Another shit-stirrer post about teaching

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about why people teach, and what they get out of it (for obvious reasons).

There is this idea in the lindy hop world that we should all sacrifice lots ‘for the community’. As though ‘the community’ was this really huge thing, larger and more important than all of us, and yet somehow not including us at all. I’m not sure where this idea that we should sacrifice our own health and spare time for the sake of other people’s dancing came from. I sometimes think it has to do with the revivalist impetus: that we have to keep lindy hop alive no matter what. Which is problematic for so many reasons. Starting with a) It wasn’t actually dead before busy white people started getting into it in the 1980s; b) If the communities that developed it have moved on to other things, perhaps a vernacular dance has lost its utility, and social dances should be useful and relevant above all else.

This is what I think:

  • communities must be sustainable. Culturally, socially, economically, environmentally… and so on.
  • The people in the community are that community. That includes the teachers and volunteers and event organisers and so on… all the people who are working their bums off to ‘keep the dance alive’. This means that their lives and work have to be sustainable: they have to earn enough money to pay their bills; they can’t ruin their health and relationships and lives with overwork; they have to find joy their work – it cannot be a burden. ie NO MARTYRS.
  • The ‘community’ is not a discrete bubble. All ‘communities’ overlap and interact with other ‘communities’. So the ‘lindy hop community’ is also a part of, or overlapping with, the ‘jazz community’, and the ‘vintage lifestyle’ community, and the ‘live music industry’, and the ‘wider local community’, and the ‘national community’, and so on. We are no better or worse than the people who don’t dance lindy hop. Lindy hop doesn’t make us special; we are already special. And so are the people who don’t dance lindy hop.

I know that a lot of lindy hop teachers I’ve met and worked with in Sydney and Melbourne feel as though the value of their teaching is assessed by the number of students in their class. As though they somehow fail to be good or important or useful teachers if they aren’t funnelling hundreds of new lindy hoppers onto the floor every year. I used to feel this way. But now I don’t.

I think that we all realise that huge classes are not good learning or teaching environments. Students don’t get the time or attention they need from teachers, nor do they develop the social bonds that help make a good community. Their learning and sense of ‘group’ is focussed on the teacher, and often, on the larger school identity. Rather than on the smaller, more important relationships with other people in their class, and on the social dance floor. Further, classes that focus on rote learning, on running through a sequence of steps over and over again until the students have it ‘perfect’ is not great learning.
It’s as though this sort of class deliberately undoes the culture and practice of social dancing. If you are pushing through a rote sequence of steps, no matter what, you cannot stop and listen to your partner, you cannot adjust your dancing to work with your partner and make it work, and you definitely cannot listen to and respond to the music. And that is very sad. It is also the opposite of lindy hop: this is not preserving a vernacular dance.

I see students come out of dance classes unable to ‘start’ dancing on the social dance floor until someone ‘counts them in’ or helps them ‘find one’. As though there was this rule that we HAVE to start dancing ‘on one’, or that steps have to perfectly align with an 8 or 6 count sequence. More importantly, those same students haven’t learnt how to make a real connection with a dance partner, because their attention in class is so focussed on the teachers; they’ve never learnt that it’s ok to just bop about on the spot with a new friend, chatting, and enjoying the music. They feel that they have to execute that series of prescribed moves perfectly if they are to be ‘good dancers’. And of course, those prescribed moves are only available (for a price) from a dance class.

This isn’t the students’ fault. Or even the teachers’, really. It’s the fault of a pervasive ideology of ‘learning through memorisation’, and a push to acquire huge class numbers as an indicator of ‘success’ – primarily financial. It’s also accepted that the retention rate of any class will be low – that people will find lindy hop really hard in their first class, and that they won’t ever come back. And, to be blunt (as though I was ever anything else), I’d be scared off by a huge class focussed on rote-learning a series of strictly ‘perfect’ steps.

The saddest thing about all this, is that this is not what lindy hop – or jazz – is all about. It makes me sad that teachers feel they have to push their classes to become bigger and more ‘successful’, instead of taking time to enjoy the time they spend with students in class. They are so intent on acquiring the ‘sexiest’, most ‘sellable’ steps from the latest round of competition videos, that they forget that dancing is actually lots of fun, particularly when the steps are simple and the focus is on the music and your partner.

I’ve recently shifted my own focus – in a very determined way – to classes which are all about social dancing. That means great music. That means learning to work with a partner – and not just for a 30 second rotation in class, but for a whole song in class. I don’t teach fixed patterns of steps; I teach a pattern, and then build on it, encouraging the students to figure out their own combinations. With Marie and Lennart’s example in mind, after the first few partner rotations in class, I don’t ‘count students in’ any more. I let them find their own way into the music. To me, these are the real skills social dancers – lindy hoppers – need. Nobody needs that latest trick that Famous Dancer X pulled out in a comp. A competition is not social dancing; the skills are quite different.

The nicest part of this shift in focus is that I find teaching so much more satisfying, and so much less anxiety-making.

So why am I writing this post now? It’s because this story about Stefan Grimm has been making the rounds in my academic network. I used to work in academia, but gave it up because it just wasn’t any fun. The students were neglected by shitty class environments, the research wasn’t fun any more because it was squeezed into restrictive grant-getting processes.

Reading this piece about universities as anxiety machines, I was struck by the similarities between the ‘dance class industry’ and universities. And not just because they’re both centred on pedagogy (or are they? What university still prioritises learning – whether through research or teaching?) The discussion about unpaid labour (normalised by the idea that ‘that’s what you do to get ahead’), sounds a lot like the exhaustion and exploitation in the lindy hop world justified by ‘doing it for the community’. The

…normalised surveillance of performance in class through attendance monitoring, learning analytics, retention dashboards and text-based reminders about work/labour/doing, and in the entrepreneurial demands of attending careers fairs and employability workshops and cv clinics, and in attempting to find the money to eat and live.

…sounds a lot like lindy hop today.
Get bigger classes. Where are you on the leader board? Have you hunted down the latest marketable step or move from the latest round of competition videos on Youtube? Did you go to that workshop and ‘collect’ moves?

And for ‘professional’ lindy hoppers (as though we aren’t professional unless we are traveling the world every weekend), the pressure is far higher. Not teaching on a repetitive injury? Not working hard enough. Not disguising disordered eating as ‘eating healthy’, ‘the paleo lifestyle’, or, most ironic of all, ‘keeping well’? Not truly committed to dance. Haven’t taken up a dozen ‘strength and maintenance’ exercise regimes on top of your lindy hop training? Just aren’t trying hard enough.

…this form of overwork and performance anxiety is a culturally acceptable self-harming activity. …My culturally acceptable self-harming activities militate against solidarity and co-operation that is beyond value…

(all these quotes are from ‘Notes on the University as anxiety machine’)

This is, of course, the bottom line. Because teachers (especially the highest profile ones) don’t spend quality time with anyone other than other teachers for extended periods of time, this stuff is all normalised. And they aren’t allowed the time and quiet to question the working conditions of their ‘jobs’. They are expected to work and work and work ‘for the community’. And if they do ask event organisers for things like, oh, a quiet room with a door that closes and a real bed to sleep, there is this niggling perception of them as ‘difficult’.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, really. Beyond arguing that we should shift our focus to more socially sustainable practices. And we should question the ‘for the community’ ethos that justifies socially and physically unsustainable work practices. Also, we should teach lindy hop like a vernacular dance, not like you’re going to be sitting an SAT test.

Mickey Davidson speaks about Norma Miller

Louis Satchmo Armstrong Jazz Camp Faculty Interview — Mickey Davidson

Anaïs Sékiné hooked this up on the facey and I think it’s grand.
As I said there, I really like the bit where she says that young people have a responsibility to preserve artistic heritage. I think that’s a cool thing: it tells young people they are important and capable of looking after something important. That dance and art are important, and not just a right, but a responsibility.

And as I listened more, I got more excited. This is such a great interview! I like the bit about having to have ‘clean rhythms’. I think I might have given the impression in my post about Sea of Rhythm that tappers are kind of slack about timing, and that anything goes. No. WRONG.
Being disciplined was quite central to all the classes at Sea Of Rhythm, working with African and tap dancers. There was a strong emphasis on being really tight in your rhythms. And we all had to dance in front of the WHOLE group, quite often, and if you weren’t right, if you weren’t tight, you were told, “No, do it again.”…. “No, not right, try again.” It was very different to lindy hop classes, where there’s a lot of kid-glove action, and students are really babied a lot.
…I think this is my favourite part of a ‘rhythm based’ approach to teaching and learning lindy hop: you need to step up and be precise. And then you’re allowed to improvise. But improvisation is NOT just making shit up: it’s clear, concise decisions.

…and I liked Mickey’s story about being apprenticed to Norma: having to fetch coffee and do jobs. That’s a real dance apprenticeship, that teaches you how to be part of the group, before you get to dance. This reminds me of a story an Indian temple dancer told me about learning to dance: she had to be apprenticed to a master for a long time, doing tasks like making food, cleaning, taking care of the master’s needs. This was at once a matter of learning humility, but also a matter of learning the day to day movements that would later inform her dancing. How to move like a temple dancer, even before you learn to dance.