Grey Armstrong has been writing about Blackness and lindy hop and blues dance for years, and is really really good at it.
Thoughtful, topical, and such engaging writing. He’s been writing at Obsidian Tea for ages and ages, and I’ve personally found this the most meaningful and useful source for information and inspiration. I keep returning to past posts because they keep popping up in my own thinking and writing about this topic.
This is part 1 of a 7 part series (!!). I recommend reading it. It’s important because it actually includes the experiences of contemporary Black dancers, something missing from most lindy hop accounts. Grey invites the reader in: “Is this news to you? When (if) you have attended or read previous discussions, what was your reaction? What were the reactions of your friends and your community?” Grey is a master of speaking to white readers, asking us to reflect on other people’s lives, and of speaking to Black readers, offering a hand of fellowship. It’s true craftsmanship, as a writer, but also the mark of an empathetic, caring person. This engagement makes me want to read more, and wish I could write like this. Very good stuff.
And if you can do (especially if you’re white), please drop a few bucks on Grey, because he works so hard, and the $$ would mean a lot.
ok, I have a bit more time to write.
==First off. This work will fuck you up.==
I and every other woman I know who’s worked extensively on this topic since 2015 (and before) is massively burnt out, and dealt/dealing with vicarious trauma from this work. Many of us (all of us?) have been subjected to threats of violence, legal action, smear campaigns, and worse. For me, the individual offenders were kind of small potatoes. The most distressing part of this has been the way men in the lindy hop scene actively worked to protect and enable offenders. ENABLE offenders. I have generally found that any man who actively objects to safe space policies is a sexual offender, and any woman who actively objects to safe space policies is a survivor. I wish I was generalising.
==Second. If you want to get into this stuff, plan ahead for trauma.==
You need to find a good therapist to talk to, particularly if you are not a man. Because at some point you’ll really realise, at a visceral level, that all these people who object to kicking out sexual offenders are ok with you (and every other woman and girl) being the victim of violence. And that fucks you up. But the work itself (reading endless accounts of assaults, dealing with the obstructionist arseholes, threats of violence, legal actions, and personal defamation) is just so. hard. You can’t do this alone, friend. Get help.
==Third. We have to be bottom-up, not top-down in our actions.==
I eventually realised that we cannot stop men offending. We can’t change the bigger social forces that train men to believe that it’s ok to sexually assault someone, that their pleasure comes before anyone else’s well being.
So the real solution for stamping out sexual assault in a relatively self contained scene like a dance community, is to power up the sisters and potential victims.
We do need codes of conduct and all the institutional changes (and mad props to Sarah, Michael, Charlie etc in Baltimore for their leadership on this). But these processes don’t change the power structures that enable sexual violence by men against women. It’s still powerful people at the top of a hierarchy managing the bodies of people at the bottom. We need to change this shit.
In Sydney we saw incredible results when a group of Asian women started looking out for each other and getting up in the face of an unrelenting white man who targeted Asian women. They would step in when he approached new women dancers. They’d tell young women and girls not to tolerate his shit. They’d actively him skip in class rotation (even when he tried to physically grab them). They pushed and pushed and pushed to get him banned from things. And so on. A clear result of this was a marked increase in the number of poc at our events, not only women, but _all_ poc, because those offenders aren’t just committing acts of sexual violence. They’re also bullies, racist, etc etc.
Not only do we need to get intersectional on this, but we need to reconstruct the bullshit that convinces women dancers to tolerate sexual harassment and violence. And that is often as simple as having them practice saying ‘no thank you’ to dance invites in class.
==Fourth. Know your local laws, use your local resources==
Laws RE sexual assault and harassment differ between countries. Look up your local laws. There are general human rights type laws, but there are also work place safety laws that apply. Be wary of issues like defamation law. Know your shit before you bring the shit. And that means finding a lawyer who specialises in the relevant laws (not just some rando who ‘is a lawyer’). Be ready to fundraise to cover these expenses.
There are services that can help, so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Legal Aid can offer free legal advice here in Australia, and there is the equivalent in many other countries. Find the websites and help lines. Look up the excellent posters and campaigns that have already been going on in your country.
Get intersectional. This is a big one. The model a lot of us in the lindy hop world (in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, NZ, parts of Europe) use white, middle class, heterosexual gender roles and relationship models for ‘fixing’ this issue. Look further afield.
– How do Black women manage unwelcome sexual attention? What role do older Black women play in moderating men’s behaviour?
– How does the queer scene address sexual violence against trans kids (here’s an answer: https://www.transhub.org.au/unhealthy-relationships)?
-> You can learn from these examples. Do not, ever, generalise from your own experiences, especially if you are straight, white, living in a city, middle class, and English speaking.
==Fifth. Get local, get specific.==
There have been phenomenal projects undertaken all over the lindy hopping world to deal with this issue.
Dance Safe – 댄스세이프 in Seoul is incredible – they’ve done surveys, worked across a massive local scene to join often-unfriendly groups and individuals on board. They distributed literally boxes and boxes and boxes of info pamphlets. They used posters, they got away from gender binaries. It is just incredible. And locally appropriate, from language to age and culture.
Check out the codes of conduct that Tena Morales’ International Swing Dance Championships have. The language is very specific to the Black community of the US, where people speak English, carry guns, and are dealing with racism.
…and so on. Steal ideas from everyone, but make your work locally relevant, and locally appropriate.
==Sixth. Iterative design is the go==
Iterative design basically means that you’re never ‘finished’ with your code of conduct, your reporting process, your activism. Update your code of conduct annually. Learn from other organisations. You will get better and better at this.
==Seventh what are your limits? What is your code?==
Before you do anything else, write down (or record to camera or voice memo) your limits. What will you tolerate? What will you not tolerate?
My personal limits:
– I will not walk past someone who’s being harassed. I will intervene.
– I will risk physical violence for someone else’s safety.
– I will ask annoying questions in public about an event or person who aren’t fulfilling their duty of care.
– I won’t let men touch me if I don’t want it.
– I will not smile and make nice.
– I will walk away from an unpleasant dance.
– I will say ‘no thank you’ to an unwanted dance invite.
– I work to stay aware of my own privilege and power, and I will leverage them to help out people who need it.
Know what your limits are. Be sure of what you will tolerate.
==Eighth and final: this is about gender.==
We know, beyond doubt, and with mountains of substantiating data, that sexual violence in lindy hop is a problem with men. Men are the vast, vast majority of offenders. Women and girls are the victims/targets. We don’t have data for it (yet), but if we extrapolate from the wider community, men are also the targets of men’s sexual violence.
So men need to fix their shit. They need to step in and take ownership of this issue. Because women like me are far too fucking busy fending off groping hands and lewd comments at the mic, in the DJ booth, or on the dance floor to help your sorry arses. Step the fuck up.
…just some random thoughts from a discussion on fb that i’m posting here to keep track of.
If big dance events that were held over new year could collect accurate covid infection stats, it’d be super interesting to compare these with other sample groups. 1 in 5 is lower than omicron in Sydney at the moment, so I suspect it was higher at Focus. But if it was lower, that’d be pretty interesting… maybe because it was mostly local people, we’d see a lower rate of infection?
The issue, though, is that an event like Focus brings together people from separate networks of people. ie we live and interact with a limited number of people in our day to day life (friends, family, workmates, shop keepers, etc). The big issue comes not when we interact with them, but when networks interact. So if you and I went to Focus, I’d be exposing you (and your network) to the germs of my network (and vice versa).
I’m interested in how the statistical side of things (numbers) works in cooperation with the social side of things (the ways people interact, and how relationships determine who we’ll interact with). Here in Australia, the govt health advice has been based on:
1) states (ie mid-level government borders of responsibility),
2) local government areas (ie groups of suburbs),
3) households (nuclear families in particular) in free-standing houses, and
ie we are divided up by government powers, labour practice, and patriarchal ideas of the ‘family’. So restrictions are put in place to open or close state borders (and our states are geographically massive, but very low population density), to enforce lockdowns or restrict gatherings in local communities. Contact ‘bubbles’ are defined by households (ie an actual house) rather than apartment block. Allowable activities are also defined by houses rather than apartments (eg ‘kids play in your yard’ rather than ‘kids play in your local park’).
We’ve seen these divisions collapse when it comes to people who don’t fit into the white, heterosexual, monogamous middle class parents model. ie most people don’t fit into these categories. Most people actually are: engaged in extended family networks, are in precarious employment, aren’t in a monogamous heterosexual nuclear family, etc etc. The higher rates of transmission happen in places like apartment blocks, and in extended families, whereas the govt advice has focussed on how to behave in free standing houses, nuclear families, and fixed workplaces.
We know it’s more useful to think of people as part of the relatively stable networks of family+friends+work I described above, than the ‘household’ or ‘individual’ . The networks are bigger than a nuclear family unit, but they’re also more stable; we tend to max out at a specific number of contacts. And if we think in terms of networks, we can account for extended families, networks of care (eg neighbours caring for neighbours, friendships, sexual partners, etc) and get a more accurate picture of how real people interact (the nuclear family model just doesn’t account for the majority of relationships).
We can apply this idea to dance communities. We all operate within local dance communities (eg I’m in the inner west of Sydney, in NSW, in Australia), and that community network includes musicians, DJs, dancers, venue operators, _and_ my family and friends. But when we go to exchanges, my local network interacts with other people’s local networks.
As dancers, we already think about this interaction of networks: we are all pretty good at identifying someone’s home town by the moves they dance, the shape or aesthetics of their dancing, the music they like or dance to (eg fast or slow) _and_ markers like ethnicity, etc. Even at our most athletic, we can only partner dance with about 40 people in 2 hours of dancing, max (so long as there are no birthday jams!), but are more likely to dance with between 10 and 20.
But when we go to weekend events, we dance for far more hours, with far more people. Each of us, individually, represents a different local network as well as a local dance scene. So when we interact at an exchange, we are exposing ourselves to far more germs. Or increasing the chance of catching covid.
Our state govt has just added a restriction on dancing, where our public health officers Kerry Chant explained that dancing (ie solo dancing) brings us into contact with more people, in closer contact. ie the stuff that makes dancing feel wonderful is also what spreads covid 😃
Bizarrely, years ago I did a conference paper on the way f2f and global networks interact at exchanges. The thing about lindy hop is that we _must_ interact physically – dance – as part of the community. When we travel to dance, we expand that network of physical contact.
In the lindy hop world, that network of contact spreads dance skills, aesthetics, moves, rhythms, ideas, friendships, sexual relationships, etc. But in the covid world it also spreads…covid. Because the lindy hop world is designed _specifically_ to enable that f2f physical contact, it’s as though we built a machinery specifically designed to spread covid.
Red Top – 2001 – Chris Tanner’s Virus – 109 – With Her Dixie Eyes Blazin’ – 4:59
Atlanta Blues – 1946 – Eddie Condon and his Orchestra (Max Kaminsky, Fred Ohms, Joe Dixon, Gene Schroeder, Jack Lesberg, Dave Tough, Bubble Sublett(v), James P. Johnson) – 123 – Complete Commodore And Decca Eddie Condon And Bud Freeman Sessions Mosaic [disc 07] – 3:07
Coquette – Carl Kress – 137 – Classic Capitol Jazz Sessions – 3:00
Summit Ridge Drive – 1954 – Billy Jack Wills and his Western Swing Band (Tiny Moore, Vance Terry, Dick McComb, Kenny Lowery, Cotton Roberts) – 143 – Sacramento 1952-1954 – 2:40
You Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya – 2009 – Luke Winslow-King (Rich Levison, Cassidy Holden, Shaye Cohn) – 142 – You Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya – 2:12
Squatty Roo – 1956 – Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Fitzgerald Day Dream: Best Of The Duke Ellington Songbook – 3:42
Bli-Blip – 1957 – Ella Fitzgerald with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra – 128 – The Complete Song Books (Disc 07) Duke Ellington Vol. 3 – 3:05
C-Jam Blues – 1998 – Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – 143 – Live In Swing City: Swingin’ With Duke – 3:34
Moten Swing – 2017 – Andrew Dickeson’s Blue Rhythm Band – 166 – BRB Live at Jazz with Ramona – 5:27
Lemonade – 1950 – Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five – 121 – Let the Good Times Roll (1938-1954) [Disc 6] – 3:18
Li’l Liza Jane – 1961 – Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band (Andrew Blakeney, Bob McCracken, Bob van Eps, Johnny St Cyr, Bob Boyack, Ennis Doc Cernado) – 175 – The Complete Kid Ory Verve Sessions (Mosaic disc 8) – 4:06
Yesterday a white guy had a troll on a productive discussion about teaching lindy hop. The original post in that discussion was
I was teaching “jig walks” today and it was pointed out to me that the word “jig” miiight not be the best of words. Anyone know anything about this?
This is a pretty good way to open a discussion about race in jazz dance, and it’s not the first time it’s come up in that forum. I won’t go into details here, because that’s not the point of my post.
This discussion had last been active about three months ago. Yesterday a white guy commented:
I am the only one with a Color Screen? or all screens are in black and white now?
I could just hear the eyes rolling from the southern hemisphere.
This is a classic tactic by antagonists in a social setting. We see this sort of behaviour in dance classes quite often, where a student (usually a white man, but not always) derails a discussion or activity with a ‘question’ that centers him and his feelings.
In a dance class setting, I would not engage with this questions, as it will eat up time and energy. As a woman teacher (who usually taught as a lead), I would be very quick to manage this sort of behaviour, as it’s a common tactic used by male students to grasp power in the class. So I’d probably ignore that comment and move us along with a practical exercise that demands attention. If the question is actually relevant to the class matter we’re working on, I would make very clear our position on the topic, and then move on. I think it’s worth looking at how we can, as teachers, respond to racist comments in class. Some of the strategies we use for dealing with sexism and homophobia will work here.
This is also a fairly classic and predictable tactic used by white men to derail discussions about racism. Again, the premise of this sort of question is that the interests of white men are more important than those of Black folk, and that antiracist action is somehow less important than ‘real’ topics.
In the context of dance, ‘historical accuracy’ is frequently used as a tactic for de-centering the interests of living Black dancers. In other words, it’s very common to hear a white male ‘dance historian’ argue that Black dancers in the past did X, Y, or Z, and did not talk about how a word was racist, and that if we are interested in historical accuracy, we must center _their_ behaviour. These sorts of ‘historians’ very rarely ask themselves why a Black dancer of a previous generation, making their wage from teaching white people, would not have spoken up about racism.
This is racist because a white person is using the name of a Black person who has passed as a sigil of authority, rather than standing aside for living Black people to speak and address their interests. They are, effectively, taking ownership of a Black elder and that elder’s knowledge. I can only imagine how maddening and infuriating this is for Black dancers.
In my own mind, when I hear this sort of talk from white, male ‘historians’, I think “Ah, here is a white man using the name of Black elders to maintain his own patriarchal power. He is not comfortable with young Black people (of all genders) changing the discussion to address their living needs and issues. So he dismisses issues like ‘language’ as ‘irrelevant’, and derails a productive discussion to recenter himself and his own interests.”
I find this co-opting of Black lives and people very disturbing. It is as though white jazz dance historians are more comfortable with a dead Black man than with living Black people.
I’ve been reading and thinking a fair bit about the effect of covid on Black Lindy Hop Matters activism. I did a blog post, but I’m mostly just thinking about this stuff in the back of my brain while I make little cardboard houses.
My main thinking points have been:
BLM was not the cause of anti-racist work in the lindy hop world, but it certainly provided a catalyst for _public_ talk in _white_ communities. ie white lindy hoppers finally had to think about race; Black lindy hoppers tell the children to carry cutlery to the table before they get to cook.
Was covid19 essential to the high profile of the BLM protests?
ie police brutality in the US has been going on for decades, with periodic ‘race riots’. What’s new about 2020? Was it covid? Was it the internet? Was it Trump?
Has covid19 slowed the anti-racism work in the lindy hop world?
ie have dancers have been distracted from anti-racist work by virus-risk-mitigation work? Have Black dancers talking about racism been shouldered aside by white medical specialist dancers talking about covid risk?
Why can’t white people think about more than one issue at once, while Black activists have been multi-tasking with intersectional discussions of race, class, health, and gender? It is a feature of white supremacy to see activism as necessarily dealing with one issue at a time and ignoring the intersectionality of oppression?
How has the ‘pause’ of covid19 (especially in terms of travel and the cancellation of international f2f events) given space for talking about race in lindy hop?
The last one made me wonder, ‘Has the dearth of videos of white people winning dance competitions given the international community space to actually talk about how racist this shit is?’
Why haven’t Australian lindy hoppers been talking about anti-racism, BLHM, etc? Is it because lindy hop stopped while we were busy being terrified of covid? Is it because the biggest scenes have been in lockdown, terrified of covid? Is it because our ‘national’ scene has been replaced by local city-based scenes centred on local (white people’s) concerns instead of anti-racism?
Is this tension between local issues and global activism (ie how do we do anti-racism in glocal lindy hop world?) in Australian lindy hop a model for requiring local anti-racist tool kits informed by global thinking and theory? ie does anti-racism in lindy hop have to be localised praxis within an international context (yes).
Was that conference paper I did about the localism, globalism, and embodied practice in lindy exchanges in 2004 more important than I thought?
BLHM is a matter of anti-racism to fight for justice _today_, not (only) an historical project to credit past Black artists for their work. ie Black Lindy Hop Matters is about more than knowing who Frankie Manning was.
If you catch covid, you have a 10-30% chance of it becoming long covid. One of the most comment symptoms of long covid is fatigue.
If we work with those assumptions, what does that mean for a community of dancers?
Let me be clear: I not an epidemiologist, a health specialist, a physiotherapist, or a disease expert. And I’m not sure if this long covid symptom is true across all covid variants and communities. But I am a cultural studies researcher. I have a lot of experience looking specifically at cultural practice within a particular community of people. So let’s start with this: what could happen to a community of dancers where some of the community members are living with long covid, and those people are representative of the different groups within the community? Teachers, performers, organisers, students, new dancers, experienced dancers, old people, young people, cancer survivors, volunteers, business people, trans people, everyone.
We’ve already seen the consequences of managing covid risk: massive financial loss, spacing requiring larger (more expensive rooms), crowd size management, no partner changing, no partner dancing, mandatory masks (and the effect on vigorous exercise), no social dancing, increased workloads for organisers, etc.
But what about the effects of one symptom of covid itself, specifically, fatigue?
Fatigue is not just being tired, where you can push through. Fatigue means you sit down to eat your breakfast, but afterwards you’re so tired from eating you can’t get up from the chair. You have to sit there for a couple of hours. Meanwhile your body cramps and you’re in pain. But this exhaustion is mental as well – you cannot concentrate, cannot follow ideas, and so on. What does this mean for a dancer?
If you’re a professional lindy hopper (a teacher or performer, or someone working in film or television), living with fatigue from long covid, then you cannot dance. You cannot work. Your income is gone. You cannot perform, you cannot choreograph, you cannot practice. Your body, already affected by illness (respiratory illness being the least of it), loses muscle tone and fitness. Your memory and ability to retain choreography disappears. That ‘muscle memory’ stuff (which is actually your brain working) dissolves. Not only can you not train for the hours every day your work requires, you cannot even coach other dancers and earn an income for choreographing for other people. Living will illness, and being separated from your support networks result in serious mental illness. Depression. Anxiety. And it’s impossible to do creative work living with an illness like this.
If you’re a new dancer who has to live with long covid, then you simply stop dancing. And probably never return to it. New dancers are the bread and butter of most dance classes and dance schools today. Dance organisations often fund their social events and weekend events with income from beginner classes. Without that cash flow, the parties dry up. Work for musicians and DJs dries up. The ability to play for dancers dries up.
What does this mean for dancing in the rest of the community? Even if those dancers falling ill are local teachers rather than traveling professionals, all that accumulated teaching knowledge, which lindy hop is notoriously poor at retaining and sharing, will be lost. All that historical and cultural knowledge is taken out of the community. The musical knowledge and dancing knowledge is gone. Not only in that one person, but in all the people they taught, danced with, inspired, and provoked into rivalry.
This is a little like having the Black men removed from jazz music and dance by conscription during the second world war. Whereas jazz music and dance at that time were actually real social practices, happening in sustainable social spaces (families, neighbourhoods, thriving businesses, cross generational gatherings), modern lindy hop in many scenes is not socially sustainable. It collapses when just one or two key people in a local community disappear.
Most lindy hop communities are small*, with perhaps a few hundred dancers, and classes and events run by two or a handful of people. Lose one or two or a handful of those, and that local scene will crumble. If that scene is socially sustainable, with different aged people, a sharing of power and responsibility, etc, then it may be fine. But we have seen over the past ten years, particularly in discussions around sexual assault and racism, that the modern lindy hop world in most cities is not socially sustainable. Patriarchy (and late capitalism) is doomed to collapse under its own weight.
But is it so dire to see a community based on white supremacy and patriarchy break down? Nope. But the thing about covid is that it infects everyone. Even rich white men. The real, serious difficulty with covid is that vaccination and risk management is much harder when you’re poor, you’re disabled, you’re homeless, you’re marginalised.
When a local cultural community collapses, we also see innovative and new types of work in that local field disappear. The modern lindy hop world is dominated by the concept of historical reenactment, with the implication that the best lindy hop is old lindy hop. This ideology in practice (as many people have pointed out elsewhere) is racist, as it privileges the white people who’ve been lindy hopping the longest, and marginalises (discredits! devalues!) living modern Black culture. As Thomas DeFrantz said in his Collective Voices for Change talk, Black dance is a medium for change, for innovation, for action and activism as well as cherishing history and preserving legacy**. Long covid threatens this new and radical work.
Cancelled in 2121 by the rising Omicron wave, the Belgian event Upside Down has determinedly shifted online. But though online fun is still fun, the face to face necessity of lindy hop suffers.
I mention Upside Down for a few reasons. It is rooted in live music, with the organisers working closely with local musicians. Musicians who are some of the best and most talented in Europe. These musicians lose a weekend of work. Upside Down features some of the most creative promotional design, art, and social media engagement in the lindy hopping world. But while some of this might flourish online, the face to face element (the decorations, the unusual party structures, the creative energy and excitement) does not. Upside Down focusses on its local city, and on local dancers. It’s smaller scale (a few hundred rather than a thousand), and it aims to be environmentally sustainable. It’s also responded to the Black Lindy Hop Matters movement by asking its staff and attendees to engage with race and history and social power. This type of energy and enthusiasm is staggering under the pandemic. And individual cases of long covid in key personnel could be disastrous.
The greatest consequence in the cancellation of events like Upside Down is not in the loss of the event itself. It is losing those moments of creative catalyst that result in waves of new thinking, new creativity, new activism, that spread out into the wider community beyond Ghent.
Think of the Jazz Dance Continuum project spearheaded by LaTasha Barnes and her crew. I’m knocking on wood and tossing salt over my shoulder as I type, but imagine an actor like Barnes catching long covid? The woman is a force of nature, working in so many areas of jazz dance, and the wider creative world. She’s also a social agent of good, working with the Black Lindy Hoppers Fund, Frankie Manning Foundation and beyond. And what if Julie Living in New York, or Tena Morales-Armstrong in Houston became ill? These women are the backbones of their local and wider communities (once again, fucking hats off to Black women for being true forces of nature… and hardcore professionals). If we lose these types of people, the truly innovative work will be lost.
If you’re a Black American, catching covid is a very, very dangerous thing, for you and your family. The disease is bad enough, but the American ‘health’ system has never been kind to the Black community. The people most likely to be exposed to covid (the breadwinners and caregivers in the family) are removed from the family structure. Feeding nanna or putting food on the table gets harder. And if you catch covid, you still have things like long covid to consider. Individuals are going to be devoting what little energy they have to sustaining family, neighbours, parish, school, and friends. So the Black dancers and Black culture which have begun to make a difference to modern lindy hop are once again marginalised. This is, of course, a familiar consequence of racism. Racism makes people sick. Racism reduces life expectancy. Racism destroys communities.
I’m writing this now in Sydney, where our government has decided not to enforce lockdowns or other restrictions. Our covid case numbers are higher than they’ve ever been before, and we are behind other countries in vaccination. Two years into the pandemic, the national lindy hopping community has been fragmented into local, capital city based scenes. The live jazz scenes in the bigger cities is also suffering. I fear for the future of lindy hop and jazz dance. Mostly because I think that any future ‘revival’ will be based on the white dominated communities of the 80s-2010s, as we move further and further away from the swing era.
Wear a mask. Get vaccinated. Avoid crowds.
*If most lindy hop communities are small, them most teachers are teaching locally for smaller groups, most DJing is done for local crowds and smaller crowds, most of the live music dancers listen to is played by local musicians, and most of the venues they use are smaller. The budgets are smaller, most labour is unpaid, and most of this unpaid labour is conducted by women. This is is something I learnt during my doctoral research (pre 2006), but which has remained the case in the following fifteen years.
If most teaching is done locally, then the most valuable teaching skills center on attracting and retaining newer dancers, or local people (rather than margeting to the more experienced market for weekend events). This type of teaching must, by necessity be locally specific: catering to the culture, values, and people of it’s home society.
**This idea of Black dance embodying opposing forces like preserving the past and fostering innovation is not new. Embodying ‘hot and cool‘ is a feature of Black dance, as DeFrantz, Malone and countless other point out. It is, again as Malone points out, almost the stamp of a vernacular dance to take elements of the past and rework them for current needs and wants. In other words, lindy hop wants to preserve the past and innovate and create. It is the quintessential modern dance of the 20th century.
Gottschild, Brenda Dixon. Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance. Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 1996.
—. “Stripping the Emperor: The Africanist Presence in American Concert Dance.” Looking Out: Perspectives on Dance and Criticism in a Multicultural World. Eds. David Gere, et al. New York: Schirmer Books, 1995. 95 – 121.
Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. “African-American Vernacular Dance: Core Culture and Meaning Operatives.” Journal of Black Studies 15.4 (1985): 427-45.
—. Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
Malone, Jacqui. Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
A known offender is teaching at an event in your area. What do you do?
I’d probably think local. You can’t change the entire world, but you can be useful to local people. You know you and your mates won’t go (because you know who he is and what he’s done), but do the people outside your immediate peer group know? I’d imagine newer dancers don’t.
You don’t need to risk repercussions by telling people what he’s done. You can turn the issue upside down, and ask ‘what has he done to fight the fucking power?’
In less radfem sweary terms, maybe check in with them about what to look for in a teacher at a big event. Dancing ability isn’t enough. We need more. Who are they as a _teacher_ and person?
1. Are they straight, white, men?
If so, they need to prove themselves _better_ than anyone who is queer/poc/women/enby.
-> if he has no record of working to dismantle oppression. He’s not an ally.*
2. Do they do racist/sexist/homophobic stuff in public?
– Have they performed in black face (including ‘brown’ or ‘gold’ paint), a fat suit?
– Do their routines involve gay panic/homophobic jokes?
– Do they rely on sexualised jokes for their routines’ punch lines?
I have a one-strike-you’re-dead-to-me-policy. No second chances from me. So Ksenia Parkhatskaya is on my ‘no’ list because she’s appeared in black face in performances MULTIPLE times. Doug Silton is on my no-list because he appeared in black face on stage at a huge event (2013). Dax and Sarah are on my no list because they performed in a fat suit (2011) to recreate a Black dancer’s dancing, and stated that women should dance in high heels (2011). The list goes on and on. And all of these incidents are documented in footage from high profile events.
-> One of the things that WM actually did, and is recorded on film doing, is making a nazi salute (quenelle) during his performance at ILHC in 2014.
That’s enough to convince me not to attend an event he’s at. But are the other peeps in your scene also setting that as a baseline? If not, is it because they’re not Jewish, not people of colour?
3. If they’re white/straight/men, are they antiracists, anti-homophobic, and anti-sexist?
– Are they using their privilege in good ways?
– What do they post about on fb?
– Do they only work on all-white event staffs?
– Do they have a T&C document that says ‘I will not work at events that hire [known sex offender], [known racist]’ ?
– Do they post about antiracist efforts on fb?
– Do they donate money to, attend workshops with, or otherwise support projects like CVFC – Collective Voices for Change, Black Lindy Hoppers Fund, Maputo Swing, etc?
– Do they use their channels to advocate for marginalised people? ie do they suggest poc, women, queer, people for teaching/DJing/admin gigs?
– Do they give blog/media space to anti-racist actions, or do they devote that space to discussions about ‘technique’?
4. Are they white/straight, and have teaching styles and classes that are anti-racist, and advocating for students’ empowerment?
– Do they stand in the middle of the class and push you through a routine, or do they encourage students to explore ideas?
– Do they only teach moves they ‘invented’ or learnt from a modern day white guy, or do they continually name check Black dancers and musicians, giving a sense of history?
– Do they use racist/sexist language in class? eg do they use gendered language for leads and follows, sexualised jokes and metaphors, position a white man as the ‘norm’ in their anecdotes and metaphors?
– Do they ignore racism/sexism/homophobia in their classes, or do they call it out (even if from students) students in a productive way? If they ignore it, they are _condoning_ and enabling sexism, homophobia, and racism.
You’ll find that the sexual offenders, the bullies, and the bastards are fuckheads in a whole range of ways. Their sexualised violence is just one of the ways in which they exploit others.
In other words, we should all be asking ‘is this person being a force for good, or a fucking jerk?’ before we attend an event that’s promoting this teacher, musician, DJ, or MC.
Things that do not make you an ally:
– Having a photo taken with a Black dancer like Norma, Frankie, or other OGs.
– Wearing a Tshirt that features a Black dancer/musician.
– Standing by while bad shit goes down.
– Hiring one poc for your event.
– Posting a black square on your fb profile.
– Having women friends that you like.
– Having a Black friend.
– Teaching in Asia this one time.
– Knowing a gay person.
*you can’t just ‘be an ally’. You have to _do_ ally-ship.
Of course, as soon as I read Daniel’s original tweets on this, my brain started thinking about the way dance steps/styles travel between communities. Dance steps are units of meaning, ways of communicating ideas, who we are, and what we value. In Australia our local lindy hop scenes are separated by huge distances (the two closest scenes are a 3 hour drive apart; most are ~1000km apart), so they tend to have distinct local flavours, even with The Internet. We can think of these as functioning the way a workplace does. For many of us, these are our workplaces. Our germs and dance steps circulate within that local community, which expands into our homes and family circles.
When we travel to meet each other and dance together at exchanges, we literally exchange a whole bunch of things. Dance moves, strategies for preventing sexual assault, hospitality, songs, germs. We make jokes about things like ‘exchange flu’ or ‘Herrang flu’, but this is precisely how covid works: we move out of our own bubbles (local networks) and interact with people from other networks. Boom, new dance steps, new musical trends, new germs.
Daniel’s article does some fantastic work explaining why each local network is different.
Estimating transmission rates depends on understanding the network landscape, and that’s exceptionally difficult to map in real time. You can’t do it using the abstract mathematical models that dominate our public debate.
You and I, lindy hoppers, could do a very good job of explaining the internal relationships of our dance communities. The number and types of classes and parties. The formal dance troops gathering regularly to practice. The casual ‘sessions’ where people get together to jam and practice. Regular live music gigs where we interact with nondancers, venue staff, and musicians. Friendships. Romances and hook ups. Employer/employee gigs. After-dancing snack spots. And so on.
When I was doing my doctoral research, a big chunk of it was ethnographic mapping of local and global dance scenes (pre fb and youtube). To get an accurate picture of how a scene worked, I had to do participant-observation, and then have community members engaged in the ‘mapping’ process. I went from very big survey samples, to a series of smaller focus groups and discussions. Because each human is different, and each local community reflects not only the society in which they function, but also the particular dynamics of each local scene.
If I went in with the assumption that every local scene relied on live bands for social dancing, I’d have no way of describing places like Seoul. If I went in with the assumption that every scene had only male-female dance partnerships, I’d miss… every single dance scene that actually exists 😃
The way lockdowns are enforced in Australia at the moment, there is the assumption that every local community works in the same way. This ‘way’ reflects a particular type of family and culture: white, middle class, suburban, patriarchal.
As Daniel says, the structures within a local network are even more complex than a dance scene. Particularly migrant, outer-suburban communities. People taking turns bringing elders food. Sharehouses where everyone works at least 2 jobs in an ‘essential’ industry. Crowded apartments where more than one family share a shower, kitchen, and common areas. Informal childcare arrangements. And so on.
In the white nuclear family model where four people live in one house in the relative isolation of a suburban house, the father/husband goes to an office job, and the mother/wife stays home to look after the kids. This fits very nicely with the lockdown model. You can order people to work from home, to order groceries online, and stay home together, getting some sun in the garden every day.
Extended family networks don’t look or act like this. So they need different models. Curfews, cops on corners, and other draconian lockdown features won’t (and can’t) stop these people meeting.
The truly interesting part of Daniel’s article is where they point out that a relatively limited number of germs circulate within a smaller network. Even if you’re caring for nanna, living in a crowded house, or going dancing every week, practicing with your buddy, you’re only interacting with a set number of predictable people.
The difficulty comes when you go to work. In workplaces we see a number of the contained networks overlap. People from different networks interact and share germs. And not just on a one-to-one basis, where one father-worker shares their germs with another father-worker and his nuclear family. Boom. Exponential sharing.
In a dance scene, this might be a dance class where not only does everyone learn the new dance step from their partner, but everyone learns how to dance with a million other people. ‘Learn how to dance with’ = become more open to sharing and learning ideas (both physical ideas and creative ideas). Then they get onto the social dance floor and this sharing of moves and movement goes superexponential.
If workplaces are where smaller networks interact, then workers need safer workplaces:
– Shorter shifts, so they are exposed for less time;
– Better pay, so they need work only one job, and at that job for fewer hours (ie 8 hours a day);
– Paid sick leave, and leave for testing (or on-site testing) so they can go get those covid tests;
– Job security, so they aren’t fired or lose income if they miss a shift.
But none of these things are present in casualised work, or workplaces that have been de-unionised.
As a sort of extension of my doctoral work, I’ve found that a top-down response to sexual assault and harassment in a dance community is highly ineffective. Simply having a code of conduct where organisers lay down the ‘don’t rape people!’ rule does not prevent sexual assault.
Again, if we want to control a negative factor, we need to get highly specific, we need to give individuals the power to make decisions about their own lives and actions. Rather than a top-down, blanket order to ‘stop touching each other!’ we need to give people the freedom to avoid contact in ways that preserve their local support networks (families, or peer groups), and even more usefully _use_ their local networks to spread information, resources, and support. The agility of the Sikhs delivering meals safely. The authority of an aunty putting teenagers to work. The collaboration of girlfriends stepping in to divert a creeper from a new dancer. And so on.
Capitalism, patriarchy, however you like to think about these bigger, authoritarian hierarchies, are bad for people’s health.
One of the things I’ve thought about a lot over the years, running workshop weekends, is how much we pay teachers. My general policy with paying teachers is that I always pay what they ask (I never bargain them down), I always pay teachers the same rate (so never paying less to the female partner, or less experienced teacher), and I try to pay more than they ask for.
This is because we underpay dance teachers. When I was working in academia, ten years ago, my per-hour rate for guest lectures was far higher than any dancer teacher receives per hour for teaching today. And I understand that teaching dance is not only about the face time and class prep, but about the toll it takes on a dancer’s body (especially with newer teachers who haven’t figured out how to dance less while teaching).
We also under-charge for workshops. I’m always pretty stunned when I see how low the workshop costs are for American events. Even the BLHF intensives seem too cheap to me – 105 euro is only $AU163 for 7.5 hours of teaching, which is the same as two full days of classes. Here in Australia you’d pay at least $200, probably over $300 for that, and the workshop income always subsidises the parties. Yes, that does pay for more expensive airfares, but it’s still almost at cost. The profit margin is far too small, and it hasn’t changed in decades.
It’s totally ‘normal’ for an ‘A-list’ teacher to be paid more than a newer teacher. We have this unwritten set of rules about whose teaching is worth more. And there are only a couple of people of colour in that highest tier. By far, most of them are white, and most of them are white men.
Why do we feel their work is worth paying more for?
It’s partly to do with promotion. A big name event feels like it’s worth paying more to attend. Competitions build reputations and pay rates, so if a teacher has won big name comp X, then we are more willing to pay for their classes. But we rarely see people of colour win lindy hop or balboa competitions at that high profile level, and white men dominate the solo jazz competitions.
There are ways to get around this racist tangle. If your event has a profile and reputation in its own right, then attendees will come simply to be part of it, regardless of the teaching line up. Before covid, we were seeing the beginnings of a market for ‘unique’ events. Boutique events. Events like Upside Down in Belgium, where the event offered far more than a series of workshops and parties in the familiar schedule. Events with a strong local culture and ‘flavour’, offering more than just adrenaline and a sample pack of dance steps. I think this market exists only when the bigger market is saturated with standard party/class events, and attendees can pick and choose between events. Europe, with its cheaper flights, closer cities, and saturated scene is the most obvious place. If you are operating within this context, then you can afford to offer something unique.
How does this explain BLHF? I don’t think it does. I think that BLHF is more a response to the mainstreaming of Black Lives Matter during the covid pandemic. In that pressure cooker moment during 2020, when Covid locked us in our homes and inequities became undeniable, the BLM movement took flight. While Black dancers have _always_ been talking about and living these issues, the mainstream discourse’s taking up of BLM ideas gave Black dancers an opportunity to present racism within lindy hop to white dance audiences. And of course, in that covid moment, dancers finally stopped dancing long enough to listen.
When I’ve asked other organisers in the US or Australia or Europe why they don’t hire people of colour to teach, there’s usually some humming and hawing about marketability and profile and paying the bills. And I keep asking myself: why haven’t I hired more people of colour? My own answers have been the same: marketability. And I tend to hire teachers I’ve taken classes with or worked with as a DJ. So of course, this is a self-perpetuating cycle of racist work practices.
A couple of years ago I posted on fb: “Why not begin with the assumption that you’ll only hire Black teachers for a lindy hop weekend, then ask yourself to work harder to justify any white teachers.” I was surprised by the angry responses from white dancers. Just as I’m surprised by the comments I see from white dancers who want to break into teaching, where they declaim: take a risk on a new dancer! As though they have a right to teach at an event… because they’re white?
There are only two events in Europe and the US that I know of that start with the assumption that they will only hire Black teachers: BLHF and the International Swing Dance Championships. Tena Morales Armstrong is involved with both. Events with a lower profile, catering mostly to local dancers, may use people of colour – eg Mapoto Swing, South Korean, mainland Chinese events. This reflects the figures we see in government – local government features a more diverse line up of MPs, but as we look higher, members of parliament become more homogenous. They represent the most powerful members of that local community.
I look at all of this and think ‘white supremacy’. This is how white patriarchy works. It employs capitalism to disempower some and empower others.
So what does it mean to have a dance class that is taught only by Black dancers, and is free for Black dancers? It is a clear act of empowerment for Black dancers. But it’s also transgressing the dominant discourse of white lindy hop. This dominant discourse says that ‘lower profile’ teachers (ie teachers who aren’t white men) are worth less than higher profile teachers. Black teachers are worth less than white teachers. The BLHF is simply saying: Black teachers are worth as much as white teachers, and in this case, they are worth _more_.
When we look at the teaching line up for a big event and see no people of colour, yet still pay for workshops, then we are accepting the idea that white people are worth more than people of colour.
We should be looking at the BLHF workshop line up and say “Holy shit, these teachers are rare as hens’ teeth! I should pay MORE to work with them!”
But as the line goes, white people value Black art higher than they value Black people.