In the past couple of years working on sexual harassment and assault in the lindy hop scene, I’ve realised that online stalking is a key part of male aggression towards women. Endless emails, fb messages, text messages, fb comments… and so on work to bombard women into compliance. All this added to constant invitations to dance and unwanted physical contact on and off the dance floor.
You can say no thanks to a dance with no explanation, and you can just block someone on fb. You don’t owe anyone your attention, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for just blocking Idiot Stalker Dood with no explanation.
More importantly, doodbros: no one owes you their attention. So stop with the weirdarse creepy messages.
I’ve been listening to Queen Porter Stomp‘s album Follow the River today, and it’s very nice.
The band are mostly women (Shannon Haritos, Crystal Barreca, Lou Horwood, Rose Foster), and they play regularly around Sydney. Two points that make me want to hear them.
Here’s what I think: the album is lovely. But it’s not lindy hop or jazz dancing music. It’s more a sort of modern take on old timey music. Which is right up my alley in my non-dance music tastes.
Anywhoo, if you like pretty music played by pretty darn decent local musicians, you should check out this album.
I’m still thinking about the the issues that came up in the teaching dance fb group.
Specifically the importance of fixing meaning.
It’s nice to advocate for the idea of gender or identity in dance as fluid and defying a fixed meaning. The sentiment that ‘anything is true’ is very appealing. But I’ve been thinking a lot about how having a fixed, authoritative meaning is important for radical or resistant politics. Of course, if this idea of fixed or essential identity is used by dominant ideology, by patriarchy, it doesn’t go well for queer folk and people of colour.
I would like very much to quote some of the comments and attribute sources from this fb discussion, but I’m not sure how these people would like their words used out of context, so I’m going to have to go all stealth on you. Sorry, and I’ll add names and attributions on request.
There are two points of view which really caught my eye. One of them was raised by a friend who is a little/lot/enough genderflex, and who posited that the leading and following are not as distinct as we like to insist. This was in response to this piece Why Leading Is Not More Difficult Than Following, and How to Make It True from the always-dodgy-and-a-little-bit-shit clickbait site Joy In Motion. That piece has been giving me the living shits.
This friend’s post began:
Regarding the “leading is not harder” article, ambidancing pedagogy, leading and following being different skill sets, and whether we should use lead/follow as nouns or just verbs.
I think I think about all this really differently, like super differently*. I completely agree that leading (as a verb) and following (as a verb) are different skill sets to learn, practice and use, but I really struggle with the conflating of skill set and role within the dance – the rigid assignment and division of these skill sets by role.
And it continued with some really great thinking and passionate points.
In sum, the key points were:
– leading and following are abilities/skill sets
– these skills aren’t welded to the role or lead or follow; they are transportable
The implicit ideology at work here (which all the people in that fb group are familiar with if not on board with), is that leading and following aren’t innately gendered, but are practically gendered by cultural context.
So this position can be read as an argument for skills/qualities being culturally associated with specific gender roles, but not innately gendered or associated with leads or follows.
Not a particularly controversial point, and it’s one I agree with.
I’ll say here, though, that this is as far as I’ll go on this one. I know there are people who argue that the role of lead and follow are essentially the same, and that we then just negotiate who does ‘some leading’ and ‘some following’ within each partnership. I don’t 100% dig on this, just as I don’t 100% dig on much of the ambidancetrous discourse floating about, particularly within the blues and fusion scenes.
I personally feel that within lindy hop, as a dance out of history, there are specific biomechanic, structural, and role-related qualities which defining leading and following. So while a follow may initiate a move or rhythm, I believe that ‘leading’ – being a lead – is about initiating and suggesting movements. The individual lead may enact this potential in different ways – from the leader who really asks the follow to do as they ask, to the leader who assumes a more open role of suggesting movements or shapes or speeds that the follow then chooses (or chooses not to) execute.
I believe that the acts of leading and following are different. And within lindy hop, we give those ‘leading’ elements to the leader role, and the following elements to the follow role. These have been historically gendered, but I am not on board with any bullshit about women being innately ‘better’ at following or men innately ‘better’ at leading. That’s patently not true.
My own physical understanding of leading is that it is not like following. I believe leaders in lindy hop have a different relationship to the beat than follows. They tend to be closer to the beat, while the follow is a little behind. By the nature of ‘following’. Though of course decent jazz dancers can adjust and play with this relationship to time and the beat. And should!
here are various characteristics of led and followed movement that mean the lead is often the pivot point or centre of a smaller point of rotation than follows (though obviously not always). As an example, the follow and lead move around a shared pivot point, and when things are working well, both move equal amounts. But many traditional or ‘heritage’ lindy hop moves or figures use the lead as a physical pivot point.
Leads often do more movement on a vertical plane, and follows more on a horizontal. I feel a bit shaky on this one, as this is purely a regional cultural thing, or specific to particular historical dancers. eg Jewel McGowan’s swivels rotate on a horizontal plain, while Frankie Manning’s swing out often uses a very vertical layout where he kicks back behind him. But it’s hard to pin this one down, as we can immediately think of a hundred exceptions to this rule. I wonder as well if the way we operate on vertical and horizontal planes is more informed by the biomechanics of particular lifestyles and particular cultural agents and individuals, than by some essential physics. In other words, we all live such individual lives and lifestyles with such unique bodies, and so few of us operate at our physical peak or potential, that our dancing cannot help but be individual and defy grouping at a very essential level.
Specific leads like Frankie Manning use the space within the reach of their own arms as ‘their space’ on the dance floor that they share with their partners, and while they are aware of and work with their partner’s body and reach and limits, this ‘space’ is primarily defined by the way the lead suggests and initiates movement within that specific range. The space might move across the floor, but is defined by that particular person’s body, range of motion, step size, gait, etc etc etc. When things are working well, it fits the lead and follow well, and a lead makes adjustments to their dancing and space to accommodate the follow and their creative expression and physical presence.
But let’s set all that aside. This is all stuff that I’m wading through in my own brain, mostly in relation to my own dancing. I have been lindy hopping for twenty years now, and I don’t suck. But I am certainly not operating anywhere near my physical peak, nor do I make best use of my body’s potential. I don’t train, I don’t care a heap about technical accuracy, and I tend to be driven my music and improvisation than by making an effort to refine what I do. So I tend to dance in a way that gets the job done for me, now. So the way I lead now is not the way I led when I was 23. I’m older, fatter, less fit, and more ornery now. But I’m also a better dancer now, and more efficient in my movements (because lazy), and I have pilates and yoga and lots of other experience under my belt.
But in my experience, following uses my body in different ways than leading. I have a different connection with the ground in each role. And most importantly (and elusively), my muscles and unconscious physical responses are completely different when I lead and follow. So if you look at my body and the way my muscles are engaged or look ‘in neutral’ as a lead vs as a follow, they’re completely different. I find that if I work on one role intensively, avoiding the other, I get much better at that role. And my unconscious reactions change. If I then swap bak (especially if I’m going from leading to following), my following tends to suck a bit. I tend to take the initiative more, initiating movements in a way a follow doesn’t. Because it interrupts what the lead is doing.
So I don’t know if my opinion on all this is just anecdata limited by sample size of one human’s first hand experience.
Which is exactly my point. Each human’s experience is the most important thing in their world.
So when my friend makes their point about leading and following being skills rather than innate qualities, they are mapping their own lived experience onto lindy hop. And that is vitally important. To make that statement is so, so important. Because it is a lived expression of their sense of self and of identity.
And there is nothing we can say that can make that untrue, or to disprove that.
So while I might go on and on about how leading and following are completely different, it doesn’t make my friend’s points any less true.
And I quite like that. I find it quite exciting to hold that idea in my head: my ideas can be 100% true at the same time as my friend’s somewhat contradictory ideas can also be 100% true.
This gets even more interesting when we look at a reply to this post from a black American woman. She and my friend discuss this issue in the most civil, most interesting conversation. They have fundamentally different understandings/experiences of identity, but they are listening and discussing. And both understand that these two different approaches are both valid and ‘true’, may conflict in theory, but in practice can quite happily live alongside each other on the dance floor.
Here are some excerpts from the second person’s responses:
I can’t disagree more. They are roles for a reason. Just because I have a voice as follow doesn’t make me “leading”. It means I have voice. Equal but different voice. Being able to do both is valid but saying they’re are no rules only dancing is not how this dance works. There are fundamental ideas of what makes a dance in black culture and how our culture shows up in them. Changing that is creating a new, and valid, but different dance.
The roles are tied to what you do in the world. I would never disrespect my partner by doing their time and ignoring my responsibilities as a follow.
If you take that out, it might as well be a dance from a different culture and therefore different rules and values. Aka a different dance
I dance both roles equally and teach with out gender (mostly blues now but hey). I have found most people who desire to share movement initiation either 1 feel like bored/limited in following and want to affect the dance more or 2 they are trying to upend the “follow is passive” concept. But both issues stop existing if you approach the rules in the cultural context of those who created it. I love all that comes with leading and all that comes with following. But I feel no need to mix them. My teammate/partner has that covered in this dance. A dance with different values and my feelings change
This is how I got to that post Muddling through thoughts about ethnicity and dance and gender. Alex had chimed in to say “I think there’s a lot of room for reasonable people to disagree on this”. And I agree with him. As I was writing that previous post, I was struck by just how comprehensively my experience and understanding of lindy hop is informed by my experiences as a white middle class woman living in urban Australia in the late 20th and early 21st century. I could see the privilege just leaking out of the screen each time I wrote ‘we’ when what I should have written was ‘me.’
For me, lindy hop is, ultimately, a discourse. It is a place and site and act of discussion and negotiation of ideology – ideas about the world. And some of those ideologies do not play well with others. In my brain, the part of me that did all that work on discourse analysis and models of public discourse for my phd, it’s ok for all these ideas to swirl about. It’s ok for me because being able to float along with conflicting ideas is a marker of privilege. My own lived experience isn’t disavowed by a genderflex understanding of leading and following.
But for a black woman, dancing today, a dance that developed in the social spaces of her people, her community, has gender and roles informed by that community. Because making these differences and distinctions disappear is an act of colonialism. Of oppression. It is exactly the sort of work that slavery did to suppress black culture on plantations and in domestic servitude. So I cannot and will not argue with a black American woman who is telling me what lindy hop is and means. I won’t even say “I can accept that and still hold my own beliefs, even in they disagree.” I simply have to shut up and accept this story about the way things are, this truth. Because it is a radical act of allydom to stop telling your own story, and to stop occupying public discourse. To cede it to the words and stories of another.
I think that this is the best bit. At the same time as I take this position, I can also believe that the genderflex approach to leading and following is true. Because I believe that when we dance, when we tell these stories, we make it true. And we need to keep telling and retelling our stories, which change and grow as we do. So if I want to believe my own ideas about dance, I have to get out there and dance them. And when I’m teaching – which is the key part of this whole thing – I have a duty and responsibility to remember the black history of these dances and tell these stories. Which is why I don’t think we should abandon the original names of historic jazz steps. Why I think we should namecheck OGs.
So when I teach, I let students figure out how they want to think about these issues. I can set them up with information about how to find out more about ideas – who to talk to about black dance history, which OGs were dancing when and were – but I definitely won’t tell them how to think about it.
At the end of the day, though, I think that genderflex and black American stories about lindy hop have much more in common with each other than with the dominant white patriarchal stories about lindy hop. They are both operating from positions of resistance, and lindy hop is very good for resistance and transgression.
A very interesting discussion happened on fb recently in the teaching group.
The issue of gender and power and the nuances of leading and following was examined and tossed around in detail, in a very respectful, constructive way. One of the key points that came up was raised by a black American woman: this dance has real history and meaning. The gender roles and relationships at work in the history and material of lindy hop were real and meaningful to her, not just arbitrary social constructions from another culture or time. Because we were all working within a discussion of teaching – the transmission of ideas between individuals and groups, within relationships of power and knowledge – who says what is very important.
This lent the discussion a really important and useful edge, and it’s an issue I’ve seen come up in other feminist talk when ethnicity and intersectionality are recognised. For white women throwing off traditional european gender identities is empowering, but for this black woman, recognising and valuing black American gender identities is empowering. This is, of course, a very very… ESSENTIAL point in a discussion of identity and gender in postcolonial spaces: we have different values and goals. And it important for powerful white dancers to remember that they are speaking and writing and dancing from a position of contemporary and historical power.
When we are talking about cultural appropriation, to say “I want to lead in lindy hop, but I want to change the gender dynamics because they are bullshit” without any historical context, is problematic. For a black woman to say, “No, this is what this dance MEANS and MEANT,” is very important. It is essential that white dancers stop and listen. They may disagree, but the act of speaking up and defining what dance means is central to activism. As is the white response of ceding the floor and listening to black voices. With dance, where, as Tommy Defrantz said, under slavery, “serious dancing went underground, and dances which carried significant aesthetic information became disguised or hidden from public view. For white audiences, the black man’s dancing body came to carry only the information on its surface (DeFrantz 107). Stopping and listening to the story of meaning is part of making reparation for cultural appropriation.
This is why we need to not only engage with the dance, but with its history. And it’s important to remember that black women are not homogenous: different women will have different ideas and responses to the way gender is and was negotiated in black dance both then and now.
Me, I like this topic because it can’t ever be ‘settled’. We can’t ever be done and just forget. We should remember the darker parts of history, we should celebrity tenacity and creativity. It is a discussion in constant motion, as we respond to each person and each culture and each moment in history. We have to be agile. Intersectional.
Anyhoo, this is what I wrote in that thread, after a bit of thinking and listening.
I’ve been thinking and talking about this issue a lot. And I agree with Alex. There really is room for people to disagree on this issue. I think of it as more that because each of us is different, and come to the dance with different baggage, we’ll approach the dance in different ways. So, for example, a woman might really like following, and really enjoy working with leads who define quite strong shapes and structures. And that’s ok. The bit that’s worrying is when one particular approach becomes orthodox.
Having said that, I also think that while we’re enjoying one approach, we need to be actively engaged with, and respecting other approaches. We need to recognise and interrogate our own relative positions of power. So when I say ‘we’, I mean ‘we who have the power to speak, the status to have our opinion valued. I’m talking to white dancers. We need to state who we are, and where we come from, and how this affects our engagement with the fruits of another culture. I don’t want to just say ‘anything goes’ and ignore the history of oppression and cultural infringement of lindy hop and black cultural history. I want to keep that in mind: as a white woman in a postcolonial nation, I need to keep saying to myself: you are a visitor here. Pay respect.
And more importantly, we need to be continually referencing the history of this dance. And for me, that means, respecting the cultural history – the peeps – who developed these dances.
I think of it a bit like recognising the traditional owners of country: we actively say “I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this country, [name of country] Land, the [name] people.” And having an aunty or elder do a welcome to country is important: it gives you permission. Seeking welcome (ie permission to enter a country) is important. Not just for respecting current custodians of knowledge, but also to recognise and seek resolve for historical misdeeds.
I transfer that model to dance. I want to acknowledge the custodians of this knowledge (ie name check our OGs regularly, and name check our dance steps and their history). I want to make active payment for the use of this knowledge (whether by respect or donating money to various funds). I want to remind myself of my own privilege, as a white middle class woman living in an urban centre, engaging in a dance which came to me from an other culture and time.
So this way I feel I can adapt this dance (ie a cultural transmission or appropriation which is functional and not fucked up), but also ask, rather than demand.
For me this helps me straddle the ‘historical preservation/contemporary cultural relevance’ tension.
…I do think, as a dancer myself, that doing all this name checking and asking permission and acknowledging who I am, and my own social and cultural power, I give myself a way to be a better dancer. If I am honest with myself, and if I approach the dance with humility, but also belief in who I am, I can be more creative. I can do better art.
I don’t want to ‘be Frankie’; I don’t want to appropriate his space. I want to ‘be Sam’, and dance and be as me, inspired by the OGs, but not limited to imitating them.
DeFrantz, Thomas. “The Black Male Body in Concert Dance.” Moving Words: Re- Writing Dance. Ed. Gay Morris. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 107 – 20.
Lindy Hoppers: Many of you came to the dance and found a comfortable space where you could spread your wings. You found a place where you could be geeky, nerdy, techy, punky, introverted, extroverted, or whatever. You could be any of those things feel like you belonged. For many of us, we wouldn’t be the people you are now if we hadn’t found a place like this were we could be boldly ourselves. Beautiful, isn’t it?
This is NOT the experience for everyone who comes to this dance. In this case, this is not the experience of many LGTBQIA+ who have come across this dance scene. We are pushing people away. It takes courage to be “out” in this scene. Some utopia.
In the past few years, the illusion that our dance scene is a place free from the dangers of the real world has been shattered. As a result, we’ve done a lot to listen, learn and are making worthwhile changes. Also, we took our heads out of our asses. We can be proud of that. It’s beyond time to do the same here and realize that this haven that we found, is absolutely not a haven for everyone. We have to realize this and change, just like we shown ourselves capable of doing.
We need to open the doors – fucking wide. We need to shout “I see you. You are not invisible. You are welcome here”… just like others did for us. If (part of that) that means we make gestural changes like changing names of cheesily named dance contests, go for it.
But, far beyond that, I suggest you to take a moment to lightly and politely ask someone different from you about their experience in the scene. If they feel like sharing, you’ll learn something. If you think you don’t know any LGTBQIA+ folks in your local scene, either you are wrong and they are hiding (that speaks volumes) or your scene is tragically homogenous (also speaks volumes).
In the comments, I will be posting statements from different LGTBQIA+ people in our dance scene. Straight (and straight-ish) friends, before discussing this with your other straight (and straight-ish) friends, read some of these – including the comments, some of which are profound – no joke.
It takes effort to try to see the world through other people’s eyes, but it is immensely worthwhile.
This is what I started writing in reply, but didn’t leave on fb:
Nice vibes, Andy. And I dig your post.
Here is my rant.
I’d probably rethink the pronouns, because your call does not rework the status quo or question power:”We need to shout “I see you. You are not invisible.”
As though it is only through being recognised by the straight white male gaze that the other becomes real.
The lindy hop ‘we’ already includes peeps who aren’t straight, white guys. The lindy hop ‘we’ is already queer, black, trans…. everything _as well as_ straight white men. The LGTBQIA+ folk in our scenes ARE ALREADY SPEAKING. Maybe the straight white masculine world of lindy hop should _stop_ speaking for a second.
I’m also a bit suspect about “politely ask someone different from you about their experience in the scene.” Are we outing people now? This ‘asking’ is still an act of managing the public discourse. Why is it everyone else’s responsibility to educate the straight white man? Why is it everyone else’s responsibility to make sure the straight white man is looked after? AGAIN?
Maybe you should be quiet and listen and watch for a while instead. Because WE ARE ALREADY SPEAKING. Maybe you should watch for a while, before asking. See when a man gropes a woman on the dance floor, then tell him to quit. Hear when a straight man makes a bullshit gay joke, then _not laugh_.
So perhaps your call should be, “Hey, straight white guys. We’re the numerical minority in this community. So we should ask why we hold the majority of positions of power and influence. Maybe we should cede our place to the rest of the community. Also it’s time for us to stop talking.”
The lindy hop world is not that special or unique: it is within and a part of the wider community in which it lives. Of course sexism and homophobia and racism are here. Because it is in our wider lives as well.
This is how this will have to work: the most powerful people in our communities will need to give up some of that power. That includes the power to ask questions and speak. And they’re not going to be too happy about that.
I’ve also been struck by some of the comments like this from (straight white male) dancers: “In the past few years, the illusion that our dance scene is a place free from the dangers of the real world has been shattered.”
I was especially struck by the recent ep of the Track where Gordon Webster spent quite a bit of time telling us how shocked he was by the Steven Mitchell issue. He recounted some heart warming stories about the safety of the dance scene, and how surprised he was to discover that things Have Changed.
And I got really really angry. YES POWERFUL WHITE GUY, THE WORLD IS A PRETTY SAFE AND LOVELY PLACE FOR YOU. Your being able to leave your envelope of cash unattended, and without any accountability IS A MARKER OF YOUR POWER. Your being able to set aside the responsibility of paying your staff before you go off and get on stage IS A MARKER OF YOUR POWER. Your leaving the door staff to sell your CDs and make change from your band’s pay IS A MARKER OF YOUR POWER.
It wasn’t because ‘the scene is a utopia’ that that envelope of cash didn’t go missing. It’s because you are a powerful, influential person. And it’s good to be king.
I was especially angry about his reluctance to believe that HIS friend could possibly be dodgy as fuck. When even I, who’d only met Mitchell once or twice and live in another hemisphere, could tell he was a pain in the arse and well dodgy. He didn’t see the problems with Mitchell, because they didn’t affect him directly. He WASN’T LOOKING FOR THEM.
The rest of the dance world (who aren’t straight, white, or male) were already quite sure that the dance world wasn’t a utopia.
News at 5: ‘white man discovers his experience of the world is not universal.’
Because the women, POC… pretty much most of the peeps who aren’t representing hegemonic masculinity in our scene know that it’s not a utopia. And we’ve always known that. And we’ve been talking about it for years. Hell, even Norma Miller’s been shouting it at people for years, and not even she’s been listened to!
There are a stack of themed dances and dance events coming up in the next few months (I’m looking at you, Canberrang). That means, white folk, you don’t want to be offending your dancing friends with your accidental racism.
So this is your aunty reminding you:
lackface is never ok. No, stop. You can’t argue this one;
Dressing up in ‘oriental’ costumes (including ‘yellowface’ – whether facepaint or dodgyarse ‘geisha’ stuff) is also usually offensive. Yes, even that lovely cheongsam can be culturally insensitive;
Yes, I am ruining your (racist) fun, but you’re not Lawrence of Arabia, and you might want to look at the history of the fez, and European occupation of Morocco before you costume up;
Dressing up in the ‘servant’ costumes from that Hellzapoppin clip (maids, bakers, chefs, mechanics) is similarly suss (we get the race/class/gender trifecta there).
Not sure whether your costume idea is ok? Don’t wear it.
If in doubt, you can’t go past a clean shirt or a nice dress. Or whatever you usually wear when you want to feel nice for a party.
Next post: camel costumes – who doesn’t love an ungulate?
I’m going to go on and on about the music at Little Big Weekend 2017 for quite a long time, so best to give you some facts.
Andrew Dickeson and I are big jazz nerds, who love swinging jazz and live in the same neighbourhood. So we’ve been collaborating on putting together live music programs for dancers that make musicians happy. Which means we go to each other’s houses and argue about which songs we should play (ever tried to narrow your favourites down to a dozen?), argue about whether cats or dogs are better, and sigh over Duke Ellington.
We began working on these projects in 2014 at Jazz BANG, a solo jazz weekend here in Sydney. And we’ve done a zillion gigs since. Each gig we seem to pick up another musician who almost cryfeels about the experience of working on this type of music with this band leader, and this crowd. And each gig we see more musos flying or driving to Sydney to be part of it.
You must understand that all these musicians are trained professionals who’ve been playing for years and years, and have recorded heaps of music. Ones like Bob Henderson have been playing since the 50s. Andrew is a lecturer at the most prestigious tertiary institute for music in Australia – the Sydney Conservatorium of Music – where he teaches jazz history. Georgia is a hardcore dancer, teacher, and performer, as well as a trained musician, vocal teacher and performer.
To my mind, the success of the Blue Rhythm Band lies in the relationship between the band leader Andrew Dickeson, and his bff Brad Child. Andrew is a drummer who knows when not to play. He doesn’t bang pots in the kitchen; he places cups and plates on the table, moves them around, rearranges the flowers so everyone can see. When the band sets up on stage, he’s right in the middle, where he can see everyone. And where everyone can see and hear him. So Andrew brings structure, clarity, and direction to the band.
Brad is more about the feels. Standing near the band (or sometimes right in the middle of it when I’m working), you can hear Brad yelling out things like “There, now, I’m going in!” and then pumping the energy. Or, “Back off, back it off, nice and gentle!” He has the sort of unerring ear and eye for energy and vibe which I’ve only seen in one or two exceptional DJs. It’s truly a rare talent. He’s not just watching the crowd, he’s feeling the crowd, and the band, and he’s bringing them all together, on a very nice trip through jazz.
When you add responsive, clever, talented musicians to that pair, you get a lovely, vibrant, powerful band. A solid group who take improvisational risks, but are still very solid. Sound. Or, if you’re thinking about lindy hop, this band has very tight rhythms, excellent timing, but knows that it’s ok to relax and just improvise around simple shapes rather than trying to jam complex figures into one dance. And they know how to look at their partners. :D
But this weekend was the most ambitious. I was collaborating with Sharon Hanley on the dancing parts. Sharon is a long-time balboa nut, and she was bringing some very good balboa dancers to town, dancers strongly rooted in the history of the dance, and who understand swinging jazz. I was bringing two teachers who are all about lindy hop and solo jazz dances. Also very much informed by jazz dance history. Sharon and I run separate dance businesses in Sydney – Swing Time Australia (Sharon), and Swing Dance Sydney (me). These businesses focus on our dance and musical interests. We’ve worked together lots of times in the past, mostly on DJing, and on running parties. This was our first large project together.
It never occurred to us that balboa and lindy hop couldn’t have fun together on the same dance floor. It’s the same music, right? Solid, swinging jazz. After all, when we DJ together, we’re into the same music. And it never occurred to us that east coast influenced swing dances (lindy hop, balboa, shag) couldn’t sit well with Harlem-centred swing dances (lindy hop, solo, tap, etc). After all, that’s how Sydney works: all these dances play well together at our parties and live music gigs.
For me, it’s the music that makes the point of all this. Working with musicians, musicians working together, dancers working together. It’s all about improvisation, playing games, having fun, and just being filled up by that good sound. Andrew and I have just had so much fun doing these parties, and we just LOVE the music so much, and the relaxed fun of social dancing with live music, we just figure: let’s do MORE!
I want to do more and more and more of this. I can see how it could become addictive. I can see how musicians have problems with drugs – uppers to keep you going. Downers to help you finally sleep. Putting together a few little shows for the weekend, I just thought ‘Ha! There are some serious talents coming, I’ll just set it up and let them go!’ and then we set it up, and let them go, and it was amazing. Musicians and dancers. I really do love this approach to events and dancing: get some solid framework in place, then let people improvise on top. And make sure everyone has a lot of fun and feels good and safe. Amongst friends.
So what did we actually do?
Friday: the usual Blue Rhythm Band line up (Brad Child (sax), Peter Locke (piano), Mark Elton (bass), Andrew (drums), Georgia Brooks (vocals).
AND we did a little introduction performance where we introduced our artists (musicians and dancers (Marie N’diaye, Anders Sihlberg, Kate Hedin, Bobby White)) one at a time. It was SPLENDID.
I had a few goals with this performance.
1. I wanted to place the musicians right in there on the same level as our guest teachers. I wanted dancers to see them, know their names, and hear how they added to the band. So we did a ‘Now you has jazz‘ style intro, where we began with Andrew, then literally had the musicians walk in one at at time and start playing. When that bass hit. WOW. The room just LEAPT. I couldn’t believe how effective it was.
2. I wanted to really begin the weekend, not just have it stagger up to speed. So we had a bit of mellow music, lots of snacks and drinks and conversation as people arrived, and THEN we introduced the band and the teachers.
3. I wanted the vocalist (Georgia) to introduce everyone, and to sing. Which was just magical. When she sang that chorus of Honeysuckle Rose, we just sighed.
4. I wanted a well known song that feels nice. Honeysuckle Rose is a lovely song, about loving someone. It’s my favourite. And it can be funny. So it’s perfect for an intro.
This just went off so well. I loved it. I was so happy. Such talented artists!
Saturday: we got super ambitious. Because this Little Big Weekend is a balboa/lindy hop event, we had two bands. We had a swinging combo (Brad, Peter, Mark, Andrew, Bob Henderson (trumpet), Chuck Morgan (guitar)). Adding a guitar: the band was pretty much perfect.
THEN we decided to get all Benny Goodman on our crowd (because balboa dancers – and everyone sensible) loves Goodman’s small group. VIBRAMAPHONE! (Glenn Henrick) and Brad played clarinet.
THIS was pretty freaking amazing. Vibraphones! It’s a magical instrument. I had no idea just how wonderful it sounds in a big room. It just feels all velvety and vibratey, and you can almost feel it on your skin. In the band, it just sort of filled in all the gaps in the music, softening the edges and really feeling like that gorgeous mushy-strong feeling of a good connection between partners.
But then it got better.
ALL the musicians were on stage together, not playing from charts, but paying close attention to Andrew’s leadership, and listening very carefully to each other.
The huge, ugly 70s ballroom (with amazing acoustics and raised seating for non-dancing punters, and a full bar) was just crammed with happy people and great music. Musicians brought their friends and family, and we had a very good time.
With this night, I wanted to really marry the two dances (balboa and lindy hop), by making it clear that we really did love the same music. While Goodman’s small groups are popular with balboa dancers, it’s also wonderful for lindy hop.
And when the band played a beautiful ballad (Moonglow!) people didn’t think ‘oh no, I don’t blues dance!’ they said (SHOUTED in some cases), “I LOVE THIS SONG!” and then just found a person and just enjoyed the song.
…thinking about it now is making me tear up. It was quite magical.
SUNDAY the band was pared back to the Blue Rhythm Band format again, and we just danced and danced.
But first we did a little ‘story of jazz’ performance, where the band showed us how jazz changed from the 20s to the 50s, and our guest teachers showed us how the dancing changed. Tap. Balboa. Pure bal. Bal swing. Lindy hop. Charleston. Breakaway. All of it. And at the end, we all got up and swung out to Shiny Stockings, and some people cried.
Here, my plan was:
1. Make it clear that the music literally comes first,
2. Show that the dance styles may be different, but they’re still the same in that they listen to the music.
3. Invite everyone onto the dance floor together. Literally. We ended with Shiny Stockings, and when I said, “And in the 50s, band leaders like Basie reminded us to dance together… so if you feel the urge, join in and dance with us,” everyone leapt to their feet and danced. It was a very special moment.
One of the best bits happened next. We were doing this as a snowball, to make sure we had everyone feeling welcome. But I added ‘slow motion!’ and ‘Freeze!’ and ‘snowball’ as calls. At first I could hear the musicians saying to each other, “What’re we doing?” and replying “Snowball means change partners!” and then they all got INTO it. When I called ‘freeze!’ the second time, the band literally froze. And then we picked up in perfect time. And everyone in the room laughed and cheered. It was totally improvised, but it felt really, really good. Because we were improvising and playing a game.
Things I loved about the weekend:
– The band was so good, everyone danced to any old song. They don’t worry about speed or who they’re dancing with; they just get up and have some fun.
– The floor was full of all the dances. Balboa, lindy hop, solo, shag, people just holding hands and swaying.
– the noise level from the crowd. Shouting out to the musicians, talking, laughing, cheering, clapping, whooping, hollering.
– the musicians’ massive smiley faces, and the way they’d talk to the dancers or yell out to each other.
This song Benny’s Bugle is important, because the original Goodman small group included Benny Goodman, Cootie Williams, George Auld, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Artie Bernstein, Harry Jaeger. So Basie’s powerhouse rhythm section got together with Goodman’s perfectionist control, and then they made an amazing song. There are some very interesting outtakes from this recording session, available on box sets like Charlie Christian:Genius of the Electric Guitar. And you can listen to it on youtube here.
Andrew Dickeson’s Blue Rhythm Band is strongly influenced by Basie’s rhythm section. And we all know how lindy hoppers feel about Basie. Goodman is just perfect for balboa, because he has that precise, clever instrumentation matched with a glorious swinging timing. That’s balboa, right?
So this song is important: balboa and lindy hop = <3
Asking someone to dance is also asking them, implicitly, if you can touch their body.
If you insist that we must always say yes to all dance invitations, you are also insisting that we can never say no when someone wants to touch our bodies.
Because we live within patriarchy, where men occupy positions of power and privilege, and women’s bodies are considered objects for male desire, we are talking about women giving permission to be touched by men.
It is important for us to make it clear to all dancers that they can say no to any and all invitations to dance, with no excuse or reason.
Because we do live within patriarchy, women and girls are trained to avoid conflict. They are trained to say yes and nod, whether they mean it or not.
So we must also allow women and girls time and opportunities to practice saying both yes and no. Giving and withdrawing consent.
We must also allow men and boys time and opportunities to practice saying yes and no, and to practice being denied something they want.
This last is, of course, most important. Women are not the problem in sexual assault and harassment. It is men and their behaviour. So men must learn to ask, to accept refusal gracefully, and to relish and take conscious pleasure in the acceptance of an invitation.
I’m not the hugest fan of Clem Ford, but I’ve mulling over this very point RE offenders in the dance scene:
…people with criminal convictions have the moral right to reintegrate into society once their sentence has been served. But being entitled to access basic needs like employment, housing and amenities is starkly different to being supported to re-enter spaces that automatically confer privilege and power (Clementine Ford, What it means to be a good bloke).
Thomas pointed out in response to this,
This thread’s on point. If a criminal conviction can limit someone’s ability to travel, it’s difficult to see how they shouldn’t be limited in their access to positions of power as well.
and Liam replied
Agreed, but Ford is confusing criminal punishment and social shunning, which are both at work, or not at work. Shunning of transgressors is a social punishment there aren’t any rights against (which is why it’s so powerful/dangerous, and sometimes called for).
The issue within the lindy hop world (and the wider world implicitly), is that most rapes don’t go to court. More precisely: very few of all rapes and assaults go to court. So in most cases there aren’t any criminal charges to enforce or take into account. In the dance world the nearest equivalent is a public report and then community-based action.
The modern lindy hop world has a very strong (certainly evangelical) ethos of ‘growing the scene’. This is rooted in the myth that lindy hop has ‘died out’ and needs to be ‘revived’ or ‘kept alive’. The specific reasons why it should be kept alive are harder to pin down.
But this push to ‘grow the scene’ is often employed by less ethical organisers to justify everyone supporting their events or classes (eg ‘we should support all the classes because we want to grow the scene‘). And it plays a very important part in many community members’ refusal to ban or blacklist offenders: we must ‘keep’ big name/talented/famous dancers (especially ones who were involved in historical research, people like Steven Mitchell) because we have to ‘keep lindy hop alive’ and honour these roots.
This last point is the most worrying for many of us. We are encouraged to venerate original groovers and historians because they are so important to a preservationist/revivalist project. Many dancers resist blacklisting or shunning these dancers because there is a sense that… fuck, it a clear belief that ‘preserving the dance’ is more important than women’s safety.
Steven Mitchell’s systematic grooming and assault of a large number of women and girls was facilitated by dancers who excused his behaviour because he was important for ‘reviving lindy hop’.
Within the dance scene, social shunning is almost the only response to assault by community members. And it is super powerful, because it’s usually achieved by:
Blacklisting teachers and DJs (so they don’t get gigs and aren’t put in a position where they can hurt people);
Blacklisting/boycotting organisers’ events (if they offend or hire offenders, or don’t ban offenders);
Banning offenders from attending big events, and smaller local classes and parties;
Excluding offenders from fb groups and discussion lists (which are really super important for community participation where the dance floor itself precludes a lot of talk).
…and so on.
The issues within the dance scene at the moment are:
Who carries out and enforces these bans, boycotts, and blacklists;
When and who decides it’s time to lift these bans;
How to organisers share info with other organisers and with the general punters about who’s been banned (and do they have an obligation to share this information);
Who will share information about offenders with whom, and which of these sources is ‘reliable’;
What role women reporting offenders should play in this process. eg are they obliged to forgo anonymity and risk physical danger (this seems to be a preponderant view among male organisers, and more conservative organisers);
Organisers’ not knowing how, or when, they should enforce bans, and being faced with financial loss and face when discovering a contractor is an offender.
I must point out, that while there’s quite a bit of chatter on the fb about how we should act on these issues, the vast bulk of the practical work is being done by women.
Which brings me back to Ford’s original point: why aren’t men stepping the fuck up on this?
My final points: if we are supposed to commit to rehabilitation of offenders within the community, who exactly is going to do this unpaid labour? And why is their rehabilitation given great value than the mental and physical wellbeing of the women who survived their criminal violence?
I think that a lot of organisers are currently terrified of this scenario. What if the teacher you’ve booked is reported for assault before your event? During your event? What do you do? You’ve invented $20 000 in an event, you’ve never had to face this issue before, you’re upset, stressed, and kind of freaking.
The best option is to plan ahead. Don’t ‘wait and see’ or deal with it ‘on a case by case basis’. Plan. Develop policies.
And of course, before you hire someone, find out about them. Ask other teachers, experienced and well-known, well-travelled dancers and DJs. Develop networks before you start booking people.
Make sure you’re known as someone who will listen when an assault is reported. And you do that by having a code of conduct, by speaking often and quite confidently in public about your position on this issue. This sort of reputation (for being a good egg rather than an enabler or apologist) will encourage people to speak to you about known offenders.
Get your priorities right: protect the reporter’s safety. They are putting themselves in physical danger by reporting. So you need to be on their side.
Protect your employees, your contractors and volunteers, your friends, your family, yourself: having a known offender at your event is placing all these people at risk.
So let’s look at a pretty shitty situation. It’s a month out from your event, and you discover (privately or publicly) that one of your headline teachers has been reported for sexual assault by a number of people in different countries.
Here’s a tip: don’t try to hide it. That’s stupid and it endangers other people. Make a plan, so you can respond sensibly if this happens.
I really don’t know how I’d deal with this issue, so I’ve started doing some thinking. Here are my first thoughts.
What I’d do in this situation (and I’m living in dread of the day it’ll be me):
I’d cancel that teacher immediately;
I’d get the teacher’s partner to get another partner stat, or decide to cancel them as well (they may, after all, have been enabling their partner);
I’d make a public announcement that we are not hiring the teacher for this gig. I’d think about whether we announce why. If we did announce why, I’d have a fallout plan in place.
I’d develop a fallout plan. ie a way to handle the financial loss, the PR shock, and my own personal worry and distress.
And I’d just deal with the fact that I’m $2000 worth of airfares out of pocket.
To be honest, I occasionally drop an extra $1500 on an event for things like extra live music, so it’s not that far out of the realm of budgetry possibilities. $2000 seems like a massive amount of money. But it’s a much smaller price than the inevitable PR wreck you’re left with when your covering up this incident is discovered.
Dealing with it promptly = good PR. And there’s a chance you’ll pick up extra registrations from people who see you do take this position, as you’re saying, quite clearly: “I am serious about safety.”
And think about this very carefully: if you still bring a teacher into the country under a visa like a 408, you are bringing a known offender and criminal into the country. This is a very serious issue in Australia, and Border Force will discover this. You are breaking the law. You are also breaking industrial relations law, which requires you to actively work to prevent sexual assault and harassment in the workplace.
Not to mention the fact that if you don’t act on this, you are placing your friends, family, and employees at risk. Making you a dickbag.
What if one of your teachers is reported for sexual assault during your event?
This happened during Swing Camp Oz a couple of years ago when Steven Mitchell was publicly reported for sexual assault. And Joel Plys handled this issue very badly.
Firstly, Mitchell was allowed to speak to the dancers at the camp, going to each class individually to ‘apologise’.
This is unethical: you are allowing a known offender to make direct contact with your punters and staff in small groups.
Secondly, Mitchell was sent to the airport and out of the country.
This is not only illegal, but also dangerously unethical. You are aiding a known offender in crossing an international border.
What should have happened?
I’m not entirely sure. But one of the clearest options would have been to contact the local police for advice.
One of the most important measures this organiser should have taken was to be sure that all the teachers and the organiser had current, appropriate visas for working in Australia, and had a clear and well thought out code of conduct and OH&S policy. Clearly none of this was the case.
who should you tell about this?
This is a tricky one. Since I’ve started being pro-active in speaking to other organisers about known offenders (ie sending emails to organisers making them aware of persons X, Y, and Z, what they’ve done, and what my response is), I have received personal threats of physical violence and legal action. The former really doesn’t scare me that much: what’s new about being threatened with violence? Rape is violence, and I live with that threat every day. By acting on this, speaking out, I’m actually reducing the threat of violence in my community.
The latter scared me at first, as I had no legal experience. But I spoke to some experienced journalist friends (who are used to dealing with threats of defamation), and found a lawyer. The threat of legal action did not eventuate, and an initial letter from the ‘lawyer’ of an offender I’d reported turned out to be an empty threat.
I also saw some of the local organisers being openly resistant to and highly critical of this semi-public discussion of sexual assault. A large number wanted to talk to the reporting woman (I would not put them in contact, as her anonymous safety was more important); wanted to speak to the offender first (like they didn’t know what he’d say); and openly dismissed my efforts as a ‘witch hunt’ or ‘Sam being a bitch’.
This response was what terrified me: so many Australian organisers who openly defended a rapist, publicly questioned a woman’s report, and my acting as her agent in this issue, and made it clear that they thought it wasn’t ‘that serious’.
What was interesting, though, is that I received a large number of emails from women organisers offering support, and saying that they did not agree with the critical comments. In fact, most of the Australian organisers were feeling the way I was: that this shit cannot be tolerated.
All this in addition to the usual round of hate emails, fb messages, and blog comments.
Would I do it all again?
Yep. Because even though this shit scares and upsets me, it’s nothing compared to what these women are dealing with every day. And it makes me SO ANGRY that these men get away with it, and that other men protect them.
But now I am far, far more concerned about the people who protect known rapists. And if you’re not acting on reports, you are protecting and enabling men. Which is why, when you discover one of your guest teachers has been reported for assault, you need to act on it. Because ignoring it will not make it go away; it will enable that man and tell the world you’re ok with it.