi thread. Now perhaps Manu is seeing the same sort of trend I have, perhaps he’s just trolling, looking to stir up some debate (and activity) on Yehoodi. I suspect it’s a combination of the two.

Secondly, how should high profile dance teachers use their websites, and how should they manage their online profile? Blogs are useful because they personalise a teacher, and encourage readers (and dancers) to regard the authors as appealing human teachers worth learning from or employing. I’d also imagine a lot of teachers would like to expand on the issues they only touch on in class. They’d like to use blogs as platforms for developing their ideas. I only wonder if they all have the skills and experiences to manage the results of engaging in public talk like this. There are very few blogs written by dancers (high profile or otherwise) which are well-written, carefully thought out actually worth reading regularly. But this is true of the blog world generally: most of us are just spilling out ideas willy-nilly. Grammar, logic and organised though be-damned!
How should these same high profile dance teacher bloggers manage comments and discussion on their sites? If it were me, I’d moderate very carefully, and I’d delete comments that don’t meet my carefully-thought-out-worded-and-publicised comment policy.

I do have more to say about this, particularly in reference to another recent online discussion sparked by Nick’s frank post about working conditions for international teachers, but I’m feeling a bit crook, so I won’t.

digitising public collections – a long talk

This post is going to be a bit of a mishmash of thinking I’ve done in my classes this semester (I’m looking at digital archiving and organising information digitally), my previous work during my PhD (I was interested in how communities of users employ a range of digital tools to complement their face to face activities), my sessional teaching in courses on audience studies (I taught students how to do audience research, particularly online) and some of the reactions I’ve had to public chitchat about digitising public collections. All my knowledge about digital archiving in practice is theoretical, but for the stuff I’ve learnt during assignments. When I talk about the literature in the information management discipline, I’m talking about the literature as it’s been presented to me in my courses. So it’s a pretty subjective overview reflecting course requirements rather than the field as a whole. Which is a pretty interesting comment on the role of course syllabi in structuring and reflecting our understanding of a discipline, yeah?

I decided to write this really long post in response to a number of really annoying things I’ve read online. Firstly, Marcus Westbury made this comment on his blog and in his Age column:

THE perception at election time is that politicians can get ahead only by rolling out the pork barrel and spending up big. But while we’d all love more money for the arts, there are a lot of things that could make us all culturally richer for not much more than the cost of political will, taking the lead, changing some rules and tweaking a few settings.

So, in the spirit of trying to get some actual ideas into the vacuum that is this election campaign, I’ve knocked up a list of suggestions for pollies wanting to do — or be seen to be doing — something useful on the cheap.

He continues

3. Put our national cultural collections online

It’s a no-brainer. Our museums, galleries, orchestras, opera companies and state theatres are sitting on rich cultural archives that could be shared online tomorrow. But the confusion of rights makes it difficult, and they often err on the side of caution, meaning these vast resources are lost in red tape. We need the 21st-century equivalent of public lending rights on the national broadband network. It’s the cheapest education and most effective audience development opportunity there is. We’re spending a fortune on infrastructure, so we’d be mad not to do it.

This comment really bothered me. It reveals a lack of familiarity with Australian public institutions’ digital activities, not to mention the practical reality of digitising collections. I understand that Marcus is suggesting a solution to the challenges of managing IP online (which do slow down digital library activities) – “the equivalent of public lending rights on the national broadband network” – but I am also fairly sure that this doesn’t recognise the fact that information management specialists are already onto this challenge. I had a three hour session on it last week, and I don’t envy the people who are actually involved in unravelling IP for public institutions’ online and other digital activities.

Digitising national collections isn’t cheap, nor is it simple. I’m going to explain why a bit further on in this post.

I was also alerted to this this UK Telegraph article by Colvinius on twitter, which is about a slightly different topic – archiving popular online culture. I can’t really address that in this post as it’s already too massive, but I’m not keen on the implication that public institutions aren’t paying attention to online culture. I mean the Library of Congress is kind of already onto that and they’re not alone – even the NLA is into that action.

Digital archiving? Digital preservation? Digital collections?

Firstly, when I say ‘digital archiving’ or ‘digital preservation’ and ‘digitising collections’ what am I talking about? This semester our work has made a fairly arbitrary distinction between digitising items for long term preservation as digital items, and digitising items for improving community access to these items (whether online at home, in schools or public libraries, on mobile devices or whatever). The differences between preservation and access occur at many points in an item’s journey from physical object to digital file, and then in its storage and access. In the simplest terms, though, a digital preservation project aims to digitise items and then store them for long periods of time and a digital library or gallery project digitises items so as to make them accessible now.

Users? Or, why are we doing this again?
In both cases an ‘audience’ is imagined for the collection, though the term ‘user’ is employed, and complex user personas and use scenarios are developed to aid the design and implementation of the digitisation project. In digital curation, however, the user is positioned as a ‘designated user community’ so as to manage the fact that we cannot actually address the needs of any and all potential users in the future. This is where I’ve found a sticking point: I’d like to design systems that are agile and flexible, able to respond to the needs of potential users. This, however, is in conflict with the fact that much digital preservation work is founded on projects or models developed for use within the scientific or engineering community, digitising their data.

The most important digital preservation model – the Open Archiving Information Scheme – was actually developed to manage the vast quantities of data produced by space research. So the user community – the designated user community – with this sort of data and research was an elite group of highly institutionalised research scientists and engineers dealing with a particular type of scientific data. No flexibility there. In fact, there are, of course, all sorts of positivist connotations about ‘data’ and ‘research’ here: data can be ‘captured’ objectively by skilled professionals working in laboratory-like environments and then ‘stored’, untouched by this process, for long periods of time until it is ‘retrieved’ at a future point in time. Problematic, much?

This raises all sorts of problems for people researching with real, live, actual hoomans (and the word ‘humans’ is actually used in much of this literature, in part to distinguish them from computer users, but still – it’s an amusing distinction, yes?). Particularly those of us working in the humanities area. We know that data cannot just be ‘collected’ as though it were little chunks of rock lying about in ‘the field’. We know that our ‘collecting’ is actually a series of complex interpersonal interactions shaped by our own lived experiences. We know there are power dynamics at work here, and that ‘data’ isn’t some sort of coherent, unit of information, that it is instead a more dynamic map of human relationships and practices that just doesn’t hold still.

Information management literature likes to draw a distinction between ‘data’ and ‘information’. Data is – and this is stated explicitly – objective units of ‘fact’. Information is created in the human interaction with these facts. There is no allowance – despite some fringe ‘theory’ literature – for the idea that all data is actually ‘information’. This notion of data as an object to be stored has been important to library and museum management for a very, very long time. After all, if objects don’t have an intrinsic, objective value and meaning, why would we bother to store them so carefully for so long for some future generation we can’t ever know? This sounds like quite a long diversion from my point. And it is. But I think it’s important to introduce it here because it informs the whole digital library and digital preservation process. So let’s get back to that stuff.

What do I mean by ‘items’? Basically, I’m talking about the stuff in public (or private) collections: books, posters, costumes, china, maps, records, photos, reel-to-reel film and so on. The physical items in a collection. A collection can include ‘born-digital’ items like websites and digital audio files, but I don’t want to talk about them here. Which is a shame, as that’s the point of that second article I quoted up there at the beginning of this post. Ah well.

Items are digitised in a number of ways, including these few examples:

  • taking digital photos with a camera
  • scanning items with a digital scanner (whether flat bed or otherwise)
  • creating digital recordings of analogue sound recordings (ie turning the sound recorded on a vinyl record into a digital audio file, and then ‘capturing’ the physical recording media – the vinyl record itself – using photography)
  • creating digital versions of audio-visual files (ie turning a film recorded on reel-to-reel film into a digital file, and then capturing the physical items associated with that recording (can cover, etc) with other devices)

Whose user?
Who is the ‘user’, then? This is tricky one, and even the literature in the field has trouble with it. While some of the authors in this area are approaching a cultural studies – a feminist, humanities-type – understanding of user which equates to our much-debated ideas about audiences, for the most part there is little rigorous attention to the way ‘users’ are imagined and then built into the design process by information architects. Who are the people who design and then build archiving systems (whether they be for the short or long term). In all this year, I’ve not heard one comment from any of my lecturers or in any of the literature addressing the role of our own identities in our development of user personas. It’s not been addressed even when I and others in the class have suggested that any user persona we develop is in fact more revealing of our own identities than any ‘real’ user (no matter how well substantiated with research). I’ve found this incredibly difficult to deal with.

To my mind, the design of a website or a poster or a database reflects the ideas and values and ideology and physical experience of the people who made it, and it also reflects the way they imagine the people who will use that system or item. My ideas here are informed by my experiences with cultural studies, media studies, hell, even semiotics and the fundamentals of textual analysis. This concept is a very basic prerequisite for thinking and writing about culture in media, communications and cultural studies literature. I’ve taught it a million times to a zillion students. I can’t even begin to contemplate not believing this. It’s the foundation for much of my thinking about power and privilege and broader social relations. So I’ve found this semester quite frustrating. But let’s return to my original discussion.

Organising items or data systems and controlling language
This all means that a database is not a neutral or objective system or structure. It is not only a reflection of ideology (and culture), it is also continually remaking and restating this culture and ideology. We’ve demonstrated this in class when each of us has come up with quite different architecture for the same database proposal. I think this is why I find the discussions about library and museum management of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture so interesting. It’s in this literature (which I sought out myself) that I’ve found discussions about how databases and other library systems articulate race and class and power. The best example of this is the ATSILIRN alternative thesaurus.

In the simplest terms, indices or thesauri are controlled languages for describing items. When you enter information about an item into a database, you have to fill in fields like ‘title’, ‘author’, ‘year created’, etc. You could, potentially put any old information in there. The other week when we were discussing indexing I heard my first in-class comment from a lecturer about how language changes over time and how a word used by me today mightn’t mean the same in 50 years time. It was almost a discussion about cultural specificity, but there was no discussion of power or any self-reflexivity. But most database designers recognise this (though they might perceive it as ‘error’ or as aberration) and so try to control what can be entered into the fields. You can do this by adding constraints like only allowing numbers to be entered, or only allowing one of a number of options in a drop down menu to be selected. But you can also use specific indices or thesauri to control the words that are entered into the database. If, then, there are only five words specifying race in your thesaurus, and all of them created by and reflecting 19th century Anglocentric discourse, you can see where Dodson is coming from when he writes

We have been referred to and catalogued as ‘savages’ or ‘primitive’ while Western industrial peoples are referred to as advanced and complex (Mick Dodson, 1993, quote from the ATSILIRN).

I’ve wondered away from my initial point in quite a serious way, here. But it’s important to discuss this stuff, because all databases managing the records of library and museum and other collections employ controlled vocabularies of some sort. They might be in the indices and thesauri, but they are also in the metadata – the information about data – that is used to organise items within a archiving system. There are various types of metadata, and they gain their value from being standardised. Standardised metadata systems are really lists of fields which have been agreed on by various communities (usually in a formal sense, after intense negotiation, as in the case of Dublin Core).

I was super excited when I heard this – an enforced interpretive repertoire! (you can read about interpretative repertoires in Potter and Whetherell’s work, particularly the 1987 book Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond Attitudes and Behaviour The collaborative meaning making Stuart Hall talked about was actually codified and institutionalised here! I’d been used to thinking about these sorts of systems as evidence of ideology – or as things that could be analysed for ideology. But we don’t talk about this in class at the moment, and I daren’t even raise it, simply because the concepts require quite a bit of background information. If anything, my frustration here is perhaps evidence of how difficult it is to articulate this sort of theoretical and critical work in everyday language. Irony, much?

So, to this point, I’ve discussed ‘items’, the way users are imagined, and controlled languages in information management. How does all this relate to digital libraries and digital preservation? And exactly what does digitisation of a collection involve?

The Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) has a very handy guide to digitising small collections. You can see as you browse through this excellent guide, that digitising a collection involves a little more than just digitising a bunch of things and then wacking them up on the internet. The digitising process – where you make digital files of each item – is about one third of the entire project. The larger part includes planning, budgeting and then organising the digital collection. Even a small collection includes thousands of digital items, all of which have to be organised within a (series of) databases. Even if your digital collection is not intended for public use on a regular basis, it will still require complex data management tools. Luckily, there is OAIS, which is a standardised (it even has its own IOS standard). Unluckily, OAIS is complicated and not exactly simple to implement. Perhaps more usefully, there is the Digital Curation Centre’s Curation Lifecycle Model, which allows you to develop an overall plan for long term digitisation and preservation. It’s also quite complicated.

I wrote a paper this semester about the challenges of digital preservation for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The most pressing of these (which apply to all collections) are:

  • handling delicate or culturally sacred material items
  • securing permissions to handle and then digitise and store digital records of these items
  • creating an architecture that will organise these individual records and files
  • acquiring and then maintaining the hardware necessary for storing such large amounts of data (ie having good server centres with reliable electricity, cooling and physical facilities)
  • having really good internet access to facilitate introduction of items to the archive and then maintaining the collection and supporting use of the collection
  • having sufficient funding to cover all aspects of the digitising process
  • having access to suitable skilled personnel to do the digitising, organising and maintenance of the collection

All these things are challenging for remote communities facing other quite serious social issues. But they are also challenges for librarians and curators working with smaller collections in regional institutions or within larger institutions.

In the most basic terms actually fairly complicated terms, digitising a collection for preservation involves:

Digitisation of a collection: Planning

  • planning and scoping the project can take a long time. You have to know what you have to digitise, what condition it’s all in, and what your resources are.
  • If you don’t have much money (and no institution in Australia has the money to digitise its entire collection), you have to start planning some serious fund raising. If your collection is attached to a large private enterprise or company, you’re in a much better place than a large public collection.
  • You have to start thinking about acquiring the technology and skills to do your own digitising, or you have to source a suitable external body to do it (which is something most collections do these days). The technology is super expensive, and the hours required for digitising are massive.
  • You have to discover and plan the appropriate standards for file formats for the digital records you produce. What file format will be useable ten years from now, let alone fifty? The questions at this stage continue and continue…

Digitisation of a collection: preparation

  • This is where you start ascertaining the state of your collection and beginning necessary conservatorial and preservation processes. Some items are physically very fragile and need to be handled by professionals in safe conditions. Their preparation for the physical act of digitising can take a long time. Some are damaged by the very act of digitising. Check out Pinknantucket’s blog for some super cool discussion of this stuff.
  • It’s also during this phase that you start checking out the permissions and intellectual property rights associated with items in your collection. Who owns them? Who can use them? There are some loop holes in Australian copyright law that allow public institutions like libraries and museums to digitise or copy items without permission. But you have to be very very sure you understand these laws or you can cost yourself a massive amount of money in legal fees later on.
  • You also have to find out whether you have permission to digitise all the items in your collection. Are you holding items on behalf of third parties? Do you have permission to digitise them, let alone make them available for future use by other parties? This is particularly relevant for items belonging to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. One of the largest challenges here, is that many collections possess items for which they don’t have ownership details. The forcible removal of Aboriginal people from their lands and subsequent government policies of removal of children from families contributed to the mis-identifying or un-identifying of items in public and private collections. If you don’t have a suitably qualified person on your staff to aid the identification of your items, you can’t even begin to approach gaining permission for digitising or use. But this is also important for other community groups and individuals. Is it appropriate to digitise very personal, private stories without permission? Would artists approve the changing-of-form which digitising involves?
  • You should also be thinking about whether open access to everything in your collection is a good idea at all. I’m not convinced that complete access is a good idea. Michael Gurstein raises some interesting questions on this.

Digitisation of a collection: acquisition

  • This is where we actually start digitising. Digitisation is a complex, demanding, labour and resource intensive process. It’d not just a matter of taking a photo of an item with a digital camera. The equipment is very expensive and requires particular skills to use. The digital files produced must be of a very high standard, and of an appropriate format. They must have longevity (ie won’t be unusable in ten years) and they are usually very large files. It’s also at this point that we see the difference between digital archiving and digitising for access. One single photo, for example, must also be reproduced in a number of different formats for public access – a smaller file for thumbnails in a catalogue, a high resolution image for sales to the public, a high resolution image of the item accompanied by colour matching tools and measuring tools and so on. Each of these files must also be tested for errors and accuracy – the colours must be perfectly matched. The scale carefully noted.
  • Creating metadata. This is where the digitising process gets complicated. You can’t simply wack a digital item ‘up on the net’ or into a box for use or preservation. All the thousands and thousands of files must be organised – for preservation, for maintenance, for error checking, for migration (where files are transformed to new formats as technology and file formats are superceded, or as publicly accessible catalogues are produced) and so on.
    This organisation is enabled by attaching metadata – information about the data object – to the digital item itself. This can’t just be one long list of details, it has to be an organised system of sets of information, all attached to one digital file. There are different sets of metadata – different sets of ‘rules’ or lists of fields for information about the item – and they can’t be applied randomly. It’s important to use standardised metadata (rather than just ones you make up yourself) for two main reasons: to allow interoperability (where your system can work with other systems – within your institution or with other institutions’) and access (either public access or access within your institution to facilitate maintenance).
    OAIS outlines a complex system for managing this organisation of the the digital files and attendant metadata. There are different types of metadata: submission information (where the digitisation process is recorded and attached to the file, noting things like file format, camera type, photographic angle, etc), descriptive information (which records all manner of things, but can also include descriptions of the original item from its author, historians or other people), technical information (regarding the file format, technology required to access the file – eg a Word .doc file will require a copy of Word to run it) and so on. Copies of the technology required to use the file may also be included as metadata. Most digital preservation systems favour open source software formats so as to avoid the IP challenges associated with this process – so using a Word .doc file is problematic.

Digitisation of a collection: Ingest

  • This is where you actually start putting your digital files into your archiving system. At this point you create a whole new set of metadata to record this stage of the process. It’s really important to create metadata as it will not only help you find your item in the archive later, it’ll also help you open it and then share it.
  • Metadata records permissions, technical information and also descriptive information. The ingest process creates metadata that is about the administration of the item within the system. It’s actually the really big and most important part of a digital archiving process. This is where the big thinking, planning and skill part happens.

Digitisation of a collection: maintenance

  • So once you’ve got your digital archive, you need to maintain it.
  • You’re going to need clever, well researched disaster recovery programs (eg what will you do if your data centre is flooded? Where do you keep multiple redundant copies of your data? What if electricity becomes too expensive for your institution to handle in the future?).
  • You’re going to need to migrate your data regularly to make sure it’s accessible. This is a problem with data in the earlier space missions – it’s stored on technology that we no longer know how to use or have the hardware to use. You need to not only migrate your data across software, but also record this process so that you have records of when data changed form and how. More metadata
  • You’re going to need ongoing funding. More of it. So you need to continually seek out funding for the maintenance of your collection.
  • You’re also going to need to manage the IP of your collection. Has copyright lapsed on an item? If so, do you still have the rights to store it or use it? Has the IP for an item changed hands, moving between generations? What are the wishes of the next generation? Has an item now become publicly usable – can you now make an item publicly available as per the wishes of its creator? If you’re managing ATSI items, how does sorry business (ie the management of items in regard to the passing away of associated persons), sacred and secret status and cultural significance affect the metadata and permissions associated with an item?
  • Repatriation and ‘returning’ items. If you do have ATSI items in your collection, how will you manage the repatriation of those items to the original owner? If you are asked to return an item to its traditional owners, how will you deal with the digital records of the item?
  • Disposal: some items must be disposed of at a certain date. This is the case with items under military or official secrets acts, personal records such as medical records and other issues. How will you handle data destruction? Do you have a schedule for these sorts of events?
  • Ongoing community access. How will your archive accommodate access to and use of the collection? Is your archive intended solely to preserve items for perpetuity? If so, why? Who are the end users you’re preserving these items for? How, when and if will you allow copies of your collection for general access? What are the terms upon which your digital collection can be used? If you are a public institution, what is the mandate of your organisation – who is your user community? This becomes an issue when you’re funded by public money and required to represent the interests of the community which funds you. Are you federally funded? State funded? Commonwealth funded? How should you make your archive available for use? What constitutes use?

All these issues are very complicated. As you can see, it takes a lot of time, money and effort to create and maintain a digital collection. The types of metadata you use will depend on the goal of your work: are you preserving for the long term? Are you interested in broader community access? In my course a distinction is made between digital preservation and digital libraries for immediate access. This distinction affects metadata strategies. To my mind, a sound digital preservation project allows for interim use as well as long term preservation.

But the challenge here is that digitisation strategies are relatively new, requiring serious institutional changes and are being developed as we go along (though you can read about NSW State Library digitisation policies here). We had a talk from a representative of the NSW State Library this semester, and he noted that for the most part they were figuring out how to do things as they went along. Though there are international standards for a range of aspects of the process, they had to figure out how to do things like manage work flows and labour; how to handle the digitisation of physically fragile items; and how to prioritise digitisation of a massive collection. In the last case, his comment was that they digitised first the items or mini-collections which attracted the most public or private sponsorship. Simply put, the items they’d digitise first were those private beneficiaries and donors considered most important. We were all aware of the difficult power and taste issues at work there.

He also made an interesting point about the way digitising was shaping the organisational structure of the NSW State Library as a whole. The vast resources required for digitising were re-working work flows and allocation of resources throughout the entire library. Digitisation was effecting the culture and goals of the organisation as a whole.

Australia’s national and state institutions’ digital activities today
Australia has actually been very foresighted in its approach to digitising cultural heritage. The National Conservation and Preservation Policy for Movable Cultural Heritage was composed in 1995. The National Library has a well-respected and quite comprehensive digital preservation policy. The National Museum also has a digital preservation policy. In fact, most national and state institutions have digital preservation policies, in part motivated by policy documents like the National Conservation and Preservation Policy for Movable Cultural Heritage Policy. I’d be curious to see the government policies for these things and to see how they’re being fulfilled (or not) today.

I’ve been really surprised by just how active our various national and state institutions are in terms of digitising and engagement with online communities and culture. The Collections Australia Network (CAN) is not only facilitating and documenting digital work by Australian cultural institutions both large and small, it is also engaged in collaborative projects overseas (with CHIN in particular). A whole range of Australian institutions are involved in digital online public access projects like the flickr commons project which works with a third party facilitator, but also with national collaborative projects like Trove.

Trove is a very interesting project because, while it administered by the National Library of Australia, it draws on the collections of a great many Australian institutions and projects. You can use Trove to search hundreds of collections and catalogues. This interoperability is facilitated by badass metadata. Simply, Trove and other tools (including the wicked mashups with google maps around the place) are enabled by hardcore metadata. And controlled vocabularies. These standardisation tools provide common languages for collections, allowing this sort of exciting collaborative work. Which is yet another reason for following the time consuming, frustrating and expensive digital preservation models like OAIS.

One of the impressive things about Australian collections online is their willingness to take up, experiment with and then move on from online projects. Picture Australia, for example, was an innovative gateway to the image collections of Australian institutions. But it will soon be dismantled in favour of (or integrated into) Trove as its technology and services are made redundant.

I’m particularly interested in the way a number of Australian digital collections employ ‘crowd sourcing’ for intellectual, technical and practical labour and community participation. Various institutions employ crowd sourced ‘tagging’ for items. No controlled vocabularies there. The Australian Newspapers Digitisation Program is particularly exciting. Basically, the NLA scans Australian newspapers then puts the files online. Here, volunteers edit the scans, correcting mistakes in the scanning. This is a truly amazing cooperative project, where a national collection works with people in the broader community to make their collection not only online but also usefully online.

Beyond these few examples, most large Australian institutions also maintain a lively online communicative space. I follow a range of organisations on twitter, from CAN to the Powerhouse Museum. Most also have blogs or regularly updated websites with comments and places for people to ask questions (there’s an interesting discussion about the Powerhouse Museum’s 80s exhibition social media strategy here). The National Museum is particularly accessible, not only making items available online, but also providing useful, skilled advice to complement the items themselves. And DINOSAURS!

I could go on on and on. But I think it’s worth noting that point that it’s not simply a matter of wacking stuff online. Sometimes access to a collection means providing assistance in using online AND face to face services. This seems particularly important in regards to the National and State Archives which are very important institutions for individuals trying to find out about their families. They’re used not only by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people tracing families, but also by migrant and refugee people. In these cases online access simply isn’t as useful on its own as it is in cooperation with skilled, culturally sensitive librarians and archivists – real, live people.

I think I’ll leave this with the comment that our museums, galleries, orchestras, opera companies and state theatres are NOT sitting on rich cultural archives that could be shared online tomorrow. No matter what the state of IP and copyright legislation.