thesis update

I am editing like a crazy person. Well, preferably like a clever, articulate and focussed academic.
I’m up to the 4th draft of Chapter 2 (Dance as public discourse: Afro-American vernacular dance). Actually, I’m mid-way with draft #4 of Chapter 3 (cultural transmission in dance: the movement of cultural form and practice as ideological and mediated process). This will be followed by the 4th drafts of Chapter 4 (AV media in contemporary swing dance culture: revivalism and the ideological management of mediated dance), Chapter 5 (DJing in contemporary swing dance culture: the collusion of cultural practices in mediated dance), Chapter 6 (institutions in contemporary swing dance culture: swing dance schools and the ideological management of embodied practice via media) and rounding up with a first draft of my conclusion. Then I go back to Chapter 1 (Introduction) to do its 4th draft.
Then I edit for typos/grammar/spelling and all that rubbish. Hopefully to submit in August.
It’s all going pretty well, and the supes gave me the thumbs up on my recent effort at making 6 seperate blobs of work one comprehensive ‘story’ about swing dancers’ use of media in embodied practice. It was a matter of juggling writing style, making each chapter support a key thesis (which I can’t articulate right now, sorry), and then each point in each chapter support that thesis.
So Chapter 2 is now looking pretty comprehensive (dance as discourse; how to discuss dance as discourse, theoretically and analytically; dance discourse as culturally specific; then considering Afro-American vernacular dance of the 20s/30s/40s as an example, paying most attention to the relationship between the introduction of new ideas/dance steps (mostly through improvisation) and community structures which regulate/manage this process. In other words, how is the representation of ‘self’ and individual identity (through improvisation, creative ‘work’) by individual dancers ‘managed’ by community structures (such as musical structures, social conventions regarding sexuality and public behaviour, etc etc).
I make the point quite clearly that individual self expression in Af-Am v dance (or the representation of self and individual interests and ‘difference’ in public (dance) discourse) is more flexible than in contemporary swing dance culture.
I see the formal heirachies of teaching and learning (esp in schools) as the reason why there’s less tolerance/opportunity for the representation of self/difference in contemporary swing dance culture. And teaching and learning in contemporary swing dance culture is dominated by ‘revivalist’ ideology – the idea that swing dances are dead, they were great, and they need to be ‘revived’.
I explore this in greater detail in Chapter 4, the AV chapter, where I look at the role of archival film in the revivalist project.
In Chapter 3, though, I talk about ‘cultural transmission’, and consider contemporary swing dance culture, noting how it’s a fairly homogenous culture, in fact a predominantly youth/consumer culture, a consequence of the formal pedagogic practices of swing culture. I take Melbourne as an extreme example, looking at how the swing dance school’s commodification of dance as a package to be bought and sold via classes has resulted in a homogenous ‘market’ for this product – white, middle class, hetero kids.
But this chapter is more interesting than that. I argue swing dances’ movement into the white American mainstream in the 30s was achieved primarily through the mediation of the form: film and dance studios brought swing dances to the mainstream (with obvious asides to stuff like Afro-American troops interacting with white women, though I argue that the segregation of the day prevented the wide-spread effect some dance historians argue for. I think film and dance teachers were significant – though it was a combination of factors).
I’m most interested in the mediation of swing dances in their movement from Afro-American communites to mainstream America and then into the internaitonal community. There’s plenty of work on this stuff, esp in relation to mambo and latin dance and their movement into mainstream America (admittedly in later years).
I’m interested in how film was important. Then I make the point in Chapter 3 that these films represented the racism and segregation of the day in various ways (ie some studios not showing black and white characters on screen together – segregation in-text; racist work-practices in the studios themselves). And then, that revivalist dancers cannot help but reproduce these racist and dodgy themes in using these films as key sources for reviving swing dances. The problem lies in their not critically engaging with these issues in their teaching/researching dance. In fact, I argue quite strongly that swing dancers today are notably reluctant to engage with issues of race and class in their discussions of swing dance history. Which concerns me, esp as 20s and 30s ‘Harlem’ and ‘slavery’ seem quite ideologically loaded terms.
Ok, so with all that in mind, I then introduce swing dancers as fans, through their media use, and through their class/age/etc demographics.
Then I say: ‘ok, so with all that in mind, what evidence do I have for all that in actual examples from dancers’ embodied practice? Where is this shit in the dancing?’ And then I do some neat analysis of actual dance stuff, in particular reference to gender and sexuality (because they’re key issues in swing culture). And I make the argument that just that fans are engaged in ‘textual poaching’ – tactical engagments with dominant ideologies and discourses, so too are swing dancers. It’s even more interesting when you read Afro-American vernacular dance as embodying tactical resistance to dominant American ideology and discourse of the day – hell, let’s be blunt. When you read Afro-American vernacular dance as the dance of people whose history involves racism, segregation, jim crow legislation, racial violence, etc etc. In that situation, of course cultural production will be resistant. Particularly dance, for people of West African descent.
So then I do some neat analysis, basically asking how sexual and gender differences are represented in contemporary swing dance cultures around the world. I look at how, for example, young women in North America use swing dance to explore ‘sexual display’ within a safe social context, where they may (beyond dance) be unwilling to do things like flash their knickers, wear suspenders for show, shimmy, etc. I’m also interested in stuff like women leading and men following as a way of subverting heternormative social forces. I’m also facinated by local differences – eg blues dancing in Korea and Japan, as opposed to blues dancing in Canada or Australia or New Zealand.
And of course, the most imporant part of all this the role media plays. How contemporary swing dancers use the internet, AV media, etc in all this. How important are swing discussion boards in the way young people in swing dance communities represent sexual and gender differences? I argue that media is very important, and provide some neat examples from different discussion boards, websites and email lists.
Then I move on to AV media in Chapter 4, where I talk specifically about media use in contemporary swing dance culture. I take AV media as an example of one key media form (and practice), and then DJing as an example of the collusion of different media forms and embodied practices – in swing DJing we see dancers using discussion boards, email lists, websites, digitial music technology (from downloading mp3s to DJing from laptops), to research, purchase, discuss and explore music and how to use it. Then I look at how all this stuff functions in embodied practice: how DJs’ media use actually functions in their embodied DJing for a crowd of dancers.
In Chapter 5 I look at how all this stuff – media use – is managed by institutions in contemporary swing dance culture. I focus on Melbourne as it has the largest swing dance school in the world, and is a local scene dominated by school discourse (which is, incidentally, capitalist discourse). And I look at how capitalist discourse functions to commodify what was once a vernacular dance – to sell young people a lifestyle product. And, most facinating of all, how they are also sold an ideological ‘product’ as well. I’m interested in how the ideology and discourse of schools in Melbourne reflect dominant social discourse and ideology in the wider Melbourne and Australian community.
Therefore proving my original argument, that dance = public discourse, where ideology is represented, and that this discourse is representative of the social/political/cultural forces of the wider community in which this community-of-interest is located.
I squeeze the fandom stuff in Chapters 4 and 5 in more detail, mostly to explain specific media practices.
Ta-DAH!

revelation

chickwebb_.jpg
I’m sorry Brian, I’m sorry. Chick Webb does rule… well, after Fats and the Duke and Billie and… well, he does rule.
New Proper chick webb collection purchased at caiman.com via amazon for a reasonable price (check it here). Could have found it cheaper, but didn’t bother.
Quality: superior to anything else I had.
DJableness: yes
Range: covers Webb’s career on 4 CDs. As with other Proper collections, I guess it’ll do a good job covering the key moments in his career. I’m not so familiar with Webb, so I’ll have to get back to you…
If you’re not a Webb person already… we’re talking Old Scratchy action here.
Sweet-as swinging jazz recorded between 1931 and 1939. I previously knew Webb through Ella Fitzgerald – she got her first serious gig with his band as a teenager (and later led the band after his death) – knew he was important (in part for his association with the Savoy Ballroom, Home of Happy Feet), read varying discussions about the quality of his band and of course danced de lindy hop to him many times.
I had a few albums already (mostly rubbishy ‘greatest hits’ or not-so-greatly-remastered albums) and wanted something comprehensive so I could get a handle on his action, and then seek out specific albums or greater collections (let’s not talk about how my Billie Holiday obsession began).
I’ll let you know how it goes – so far I like it a lot. The tempos are pretty high (as you’d expect from an old skool Scratchy from the Savoy), which makes it less flexible for DJing (esp when the DJ in question seems destined never to play for anyone other than newbs – but I don’t fret. I’m getting valuable skills… and one day those newbs will be advanced dancers. And then, with my army of newbs, I will conquer the world!), but it’s neat for listening. Though I probably shouldn’t listen to it before bed. Like watching clips – it makes me jiggly. And it could only fuel my recent series of weirdo dance/DJing/suppressed thesis anxiety dreams).

speed

I know, I know, I’ve not been around much any more. But I can’t help it! I’ve been editing like a crazy editing fool, and then I move from the computer to the bike to ride off to yoga or into the city or wherever the fuck I want to go – because I can ride my bike as fast as the wind, certainly faster than Commonwealth Games stalled traffic. And it’s much easier for me to get onto my bike than it is for a cranky commuter to get onto a tram these days as well (PT users city-wide are ‘amused’ by the little notes at the tram stop: avoid using trams during peak periods. Nice one – two thumbs).
Though I am worried about the disappearing bike lanes. Melbournians will be familiar with the Games Lanes marked in blue on on CBD streets. Not so many will have noticed the way several key bike lanes (a few-block section on Swanston Street, all of Queensberry Street) have completely disappeared. I’m paranoid – really worried – that they won’t come back after the games have finished. But this hasn’t stopped me speeding into town or off to Brunswick Street or to the cinema. 20 minutes to town (official time down 10minutes on previous personal best). Still 20 minutes to Carlton, but surely that’s a timing error? Yoga, however, is down to 10 minutes.
I am truly In Love with Blacky. Though its first service seems in order… how could we bare to be parted?
On other fronts, I’ve DJed no less than four times in the past three weeks. It seems there’s a bit of a DJ drought in Melbourne atm. My skills have necessarily taken a serious up-turn and I’m sure the groupies are moments away. They are no doubt waiting for a tram somewhere on Swanston Street.

casualties from the lindy battle



Today is Friday, and I’m in some pain. Last night was a big dancing night for me, and also a big out-the-house-day, all in quite hot weather. If you’re interested in the illustrated version, follow this link to the set on flickr.
Yes, I know I’m writing like it’s my second language, but I’m also lying on the bed on my tummy with the laptop and it’s hard to write.
Ok, so back to me (don’t you love the way blogging is all about me? Don’t you love the way we can talk about the Genre like we’re not already self-reflexive enough?).
Yesterday about 2pm I decided I needed to leave the house. I’m waiting for a meeting with the Supes as I’ve forgotten where I’d gotten to in my chapter editing and need her to read (reread? who can say) some chapter before I continue. Actually, I have 6 chapters she can read, but I’m letting her off lightly: 2 in 2 weeks, then 3 more in a couple more weeks. Hey, she’s the one who chose to take Christmas off when she had obsessively-complulsively productive phd girl in the final editing stages.
So anyway, I’ve gone through some chapters, starting on the intro again and decided I need to reread some key books so I can remember what they’re about. One problem with a phd: who can remember what they read 3 years ago in adequate detail?
Thankfully it’s dance stuff, which is interesting to read, even when it’s not really terribly excellent. I’m interested in the way dance studies and cultural studies do/don’t really get along and the way dance studies is all resentful of this. Hey, I blame sociology.
At any rate, that prompted the previous post and a trip to Melbourne uni library (which, owing to the dance degree at their Vic College of Arts campus and a dance elective in their education degree (I think), has a damn fine collection of dance stuff).
After that I went to see Underworld Evolution because I loved the first one. It was terribly great: gorey, soft core porn for the teen boy/middle aged female SF fan audience. Then we went for a lie in the park (Exhibition Gardens actually), right near the fountain. We lay on our backs and read, one of us wandered off to take photos, and the other stared and stared at a couple further down the avenue who snogged and snogged for the hour and a bit we were there. It was very Paris. Or very Paris-as-depicted-by-Hollywood. Check the photos to see why.
After that we rode down to have dumplings (15 pan-fried pork/veggie; 8 steamed chicken/prawn = $13.50) at Shanghai village in china town, where the walls are bright pink and they have one solitary goldfish in a tank.
Then it was off to disgusting CBD for dancing.
A practice version of the team battles bit of this was planned and I went in it. Not sure what battle is? Check this out, think about You Got Served, but with less choreography*. Or the film Drumline with more dancing and fewer musicians. Or, of course, Rize.
Battling is an Afro-American vernacular dance/music tradition with its roots in Africa, where dance or music function as a forum for the resolution of rivalries or grudges in a socially sanctioned public space. Ralph Ellison discusses ‘cutting contests’ in his stories of jazz in Harlem in the 30s and 40s, Hazzard Gordon discusses street parties and competitions in her book Jookin’, etc etc etc.
Things that’ll make a battle work:
passion and ‘bringing it’ on the dance floor
an ability to improvise and respond to your opponents, partner and team
creativity in dance
being able to ‘relax’ and give in to your emotions
not being afraid to look stupid
girls not standing back and waiting for the guys to bring it
Most of these things are incredibly difficult for most of Melbourne’s dancers. The emphasis in their classes is on repetition, immitation, routines, choreography and ‘looking good’ rather than bringing it – risking looking crap for the sake of creative or emotional authenticity. It’s also difficult for these white, middle class teenagers to relax and express themselves in dance.
So the whole thing was a bit crap and contrived – as are most of the examples I’ve seen in footage.
It wasn’t as good as the battle we had in Herrang with Peter and Sugar. But ….
It was fun, and I’d do it again, in a casual context. It was like a fun game. I don’t know how cool it’d be in the formal competition context, though.
I have some issues with the selection of team captains (who really should be able to tell the end of a phrase), but now have a better idea of how these things may work in future.
I’ve seen clips of American Battles and wasn’t terribly impressed – things can go wrong too easily. Wrong, of course, equates to Dull or Boring.
Major problems:
choreograph or plan something too fiercely in such a spontaneous format and you will fuck up: leave it looser and you’re actually able to respond to your opponents with creativity rather than pre-planned schlock.
a lack of lindy hop will make for a lack of dynamic energy.
a lack of swing dances and excess of silly made-up dancing will make for dull viewing.
most lindy hoppers don’t have any experience with battling in their general social context, so they have to learn how – so our battles are really kind of lame.
So, anyway, hopefully the whole thing will get more interesting and creative in future efforts. It was nice to see a mix of dancers from different backgrounds and experience: the important part is having dancers who are prepared to bring it. I wish I could explain that phrase more accurately. But it really is something which defies words – it’s about dancing with passion, with attitude, with aggression (but not being aggressive…). It’s about challenge and really feeling what you’re doing. It’s also about being so in your body, and so aware of how your body works, and so able to transfer emotion to rhythmic movement that ‘bringing it’ is instinctive and natural.
And of course, truly ‘bringing it’ is a bit too much for most Melbourne dancers – there are too many social and institutional limitations, founded on the heirarchal structures of a school, and on the way these institutionalised assessments/performances/definitions of ‘ability’ discourage less experienced or lower status dancers from having faith in their own ability.
Bringing it reminds me of discussions of ‘cool’ in Tommy deFrantz’ work and in the literature on Afro-American vernacular dance (including Jacqui Malone’s). It’s about having ‘attitude’ but being ‘cool’ – ie staying in control in your face, but having a furiously hot body. So it’s about attitude, not being out of control, but staying cool and making it all look effortless while your body is going crazy. While at the same time being all about bringing it. It’s a difficult juxtaposition. But think of rap or rnb video clips: the swaggering rapper with hardcore lyrics, the hardcore dancing, the extreme clothing. But a cool, sneering or impassive face. The contrast between ‘breaks’ – static poses – and full-on dancing. The importance of tableau as a challenge in the midst of a frenetically moving dance sequence.
But anyway.
So we did that last night. I don’t feel that I really brought it – I felt like I didn’t really know what was expected of me, having a captain who was quite controlling discouraged me from improvising and taking the inititiave – it made me feel like I had to wait til the moves were ‘called’ – and following rather than leading made me feel like I should wait for my partner to take the initiative. It was the first time, though, so things could go differently in the future…
So now, today, I’m totally buggered and wrecked. It was so hot and sweaty I was totally stuffed by the end of the thing, especially considering that I’d been social dancing like a fool in the hour or so before hand. I was so tired I feel like I failed to put in a good showing for my partners in the following Jack and Jill. Oh well. Nor did I drink enough water (as per usual – I hate the way I feel guilty about drinking my own water at that place. Sure, I’ll buy a drink, but I’m also going to drink at least 2-3 litres while I’m out dancing. And I can’t afford to buy that much water!
Then I rode home (which was nice with the cool breeze, esp as it was still so hot) at 12:30am, but had to stop at the 7-11 for a drink.
At the 7-11 it made me smile to see some Italian kids in their 20s posing with their cars, boys with shirts off. It made me think about the battle and how the battle should have had the same type of posing but didn’t.
*this was a truly crap film, but the dancing was good

entymology or etymology?

I’m listening to a Black Eyed Peas album on itunes (Behind the Front, actually) for the first time, and it strikes me that I listen to jazz in a very different way to other music. No, let’s get specific. When I’m listening to jazz on itunes via my laptop when I’m using my laptop (as opposed to when I’m hanging around the house doing other things and incidentally listening to music from my laptop via the stereo), my brain and listening bits work in a particular way.
I ask myself: “could you dance to this?” Well, it’s not actually a conscious thing, it’s more of a response. Does this song fulfill the following criteria:
– swinging timing (as opposed to latin or bebop or unswing or whatever)
– does this song make me want to move my arse?
– is the musicianship of a decent standard?
– is the song ‘interesting’ – ie does it offer me musical inspiration for said moving of arse, or do I immediately wander off to find a nectarine to eat?
and then:
– how is the quality of this song – would it cut it on a shitty sound system, and are the basic elements (rhythm section, vocals, etc) distinguishable as individual elements? In other words, can you hear the beat, can you hear the words, does the music have ‘levels’ or is it a flat ‘monotone’ mess?
I also have a few other criteria which are entirely idiosyncratic:
– is it ‘new testament’ – ie 50s or later swinging jazz? If so, does it make me want to gag or is it bearable?
– is it a ‘new band’ (ie someone from the contemporary music scene), and if it is, are they worth worrying about?*
– is this a ‘better’ version of a song I already have?
– is it ‘swinging lindyhop’, ‘groovy swinging lindyhop’, ‘groovy lindyhop’, ‘swinging blues’, ‘groovy swinging blues’, ‘groovy blues’, ‘charleston’, ‘swinging charleston’, ‘slow drag’, ‘kissing song’ or some other animal?
– what’s the bpm? Is it too slow to lindy hop to on an average dance night? Or would you put it in the ‘blues’ folder?
and, most importantly
– how many stars?
This is a crazy way to think about music. Listening to the Black Eyed Peas, I had a momentary instinct to assess the ‘danceability’. Sheesh. Bpm? Who gives a fuck!
And of course, all this is in part of my ongoing issue with DJing.
I have half thought about DJing, but frankly, the main reasons I’ve abstained so far (in order of importance):
1. we only have one decent DJed dance night a week, and only one a fortnight which are at least 2 hours long (2.5 for the former, 2.5-3 for the second). And we call ourselves the biggest swing scene in the country? Fuck – even Hobart has more social dancing action. At any rate, this paucity of DJed social dancing action means that I’m reluctant to waste it standing in front of my laptop playing my favourite dancing songs to a bunch of people who aren’t me.
2. if I’m not there to dance, I’m not particularly interested in being there. I’m not terribly interested in the company of most swing dancers, and I’m certainly not interested in trying to hold a conversation with them in a noisy room where I can only guarantee their attention for 3 minutes. If that. Added to that, our two regular DJed spaces are shitty. The weekely venue is a shitbox – the sort of rank nightclub you’d go to when you were 15 because you could get in. And score some low grade speed while posing for amateur porn. If you were so inclined. The other joint is better, but it’s a dance studio, superhot and overcrowded. Not so cool.
3. the few times I have DJed, I’ve nearly died of boredom. Sure, there are interesting aspects – keeping people on the floor, choosing songs to suit the ‘mood’ or tempo you’ve got going, etc etc. But really, at the end of the day, you’re just playing a bunch of songs for other people to dance to. See point 1.
4. Most people on the floor aren’t particularly interested in excellent swinging jazz. They’d be just as happy dancing to Royal Crown Revue as Basie. This sticks in my craw. It’s even more infuriating when I think of the fact that most of the teachers teaching these people feel the same way – and teach with that crap. Frankly, I couldn’t handle that shit.
I feel – obviously erroneously – that you should dance because the music tells you to. And it should tell you how to dance. For me, if I’m looking to dance lindy hop or charleston or whatever, I need jazz. With lindy hop, I need swinging jazz because the structure of the music is reflected in the dance form. An 8-count basic, where a 4-count rhythm is played out first favouring one foot, then favouring the second. That same 8-count basic is a balance between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ position. ‘Closed’ roughly correlates with scored music, and ‘open’ with improvised, unscored music. The execution of this basic – the steps – involves bounce. And bounce is swinging tempo embodied: it’s about accent and emphasis and delay on particular terms. And all that with a partner on a crowded dance floor – which is, of course, the equivalent to the band.
So not giving a shit about what music you dance to is – to me – a fundamental declaration of a misunderstanding of the way this dance works. Which is fine… but it’s also INFURIATING!
Reasons I would consider DJing:
1. the music I hear when I go out is so ordinary, I consider a civic duty to pull out the good shit. There are problems with this: I don’t know what I’m doing and am just as likely to fuck it up as work it properly for the crowd. But I am attracted to the idea of reminding people of the good stuff, and generally contributing to a musical discourse which expands beyond goddamn Royal Crown Revue. Gotta be in it to win it, I guess. Or, if it’s broke, get off your arse and fix it rather than bitching til someone else does.
2. I really like the music. So hearing it on a big sound system rocks. Though most of our systems suck (esp in the night club joint), and I don’t know how to fix it to make it sound better.
3. You get paid. Not much, but seeing how poor I am at the moment, anything is better than nothing. And it’d get me essential items such as the Slim Gaillard Proper Box set.
4. It’d be a good way to get skilled up. And I love learning how to do new things.
At any rate, this ongoing dilemma/conflict/internal discussion has led to my insane approach to ‘listening’ to music. I go about this complicated system of classification in part with an eye to DJing at some point in the future, but also because it’s certainly been an advantage when it comes to getting music together to work on dance, whether I’m working alone or with other people. I’m also a little ob-con, and this sort of crazy classification is pretty much an extension of my crazy laundry obessiveness, or my deep passion for tidying and arranging glass jars full of ingredients in the kitchen.
It has also been somewhat self perpetuating – the more interest I take in the music, the more interested in the music I become. I’ve learnt more about swinging jazz and jazz generally in the last year than ever before. I have about 400 albums in various forms that I’d consider ‘danceable’, I’ve discovered new artists that I really love, and come to understand and be interested in artists I hadn’t really liked before. The technical knowledge I had from endless singing/performing/classes at school has been expanded and I’ve really developed a greater interest in the relationship between musical form and dance – particularly in terms of the relationship between improvisation and scored music within a song, how this is a reflection of relationships between musicians in a band, the bandleader’s approach, and then – of course – the ways a dancer may respond to all this.
I wouldn’t say that all this has made me a better dancer – you can’t be a better dancer if you don’t dance, and sitting on your clack fussing over your itunes doesn’t quite equate to dancing. Listening to music with this critical ear is definitely not the same as the way I listen to music when I’m dancing. When I’m dancing I’m not ‘conscious’ of musical structure. In fact, I rely on my ability to unconsciously follow the structure of the music. If I had to actually count out the bars or sets of ‘8’ in a phrase while I was dancing I’d be stuffed. I have noticed, though, that my responses to the music have changed and gotten more complex since I’ve been more into the music.
At the end of the day, however, your ability to actually make the music visible – to embody the music – is limited by basic stuff like dance fitness, body awareness (ie do you actually know how to move your arm to make that shape or relax/tense that muscle?), response time, connection with your partner (and ability to influence that connection) and so on. All that shit is really the product of:
1. dancing
2. aerobic fitness
3. experience in your body – dancing, sports, whatever
4. physical experimentation – trying shit out
Sitting there in front of you your itunes you’re not really going to become a better dancer. Nor will you by watching other people dance. You need to move your arse.
Does this lead me to a kind of anxiety about DJing? Perhaps – if I’m sitting there DJing half the night, will my dancing go down in quality? Will I lose fitness? I think it’s very likely. But, having said that, if I’m sitting there disgusted by the music, won’t my dancing suffer the same fate?
So I guess I’ll just continue with my ob-con musical classification. And collection. All those songs are really just specimens in my collection, I guess.
*there seems an instinct to grasp at any contemporary artist who plays anything even remotely ‘swinging’ and then foist it on vulnerable dancers in the swing scene. Just because Harry Connick Jnr is singing a ‘swing song’, don’t mean it necessarily swings, or is even half worth dancing to. Further, the standard of most contemporary swinging jazz artists simply doesn’t match the old skool doods – we have no Basie or Ellington or Armstrong or Holiday or Fitzgerald. They’re all over there in indy rock, thanks.

cultural relevence and dance

Here’s something I wrote about cultural relevence and swing dance a while back. I think it was posted on Swing Talk. I’m reposting it here because it’s got some interesting points that I want to hang onto and think about with the chapter I’m writing atm.
[quote begins]
In terms of music: one of the neat things about Afro-American vernacular jazz dance is that it was ‘made’ in tandem with the music – that’s why live music is important. Jazz totally leans on improvisation. So jazz dances do too. Being able to improvise is as important for us as dancers as it is for jazz musicians: it tests us. It pushes us to our creative limits. It makes the whole thing harder and so much funner.
So if I assume that the original line was: “the way vernacular dance maintains its relevancy to ordinary people’s lives. Dance styles and fashions stick around because they have use-value – they respond to the culture of the day”. You could also use ‘society’ instead I guess.
You know, I’ve thought about this a lot lately. It’s something that has relevancy to me as a dancer, and to me as a feminist researcher looking at issues of power and discourse and ideology in a dance culture.
nerdy academic rambling
As a cultural studies person, I believe that ‘culture’ …
– ie ‘stuff’ like texts (ie music and songs and pictures and paintings and sculpture and story and dances and magazines and television programs and film clips and so on)
and ‘practices’ (stuff we do – like talk about things or share clips or publish magazines or produce paintings or make clothes or whatever)
…is a nice way to look at what a society or culture is thinking and doing at a particular moment in time. As a cultural studies person I tend to be interested in ‘now’ – I’m not a historian, but sometimes I might do historical research. I don’t use historical research techniques. Nor do I use a sociological or anthropological techniques in the same way as people in those fields do.
I assume – as a feminist cultural studies researcher – that the relationships between people – ‘politics’ are indicated or represented in cultural ‘stuff’ and ‘practices’. So if I examine a song from 1935 I could make some guesses about the language and culture of the time. For these guesses to be more productive, I’d look at this text in context. So I’d look at other songs, I’d do interviews with people of the 30s, I’d read newspapers of the day, I’d read academic and popular work of and about that time. I guess that’s what I’m doing with my thesis: I’m looking at how the media we produce (be that dance or online) can be read to identify ideological discourse.
So I think it’s really neat that Afro-American vernacular dance builds this idea of cultural relevancy into its very structure… I mean, all dances do, but Afro-American vernacular dance totally DIGS it and positions it as very important. Hell, the swingout is revolutionary because it broke open the highly structured European partner dance form and gave partners all that time to do their own thing – to improvise.
So I like to see people do ‘their’ thing in those moments. And I think we can analyse those moments to see what sort of person they are, their dance experience and knowledge, their physical abilities, even their political or social beliefs and position (take a look at girl x’s swingout compared to guy x’s swingout – what does this tell you about gender relations? about sexuality? about musicality?). It’s there that we make the dance mean something.
more specific rambling
I wonder how we might combine ‘making the dance relevant to us today’ with any sense of historical ‘accuracy’ or congruency? ie getting new stuff in without losing the old stuff?
It wasn’t a problem in Afro-American dance communities in the ‘original swing era’ (or in vernacular dance traditions generally) – the shared knowledge and skill base was just added to. Useful stuff stuck. Other stuff was shelved.
But many of us feel – as swing dance revivalists – that there’s a responsibility to take a historical moment (be it 1935 in Harlem, 1930 in Kansas city, 1942 in Los Angeles or that heady summer on Balboa Island) and preserve it. Because it’s beautiful or fascinating or exciting or wonderful or awful or scary or whatever. We just want to get onto that moment and somehow make it stick.
It’s an interesting tension, I think.
Some ways I’ve noticed contemporary dancers make swing dances reflect their contemporary lives by exploiting the inherent flexibility of a dance that incorporates things like improvisation, impersonation and imitation:
– women leading and woman/woman dance partnerships not a new thing for partner dance by any means.
Same sex dance partnerships were there waaay back in Europe when partner dancing got going, it was there in various African nations pre American slavery (particularly when mixed-sex partner dancing was taboo), it was there in Afro-American vernacular dance from the beginning, right through the 30s to now.
For me, it’s about reconciling my passion for dance with my frustration with patriarchal and hetero-normative gender roles and dynamics. It’s also about getting to dance with my female friends.
– dancing lindyhop and other swing dances to contemporary music. I know, it makes me cringe sometimes, but hell, if it gets people dancing… I just ask that you dance to olden days music as well: don’t replace the old stuff with the new. Hang onto the bits that are useful. And I think swinging jazz is useful.
– incorporating ‘new skool’ moves into oldskool dances:
the body roll (sexy new skool… or is it really oldskool made newskool already?);
running man (humorous performance of 1980s/70s oldskool… which might also be really oldskool made new and then made new again);
various hip hop bits and pieces (as in hip hop lindy)… again, isn’t this oldskool made newskool in the 80s?
– women and men ‘dancing like themselves’. So seeing men and women actually taking the structure of swing dances to perform their own personality and identity, outside a static gender role or identity. So, seeing a young heterosexual woman dancing with ‘power’ or kickarse to show that she’s an independent woman, in a way she mightn’t have been able to in the 1930s or 40s. Especially if her family or ethnic group weren’t into female empowerment in that time. Or seeing an assertive, alpha-type chick take a moment to just ‘follow’ and stop making decisions for a while. Or seeing a young man not worrying that he may look ‘gay’ or whatever for relaxing and really feeling the music in ways that mightn’t go down so well at a conventional night club. Or seeing a young gay guy working with female partners in a close embrace and not having to second guess the sexual tensions that would accompany this contact in a non-dance setting. Or perhaps even more exciting, see things like that first young woman [I]perform[/I] a meek, stereotypical ‘good Asian girl’ and then rework it to totally subvert it.
– one of the things I’m most interested in at the moment: swing dancers getting into solo stuff. Especially if they’ve never done any type of dancing – not even disco dancing – before swing. I am really interested in the ring structure for things like big apples, charleston-offs, a bit of jazzedy jiggywiggy or whatever – people dancing in a circle so they can see each other, and all be a part of the deal, and yet experimenting with moves and the music independently. I think this is a nice way for people to use a really, really, really old dance form to experiment with their own bodies and personalities in a public place, trying on all sorts of moves. I especially like it when it’s all girl or all boy – I like to see some same sex peer work. But then I also dig a mixed gender thing too…
in this setting you see people for whom dance has never been part of their everyday lives before taking a bit of a chance that they might embarrass themselves and really exploring the things they’re physically capable of, the limits of their ‘jazz’ vocabulary, their ability to steal steps from people near by or make up new steps. It’s different to the big apple dances of the olden days, but it’s still using similar themes and structures.
Neat!

pro J&J = space jump

Just watching some clips of Manu (one of my absolute favourite lindy hop leads – in that I want to be him) here and got to thinking: pro Jack and Jill comps (where you’re randomly matched with a partner and have to dance to music you don’t choose) are just like theatre sports. Well, when Manu and Sylvia do it, anyway…
This is how I feel about Jack and Jill comps – they’re like a fun party game. This is one of the reasons I don’t get nervous with J&J comps (or other dance performances, really): it’s a game. Even if it’s just you performing, it’s still a game, because the audience has a role to play as well – they have to be The Audience. I wonder how much of this approach to performance and competition is a result of my research and developing ideas about the roles of performers and audiences in swing – and how both are ‘performances’?
I have moments of nerves – literally moments – but I don’t get nervous about performances or comps. Same as I don’t get nervous when I’m tutoring or lecturing. I just enjoy it so much, I don’t have time to be nervous.
It reminds me of something that Crinks said the other night. She mentioned a discussion she’d had with some other dancers (people with lots of performance experience) about getting nervous. Someone said ‘I wish I didn’t get nervous’ or something similar, and the other person said ‘I wish I still did – I don’t any more. And the nerves were part of what made it exciting. Now it’s just pedestrian’ (I am paraphrasing majorly here).
It’s funny, because I find that I do a better job if I’m not nervous, and I can relax and get on with focussing on the other stuff and doing a better job. Especially in the case of teaching or lecturing or giving papers: if I’m nervous, I can’t concentrate on the questions people ask, and I don’t do the best job I could.
So when I watched Manu and Sylvia in that J&J, all relaxed and having fun, I thought ‘yes, this is what it’s supposed to be like – fun. And a game’. Space Jump.

Recent Lindy Hop adventures

I’ve just seen some clips from the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown competition this year (on a french site whose name I can’t remember, sorry) and I’ve noticed some interesting tropes.
What’s the ULHS?
The ULHS is one of the most well-respected lindy competitions in the swinguverse. The emphasis is on hardcore dancing, with a relaxed attitude. Sure, Hellzapoppin’ is still the lindy hop competition, but the ULHS is less about choreography and schmaltz than painful comps like the ALHC (american lindy hop comp/championships?) or the Australian Jitterbug Champs.
A word on lindy comps
I’m not a big fan of comps: I’m all about social dancing. But I also recognise the role comps can play in a dance community. They galvanise dancers, getting them keen and working on dance in a serious way. This of course brings up their dancing ability level, and setting new standards in the community.
The obvious draw-back is related to the type of competition: the VRRDA (victorian rock n roll dance association) comps which obsessed Melbourne dancers for ages about 4 years ago are all about the worst aspects of competitive dancing: 100% tacky, schmaltzy, choreographed rubbish (which is pleasurable, but in a different way of course); the AJC where the organisers would enter their own competition (it took 2 years for them to realise how unethical this was): what kind of cultural example is being set there? And of course, Dancesport: the name says it all.
So what did I notice about ULHS?
everything oldskool is nuskool
This is the age of the first wave lindy hop… or second wave.
The kids are getting hardcore into their old clips. THANK GOD! This has led to some scary second-rate imitations further down the line, but the first rank dancers are doing some seriously awesome shit.
crazy = good
This warms my heart (what with being a crazy dancer by trade).
20s solo charleston is still cooking along
Yay. One day Melbourne will get into it in a big way.
Melbourne is still trying to be the USA, dance wise
Sure, there are good reasons to be inspired by the American example, but imitation… hm. It’s kind of a dilemma, because lindy hop is all about imitation – historical recreation. But my concern is with dancers immitating recreationists, rather than dancers getting out there and exploring the original footage.
How to dress
On the other hand, one thing I did think while watching the clips was how appropriate it is to wear contemporary dress while swing dancing. It’s like Shakespeare: it’s always set in the ‘current day’. So wearing contemporary clothes is very appropriate (especially as we are always ‘wearing’ our contemporary cultural ‘clothes’ when we dance or move or speak or write or….).
It’s a dilemma: everything old is new again, and yet everything new is also very appropriate.
One thing I noted (on this point) was the way performers would wear ‘old’ clothes (vintage or recreationist) for performances, and then ‘new’ clothes when they competed. It strikes me as an example of framing and ‘performing’ identity. When performing in formal Performances, they’re putting on an historic identity, framing their dancing performance as recreation. When they perform in competitions, they’re performing their own identities – their own selves (or another of their own selves?), so they wear their ‘own’ clothes. And of course, the two identities and performances aren’t seperate: they are intended to be read intertextually. So when we see Frida in her crazy modern young person clothes, we are still reading her in reference to her historical recreationist work in the Silver Shadows, and in the Hot Shots. This historical cross-referencing serves to authenticate and justify her authority as a dancer, and her status as a ‘good’ dancer.
And just one more point:
Vaudville and lindy hop
I need to get a hold of Henry Jenkins’ book on early musical cinema (1930s). He discusses the vaudville aesthetic and the shift to cinematic narrative in these films. This issue has caught my interest as well, in reference to swing dancers. The ULHS reinforced the vaudvillian aspect of swing dancing: it’s a matter of sitting down to watch a series of individual ‘spectacles’ which we read intertextually. Just as with vaudville theatre, there’s room for audience participation: being an audience is ‘active’.
I’ve been thinking about vaudville and shows like Dancing with the Stars a bit lately, and how we really like it, as audiences. I’d also hazard a speculation that vaudville didn’t really go away – telly is all about pieces of ‘spectacle’ which we put together in a larger viewing ‘whole’. This of course echoes some of the 80s (or was it 90s?) stuff on telly and the ‘glance’ and ‘segments’ of image/narrative/viewing. It emphasises the ‘active’ viewer. Which is what swing dancers are all about: active viewing. Active spectatorship.

dance talk

i’m a bit inspired, dance-wise. it was really nice to get some decent teaching, somewhere outside of angsty old melbourne. it was also nice to meet so many interesting people from all over the world – that was the best thing about herrang.

but i’m totally into leading now – not particularly interested in following. maybe i would be if there’d been any guys in herrang who’d done classes and were interested in trying stuff with me. but doris and i are cooking, and corinne is always up to try things out. so it’s girl on girl action at the moment: i am damn lucky to be able to dance with these two superior follows. corinne leads a bit, and doris is interested: soon we will all be all-leading, all-following chicks.

rawk on.

i am obsessed with weight transfer and leading and following with your centre. this obsession was only fueled by the amazing max at the gym (who does my programs and assesments), who’s taken up aerial work. we had an excited talk about centres the other week: much enthusiastic realisations about how bodies move in space.

max rawks.

a quick gym note: i am doing a hardcore upper-body and core-strengthening program. so my arms and shoulders ache, my abs ache and i’m getting much more control, centre-wise.
max rocks.
and i am getting a two-pack. if i had less of a jelly belly, i might have a three or four pack. but i do, so i don’t. or if i do, i can’t see it.
i really like being strong.

i’d like to be fitter, but i just can’t hack that boring, dull as dogshit cardio work… aerobics totally sucks.

it’s a sad, sad day when you’re eating instant noodles for breakfast

but it can’t be helped. my first night of proper dancing since i’ve been back (where i dance like a nut all night) and i wake up feeling a little ill. now, i’ve been dealing with herrang cold remnants since i arrived home last thursday, but it seems the IT nerd version of the cold which laid The Squeeze low has decided to take up residence in moi. sick again. so i’m feeling tired and rough and a little disappointed in my immune system. i thought we were a team.
at any rate, despite my attempts to eat only sandwiches since i arrived home, there is no decent bread in the house. the only alternative for sick-girl was obviously instant noodles. and i think the milk has gone off.
sigh.
meanwhile, the handyman (who i quite like) is wacking things in another room, attending to 2 of the 10 or so items on our list of ‘fix it now you bastards’ things. a list we sent to the real estate agent before i left (we’re talking at least 7 weeks ago). only now, since i’ve been home and threatened to kick arse have they done anything about this list. a plumber is promised, but i doubt we’ll see him any time soon.
meanwhile, the lease is up, so we’re living on borrowed time and with little room to apply pressure to our arsehole landlord. we are trying to decide whether or not we should move. unfortuntately, though, areshole landlords dominate our price bracket, and while we pay too much rent here, it’s still cheaper to stay than to pay for all the moving crap.
ah, renting. how wonderful it is.