Dealing with Problem Guys in dance classes

If you’ve ever done a lindy hop class ever, chances are you’ve come across a Problem Guy. Problem Guys are just that – problems. They interrupt the teachers. They talk while the teachers are talking. They instruct the follows in class (usually incorrectly) and they just. won’t. shut. up. They often move themselves up class levels before they’re ready. They quite often pull out lifts and other inappropriate shit on the social floor with follows who are too shy to tell them to fuck off.
They also tend to be a bit socially awkward, but not in a charming way, so men find them a bit difficult to hang about with as well. They may touch women more than they’d like (even if it’s not sexualised touch), and they’re usually not the best dancers. Sometimes they are nice people, but just totally socially clueless ones. I’d argue that it’s not possible to be entirely socially clueless and nice. Social skills are part of what make people ‘nice’, or make us feel that they’re nice. Which is why the Problem Guy is often invisible to many men – those men just aren’t on the receiving end of a lot of the Problem Guy behaviour.

There are also Problem Girls, but that is not what this post is about. I want to talk about how masculinity works in this context. We spend a lot of time policing women’s bodies and behaviour, even in feminist discourse, so I want to talk about men and masculinity. I want to talk about masculinities in dance more in the future (I do want to get back to that point about ‘styling it like a man‘ eventually as well). So this is a post about Problem Guys.

So how do you deal with them? Wait, let me rephrase that. How do I deal with them? Before I ramble on, let me say: these are strategies I use, and they may not work for you, particularly if you’re not in Australia. Because intra-scene politics, gender politics and dance cultures are quite unique. But, well, fuck, maybe they will work for you – try them! And if you’ve got other strategies – please do let me know, as I’m determined to deal with this stuff!
Please note: I do not speak for my teaching partner. This is my understanding of what we do, and I know she has lots of different ideas. So this is me talking about my thinking, and I am NOT speaking for anyone else.

We’ve had a few Problem Guys this year, and we’ve dealt with them in different ways. At first, when we were just setting up our class venue and getting shit under control, we weren’t so confident in dealing with them. But as we got it together, we got it together. I think that as two women teaching together, we found our Problem Guy challenges were not the same as those faced by most male-female teaching couples. We had to be ten times more confident, and ten times more assertive. We had to deal with poor behaviour from Problem Guys much more aggressively, and we had to do lots more work in-class to prevent Problem Guys popping up.
But shit, we’re fucking guns, we can totally pwn that shit. And so can YOU.*

What do Problem Guys do, and what are the effects of this behaviour? Or, why should you give a shit about Problem Guys?

Problem Guys:

  • Question follows and ‘instruct them’ in the class: this makes follows anxious and self-doubting. That means these women won’t come back to class (who would?), or they stay and become more anxious and self-doubting, which is fucked up, and also fucks up their dancing;
  • Problem Guy behaviour in class sets the stage for later stuff on the social dance floor or in comps where the lead can get away with mistreating the follow (rough leading, aerials without consent, etc).
  • Problem Guy behaviour towards women disempowers women dancers right from the get-go (by making them question their own dancing). This makes them quiet timid dancers, and it also means they don’t feel ok with properly expressing themselves. And this is lindy hop – that’s not how we roll – we do all the emotions!
  • Problem Guys distract women from the teachers, and this undoes the teachers’ authority, and this in turn means the class flow is disrupted. This makes for poorer learning, but it can also make for clunky, boring classes or classes with fucked up social dynamics.
  • Problem Guys often make loud, inappropriate jokes that are often a bit sexy, while the teacher is talking. These jokes are usually at the expense of the female teacher (so they may make some comment about how the lead can’t put their hand there because omgsexy, or they may joke about how the lead has to be assertive because women don’t like being told what to do.) Conversely, they may make self-depreciating jokes about how men can’t multi-task and need a woman to do that for them. Whatever it is they’re joking about, those jokes demand you respond and interact with them, and this makes them the centre of attention and distracts everyone.
  • Problem Guys clearly think they are as important or know as much as the teachers – they don’t listen to the teachers, they talk over the teachers, they instruct the students as teachers do.
  • Finally, Problem Guys take up far more than their fair share of time in class. This means poorer learning outcomes for everyone else, and a fucked up social dynamic, where everything revolves around one person, rather than around everyone else. It discourages other people from speaking up in class (because they are often interrupted or pre-empted), and it sets a bad example for other Problem Guys. Problem Guys breed more Problem Guys.

So what does all this mean? There are clear financial challenges posed by Problem Guys: they scare off students and that loses you money. There are pedagogic problems: they interrupt the teaching and learning. And there are occasionally more serious issues, where Problem Guys bully teachers and other students in a physical sense, and make them feel afraid.

So how does all this work culturally, or in terms of interpersonal politics?

Firstly, let’s note that this behaviour by Problem Guy is really quite acceptable by mainstream Australian social standards. We see this sort of behaviour in talk-back radio, on the Footy Show and in television drama. I think this is often very white, straight Australian man phenomena: they are playing out hegemonic masculinity, and our culture encourages that sort of behaviour from men. There is also a congruent dominant femininity that’s required to make this sort of masculinity work: women must be compliant, passive, sexual objects, non-confrontational ears for these men’s words. And as most of us know, it’s quite easy to make your lindy hop reflect those roles. If you’re into terrible lindy hop.

Secondly, if you’re a guy who’s not into being a problem, or a sister who doesn’t want to be an object, our culture makes it really difficult for you to get along in mainstream spaces. If you’re a guy who loves to dance with huge, flamboyant abandon, you’re not going to get a terribly positive reception in some jock straight guy bar. If you like listening to women and enjoy their company without trying to screw them, or their wearing sexytime dresses, you’re not going to feel hugely ok in a mainstream singles scene. You’re going to need to seek out alternative spaces. Lindy hop scenes can be those spaces. But those spaces need to be nurtured.

When Problem Guys come across women performing the non-traditional femininity or men performing the non-hegemonic masculinity, they tend to want to reassert the dominance of conventional gender relations. In other words, they don’t like this non-traditional stuff, so they try to fix it. Or they take advantage of what they perceive (even on an unconscious level) as a power vacuum, because they don’t recognise the other, more complex power dynamics at work in spaces with multiple types of gender going on.

So, the Problem Guy functions in three ways:

  • They disempower the women students in the class;
  • They deconstruct the power of the teachers (especially the women teachers);
  • They re-construct their own power and status in class.

This is all bad because it means we end up with frightened women dancers who have no confidence, who apologise all the time, and don’t want to express themselves or take creative risks with their dancing because #shame.
This is all bad because we end up with disorganised, malfunctioning classes where learning is interrupted or stalls completely (and students get shitty).
This is all bad because we see unpleasant people dominate what could be a very pleasant space.
All this means students leave, money stops coming in, and teachers get really frustrated and unhappy. Bad news.

Why do Problem Guys do all these things?

  • These types of men find it difficult to be students and accept the (perceived) lower status of students in a class (this is often a problem in a class that emphasises hierarchies instead of valuing students as peers);
  • They compensate by finding other ways to shore up their own status and power (to make themselves feel good): by instructing other students; by assuming they’re right all the time; by not interrogating their own assumptions about their dancing; by constantly interrupting the teachers with jokes or comments;
  • They see knowledge as a list of possessions to acquire, rather than as an ongoing, changing process;
  • They’re not challenged by teachers in class (who don’t want to cause a scene, who don’t know it’s happening, who don’t like conflict), so they’re effectively getting positive reinforcement for their behaviour.

Things we know about Problem Guys:

  • These men are often not such great dancers;
  • They don’t improve (they tend to stagnate), because they don’t accept instruction, they refuse to accept that they’re not great (they often say things like “this is just my style” or “I don’t like X’s style, I like Y’s style which I learnt years ago”, or “I don’t care about that stuff – I just want to have fun”). These men often perceive themselves as among ‘the best’ in a scene, or not having anything left to learn, or their teachers as not having anything to teach them. Because they are often quite ignorant of broader cultural and social forces, and of the nuances of partnering technique, they feel that because they’ve done all the classes or been dancing for X number of years they’re ‘finished’ with learning;
  • They see teaching, learning and dancing as hierarchal, and this hierarchy as static (ie it’s not changing). This means that they tend to assume once you’re a ‘good dancer’ you stay a good dancer, or that men are better leads than women or that there are certain ‘right’ ways of doing things;
  • They aren’t constructively self-reflexive (they can’t and don’t reflect on their own dancing in a constructive way, but they are often quite hard on themselves and inside have quite low self esteem, despite their blustering);
  • They and their behaviour is often challenged by other students in class and on the dance floor, but then these challengers avoid them (or are avoided), and the Problem Guy just dismisses these challenges as ‘bitchiness’ or ‘too serious’ or ‘stupid’;
  • These men then target younger/more vulnerable women to dance with/instruct on the social floor/bully. Because these women won’t challenge them on their behaviour and are more likely to let Problem Guys do as they want. These women often just leave dancing altogether rather than confront these guys, or they tolerate it, because they have their own issues going on.

These issues are important because they establish power dynamics that persist into a dancer’s dancing career.
These conditions enable sexual harassment (where women are encouraged to think it’s ok for men to comment on their physical person and what they do with it); they isolate women dancers and prevent them from seeking support from other women (because they’re only dancing with men).

There’s this expression: ‘threatened people respond with fight or flight, with aggression or avoidance’. Teachers and other students do the same with Problem Guys: they confront or they avoid. Most of us avoid, because confrontation isn’t something Australians do a lot of, because women tend to deal with anti-social behaviour obliquely rather than directly, and because we’re there to dance, not work. I suggest that we needn’t think of this as fight or flight. As a dear and very clever friend of mine said when I was worrying about talking to a male dancer about a Serious Dance Issue: it’s not a confrontation yet. It’s just a conversation.

What do Problem Guys need? My first response is ‘a kick up the pants and told to fuck off’. Because I am NOT here to correct this shit. Part of feminism, for me, is about not taking responsibility for men’s behaviour. I won’t accept that a man sexually harassing me is my fault because I wore a low cut blouse, and I certainly won’t accept that a Problem Guy is a problem in my scene because I wasn’t a good enough teacher.**

[related rant]
I’d also add that we need to STOP promoting our dance as ‘a return to simpler times where men were men and women were women’, because that shit attracts Problem Guys to classes in the first place. And we need to work really hard to prevent journalists writing that shit about lindy hop when they do those regular ‘what is swing?!’ human interest pieces in the local press. So we need to think carefully about how we brand lindy hop when we’re doing our promotional activities.

As a community, we need to deal with this rubbish internally, to make our scenes safer, happier places. Or even just to improve the standard of dancing in our scene, or make our classes more financially sustainable. I’ve also found that practicing these skills in a dance context, where I learn how to deal with Problem Guys in a familiar environment, is excellent practice for the rest of my life. The more experience I have dealing with this shit here, the more confident I become. These are just very useful life skills. So, you see, lindy hop and jazz dance can fight the patriarchy off the dance floor as well!

What do Problem Guys need?

  • They need assertive teaching from teachers (but this sucks as this means they get more than their fare share of attention from teachers);
  • They need to be challenged by teachers, but in a non-confrontational way;
  • They need to stop teaching others and start challenging their own dancing (which they are unlikely to do because it is scary and threatening) so they can rethink their role in our scene.

What do we actually do?
First, and most unsubtle option: confront them. Confronting students in class can be unsettling and difficult for everyone involved – teachers, Problem Guys and students. So you need to have a clear, well-thought out strategy. Both teachers need to be on the same page and supporting each other. And there needs to be a minimum of conflict. Everyone involved needs to save face, the rest of the students need to not feel embarrassed, and everyone needs to feel safe.

  • Make a script for the conversation (remember, it’s not a confrontation yet – it’s a conversation). Both teachers talk about it and know what will happen.
  • Be very clear in your own mind, and with your teaching partner, about what you want. Do you want the Problem Guy to go away and never come back? It’s ok to want this – some guys who come to dance classes are creepy, unpleasant pervs and bullies. Get rid of them. You’re not the right person to ‘change’ them, and having them in your class will scare away students. Do you want them to stop talking while you’re talking? To stop instructing the follows? Make a list, and then make these into clear, concrete requests. So rather than saying “Stop hassling the follows” say “Stop telling the follows what to do.” Keep it brief. One or three points is enough.
  • Plan out the role for both teachers for the confrontation/conversation. It’s often best to have the male teacher or lead teacher (whoever the Problem Guy will perceive as ‘most important’ – this will almost always be the guy) do the most talking, and for the other teacher to stand right there with them, clearly supporting them.
    We’ve made these sorts of plans for our class, and allocated roles according to our personalities. I’m ok with actually saying these things (though I can get pretty scared, I can do it if I know someone has my back), but my partner is not. So I do the actual speaking and my partner does the ‘moving right along’ part, where we immediately get back into the class content afterwards: I stop the group, tell the Problem Guy to stop doing whatever he’s doing, then my partner starts us off again. It’s a well-oiled process. You might like to both speak, taking turns listing requests. Or you might gradually change things up in your approach, as you develop skills, confidence and inclination. Whatever you do, make a plan first. And practice saying your script out loud. That way you’ll be cooler when you put it into play.
  • Decide where you’re going to do this talking. In front of a class is very powerful and very effective, but it can be a challenge. It’s a public forum that can make some Problem Guys extra aggressive because they’re embarrassed. And many women dealing with this sort of aggression will immediately back off.
    Margaret Atwood puts it like this: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” It’s not likely that a Problem Guy will physically attack you in class, but aggression can take other forms. No one wants to have some nutcase shouting at them in front of a class. But then some Problem Guys are far more aggressive and confrontational in private spaces, where they think they can bully and intimidate you.
    So judge your Problem Guy carefully, then choose an appropriate forum. Don’t do it in a dark car park. Maybe do it in a quieter part of the room, in sight of the group, but mostly out of ear shot. Don’t feel that you have to do it on your own to help him save face. Your teaching partner is your wing (wo)man, and you are a team. Present that way. And remember that almost all of your students will support your decision to confront Problem Guy and really appreciate your doing so.
  • Practice delivering the script with your teaching partner.
  • Finally, it’s always better to nip this stuff in the bud, and make it clear to potential Problem Guys that you are the bosses here, long before a real conflict develops. After all, the longer you let Problem Guy shit you and your class off, the more students he drives away. And the more upset you’ll get. So get in there sooner rather than later. You’ll find that thinking about Problem Guy is far more upsetting than the five seconds it’ll take to shut his shit down.

Other strategies:
As two women teaching together, we have found that some men simply don’t respect us or listen even when we address them individually. I’ve had similar experiences teaching in universities, a problem exacerbated by the face that I’ve always looked about ten years younger than I am.
So I have a range of strategies for managing Problem Guys in class: I stop talking and stare at them. I stand very close to them in class. And I even walk over and place my hand on their shoulder if they just. won’t. shut. the. fuck. up. Some guys don’t even respond to that. So, even if you do have a whole host of clever classroom management tools going on, you will find yourself needing to confront Problem Guys at some point. Yeah, I know. That’s sucktown. Why can’t they just GET IT TOGETHER? But you can do this. You can confront Problem Guys calmly, professionally and effectively. You’ve just got to trust yourself, and prepare yourself. Or: check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Other things that we do to counter the lack of respect Problem Guys have for women teachers:

  • We pitch our voices lower. Not so good for our vocal chords, but surprisingly effective.
  • Don’t accept the premise of the question, don’t argue, don’t get caught up in some crazy arse conversation mid-class. If someone’s asking you to explain what you’re doing for the eleventieth time say (kindly) “Sorry, but no, we can’t go over that again.” Don’t be all apologetic about it – just move on. If someone tries to get you into a discussion or argument, don’t buy into the content of their point, just say “We don’t have time for that now – let’s do some charleston!” and move along.
  • If Problem Guys try to physically intimidate you (and I’ve seen this happen lots of times, even to women teaching with men), shut that shit down. If men want to touch you in class (and the ‘jokey teasing’ prodding or touching is part of this) turn and say to their face “That is not ok. Stop that or leave.” This goes for students, too.
    There’s a good chance they’ll respond with “Geez, uptight bitch, much?” or “Oh, I’m so sorry! I’m so awful, I always do this, I’m so sorry! Can you forgive me?” Both these responses are about keeping them as the centre of attention, and making you respond to them. And you know what? Who cares what they say! That is not your problem. Just walk your fine self away. Do not apologise, do not try to make them feel better.
    This is when your teaching partner rocks: they just immediately move the class on to something else, preferably something quite physically vigorous. The people around you will be so impressed, and the women around you will immediately develop a massive hero crush. Be mighty, because you ARE.
  • Students, in class: if some guy won’t stop putting his hands on you, even if it seems not-sexy, and you don’t like it, tell them “Stop that”, and make sure the teacher or someone else is standing right next to you. If you can’t make that happen in earshot of someone else (these guys usually make sure no one else is around), you can just say it really loudly, at some other point. Say it in a slightly lower pitched voice, say it calmly, and not too quickly: ” STOP THAT.” Other students or your teachers will hear and be right there for you. You don’t have to wait till they touch you – just say it: “STOP TOUCHING ME.”
    If they’re doing it in a less obvious way (eg their hand on your back gets too low or too far to the side, or they stroke your hand in a creepy way) immediately call the teacher over or ask a question to the whole group: “I’m feeling some weird stuff with the back/hand connection. Can you come and help us fix it, please?” A clued-in teacher will come over, see what you’re doing, and then give the lead feed-back. If the lead keeps doing it, tell him how you do want him to touch you, and that what he’s doing is actually kind of creepy. But say it in a joke way that also sounds serious. Pitching this feedback can be tricky, so practice!
    All this goes for guys dealing with women as well.
  • Don’t let Problem Guys buy you drinks or be continually holding doors open for you as you pass through, or ‘helping’ you with your things. That’s their way of asserting their dominance. Sure, it’s great to be bought a drink by students every now and then, and of course we open doors for each other all the time. But some Problem Guys do this all the time and it’s clearly their way of asserting ‘proper’ gender relations. Don’t let them.
    It’s ok to say “No thank you!” to offers of a drink. And if they just buy you a drink regardless, turn to their face and say “No thank you, I don’t want a drink”. Don’t just ignore it, because then they’ll comment on it forever.
    In fact, you’ll often find these types of Problem Guys will not let your objection or comment rest. They’ll make comment after comment, usually along the lines of “Are you some sort of feminist?” (to which the answer is “yes” and then a turned shoulder). These sorts of guys tend to be cowardly bullies – they’ll try to publicly manage you. But be careful of them in private – don’t let them drive you home or walk you to their car or to the train. Make sure you’re not alone.

    If you’re not sure you can do this (because it feels like a confrontation, and we women are trained to be a bit afraid of confrontation), practice at home. Write a script. And tell your friends that you plan on telling this guy to stop, and tell them what you want them to do. Even if that’s to just stand there next to you, or smile and move the conversation along after you’ve said NO THANK YOU (the wing (wo)man factor again!) After a while you’ll get better at this, and you won’t need a script any more.

    I know quite a lot of women worry that if they do this sort of thing, other men (the ones they want to buy them drinks or talk to them or touch them :D ) will think they’re bitches and back off. That is so UNTRUE. If you don’t make it clear that you don’t like this sort of behaviour from Problem Guys, you’ll attract more Problem Guys. But if you make it clear that you don’t like this, you’ll find that guys who don’t treat women like that will get the ‘oh, she likes respectful guys’ vibe from you. Plus you’ll have cleared the field of Problem Guys, so that the guys you want will feel there’s room for them.
    All of this thinking is kind of bad news, though. It sets you up as an object to be admire by men – a flower attracting bees. And that’s no good. You want to BE a bee!
    If you stop worrying about attracting men, if you feel ok about dealing with Problem Guys, and focus on having fun and enjoying the company of friends (of all sexes), you’ll be feeling so awesome you’ll be able to rock in and dazzle the guy of your dreams with your pwr and he’ll be all ‘omg I would LOVE to be your boyfriend!’ WIN!

Now, if you’re a guy reading this and thinking “Gee, overreact much?” you’ve obviously never spoken to a woman. This is what it’s like to be a woman in our culture every single day. We just get used to dealing with this shit every. single. day. Every day some arsehole is telling us to ‘smile!’ or making a joke about how we need help carrying things or making an excuse to touch us in a public place, or looking us up and down or whatever.
When we become teachers, Problem Guys find having us in positions of authority really threatening, so they try to assert their own power by wearing us down. So this sort of shit actually escalates when we move into more interesting roles. It’s very tiring.****

But we don’t need men to step in and deal with this for us. In fact, that can make it worse, as it reinforces Problem Guys’ and potential Problem Guys’ idea that we aren’t as powerful as men. If you’re a guy in the class seeing Problem Guy being an arse, then you can deal with these guys in other ways. One of our students once saw Problem Guy getting told to stop talking with the stare-face, and responded with a loud “Busted!” and a big laugh. It was very jolly, we all laughed, but it made it clear to Problem Guy that other people were watching and that this shit is not ok.
It’s also totally ok for you (as a guy) to say to Problem Guy on his own or even in class in front of people “Mate, can you stop talking during class? It’s really distracting.” It’s ok for you to calmly and politely tell someone you don’t like how their behaviour is affecting you.

In fact, men telling other men that they don’t accept bullshit behaviour is a key part of making the world more awesome, and of my idea of feminism. Feminism isn’t just a job for women: it’s a job for all of us, because it’s about improving things for all of us. Even Problem Guy benefits from feminism, because it means he can chill the fuck out, stop beating himself up about not being alpha male, and just get on with learning to DANCE.

How else do we indirectly manage Problem Guys, or prevent Problem Guys?

  • Make leads (rather than follows) rotate in class. Or switch it up every other class. Rotating is unsettling, and it makes dancers have to constantly reorient themselves in the physical room. This can make leads more defensive, but it’ll also make follows more confident.
  • Use gender neutral language ALL THE TIME. The more you unsettle assumptions about leading and following and the way dancers interact, the more you discourage dodgy in-class behaviour. This is a tiny, but super-powerful tool.
  • Avoid describing leading and following as “Leads/men make the follow do this,” or right/wrong language that implies there’s only one right way of doing things. For a start, you’re wrong, and for a finish, you’re modeling poor behaviour and furnishing students with fairly crap learning tools.
  • Talk about the class room as a laboratory or place for experimenting, and encourage dancers to think about classes not as a place where you ‘acquire’ knowledge (like collecting stamps), but a place where you develop skills and explore ideas.
  • Don’t describe things as ‘rules’ or set out absolute definitions for ways of doing things. eg never say “We must always hold our arms like this,” say “If we hold our arms like this at this point, we can avoid this and make this possible. What happens if we do X instead?” And then get students to test the theory with some practice.
  • If you have leveled or streamed classes, police that shit. You need a way to tell students they’re not allowed to join the more advanced class, you need a way to tell people who’ve turned up anyway that they can’t join in, and you need a clear idea of what your levels mean. You need to publicise what’s expected of students in the more challenging classes, and you need to make it damned clear that there’s nothing wrong with doing the ‘lower’ level classes. Perhaps you need to ditch this whole concept of ‘low’ and ‘high’ and talk about these classes as teaching different material in different ways.
  • Monitor class behaviour. Pay attention to what’s happening in the room. Listen. Watch. Ask questions. And give students honest, useful feedback about their dancing that at once makes them feel awesome, and also encourages them to work hard and be self-reflexive. If you get Problem Guys in your lower classes who ignore you, boss the follows about and generally give you the shits, while still not actually doing what you need them to do in terms of dancing, you need to correct them! Let them know that that thing they just told the follow to do was wrong town. Let them know that they’re not being safe, that they’re being too rough or whatever it is. Feedback, yo – that’s what teaching’s all about! You need to move away from the idea that teachers just inject knowledge into students. It’s a process, and you need to be pro-active and self-reflexive too.
  • Model good behaviour.
  • Both the lead and follow teacher must spend equal time talking in class.
  • Lead teachers: are you interrupting the follow teacher? If you are – STOP IT. If you do – apologise, and then don’t do it again! It shows the students that you don’t think what your partner is saying is worth listening to, and it establishes you as the boss with the more important things to say.
  • Lead teachers: do you respond to your partner’s explanation of a point by paraphrasing what they say? Stop that, too. This is a tricky one, as one of the ways we do active listening, and demonstrate to our conversational partners that we’re paying attention is to paraphrase what they’re saying. This tells them we’re listening, that we understand, and that we agree. I tend to do this A LOT, and I’ve noticed that it happens way more when I’m teaching with other women than with men – women do it more (though not exclusively). But it means your students have to listen to descriptions twice (if not more, if you both get into an affirmation-spiral), and that means way too much talking and not enough dancing. Bad news!
  • Lead teachers: do you describe what the follow teacher is doing, or does the follow teacher? If you speak for the follow teacher, you are again asserting your dominance and making it clear that the follow’s body (and what they do with it) only has meaning through its relationship to the lead. This is NOT TRUE. Follows are individual hoomans, and while they are working in response to the lead, the lead is also responding to the follow. Let the follow talk!
  • Follow teachers: are you giving the follows in the class something to work on every time you do a move? Or are you just letting the lead talk to the leads about what they’re doing? If follows aren’t given tasks for their learning, they’ll get complacent (“I just have to follow and if it doesn’t work, it’s the lead’s fault”) or become passive little flowers to be moved around by the lead. Bad news!
  • Do you only teach moves where the follow spins and spins or executes a series of complicated steps while the lead remains fairly stable or in one place? If so, you are DOING IT WRONG. You’re demonstrating a poor understanding of lindy hop, but you’re also modelling a poor partnering dynamic. The follows in the class will a) become better dancers, but b) feel constantly unsure or off-balance, while the leaders a) don’t get good skills and b) develop the idea that the lead stands still while the follow carries out their leads.
  • Use steps where both partners’ contributions are built in, and an essential part of the move (eg don’t do things like say “This is the follow’s moment to shine” as though it were a one-off or special occasion thing (“Dance monkey, dance!”)).
  • Finally, remember that lindy hop is a jazz dance, with lots of improvisation. Breaking rules is part of the dance. Experimentation, improvisation and making things up is central to the dance – for both partners!
    Encourage your students to explore the full range of movement in a move, and to try as many variations as possible. And then to give each other useful feedback, and to listen to each other’s feedback. This sort of self-reflexivity will encourage students to move away from the idea of knowledge as a shopping list of items, and towards lindy hop knowledge as a constantly changing experience and relationship with others.
  • Finally, most importantly, teach solo dance. Solo dance fucks up the partner dynamic and makes it impossible for the Problem Guy to boss women dancers around. It makes women dancers more confident, and it makes it clear to Problem Guys that they haven’t learnt everything. Most Problem Guys will immediately leave your class and never come back, because solo dancing scares the shit out of them. THIS IS A GOOD THING! Problem Guys have issews, and it’s not your job to fix them.

You’ll find that Problem Guys just don’t like all this hippy stuff. They like dance classes with hierarchies and rules and proper men. So just don’t be that sort of class. Don’t create an environment that encourages rubbish behaviour. And be self-reflexive yourself.


Be confident in yourselves as teachers as well!

Finally, and most importantly:
Cherish your students. This is an important one for me. Deal with Problem Guys for your students. That can be easier than standing up to Problem Guys for your own sake.

At the end of the day, that Problem Guy who gives you the stomach-wobbles when you think about teaching classes with him in them, is really just some socially inept bully with low self esteem. You are the boss of this class. Even if you set up a lovely hippy learning laboratory, it’s your job to direct the session, to facilitate learning. And the students are ok with that – that’s why they’re there with you. And you can do this. Just make a plan with your teaching partner, make a script, practice it, deliver it. Each time you do this, you’ll get better. You’ll get more confident. And eventually you won’t need to make a script or a plan, because you’ll HAVE one!

Be mighty in the classroom, friends, because you ARE.*

*You need to say these things to yourself, ok? It’s not arrogance or bragging. It’s just being HONEST. Because Problem Guys rely on you dissing yourself. Patriarchy is made of women’s self doubt. PWR to you, sisters!

**This issue reminds me a bit of Steve Locke’s piece ‘‘Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race’, where Locke – black American man – declines to speak to an audience about race because (basicaly) he is done with this shit. So done. And that it’s time for white men to get all up on this issue and do this work. The implication is that this is their problem, so they need to deal with it.

***Ok,now you need to remind yourself that you’re awesome. If you’re holding down a regular teaching gig, you must have some serious shit going on. You’re an administrator, a teacher, a teaching partner, you liaise with venues, you handle sound gear, you plan classes, you deal with political shit. You are THE BOMB. So hug that thought to yourself and BE AWESOME.


God I write long posts. I just sit down, write ’em, then give them a quick edit. Sorry about that. It’s how I wrote my thesis. But with my thesis, I edited the thing. I don’t edit blog posts because WHO CARES. So, brace for impact, yo.

Some friends of mine have started getting together to practice solo dance. This isn’t unusual. A very large slice of my dancing friends are working on solo dance at the moment. You know why: you don’t need to find a partner, you can practice on your own, solo dance is an excellent way to improve your dancing across the board… and so on. I see quite a lot of groups of people getting together in their own time to do some of this work. The groups change and rarely last in exactly the same combination of people for more than one or two sessions. The point is not to forge a single ‘practice group’, but for a group of friends to get together on a particular day to work on something in particular, at that moment. This mutability is partly what makes the process so powerful: the structure survives as long as it is useful, and then it changes to meet its participants needs. Or it quietly fades away.

I think this self-directed learning is a very good thing. And I think, in my city, at this moment, these sorts of casual (yet quite focussed and determined) temporary creative sessions are the product of a scene which lost direction there for a minute. We didn’t have any higher level dance classes, and dancers really felt the classes they were going to weren’t focussed enough, the content wasn’t what they wanted to work on. So they made their own. I think that if our dancers’ needs had been met by classes and workshops and formal organisations, they wouldn’t have developed solutions on their own, and we would be the poorer for it.

Again, I have to say that I think this is a very, very good thing. Planning our classes for the new year (which include a new more challenging class), I was absolutely determined not to try to replace or conflict or compete with those independent projects. We really need that self-directed learning, and that sort of innovative, independent response to a challenge is a sign of a healthy community. I’m making this point because I know some teachers in some scenes perceive other classes and other learning spaces as threats, as though dancers working outside their influence were challenging their own authority or value and status as teachers and dancers. Me, I find these sorts of projects inspiring. And they remind me that I have to keep working on my own dancing and teaching if I’m going to keep up. I also think that I need to keep tinkering with my class formats if I’m to stay relevant to my students. More simply: someone else being super awesome doesn’t make you less awesome. It should inspire you to become as awesome as you can be.

So now, let me just sketch out the learning spaces in my city’s dance scene. Firstly, we have formal, weekly classes run by dance schools. Schools dominate almost every learning space in Australian lindy hop. Institutions: we have them. There are good and bad things about this. Then we have formal workshop weekends run by those schools, and featuring visiting international and occasionally interstate teachers. We also have the occasional workshop taught by visiting teachers and run by dancers in our scene. These workshops have lots in common with weekly classes: clear hierarchies of knowledge (oh boy, do lindy hoppers luuurve clear hierarchies); formal start and finish times and dates; fixed prices.
Then we have private classes, where local and visiting teachers work with dancers individually, for a much higher price than regular classes or even workshops.
We also have troupe training sessions, where members of a troupe get together to work on routines or skills. These troupes are managed schools or individuals, and are gated: they are closed to anyone not in that troupe, and troupe membership is also gated.
And then (most relevantly for this post) we have informal practice sessions run by individuals, couples or small groups to work on their own dancing. They might be working on competition material, performances, or just getting together to explore ideas or cement material from a class. This last style is the most informal, but it still requires some organisation: studios need to be booked, times need to be set, participants need to be contacted. And then the sessions themselves need to be organised, if the group is planning to work on a single project in the session.
As you can see, these practice sessions are great for developing dance skills, but they are also GREAT for developing organisational skills, professional and personal networks, and for inspiring self-reliance and creative, personalised solutions to problems. They can also be great for teaching dancers how to deal with conflict and ‘failure’. Sometimes private sessions explode in interpersonal conflict or incompetency. Learning to come back from a heinous mess is a real craft. But knowing how to prevent them is even better.

The social dance floor is another important learning space. The social dance floor allows for the informal, ‘casual’ transmission of moves between friends and dance partners. And there’s less talking, more dancing, which is solid gold for learning dance skills. When we have a large number of follows without partners (and these are always all women), we also see these groups of women getting together on the social floor to play with moves or share ideas or practice.
I want to distinguish between this type of dancing on the social floor and ‘solo dance’ on the social floor, where people move out into the dance floor to dance. In contrast, those groups on the side of the dance floor usually involve women who are open to being interrupted, whether by dance invitations or other things.

Right here I have to note: if you’re asking yourself ‘how do I tell the difference, when I want to ask someone to dance and I’m not sure whether they’d welcome the interruption?’ you need to open your eyes. If you spend a bit of time watching and learning, you’ll figure out the difference. And, of course, the most sensible solution is to wait til the end of the song, then ask the person you have your eye on: “Would you like to dance with me, or are you rocking the solo stuff instead?” If someone asks you to dance with them, and you don’t want to, it’s totally ok to say “Hey, thanks for asking, but I’m rocking this solo stuff instead.” Or even “Thanks for asking, but not right now!” That’s right, friends, it really is that simple.*

All of these learning spaces exist in a complex web of relationships and interactions. Most people are participating in more than one of these at a time, and their engagement with a single space ebbs and flows and their needs change. So, for example, I was part of a small group of women that got together to learn a solo routine, and then performed it last year at a large dance. We got together a few more times after that to work on things, but we didn’t perform together again. But that period of working and performing together galvanised our interests, and I think was an important precursor for the weekly solo class two of us teach, and for the competition entry two others put together this year. It certainly helped us develop skills (performance, choreography, practice session management, communicating ideas, developing professional relationships) and raised our profile as solo dancers. For other dancers outside the group it put solo dance into a public forum. Got it on the radar, so to speak.

The point here, is that these learning spaces and networks change. They’re not preserved for their own sake; they have to have function and use-value. Much like the dances we do, really. If they don’t have value and functional appeal, we don’t get into them. Until they do meet our needs and appeal to us.

This factor proves most difficult for institutions, which aren’t always so good at accommodating or enacting change. I think that a dance school (which runs social events, workshop weekends, provides professional networks, stimulates economic development and teaches dance) needs to be agile in its practices. It needs to be able to change.
This means that class curricula need to be adapted and developed to respond to local scene fads, interests and needs. Teachers need to be continually updating and refining their teaching skills. Economic and promotional strategies need to respond to the broader economic climate. And I think a dance school’s brand needs to be resilient and to slowly change in order to expand or focus the market. All this is really quite challenging for most dance schools, mostly because they’re run by people who are dancers first and business people second. It also takes a heap of thinking and planning and some pretty serious resources. And, most importantly, I’d argue, it demands teachers and administrators stay in close contact with the needs and interests of the dancers in the scene. Running surveys doesn’t cut it. You’ve got to be out there on the social dance floor, at competitions and performances, out at dinner and generally keeping in contact with people. And it can’t just be one person all this, as that one person’s experiences will shape their perceptions of the community. It needs to be a network of different types of people. Argh! The work! And yet – the opportunities!

Rightio, now we have an idea of (some of) the learning landscape of my city’s dance scene. There are plenty more gradations and variations, but these are the ones I want to touch on. And, of course, the ones I see and am aware of. I’m sure there are plenty more I haven’t thought of, or just don’t see, because I’m not moving in the right social circles. Dang it.

Here’s where I get to the point of this post. I have a group of male friends who are involved in what they call ‘man troupe’. The name is really a bit of a joke, but the idea is pretty cool. Male friends get together to work on dance, and women aren’t allowed. Though the ‘rule’ is that a woman can come, if she brings four men with her. Of course, occasionally a woman will go along. But seeing as how those same men are also involved in other casual practice sessions that do include women, you could argue that the difference between ‘man troupe’ and other sessions is just who turns up.
But a friend made a really interesting point the other night: man troupe is about encouraging men to do solo dance, and more importantly, to get their own skills up to the level of the women dancers in our scene. This point was made in conversation, by a couple of men involved with the group, and I realised that the goal wasn’t necessarily competition with women dancers or excluding women dancers. The goal really was to work on their own dancing, in a space where the participants have similar goals and ideas about dancing, can support and encourage each other, and push themselves and their dancing to ‘keep up’ with other dancers in our scene. Which is of course the reasoning behind most informal dance practices.
But these guys also made the point that most of the solo dancing in our scene (and in many other scenes, I’d argue), is taught and danced by women. This is true. My (female) teaching partner and I teach solo dance weekly. Previous local solo workshops have been taught by women. Even our visiting teachers teaching solo workshops have been mostly women. And when we look onto the social dance floor, there are more women than men solo dancing.

This, of course, fascinates me. Women tend to gravitate to solo dancing because they’re waiting on the side of dance floor for a partner, because their scene has too few leads. It’s also quite common for a lindy hop class to default to a ‘solo class’ if there are far too few leads in the class. And then, in a more general sense, women in our culture (the mainstream, predominantly Anglo urban Australian culture), women tend to dance more, and with a greater range of moves and steps, than men. I’ve written about the discursive and social power of women solo dancing plenty of times before, so I don’t need to go into this again. But all this means that women are more likely to be exposed to, and to take part in, solo dancing.

The gendering of this is a direct result of the way we gender leading and following. In the small block of more advanced classes this month we built solo work’ into our classes: students had to dance the basic rhythm on their own over and over. If they were standing out in the rotation because they didn’t have a partner, they had to dance through the rhythm and work on the material anyway. If they found something getting messy with their partner, they were encouraged to stop and do it on their own for a second.
I was really surprised to see just how frightening many of the leads found this. So confronted that a handful simply couldn’t do it. They just felt too self-conscious. And some simply couldn’t stay focussed, because they weren’t used to having to work on their own dancing in the focussed way that solo dance requires. They were simply too used to the familiarity and crutch of another partner.
This worried me a bit: I see this as a serious problem in our dance community. It’s bad news for gender politics (men and women can’t function independently), and for the standard of dancing in our scene (we have to be able to dance alone if we want to dance together). More specifically, it was made very clear that many of the men in the room were seriously disadvantaged by some of the prevalent teaching practices in our scene. This silly heteronormative, conventionally gendered partnership model is bad news for men and women. And their dancing.

I think the theme of this post today was crystallised by blue milk’s post ‘Boys and masculinity in young adult fiction’. There, the discussion centred on the importance of positive role models for boys in fiction. Or, to make my thinking clear, in creative practice. There’s also been some talk about the national HSC results this year, where girls topped maths and sciences for the first time. A fair proportion of the media coverage saw this as a dire tragedy, a sign of the hopeless feminisation of education and Decline Of Man. More sensible observers pointed out that boys were still over-represented in maths and sciences, and that perhaps the problem is not perceived declines in results, but in the pedagogic practices at work in our communities.

What’s this got to do with dance? Dancers need inspiration (things to aim for) and role models (who demonstrate how to do and be something). Dancers need a range of learning spaces to achieve a range of learning goals.

I’ve been quite concerned about male solo dancing role models in my scene for a while. I deliberately chose a young, athletic, ‘cool’, highly skilled male teacher for a workshop weekend a few months ago, because I wanted to provide a positive role model for the male dancers in our scene. I wanted our local male dancers to see just how cool solo dancing can be for men. I also wanted to them to see how this solo dancing informs a male lindy hopper’s dancing. And I wanted female dancers to see how this then improved their dancing experiences. And most importantly, I wanted dancers of both sexes to see how good dancing partnerships require two happy, healthy and enthusiastic partners.

Sure, I had some ideological goals (deconstructing patriarchy is important for men as well as women), but I also had some fairly mercenary ones as well. Our solo class has solid numbers, but we don’t see many men there. Probably because both of teaching are women. And because the class is dominated by women, and many men find an all-women class quite intimidating. In more general terms, I wanted to provoke our male dancers into critiquing their own dancing, and realising they can’t just rely on being one of a small group of male leads to assure their status. I wanted them to realise that if women dancers discover that solo dancing or leading is more fun than following complacent leads, they’ll do those things instead. And this would shake up the power dynamics in the scene. ‘Orsm’ is determined by dancing skills and funfactor rather than the possession of a dick.

This last point is a tricky one, because I don’t think the way to social change is through tearing people down. I think that feminism is about making things better for all of us, men and women. I didn’t want our male dancers to get down on themselves. I wanted them to feel so inspired by what they saw they decided they had to challenge themselves to become even more awesome.

I’m also very, very sure that to achieve broader cultural change within a community (ie to undo rubbish gender shit, to revitalise a scene, and to encourage exciting creative work), we need diversity in cultural practice. Lots of people have to be working in lots of different ways. And that they shouldn’t all be agreeing with each other. We need (friendly) conflict, critical engagement and even competition (physical as well as ideological) as well concerted effort to provoke people’s efforts.
I also think that this work has to be happening in different spaces and discourses. It has to be both self-directed, independent, tactical (in de Certeau’s sense) and institutional or strategic. I know we’re supposed to be sceptical of institutions in socialist feminist discourse, but I’m also a pragmatist. Institutions, with their centralised discourse, are very powerful tools for communicating ideas and initiating change.

Lots of people have asked me why I began teaching with a big dance school, particularly a school with a less than savory reputation. And my answer is that I’ve done all that independent, non-profit work in volunteer committees, and they’re sure as fuck not bastions of egalitarianism and equality. I also felt that I could be more productive and do what I need to do with the resources of a well-organised, fairly formally structured group. I’m also a bit tired of working for free. Dance projects need to be socially sustainable, but being socially sustainable also means be financially sustainable. Losing money or having no money is stressful, and a stressed out worker eventually gives up. I’m also fairly impatient with the bullshit idea that people should work for free in dance scenes ‘for the good of the community’ or as an act of historical preservation. Fuck that shit. Those exploited workers are the community, goddamnit.

Finally, my feeling is, as always, that if something shits you, you have a few options: bitch about it, then get over it; bitch about it, then walk away; bitch about it, then DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. That last one is usually the option I take. I don’t have a lot of patience for dancers who complain and complain and complain about the terrible DJing, the lack of quality classes, the awful social dances, the terrible pay rates, etcetera, etcetera and then DON’T do anything about it. If we all just bitch and bitch and then just stew in our own shittiness, we’ll just get miserable and useless. For women dealing with bullshit gender politics, if we concentrate on bitching about things and then don’t follow up with action, we are participating in our own disempowerment.

What do I mean by ‘do something’? I don’t mean that you then have to go out and run your own dance events to fix the problem. Most of us don’t have the resources to do that. There are plenty of other, more achievable and more satisfying ways to be a power for good in your local community. I’ve found that it’s far more productive to back up all my rants about gender politics in the dance scene by learning to lead and then getting out there and leading. Every time people see me – a woman! – leading, I change things. Particularly if I’m having fun and it shows. It’s even easier for me to back up my opinions by encouraging other people who’re doing interesting things.

Don’t like the music? Learn to DJ. Tired of DJed music at dances? Find good bands, then tell people about them, take your friends to see and dance to them. Shitty about that lead who continually throws new women dancers into the air? Call him on his bullshit! Or, much more usefully (because those fuckwits never get the message), get in there and dance with those women dancers yourself! That way they’re less likely to tolerate fucked up bullshit from those leads that hurts and frightens and embarrasses them. And those idiot fuckwit leads will see some good role modeling and won’t have a chance to exploit their position as ‘an accessible lead’ with awful behaviour.

One of my favourite – and perhaps the most powerful – forces for change in a dance scene is the social lubricant. Walking up to people and saying ‘hi’, asking your students to dance, organising pre-dancing dinners, inviting people to work on dance stuff with you, thanking the band at the end of their set, sending a quick email to tell an organiser you loved their work, responding to general email requests for help (even if you just say ‘sorry but I can’t’), throwing yourself into a competition, planning a performance…. all that stuff is super powerful. It’s the sort of tactical, on-the-ground, grassroots force for change that really makes a difference.

And do things like man troupe. Man troupe is an exciting, practical tactic for enacting social and cultural change.

To sum all this up, then…
I think dance communities need diversity to be truly creative and dynamic. If there’s one thing evolutionary theory can teach us, its that robust communities require randomness (the mutation that provides that characteristic that helps us survive environmental change) and ‘genetic’ diversity. If we all look and think and dance the same, we’re not creative. We should all just give up and go do aerobics.

Someone else’s success does not diminish your own. Just because person X is a brilliant dancer, don’t mean that you’re less a dancer. Stop comparing yourself to other people and start celebrating other people’s successes. Take their achievement as inspiration and motivation. Work to achieve good outcomes for everyone.

Try something yourself, rather than waiting for a solution to be sold to you. This is where capitalism in dance sucks arse. You don’t need to wait for your teacher/school to give/sell you a solution to your problems. You can totally fix this yourself. Complain and bitch if you’re cranky, but then step up and get shit done yourself.

One of my favourite things about the international lindy hop scene is that learning is absolutely central. Whether you’re doing classes or figuring out how your body works.

Learning: it’s good. As we say in my house, “Don’t deny knowledge!”

*I don’t like to sexualise partner dancing, but there are parallels between sexual consent and asking someone to dance respectfully, and than accepting a polite ‘no thankyou’ gracefully. If we condition women in our scene to never say no, and we condition men in our scene to assume a woman will never say no, we’re setting up some pretty horrible power dynamics.

Basically, expecting someone to just say yes to your dance invite, whether they want to dance with you or not, is a lack of respect for that person. You don’t respect their right to make decisions about their own body. In our culture, this is gendered. Women are expected to be grateful for a man’s attention. We’re expected to drop everything when a man asks us to dance, and be grateful for the attention. Men are encouraged to assume a woman will say yes to a dance invite, even if they don’t want to dance with them. This is why I hate the ‘never say no to a dance invite’ bullshit that circulates in the lindy hop world. Damn right you can say no! And you know what? Some people just don’t want to dance with you, and you need to respect that. But you have to keep asking. Because being asked to dance is really good for the ego. As blue milk writes asking for consent is sexy. And while people say no sometimes, they also say YES sometimes.

This is also why I’m a big fan of solo dance, women learning to lead, and women being exposed to respectful, talented male dancers. Women need to know that the most important thing in lindy hop is not dancing with a man/leads. The most important thing in lindy hop is fun and pleasure and creativity and all that wonderful stuff. And all this is why I goddamn hate that mime-invitation-to-dance. USE YOUR WORDS, DAMMIT!

(Unless you don’t speak the local language or you’re asking someone to dance and don’t speak their language. Then it’s ok.)

a bit of dance nerdery

One of the most useful concepts I’ve been working on this year in dancing is the idea of layers or different types of connection.
It’s something I’ve been working on for, oh, I don’t know MY ENTIRE DANCING CAREER, but this year it’s been extra fascinating.

Basically, you assume that connection has to have varying degrees of intensity. So you might have – at your extreme – zero connection, where you’re not even touching. But then you the opposite end of the spectrum is where you have a really heavy, strong, intense connection. The rubber band is a brilliant little metaphor or thinking tool for this. Connection is a flexible, stretchy concept, just like a rubber band, just like a healthy body.

So you don’t just have ‘a connection’, you have connection with a partner which is constantly shifting and changing. And that’s different with every partner.

Now, I think that if you’ve been dancing for even a few years or are halfway observant, you’ll notice that all your partners feel different. I think follows notice it more than leads if the leads have been learning in a scene where the alpha leads emphasise a simple, un-nuanced approach to leading: follow do what lead tells you to!
Follows figure out that each lead feels different, and communicates their leads in a different way. Any halfway insightful lead notices that each follow feels different. Though you’d be surprised how common it is for leads to have learnt to dance thinking that the lines of communication only travel in one direction.

At any rate, this whole idea is fascinating, because it presupposes a flexible, mutable, changing ‘frame’.
I hate the term ‘frame’ because it implies – to nondancers – a fixed or concrete way of holding your body and connecting that body to your partner. The accompanying mental image is of a picture frame, or the frame of a chair or bed or piece of furniture or a house. That’s the silliest thing ever. We all know, if we’ve ever spent a day at the computer, that holding one position for a long time is BAD NEWS for your body.
To dancers beginning to learn about connection, this concept of ‘frame’ shapes their understanding of ‘connection’ – it also assumes that connection happens in one way, that there’s a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and that variations aren’t possible.

So I don’t like the term ‘frame’ and I don’t use it.

I think that using varying intensities of connection is important not only for good leading, but also for encouraging follows to listen to their lead. A lead who only uses the ‘strong’ setting is shouting at their follow, and when people shout at us, we either stop listening, or we shout back. What’s good about that? Nothing.

I’m fairly certain it drives our students absolutely nuts, but we don’t have hard and fast rules for a lot of things in our classes.
When they ask us “How do we change the hand hold after a turn?” we say things like ‘just keep your hands relaxed and flexible (‘soft hands’), and it will naturally turn out ok. If you end up with a weirdo hand hold, just change it.’ That last part always kind of blows their minds. It really is that simple – if it’s weirdo, change it.
I know they’d prefer a clear set of rules for hand holding. But our only real rule is ‘don’t hurt yourself or your partner, respect each other, and chill out, yo.’ That last part is about doing more with less. Relax your hands, because tight, scrunched up hands hurt. And are, incidentally, harder to dance with. If we are being specific, we also like to use the idea that holding hands with your partner should be like walking down the street holding hands with someone you care about. If you’re leading, you might imagine yourself walking with your nanna, who’s still her own person, but might need some direction. Either way, you don’t squeeze, you don’t manhandle them around, you don’t yank. You keep a nice relaxed, but firm hand hold. And you stop to look at interesting things.

We also get questions about our arms. The other night a student asked “But what about spaghetti arms?” and I wanted to say “THROW THAT WORD AWAY!” because it’s not helpful because it suggests that totally relaxed arms are a badnaughtywrong, and it doesn’t account for the way our bodies respond to taking a step away from our partner when we both have totally relaxed arms.
But instead I had to find a way to say ‘that idea of an absolute value for connection isn’t useful. We don’t look for a single muscle ‘tone’ or degree of hardness or softness in the arm. We look for varying muscle recruitment and use – we use what we need for the circumstances and no more.’ But that’s not a helpful response to a student who’s trying really hard to figure out how they and their partners should feel. I can’t remember what I said. I’m fairly sure I said too much, which is my main failing as a teacher. Just. Stop. Talking. It was something I grappled with in tutoring as well.

I’ve also had a student ask “Are you going to tell the follows to make sure their elbows are in front of their hips?” when we were teaching sugar pushes. And I replied ‘we don’t need to make that rule. Lets see what happens if we let our elbows go back behind our bodies’ and we did, and most of the students realised (hopefully), that what happens when you just let your elbows go back behind your body, is that you just end up bumping torsos. Which is hardly a bad thing.

Hopefully they also learnt that so long as we’re not hurting ourselves, it’s ok to experiment with this stuff. I know that that student wanted me to tell him that there’s a rule for arms in sugar pushes, because that’s how he’d been taught. And the follows not following that rule was making it difficult for him to ‘lead’. But I know that sugar pushes come in all shapes and sizes and intensities and durations, so it’s not really helpful to have a ‘rule’ about our elbows that might limit these possibilities. I also know that asking about ‘elbows’ and wanting a ‘locked’ joint (which is a consequence of that sort of rule) is evidence that a dancer doesn’t understand how compression works. It also suggests that that student likes the ‘on/off’ extreme intensities approach to connection.

I know that a lot of leads find follows who employ more graduated and subtle scales for connection frustration. They ‘feel floppy’. And I know that a lot of teachers warn students (especially follows) about straightening their arms to full extension. My feeling here, is that full extension is totally 100% ok. The problem comes when that full extension is followed by a collapsing of the shoulder, or a locking of the shoulder, as the follow tries to protect themselves. Or just as worryingly, a hyperflexing of the elbow because the muscles in the arm aren’t turning on properly to do the work, and the elbow joint ends up overloaded.

The problem is that the follow’s muscles in the shoulder and torso aren’t turning on properly. And that means that their armies and shoulders aren’t connecting up to their centres (to all the other muscles and things in their lower torsos).

…what I’m trying to say, is that the fully extended arm isn’t a problem in itself. It’s the relationship between muscles and bones and things, in specific circumstances that can be problematic. But we can’t make hard and fast rules for all these circumstances. We can only work for efficient, strong muscles that turn on when they’re needed and aren’t recruited when they’re not.

This is something that I struggle with. It wasn’t until I had a shoulder injury (bursitis + rotator cuff asplosion last year) and had to do physio exercises that I realised I’d never actually followed properly before. In 12 years. No proper following. Once I learnt how to turn on and off these muscles, I suddenly felt a million times more responsive as a follow, and I actually felt my centre connect up with my arm. This is a problem I’ve had in my right shoulder, but not my left, which is partly because of those dodgy bits that led to an injury, but also because of lifestyle (I’m right handed and use a mouse right handed). It also explains why I’ve found leading a lot easier to get on top of, and to understand. Needless to say, I was so frustrated with myself for not figuring out how my body worked earlier, and yet also massively determined to learn more. There was also a fair bit of delight: I was amazed and delighted by this insight.

At the end of the day, all this talk about arms is really evidence of a profound misunderstanding of how connection – leading and following – work. The arms aren’t the message. They are one part in a communications system. The important action is in your torso. Your core. Your glutes, abs, pelvis, lower back… all that lovely stuff. I’m a strong believer in using bounce to turn on the core, and turn off the arms. If you aren’t bouncing, you are far, far more likely to be over-recruiting your arms, shoulders… all the parts of you that shouldn’t be working that hard. I’m also something of an evangelist when it comes to footwork and clear weight changes. Bouncing is a key part of clear weight changes (and if not bounce, then the more west coast swing type pulse – the turning on and off, collecting and relaxing of the core) is super massively important. It’s important for making your body work efficiently, but it’s also important for sending clear signals to your partner.
I don’t like to distinguish between ‘arm leads’ and ‘body leads’, because I don’t think it’s that simple. How the fuck do you communicate a body lead through just a held hand, if you don’t use your arms? It’s at once far more complicated, and far simpler than dividing leads into ‘body’ and ‘arm’ leads. Our bodies are a system, and we need to think about them that way. Not as chopped up, separate sections.

All of this thinking about physiology and biomechanics really goes hand in hand with an ‘experiment with movement’ and ‘don’t make hard rules’ approach to learning dance. We all have different bodies and different physical abilities, so we need to explore our own abilities. And as we get fitter or less fit, these abilities change. If someone gives us a hard and fast ‘rule’ about our elbows or whatevs, then we stop our learning before we get to our own limits. We don’t get to experience everything that we are capable of. The parallels with thinking, ideology and ideas in learning are obvious.

Finally, the opportunities for injury in lindy hop are many and varied. And there are some important ‘rules’ that I stick to.

1. Respect yourself, respect your partner. That means listen to your partner, listen to your body and your own feelings, and tell your partner how you feel. It also means don’t do silly things like yank on someone’s arm like it’s a lawn mower starter. It also means watch, pay attention, and listen.

2. Relaxed muscles are as important as active muscles. But knowing which muscles need to be on, and which need to be off is a matter of trial and error, and then training and learning. Understanding how a body works is very important, and being aware of what your own body is doing – when you’re a teacher – is essential. This is where physios rock, and 90% of lindy hop teachers suck.

3. Experiment. What feels bad? What feels good? How far can you reach? How far can you bend?
Teachers should encourage students to ask questions, and teachers should avoid using ultimatums or finite answers. Why do you do things that way? What happens if you do something new? What is possible? Most importantly, what brings you joy? Which movements feel just THE BEST?

4. Warm up and warm down. Don’t leap into dancing cold and, and don’t put your tools away dirty. Stretch regularly and learn to listen to your body’s limitations, and to be wary of adrenaline masking pain. Doing some strength training and proper stretching training is absolutely essential.
All dance classes should incorporate warm ups and encourage students to take up maintenance type exercise to prevent injury.

I wish I was better at this stuff. I wish I’d started doing pilates or yoga when I was a teenager. I feel as though I’m forever rushing to catch up, and that there’s something amazing to be learnt about my body just around the corner. This is why I try to be as open to new ideas about dance as possible. Even when it’s new and a bit threatening to my preconceptions. Learn more things. Become bigger.


Little Big Weekend with Ramona, originally uploaded by dogpossum.

I’m putting together The Little Big Weekend with Ramona for the 1st/2nd of December here in Sydney. We’ll be hosting the lovely and badass Ramona Staffeld, who’ll be teaching a day of workshops on the Saturday.
That evening there’ll be the SP Christmas party with Geoff Bull and the Finer Cuts (the band that wowed dancers on the Friday night of SLX a few weeks ago), and then a late night Speakeasy party.

Plans for the Speakeasy are still rumbling along, but another business time jazz jam style battle is planned, and there are hopes for a band. The business time jam is an open ‘competition’ (in the least competitive sense of the word), where dancers enter the jam as solo teams, alone, as lindy hop partners – whatever – dance as long as they need to, then get out. The audience judges, and last time there was a real prize (a signed copy of Frankie Manning’s autobiography). Speakeasy is run by a bunch of volunteers and its profits are stuffed back into the kitty for future events. The parties always feature delicious food (caek, etc – of a very high, home-baked standard), and dancers are encouraged to byo drinks.

On the Sunday we’re looking at a teacher training workshop (for dancers who are currently teaching – drop me a line if you’re interested in attending), focussing on all sorts of dancing, not just solo dance. And then we’ll wander down to either East Sydney or Unity Hall or somewhere else nice for a bit of live music and social dancing and beerz.

Prices will be reasonable, classes will be top shelf, social dancing will be fun. Though we’re focussing mostly on catering to the needs of local dancers (solo jazz is madpopular atm), if you’re interstate or visiting from overseas and looking for a nice little chaser for MLX, why not join us?

The ordinaryness of the everyday and blues dance

In a post on FB, Chris asks

Charm’s Question of the 1st of June:
Blues dance draws from a rich cultural well, a constant evolution of the dance and rapid socio-economic changes.

What elements of vintage Blues dance culture (sordid and scandalous though they may be) need to be incorporated into the modern dance form while coupled with more professional dance training?

Disappointingly, I think I’m more interested in children’s rhyming songs, skipping ropes and household chores.

I read this as I was writing that last post The Rules of Connection: I think about pedagogy, lindy hop and ideology, so I ended up replying to Chris with this fairly off-topic and annoyingly preachy comment:

I have some troubles with the way ‘professional dance training’ is often defined or practiced.
I don’t accept the premise of this question: that ‘professional dance training’ (as it is defined and practiced in most of the modern swing/blues/whatevs world) is an integral part of blues dancing or learning to dance. I’d probably ask ‘how might dance pedagogy and learning dance (the two are not necessarily codependent) today draw on the history of blues dance (and music)?’ or, in SamTalk: “What can I use from the history of blues dance to become a moar orsm dancer?”

I’m actually very interested in dance as a point on continuum of everyday rhythmic movement, rooted in history and culture (which I think dance is often separated from by ‘professional dance training’).
So I like to chase down ideas about moving your body in rhythmic ways which aren’t necessarily dancing. It’s about training your brain and training your body.
eg I think this video is a good tool for thinking about and physically learning about rhythm, swing, delay, etc:
This one for thinking about rhythm, timing and performance:
Or this one for ideas about rhythm, partnership and athleticism:

It’s an interesting question, because it’s actually asking (I think):

How can we use history (of blues dance and music) in modern teaching practice?

Which is almost exactly the question I ended up asking in that last post (The Rules of Connection: I think about pedagogy, lindy hop and ideology). How do we use history in modern dance teaching? This is something I’ve written heaps about. Heaps and heaps. I’ve gotten angry about the way some dancers and teachers insist on male/female partnerships because ‘that’s how it was in the old days’ (yes, there were male/female partnerships in the old days, but ALSO LOTS OF SAME SEX PARTNERSHIPS). I’ve gotten angry about dancers and teachers insisting that we should wear vintage clothing (shoes, dresses, suits, whatEver) because ‘that’s how it was in the olden days’ and ‘it makes you dance more better’. My standard response, at a higher level is ‘I can dig historical stuff, but I don’t want to recreate all of the history. I like having access to a good doctor, a dentist, clean drinking water, the right to own property and fucking awesome running shoes.

So I reckon we can assume that ‘just recreating’ the past isn’t really what we want to do. Well, it’s not what I want to do. That last post began to explore how I think about using history in teaching actual dance movements: I am unsure and still figuring things out.

As a dancer myself, I use historic photos, stories, footage and music to help me think about how to move my body, and what my body looks like.

  • In Things I want to talk about: #dance I mentioned the way I use historical dance to empower me, as a woman dancer.
  • I’ve started thinking about costume (specifically wearing menswear, as a woman) lately in posts like Totes dandy worthy, right? (helped along by fellow dandy-philes and peeps like lindy shopper who did this sweet post How to be a lady dandy).
  • I talked about learning solo dance as empowering in I vant to be alone.
  • And I found the Women’s History Month posts from 2011 very exciting, because they gave me a chance to focus on women dancers through history, finding excellent role models, but also excellent examples of different types of dancing bodies to learn from.
  • And then I’m really into copying male dancers (like Al Minns or Frankie Manning) as a way of playing with gender as a woman.
  • I’m also 100% into learning historic solo jazz routines, not only to develop my dancing skills, but also to furnish me with a wider, more historically grounded repertoire of moves. And these moves, of course, teach me how to move, and how to think about movement in more sophisticated ways. Mostly because, those olden days dancers? They were fucking hardcore, and everything we do today is pissweak in comparison.

In all these examples, historical footage, photos and stories are really important to how I think about learning to dance, how I think about choreography, how I think about music and how I think about getting DOWN on the dance floor. I can borrow from history (textual poaching, yo!), but I don’t have to seek to recreate it exactly.

So in that response to Chris’s question on FB, I wanted to side-step a discussion of formal teaching processes by referring to LeeEllen Friedland’s discussion of a continuum of cultural practice.

I can’t find a copy of her article online, so I had to look it up in my thesis notes. This is what I wrote about learning to dance in vernacular dance cultures:

In vernacular dance culture, acquiring dance knowledge and learning to dance, developing “new steps” and becoming conversant with dance floor politics is not a formal process conducted in dance studios, but a matter of acquiring life skills particular to a community. Sheenagh Pietrobruno argues that vernacular dance is created in a “lived context”, and is:

not formally learned but…passed on from generation to generation. Most people who grow up with the dance acquire it in childhood, its movements often taught indirectly through the corporeal language of the body, so that those raised with the dance may not have a sense that they have learned it. Dancing usually is done to music: there is no separation between the rhythm of the music and the steps of the dance (1).

Pietrobruno’s discussion of salsa is equally relevant to a discussion of African American vernacular dance, particularly as salsa – as a Cuban-identified dance – has strong cultural links with African American dance, as do many other vernacular dances of the Americas.

Pietrobruno introduces her discussion of teaching and learning salsa in Montreal by emphasising the position of vernacular dance within the everyday, and learning to dance as an everyday activity, rather than a ‘special’ event bracketed off into designated dance spaces. In this way vernacular dance across cultures is bound to live music and other vernacular cultural practice, it is communicated across generations and it is an extension of ‘wider cultural expression’:

The salsa that develops in a lived context involves more than a series of steps and turns: dancers execute movements with their entire bodies. The subtle, but essential elements of the dance, such as how dancers hold their bodies, move their heads, position their hands and isolate various body parts are rooted in motor control and movements that are extensions of wider cultural expression…A child may be formally taught specific footwork and turn patterns of salsa, but picks up body isolations by experiencing the family dance culture, similar to acquiring everyday gestures. Although these subtle separations of parts of the body may seem effortless to the outside viewer, their performance involves a great deal of skill and dexterity. Individuals of Latin descent, who are dispersed throughout the Americas, often learn the dance as an extension of their heritage (1).

Learning to dance in a vernacular dance culture is a process akin to learning to speak. Children acquire ‘vocabulary’ – dance moves – through imitating adults, through play, and everyday activities. The process of gaining discursive proficiency requires constant and everyday experiments with communication. Families, peers, and other groups and individuals in day to day life contribute to a child’s acquisition of dance skills.

Friedland explores the acquisition of dance skills in vernacular dance culture in greater depth in her article “Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance”, where she discusses the role of dance in urban black children’s lives in Philadelphia. Though researched in the 1970s and 80s, Friedland’s work is as applicable to communities of dancers in the 1930s in Harlem as it is to black dance culture in Los Angeles today. Friedland makes several key points in her work. Firstly, and most importantly, she states that dance in African American communities is not segregated from everyday activity. Dance movement itself is part of a “complex of interrelated communicative and expressive systems that constitute a whole world of artistic performance” (138). These systems include body movement, sound (including music), visual forms (including drawing and wall art, costume and hair style), language (including slang, rap and poetry) and ‘attitude’ (including ethics, creativity, aesthetics and social behaviour). Participating in all these systems is central to black children’s lives, Friedland argues, and is, it is implied, equally as important to black adults.

This continuum of creative cultural practice, and the continuity of themes and interpretive and creative practices across media and practices is reflected in the cultural practices of contemporary swing dance communities. Study of contemporary swing dance culture suggests that the older a community, the more varied its inter-community networks, the more diverse its borrowing from other cultures, the more sophisticated its own cultural practices and shared systems of meaning. This point has directed my attention towards DJing, audio-visual media and dance pedagogy in contemporary swing dance culture, as an exploration of the ideological relationships between cultural practices and media use in a particular community. As Friedland suggests, systems of meaning in dance are not discrete. They are constructed intertextually, echoing broader ideological and discursive structures within that community.

It is therefore unsurprising to find vernacular dance, as part of a system of cultural practices connected by ideology and social networks, is not only ‘performed’ on stages, but also in competitions or even on the dance floors of balls or social dances. Friedland makes her second, and perhaps most important point, that dance and dance movement are part of everyday life and movement in vernacular dance, and that dance carries with it social and cultural meanings and relationships. Both Friedland and Pietrobruno therefore argue that ways of dancing are extensions of cultural ways of being. Friedland in particular extends Pietrobruno’s point that dance “movements …are extensions of wider cultural expression” (Pietrobruno 1). The discussion of dance movement as a subclass or an extension of the notion of ‘dancing’ in Friedland’s work encourages us to expand our conception of ‘dance’. Movement – ‘body language’ – is not simply a visual illustration of spoken language. Dance and rhythmic movement are part of a wider system of cultural production and communication as viable discourse and communication in themselves.

Dance and rhythmic movement are therefore as important in the African American culture Friedland describes as spoken and written language is in mainstream Australian culture. She discusses a range of categories of dance movement, from ‘being rhythmic’, to ‘dancing’ and ‘movement play’. These categories are seen as testing grounds for children’s developing ‘dance’ or ‘movement’ repertoire, and concurrently, their social and cultural repertoires. Friedland discusses black children’s ‘learning to dance’ as a process of enculturation, where children are not only taught formal steps from older children and adults, but also encouraged to move in particular ways, and to read the movements of others on particular terms. This approach encourages us to think of dance and movement not as innate or essential abilities, but as learned cultural expressions.

The mythic association of African Americans with ‘natural rhythm’ and expressions like ‘white men can’t jump’ (as discussed in Jade Boyd’s article “Dance, Culture, and Popular Film: Considering Representations in Save the Last Dance”) are reframed by Friedland’s work as racialised, essentialist statements about ethnic identity and culture. Dance discourse and ways of moving are learnt rather than innate. They are culturally determined. With this in mind, we can draw on a range of dance studies literature to make observations about how dance movement and dance culture cross-culturally function as discourse.

So, with all that in mind, I figure that to really understand blues and lindy hop and all those historical dances, you really have to think about everyday cultural context. As a white, middle class woman living in Sydney in the 21st century, I’m never going to be able to truly recreate those original cultural conditions. And it’s a bit silly to try, as I don’t want to, not even if it meant becoming a brilliant dancer. But it does mean that I’m very interested in childrens’ games and videos like Stop Clap Go:

I’m also interested in adaptations of children’s games like doubledutch in a postcolonial/multicultural/disapora context:


And I think we can learn useful things about rhythm from everyday movements and activities:


Friedland, LeeEllen. “Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance.” Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance. Ed. Brenda Farnell. London: Scarecrow Press, 1995. 136 – 57.

Pietrobruno, Sheenagh. “Embodying Canadian Multiculturalism: The Case of Salsa Dancing in Montreal.” Revista mexicana de estudios canadienses, Vol. verano, No. 3, Jan. 2002, pp. 23-56.

Things I want to talk about: #dance

Things I don’t have time to write about, but want to:

1. Creating your own personal flava flave as a dancer. Not in the sense of ‘finding your own style’, but in the sense of finding your unique body part/shape/movement/whatever, refining and exaggerating it. I want to talk about this in terms of gender and bodies, because in lindy hop women feel pressured to become invisible – to become yet another skinny, white, conventionally attractive, made-up, ordinarily-fashionable bit of scenery. I think it’s far more exciting for each of us, as dancers, to really look at our bodies and the way we move, to pay attention to the things we love doing, and to work from there. Rather than letting our eyes slide past the body part that makes us unique because it feels ‘too big’ or ‘too small’ or ‘too fat’ or ‘too skinny’ or ‘too not like everyone else’, we should try to look at it. We should really look at our body, and the things that make it unique. And we should try to emphasise those ‘too not like everyone else’ parts with movements and framing and rhythm. Because it is those things that make us memorable.

Women are encouraged to become invisible in our culture. Jazz dance – real jazz dances – requires the unusual. It asks us to become memorable.

(Snake Hips Tucker)

(Bessie Smith)

Josephine Baker)

2. Teaching dance using interesting approaches. This is a big one, but basically I want to spend some time thinking through teaching practice for dance. I am heartily tired of the ‘chalk and talk’ approach to teaching. It’s rubbish in universities, it’s rubbish in dance classes. It sets up stupid hierarchies that ultimately benefit no one and produce ordinary, unimaginative dancers.

I also want to talk about teaching groups where students have different levels of skill and experience. There’s this insistence in dance that we must teach classes of particular levels, at though every class of ‘beginners’ or ‘intermediates’ or whatever the fuck you decide to call them (because these words really have nothing to do with the students themselves) were a homogenous blob of boringness. No! Every single class is made up of people with different skills and abilities. And it does us all a disservice to teach as though they weren’t.

I want to look at alternatives to the ‘teacher pair’ model as well.

And in relation to all this, I want to talk about the challenges of marketing dance classes that don’t conform to these conventions.

But no time, no time! ARGH!

Women’s History Month: some thoughts at day 6

It’s women’s history month again, and I’m listing a different woman musician from the first half of the century every day (as I explain here). Last year I did a different woman dancer every day, and that was super great fun. I’m enjoying the women musicians, but I haven’t really had a chance to research or push myself, as I’ve been away at a dance event for most of this month. And today, I’m still feeling a little tired and rough, so I’m not really ready to push myself. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.

I did decide in that first post of the month that I’d only dance as a lead this month, as a way of exploring International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month and what it means to be a woman dancing. Well, actually, I just decided that on a whim, without much thinking at all. I don’t follow much these days as I’m really trying to get my leading up to snuff, and the best way to get better at dancing is to dance. And as every lead knows, the real challenge comes on the social dance floor, when you need to come up with a series of moves, connect with your partner and attempt some sort of creativity all at the same time.
We won’t even mention the battle to maintain the fitness and aerobic capacity lindy hop demands.

I have to say, it hasn’t been hard, because I get to dance with amazing dancers, most of whom are my friends. And I’ve learnt so much in the past month or two it’s kind of scary – I suddenly find myself stretching and expanding my skills, pushing myself to try things that I’d never have tried before. But it’s certainly meant a bit of rethinking the way I operate socially at exchanges and dance weekends. My weekend pretty much felt like this:

I mean, the biggest change for me this past weekend in Melbourne was simply spending very little time with men. I have lots of lovely male friends, but I only danced with two of them this weekends, and I discovered that I just didn’t end up spending as much time catching up with blokes as I usually do. :( I think that’s mostly because I’d be chatting to some chicks, and then a song would start and one of them, or I would say “let’s dance!” and then we would, and then afterwards I’d end up mixing with chicks and chatting. Rinse repeat. This of course means that the men in the dancing scene need to man up and start with the following, because I refuse to miss out on their dancing wonderfulness! Good thing Keith and I got to DJ together, or I’d hardly have spent any quality time with a bloke at all this weekend. And that is UNACCEPTABLE.

Workshops on Sunday were fun. I learnt a LOT. And I did a private class with Ramona on Friday, which kind of broke my dancing for a bit, and then suddenly it all came back together and I was a dancing machine on Saturday night. Blues dancing: still a bit too dull for me atm. But then, only boring people are bored, and that’s doubly true of dancers – only a boring lead is bored. I need to woman up.

The DJ Dual with Keith went really well. In fact, I had the most fun DJing I’ve had in ages and ages. We ended up trading three songs until the last moment when we played alternative songs. I think we would have liked to continue for another hour or so, trading single songs, as we got more confident and figured out the skills and tactics we needed. But we’d been DJing for an hour and a half by then, so we might’ve gotten a bit tired. And I had to go in the jack and jill, and I’m not sure it would have been ok for me to DJ the competition I was in. Overall, it was nice to have a bit of a challenge, and it was nice to work with a friend I like and have lots in common with musically. But he is a bit of a sly dog, and wouldn’t tell me what he was playing next, most of the time, so I had to keep on my toes. But that was actually even more fun. DJ Dual: LIKE.

NB There were THREE women leads in the jack and jill competition, and one got through to the finals (in a group of six leads)!!11!1 That photo above is one I lifted from Faceplant – sorry I can’t remember whose it was. It’s of the J&J, I’m in there, and so is at least one of the other female leads.


I ended up catching up with lots of internet friends over the weekend as well. Which is always a bit of a push, but well worth it. The best part was walking into a cafe, saying “Hello, I’m Sam, nice to meet you!” and then barrelling into an hour of solid, hardcore talking as though we’d known each other for years. Which we have, really. Just not in person. This trip I went for smaller catch ups, rather than bigger groups, because I wanted to get a chance to actually connect with everyone and I often don’t get that at bigger meet ups. But that also meant I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to. Oh well, good thing I go to Melbourne regularly! I’m planning another trip in May for the Frankie Manning birthday celebrations, so I’ll see if I can fit in the people I missed this time. But that sucks, because you’re still missing people! And then there are all the dance people I want to see off the dance floor! This is, of course, why exchanges are so much fun and so challenging – so many friends descend on one city for just one weekend you really need an enormous dance floor to connect with them all!

Righto, I’d better write up today’s jazz woman!

Women’s History Month 2012

(photo stolen from here)

Women’s History Month is just about here again. Ah, March, season of Power Vag and Orsm Ovary. Time of Menopausal Might and Menarchal Majesty. Moonth of Fuck All That Biological Determinism, Let’s Get On With Doing Mad Shit.

This year’s theme is Women With a Plan: architects, town planners and landscape architects and I had planned to list a different woman choreographer each day, but I’m just about to go away and didn’t get any research done. Bad Girl! Then I decided I’d lift a few Excellent Jazz Women of Win from last year’s posts and put some new ones together when I get back. Because, frankly, it’s probably more important that a woman’s out there actually dancing than writing about dance, right?

Now I’m wondering if I should do a different woman jazz musician every day instead. Just repeating dancers from last year won’t really teach me much, and I found that having to scrabble to find a different woman dancer taught me a lot last year. And it wasn’t actually hard to find 31 different women dancers – I ended up with plenty more than I needed! The best part was hassling all my dance history friends for help and details :D
Ok, this year I’ll do musicians. But I don’t really have time to put together some posts ahead of time for this weekend when I’m away dancing. So I might have to make them up at the end of the weekend instead, Ok? I might borrow one from last month to start me off, though.

Just to add to the challenge, to celebrate Women’s History Month, I might see if I can do zero following in March, and only lead. This is going to break my heart when male (lead) friends ask me to dance, particularly while I’m away this weekend, but I’ll see just how long I can go. Why do this? Well, I just thought of it then when I was thinking, and I like a challenge. Also: why the fuck not?

Women’s History Month: month of potty mouthed blog posts, it seems.

Ok, get ready for me to come begging for ideas for women musicians mid-way through March. I’m probably going to end up needing your help. :D

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!