Check that out – that’s Sugar Sullivan and Peter Loggins doing the stops routine. Sugar rocks. Peter is nuts. Their classes were favourite.
More Sugar and Peter goodness.
And Sugar in the 50s:
Just in case you were wondering why I’d suddenly gone all boring…
I’ve been very busy writing a paper for a media convergence collection/special ed of a journal/thingy. So I am making a really crappy rough draft at the moment. Soon it will be beautiful, but before it’s beautiful, the editing will be horrible. I really enjoy writing (when I’m not all blocked) and write very quickly, so I feel like I’m accomplishing. I do not, however, write good first drafts – I need to edit and edit and edit and edit to make it look nice.
This paper, briefly, is about the AV stuff in my thesis. I’ve added on a nice bit about youtube, which was very exciting – youtube has made major changes in the world of online dance clips, and the whole ‘free’ and ‘easily accessed’ thing, as well as embedding clips in blogs and the sheer, wonderful quantity of obscure footage uploaded to the site make it a fabulous resource for dancers. It’s also made some interesting changes in the economy of clip exchange in the swinguverse (to a certain extent). I’ve added a bit about the Silver Shadows stuff I wrote about in this entry, as it makes for a really nice example of the sorts of things I’m talking about. Not to mention the whole convergence thing.
I still haven’t done the ‘guest’ post. But at least I’ve had some ideas. Once I’ve gotten this convergence paper done, I’m going to write something about radio and swing dancers. Now there’s a bit of convergent action. I’m especially interested in the way the Yehoodi Talk Show used video podcasting (a visual element to its radio podcast) in the last edition. That’s some awesome shit. Especially as they spent a fair bit of that podcast watching video clips they’d found on youtube, google movies, etc. Talk about nice timing. It all flows on nicely from my stuff on DJing and uses of sound/audio technology there.
I actually had a paper in the latest edition of Continuum if you’re interested in reading some of the sort of work I’m doing. It’s actually a refereed paper from the CSAA conference-before-last and I’m not actually convinced it’s much good. I know I’ve written better. Hopefully this paper I’m doing now will be nicer.
…ok, so the other thing I’ve been doing is working on this. It’s still looking fairly crap, but I do like the way it’s going. I’ve not tested it in anything other than Safari (bad me), so if you’re using Internet Exploder – sucked in! I doubt I’ll ever actually do anything with this site once it’s done (despite it’s fairly high hits when I was running it more regularly), but I do like a bit of focussed web design. Viva la css!
Anyway, doing a little work on that this afternoon (paper in the morning, coding in the afternoon, then a mandatory tranky doo break in the late afternoon), I came across this thing on aural style sheets in the W3 website.
It caught my attention as I’d recently read Barista’s entry on deafness stuff and my interest was caught. I’d read another comment on Barista’s blog a while back about accessability, and I guess it’s just been percolating in there for a while. I’m a bit strict about accessability (to a certain extent) because living with The Squeeze has made me aware of things like colours and how underlining links all the time is actually very important for colour blind people. Or even people who see colours in different ways.*
So the thought of styling websites to make them more accessible for people who use screen readers…!
I will read more about it and report back later. Meanwhile, if you know anything about this or have any ideas, points, please do drop them in the comments.
*The Squeeze actually bypasses all this shit by just reading the internet on his feedreader. Except when he’s looking at photos.
…I’m also posting this clip of Frida and Skye dancing at the ALHC (American Lindy Hop Championships – a very ‘proper’ dance comp and nothing like the ULHS and other comps I’ve blogged before).
I am very behind – it’s a 2005 clip, and look, we’re all in 2007 now!
This is some awesome dancing – it looks unchoreographed, and really displays Skye’s unusual personality – he and Frida are one scary combination. Scary in an entirely un G-rated way.
I can now do all this part of the (renamed by The Squeeze in light of recent displays of dancing
ineptitude in our house) Cranky Poo:
Well, the whole first 40 seconds of that routine. Then I get confused (it’s not really my fault – we didn’t have the timing solid for the next section when we were learning it). I’m also suspecting that Mike is a bit too ahead of himself in that clip and this one with the amazing Frida:
Now, I could be wrong on Mike’s timing (most probably, considering my wonderful work learning this routine to date), but…
Having said that, he does have lovely arms, and lovely, big movements.
My admiration for this young man is, of course, entirely G-rated.
Look out: this post is a bit crapworthy. I think I’ve found my idea for the article, but it needs some work. But I just had to wack this down now while it’s on my mind (and just before I ping ding to the Laundry to see a band and do some dancing). My current mission is to learn the tranky doo routine. I am crap at learning routines. Yesterday I spent an hour and half trying to learn this version of the tranky doo (because I love Manu), and only figured out three phrases. That’s some sad arse transcription/learning on my part. These stoods (in that clip) would probably have learnt that routine in an hour or hour and a half.
Doing a little youtube browsing today (as one does when one is waiting for one’s Squeeze to get up), I discovered the following neat clip:
That’s the Silver Shadows (whose members include Todd & Naomi, Skye & Frida, Andy & Nina, Peter & Caitlin – all young, ‘famous’ dancers of the type generally referred to as rock stars) there, performing a routine at the midwest lindy fest. Now, that’s some seriously excellent lindy hopping there (and you can see more of the Silver Shadows if you do a search for them on youtube – their 2005 ULHS performance was amazing), but even more interestingly, that’s some seriously excellent use of music there.
Have a look at the following clip, but more importantly, have a listen to this clip.
You’ll notice (well, you might), that the riff that pops up at about 1.29mins is repeated in the track on that first Silver Shadows clip (at about 1.44 – when the crowd goes utterly nuts). I’m not really sure, but that sounds like an edited combination of songs on the Silver Shadows clip (I could be wrong though). Even if it’s not an edited collection of songs and is one single song referencing all those other important songs, this is still important stuff.
Historically, various riffs would pop up in a range of popular jazz songs across bands and often across moments in time during theh 20s, 30s and 40s – the ‘swing era’ (as that’s my era of interest). Individual musicians would play a particular solo, or a particular bit of melody/arrangement would be reproduced in another song, elsewhere.
This is very textual poaching stuff – jazz was all about the ‘cut and paste’ or ‘sampling’ deal.
The thing that makes this Silver Shadows routine so fascinating (and so wonderful) is the way they’ve combined various bits of iconic dance routines, to a song (or song-melange) which combines iconic combinations of notes and arrangements.
If you’re not familiar with the songs, or with the choreography of these iconic routines (and if you do a search of ‘whitey’s lindy hoppers’ and ‘harlem congaroos’ you’ll find the original sections of film on youtube), you won’t recognise this stuff in the Silver Shadows’ choreography.
That they began with the song Savoy (by Lucky Millinder I think), which is named for the famous Savoy Ballroom where the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were based (and which is credited as the birthplace of lindy hop), and this is a fairly nice indication of where they go with the routine and their particular style of lindy hop. These are pretty solid recreationist doods, digging ‘authentic’ music and lindy.
So when you watch that clip, you see the dancers pull out a bit of the Big Apple routine from the film Keep Punchin’. And to make this moment of intertextuality/cultural transmission/textual poaching even more wonderful, that routine in the original film (as choreographed by Frankie Manning for a combination of Whitey’s Lindy Hopper dancers) also includes parts of the Tranky Doo.
And here’s Al Minns and Leon James (more Savoy dancers) doing the Tranky Doo (note the references to Marshall Stearns, who wrote the important book on African American jazz dance Jazz Dance):
And because it’s difficult to see Al and Leon properly in that footage, check out Mike and Nina (Nina is in the Silver Shadows) doing a demonstration of the Tranky Doo steps here:
The Tranky Doo is another piece of choreography from this early era of lindy hop, one that’s become a bit popular with young swing dancers today.
And to round all of this off, the Big Apple is a dance with its roots in Africa. Here’s a big chunk of my thesis about Big Apples:
John F. Szwed and Morton Marks (32) discuss the importance of called dances in African American musical history, noting the relationship between dance and musical form. Dancers were challenged by callers to perform the called steps to the best of their ability in the earliest moments of black appropriations of European folk dances. Credible performances required dancers not only be familiar with named steps, but also be able to perform them immediately, and often with variations on the step that still maintained a recognised structure. This discussion echoes a tradition from earliest African dance. Hazard-Gordon notes that â€œthe challenge posed by the fiddler-caller, familiar to West Africans, calls upon the dancer to perform difficult combinations of steps. The best performers are those who can meet the challenge while maintaining control and coolnessâ€ (Jookinâ€™ 21).
Malone and others draw clear connections between the ring dances of Africa, the ring Shouts of African American gospel churches and with ring dances of the 20s and 30s such as the Big Apple. The Ring Shout was a slavesâ€™ reworking of ancient African ritual, remade to accord with European religious expectations. Performed in a ring, most often in churches or religious services, Ring Shouts placed an emphasis on innovative interpretations of set moves (Stearns and Stearns 27). The Big Apple, popular in the 1920s and 30s and choreographed by New York dancer Frankie Manning, reworked the Ring Shout with new, formal choreography and was performed in a circle by partnered and solo dancers. A range of other â€˜Applesâ€™ were popular throughout the period, and are today in contemporary swing culture, joined by new pieces such as the Japanese swing dancersâ€™ â€˜Fuji Appleâ€™ and unchoreographed version.
In their simplest forms, â€˜Applesâ€™ are â€˜calledâ€™, requiring dancers to perform steps chosen and demonstrated by a leader, a role that is shared by all in the circle. The more complex and famous Apples were more strictly choreographed â€“ as with the Big Apple â€“ but individualsâ€™ executions of these set steps were always marked by individual style and variation often with a competitive edge. Despite the constraints of called dances, Big Apples in swing dance maintained a strong sense of improvisation and a valuing of innovation. The proving of a dancerâ€™s skill lay not only in their recognising the step called, but in their interpretation and performance of that step. Footage of Frankie Manningâ€™s dance troupe the Hot Chocolates performing his Big Apple (Keep Punchinâ€™ 1939), is still consulted by dancers today, and aptly demonstrates the importance of individual creative styling of choreographed steps in this historical moment.
I think the reason that I get all excited about these sorts of things, is that these connections between archival film, historical African American vernacular dance, jazz music forms and practice and so on are fascilitated by the internet (my use of youtube just there was pretty important), yet are also dependent on access to archival film footage, the instruction of surviving dancers from the 1930s, individual dancers getting together now to work on this stuff (and the Silvers Shadows’ dancers are from all over the US and include Frida from Sweden), and then (perhaps most importantly), dancers in the audience (whether there on the night or later online) recognisingall this cross-referencing and clever textual poaching.
This is community media use and practice in action. And, I think, one of the most exciting parts of using dancers as a case study: here are some doods using digitial media in really complex and sophisticated ways, yet with this technology always subsidiary to the embodied dance act. The communal embodied dance act.
Peter and the crew discuss the big apple on jassdance.org
I’ve been writing a bit about women and blues music and dance lately, my ideas fed in part by my research for the thesis, but also (and perhaps more importantly), stimulated by my own experiences as a woman in the swing dance community.
I’ve been asked to do a guest spot on a fairly spec online culture blog, writing specifically about my own research. I’ve had a bit of a think about it, not much, I must admit, as I’ve been a bit distracted, and really, I just can’t seem to put anything together in my head. I mean, I have no idea what I’d like to write about. I’ve kind of got stage fright. This is the first mass-public airing of my work where I’m likely to get/see immediate feedback (in the form of comments), and unlike academic journals or conference papers, I feel there’s a bit of pressure to write well and accessibly. I do think that the format is quite different – shorter, lots of linkage, etc etc.
And while I just know that this is a fabulous opportunity, I can’t seem to put my ideas together.
I’d quite like to do something like this hot and cool entry (with some tidying and a more coherent structure and, well point), but I’m not sure how to start.
I actually got to the hot/cool entry by way of this entry on women, blues and dance, which developed from this (fairly ordinary) entry on the same topic. And of course, that was a response to Kate‘s responses to a CD I sent her with a copy of a blues set I did a few weeks ago.
Of course, for me the most interesting part of this whole chain of thinking is the fact that we began with a set list posted on the internet, which is something I have started doing recently as a replacement for the fairly fizzly thread on the Swing Talk board where we did list our set lists ages ago, but which has recently fallen out of favour.
I found that thread particularly useful as a beginner DJ – I could see what sorts of songs different DJs in Australia are playing, the ways they’re combining them, and then (perhaps even more interesting) I could read their own comments on the sets and how they went. I read that thread in conjunction with this DJ bubs thread (which gets interesting on the second page) and the Swing DJs board, where I’m too scared to post. And of course, I also spent a great deal of time clicking between amazon.com (or cduniverse.com) and allmusic (a site which used to be better) for sound clips and musicans’ bios respectively. Radio programs like Hey Mr Jesse, which are only delivered online as podcasts have recently become really important to me (I don’t think it’s a coincidence, as Jesse has been producing this show since January 2006 and I started DJing in February of this year).
Talking about DJing in person, with real, live DJs has played a suprisingly small part in my learning to DJ. I think this is in part because I prefer to dance when I’m not DJing, dance venues generally aren’t too good for talking about DJ, and I’m not really interested in getting together to talk DJing – I’d rather talk about other crap. I do discuss levels and technology when I’m DJing or when someone else is DJing – I ask knowledgeable friends questions like “why does that sound like shit?” and then do a little hypothetical problem solving.
These were the sorts of resources that I was using to help me learn how to DJ. I was full of ideas about DJing (in part prompted by my thesis work and chapter on DJing, but not entirely – I found that most of my theoretical ideas about DJing were actually bullshit and needed to be revised post-practical experience), and feeling creative and inspired. The fact that DJing is nine tenths compulsive CD collecting and song cataloguing no doubt helped me along (I can stop whenever I want. I don’t have a problem. I don’t need to organise things. No way).
Posting set lists (and posting my discussions of them), getting feedback from more experienced DJs, and learning about DJing from reading their posts, in combination with all those other sources helped me get a handle on DJing. I must add, without the practical experience of DJing, none of these things would have been any good to me at all. And of course, most of my ideas about DJing and how to DJ are in turn fostered by my own dance experience – both in Melbourne over the years and overseas – and and by listening and dancing to other DJs’ sets.
I think it’s also important to note that all this online toing and froing is a really interesting aspect of swing DJs’ activities generally – I wrote about this in the chapter on DJing. Because we live so far apart (particularly in Australia), the internet has developed as a fabulous tool for networking between DJs, for the development of skills (and increasingly for me), networking with event organisers for scoring gigs. Travel has also been important, as it gives me a chance to touch base with DJs from out of town.
And, of course, I have to make note of the fact that I know only one female DJ from out of state who has a decent amount of experience and comes out dancing regularly or posts on Swing Talk. Here in Melbourne, there are far more female DJs than in other scenes, in part (I think) as a result of the recent ‘opening up’ of DJing at major venues like CBD (which has so many sets to fill each month and has been organised by people who have been clearly interested in expanding the DJing base in Melbourne), and (to a degree), the importance of buddying between new DJs. Glancing over the DJing roster for CBD in January, I can see that six out of the eight DJs rostered on are female. I also note that of those eight DJs, there are only perhaps two who I’d make an effort to go dancing for. Of all these DJs, most tend to play far beyond the limits of ‘swinging jazz’, with only three (myself included) playing (almost exclusively) swinging jazz from the 1930s-50s.
I have wondered if the serious emphasis on the cultural (and material) capital required for playing swinging jazz is exclusive – does it discourage women? I would suspect so. The largely exclusive language of sites like Swing DJs requires a fair bit of dancing (and listening) experience, and most of the DJs on this one sample list have only a couple of years dancing experience. The least proficient have also travelled the least (and travel, of course, demands lots of dosh). On a further note, only two of the DJs on this list are determinedly not interested in acquiring their music by illegal or file-sharing means. They are, also, the ones with the greatest interest in swinging jazz.
How do I feel about all this? I think it’s quite clear (as I wrote in my thesis) that becoming a ‘good’ DJ (and I think that ability is a combination firstly (and most importantly) of DJing ability – combining songs, keeping the floor full, ranging across a variety of moods and styles – and musicall collection – playing swinging jazz) is restricted to those with the time, money and opportunity to invest. I feel uneasy with my personal insistence that ‘good DJs’ are those who play swinging jazz, even though I know that playing unswing results in inevitable adjustments to lindy hop technique (most of which I think are not good – they result in a simpler, musically and techically less interesting dance). I feel (on some level) that I should be ok with DJs playing unswing, as unswing is more accessible and therefore a means by which more women (and less financially well off DJs) can get access to the DJing role.
I have written at length about the ways in which the ‘recreationist’ imperative of many swing dancers is a discomforting (and selective) use of history which (as I have said before) neglects the darker parts of African American history and eventually recreates scary gender stuff.
So how am I to contribute to DJing discourse when I find so many bits of it so difficult?
There is the option of using ‘buddying’ to encourage new dancers to discover swinging jazz. But that feels condescending – who am I to tell people what ‘good’ music is, especially when many of them are patently not interested in this historical stuff? And really, when the whole history of African American vernacular dance is about cultural relevence, why should I encourage dancers (and DJs) away from the pop music of their day?
I might choose to give copies of the sorts of music I really like to other DJs – how else to be sure I get to dance to the music I like? I have reservations about this on the basis of IP, but also because I have found (in the past), that sharing really good songs with one person will see them spread out, diseminated to other dancers and DJs until I find that dancers are using that song (and that version of that song) to perform routines for paid gigs. And it’s even more frustrating to find that the artists’ name and recording details have dropped from the song, so it is circulating only as a digital, nameless file.
On the one hand, this is interesting stuff. On the other, it concerns me because (particularly when these are living artists), there are musicians being screwed. I will not go as far as some other DJs and say that I resent this illicit circulation because I’m losing some sort of cred as the ‘discoverer’ of this song who ‘brings it to the dancers’ (I’m not that naive or that arrogant – this is pop music, doods). Nor will I say that I resent this because other DJs play this song, so robbing me of my ‘ace in the hole’ crowd pleaser (and attendant status as ‘awesome DJ’), mostly because it’s cool for other DJs to hear a song, ask what it’s called, say “that frickin’ rocks”, hunt it out on itunes or amazon, then play it when they next DJ (and I get to dance to that song when they play it). That doesn’t worry me. It’s more that the song is circulated as a burnt disc or shared file, with the song title, artist, recording year and musicians’ details stripped from it. It also worries me that while I might share a song or songs as a gift, other DJs and dancers compile CDs which they then sell to others. That worries me.
As a dancer, it’s frustrating when DJs simply take a ‘found’ or ‘exchanged’ or ‘gifted’ song and play it to death, without exploring that artist’s other work. I hear one version of (for example) C Jam Blues by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and I think ‘yes – now we’re going to hear more swinging jazz. Finally. No more bullshit unswing that makes for crap dancing’ (and as a dancer, that’s how I think – I have no tolerance for unswing. I want to lindy hop to swinging jazz). But that song ends up just as one drop in anotherwise intolerable sea of overplayed pap played in clunky, unpleasant combinations that make for a night of shit dancing.
So I am in kind of a bind. My feminist instincts say ‘fight the power’ and ‘information (and music) wants to be free’. But my dancer instincts say ‘play some good frickin’ music, and learn to DJ well’.
This post has rambled on far longer than I had intended. And far beyond the original point that I wanted to make. And I kind of think it’s become a bit of a tirade against local media production and use practices in Melbourne swing culture. Which is very un-cultural studies of me.
I scored with two bits of music for christmas.
First, a friend’s band’s album: the Solomon Douglas Swingtet‘s album Swingmatism from The Squeeze’s mother, and second, The Basie Mosaic set from The Squeeze.
Both are, of course, really fricking great. It’s unfortunate, though, that Sol’s album arrived with the Basie one – they’re working (in a very general way) in the same sort of style* as the new testament Basie on the Mosaic set, and really, it’s cruel to set the two head to head. Basie wins, of course.
But Sol’s album really is very good – if this band was playing regularly in my city I’d be a very happy lindy hopper indeed. They’re certainly better than the B# Big Band who are the closest thing Melbourne has in comparison, and I prefer them to the JW Swing Orchestra, who are our other major swinging big band (there are others, but these are the only dancer-oriented/dancer-trained bands).
For lindy hoppers, this album is definitely worth the cash**.
…I’m try to write an even partially coherent discussion of this album, but I’m feeling a bit scatty.
Actually, my feelings about this album are mixed. Firstly, I really appreciate it as a present – it was a very thoughtful gift, and definitely something I really like. Well chosen, mother of The Squeeze (and Squeeze).
Secondly, as a general into-music type person, I like it very much. I like to support current day swinging bands, especially ones like Sol’s, where the band is led by a dancer, and tailors its sets specifically for dancers. I can also really appreciate this album as a dancer – this is some fun shit.
Thirdly, as a DJ, this is some good stuff. The version of the Big Apple Contest is a bit of a score, and there are some really nice songs on the album.
But, fourthly, as a picky, DJ nerd wench, I’m not sure this is my cup of tea. It’s a little hi-fi/new testament for my liking (though I MUST admit that it wanders through a fair old range of musical territory – there’s a nice version of Black and Tan Fantasy, for example), and I’m not sure how often I’d play this for my own pleasure at home. I do, however, really really like songs like Funky Blues – it feels like this is where it’s at.
As a picky DJ, I’m wondering when I’d play many of these songs. I’m not sure I’d choose this version of Shiny Stockings, for example, when there are so many wonderful versions by people like Basie, which really are fabulous. I’d definitely spin that version of the Big Apple song, though, and I might play a few of the other tracks to win over a few of the groover/US-favouring dancers in our scene. But I’m not sure if I’d play things from it if I was compiling my ideal set. Having said that, when do we ever get to play our ‘ideal’ sets?
So, thinking sensibly, this is one of those albums (like Mora’s Modern Rhythmists’) which is great for getting the pickier hi-fi dancers interested in proper swing-era bands: this is some shit-hot recreationist work. I’d put this CD on my sneak list. Which, of course, makes this a very useful album indeed.This is a band we should support by buying the album, as these guys are the bread and butter of swing dancing – without wonderful live bands who put such effort into their live sets and recordings, many local scenes would founder in their early days, and we’d really miss this sort of superior big band action at our big balls and major events.
I do regret the fact that I’ve been listening to this with the Basie set at the same time. There simply is no comparison. Which is a shame, as I do think Sol has done fabulous work, and I don’t doubt the band live are frickin awesome.
The other CD I scored was the fabulous 8-CD Mosaic set. The Squeeze is the sneakiest beast on earth. In town doing our christmas shopping the other week, he suggested popping in to Basement Discs (where I’d seen this set) for a bit of browsing. I poo-pooed the idea in favour of goal-oriented shopping. He later (or had already – I’m not sure which) popped in to pick this up himself. And I scored big time.
This is one fabulous collection of new testament Basie action. There are some fricking awesome versions of lindy hopping favourites (including another version of Jive at Five for my collection), all in fantastic quality. I’m not the hugest late testament Basie fan, but this is such a great, solid collection of the dood’s work in the 1950s, I’m really very happy to have it. This was a period where Basie had some pretty shit-hot musicians on hand, working a band who were really cooking together. I can’t get over the quality. Though most of this later Basie stuff is pretty good quality, this is a really, really nice collection.
As I’ve already said, it’s a shame I first heard Sol’s band in such close proximity to this set.
But I do think that the two are complementary and definitely very nice additions to any lindy hopper (let alone DJ)’s collection. The Basie set is, however, a massive luxury, and Sol’s CD is far more accessible and practical for small-time collectors.
At the end of the day, I’m very very happy with these two presents – I couldn’t have asked for anything better…. though this Basie set has me hankering for the Peggy Lee set, which I do not need!
*As in they’re hi-fi, have a kind of late testament sound, etc.
**Incidentally, when I asked The Squeeze if I could use his paypal account to buy this album the other day, he declared “no way – I’m not wasting paypal dollars on that guy’s band”, and then immediately sneaked off to coordinate its purchase with his mother. This album is, of course, very Squeeze like, and he does actually think it was worth spending paypal dollars on this album. Even if they were his mother’s paypal dollars.
sorry to bomb the blog a bit, but…
I think I need to learn to Madison RIGHT NOW. Well, I could, because I have no responsibilities! That’s a Nicholas brother there btw.
…incidentally, I found this clip on dancehistory.org (that link from jassdance in my links on the side there goes to the same place).
This site is administered by Peter Loggins, one of my favourite lindy hopping types. This site has a really nice, friendly feel, with an emphasis on dance history (duh) and less with the interpersonal bitching. I like the layout of the fora, and the tone of the discussions – very ‘go dancenerd, go!’
The front page is especially awesome, with its list of dances, the photos and clips.
I can’t find the clip that I was looking for, but this is one of Snake Hips Tucker. This dood was reknown for… well, watch and you’ll see.
But he’s an interesting example of something Tommy DeFrantz describes in terms of a contrast between a ‘cool’ face and ‘hot’ body. For most of that clip Tucker’s face is impassive. But his body is doing some crazy arse shit. I do have a bunch of other references on exactly this topic, but I haven’t found them yet (I’m suspecting someone like Katrina Hazzard Gordon or Brenda Dixon Gottschild).
I’ve wondered if the aesthetic of ‘cool’ was in part a response to the conditions of slavery. As DeFrantz noted (and i paraphrase from memory), serious dancing went underground to avoid persecution under slavery, and the black man’s body became a site of multiple layers of meaning, and unravelling each depended on the observer’s knowledge.
Or, in a far nicer example,
In 1901, a former slave told the actor Leigh Whipper: “Us slaves watched white folks’ parties where the guests danced a minuet and then paraded in a grand march, with the ladies and gentlemen going different ways and then meeting again, arm in arm, and marching down the center together. Then we’d do it too, but we used to mock ’em every step. Sometimes the white folks noticed it, but they seemed to like it; I guess they thought we couldn’t dance any better” (Malone 18).
Sounds a lot like cake walk to me. And of course, there is a long history of derision in African dance. Sometimes immitation is not the highest form of flattery. I know that it’s certainly proved a valuable discursive tool for me in the past.
So there were tactical reasons for maintaining a straight or ‘cool’ face while dancing.
But Malone extends her discussion of cool in African dance, noting
Personal coolness is an important hallmark of good style. Thompson has coined this phrase for such a set of values and attitudes: “an aesthetic of the cool.” Coolness in this context has to do with control, transcendental balance, and directing one’s energy with a clear purpose in mind. Thompson has identified this concept in the languages of thirty-five western and central African cultures. The Gola of Liberia define coolness in this way: “Ability to be nonchalant at hte right moment… to reveal no emotion in situations where excitement and sentimentality are acceptable – in other words, to act as though one’s mind were in another world. It is particularly admirable to do difficult tasks with an air of ease silent disdain. Women are admired for a surly detached expression, and somnambulistic movement and attitude during the dance or other performance is considered very attractive.” Thus, coolness is a metaphor for right living and diplomacy; it is “an all-embracing positive attribute which combines notions of composure, silence, vitality, healing, and social purification” (Malone 18-19)
She also notes that
The canons of good behaviour insist that dancers become completely engrossed in what they are doing and avoid “throwing glances” at the audiences” (Malone 19).
a point which resonates with me in the context of Melbourne swing. There’s nothing more painful than a cheesy smile for or point at the audience – it’s nasty to watch. Though in perfect accordance with the norm of competitive ballroom dance (check out Dancing with the Stars for a perfect example of not-cool).
And to bring it all back to lindy hop, there is nothing ‘cooler’ than the flat-out, parallel to the ground ‘flying’ style of Frankie Manning, where his body is long and lean and relaxed, but his legs and feet are going a million miles an hour. The ultimate cool/hot contrast. And it is the contrast that means so much.
So, if we think about this stuff in the context of Kate’s questions about hot, cool and va-va-voom…
Perhaps it is that there’s the contrast between the ‘hot’ body of the sensual woman (whether she is generously proportioned, tall and thin or whatever) and her ‘cool’ attitude of disdain. So Bessie Smith’s sporting a decidedly ‘hot’ (or hawt?) body, but she is ‘cool’ in her control, her vocal ability. Hot in her statements of interest in sex, cool in her vocal delivery and timing.
Oh, look here’s an example. If you watch that solo blues clip (the one I’ve put in this post), you see some seriously hawt/hot bodily action (the whole ‘lick your thumb then touch your hip in a ‘sizzle’ to test your own heat is a perfect illustration). But they’re also sporting some serious cool snub. These chicks are really working it, but they are solidly unattainable. It’s solo dancing. No one gets to touch them but them. And they certainly don’t waste their time making eye contact with undesirables.
I’m not sure I’ve convinced myself with all that… Any one got any other thoughts?
DeFrantz, Thomas. “The Black Male Body in Concert Dance.” Moving Words: Re-Writing Dance. Ed. Gay Morris. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 107 – 20.
—. â€œBelieve the Hype!: Hype Williams and Afro-Futurist Filmmaking.â€ Unpublished paper. Spectacle, Rhythm and Eschatology: A Symposium. University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 24th July 2003.
—, ed. Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
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.
Sorry, I can’t find the full reference for the Thompson quite in Malone. :(
I just had to add this clip, which DustForEyes pointed out in his comments. Son of Snake Hips? Cool/hot much?
Angela Y. Davies writes in her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday
During Bessie Smith’s era [the 20s and 30s], most black heterosexual couples – married or not – had children. However, blues women rarely sang about mothers, fathers and children. in the subject index to her book Black Pearls, black studies scholar Daphne Duval Harrison lists the following themes: advice to other women; alcohol; betrayal or abandonment; broken or failed love affairs; death; departure; dilemma of staying with man or returning to family; disease adn afflictions; erotica; hell; homosexuality;infidelity; injustice; jail and serving time; loss of lover; love; men; mistreatment; murder; other woman; poverty; promiscuity; sadness; sex; suicide; supernatural; trains; traveling; unfaithfulness; vengeance; weariness, depression, and disillusionment; weight loss. It is revealing that she does not include children, domestic life, husband, and marriage (Davis 13).
The absence of the mother figure in the blues does not imply a rejection of motherhood as such, but rather… The female figures evoked in women’s blues are independent women free of the domestic orthodoxy of the prevailing representations of womanhood through which female subjects of the era were constructed (Davis 13).
Davis’ book explores these themes in women’s blues of the period, and my interest is caught by the section describing domestic violence. One of the points Davis makes is (to quote again – sorry) that
Women’s blues suggest emergent feminist insurgency in that they unabashedly name the problem of male violence and so usher it out of the shadows of domestic life where society had kept it hidden and beyond public or political scrutiny (Davis 29-30).
I think this is one of the points that I like most. This sort of music is centrally concerned with individual women singing their stories. They mightn’t be ‘true’ stories, but they’re true in the sense that they are about these women’s lives, and about the lives of women of their day (and of today, I’d argue). And they’re discussing issues and experiences which we don’t see in the mainstream films and white music of the period.
Davis goes on in her book to explore the feminist themes in this music, and she notes
…even in their most despairing moods, the female characters memorialized in women’s blues songs do not fit the mold of the typical victim of abuse. The independent women of blues lore do not think twice about wielding weapons against men who they feel have mistreated them. They frequently brandish their razors and guns, and dare men to cross the lines they draw. While acknowledging the physical mistreatment they have received at the hands of their male lovers, they do not perceive or define themselves as powerless in face of such violence. Indeed, they fight back passionately (Davis 34).
As someone writing about contemporary swing dancers, all this is really important.
One of the central concerns of my thesis was with the way contemporary swing dancers use history in their ‘revival’ of dances and music. This ‘history’ is a very carefully clean and safe history, though, and neglects (to quote Paul Gilroy), the â€œunnameable terrorsâ€ of black history where
slavery, pogroms, indenture, [and] genocideâ€¦.all figured in the constitutions of diasporas and the reproduction of a diasporan consciousness, in which identity is focussed less on equalizing, proto-democratic force of common territory and more on the social dynamics of remembrance and commemoration defined by a strong sense of the dangers involved in the forgetting the location of origin and the process of dispersal (Kelly, quoting Gilroy 318).
As I wrote in the first chapter of my thesis,
African American vernacular dance â€“ including Lindy Hop and other swing dances â€“ remembers this history in specific steps as well as general themes and methods for acquiring and disseminating new steps. It is important to describe African American dance as product of historical and social forces not only for reasons of conscience and to avoid the dangers Gilroy implies, but also to explore how reframing African American vernacular dance in contemporary communities has had particular ideological consequences.
One of the things I’ve noticed about contemporary swing dance is that there’s a lot of talk about the creative moment in swing dance history – a proliferation of stories about how dancers invented steps – but very little investigation of the social and political context out of which these steps developed. So, for example, we hear endless stories from Frankie Manning about working in theatre and film. But we don’t hear him discuss the working conditions of black dancers in Hollywood (except in passing), nor do we hear discussions about the reasons why people like the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers came to be able to spend all day and night dancing. Unemployment, poverty, violence and so on are neglected in the popular history of swing dances. My favourite example is the pimp walk – each time it’s taught in class, I hear the story of how it was inspired by pimps swaggering about Harlem. But I have never heard even the slightest reference to the specifics of the pimp’s employment – his reason for swaggering about town.
And of course, if we follow Davis’ point, if there’s no naming of the ‘unnameable’ terrors, there’s no public response possible for the women (and other disempowered individuals). It is all neatly swept under the pedagogic (and practical) blanket of contemporary swing dance.
I’ve also noticed a neglect in contemporary swing dance culture in Australia of the sort of blues music I’ve been talking about. This is in part a result of the musical tastes of dancers in my scene – a preponderance of supergroove. But in neglecting dirty nanna blues, or the sort of crude, funny, violent blues which I quite like, there’s also a clear depoliticisation of blues music and blues dancing in Melbourne. I think that this has been clearly illustrated by a suggestion made for MLX7. If it were to be themed ‘7 deady sins’ (and this is just one of the millions of ideas being floated), and blues was named ‘lust’, then blues dancing and blues music becomes simply sex – a sexualised dance. And, as people like Ma Rainey and Rosetta Crawford and Alberta Hunter and all their sisters have made very clear, ‘the blues’ is far more than just sex. It’s about food, too. ;)
If all the other political and social elements of blues music and dance are neglected, there is no point of reply for these women in song. And, I’d argue quite strongly, the emphasis on follows simply ‘surrendering’ to the lead in blues music as it is danced in Melbourne (where the close embrace and tango-inspired moves are prioritised over other historical forms), supports a particularly scary patriarchal theme in swing dance culture in this city generally.
Shut up and dance, girl.
And of course, as a DJ, it’s endlessly frustrating to hear only a series of repeated supergroove or soul tracks that don’t seem to have any soul at all trotted out for dancers. As a learning-DJ, I want to hear a range of music which can both inspire me as a dancer, and also inspire me as a DJ – encourage me to seek out rare gems and learn more about this music and its history.
One thing that has interested me in all this is the way solo blues (dominated by women) tends to favour the sort of old school blues that reeks of more interesting social themes. There’s a world of difference between East St Louis Toodle-oo, Black and Tan Fantasy and The Mooche and Oscar Peterson tinkling away through Bag’s Groove once again.
I’d really like to see some solo blues to some of the sassy nannas I dig… though the lyrics might actually be a problem – they tend to anchor meaning in a song, limiting the potential scope for interpretation in a dance performance… which might actually be one of their advantages when we’re talking about someone like Nina Simone, who tended to wear her politics on her sleeve.
But, to be fair, there is also the convincing argument that swing dances, as vernacular dances, should reflect the lived experiences of the dancers. This is the one, clear argument for doing things like combining tango steps with blues dancing, playing ‘unswing’ or ‘unblues’ (whether it is soul, r’n’b, hip hop, trance or whatever). I’m certainly not for blind recreation (and preservation) of some imagined historical moment or essence.
… but I’d much rather swing dancers today took on both the feminism of 1920s black blues women in a third wave feminist moment, rather than simply accepting the patriarchal (and capitalist! and heteronormative!) constraints of the pedagogic relationships which dominate contemporary swing dance culture!
And of course, there’s still a great deal to be said about the anti-feminist sentiments of blues music, and disturbing people like Jimmy Witherspoon. Though I think it’s worth pointing out that the 50s and late 40s were far more conservative moments than the 20s in popular African American music and dance.
[edited to add reference:
Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. Toronto: Random House, 1998.]