Topic: improvisation, and musicians teaching us to dance (1)

I’ve just watched this video that Alice hooked up on fb. In this vid the musicians demonstrate how collective improvisation works in nola jazz.

Now, this is just one type of improvisation, in one type of jazz. But it’s a good example of how I think about lindy hop.
Both partners are equal participants in the band, but they have different roles. They share the same sense of time, the same beat. There’s a melody (because they are dancing a ‘standard’), and there’s a shared key, and they’ll be working in 4/4 time. The band leader sets the tempo.

But

they can do a lot of improvised stuff within that framework.
It’s a fun game to play ‘who’s the lead, who’s the follow?’ in this song. I like to think of the clarinet as the follower and the trumpeter as the leader. The leader is carrying the melody and setting the tone. The clarinet is improvising all around that.

And as the man in the video says: we are respecting the structure of phrases, of choruses, and of the build and flow of the song as a whole. So sometimes we might improvise like crazy arpeggios, and sometimes we are more subtle and find the harmony in single notes.

Anyhoo, this is how I think about jazz and how I think about lindy hop. So this is how I start all our beginners. Find the beat, keep time, learn the ‘time step’ (to borrow from tap – the basic step we use throughout this dance), then improvise. It’s ok for both people to improvise at once, it’s ok to take turns improvising it’s ok to just do it vanilla. Then of course, the way we improvise can vary, depending on the music and how we feel individually and as a team.

Topic: groove, musicians teaching us to dance.

A student, who is also a musician, just sent me a message. They’re from a rootsy/folk sort of background, and play a lot of gypsy jazz. They’re just discovering other types of swinging jazz.

The message said:

“Surely there is nothing better to lindy hop to than Oscar Peterson. Surely.”

We had a conversation, and at first I was a bit ‘mmm, not necessarily,’ and it spread into stuff about how groovy stuff with a deep pocket was cool in the 2000s, but isn’t necessarily awesome for all sorts of lindy hop.
Then I said something like ‘but that Ella and Louis album features Peterson, and it’s wonderful. Oh, and then there’s this. And this. And this.’
And I have to concede: Oscar Peterson is wonderful.

But.
This sort of jazz has a different groove to a big Webb band in full swing, or Goodman’s small groups, or Slim and Slam.

And it made me think: I don’t want my students to always ‘bounce’ or ‘pulse’ in the same way to every single song. _I_ don’t want to groove in the same way to every song.

Anyhoo, I was listening to a bunch of different types of jazz just now, figuring out how different grooves work in the music and in my body.
Then I watched this video, and noticed how each musician has a different groove in their body, but a shared sense of time, and they’re all listening to each other. And once again, I’m thinking ‘music first: musicians can teach us a lot about dancing.’

The end. By Sam.

WHAT THE FUCK Your understanding of following in lindy hop is fucked up or, Sam loses her shit.

There’s a discussion going on on facebook where people are really being WRONG.
Good thing I’m here to set them straight.

This discussion is, in the broadest terms, about how teachers can help their follow students contribute more to the partnership.
Of course, we all know that this question is predicated on a false paradigm. We all know that lindy hop is not about leaders laying out a series of moves and follows completing them perfectly. And we all know that a follow’s creativity is not based on (her) ability to slot jazz steps into the spaces between moves or into the moves themselves.

We know this, don’t we?

I have gendered this deliberately, because this is an old partner dance paradigm based on white, middle class gender and social conventions, and having very little to do with vernacular dance.

The original poster had three questions, and I answered them. The questions were expanding on a class exercise where the leads had been tasked with ensuring their partner had the best dance ever (engaging with them, etc etc), and the follows with bringing creative work and play to the dance. It apparently blew their students minds, and everyone had a really great time, including teachers.
Here I respond to the questions the OP asked at the end of their post:

1) Why were the followers so baffled at first when we gave them this assignment?
Patriarchy. Women are trained to put others’ needs before their own. That includes helping leads look good by being perfect follows.

2) Why were the leads so confident at first that they were already doing it?
Patriarchy. Men aren’t trained to put others’ needs first.

3) And how can we add in these little “life lessons” (as one of our students called it) throughout all of our classes in every level?
I have three teaching rules: Take care of the music, take care of your partner, take care of yourself. That last one is as important as all the others, especially for follows. I might extend that to include:
– follows are responsible for carrying the rhythm too;
– follows, don’t compromise your own rhythm and timing for the lead;
– connection isn’t just about follows being able to ‘hear’ a lead’s leading. It’s about leads hearing and feeling the follow,

or, as with an older woman this week in a private,
– if you have a sore knee, don’t ever push through. Stop, take a break. Ask for a pause. Give yourself credit for knowing what you need.

I think that the problem here isn’t ‘how do we get followers to do X and leads to Y (within our existing dance paradigm’, but rather ‘what the fuck are you doing? This isn’t lindy hop. You need to get back to class and relearn how this thing works.’ Of course, I’ll not be posting that on fb in a civil discussion, no matter how much I might like to.

Anyways, the thread continued, with each post more baffling and frustrating than the last.

Then there came this post:

There are many ways to approach this, but I think it’s very difficult to be expressive when you don’t have a jazz step vocabulary that’s in your muscle memory. I like teaching specific ways to play with specific basic steps. Practice that particular variation whenever that step is lead (leaders can do the same thing to work on their own style, but hopefully not at the same time) Over time, that variation will feel natural and eventually your body will simply respond to the music and/or energy of the lead to plug in whatever move in your vocabulary feels right. And you’ll also be able to utilize that vocabulary in other situation besides the ones you specifically practiced. I think that’s the best way to start. With more advanced students, you can give exercises that require the follower to get creative with certain patterns.

There is so much wrong here.
I just … I cannot. I can’t even. Why. How. What even is this? It’s not lindy hop.

But of course, I replied:

I don’t think follows ‘having a voice’ = follows slotting jazz steps into the shapes a leader proscribes.

I vigorously reject this paradigm. Lindy hop is far more complex and interesting and also far simpler and more enjoyable.

But that person doubled down with:

….You need a vocabulary before you can be creative….

And then I responded:

I totally disagree, and i think that lindy predicates innovation and making shit up. And total noobs are brilliant at being creative without a body of jazz vocab. And i’d much prefer they let the music and their partnership move them, than they just pulled out rote moves.

This poster responded, tripling down, so I bowed out.

But I want to make this point:

If we insist that students (women, follows) cannot improvise or be creative without having first consumed and perfected a body of vocabulary, we are setting up troubling power dynamics. We are saying: you can only get this vocab from me, the teacher. This sets us up as a powerful authority.
If we insist that the only way of being creative in lindy hop is via set vocab, we are also saying ‘your individuality and the steps and shapes you invent are not important to lindy hop. are not lindy hop.’ So while we are establishing our own power and status as teachers, we are also deconstructing students’ own power and confidence. And devaluing their skills and creativity.

It’s also flying in the face of black vernacular dance history and culture. ie it’s wrong. It’s not lindy hop.

In contrast, I believe that humans come to lindy hop classes with a vast body of skills, experience, and qualities that make for brilliant lindy hop.
They know how to interact with other humans. Even if they aren’t much good at it, almost every person in a dance class can figure out how to work with a partner. Particularly if you explain or demonstrate how to do it. So rather than my setting up a weirdo language-based technical jargon filled example of partnership, I might say ‘please hold this person in your arms the way you would a dear friend’. Or I might say ‘you dance one 8, then they dance one 8, and I want you to imagine your are demonstrating it so that they can memorise it.’

They will then use their eyes to make contact, they will orient their bodies towards their partner, they will stand close enough to see and hear each other. They will apologise if they kick their partner or anyone else. They will negotiate who will go first and who will do what role.

Additionally, humans are phenomenal pattern matchers. I’m astounded by how good first time dancers are at identifying patterns, then memorising and recreating them. And they get very good very quickly at doing this with increasingly complex patterns. And rhythms, of course, are just patterns. They learn very quickly how to use their senses – their eyes, ears, bodies – and their brains to identify, learn, and echo back rhythms and patterns.

This is of course brilliant for learning a partner dance. They can learn a basic rhythm from a teacher demonstration in 3 minutes. They can learn how to dance with another human in 5 minutes. And then they can map it onto a partnership with another human they’ve just met, negotiating social discomfort to create a shared rhythm and pattern. That is AMAZING. And 90% of the time the teachers (you) only need to step in once or twice to set them in the direction you’d like to see (eg consensual, cooperative, etc).

And then, humans are also incredibly good at translating this pattern matching business into finding and keeping the beat in a song. They maintaining that beat as they do other tasks. While touching someone else. And learning other, more complex rhythms across various spatial planes.

Humans are fucking mind blowing.

So if you set up the exercise/task correctly, either partner in a lindy hop couple is more than capable of being creative within the partnership right from their very first class. They don’t need to learn X number of core jazz steps. In fact, if you’re not careful, they will invent their own. _Especially_ if you tell them a little story about how jazz steps were often invented from day to day life (pecks, crazy legs, cool breeze in the knees, pimp walk, fish tail, boogie forward).
If you have already done a 3 minute solo jazz warm up, they will already have a bunch of jazz steps under their belt.
If you have encouraged them to experiment and feel ok, they will experiment and create new steps and rhythms.
If you point out which things they already do well (all this stuff), they will feel confident enough to share these new ideas with their partners and the group.

And all this long before you get to set moves or lindy hop shapes!
In fact, if you get to this points and you see your lindy hop ‘moves’ as limits or restrictive shapes, then you really need to rethink your lindy hop structures as well. Because this is the wonderful thing about lindy hop: it is DESIGNED TO ACCOMODATE ALL THIS INDIVIDUAL AND COLLABORATIVE INNOVATION AND CREATIVITY!

The goddamm swing out is DESIGNED, BUILT specifically to accomodate individuality. The closed circle is literally broken open to let individual partners improvise. THIS IS LINDY HOP.

So I don’t fucking know what’s going on here. How can you even dance a dance that tells one partner they have no right or room to be creative? WHY WOULD YOU EVEN DO THAT DANCE?!?!?!?

It’s totally ok for students to not be good at making things up or creating things. They can learn – they’re there to learn! In fact, I think that this is one of the most important parts of a lindy hop class: we learn to be ok with not being perfect at things, and we learn to learn from our peers and from ourselves. We let the music guide us, not strict studio dance class rules.

But in my experience, humans are really REALLY good at making things up.
They are so good at recognising complex patterns, internalising them, and then recreating them. Humans can always find the beat in a song! Then they can keep it as they do complex tasks on different spatial planes (ie walking in time)!

Creativity and innovation don’t need to be specific, reproduceable dance steps. It can be the way you hitch a shoulder, a little extra bounce in your step, or a hugging your partner a bit closer in the best bit of the song.

If you do a jazz warm up, students’ll have 3 minutes worth of neat jazz steps.
If you tell students the stories of how a particular jazz step was born, you’ll probably have to fight to stop them inventing their own. I mean, pecking, crazy legs, cool breeze in the knees, boogie forward, broken leg, fall off the log. Who doesn’t want to get in on that action? Create a step that reflects their own day to day life?
When the step has a story, they will really enjoy ‘telling that story’ to their partner, and their partner will listen. So both of them will make space in open or closed or without touching to ‘do some jazz’.

But even better, if you play good music, and just ask them to ‘groove a bit before dancing’, and then ‘keep that groove with you all the time’, they will become fantastical innovative creative forces.

The very nature of lindy hop is innovation and improvisation. The swing out itself is an historic, literally breaking open of a fixed shape to let in the improvisation. A swing out asks each partner to be ok with being on their own for a bit. On their own, but with a partner. Improvising or not.

This is how vernacular dance works: it adapts and changes to meet people’s needs.

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).