Black lindy hop matters


(Dee Daniels Locke, teacher at HJDF, pic from the event’s fb PR, photo by Ben Hejkel).

While bunches of white people were organising dance events to celebrate the white revival of lindy hop day with a bunch of white teachers this year, Tena Marales-Armstrong was bringing the shit in Houston.

The Houston Jazz Dance Festival is run by Tena, a black woman living in America, it features poc in all the promo material, and it stars a team of black teachers (and Mike Pedroza, so I guess we’re talking poc :D ), TWO BLACK WOMEN MCS, a black DJ, and a black band. It’s a part of Tena’s bigger event, the International Swing Dance Championships, a project which celebrates the living dances of black communities in America today.

This is vernacular dance.

Let’s stop and talk about Tena Morales-Armstrong. She’s not only a great dancer and all round impressive woman, she’s also the co-manager of some of the biggest events in the lindy hopping world. ILHC. Swing and Soul. Lindyfest. International Swing Dance Championships. The modern dance world likes to talk a lot about competition winning dancers, young and flexible performers, popular teachers. But the people who help build these careers are the business people and organisers behind the huge events that employ them. Tena is one of these people, and she is important.

Let me spell it out.

A black woman runs some of the biggest name lindy hop events in the world, and she is running an event with an all-black list of artists, as part of a dance event which proves, definitively, that lindy hop didn’t die and need reviving. It just grew up into hand dancing, fast dancing, Houston Two-Step, Chicago Stepping, Detroit Ballroom… living, healthy black dances in black communities.

And I want to go back to that teaching team.
Latasha Barnes, Mike Pedroza, Josh McLean, Dee Daniels locke, Michelle Stokes, Laurel Ryan, Alexis Davile, Cyle Dixon, Nel Lopez. Two of those (Alexis and Cyle) were junior lindy hoppers at ILHDC a few years ago. Michelle and Laurel were the MCs (I saw them MC at Focus. They are the BEST). These are some big names, here. Just try getting Latasha for your event any time in the next twelve months. The woman is seriously popular at the moment. So this isn’t just a random grouping of dancers. This is some top shelf talent.

If you are interested in the ‘decolonising lindy hop’ project that’s gaining ground in the US, you should probably have attended this event. Yes, it’s all very nice and well to attend a panel session at Lindy Focus, or to drop some cash on the Frankie Manning Foundation. But actually putting money down on an event like this – black owned, black run, black attended, black community – is important. I so wish I could have gone. It kills me that I couldn’t. So, NEXT YEAR. I will put my money where my mouth is.

Kate Wadey’s Presidential Holiday is very very good

Kate Wadey is a gem.
Based in Sydney, she is a jazz singer in the proper sense. Informed by history, but not constrained by it, she’s one of the few modern jazz vocalists that I really, truly enjoy. No, I love her singing. As a person, she’s warm, interesting, clever, and engaging. As a vocalist, she’s warm, interesting, clever, and engaging.

Last night I saw her sing with her band Kate Wadey’s Presidential Holiday, and I danced every single song in the first set. Which is a big deal, as I haven’t been dancing as much as I like lately. But the band came in with a lovely, accessible dancers’ favourite at a comfortable tempo, and then continued, moving up and down tempos, in and out of classic swinging jazz styles. And i danced every one. Then I put the band break to good use, and had a drink of water and a nice sit down.

What made the band so great?
I think it was the combination of voices in the band. Sam Dobson on bass has been anchoring the younger generation of Sydney jazz bands for a while, and in this band he set down a swinging beat that managed to rein in even the overly enthusiastic OG drummer Ian Bloxsom. He has that type of playing that melds into the whole sound of the band, not pushing forward, but you’d miss it if wasn’t there. Just right for lindy hop. Andrew Scott, band leader for the Corner Pocket Trio and other good swinging combos, plays piano, and that is also nice. But the real business is the relationship between Kate and Chris O’Dear on saxophone.

They’ve recently done a show of Billie Holiday and Lester Young music, and you can really hear that influence in their musical relationship. It’s not that they’re trying to be those two icons, it’s more that they’ve paid attention to the way the two musicians worked together, call and response, combinations, echoes, conversations. Kate and Chris are both talents to watch, but together, they’ve developed a mutual sensibility that really makes you _listen_.

I think that’s the most interesting part of Kate’s style: she draws you in. She’s really present in every single note, really singing every single note to _you_, to the band, to us all. And we can’t help but pay attention. What is she saying to us? We need to know. If she was a dancer, she’d be present in every single step, committing her weight, playing with time and rhythm, but right there, giving every single beat her whole attention. There’s the delay and stretch of a very good blues dancer, but with jazz sensibilities. As a singer, she fills up the room, and you can’t look away.

For dancers, it invites us into the music. What does this mean, here?
When she sang My Baby Just Cares For Me, an almost too-tired standard in the dance world, suddenly it became interesting and new. I wanted to know _what_ her baby cared for, if it wasn’t Lana Turner or shows or clothes. And then, Kate added a note of… was it smugness? that he cares for her. The tone is just perfect. She moves us from that that confidence of a woman with a man who loves her, to an almost-feeling of sorrow. Perhaps he’ll leave. After all, she asks, ‘what is wrong with baby, that he just cares for me?’ The song builds, with Chris taking turns, adding clever notes of humour as he picks up the riffs from other standards, and by the end of the performance, we are all dancing.

I was too busy dancing to take photos or record any snippets but that last vocal number. And I’ve been listening to it over and over since I got home last night. I’ve never thought so much about the lyrics. I’ve never realised that balance of pathos and love. But I think that’s the talent of a good vocalist: we find new meaning in old standards.

Kate’s band doesn’t have an album (yet), but she does have a solo release, which is just lovely. Watch out for her recording of ‘Sit right down and write myself a letter‘. It features some of Australia’s best musicians (Eamon McNelis!), but Kate’s vocals gives Fats’ hit just a little more melancholy.

linky

I need some help paying my bills

In which I uncomfortably ask for your help… https://www.gofundme.com/AustralianSafeSpacelegalFund

As you may or may not know, in addition to ranting about stuff on facebook, I also do a bunch of practical things about sexual harassment and assault in the swing dance world. These include:
– developing policies and processes for my own events,
– consulting with and responding to questions from people in other scenes about issues in their own scenes,
– intervening in actual situations where I see women being harassed,
– etcetera.

All this can be risky. There are plenty of physical threats and intimidation, but also legal threats. It seems angry men don’t like being told they can’t assault women and girls by a woman.

I like to do all this work properly. So I have a law firm that specialises in defamation law give me advice on:
– how to write guidelines for our events,
– how to notify people that they’re not welcome at our events,
– how to enforce our codes of conduct.

This protects me, my partners, my contractors and employees, and my volunteers from law suits.

And it costs a bit of money. A whole bunch of money.

I’m at the point now where I need _your_ help. I don’t feel comfortable asking, but I figure, if half this work is reminding us we can ask for help when we need it, then I should learn that lesson too.

If you have a few bucks to donate, you can contribute to my gofundme. All this money will cover ongoing legal fees. I’m happy to talk about and give details of these fees (as far as I’m legally able).

[photo of dancers by Dave from WW photography.]

Safety and dance: the limits of the law

The laws that the state and nation have in place to dictate how we touch each other may not be good laws.
eg in NSW, Australia, the legal system does not adequately protect us from sexual assault and harassment. The laws are inadequate, the legal system (from police to courts) do not prevent or protect us, and the consequences of laws do not punish or educate offenders.

So I don’t think the laws are enough. I believe that our laws disadvantage marginalised peeps: women, children, girls, trans folk, queers, poc… anyone who’s not a straight white middle aged man with money.
Just saying ‘follow the laws’ is obviously not enough.

Who is responsible for enforcing safe spaces?

With regards to ‘types of physical spaces’ and who is responsible for them… Let’s ask ourselves: who has the power here?

I feel, personally, that if I know a person has assaulted or harassed someone, that I don’t want them at my event, and I don’t want to be at an event they’re at.
Because they are unsafe.
Because they are putting my friends at risk.
Because I am at risk.
So even if they’ve committed an offence in a space I’m not ‘responsible’ for, then I will still take action.

Further, we are all responsible for each other. When we start saying “Oh, this isn’t my event, I’m just here as a guest, I don’t want to do anything about that man I can see groping each of his partners,” we are abrogating our responsibilities to each other as humans, as friends, as a community. We are also perpetuating a patriarchal system where the most powerful people at the top of that hierarchical pyramid of power do all the acting, and the people at the bottom are acted upon. Where the white straight middle aged men at the top do all the decision making and acting, and all the women, people of colour, queers, young people, old people, poor people are acted upon.

I’m actually at the point in my work on this issue in dance where I think that we need to move away from top-down solutions, and on to a flatter, peer-centred solution.

In this setting, yes ALL men are responsible for preventing sexual harassment and assault. Which means that they not only police their own behaviour, they also keep an eye on their male mates, and step in to say “Hey, that’s not cool” when they see them do dodgy stuff. Whether they’re a teacher, DJ, organiser, keen social dancer or bar fly. All men have a responsibility for each other, and for the rest of us.

Similarly (and more powerfully), people who are positioned as ‘powerless’ or without responsibility in dance spaces (eg young women, social dancers, beginner students, teenagers, etc etc ) should be encouraged to find ways they can take care of their friends.
Together, we are mighty.

I’d like to get more active on a ‘peer program’ like the ACON Rovers (https://pivotpoint.org.au/why-i-love-the-acon-rovers/).

Or to simply teach students in class to:

  1. Trust their instincts. If it feels wrong, then it is wrong. If it feels bad, then it is bad.
  2. Practice saying NO and STOP. ‘No thank you’ to dance invites, ‘Stop’ mid-dance, and to step in and tell someone “STOP” if they see them making someone else uncomfortable.
  3. Experiment with how they touch and are touched in class to develop a spectrum of touch, and to get to know what ‘good touch’ feels like and ‘not good’ touch feels like. And to understand that these aren’t fixed states, and can vary with each partner. eg I love to hold my good friends very close, but I can’t bear to have someone unpleasant touch my hand.

Once they have these tools, these students will then go out and interact with other people, teaching them through example about how to touch, and how to be ok with people saying no to dance invites, or asking them to change how they touch people.

More than a Code of Conduct

I have some feels about this topic, largely based on my experiences writing and thinking about sexual assault and harassment, and on my experiences as an event and school manager, dance teacher, and DJ. But mostly as a consumer and attendee: someone who’s tried to get help at events.

With specific regards to a code of conduct:
A CoC is just one part of a range of strategies for responding to and preventing sexual assault and harassment (and other dangerous and/or illegal anti-social behaviours). It’s important to think about the _purpose_ of a CoC. This is one for my current event, Jazz BANG 2-5 May 2019. I’ve just seen an error in there where I’ve clearly fucked up the html, so I’ll fix that. Lesson there: the first draft of a CoC is never the best. This is about the.. tenth? draft of mine. And It’s definitely not perfect.

What should a CoC say? I think of it as:

  1. a statement of the organisation/host’s values;
  2. a public list of ‘rules’ or a statement about how this event abides by laws regarding anti-social/dangerous behaviour.

Who is the intended audience for a CoC?

  1. The staff and organisers of the event/space are the first audience: this document should remind them of the things they value and hold dear. It should be a positive rallying call: “We believe people have a right to safety. We believe that lindy hop today should honour its black roots. etc etc”
  2. A CoC addresses contractors and casual staff: visiting teachers, one-off volunteers, musicians in visiting bands, etc. It tells them what this space values, and the general attitudes about safety and mutual respect. This suggests to marginalised peeps that they can be safe here, and ask for help, but it also says to potential (or existing) offenders that their behaviour will not be tolerated (so hopefully it works as a deterrent).
  3. A CoC addresses punters/customers, students, guests and attendees. People who pay to be there. It is a public statement of values, an invitation, and a welcome for people. It’s also a warning to offenders: don’t do that here, because we will act on it.

More broadly, a CoC can also work as a smoke screen, or token gesture. eg I know offenders who’ve publicly declared that they have and support a CoC, with the intent that this action would then absolve them of future offences: ‘I can’t be an offender, I have a CoC and I support safe spaces’.

Structurally, a CoC is useful if it has:

  • a statement of intent or value statement (what we value, who we are, what we believe in)
  • a code of conduct (what we will not tolerate)
  • a specific sexual harassment policy that outlines what the local laws define as sexual assault and harassment, and then how this manifests in a dance context
    -> a reminder that businesses (eg in NSW, Australia) have a legal obligation to work to protect employees and customers from sexual harassment and assault
  • the very first thing a CoC needs is a helpline: how to get help in a hurry (phone number, email, person for f2f)
  • then a description of the process (what happens) after reporting
  • and a description of the consequences for offenders.

Articulate the ‘unspoken rules’
I think it’s essential to have a CoC and to never rely on ‘common sense’, because the lindy hop world is characterised by travel and travellers: we are from different cultures and countries, we speak different languages, and our countries/regions have different laws. So there is no _common_ sense, just a lot of different types of sense that regularly contradict each other.

I’ve found this idea of ‘unspoken rules’ needs to be interrogated when we’re doing this work. eg I’ve found that women reporting offenders may say “He made me feel gross.” Which is a legitimate comment. But then, if we want to tell men not to ‘be gross’, we need to know exactly what it is that ‘felt gross’. So it’s important to encourage women (and men and everyone else) to articulate what it was that ‘felt gross’. For example, ‘feel gross’ might include:

  • standing a bit too close than is comfortable
  • maintaining eye contact too long, or ‘following her with his eyes’ wherever she was in the room
  • touching her frequently and in many ways from the very first meeting
  • asking her to dance repeatedly
  • buying her drinks

In isolation, there’s nothing wrong with these actions. But it’s the combination of actions, and the duration or number of these actions that makes someone ‘feel gross’. Looking at this pattern, I’d say that this man is dominating a woman’s time and physical and social space. If he’s continually speaking to her, asking her questions, etc etc, he’s also isolating her from other people: he’s dominating her time and space. If this is happening to a brand new very young woman dancer by an older man, then we would hear alarm bells.

But all these ‘feel gross’ in more ways in some cultures than in others. And we often know the difference between someone who is accidentally inappropriate and someone who is deliberately inappropriate or carelessly inappropriate.

So if our CoC is meant to be useful, we need to have specific examples of what’s not ok. eg, a ‘How does this relate to dancing’ section.
After you’ve put a lot of research and work into this, you need to think about how you deliver this information. I feel a multimodal approach is best:

  • a digital version on the website
  • a paper version on a page at a dance
  • an abbreviated, visual or comic version online, on a poster at events, on flyers/postcards or other take-home paper media
  • short spoken comments and intros in classes and at parties.

From here, though, you realise quite quickly that a CoC means nothing if you don’t also have a range of other tools in place. You need a) response strategies, b) prevention strategies, c) training and support for staff, d) legal advice for drafting documents and enforcing rules.

Responding to incidents:

  • what is your response strategy if someone does make a response? Are you staff trained in this? Are their responses consistent?
  • do you have a report making process to record the incident?
  • if you do eject someone from an event, how long are they ‘banned’? How do you tell staff that someone is banned? What do they do if the banned person turns up at events – when do they call the police?
  • what is the actual step-by-step process of ejecting someone from an event? Who does it? When? How?
  • if you ‘warn’ someone, what are the consequences if they repeat offend?

And so on and so on.
I’m personally very not ok with approaches that focus exclusively on responding to incidents, and that use a top-down hierarchy to enforce consequences. If we just have a boss ‘telling people off’ and banning people to ‘protect women’, then we are just maintaining the patriarchal status quo. We’re not actually changing culture.
I believe that we need to dismantle this. So we need to talk about _prevention_. And that’s where things get complicated.
Threats of consequences for offenders do not work as dissuasion. If it did, then the existing laws would be adequate.

How do we change the current lindy hop culture?
We need to look at class culture and the way teachers speak to each other, students interact, etc etc.
….and lots of other stuff.

What next after Codes of Conduct?

A few years ago, in 2015, I did a survey of Australian dance events, to see if they included a code of conduct on their event websites. There were mixed results, including a fairly unpleasant email from the organiser of an event which did not have a CoC at the time, and has since folded.

I (or someone else!) should at some point revisit this survey, to see if things have changed much in Australia. Do we see CoC at all Australian events? If not, which events don’t have them, and why not?

But that’s not the topic of this post.

Now I’m wondering if events (including local party nights) have follow-up processes to accompany their CoC. It’s all very well to have a list of things attendees cannot do at the event, but I have some questions.

  • Does the CoC provide specific examples of what constitutes sexual harassment or assault in a dance setting?
  • What are the consequences for people who break the rules?
  • Who enforces the rules?
  • Is there a spectrum of responses from warning, through banning, to calling the police or evacuating a building?
  • If these responses exist, are they listed in the CoC?
  • What is the in-house process for these responses?
  • Who has the authority to call for a consequence and then enforce them?
  • How are these actions documented?
  • How are these documents stored?
  • Who has access to them?
  • Is there any follow-up on these actions?
  • Is there any scope for the repatriation of banned offenders?
  • What are the terms for their return to the event?
  • Who monitors this process?
  • How is information about who is banned passed between generations of staff at an event?
  • How does this communication of knowledge account for Australian defamation laws, which would deem this publication of a potentially defamatory statement?
  • If a banned person does decide to sue for defamation, who would they sue – the organisation/business? An individual working at the event? If the latter, how does the host organisation respond to and support this person?
  • How does the host organisation ensure that staff are not exploiting their power to break the CoC rules? What measures are in place to police the policers?

I feel at this point the majority of events have gone no further than simply cutting and pasting a CoC. These later questions all ask for a fair bit of work. And I know there are some organisers which do not prioritise safety to the extent that they would invest in this sort of labour.

Who is responsible for fighting racism in dance?

White people, particularly white people of influence (like dance teachers) need to get their learn on. Rather than placing the burden of policing racism on the backs of people of colour, white people need to listen to people of colour, and start policing their own behaviours.
Just as men need to be responsible for policing their own sexist behaviour, rather than waiting for women to do all the labour of speaking up.

We can be certain that the preponderance of white faces in lindy hop today is a result of the white mainstream’s appropriation of black culture. Being able to steal-and-sell a cultural practice is a mark of power and privilege. The repackaging and ‘toning down’ of the black racial markers of lindy hop (and other dances) is part of this process of appropriation. Insisting on using counts, focussing on biomechanics rather than music, enforcing white middle class gender roles, and so on are all markers of white appropriation of black dances. These dances are made palatable (and marketable) for white middle class audiences through this ‘whitening’ of black dance.

If we _don’t_ address this matter in our classes, and in our own thinking, we are perpetuating it. We are doing racist stuff. We are shoring up racism.

Breai Mason-Campbell has asked people “What are you doing to decolonise lindy hop?” Because that’s how we address racism in this dance. We, white people, do something about it.