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Like all other activities and aspects of consent, such consent can be withdrawn at *any* time, but if you do not want to dance in close embrace with someone politely refuse the dance.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


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,
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.

Stop dancing.

Ellie Koepplinger explains why she stopped blues dancing.

I think this is one of the most important posts of the last year. I like that she makes a very clear, no-bullshit point: stop dancing. It’s a challenge. To me, it says, “I’m asking you to put your money where your mouth is. Are you really an ally?”

Or as (to paraphrase) what Breai said in that Focus talk: wearing a black person’s face on your skin is not the same as having black skin. To etch the image of a black body into your skin, to train your muscles to move as you imagine a black body did, does not make you black. Being black – living black – means living with injustice. And you can’t tattoo away your white privilege. As a white dancer, you have a far greater responsibility. You have debts to be paid.

There isn’t any way you can argue with what Ellie is saying: she is saying, bluntly, “I am a black woman. And you cannot benefit from the exploitation of black culture on the dance floor without also engaging with the broader exploitation of black lives and bodies in our communities.”
She’s saying: “This is wrong. If you keep doing this, you are part of the wrongness.”

I’m actually trying to negotiate a way of engaging with these issues from Australia, which has a different (and pretty horrific) history of white invasion, colonialism, and explicit White Australia Policy. Not to mention current day literal human rights violations. Our black history is not an American black history. But we are standing on black country. And I am a white woman who benefits indirectly and directly from racist government policies, racist history, and racist culture. Particularly as a white middle class woman.

It is essential (for my own peace of mind, if not for the sake of just being a decent human being) that I remember that I am still benefitting from the exploitation of those faraway black communities. I’m still participating in that exploitation. Unless I do something about it.

And I have been thinking of it like this:
Too many lindy hoppers today care more about long dead black musicians and dancers than they do about the real, living black people in their own neighbourhoods. They care more about the idea of these black people – a myth of black jazz – than they do about actual real people.
And this upsets me. It is too selfish.

Do something or stop dancing. That is the ultimatum.

I welcome the challenge. It’s going to make me a better person. Make me more useful.

…and if I can rant about how straight white men are getting shitty because they’re figuring out just how easy they have it, then I have no right to get shitty because I’ve had my privilege pointed out to me.

Why is it important to say that lindy hop is a black dance?

The mighty Anaïs asked on fb today:

the statement of the “African-American” quality of Jazz dance and Lindy hop has disappeared from the front page and main description of what was taught and celebrated at the Herräng Dance Camp…Why?

Here is what I think.

Herräng is a white-run and European-based business which gains much of its status from the idea that it is offering an ‘authentic’ jazz/swing dance experience. This idea of authenticity or ‘realness’ is really developed by the focus on and use of the idea of ‘vernacular.’ Vernacular, in this sense, means everyday, ordinary, ‘of the people,’ rather than concert or performance or formal or prepackaged. A significant part of the camp’s appeal lies in the immersion style experience campers have: there is music and dance everywhere, every day, all the time.

This is all well and good. But if white organisers leave out the black part of this ‘vernacular’, we’re left with the implication that this ‘vernacular’ has nothing to do with race. Or class.

This is the bit that makes me very uncomfortable. That’s straight up appropriation: taking something that belongs to someone else and repackaging it for your own gain.
It’s difficult to get around this issue, because we are talking about relatively wealthy, middle class, socially and culturally powerful people using a dance which is really appealing. And fun.

One of the solutions suggested by scholars and activists of colour is to name check the people who developed and own this stuff. I like to compare it to recognising the traditional owners of country (ie Aboriginal Australians). It’s a way of saying, “Hello, I saw what you did. I recognise your power and work. I want to apologise for the past. I give you the chance to forbid me use of this dance and music. This is yours.”
When we say, “this is a black dance” we are saying “I do not own, nor did I create this dance.” We are recognising the traditional custodians of this creative land.

So, when Herräng leaves off the words ‘African American’, they’re essentially obscuring the black roots of this dance. The focus on authenticity in camp is likely to leave punters with the idea that this white version of black dance is the ‘real’ or most ‘authentic’ version of this dance and history.
This is cultural appropriation, but it is also colonisation.

Without name checks, without reference to and discussion of real history, Frankie’s face becomes an appropriated icon as much as the swing out.

This is why it’s important that people like Anaïs and others publicly ask, “Hey, where did the words go?” because she is also saying, “Hey, where is the recognition of the custodians of this traditional knowledge?”

why the black kids sit together

I was just watching this video ‘Why the Black Kids Still Sit Together’ feat. Beverly Daniel Tatum and thinking about how important it was to have critical mass of black dancers at Herrang this year in week 4.
There was a moment after the meeting when I was watching the OGs hanging out with the Frankie ambassador peeps, with teacher, dancers from all over the world. They were just hanging, talking, dancing a bit while staff tidied the hall for the dance, the DJ (me) set up for the gig, and the hall emptied out.

Watching these peeps of colour from all over the world hang out, I was struck by just how white Herrang is, and how there’s this insistence in the camp that we only listen to black music from no later than the 50s in common areas. No hip hop. No rap. No reggae. No modern rnb. None of the music that these young people listen to, own in their everyday lives.

And I thought, ‘This is some pretty fucked up shit. That white, middle class people are gate keepers for what counts as ‘legit’ black culture. And it’s the black culture that’s back there in another time, out of reach of these young people.’ And it makes me want to laugh as much as cry that the camp was stretching as far back as the 1600s to an ‘authentic’ black dance from Africa for classes, rather than just reaching out its hand to the kids who were right there in the camp, a living part – owners! – of black culture today.

That’s why the black kids sit together in the cafeteria, lindy hop.

[edit: these same points apply to why we need more women in DJing, why we need to queer it up in lindy hop, etc etc etc]