Language is important: decolonising dance jargon

‘Gliding’* came up in a fb discussion about great things to teach brand new dancers.
Gliding is just moving around the dance floor in closed position without any particular rhythm, with or without music. In our classes, we want them to experiment with working with a partner in closed, with no pressure to perfect a rhythm or shape.

Gliding teaches them:
– closed partner connection
– floor craft
– the joy of being with a partner with no pressure to do a rhythm
– confidence to experiment on their own
– how to change direction (as a lead and/or follow).

In this discussion, there was a comment by someone using a lot of dance industry ‘jargon’. And a couple of words that I wasn’t entirely sure were being used correctly.

…or, more generously, were being used in ways I wasn’t sure I understood.

Anyhoo, I asked for clarification. And got some more jargon. Partly an ESL issue, but also partly… a confusing thing.

The biggest problem I had with this comment, was the author’s correcting our use of the word ‘gliding’:

…gliding is a modern subculture term, progressive ( in line of dance) would be the common teaching terminology.

I immediately felt very uncomfortable with this correction. Because Frankie Manning used the term ‘gliding’ to describe a more organic, natural movement about the floor (distinct from a very clear straight line). So I asked for clarification. And felt it was… massively patronising and also WRONGTOWN and full of some bullshit white elitist crap. So I figured I’d just ignore it, because life is too fucking short.

Luckily Damon Stone was feeling patient. I’m sorry I didn’t step in; it’s not cool to leave all this hard work to POC.
This is Damon’s great answer:

It feels like you are using te[rms] from one subculture of “ballroom” and applying to all other dances done in ballrooms.

The terminology of different American ballroom chains at one point differed from each other and there are still terminology differences between American and International ballroom studio associations.

When you compare both style technique, composition, and terminology between ballroom studios and the people who created the dances it isn’t uncommon to find slight to wild variations between those created by African American or Latinx peoples.

Progressive definitely implies line of dance, gliding doesn’t. Frankie definitely used the term in my lessons and classes with him to indicate dancing within a general space as opposed to on the spot or line of dance.

You absolutely could glide in line of dance and yes the earliest version of lindy hop appears to be rooted in a progressive structure but, in my experience, that was not how Frankie wanted it done.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with using American or International ballroom terms of you get a lot of dancers with that background, if you teach in a that type of studio and how your lindy hoppers will also study that style of ballroom, but this dance also has a language developed by its own originating and innovating dancers, keeping that terminology in the dance is a great way to pass along parts of the culture.

I’d be super careful about correcting someone’s terminology if it can be traced to people who danced at the Savoy even if it was terminology they added to the dance well after the Savoy was torn down.

I did end up chiming in (of course I did). Paraphrasing Damon’s clever (and patient) comment, I added:

I want to emphasise this idea: if we use the language of the white-run and owned ballrooms and dance classes of the day (and now), instead of the language of black dancers who invented and owned this dance, then we are recreating and reinforcing white colonisation of black dance. An insidious sort of appropriation of black culture for white profit.

In more practical terms, a lot of the language and ‘technique’ of OGs who danced on crowded dance floors reflects the practicalities of a crazy packed dance floor. You have to behave like social creatures when you social dance.
An insistence on straight lines, slots, fixed figures, etc etc is often profoundly anti-social as ‘rules’ don’t account for crowds of humans with varying skills and attention. Not to mention actual live music.
I think that this is one of the most important parts of vernacular dance. It changes and improvises to account for the needs of real humans in social spaces <3 It _belongs_ to the people dancing it, not to a rule book and codified pedagogy. *Do a search for 'gliding' here in this blog and you'll find a bunch of posts.

Where you might begin in developing a code of conduct or safety policy

Ok, so I’ve been looking at how we might develop a ‘how to develop a safe space policy’ guide.
I’ve only got a sample size of two, but I wonder if this is a useful approach:

  1. You need to know your local laws regarding sexual harassment and assault. So a google search will help. I begin with these sorts of search terms “Australia” “Sexual harassment” “laws” .
  2. From here you can often find a link to the specific law or act referring to harassment, equity, human rights, etc etc. Each country will address this issue in a different way. And each legal system is different – eg we don’t have a bill of rights in Australia.
    BUT it’s hard to figure your way through an act if you’re not used to the language.
    Luckily there are good community education bodies to help you make sense of it. They often come up in the first page of your google search.
  3. I use the country’s human rights commission or similar body as a source to help me untangle this language. They often have simple language versions of the law, and specific examples of harassment.
  4. I’ve noticed (in my two examples  ) that sexual harassment is grouped with other types of harassment and discrimination as infringing human rights. This is useful for us as dancers in the current ideological climate, because the relevant act may refer specifically to discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, sex, etc etc. This gives us a starting point for addressing issues like the black roots of lindy hop _and_ sexual assault in the same policy.Here, the link between discrimination and harassment is key.
  5. At this point, it really helps if your organisation has a statement of intent, or a mandate or manifesto or something. eg the Melbourne Jazz Dance Association (which runs Melbourne Lindy Exchange (MLX)) has this one, which was a legal requirement for setting up a nonprofit business structure:

    The Melbourne Jazz Dance Association is a non-profit organisation devoted to the preservation and promotion of vernacular jazz dance and music in Melbourne, Australia. Our goal is to produce affordable dance events for Melbourne and visiting dancers, promoting the history of the dance as well as the current dance community.

    From here, this sort of statement helps us rough out a general policy or way of making our code of conduct fit in with our existing statements. If I was to rewrite this mjda statement, I’d add ‘accessible’ before the word ‘affordable’, which would cover us for talking about harassment and discrimination.

From this point, you have some very useful tools.

  • A legal definition of sexual harassment and sexual assault (note this isn’t legally binding or even legally accurate – you’ll need to consult a lawyer for this stuff)
  • It’s culturally specific. ie it reflects your country’s legal and social understanding of sexual assault and harassment. This is important because your event, and your actions, are governed by your country’s laws.
  • You have specific examples of sexual harassment and assault. This is important for helping the targets of harassment (women and girls, for the most part) put a name and a limit to their ‘bad feeling’ about an interaction. It validates their experience. It also gives you language tools for explaining to offenders why they are banned from your event – they did X, Y, or Z. And of course it helps you feel more confident in your actions. You’re not just acting on ‘a feeling’. You’re acting on facts.
  • You can connect sexual harassment and assault up with discrimination. This is important because it lets us talk about racism, ageism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in one conversation. Our code of conduct can group these different types of discrimination together and let us address a number of issues at once.
    This is the ‘missing link’ for addressing the way sexism dovetails with racism and class in the modern lindy hop scene. It gives us a way of talking about how come male teachers are paid more, there are more male DJs at high level events, or why women are overrepresented as volunteers. It’s about power. Sexual harassment is about power more than it is about sex. And racism is about power and privilege. About who gets to tell the stories, in their words.

Now you can start writing up a very rough draft of your code of conduct.

  • What are your values?
    What do you want your event to be about? Good live music? Great social dancing? Innovative class structures? Huge crowds? Small crowds? What?
  • What are your rules?
    What do you not want to happen at events (in general terms, but also specifically)?
  • What are the consequences for breaking rules?
  • How can people report harassment or assault?
  • How do you respond to reports, document reports, and then store your reports safely?

At this point you’ll see that you have a very dry, often very long list that’s both really depressing and really exciting. You aren’t ready to publish this yet. It’s definitely not something that’ll work as a public document, let alone a intra-organisational document.

From here, you need to do some testing.
Develop a few scenarios, and role-play the process. Horribly, we have a fair few real life examples in the modern lindy world to work with.

Some examples:

  1. A big name international teacher is publicly reported for sexual assault in a blog post. He has previously taught in your country. You scroll down your facebook feed and see he’s just been announced as teaching in your city. What will you do?
  2. You receive an email from a person acting as an agent on a reporter’s behalf. This agent is a reliable source – someone you know and trust. The reporting woman is terrified of repercussions and wants to remain anonymous. Her report outlines in detail how a male teacher assaulted her at an event in the previous year. You have just booked this teacher for your event in 9 months time. The reporting woman discovers this booking as you’ve just announced it publicly. What will you do?
  3. You see a guy in his 20s physically lifting a new female dancer into a pop jump on the dance floor at your monthly party. She clearly doesn’t know what she’s doing. You can’t tell if she’s actually enjoying this, or just faking it. What do you do?
  4. Two young Asian women come to you at the party you run fortnightly, and tell you that an older Anglo man has been making sexual suggestions to them during class, holding them in too tight an embrace, and sending them facebook messages. He is at the party. What do you do?

And so on. Scenarios like this are very useful for testing your own values and process. And an important part of this process is to flesh out your imaginary people:
Give your ‘big name international teacher’ an age, gender, ethnicity, teaching speciality, comp wins, teaching experience, etc.
Flesh out your agent working for the reporting woman – are they male, female, trans, older, younger, white, black, a teacher, a DJ, tall, short, what?

Do the same for the staff responding to each situation – make them real people. And try to make them people representative of the members of your local area. Not your local dance scene, but the real, live people who live in your city. Census data is very useful here.

Now swap around some of the identity markers. What if the Two young Asian women are also trans? What if they’re anglo and their person hassling them is Asian?

Document your scenarios.

Ok, now go back and rewrite your code. And your rules.
What would have helped in the scenarios? Would it have been useful to have a small printed copy of your rules to give to that guy when you tell him off for hassling those women at the party? Then make one.
If you needed to call the police at one point, would you have called the emergency number, or your local police station? Do you have both numbers? Do you need a little sign with this info on it for volunteers? Make one. How big does the font need to be? Can you read it in a dimly lit dance room?
How do your door staff know what to do? How would you train them?
Where do you keep written reports? Where do you write the reports? Who has access to them?

And so on.
Yep, it’s a fair bit of work. But some of it is actually pretty fun.
You’ll never be done with this work. Each time you encounter a new incident, you’ll get new skills, you’ll revise your processes, and you’ll revisit your values. Maybe ‘good music’ is less important than ‘don’t hire DJs who’ve raped someone’. Maybe ‘good music’ means telling your band leader explicitly that the musicians cannot arrive drunk or play drunk. And then perhaps you need to be specific about defining ‘drunk’.

For me, there are some overarching ‘rules’ in this work:

– the reporter’s safety is paramount. That means anonymity, confidentiality.
– the safety of the staff handling the report is paramount. This may also mean anonymity and confidentiality. It can also mean training for staff, having access to a quiet, safe room with a lockable door, knowing when and how to call the police (or if it’s safe to call the police), etc etc etc.
– ask the reporter what they need to feel safe. You don’t have to do these things, but it’ll be helpful to know.
– limits and boundaries are key. Knowing when to stop working is essential.
– I need to know when I will stop working on this issue. What is my limit?

My own, personal rule – the reason why I do this – is this:

I am responsible for my fellow humans. I choose to care about what happens to them. I choose to do what I can, whenever I can. Not just because it feels like the morally right thing to do. But because caring, and doing right makes me a better person. A stronger, braver, better person.

I could quote you long passages from my favourite feminists (Nancy Fraser, anyone?) about why being a feminist means being a pragmatic feminist. Being an activist. I simply define feminism as being about thinking and doing. It’s about social justice, but it’s about actively choosing to get involved. To do something. This is an act of power and resistance for a woman in my culture. We are trained to not act, to not get involved, not to agitate, educate, or organise. So the very act of speaking up, standing up, and acting is an act of feminism. It is liberatory. But that’s not the whole thing.

I guess it’s really about my believing, very strongly, that I have a responsibility to do what I can for other people. I choose not to be a bystander. I choose to be an agent. Because I find sitting by while other people need me untenable. I just can’t do it. If I can do something, I do it. Not because I want to be a ‘troublemaker’ or an ‘agitator’, but because I feel it is the right thing to do. To care about other people. To care for them, and about more than just myself.

Slavery and Australian economic history

This article Colonial Australia’s foundation is stained with the profits of British slavery by Paul Daley is pretty much a review of bits of Clinton Fernandes’ book ‘Island off the Coast of Asia: Instruments of Statecraft in Australian Foreign Policy’. I haven’t read the book.
This article talks about slavery’s contribution to the developing colonial economy in Australia up until the 20th Century.

It’s also a good place to start if you want to start thinking about the white Australian history of blackface. If whites think of people only as having value as objects to be bought and sold, then they have no qualms about wearing a costume that presents them as objects.

If you’re a lindy hopper thinking about dance history (and the way it is bought and sold in dance classes), then you should probably learn a bit about slavery in colonies (especially in Australia and America), and colonising nations (especially European countries).

The myth of Australia being ‘built on the sheep’s back’ is central to Australian history and to current political PR. Think of the white mainstream support for ill-conceived and executed economic aid for farmers in this moment of drought (and political leadership spills). White farmers are sacrosanct.

Fernandes writes, “There was no industrial revolution in this period, but rather a burgeoning agricultural export industry that helped create a group of wool-rich rural elites. An industrial business class appeared after the discovery of gold in the 1850s. In the 60 years before this, however, there is a largely unknown source of wealth: slavery.”

The mythic history of white Australia goes like this:
– white explorers ‘discovering’ the Australian land,
– white farmers occupy the land, ‘taming’ it, and producing lots of stuff
– white businesses sell that stuff to other people and we all get rich and prosperous.
This history leaves out…. well, pretty much everything. The genocide and colonising of _people_. Of course, the idea of ‘terra nullius’ (nobody’s land) at once made Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders not _people_, and justified white invasion and occupation.

This dehumanising is what makes slavery possible.
It’s also what makes the current government’s utterly cruel refugee concentration camps possible.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Fernandes’ book is his careful unpicking of the authority of ‘objective’ references like the ADB (Australian Dictionary of Biography). While the ADB presents as a ‘list of facts’, this list is incomplete, and therefore entirely subjective.

I guess Fernandes’ point is this: ‘objective’ histories that overlook some facts or misrepresent them contribute to contemporary oppression. eg he writes in the book, “The dictionary of biography mentions that Macquarie’s first wife Jane Jarvis was “a West Indian heiress”, but doesn’t note her inheritance: Antiguan slave plantations.”

“The Australian Dictionary of Biography is Australia’s pre-eminent dictionary of national biography. In it you will find concise, informative and fascinating descriptions of the lives of significant and representative persons in Australian history.” (http://adb.anu.edu.au/)

A calmly objective listing of ‘facts’ in the format of a dictionary is a useful tool for refuting ‘hysterical women’, ‘angry blacks’, and other overly emotional voices.

Food and Dance; as ordinary as oxygen

Soul Food Junkies (broadcast version) from Sonia Gonzalez-Martinez on Vimeo.

This is a really great little docco. As you’ve probably figured out, one of my favourite ways of experiencing the places I visit is to see what people eat, how they eat it, and where they get it. I especially like ‘ordinary’ or ‘everyday’ food – supermarkets, greengrocers, delis, markets. The places where people buy their everyday food.

Sitting here in Herrang, at a dance camp devoted to black dance history, I’m struck (once again – for the millionth time) by just how selective this ‘history’ is. It’s heavily vetted by middle class white people, and barely touches on the everyday lives of black people in the 20s/30s/40s, let alone today. One of the very real consequences of this, is that lindy hop and tap and all those other black dances are even more clearly separated from the black vernacular.

The other night there was a library talk about lindy hop, with the provocation: “lindy hop: a dance to preserve or develop?” All three of the people on the panel were white, middle class Swedes. I find this thought more than a little troubling. This was clearly a statement of ownership of black dance. By white business owners. I couldn’t attend, and frankly, I couldn’t quite bear the thought of another belaboured discussion where white people give endless excuses and reasons for why what they are doing is ok, because this one time a black guy told them so. To paraphrase an important movement in lindy hop today: the voices of black lindy hoppers matter. Time to stop talking and listen, white lindy hoppers.

Anyways, this documentary is about the way black families can both preserve and innovate, by focussing on community development (specifically in terms of addressing food deserts and access to ingredients in black communities, as well as cooking). Here, the cultural practices and products – cooking, eating and food – are clearly marked as central to black family life, and therefore of vital importance to black cultural life. This filmmaker makes it clear that stepping aside from the commodification of processed food and black eaters’ engagement with food only as consumers is a serious issue. Growing your own greens is as important as dancing your own dances and making your own music; it is soul food.

Racism and white people getting away with it. Repeatedly.

I just came across this video (c/o Sylwia B), where Bell discusses white responses to racist acts by white people:

A lot of people in this country, predominantly white people, get focussed on racism as individual acts that are debated: was this racist? Was this not racist? And even if they it is racist, they go, ‘That was racist, let’s fix that racism.’ But they’re not thinking about fixing [gestures broadly] racism.

I feel like this has happened with Ksenia Parkhatskaya, who has recently been confirmed to teach at Drag the Blues, a blues dance event in Barcelona. She has become the target for vitriol (because she’s the clear ‘example’ of racism), when the bigger issue is why organisers in Europe hire this sort of racist, and why white dancers are happy to overlook racism in their teachers when they go to events. It’s as though they think ‘Well, she got called out, she apologised, now it’s fixed. And anyway she’s a nice person/amazing dancer and I want to be like her and do her classes so I’ll support this event anyway.’

She’s had the opportunity to commit multiple offensive acts _because_ people keep hiring her and giving her a platform.
So if you are hiring her, you are not only condoning her thinking and actions, you are also enabling it, and providing her with a platform and status that _consolidates_ her status. Because we see this happen with various high profile dancers around the world (eg William Mauvais making a literal nazi salute at a huge public event _and still getting hired again_; known rapists being publicly reported _and still getting hired again__), the real problem isn’t so much the interchangeable individuals, but the systems and institutions that structure our dance communities.

Why I want to hang onto gender when we talk about race in lindy hop

As part of the ongoing discussion about race and lindy hop, Shelby (a black American man) asked (in response to a comment about how the dance community’s response to race differs/shares with its response to rape and sexual assault):

So can we stay on the topic at hand please. Just once would like a discussion on race not have another topic though pressing be brought into the discussion unless they actually crossover to prevent tangents

I responded like this:

I think they’re all linked. We can’t talk about race in America without talking about class. We can’t talk about race in vintage fashion culture without also talking about gender and class (and sexuality). It’s important to note that ‘gender norms’ in mainstream American lindy hop culture involve race. As an extreme example, I was reading an article the other day pointing out why the American second amendment is inherently about race and a part of slavery. In that setting, we have to talk about class and race if we want to understand why white men in America are over-represented in mass shootings in schools.

I think it’s super, super important to identify how ‘idealised female bodies’ are ethnicised: white skin, straight hair, long clear lines created by shoe choices and lots of pointed toes, etc etc. And how clothing choices emphasise particular aesthetics and shapes.
Joann Kealiinohomoku wrote a great article about ballet in 1983 which is directly relevant to this conversation. She pointed out how ballet – specifically the ballerina’s body and movement – are shaped by ethnicised notions of beauty and gender. She pointed out how ‘whiteness’ is constructed by particular ways of moving and particular body shapes and aesthetics.

If we are going to make lindy hop more tenable for poc, we need to deconstruct how lindy hop is ethnicised, where the dominant ethnicity is ‘whiteness’. We have to deconstruct whiteness. We have to think about ‘whiteness’ as ethnicity. As culture. Not as some neutral ‘norm.’ And that means not only talking about historic black dancers in class; but looking at how vintage fashion aesthetics contribute to contemporary gender norms; how dance step ‘trends’ favour particular rhythms, which reflect vernacular spoken language; and how the cost of events limits the participation of people who don’t have disposable income (class).

I don’t expect you, personally, to take on this work, but as a white woman, I feel I have a responsibility to see how privilege works in the context of patriarchy. I need to unravel all the threads, and see which ones contribute to which knots. Then i can start untangling and undoing patriarchy.
Working within a feminist framework (in my background) means asking how race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, age, etc all work to privilege some people and marginalise others. The generation of feminists who came after me talk about this in terms of intersectionality. For me, it’s a way of saying “How come the work of white feminists of the second generation (1960s) didn’t turn out to be so useful for black women?”
My approach is informed by black feminists and feminists of colour, who clearly state: gender is not my first point of engagement with power and injustice; my race is. I can dig that. But I feel that as a white woman, I owe it to my black sisters to take on some of this labour while they’re getting on with addressing issues like school lunches and literacy rates in black communities.

Kealiinohomoku, Joann. “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance.” What Is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism. Eds. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. 533 – 49.

More references on this topic.

Looking for Langston

Speaking of the black experience in jazz and blues dance…

I haven’t yet ready anything in the blues and lindy hop community about the black queer male body dancing.

There’s been some good work on black women’s bodily experiences in modern jazz dance culture, and a bit about black masculinity. Quite a few too many white men have whitesplained how blues works as a black space, and far too many white women and men have avoided talking about vintage fashion as an ethnicised scene.

Apparently the black queer body in a well cut suit or gorgeous gown is too terrifying even for whispers.

I saw Looking For Langston (an art film by Isaac Julien) last night. The whole project – a film made during the 80s AIDS crisis by a black British man, about a black American man of the Harlem Renaissance – is a meditation on queer desire, jazz aesthetics and the blues. The name (and a lot of the content, including some proto-vogueing) reminds me of Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna, and the queer-eye-on-art. It includes voice work by Stuart Hall and Toni Morrison, Paul Gilroy gets props, Jimmy Somerville plays a cherub (again), and Tongues Untied is referenced. Also there is some cock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The installation at Rosley Oxley9 Gallery features some beautiful large scale black and white stills from the film, depicting black men dancing in closed embrace. Photos I regularly see linked up on facebook as examples of queer dance in the swing era. Ha.

Liah says it’s good to check out the Mapplethorpe exhibit at the agnsw as well, so you can see how Julien’s work responds to Mapplethorpe (and the white queer gaze on black bodies).

I’ve hooked up this obviously pirated version of Looking for Langston, because it’s a hard one to get to see.

 

photos:

mise en scene pic from Isaac Julien’s set (source).
Stuart Hall, from his obituary in the Telegraph.
Toni Morrison by Gregg Delman in the Times.
Paul Gilroy (source).
Jimmy Somverville in Sally Potter’s Orlando.
Tongues Untied (source).
My pic from the exhibition.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Two Men Dancing (source).

More talk about consent and blues dance: the consequences of trauma on discourse

In a continuation of the discussion begun by Damon’s post, Kelly posted a lengthy, intelligent piece on facebook. This one was only visible to friends (not everyone), so I won’t copy and paste it here. But she did begin some interesting discussion about being a white woman engaging with this topic. I chimed in there in a less careful tone than I would on Damon’s post, as I know Kelly better, and I wouldn’t splash my feels all over the page of someone I don’t know.

Anyhoo, this is how I responded:

While i can get behind the statement, ‘Some historic blues dance styles are defined by a close embrace’, i cannot endorse the line that walking through the door at a blues dance event _is_ giving consent for a closed embrace.
Whatever the history of a dance, drawing an equivalence between those two points is rubbish.

I’m also very unkeen to just recreate the past. Honour our history, yes, but i’m not just going to give a blanket ok for wholesale reenactment of ‘history’.
I go to dances with my brain and eyes open. One of the most important parts of the cultural transmission of dances between generations, communities, and cultures, is adapting them to make them socially relevant. That’s why canel walk in 1930 and camel walk in 2018 aren’t exactly the same.

So i’m saying it bluntly: even if the historical ‘truth’ was that you (women, it is implied), give up the right to withdrawl consent at blues partirs, i am NOT ok with that now. And i do not want to revive or preserve that little nugget. And i sure as shit won’t tolerate retrosexist bros who use this ‘history’ to enable contravening women’s rights.

No punches pulled there, right?
But I’m finding it so difficult to stay chilled on this topic.

A couple of black men responded, but again I won’t cut and paste their comments here, as they weren’t publicly visible. When a post and comments aren’t public, we assume that the authors assume a degree of anonymity or ‘safety’.

But I did continue, after some thought, with the following post. I think it best sums up by difficulties in dealing with this topic. It’s so, so hard to unpack privilege and assumptions about race and ethnicity when your brain is being pounded by the effects of vicarious trauma.
Lately the topic of intergenerational trauma has entered Australian discourse about indigenous Australian rights and compensation. Part of me would like to talk/write about the physical consequence of trauma and violence (and living with the threat of violence) for people trying to participate in public discourse. Basically: it’s fucking hard to be calm and coherent when your brain is pouring adrenaline through you. And I think that this is why we need allies. We need people who have the privilege and advantage of not being physically threatened by patriarchy to do some heavy lifting.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I get so upset about this particular point. I understand with my brain, but then my emotions just come raging in.
I think it’s an old school trigger. I have heard men use exactly this argument -“It’s a blues hold”, “Relax and go with it,” “This is how you do blues dance” – when a woman asks them not to hold them so tight it hurts, not to touch their breasts or groin, or gets so upset they cry and leave the dance. I’m dealing with these men in my local dance scene at the moment.

So when I hear just the beginning of this sentence, it’s like a switch gets flicked in my head, and I hear those women literally crying, ashamed, and telling me what the man said as he held her down and groped or assaulted her. Repeatedly. “Relax. It’s a blues hold.” It’s line built for gaslighting.

I know I feel this way because I’m dealing with vicarious trauma from working on so much s.a. and harassment stuff. But my brain isn’t in control here. My emotions are.

At this stage, I simply can’t accept this approach. As I type this, I’m starting to feel a bit distressed. But right now, I’m 100% not ok with even getting anywhere near supporting or even taking apart this argument to see how it works.

I’ve also been wondering: am I doing some low-key racism here? Am I policing a topic for my own privilege? I’m not sure. I do know that I’ve heard white male offenders appropriate the ‘this is authentic black history’ argument to justify serious harassment, as social dancers, and as teachers, _teaching_ other men that this sort of behaviour is legit. And that makes me super, super angry.

So I’m going to sit on this for a while until I don’t get so seriously triggered. Then revisit it.

When do you give consent: blues dance and historical context

Damon Stone, a high profile black male blues dancer recently made this post on facebook:

Blues dance post following –

Asking for consent before dancing in close embrace. If you are at a blues dance and someone asks you to dance, the expectation is that you are going to do blues, be it freestyle or a specific idiom…if they say yes, that *is* consent for you to dance in close embrace.

Like all other activities and aspects of consent, such consent can be withdrawn at *any* time, but if you do not want to dance in close embrace with someone politely refuse the dance. If you don’t want to dance in close embrace with anyone, then, respectfully, find a different dance.

EDIT: This is assuming two things, 1) that the person is dancing correctly, 2) that not every single blues idiom dance is a close embrace dance, but blues idiom dances use close embrace as their starting position.

I read this post in light of the recent (and most excellent) comments by black women about white blues dancers (which I note in my post ‘Stop Dancing’), and ongoing about how to negotiate consent and avoid sexual assault and harassment in the contemporary blues, balboa, and lindy hop scenes.

My response was as follows.

I think there are a few issues here for me as a dancer and observer:
– One is the history of blues (and we are talking about a dance that includes a very close embrace – just as tango does),
– One is the different current cultural contexts of blues music and dance around the world today,
– And one is the different notions of consent and negotiated physical contact in different cultures today and then.

I think this statement is problematic:

If you are at a blues dance and someone asks you to dance, the expectation is that you are going to do blues, be it freestyle or a specific idiom…if they say yes, that *is* consent for you to dance in close embrace

Why?

Because people take this statement and this concept at face value. As a relatively experienced dancer, I know what it means: if I go to a blues party at Damon’s house, I should expect some pretty close physical contact. I’ll be able to tell a bro or a woman to back off if I’m not ok with what they do, but I should expect a close embrace (vs no physical contact at all, as at a tap jam).

But an awful lot of people take this sort of dance etiquette and map it onto their relationships throughout the dance world. An awful lot of men and women are trained to expect this: that a woman or man must say yes to a dance invite, a close embrace, a partner doing as they like with our body. Because an awful lot of people don’t know how to touch other humans with respect.
In my world (fuck, in Trump’s world), men expect to touch women as they like, women expect that men will try to touch them without permission, and learn to avoid that in a non-confrontational way. Men learn to exploit this and exploit women.
So when we go to a blues dance, some people need to be told, explicitly: you don’t get to do what you like to your partner’s body. You have to ask permission.

I’m rolling my eyes too. For fuck’s sake.

Blues as a historically-rooted dance comes from black communities, where notions of how to touch and when to touch and who to touch were something black kids learnt growing up, engaged with as teens, and then continued to negotiate and renegotiate as adults.
These ideas of ‘appropriate’ touch, how to ask for permission to touch, how to reject touch and so on weren’t monolithic across black communities in the US. I mean, there’s that iconic story that Frankie Manning told about imitating his mother dancing by dancing with a broom and getting into big trouble. The implication here is that dancing that way was something adults (sexually mature people) did. And they certainly didn’t do it across generations (part of his mother’s reaction was no doubt to do with the fact that Frankie was watching his mother, not some random woman, in an intimate embrace).

So we have generational differences then. We also have generational differences now. And young women regularly police the boundaries of when old is ‘too old’ to dance intimately (and sensuously) with (“eee gross! He is too OLD for you!”)

Then of course, we have different regional differences (country v city, city v city, etc), and different class differences (eg the super close intimate dancing has long been associated with ‘low’ culture, and wasn’t appropriate for huge, cross-generational dances in ‘polite’ company).

In all those spaces, people figured out what was appropriate and what wasn’t. A good slap would tell a man if he’d crossed a boundary. From that woman, or her brother or father. And then a series of stern frowns, lectures, and ‘punishments’ from a world of aunties and grandmas and mothers.
But, for many dancers today, blues dancing isn’t situated in that close community network. Their aunty is never going to know what they did at that party and come after them with a broom. There isn’t that inter-generational education about how to touch and be touched on the dance floor.

Blues dancing today also exists in lots of different cultural and social contexts, with all sorts of attendant social mores and modes of behaviour. We are at this moment having very public discussions about the role of race, cultural heritage and who gets to police these values. Who gets to speak in these discussions, who gets listened to, and whose words last are subject to broader socio-political forces.

I’m saying this not to be patronising (I know you all know all this), I’m saying it to signal that I’m aware of these issues. I need to talk context, and I am aware of the bigger issues, and the intensely personal issues at hand.

But I think that one of the voices I’m not hearing in many discussions about blues dance (and how to touch a partner on the dance floor) is black women’s. I think that Cierra’s Obsidian Tea piece about dating is really useful here, for me (as a white woman in another country). It says, ‘Hey, mate, your rules of physical intimacy may not apply here. Pay attention.’ So I’m paying attention.

BUT there is also an ongoing contribution from black women talking about their rights to decide how and when they give consent, and to whom. As a full-on example, a queer black woman at a blues dance not automatically give consent for a man to hold her in a closed embrace. Nor does a straight black woman. They might not need to give and receive verbal consent, but they certainly have a right to set boundaries about their bodies.

So I figure: in this moment, when we are renegotiating blues and lindy hop, we don’t assume anything about how we touch other people’s bodies. I might go to a tango practica expecting to be held and to hold in a very close embrace. But each dance that I have in that session will involve some degree of negotiation. I might invite a close embrace, but I might also reject it. I might end a dance early. I have a right to do all these things with no notice, both on and off the dance floor. How I do this depends on the traditions of that scene, and my own social skills (or lack thereof).

In my culture (white woman in urban Australia), women are strongly discouraged from publicly embarrassing men. To protect their own bodies, but more to protect the reputations and status of that man. So we are trained not to slap a handsy man on the dance floor (though goddess knows I’d like to). We’re trained not to say “STOP THAT” to that handsy man on the dance floor. We’re trained not to move away from that handsy man on the dance floor.
And I don’t know what a black woman my age at a party in Chicago would do in those situations either. I’d probably watch and learn, and ask my female friends questions, and figure it out. But I’m in Australia, and I’m white. So I’m figuring it out long distance. And this is why I really really want to see black women talking about how they do this stuff.

We might sensibly assume that if we go to a blues dance or event that is advertised (or described) as a party in the sense of the historic blues idiom, that we might be doing some close embracing on the dance floor.
(which I think is your original point, Damon?)

BUT I think that we should never assume that we can embrace someone or touch someone without asking for and receiving consent to do so. And to continue to check in and to see that our partner is ok with this. And being prepared to end the dance ourselves if our partner isn’t into it, or if our partner wants to end this.

No, white people, you are not the victim here.

There’s a debate going on over in the Teaching Swing Dance group on facebook. A black dancer posted a real yawp of a post: a loud, angry, upset, emotional, frustrated shout. About his experiences with white dancers, about the blowback to Ellie’s post, Cierra’s response, and his own attempts to enter the discussion. Basically, he was fucking shitty with the white bros in the dance scene telling him to sit down, shut up, and get over himself.
All very legit reasons to post angry.

But then a (presumably white) woman posted in response:

I sent the following PM yesterday morning:

Good morning, Odysseus.

I’m an admin for South Florida Lindy Collective. Thank you for taking the time to write your post. I understand that discussions regarding racism and appropriation vs appreciation can trigger people to react in unexpected ways. And, I’m sorry that you were not able to get through to your local organizer at that time. As a leader, I’m more interested in learning about how you personally plan to help make things better so that the swing dance community is more accessible to black communities. It is on ALL of us to learn the importance of swing dance history (that it helped unite a segregated country) and spread that knowledge. It is on each of us to be an active participant and welcome and invite each other to swing dance with positivity rather than passively waiting for someone else to make the first move. I encourage you to try reaching out to your local organizers again, after tempers have cooled, and present them with solutions. If they’re not on board, it’s ok. Start implementing your solution without them. Your efforts will be undeniable and YOU will be the change you’re seeking. (I highly recommend watching the movie “42” for inspiration on positive change regarding racism.)

I ask that post your personal thoughts and solutions in the existing thread regarding this issue as it will be easier to follow everyone’s input if it’s all in one place, which is why I’m denying your original post. I also ask that you don’t rant on this thread regarding your conversation with your local organizers because it won’t improve the global situation and may hinder positive change within your local scene.

I would like to add that I have not read Cierra’s response to Ellie’s post, but I would like to. Would you please send me the link?

Thank you for your efforts,
Cici
South Florida Lindy Collective

The immediate response from other people in that group was shock. How patronising. How tone-deaf. What a bloody shitful response.
Anyway, there was some interesting debate, some strong feels, some thoughtful comments all round. But this woman refused to bend. After a few posts, she wrote:

…I certainly don’t feel safe sharing my opinions here without feeling like I’m being judged or reprimanded for sharing them. And, not one person has attempted to address the difficult questions I posted…

Now, please note that I’m taking a small section of a longer post, and I’m presenting it out of context. But this is the issue I want to address, and it’s something I’ve seen come up a lot in discussions of race and gender in the dance world. Women who are disagreed with then respond by playing the ‘martyr card’. They’re usually relatively high status (teachers, organisers, etc), and they’re obviously not used to being disagreed with.
This strategy is an attempt to control the discussion, to set the terms of the debate. To reposition the speaker as powerful and high status.

It’s a clear example of a failure to grasp the main issue: they have power through virtue of their ethnicity, and/or position within an institution that is unjust.
Their response – presenting themselves as a victim – is an attempt to control the terms of the debate. To keep them in a position of authority. I see women do this a lot. And it narks me.

At any rate, I replied like this instead:

While I am sympathetic to your feelings, I’d caution you not to prioritise your own discomfort above the feelings of people of colour dealing with racism and injustice in America today (let alone the lindy hop scene). https://www.sbs.com.au/comedy/article/2016/03/21/white-men-are-under-attack-or-when-youre-accustomed-privilege-equality-feels.

[I shouldn’t have linked to satire, because these people never understand it]

Yes, it’s hard work to change the way you do things.
Yes, it’s challenging and a bit threatening to discover that you hold a lot of power and status when you thought you were just ‘normal’.

But we’re badass jazz dancers. We can totally do this.

[Another woman replied to this comment with a description of how her college lindy hop group had failed to get black dancers involved in their scene. I continued…]

I think this is an interesting point. We work with street dancers here in Sydney (almost all of whom are Asian-Australian, coming from lots of different countries in Asia and south-east Asia).
If you want people to come to your party, you have to go to their parties first. To be blunt, simply standing in your yard trying to get people to come over isn’t going to work.

Cierra wrote (in her brilliant response to Ellie’s article):

“I keep hearing the question: “How do we get more black people into our scene?” The answer is quite simple. Join our communities. Become our friends. Not because you feel some white guilt about how you participate in blues, but because you’re excited. Learn to code switch. Learn to adjust to other people’s cultures.” (linky)

I think that the fact that the students in the other groups were too busy with other stuff gives you an important clue. They have other priorities: spending time on their study, working on other issues, working with other POC. You might want, very badly, for them to get involved with your group and events, but it’s clearly not relevant or that important to them. This is a super important point: people of colour in America today have important things to do, just to keep from going under. _Particularly_ young people at university. They’re already battling a whole heap of bullshit, and have accomplished so much just to get there.

I think this is an interesting illustration of how lindy hop changed as it moved through generations. It had to change, it was changed, to maintain its relevance and usefulness. This is why I get quite angry about the ‘lindy hop died out’ historical narratives. Lindy hop didn’t die out, it just changed its spots.

So why would young black people go to a lindy hop event, where they have to take classes, learn new music, leap through a bunch of hoops and come in at very low status just to get in the door, for a scene that people keep telling them belongs to them? Why not do stuff they enjoy, at events and in groups that make them feel good, value their modern day life experiences, and provide support and solidarity in a decidedly hostile world?

All this should tell you that your modern day lindy hop scene doesn’t have what young black people need. So either you own that, or you change up what you do. To be more relevant, you need to go to those guys’ parties and events, and skill yourself up.

Time to do some work, white people.