The Rules of Connection: I think about pedagogy, lindy hop and ideology

Once again, Bug’s Question of the Day has my brain working.

Recently there was a paper published in Research and Dance Education on “frame matching” where it is proposed that there is a “universal” methedology of lead/follow that can apply to all partner dances.

However is it really Universal? I often hear complaints from blues dancers about “Lindy Connection”, and likewise from Lindy Hoppers about how “heavy” blues connection is.

Likewise, some say that the concepts of frame matching are different for different dances anyhow.

So, do the concepts of frame matching really apply universally to all partner dances?
Do these efforts help codify Lindy and Blues at least to the level of tango, or at least is a step in the right direction?
Or is it simply another step in the evolution of partner dancing in the swing/blues genres?

Wednesday 30th May

(full article reference: DeMers, Joseph Daniel, “Frame matching and APTD: a framework for teaching Swing and Blues dance partner connection,” Research in Dance Education (2012).)

I have lots and lots to say about this article. But I can’t fit them all into one post. Well, I could, but this post is already reeeeally long for a blog post. Only 2.5 thousand words, which is way short for a journal article (~5000 words). So I (may) return to this topic later, in other posts. Or not.

Sadly, DeMers’ article triggered my ‘marker’s brain’. Reading this, I’d assume the author was an undergraduate or in the early stages of a postgraduate degree (in the arts or humanities). But the author has a background in science, education and educational psychology, so I should be a little easier on him, as those fields don’t pursue such rigorous approaches to critical inquiry. But if you’re publishing a journal article, you really need to step up, yo. There are some problems with written expression which occasionally obscure the author’s point. There are problems with the construction of the argument as well as with the communication of this argument: it is too simple, and does not exhibit sufficiently rigorous critical engagement with the topic.

In other words, it is thinking in short, straight lines, rather than around corners and back and forth. My background is in cultural studies, which is all about thinking round corners. Further, I was into feminist cultural studies, which is about thinking around corners, asking difficult questions and refusing to shut up when some fuckwit tells you you “think too much.” So I’m sorry, DeMers, but this is going to be a fairly close criticism of your piece. But, before I get into it, I need to ask: “should I read scholarship from the dance world the way I read academic articles?”

I think there’s a clear cultural divide between the way arguments are constructed and communicated in the university world and in the dance world. In the latter, consensus, cooperation and empathy are valued far more than a ‘right’ answer. I think that this is – largely – a result of the influence of Frankie Manning, a man who was determinedly disassociated from local scene politics. His emphasis on the idea that ‘for three minutes you are in love with your partner’, on ‘bowing to the queen of the world’ and on humility make it clear that he felt dance (‘as the happiest thing on earth’) is about peace and fraternity, not conflict. I’ve found this approach frustrating when reading about his responses to racism in the American south in the 30s and 40s in particular (because I do think dance is a vehicle for radical political resistance as well), but I also deeply admire it as a truly pacifist response to cultural and physical violence. What better way to combat hate, than with love?

Writing this response, I was struck by a conflict in the two methods of discursive engagement I’ve used in the past. In the academic world, a forceful, even aggressive tone was important as a woman writing in a patriarchal, highly regulated and heirachical discourse. But in the dance world, where a harsh word or aggressive line has immediate real world consequences and runs in direct conflict with the ethos of international lindy hop ideology (ie Frankie would not have liked it). I’ve lately decided that one of the reasons I didn’t like academia very much was that it privileged aggressive, combative discourse. I feel that part of being a feminist is (to clumsily paraphrase Germaine Greer) to practice fraternity as a response to patriarchy.

So I’m going to try to do like Frankie did. But I’m also going to remember Norma Miller and her fury. Speak up, but be gentle. Mostly.

So let’s get to it. Let me engage with the article, point by point, with the fundamental premise of this article (this has gotten too long for just one post, so I’m just going to do one thing here).

The piece presents “frame matching” as a

codified theory of partner-dance connection (abstract, pg 1)

. Ok, yeah, that’s not such a problem. If you’re ok with the whole concept of ‘codified’ dance practice. In this context a ‘codified theory’ is a ‘set of theoretical rules or guidelines’. So this paper is establishing a set of rules for teaching and practicing partner dance, specifically in terms of connection (part of me wants to argue that there’s very little in partner dancing that isn’t about connection, whether you’re touching your partner or not). There are some useful aspects to this approach. As DeMers points out, adopting a code

…gives instructors a framework for creating a well-organized partner-dance curriculum, and gives them a means of assessing students’ working knowledge and execution of connection (pg 3)

This is such an appealing notion. Right now, as I’m trying to figure out exactly how I teach, and what I want to teach, the thought of a formal, fixed and reliable teaching tool kit is just so tempting. It’d be so much easier to just discover this foolproof, ‘right’ way of teaching the ‘right’ stuff. But this sort of approach also rings my alarm bells. I’ve done a heap of courses focussing on pedagogic practice in tertiary education over the years, and one of the most exciting ideas was that of the teacher as a guide to learning. Rather than adopting a ‘chalk and talk’ approach (where the teacher stands at the front of the room, dispensing knowledge), the student-centered class room sees the teacher (or tutor) as facilitating the student’s discovery of knowledge. Inherent to this approach is the idea that each student learns in different ways, and has different interests. By god that’s hard work. It’s really hard to work with thirty unique hoomans with thirty different ways of learning (all of which are changing constantly). Teaching would be SO MUCH EASIER if I could just pretend students were standardised units. And yet, that idea is also REALLY SCARY because it means that there’re also very wrong ways of teaching. PRESSURE!

Most usefully for me – as both a postgraduate learning to tutor and lecture and now as a dancer learning to teach dance – this student-centered model does not assume the teacher carries all the learnz around inside them. Rather, the teacher encourages and assists students in their discovery. For me, this means that I don’t have to be the cleverest person in the room, or the best dancer on the dance floor. I do have to be the person who manages the group, who guides the discussion of concepts and challenges (whether in verbal discursive exploration or in physical exploration), who encourages and supports new ideas and new ways of thinking. Granted, it’s fairly important for a teacher – in both a dance class and a university tutorial – to know a heap of things. But there will always come a point where the student reaches the edges of the teacher’s knowledge, ability, or experience.

For me, the most empowering thing I learnt about teaching was that it’s totally ok to say “I don’t know the answer to that. Why don’t we find out together?” It’s the same with dancing: I need to know some things, but it’s ok for me to reach a point at the limits of my physical ability or experience and then say “I don’t know why that works like that. Why don’t we find out together?” The delightful thing about dance is that it requires whole-bodied experimentation through play: lindy hop and swing music are all about having fun while learning stuff. One of the things I like most about lindy hop (and I extrapolate from DeMers’ work to assume that he feels his code can be used across the panopoly of jazz and swing era dances) is that it prioritises individual improvisation. Making stuff up. Breaking rules. But in a social way.

This is why I’m not entirely ok with the idea that we need a codified approach to dance practice or dance pedagogy. It presupposes a final, finite rule book for how we teach, how we learn, and how we dance. And that doesn’t sit well with me. I’d be heart broken to discover that everything there is to know about dance had already been written down. For me, the very best part of teaching has always been that moment when a student presents an idea that had never occurred to me (or anyone else), or moves their body in a way that is utterly unique. Suddenly I’m inspired and excited about teaching and learning. Hoomans are amazing: we are wonderful and surprising. I don’t want to forestall that with dancing rules.

In a practical sense, though, accepting that different teachers teach in different ways, and different students learn in different ways makes good financial and promotional sense. I work within a large dance scene with lots of teachers. I’ve realised that students don’t come to class and stay with that class just for the dance knowledge they’re developing. They come because they like that class’s culture (the people in the room, the way they interact, the physical space, the music, and so on and so on). In a market crowded with ‘dance experiences’, it makes sense to differentiate, to offer something unique. We are all teaching lindy hop (well, mostly… :D ), but we all teach in different ways.
The most powerful promotional tool we have at our disposal is the effective communication of that difference. Dancers’ best promotional tool is their own dancing body: we attract new students who see us dancing at public gigs; we attract existing dancers who want to learn ‘new’ things when they see us dancing in competitions or performances or on the social dance floor. But we also make extensive use of online, paper and face to face media and promotions. We have developed a language for selling our teaching, and this language is not politically or ideological neutral or ‘just descriptive’. The way we talk about dance and articulate what we feel in dance expresses the way we think about dance, and about our dance partners.

Arthur Murray’s pedagogic practices worked on a premise in direct opposition to this ‘diversity rocks’ idea. The assumption was/is that dance a) could be codified; and b) that it could be sold as a consistent, quality-controlled product in many different venues by many different people. It was a profoundly effective way of selling dance. But it was also a profoundly effective way of stifling individual creativity and the development of social dance practice as a living, breathing, changeable art.

I think about this approach as being the McDonalds approach to dance. Sure, you get the reassurance of consistent ‘food’, no matter where you are in the world, and the model ensures a high food safety standard. But that consistency has led to a preponderance of factory-farmed product where that quality is controlled by chemicals and cruel farming practices. The mundaneness of this consistency is countered with unnatural sensory experience: extra salt, extra sugar, extra fat, all efforts to replace the pleasures of a simple, authentic ‘flavour’ with artificial ‘taste’. Sometimes that’s how I feel about aerials: if your basic swingouts and footwork and rhythms are dull and pedestrian, you need air steps to make it interesting. This is why Skye Humphries and Todd Yannacone and Naomi Uyama and Ramona Staffeld and Frida Segerdahl and Lennart Westerlund are so amazing: they don’t need air to excite your palate (though they can certainly bring it if they need to).

I’m a big fan of the Montessori or free school learning and teaching model. I’d like to be able to encourage students to discover their own way of moving and expressing themselves, where they try to figure out what they love, and how they feel, and then work on expressing that with their bodies. There are physiological limits to what we can do with our bodies, but because all our bodies (and lifestyles) are unique, the bodies we work with are all unique. So the dancing we do, and the ideas that we have, are all unique. And that is what I think we should be working towards.

I have similar feelings about teaching dance. I recently organised a workshop weekend here in Sydney with some visiting teachers. We had one day of general workshops, and one day of ‘teacher training’. The teacher training was set up in two parts. One session where dancers worked on their own dancing specifically to improve their teaching (eg looking at how clearer lines or sharper footwork made it easier for students to see how the movement worked in demonstrations). The second session more a ‘skill share’ session where everyone shared their favourite teaching tools, asked specific questions about how other people taught particular things, and then experimented with these.

The presumption in this day of ‘teacher training’ was that the dancer/teachers involved were all skilled professionals with unique ways of working. The session was not to enforce a ‘preferred’ teaching code or to ‘improve the standard of teaching’, but to encourage reflexivity in teachers’ practices. To share ideas so that each teacher (and teaching partnership) could refine and develop their teaching practice in their own way. Inherent to this was the idea that teaching practice is mutable, flexible and responsive to the students’ needs, and to the teachers’ interests and needs. In other words, teaching different things in different ways to different people by different people. The end goal was of course unique pedagogic cultures and practices within the broader dance scene. Organic, gmo-free, visually unique, sensorily exciting.

I think the sessions went well, for a first-run. I had good feedback from participants (and I like to encourage all sorts of feedback), and from what I observed in the session, people enjoyed the experience. I do think that it takes time to learn how to participate in this sort of session, and that it takes a degree of trust: you need to trust your peers to support your ideas and not dismiss them. So I’d think that you’d really need to do this a few times to get the best results.

I have seen this approach used by other dance scenes and at other dance events. But my problem with some of those models is that though they ostensibly encourage individualised teaching practice and dance, they effectively maintain hierarchies and power. Most specifically, some of the people involved are established as ‘authorities’ and the collaborative setting is ultimately working to shore up the power of the organising person or ideologies. I’m certain this (inevitably, perhaps) happened in our setting this past weekend. But I’m hoping the organising ideology was ‘diversity and flexibility through collaboration’ not ‘uniformity and ‘correctness’ through collaboration.’
I do think that the best way to encourage a diverse, lalala learning environment is not to preach about it explicitly, but to sneak it into the process. So Herrang, for example, encourages dancers to interact in casual, friendly ways with old timers, with teachers, with each other not through formal ‘sessions for hiearchy-free interaction,’ but by setting up large communal eating areas where people share tables. I do think the shared table is an excellent metaphor for community, and it’s not just pragmatics that encourages many dance events to build meals into their programs.

Having said all that, part of me wants to know how can we do all this lovely hippy work and still be involved in a project of historical recreation and preservation? In a practical example, my teaching partner and I are currently figuring out exactly what type of swingout we want to teach to our class over the next month or so. We both have different preferences and ideas, but we’re both dance supernerds with an interest in biomechanics, a commitment to individual self expression, an emphasis on safety and pleasure, and we’re both guided by history. In a perfect world we’d work with the students to develop their awareness of their own bodies and and their basic skills so that they can choose how they dance their swingouts. In that same perfect world we’d introduce them to particular swingouts from lindy hop history, working with examples by particular dancers at different times. The ultimate goal would be to have each dancer being aware of what they’re doing in the swingout, and consciously choosing the way they move and respond to their partner. We both have particular favourites and dancers (both historic and contemporary) which we admire and want to emulate. But we also want our students to develop their own flavah flave.

The challenge, of course, is this: how do you actually run a class (or classes) which are historically grounded (and preserving/recreating lindy hop from the past) and also encouraging and allowing students to follow their own interests and personal creative instincts?

Interestingly, dance teachers like the Harlem/Rhythm Hot Shots are in an easier position: they are determinedly into historical preservation, and they position their classes and performances this way. They often say “This is our way of dancing a swing out, which we learnt from/modelled on Al Minns/Frankie Manning/Anne Johnson/Norma Miller, so we want you to learn to swingout this way.” The caveat is of course that once you’re done with the class you can just put aside that particular swingout and never do it again. But actually learning to dance precisely that way has taught you something about your body (and history) and more importantly, given you the ability to choose the swingout(s) you will do.
But my dilemma is this: how exactly do you do balance historical recreationism/preservation with student centeredness and principles of ‘natural’ movement and biomechanics in a weekly one-hour class that really has to be promoted in a clear, simple, accessible, totally-fun way, with a goal of maximum student numbers possible and mad dancing skillz? Week after week after week.

I guess the answer is that you don’t. Unless you really are a high-status, highly-skilled dancer like (my heroes) Asa Palm or Lennart Westerlund. In those cases what you are selling is historical accuracy, and students may choose to attend or not attend class. And as highly skilled, well respected dancers, students are likely to attend just because you’re teaching.
Or are they?
This is where we must balance pedagogic ideals with promotional and economic sustainability, individual creative self expression with historical preservation. To pull this stuff off, you just have to be one shit-hot teacher. Which is what the Hot Shots are: they are shit hot teachers and dancers.

Ok, so you can see, right here, that I’m going to have trouble with DeMers’ article. I can’t accept the basic premise of the thing: that there is a single codified theory for teaching connection, and that this is desirable, useful thing. I just don’t think that this is a useful approach: it doesn’t accommodate the complexity of hoomans in motion. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested. I discovered the other day that Al Minns used a swingout that didn’t involve triple steps. This makes me freak out a little in my brain, but it also makes me intensely curious. HOW EVEN DID IT WORK? If I rely on triple steps to generate and maintain momentum and stuff syncopation into a swingout, if I rely on triple steps for covering more ground, how did Al Minns and his partners achieve all these things without triple steps?! I NEED TO KNOW. I MUST ACQUIRE ALL THE LEARNZ.

That’s how I feel about this article. The basic premise unsettles me, but it also invites my engagement.

Link round up: competition and lindy hop

Giselle Anguizola & Chance Bushman vs. Hyunjung Choi & Soochan Lee, ULHS 2011 prelims

I don’t have time/brain to make this a proper story right now, but there are some interesting bits and pieces about judging dance comps floating about at the moment:

Bug’s Question of the Day (on FB), Friday 11 Nov 2011 9:38am:

As a judge, if you knew a dancer had a long standing condition that prevented him/her from making nice lines, or having proper posture, would you consider that during a prelim or final? Some examples of long standing condition might be bow-leggedness, back problems, etc

(with only 9 comments)

The September edition of the Yehoodi talkshow (September 18, 2011) features an interesting discussion about the 2011 ILHC competition and the “top 5 lindy hop showcases of all time”. Here, one of the key points seems to be how judges (or audiences) assess competitors’ performances in reference to their previous work. In other words, how or should you judge competitors you know are brilliant dancers but aren’t bringing their A-game in this moment? There seems to be a tension between ‘dance skills’ (eg straight up technique, fitness, understanding and use of musical structures, lines, etc etc) and ‘performance skills’ (eg a clever, crowd-pleasing choreography, mugging (or not) for the audience, etc). A general idea raised here (and elsewhere) was that dancers who put in lots of time and work on a routine were more deserving of a win than dances who just threw it together at the last minute. My thought was a lot like Manu’s, but I’ll be blunter: quit your bitching and bring your shit. If you don’t have it, practicing for weeks will bring you closer, but you’ll still get pwnd. It’s a competition; it’s not designed to be fair and equitable.

There’s an interesting post over at Wandering and Pondering about ILHC 2011: Frida & Skye Déjà Vu (31 August 2011). This raises some of the key contentions taken up elsewhere: that Skye and Frida don’t actually prepare their routines. The implication in other places is that this somehow makes them less deserving of competition wins. I say: there are different ways of preparing for a competition. If you’re as fully sick as Frida and Skye, you’ve spent your whole lives preparing, and you’re never not preparing. Your competition is an extension of your social dancing. Your ‘routine’ is a series of moves and ideas you’ve been working on for a while, but strung together to suit a song you know very well. In this scenario, you don’t micromanage everything from costumes to facial expressions. You just get your mad skillz and bring your hot shit.
[And that’s why you PWN ALL]

This of course takes us to the heart of the matter: different dancers value different things in a competition dance.

This Wandering and Pondering post Back in the Day (10 October 2011) lists a whole heap of routines Jerry loves. This gives you an idea of his ‘dance values’ and the stuff he likes to see in a competition.

That post was responding to another Bug’s Question of the Day on FB people’s favorite competition videos from 2000-2004.

There’s a longish discussion about Camp Jitterbug 2010 over and Wandering and Pondering, mostly in the comments of the Camp Jitterbug 2010 Roundup post (1 July 2010) which was picked up at Follower Variations, and led to a talk about how to talk about dance critically (as in actively engaging with a dance rather than just dissing or lurving it). I have to note here that my comment about Frida and Skye linked here was misread. I was being quite sarcastic: I thought Frida and Skye’s 2009 ILHC routine was quite amazing. The thing I liked most about it was that they went with a slower song at a time when everyone else was going CRAZY FAST. I really liked that they took a slower song and showed that they can dance orsm at any tempo. You can’t hide your fuck ups in a slow song. I think this might have led to the mixed responses to this routine at the time – peeps were digging on the faster music with the higher energy and this 1943 Roy Eldridge song ‘Jump Through The Window’ felt slower. It’s also a 40s song when most peeps were still trailing along behind Naomi and Todd and the rest of the Silver Shadows who were bringing the hot, fast action in 2005.

I think this last little chunk of linky lays out the way musical and performance tastes and trends change over time. I think 2005 was a turning point for lindy hop competition in that we saw hot, fast, early (as in late 20s, very early 30s), often small group music replace slower, bigger, later recordings. The Silver Shadows pwnd all. And ULHS set the balls-to-the-wall agenda which has really dominated lindy hop since. Not to mention stripping the weight off every competing lindy hopper in the world. But Jerry does a much more thorough job of outlining these changes in his Back in the Day post than I can.
I want to say, though, that this is a story of American lindy hop competition culture, and the Australian story is very different. Mostly, we’re lagging a few years behind the US, and we still haven’t reached the highest international standards when it comes to dance quality in competitions. Australian competition dance as a whole isn’t really representative of the Australian lindy hop dance trends and quality any way – there are plenty of very good Australian dancers who don’t compete at all. But enough! More links!

Finally, Bobby has written three posts on judging dance competitions. He is the king of clear, simple language, so he’s worth reading just for that refreshing break from too-long sentences and cluttered adjectives. :D The first post On Judging (Introduction): A Few Questions was written on the 28th September 2010, the second On Judging, Part 1: The Basic Competition Blueprint was written on the 18th January 2011, and the third On Judging, Part 2: Watching and Note-Taking Technique was written on the 10th November 2011. Again, it’s interesting to see how people develop these ideas over longer periods of time.
This post is sweet for its discussion of the nitty gritty of judging, stuff I know nothing about, because I don’t compete (though I’m happy to speculate). I think the thing we can all take away from those posts is: Sylvia Sykes, queen of ALL.

That’s about all I’ve got to say about competitions and ‘dance values’ in competitions right now, so I’m going to end with some unrelated dancespam. Sylvia Sykes, pwning all:

Dancing with Maxie Dorf, old timer balboa king, in 1993.

Sylvia making Nick’s tricks possible in 2007 (note Frida’s inability to clap whilst watching. International symbol of pattern-matching dancer watching mad balboa patterns).

I was going to finish off with a brilliant clip of Sylvia and Manu competing in a jack and jill together because it clearly demonstrates dancers’ respect for Sylvia and Manu’s general awesomesauce, but the user had taken it down. Boo!

[EDIT: Doh. I forgot add some links about ILHC 2011 from Jo’s blog. I like her posts because they give you an insight into her thinking about her own competition dancing (well, that’s the first reading; it could all be a clever PR plan :D ): Highlights from ILHC, ILHC 2011 – solo charleston, ILHC 2011 – strictly lindy, advanced and open and ILHC 2011 – classic division. Do also look for her posts on the inaugural European Swing Dance Championships.]

Live Music and Dance Economies + beer

I’m afraid this isn’t a terribly well written or thought out post. Spring has struck, my sinuses are buzzing with histamines and my brain is running slow and foggy. But I wanted to join up all these issues before I forgot them.

So this is a story about liquor licensing, live music economies (financial and cultural) and dance cultures. It’s not terribly well researched or referenced, so please do go on and explore the issue rather than relying on my dodgy interpretation of events. I mean, buggered if I really know anything about liquor licensing in Australia and within Australian states.

The ABC story Live music injects $1b into economy (Lucy Carter and staff, Posted September 19, 2011 10:56:27) discusses a report on the economic value of the Australian live music scene commissioned by “industry stakeholders including the Australian Council for the Arts and the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA)”.

  • The study was limited to live music performances in pubs/bars, clubs, restaurants/cafes and nightclubs in Australia.
  • the venues included in the study were limited to those in live music venues licensed by APRA that staged live music during the 2009/10 financial year.
  • The study included only revenue generated from venue-based live music performances.

(pg 4)

The basic point here is that live music makes a significant contribution to the state and national economies, and is therefore important. This gains particular relevance in the context of ongoing battles over noise restrictions, the gentrification of urban spaces and the rezoning of areas where live music lives.
I need to note, here, that live jazz in Australia does not have broad appeal. It tends to cater to a much older demograph than most of the live music discussed in that report. But I think this is important. If live music is equated to ‘youth culture’ in popular discourse it marginalises an increasing (and increasingly influential) demograph and market: older audiences. I also think it’s important for jazz to reposition itself as a product for a more diverse audience. Bands like Virus in Melbourne did this well in the early 2000s, and New Orleans of course can pull this off because live music – of all types – is so thoroughly embedded in the mythos of the place. But live jazz is positioned as ‘art’ music rather than popular music in Sydney. Frankly, I think there should be more live jazz in everyday community spaces (like pubs), and this live jazz should be representative of the whole spectrum of ‘jazz’.

…though, personally, I want more of the hot jazz and less of the twiddlyfiddly arty stuff. Because it was designed and built as popular music and lots of fun to dance to.

My attention was caught by the fact that this was a study of venues serving alcohol and licensed by APRA because there’s been a recent discussion on Bug’s Question Of The Day FB page about paying cover charges, buying drinks and tipping at live music venues. The full question (15th September) reads:

I’ve noticed that, not only in New Orleans but every scene I’ve been to, dancers don’t want to pay a cover charge or tip the band. I’ve also heard from venue owners that dancers are notorious for not buying drinks. Why are we as a community resistant to supporting the musicians and venues? Do we not know any better? If so, how do we educate the community?

Drinking and tipping and cover charges at live music gigs are an issue for lindy hoppers because most dancers don’t drink much while dancing. Simply because it’s a demanding game, and drinking impairs your dance skills. So a venue that depends on drinking to cover the cost of live music is not going to make it, financially, if their clientele is made up entirely of lindy hoppers. The amount dancers drink really depends on the gig – the time of day, the vibe and so on. So they will drink, just not at every gig, every time. If we were to depend on live music for our entire scene, I think a reasonable standard of dancing would require spaces that focussed on dancing, rather than drinking. Ballrooms, dance halls and cabaret clubs with more physical room and a greater emphasis on dancing as well as bars and pubs where the social focus is more diverse.

I don’t think it’s a terribly good idea to promote drinking generally in a culture like Australia’s where binge drinking is a serious social issue, but I don’t want to suggest that I think drinking is wrong or bad. Basically, lindy hop events aren’t like other social events at licensed venues in Australia, and I think it’s a really good thing (and the thing I enjoy most about dance events) that young men and women (and older men and women!) can enjoy social events and dancing without getting shitfaced. I think that social and cultural practices and spaces should be centred on more than just drinking, not that social and cultural spaces should exclude drinking. Diverse cultural spaces make for diverse and vibrant communities, cross-generationally.

I don’t drink, so I don’t buy alcohol at live music gigs. I’m not a huge soft drink fan, so I don’t buy softies. I’ll buy a mineral water with lime, or some chips. But I like pubs. I like their casual drop-in culture where you can meet friends for a quick drink or a long meal. I like the way live music is an important part of pub culture. But I’ve been been struck by the differences between Melbourne pub culture (which I really like) and Sydney pub culture, which is a lot less pleasant.

There are different laws and licenses in each Australian state, and local licensing laws are often regulated by local councils – eg in Melbourne local city councils regulate licenses. A venue can lose its liquor license if it breaches noise level laws or serves under age customers. I have some problems with the way licensing works in Sydney, mostly because licenses are very expensive, and geared towards larger venues subsidised by on-site gambling (whether a TAB, Kino or pokies). Licensing in Sydney seems (at first and cursory glance) to promote pubs and licensed venues as places to get totally shitfaced, rather than places to meet friends, share a meal, listen to a band, play trivia, read, laugh, talk or get shitfaced. They’re simply more diverse community spaces in Melbourne than in Sydney. While even I’d drop into a pub in Melbourne on my own to drink or eat at the main bar, I’d feel a lot less comfortable at most Sydney pubs, because I’m not there to drop a million dollars in the pokies or the TAB or to drink a jug of beer on my own at lunch time.

This is where my knowledge really breaks down, but the way licensing works is affected by the influence of Clubs Australia, an influential interests group representing social clubs (like RSLs, Sporting clubs, etc). Pubs and clubs are different, legally and culturally, but in Sydney large corporations own a string of pubs and interests in clubs. Their main source of income from these businesses is gambling, or more specifically, pokies. Pokies are a scourge on the earth, encouraging people to sit and drop coins into a machine for hours and hours at a time. This type of gambling targets lower income earners and I think it’s promoters are ethically fail. Pokies also degrade the conviviality of a local pub – people sit in front of a machine rather than a bar, conversation is impeded by the loud noises and attention required to pull a lever. Live music and pokies are fundamentally incompatible: you can’t make good music in a room full of pokie machines. And pubs depending on pokies for revenue will devote valuable floor space (whole rooms!) to pokies rather than less profitable bands.

There’s been speculation about the effect of pokies on pub culture, and news articles like this Daily Telegraph one from earlier this year suggest that a focus on pokies has led to a neglect of drinkers. Of real, live people. I’d argue that chain pubs, run by an absent owner, are not community-oriented spaces at all. And pubs that are most culturally and socially relevant spaces are local spaces. Which is why one suburb in Melbourne can host so many small pubs – each serves a particular local clientele and offers a specific ‘experience’. Grand Final afternoon is perhaps the best example of this sort of localised specialisation, but the live music culture is just as useful an illustration of the cultural value of smaller, independently owned and operated pubs.

The federal government is currently considering revisions to the legislation affecting pokies, and Clubs Australia is spending an awful lot of money on advertising to drum up opposition to the changes. I’m curious to see how it all pans out. There are very few convincing arguments for promoting pokies, and many convincing arguments against it.

And here is where I’ll have to leave my discussion of pokies and licensing specifics, as I’m a bit histamine-crazy and generally ignorant of the facts. But I wanted to link up this news article, reference that Bugs Question, and the also something about the recent sale of the Unity Hall Hotel in Balmain to a corporate entity who owns a chain of pubs.

Unity Hall hosts one of Australia’s best jazz bands every Sunday afternoon. Musicians passing through town regularly drop in to play a few songs, so you’ll see all sorts of brilliant Australian (and visiting) musicians. For my money, this is the best dancing music in town. Dancers go there to dance, and there’s no cover charge. The bar staff charge the locals less for drinks than dancers (which is totally ok by me), but dancers who do turn up (and who pretty much count as regulars, though not necessarily locals) always buy drinks and chips and maintain a good relationship with bar staff and musicians.
While this is the best opportunity for hardcore dancing, it’s a small venue, and dancers need to share it with ‘nondancers’. Or, in other words, ‘normal folk’ who like to dance but don’t spend a million hours on dance classes. Because it is in a non dancer-run space, dancers need to engage their real social skills. Talking. Hanging out. Dealing with dickheads off the street. I think it’s a good place to learn floor craft (safety first!), to engage your social skills (conversate!) and to enjoy and support quality live music. Unity Hall isn’t as ‘good’ a pub as the best independent pubs in Melbourne – it does have a TAB taking up lots of space, and pokies, and it isn’t properly cross-generational (though it’s getting there), or multicultural (though even Melbourne pubs don’t really rock the multiculturalism). But it’s one of the better Sydney pubs, and I really hope the it doesn’t change for the worse with its new owners.

The sale of the Unity Hall hotel is indicative of how many pubs in Sydney are run: by big businesses who own a chain of pubs and treat them as warehouses for the real money makers – pokie machines. This is a bit shit when you compare it to Melbourne where there’s a strong independent pub culture, which results in brilliant food, child/family friendly pubs (which are also popular with the young and hip), live music venues and bar staff and owners who know their clientele and give a shit. Basically, venues which are owned and operated by members of the local community for the local community are more likely to give a shit about the local community and be important community spaces. Whether you’re looking for awesome food, locally sourced beers, live music, somewhere to dance, somewhere to talk, or just a quiet spot for a quick pint at lunch time.

I know my perception of Sydney pubs as community spaces is biased by my experiences in urban Melbourne (and I don’t mean to feed into the Syd/Melb rivalry), but I think state-based licensing laws are significant when we’re talking about dancers’ obligations at live music venues. Honestly, if licenses were less expensive, venues wouldn’t be so dependent on drinks’ sales and gambling to cover their costs. They could operate on a smaller profit margin, offering more specific and niche services – good food, niche music, smaller premises – and not need to rely on shit like pokies and promoting binge drinking. They could be more responsible and responsive community spaces.

[Edit: I need to read
A history of machine gambling in the NSW club
industry: from community benefit to
commercialisation” by Nerilee Hing

Women DJs in the lindy hop and blues dancing world

(This is a picture of me my friend Scott drew for my birthday)

I wrote in my last post: Bug’s Question Of the Day is a regular thread on Faceplant (just search for ‘Bug’s question of the day’ over there). I keep typing replies and then deleting them. I want to engage, but sometimes my responses are too long or too hardcore or too stroppy for that sort of public talk. Over here, I figure I can write my replies and keep them within the context of my blog and broader thinking about dance and DJing and gender and stuff…

This question is from the 16th July:

‎”At an upcoming blues event, I noticed there are six DJs – Five men and one woman. Another upcoming blues event this month has six men and one woman. Six out of six DJs at ILHC will be men. In general it seems that while there are some prominent female blues and Lindy DJs, the majority of DJs getting regional and national event gigs are male. Do you agree that this is true? Is it true in West Coast as well? If it’s true, why?”

There were all sorts of replies to the original question, some were quite shockingly sexist. I was surprised – stunned! – by serious comments from blokes that women simply don’t make good DJs because they have rubbish taste in music (too romantic or fluffy), can’t read the crowd, don’t obsess over music, aren’t competitive or … well, you can see where things are heading. I’m not surprised to read that sort of thing in a discussion by swing dancers. There are an awful lot of swing dancing idiots when it comes to gender stuff.

I want to include the replies in that thread before my comment, so you can see where my thinking was at when I wrote this. I wrote a shortish version of this post in reply to the comment there on FB, but it didn’t really do what I wanted it to do. Also, I was uncharacteristically cool in my reply. I think that’s because I hadn’t actually read the other comments properly. Yikes.

Byron Alley I’ll say that this isn’t my original opinion but I thought I’d share what a *female* DJ told me about this phenomenon. She said that the reason you don’t see as many female DJs in general, or as many DJing at the top level, is that she felt that to be a good DJ you need to have a kind of obsessive/competitive personality, the kind that makes you spend hours looking for the right new song, or digging up obscure facts about artists so that you can do a set of “songs from 1941 with the word “blue” in the title” that nobody is aware of but you.

Bear in mind that this came from a woman who was a DJ herself, so she wasn’t saying that NO women have these traits–just that more men do. I thought I’d post that because it wasn’t something that had occurred to me personally one way or another.

What I notice personally is that at the events I’ve run, where I’m always looking for good DJs and even to help train new ones, most of the time it’s guys. Guys are much more likely to volunteer, to think they can do it even when they’re not good at all, and ALSO to actually be good DJs. Women in my experience have been less likely to want to try it out, or to push for DJ slots. And of the few women who DJ, there are still fewer that have received good reviews. On average, the female DJ’s I’ve hired have been less likely to keep people dancing as long (eg. people go home earlier), keep the energy up, or get good reviews from other people. This isn’t even my own opinion–when I’ve been away and had other people DJ, I’ve asked my staff and patrons for feedback on all of our DJs and this has been the trend. I’m just passing on the results.

The three problems that have come up with the less skilled female DJs have been: 1) an overall lack of energy in sets (songs are more likely to be chill, subtle, even romantic), 2) less ability or inclination to read the crowd in deciding what to play next, and 3) less extensive music collections than many of the male DJs, leading to less ability to find “just the right song” for the moment.

On the very interesting plus side, even the mediocre female DJs were more likely to get good reviews…. from other women! So this had led me to wonder if maybe part of the problem is that most of our venues have fewer men than women. If the female DJs appeal more to the women but not the men, then it’s possible that what happens is that the men want to dance less even though the women want to dance more, which leads to everyone being even less satisfied because everyone dances less.

I expect to get flamed my above comments either way, but I need to at least point out that some of my very favourite DJs are women. Locally in Ottawa we have Claudia Petrilli, Jody Glanzer and Natalia Rueda. Natalia was actually a huge exception to everything–I heard her spin her first set and she was literally good from day one. (Not like I’m biased…) And globally Tina Davis is one of my favourite DJs ever.

The last thing I’ll say is that a lot of research has shown that women tend to negotiate less than men for jobs in general. A female friend of mine did research in that area. And in the swing scene, a lot of how people get gigs is by putting themselves out there, contacting organizers and saying “I’m available, pick me” and working out a deal. So even if the number of great DJs is equally distributed among both genders despite all I’ve written here, I’d be willing to bet that fewer women are running after DJ slots than men. I know that once again, my personal experience strongly confirms that.

I’ll end by saying that in a dance scene where there are more women than men dancing, I’d really LOVE to see more female DJs. I don’t think anyone should be pushed into doing something they don’t love, but then again, I never wanted to DJ until circumstances forced me to, and I’ve learned to love it over time.

And ladies… if you’re a great DJ, then get out there, contact the organizers of events you’re interested in and MAKE them hire you. It may work better than you think.

17 July at 00:23 · Like · 3 people

Greg Avakian Yes, it’s true.
Men are more geeky about collecting stuff. It is to a large degree how we define ourselves. “I have this and that”. Yes, it’s generalization and no doubt there are women who have great jazz and blues collections (Tina Davis, Devona Cartier, Suzanne Sluizer, Emily Smith etc.), but when I see a bunch of people who self-identify as DJs, they are usually men. Or boys.
What does it mean? Ladies, get involved!

17 July at 00:27 · Like · 1 person

Greg Avakian Interesting comment Byron about the music that women tend to choose. I agree -and considering that *for fusion dance events* I tend to like stretchier, subtle rhythms and chill vibes, I thought that (- in general -) the women who applied to this year’s fusion exchange kicked the men’s asses.
PS: I agree also that you will get flamed. :P

17 July at 00:34 · Like

Andrew Harrington This doesn’t answer the question at all, but is it maybe the same phenomenon that leads more men to become musicians?

17 July at 01:14 · Like

Stephanie Robinson Out of curiosity, do you think leaders and followers have different relationships to the music that would lead them to pursue/not pursue DJing? As a follow, I follow my lead before I follow the music–that is to say, I try to dance in ways that will fit the music, but I first defer to my lead and whether he’s giving me the space to get creative. When i dance with a new or rhythm challenged lead who is not keeping time with the music, I will follow his off-count lead out of politeness (and I die a little inside each time I do it).

Do leads, who are entrusted with being creative for 2 people in ways that fit the music, have a different relationship to the music than follows?

17 July at 01:26 · Like

Denise Shepler bluesSHOUT this year has 2 men and 6 women, so I’d say that’s an indication that there are good female dj’s out there.

17 July at 01:35 · Unlike · 5 people

Bob Free I think it really depends on the venue – I have nearly 50% male/female DJs at my venue – but I do have to work hard to maintain that balance (women DJs are harder to line up, because there are fewer of them and they are in demand). Many of the venues I go to, the instructor DJs – so it depends on who is teaching.

17 July at 01:35 · Unlike · 1 person

John Joven Maybe it just depends on the scene. In Chicago blues dancing, there are 5 females and 4 males who regularly spin at the blues events.

17 July at 02:05 · Like

Larry Colen I think there may be more woman djs at DHB this weekend. Last night I think it was 2 men and 4 women

17 July at 02:20 · Like

Elizabeth Gonzalez I thought this was part of ‘stacking the dance floor with good dancers’ as alluded to in the other BQOTD about event planning…

17 July at 02:55 · Like

Anna Sutheim The Minneapolis scene is actually somewhat skewed towards female DJs.

I would hazard a guess that scenes in which male organizers and teachers are predominant also have mostly male dj’s, and vice versa.

17 July at 04:38 · Unlike · 1 person

Devona Cartier over all across the lindy and blues scenes, there ARE more men djs then women djs. i think its far better balanced in the blues scene, than for swing though.

I feel strongly that there is no fundamental reason why women cant be just as good at djing as men, or why they wouldnt be just as interested. also, i feel that there isnt any fundamental difference in the type of music men or momen would pick. the reason there might be differences is more an issue of environment than gender. …more to come…

17 July at 05:22 · Like · 1 person

Claudia Petrilli well, I’ll be damned. Since I was tagged, now I feel like I need to add my two cents.

I have to say that I CERTAINLY have a Geeky/nerdy/obsessive-comp​ulsive type of personality and that I have spent many an hour “looking for the right new song, or digging up obscure facts about artists”. Was this what lead me to become a decent DJ? I definitely think so. If it wasn’t the main factor, it definitely played a major role. Getting to be a decent dancer obviously helped, as well.

And while I enjoy “chill, subtle, even romantic songs” they are not my favourite to DJ. I was shocked that just a couple of days ago, Natalia Rueda commented that a certain -very good, lead in our scene might like my sets so much because I tend to play mostly slow song. That burned. But I do have to say that as the night progresses, I do tend to mellow out my sets. Depending of the crowd, that is. It always depends of the crowd. And the event. But right now I’m mostly talking about weekly dances, not events with a theme. Lots of thinking and re-thinking to do here.

17 July at 06:38 · Like

Devona Cartier for me personally:
1) i did not start djing because i was a collector of music. im not a person who is obsessive over sidemen and statistics. honestly i care much less about who the artist is, what the song title is, what year it was recorded, or what album it is from. it has been explained to me in the past that ‘the reason more men dj then women is because men are into those kinds of details (like they are with sports) and women are not’. aside from the fact that i dont even know if that is true of men and women across the board, i dont think that is required to be a good dj, much less makes you one.

when i began djing i knew very little about those kinds of details. i knew what my music collection sounded like, and i could put songs together based on an intuitive sense of how songs suited each other and the crowd. over the years, i have explored why i intuit what works and have learned detailed, concrete, information about the music. the details become interesting not based on themselves, but how they relate to each other, and the pattern as a whole. for example, knowing the recording date of a song allows me to compare it to other tunes of that year and what the dance style of that year was, to gain understanding of what kinds of sounds influence dance in what way. then i can watch what the dancers are doing in front of me and match their dance style with a particular sound that suits it.

do i come at djing from an intuitive place because im a woman? i dont know. (also i dont think i care.) i DO hear it said that ‘to be a dj you should know the specific details of the music such as x, y, and z.’ i think thats a load of crap and if its keeping more intuitive types of people from starting to dj then its a shame. to be a good dj you need to know and understand your music. even knowing who the artist is doesnt really matter. knowing the patterns and elements of the music is far more important, and you dont need to give a damn about how many home runs someone had in their career.

2) I do not tend towards “chill, subtle, romantic songs”. i would be insulted if someone assumed as much because im a woman. actually i would be insulted id someone assumed anything about how i dj based on my gender. as i cycle through the female djs i know i dont think thats true of them either. Byron Alley its possible that that is something local to your area.

i also think that its possible that ladies having less inclination to read the crowd may just be something that is true locally to you. it is not true in my experience. among the imtermediate level djs i have expernce with women are MORE likely to change what they had in mind to play to suit what the crowd wants, and men are more likely to just plow through with their music agenda.

collection size: it does not make a good dj. i know people who have very large collections and are very poor djs. i also know djs who have smaller collections who are fantastic. i would expect that anyone starting out as a dj would have a smaller collection, which is probably not really a bad thing seeing as they have more oppertunity to learn their collection well.

17 July at 08:38 · Like · 4 people

Devona Cartier the competitive spirit: yes, you are more likely to succeed as a dj if you have it. women are just as competitive (if not more so) as men. conside how many women enter jack and jill comps.
i do believe that women are more likely to underestimate themselves, and that men are more likely to overestimate themselves. You will get more gigs if you are pushy about your abilities.

again, me personally: i know im a kick ass dj. I endevor to wipe the floor with all other djs. i do not contact events and tell them they should hire me. i am certian that leads to me getting less gigs. im just not comfortable “boasting” to events like that. i have no idea if that is a tendance of women, but if it is, well thats a good reason that there are more men hired.

lastly: i think the real reason that there arent more women djs, is that their arent many women djs. it like out of sight out of mind. women may not even consider it because its just something other women arent doing. atleast, one of the reasons there are more up and coming djs who are women in the blues scene, is there were more women djs already.

17 July at 09:04 · Unlike · 5 people

Susan Brannigan Whenever a question like this comes up, I suspect what Devona said above: women are, for whatever reason, more likely to underestimate themselves and men are more likely to overestimate themselves.

I used to teach skiing, and there were traditionally 9 levels where skiers would rank themselves. Men most frequently thought they were better skiers than they actually were, while women often though themselves less skilled than they actually were. Why is this? I have some ideas about this, but there’s probably no good reason to get into it now. ;)

I’m glad to hear there are a lot of female DJs out there. I would like to see/hear more. :)

Tuesday at 02:33 · Like

Clyde Wright DC seems to have about an even number of male/female Blues DJs. In WCS, there seems to be more men than women. In Lindy men edge out the women by a tad. Argentine Tango seems fairly well split. Salsa, there’s more men than women. I think it varies between city and scene dramatically.

Tuesday at 05:07 · Like

Damon Stone Without any planning, DHB had exactly 2 men on the planning staff out of 10 positions, 4 male teachers out of 10, and 2 male deejays out of 7. I don’t know what that has to say about anything, except that this isn’t really too unusual for us. Our deejays were awesome, and I have some pretty damn exacting standards and prerequisites for my deejays. There are certainly a number of women who are excellent deejays in the circles I run around.

Tuesday at 07:05 · Like · 3 people

Luckily Devona Cartier was there to set those idiots straight. She made some brilliant comments – things that were just plain old common sense. I haven’t heard Devona DJ, but she’s been around for a while, and I’ve heard many good things about her work. I especially liked the way she declares: “I know I’m a kick ass DJ. I endeavour to wipe the floor with other DJs.” It’s exciting to hear a sister stepping up and declaring pride in her abilities, but also competitive confidence. Here I am, if you think you’ve got it, bring it. But prepare to be pwnd.

At any rate, I wrote some things in reply to all this. What follows is what I wrote at the time, but didn’t actually post on FB.

I think Devona makes a brilliant point: there aren’t more women DJs because there aren’t women DJs. I think you need critical mass (ie a certain number of visible women DJs), good support and encouragement for new women DJs and then working conditions which continue to encourage women DJs.

My suspicion about DJing: It’s like cycling. The key indicator for numbers of cyclists in a city is whether women feel safe cycling. If women feel safe cycling in your city, you numbers of cyclists will be high over all. I also think that if you have lots of women DJs in your scene, you probably have a pretty good DJing culture. Good as in supportive, collaborative, creatively challenging, exciting, stimulating, rewarding, etc. As Devona says, women DJs like to kick your arse as well. They just might need to be encouraged to get their boots on in the first place.

I can only speak about Australian DJs, and then only from my own POV. I’ve been DJing since 2005, managing DJs at big events since 2006 and I also coordinate DJs for local events. I haven’t traveled overseas to DJ, but I have DJed interstate at most Australian events. My experience has been with blues and lindy DJing. I have a long way to go before I become anywhere as near as good as some of the international DJs I’ve danced to or heard.

I’d suspect that most of the comments above mine apply to a US context. This is important because these national scenes have different DJing cultures and different approaches to remunerating DJs for large, small and medium sized events. There are specific local DJing cultures even within Australia.

Firstly, the women DJs that I have met and worked with in Australia are just as likely to be crazed, obsessive music collectors as men, are just as likely to obsess about software and hardware, to fuss about working a crowd or managing relationships with event coordinators, to pour ridiculous amounts of money into their collections, to jump on the chance to nerd out in music conversations. They just don’t always talk about it in the same way as men. Or shout out their opinions in public fora.

Secondly, the ability to DJ well, to combine songs creatively, to work a crowd, to develop and know a good collection, isn’t gender specific. I know as many excellent female DJs as male and I have good, satisfying and creative working relationships with both men and women DJs.

Thirdly, it’s difficult to quantify the women/men DJs in Australia. I suspect women, who may make up a larger proportion of DJs at at smaller local events are underpresented at larger interstate events.

If I were to make an observation about gendered tropes in DJing, it would be that women DJs tend to nurture professional relationships in different ways. They’re more willing to take direction from event managers, they’re less confrontational and they’re more collaborative in their relationships with other DJs (particularly other women DJs).

I’ve also noticed that some male DJs are more willing to put themselves forward for gigs and to get them (even if they’re not that skilled), and for some women DJs to be less confident about their skills and to miss out on gigs (even thought they had better skills). I’ve also noticed that women will step up if they get even a little bit of encouragement. But men are less likely to actively say “what was good about my set? what sucked? how can I improve?” This is most true of DJs who’ve been around for a while.

But there are exceptions to these tropes. I’ve worked with difficult, stroppy, pain in the arse women DJs, and I’ve worked with collaborative, socially right-on male DJs. I’m also defining ‘good DJs’ according to a particular set of criteria which reflect who I am and how I work on events. I will not tolerate rude, aggressive or threatening behaviour from anyone, whether DJ or organiser. I need DJs to be on time to gigs, to take feedback at the event and before. As a DJ I need to be treated with respect – I will not tolerate rudeness or being fucked about. I am also committed to good working conditions for DJs at events I’m involved in.

It’s important to note: no Australian event pays to fly DJs in to an event. No event pays DJs more than $30 an hour, most pay $20 or $25 per hour. We only started paying DJs in about 2003 (depending on event and city). There’re only 3 events that don’t give DJs both free entry and pay for the gig they work. I believe that all DJs should get free entry + basic pay if it’s a big event. If your event can’t afford DJs, then you need to rethink how you prioritise items in your budget.

A quick note about the comparative ‘value’ of live music and DJed music: while I would prioritise live bands for dances (because they’re fun), they’re not always a viable option (cost, lack of contacts, venue restrictions, etc). DJs are an important part of many swing, blues and balboa scenes. Simply put, if you want to dance, you have to have music. If I’m running an event the two most important things in my budget are a) music, and b) dance floor. If I can’t get a good band, I’ll get a DJ. To not pay that DJ is to say to them “I do not value your work, and I do not value music.” Or, more realistically “I won’t pay you because I’m pretty sure I can get away with fucking you over. You’ll be so grateful for the gig you won’t challenge my arsehattery.” I’m not particularly keen on attending an event that places so little importance on music.

Local events may pay their DJs and give them free entry, may just give free entry, may just pay. It’s usually negotiated individually. Again, I always pay DJs and always give them free entry, because they’re what make a DJed social night work. I don’t distinguish between new or experienced DJs in that respect.
This low pay is no doubt a key factor affecting who gets into DJing. If it paid more, I reckon we’d see more DJs, and different DJ behaviour.

In all these cases, it’s possible to make gender less important. As a DJ coordinator for larger events, I actively encourage newer DJs who have promise, no matter what their gender. I also seek out DJs that I mightn’t have heard of, or who mightn’t have approached me for gigs. I try to see as many DJs as I can when I travel to events, I maintain contacts in other cities and grill them about their up and coming DJs, and I ask dancers which DJs they most enjoyed.
This way I’m not relying on DJs presenting themselves to me; I can seek them out. I’m also prepared to take risks with newer DJs or lower profile DJs if I think they might be ninjas. I just put some support structures in place at events so we can recover if something goes wrong (eg put them in non-crucial spots, make sure I’m around if they need me, have an experienced DJ ride shotgun for them, make sure they know I’m happy to answer questions at any time).

I also try to give useful, supportive feedback to DJs I work with and I encourage DJs to give me feedback in return. I try not to approach giving feedback as ‘you tell me what you love and hate about me, I’ll tell you what I love and hate about you’ because that’s nasty. I’ve recently learnt that it’s more useful to say “Ok, we had some problems at point X. What was your experience? How would you have changed things?” and I wait til they’ve told me their opinion before I offer mine. I’ve found doing this talk in person is more effective than in email, especially with female DJs. ie female DJs just don’t answer emails with these questions, whereas male DJs are more likely to. I think the body language and chance to make sure both of us are on the same page in person is more encouraging for women DJs. I find that the least flexible DJs are least willing to do this sort of talk. I’m less willing to hire the sorts of DJs who aren’t open to feedback because I get sick of telling them to stop doing X because it makes me cranky and forces confrontations.

Some traits are gendered: women are often more collaborative, men can be more aggressive and assertive. But there’s no reason a man can’t learn to be collaborative or a woman assertive. You just have to be prepared to fuck up a few times, to take feedback gracefully, to employ that feedback, and to be ok with being wrong. You also have to be ok with being _right_ and to pursue the stuff you love and are good at. Or want to be good at. I think men are often less willing to risk losing face (through being wrong) and women are less likely to risk confrontation by assuming they’re right.

I think the fact that I’m a woman affects how I work with women and men DJs as a DJ and as a DJ coordinator for events. I hire DJs who are professional, and I won’t waste my time with some arsehat who’s aggressive, difficult and unprofessional. No matter how good a DJ they are. I’ve known other (male) DJ coordinators who wouldn’t share that approach. But then, I’ve also known female DJ coordinators who don’t tolerate bullshit from difficult DJs, and male DJ coordinators who hate conflict and won’t tell a pain in the arse DJ when to step back.

Numbers of Sydney DJs: There are about 7 lindy DJs with solid skills, and only 2 of them are men. We have a few more blues DJs (3 or 4 male DJs), and there are a few floating lindy DJs who DJ occasionally. All the larger fortnightly social events (blues and lindy) here are managed by women.

When I was living in Melbourne (I started DJing there, and left in 2008) there were slightly more women DJs than men holding down the regular local gigs and not seeking out high profile slots, in lindy, blues and balboa. But more men DJed the bigger events. I don’t know what numbers are like now.

I coordinated DJs for MSF (one of Australia’s larger events) in Melbourne this year, and we had 8 DJs in a live-music heavy program. 5 DJs were women, 3 were men. I preselected for musical style (to suit the event’s program), professionalism (will be on time, have all their gear, be easy to work with, etc), proven track record as a DJ (ie mad skillz), public interest (ie DJs who’re popular with dancers atm), availability (some DJs on my short list were traveling o/s, couldn’t commit to the gig in time, etc etc). The hardest thing to do is knock a DJ back. It breaks my heart to tell a ninja DJ who’s also tops to work with that the program is full as a goog and can’t squeeze in another DJ.

When I was learning to DJ, and now, I’ve noticed that women DJs, particularly new women DJs, but also experienced women DJs, at local and larger events, are almost always far more likely to work collaboratively with other women DJs to learn new things, and to figure out how a sound set up works. They’ll huddle over the sound desk, physically quite close, saying things like “What do you think?” and “What if we tried this?” and “Do you reckon…?” In a similar situation most male DJs will say “It works like this” or “The set up at X is like this, so this much work here too”.
Some men will work collaboratively, but they are almost always less likely to say “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know how that works” or “What do you think?” Particularly if they’ve been DJing for a while. There are exceptions, but they are in the minority.
I do both approaches – I’m pushy but I also try to be collaborative. :D

if the music is bouncing, you’d better have a bloody good reason for just standing there

This is the theme song for this post.

Bug’s Question Of the Day is a regular thread on Faceplant (just search for ‘Bug’s question of the day’ over there). I keep typing replies and then deleting them. I want to engage, but sometimes my responses are too long or too hardcore or too stroppy for that sort of public talk. Over here, I figure I can write my replies and keep them within the context of my blog and broader thinking about dance and DJing and gender and stuff.

So here’s today’s question:

“When pulsing with an off-beat newbie as a follow, in what circumstances should one purely follow the lead versus trying to nudge the pulse towards the music with one’s own pulse? Is there a dance etiquette associated with this?”

There are various responses to this question in the thread, ranging from (and I paraphrase) ‘follows should follow’, and that’s why they should just do as this lead leads, to ‘leads leading like that drive me crazy’. This post is a story about me, and about the things I like in my lindy hop. So it is an entirely subjective narrative. You’re just going to have to deal with the fact that this does not represent the opinion of every women and every follower and ever leader out there.

I’m one of those people in the latter camp: off-beat bouncing (or pulsing – same thing pretty much) drives me nuts. Also, I tend to bounce in time, in my own way, regardless of what the lead is doing. This is mostly because I very rarely come across leaders in Sydney who actually bounce. At all. It’s also because I’M DANCING HERE and bouncing is what the music does, so that’s what I’m doing. Following is a compromise, most of the time, between what I hear in the music and what the leader leads. Which is why I have to lead. I have to, because I get so tired of not being able to actually dance to the music. And because I’m a grown up human being, I choose to dance to the music, in my way. In the immortal words of Our Lady of Pop, I choose to express myself.

If the lead is bouncing, I will make my bounce work with theirs. Sometimes this means crushing my bounce down into a small, power bounce, when I’m usually an up-in-your-grill-bouncing-like-I-just-don’t-care type bouncer. If they’re the sort of lead who knows what they’re doing and they’re not dancing, I will, begrudgingly, drop my bounce. It hurts, but I’ll do it. Because I trust them to know their shit.

Bouncing is lindy hop. If I’m not bouncing, I’m not dancing lindy hop. It makes everything easier. I tailor the bounce to suit the music – the style, the mood, the tempo, all of it. I don’t wear slippery shoes, so I fucking NEED that bounce – the push up from the floor, the coiled energy of a bent knee and engaged core. If I don’t have that bounce, dancing is going to be too much hard work. And I need all the help I can get.

There’s no fucking way I’m going to make my bounce disappear. I’m NOT going to dance badly just to suit some guy’s bullshit dancing. Yes, he’s usually a guy. But I won’t compromise for a female lead either. Too many women followers compromise their dancing to suit their lead’s. Too many of those brilliant performances in the highest profile competitions are really a performance of phenomenal following, where a follow makes some leader’s ridiculously challenging leading into badassery. Those guys think they’re fucking all that, but it’s the follow who makes that shit work. The followers are where the fucking all that is AT.

I, however, am not interested in compromising my fun to mollycoddle some guy’s ego. He’s a beginner. I’m smiling at him, I’m having fun, I’m prepared to give that sort of encouraging feedback. I’m on his side. And I’m going to give him the reassurance of a good, solid bounce that tells him where the beat is. Because he sure as fuck needs to know when he’s screwing up. Or else he’s going to go on thinking he’s all that when he’s not. And far too many leads think they’re all that, when really, they’re not. They’ve really needed a few more followers to stop fixing their fuckups so they knew they were fucking up, and had the chance to improve.

[I do know that a follow just following, doing everything the leader leads, so the leader can see how their actions affect the follow, is a good way of teaching a lead. But hells, we’re not fucking DOLLIES. We’re dancing here, too, buddy! Pay attention to your follower, especially if she’s been around a bit. You’re gonna learn something from her when she kicks your arse.]

This has too much to do with the fact that there are often too few leaders at social dancing nights, or that women dancers are too willing to compromise their own win just to score a dance with someone with a dick. Come ON,ladies! We don’t need the cock to rock!

Also, I have no patience whatsoever for leads who just stand in place, twirling the follow like a swizzle stick in a cocktail. They just stand there, occasionally doing some sort of bullshit ‘swingout’ that doesn’t include any triple steps or bounce, where the follower does all the hard work, moving eleven million times more than the lead, and generally make shit happen despite the awfulness of the lead.

I am not going to be that follow, and I’m sure as shit not going to be that lead. If you’re not bouncing, buddy, you’re not dancing lindy hop. You’re doing tango or something. Swinging jazz bounces, so you need to get your muscles active and bounce.

While I’m ranting, triple steps are what make lindy hop. They’re the syncopation in the swinging jazz. If you’re not triple stepping, you’re just stepping. And any old stooge can just step. That’s boring old babby stuff. Syncopation is hard – it demands more of your body, more of your sense of music and rhythm, and makes your dancing more. Triple steps are the difference between just 3 steps a second and more than 3 steps a second when you’re dancing 180 beats per minute. What’s your problem, non-triple-steppers? Can’t hack the pace?

Further, you mightn’t need those triple steps when you’re standing there swizzling your stick. But the follow who’s running her arse off making your shit sing does need those extra couple of steps. Be a good leader. Don’t be a lazy leader.

Finally, as a leader myself, my job is to pay attention to the follower. I’m listening to her body very carefully. I need to know where her weight is at all times, so that I can actually lead rather than dictate moves. So if she’s bouncing and I’m not, then I’m going to notice, and I’m going to fix that shit, because I’d be ashamed to discover I was out of time or not bouncing. I’m also going to pay attention to the shit she brings. If she decides she needs to swivel for 8 counts, I’m going to bloody well work with her to bring that. It’s much easier to just lead your own little set of moves without having to integrate the follower’s contributions. But I’m not a babby. Whether I get there or not, I aim for fucking brilliant. Because I’m a lindy hopper, and I’m going to be the best goddamn lindy hopper I can, and mollycoddling won’t help me get there.

NB If the Swedes can get an entire kitchen into three flat packed cartons, I’m prepared to take their advice on how to get a whole world of awesome into my lindy hop. Bouncing fo life, yo!