Black music, white bands: Racist discourse in lindy hop institutions

Eric Heveron-Smith
fb post 25 June at 05:47

A question was posed on a Facebook group called Swingopedia, and I have decided to finally voice my answer. Hey, it’s quarantine, I don’t have any gigs to lose right now…

“I’ve noticed that music trends in the global swing dance community have changed, since I started in 1995.
I’ve heard a mix of Big Band, RnB, Groove, Soul, Hip Hop, lounge/elevator jazz in early 2000s, Gypsy Swing, Ragtime etc. I’ve even heard Madonna!
What do you believe constitutes swing music and what style of music should we be swing dancing to?
Also should musicians only play recreations of original classics by Basie etc or should they be creating their own music?”

I got a lot of opinions about this. I’m a bass player, trombonist, and singer. I’ve been playing the Lindy Hop scene since 2004, with Solomon Douglas, Jonathan Stout, Michael Gamble, and basically anyone else you can think of. I co-founded Moonshine Rhythm Club. As much as I love playing with all the musicians in this scene, my opinion and my approach to music definitely diverges from a lot of them. And I think it also addresses the lack of a serious Black presence in lindy hop.

Here’s what I think:
The way we approach this music, AND this dance, is not at all in the spirit of those who created it.

Let me unpack that just a little bit. Back in the day, musicians were inventing new music that they dug, and that made people want to move their bodies. So they drew big crowds of people who invented new ways to move their bodies to it. That’s it. Does it feel good? Does it make you want to move your body? Then move your body. How? I dunno, let’s make something up together. Does it sound good? Is it fun? If not, whoops, nobody showed up to your gig.

Today, we have a historical dance taught with a preservationist mindset, and we play historic music with a preservationist mindset, or we almost reverse-engineer what music needs to be played so that we can dance this specific dance to it.

We are starting to see more new, original swing music, and I love that. But it still falls within pretty strict guidelines. We are also starting to see more swing audiences actually caring about the music itself, not just as a utilitarian function to dance to; I would definitely credit Michael and Jonathan and the Lindy Focus community for encouraging that, and I think the transcription projects have been a big part of that. It’s been really cool playing at Lindy Focus the past few years and seeing crowds of people standing by the stage just DIGGING the music.

But when you think about what was happening in the 30s and 40s with music and dance, it was a popular movement, and an organic thing. You wanna know what happened to Black musicians and audiences? They didn’t stop playing music, and they didn’t stop dancing. They created new genres, and they created new ways to dance to them. Every single decade up to the present. How can you expect to attract Black musicians and dancers to a scene that is frozen in time?

So ok, what am I proposing instead? I don’t have all the answers, for sure. And yes, I am still a musician that loves playing vintage jazz, and loves playing for dancers. But I look at musicians like Kansas Smitty’s, Bria Skonberg, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Gunhild Carling, and so many others that play amazing, badass, swinging, move-your-body music, and who aren’t even CLOSE to cutting-edge far-out modern jazz, and I hear crickets from the lindy hop community.

Here is my point. There is SO much music out there that swings. Modern stuff. Stuff that feels really good, deep in your body, and makes you want to move and groove. And because it doesn’t fit the specific historical constraints of the dance that this community commodifies and REPLICATES, lindy hoppers want nothing to do with it.

Like, how can you ask the question “what constitutes swing music” or “what style of music SHOULD we be dancing to,” and then turn around and act bewildered that you don’t have more BIPOC in the scene??

I envision a world where the historical preservation of swing music and dance can meet the modern world, where there are all kinds of dances being done to all kinds of killer music. You don’t have to drop the preservation stuff, you SHOULDN’T stop studying and presenting and talking about the history of jazz and swing and lindy hop. But what you have done is put walls around this whole situation, and it keeps you in, and it keeps a whole lot of other people out. It’s religion, in the restrictive sense of the word. And if you ever manage to notice how many badass vintage jazz musicians don’t bother with the swing dance scene anymore, it’s because they don’t fit. They got too big for the walls.

Personally, I would love to be able to continue playing swing music for lindy hoppers. But I can’t tell you how many frustrating gigs I’ve had where either the audience barely noticed there were real musicians on stage, or I was playing with really poor musicians, but nobody really cared because they fit the constraints of the dance. I think my favorite gigs are where some people are dancing (whether it is a dance or not, because they feel it in their bodies), and some people are listening (because they actually hear and enjoy the music), and I can stretch out with my fellow musicians beyond the artificial, misinformed, dance-centric constraints of “around 3 minutes song length, not too fast, not too slow.”

Oh yeah, I thought I was wrapping up, but that’s another thing I gotta address. Not every song has to be danceable for every person. That’s another aspect of the utilitarianism of music in the dance community. You think that because all we have are 3-minute songs from the swing era that that was what musicians did live. I can’t possibly believe that’s true. Not gonna go too deep down that rabbit hole, but here’s something to think about: as soon as the long-playing record was invented, Duke Ellington released a 12-minute version of Mood Indigo, and it is glorious. My favorite version of that song ever. SO swinging, so beautiful, makes me want to move, makes me want to play.

Jazz is a living art form. It’s an improvisational art form. The very best times I’ve had playing jazz with people, we’ve found our way to the special spark, the moments that make people look up and shout, the moments that inspire dance. If I’m hired to perform a utilitarian function for your specific dance style, and I’m fired when I go outside the specific constraints, you’re not gonna get my best. You’re not gonna get the magic, the spark. You are missing out. (I have a couple dancer friends in Rochester who figured this out years ago, and started going to the international jazz fest there and checking out all sorts of amazing music. They GET it.)

Music and dance have been co-created since humans have existed. In my opinion, the lindy hop community is creating neither one right now. I don’t think it has to stay that way; but you’ve gotta tear down the walls, if you want it to change.

(Disclaimers. 1. Even though I’m speaking somewhat harshly about the scene, I still love parts of it, and I love a lot of the people in it, and when I play at Lindy Focus and walk around those hallways, I’m proud and glad to be part of it. 2. I’m talking about some historical stuff in here, but I am far from a swing historian. Michael Gamble, Jonathan Stout, Jon Tigert, and a bunch of other musicians and dancers probably know quite a bit more than me about the specific history of the music and dance. The depth of my musicianship is what makes me feel like I have something to offer with this commentary.)

I have problems with the American-centredness of this post. He is generalising from what he sees in the US (at huge events) to the entire world. And it just doesn’t hold up. I’d argue that the ‘mega-event’ is a very different animal (and product) to smaller events that focus on a regional audience, or even hyper-local audience. The usual issues apply to a huge event: you need to entertain trillions of people, you have to appeal to the widest audience (rather than niche audiences), you have a lot of money at risk, you need to do quality control. You and and should (perhaps) use this big budget opportunity to do more big band gigs. The events he’s talking about are largely in the US, and these are unlike things you see in other countries (with the exception of Camp Swing It, which is MASSIVE). So you end up with a relatively homogenous, palatable menu of music and dance held in a boring big hotel, isolated from the local host community.

Because he’s generalising from big US events, he ignores all the smaller, more interesting events. There’s no Upside Down here. No Rhythm Korea. No Jazz BANG. He also conveniently ignores the work being done by Black event producers. Teena Morales, anyone? She’s been running the biggest events in the US for years. And she runs the Houston Jazz Dance Festival, which has all-Black musicians and teachers, and is firmly positioned within the modern Black community’s culture.
He says:

“But when you think about what was happening in the 30s and 40s with music and dance, it was a popular movement, and an organic thing. You wanna know what happened to Black musicians and audiences? They didn’t stop playing music, and they didn’t stop dancing. They created new genres, and they created new ways to dance to them. Every single decade up to the present. How can you expect to attract Black musicians and dancers to a scene that is frozen in time?”

Well, they’re at Teena Morales’ event, doing dances that actually relate to them, with people who make them feel welcome. But let me address this issue: how to attract Black dancers to lindy hop. I’m guessing he means the US? This issue is a lot like the issue of attracting people of colour to other institutions. It won’t work if you don’t deconstruct or analyse whiteness itself:

As result of the invisibility of whiteness, diversity initiatives are often about including diverse bodies into the mainstream without critically examining what that mainstream is” (source: Diversity Means Disruption ; I speak more about this here: A Lot of White People Will Be Uncomfortable).

And if we’re going to deconstruct whiteness, we also need to deconstruct patriarchy, because white supremacy is built on the dominance of heterosexual masculinity.

If I follow that thinking, to truly change the nature of jazz and music in the lindy hop world, do we need to kill off the mega-event?

Here’s the thing. Covid19 has already done this. This is another thing that I see missing from so much of the online talk about lindy hop culture: this moment of change/crisis is the result of a global pandemic. Push has come to shove. BUT, white people have the time and energy to dig into ‘racism’ because they are in iso, or because their usual lives have been disrupted. Black people and marginalised people are busy trying not to die, whether they’re killed by disease, an dangerous ‘healthcare’ system, or the police.

So why does this white male musician assume that things will go on as they did before? They’re not going to. The world has changed irrevocably. The mega-event is not coming back any time in the next few years. That means the the existing market/audience for the mega-event will have disappeared (we know the lindy hop ‘generation’ is only about 5 years long). We also know that all the necessary infrastructure for a mega-event will also have disappeared: international airlines have folded; the arts are in disarray, from sound engineers to restaurants; international guests will not be visiting the US with its unchecked covid. It would also be horrifically selfish for dancers to attend a mega-event… lindy hop = superspreader.

So I think the question has to be,
What will jazz music and jazz dance look like in a covid19 world?
At first I was all ‘no one wants jazz dance during a plague’ and then I remembered that people really want music and dance during hard times. Who gets to dance will be the issue.

My government has taken advantage of the virus to introduce frightening laws, and expand awful powers. The same company that runs our offshore-detention camps for refugees is in charge of the quarantine hotels. Poor, refugee, and migrant people have been detained in housing commission towers for fear of covid spread. The federal police have expanded search and detain powers. … and so on.
The people who are suffering most from this are the Black members of our community.
I haven’t quite gotten there in the thinking, but I think that it’s obscene to consider running a mega-event in this climate. I mean, I have huge, massive ethical problems with fundraising for white people to transcribe Black recordings so white people can play them for white audiences in THIS moment. It’s a great promotional gig, but how does it fight white supremacy?

So if we can’t do mega-events, what do we do?
The same thing marginalised events and dance communities have already been doing: smaller scale events that cater to the local community’s needs and interests. And by local community, I mean the musicians, sound engineers, DJs, dancers, teachers, performers of a particular city. There’s no budget to fly in the same old crew of white men. So we get local. And that, as with governments*, means we have a more diverse body.

We subsidise local dancers on lower incomes with volunteer spots. We see a more sustainable labour model generally. And we see greater diversity in event types and event staff and attendance. The thing about smaller events, is that they often don’t enforce those rules about what bands should play. For all sorts of reasons. But you’ll get the odd funk number, you’ll get 10 minute songs, and you’ll get a range of tempos. Because the organisers don’t have the ‘knowledge’ to control the music like that. And they don’t particularly prioritise that issue – they’re trying to find the light switch or get the key for the late night party.

I think that this ‘definition’ of ‘good music’ is a matter of power and privilege, not objective value or ‘truth’. As the OP says, insisting on ‘good songs for dancing’ gives us a boring menu, and promotes a conservative palate. This in turn gives us boring dancing. None of those sparks of real creativity and emotion.

I think that DJing plays a big part in this. The lack of diversity in the highest profile DJing ranks is a direct result of some serious gate keeping: DJs are selected for their social skills (do they network like a white man?), their availability (do they have the money and time to drop everything for a weekend gig? Or do they have kids and family to care for?), and then, finally, their music taste (how do they talk about songs – loudly in a crowd, or with a quietly brilliant set at 11pm?). This type of musician hierarchy and power structure marginalises anyone who’s not a straight white guy.

If we want to see more diversity in the songs being played by musicians, we need more diversity in the cohort of musicians.
Which means WHITE MEN NEED TO STOP RAPING AND HARASSING EVERYONE ELSE.
And
WHITE MEN NEED TO STOP _EACH OTHER_ DOING THIS SHIT.

* Local governments have more women, poc, and other marginalised groups represented. As we move up tiers of government (state, federal, commonwealth, etc), we see diversity disappear and white patriarchy at work.

….RE sexual assault in the jazz music scene:
That’s my next job. I was starting work on it before covid, by deliberately setting up gigs and sessions that promote women musicians (ie sessions that are safe workplaces). But it’s been derailed. I figure we can use the methods we’ve developed in the dance world to tackle the music world.
One of the things we’ve found in Sydney, is that if we address sexual harassment and assault, we get a safer, more diverse scene generally. More people of colour, more queer folk, more trans folk, more kids.
This why this OP musician needs to address his own power as a white man in America. He is one of the obstacles we need to deconstruct.

Michael Gamble
fb comment on above post
25 June at 10:30

Hey friend, we have talked about this a bunch, and I know we have a lot of common ground, so i feel comfy talking about this “publicly” with you. I also wanna say I appreciate that going out on a limb can be stressful, and I respect you getting into it regardless.
That being said, I think you’re coming at this from a strange angle, one that on the surface looks extremely relatable (I see a “successful” post/video/blog/etc on this topic about once a month for, I dunno, the past 15 years or so) but to me totally falls apart when you zoom in. My issue is that the thing you’re critiquing isn’t some firm opinion that anyone holds, it’s just the emergent properties of a bunch of different people’s subjective taste. And I’m pretty sure you’re ok with it on the micro level, you just don’t like the overall effect, yeah?
Like, I play music in a style I like. To you it’s narrow, but for me it’s actually a wild experiment in combining elements of different swing era rhythm sections with elements of early new orleans & chicago looser collective improv, moving familiar riffs to new contexts, and yes, paying homage to inspiring classic (but never heard live by current audiences) recordings. There’s a ton of room to play there for those of us that are deeply in love with the performers, arrangers, and composers of that era, and importantly, the current dancers, instructors, and organizers are also deeply educated fans of a wide range of old styles, and enjoy playing in that space – that’s why they hire these bands. (They’ve been geeking out on these rare recordings that they and their friends uncovered over the course of years of musical archeology, and look!-> someone’s playing that live?? Hell yeah I’m gonna hire them, that’s a dream come true!!) And unless I read you wrong, you probably think that’s cool, you just wish that wasn’t ALL there is, or something?
Here’s where I point out that there are a million other places to play music, to dance, and to explore like, every iteration of every art under the sun. The WCS scene has much more modern taste. The Blues scene, and especially the Fusion scene know how to break the mold and push boundaries. (also, there was a generation of Bebop dancers at the Savoy, and there is a push within the modern lindy movement to explore that.. which I think is great. Just FYI!) Do you know about those? The swing scene isn’t this philosophy-driven “preservation movement” in the way you’re making it out to be; it’s a loose collective of folks that happen to have a lot of taste in common. That’s…it. Trying to say their taste should be different is just… weird to me.
Like, there’s nothing stopping anyone from experimenting with other flavors like those scenes do, or like another theoretical new scene could do. There are plenty of folks that don’t dig Ella Fitzgerald & Chick Webb, Billie Holiday & Teddy Wilson, Jimmy Rushing & Count Basie. I wouldn’t wanna live in a world where what we’re doing is the only thing.. and it’s not!
I think that’s my other issue with this type of takedown —> do you realize how small the modern swing scene is? Like, compared to virtually any other hobby or “art scene”? It’s a niche within a niche within a niche. We are people who love what, in our evaluation, is actually a very broad range of dance and music forms that one could spend many lifetimes studying and never master. We’ve carved out a little space to do our thing. And still people feel the need to tell us to stop. All. The. Time.
Last thing: I see “this” being the thing that’s blamed for lack of blackness in our scene very casually, on a regular basis. Y’all, the causes of that are soooo much worse than this one singular artistic impetus. Our scene alienates black folks in basically every way that appears on the racism bingo card. Don’t make vintage music the scapegoat for this. Our scene has historically welcomed and elevated racist individuals and ideas for as long as I can remember, to our shame. Also, though it is somewhat rarer (remember: niche within a niche within a niche), there are a lot of great black musicians that play great swing and early jazz. Mostly we honestly just can’t afford them. (yet) And yes, also the overall whiteness of our scene makes it a less attractive place to seek work, which makes sense. THAT is something we can change. I can’t even remotely pretend to speak for any black person in this, but I think at the very least you are making a ton of assumptions about what’s causing what, and there’s a lot more going on.
(and here’s my social media caveat – my life is nuts right now and I totally don’t have time for an extended FB debate, AKA what the hell am I doing?? Regardless, I do love you, Eric Heveron-Smith!)

I’d add this as an example of Michael’s missing some of the political point:
“My issue is that the thing you’re critiquing isn’t some firm opinion that anyone holds, it’s just the emergent properties of a bunch of different people’s subjective taste.”

There’s a chunk of literature about how ‘individual taste’ isn’t about individual subjective choice, but about cultural forces. So while these aesthetics might seem ‘subjective choices’ from the inside, they’re clearly part of broader patterns and structures of patriarchy and white hegemony. As soon as we see patterns, we can look for the forces that are invisible to the dominant group because they are so ‘normalised’.
ie we have normalised the idea that a bunch of white people playing Black music at an event promoted as ‘preserving the past’ is a good thing. We haven’t engaged with the idea that white people are gaining cultural power from this work, that modern Black musicians are marginalised, and that only seeing white people on stage supports the myth that Black people don’t like jazz or do it well.

This is another difficult bit for me:
“There’s a ton of room to play there for those of us that are deeply in love with the performers, arrangers, and composers of that era, and importantly, the current dancers, instructors, and organizers are also deeply educated fans of a wide range of old styles, and enjoy playing in that space – that’s why they hire these bands. (They’ve been geeking out on these rare recordings that they and their friends uncovered over the course of years of musical archeology, and look! someone’s playing that live?? Hell yeah I’m gonna hire them, that’s a dream come true!!)”

My feminist brain is saying “Who is ‘those of us’? And ‘their friends?’?”
Who is running these large events?
Who is managing the music?
It’s mostly white people, and mostly white men.

My follow up question would be, “If white men are doing the music stuff, what jobs do women do on these events?” and “What jobs to people of colour do on these events?” Are they handling the low-profile stuff like catering or volunteer management or budgets? Events like Focus spend a lot of time convincing people that music is the most important part of an event. The jobs men do. When punters might say, “Actually, the person who met me at registration and made me feel welcome was the most important person I met this weekend.”
The dominant discourse of modern lindy hop prioritises and values the work that white men do most highly.

Here’s another issue:
“The swing scene isn’t this philosophy-driven “preservation movement” in the way you’re making it out to be; it’s a loose collective of folks that happen to have a lot of taste in common. That’s…it. Trying to say their taste should be different is just… weird to me.”

This is a misleading premise.
This isn’t how ideology works. If it’s a fascist state, it might. But hegemony in the modern capitalist patriarchy works in a different way. We don’t have a scene spokesman standing at a mic declaiming, “We will only enjoy bands from 1935-1945. We will only dance to bands from the US.”
…wait. :D

But hegemony is more subtle. We get this message that ‘preservation is prime’ from a whole heap of sources and texts:

  • The only bands that get hired at mega-events are preservationist bands led and staffed by white men. Each of those independent messages tells me that big organisers don’t value the work of women or people of colour. It also suggests, implicitly, that the only _valuable_ or ‘good’ musicians are white men.
  • The only DJs who play those mega-events are white. And often white men (those the latter is changing, I’d argue that most of those white women DJs (myself included) are people who engage with dance in a particular way: assertive, relatively ambitiously, etc -> characteristics usually ascribed to hetero white men).

…and so on.

I’m interested in how this works in places like Seoul. There we see white bands flown into the country for big gigs. And they’re the same bands we see at American mega-events. But we also see local gendered and ethnicised relationships of power at work. Interestingly, Sage Minn’s band, one of the very few in Seoul, has women members. I wonder if it’s because they’re playing western music, Korean mores and values don’t apply in the same way? I actually saw a fab conference paper about pop culture in Seoul a few years ago that discusses this.

“Like, there’s nothing stopping anyone from experimenting with other flavors like those scenes do, or like another theoretical new scene could do. There are plenty of folks that don’t dig Ella Fitzgerald; Chick Webb, Billie Holiday; Teddy Wilson, Jimmy Rushing; Count Basie. I wouldn’t wanna live in a world where what we’re doing is the only thing.. and it’s not!”
…so you can do all that other stuff, just not here?

“I think that’s my other issue with this type of takedown —”
This is where this post gets a bit defensive. The original post was actually really gentle (I thought). But you know that saying, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
If you’re used to adulation, a little light supposition feels like a take down.

“Last thing: I see “this” being the thing that’s blamed for lack of blackness in our scene very casually, on a regular basis. Y’all, the causes of that are soooo much worse than this one singular artistic impetus.”
This is a deeply problematic comment. I’ve seen this quite a lot in white discussions about racism (I actually did a Masters on it). If we only define racism as white cops killing Black kids, or KKK lynching Black men, then anything ‘less’ can be positioned as ‘not-racism’.
But we know that racist discourse is far more complex. All those white DJs and white bands and white MCs? That’s racism.

Here’s an example:
“there are a lot of great black musicians that play great swing and early jazz. Mostly we honestly just can’t afford them.”
This is racism.
In this sentence he is literally saying that he/we** do not value Black musicians enough to pay them what they’re worth.

It’s racism because of what is not said, and because of the implicit valuing of ‘historic’ Black work, and devaluing of contemporary Black work. We’ll only raise a zillion dollars to fund the transcription of work by dead Black men; we won’t shell out some of that money to pay living Black men and women a living wage.

More importantly, this statement presented with no facts or evidence, will become a ‘truth’ repeated all over the scene. It will become what we describe in cultural studies as a ‘myth’: a valuative statement that is repeated so often it becomes a ‘fact’ with huge, powerful status.
The effect of this type of cultural myth is that other events and organisers won’t book Black bands or artists because ‘they’re too expensive’. And the myth will grow.

But why. Why is a Black musician more expensive? Does he mean that he’ll only hire a brilliant Black musician, but won’t hire a less awesome Black musician, and is quite ok hiring mediocre white men musicians?

I can’t continue down this reasoning: mediocre white men. Oh to have your confidence and power.
**The way he elides ‘we’ and ‘I’ is telling – he positions himself with an important ‘many’/majority, rather than taking responsibility for his own choices. This establishes his position as part of a powerful ‘many’.

“and here’s my social media caveat – my life is nuts right now and I totally don’t have time for an extended FB debate, AKA what the hell am I doing??”
While I have sympathy for him, I’d like to remind the white world that Black Americans have been fighting like demons while their society rapes and murders them with official sanction. Women work on sexual harassment and assault issues while they are being harassed every day.
This is why we call it disruption: it disrupts the status quo. And if you’re a white man, it’s often the first time you’ve had to do this work while also managing your daily dramas.

As a final note, I’m gonna quote Audre Lorde:

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change (source: Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider

In this context, I mean that accepting the premise of the original post is misleading. Following the instructions of a powerful white man will not help us deconstruct racism. We need to do something completely different.

I’m going to direct you to this post.
Diversity Means Disruption.

Why hire First Nations people into your mostly white structure and expect/want/demand everything to remain basically the same?
… diversity and inclusion policies and initiatives … are often shallow exercises as they are seldom created to challenge and disrupt whiteness within and outside the sector. We cannot change institutional racism without first changing institutions and without disruption, nothing will change.

Covid19 provides an opportunity for this disruption. Or does it? In the US and here in Australia, people of colour are disproportionately affected by the virus and its effects. They’re too busy fighting racism to think about jazz. Here is a really clever twitter thread, where the writer Abu Owaisi connects up the Victorian government’s locking 9 housing commission towers, the SES removing donated goods, white journalists’ influential commentary, and the devaluing of work by migrant community groups.

So, allies, time to dismantle the master’s house. Let’s do something completely new.

How to be ‘public’ dancers in a covid19 world

I think you all know that I took a break from teaching and running classes last year in about June, before I went away for a long trip. I found it gave me a real break, and I liked it. Though I truly missed the actual teaching part, I didn’t and don’t miss the everyday pressure of management and promotion.

I pivoted a bit, and put more energy into DJing, running live band gigs and weekend events, and I got a bit more into pattern drafting (completely non-dancing related creative fun). And then I started doing 3 days a week of dance practice with a partner, and I was much happier. It’s been many years since I just did dance stuff for my own pleasure and satisfaction. More, please.

This week I’m actually beginning to feel like being creative in a dance-related way. I was really inspired by the little bit of the WHO fundraiser I saw. It was so nice to see people in my timezone and region (Asia) doing normal dance stuff (Vietnam were social dancing), and to hear and see Sing talking about dance <3 And it was lovely to be an audience and listen to friends DJ. I liked it because it was a new thing for me. When I stopped running the classes, I feel a disconnect a few other dance friends have expressed lately. What should I write in email newsletters? Who was I talking to? What did I have to say? I felt like my personal voice was subsumed by the 'voice of the business', and I was uncomfortable with that. So now I'm working on 'stuff I love' and 'stuff I want to do‘.

I’ve been thinking that small events and projects are going to come first in the post-COVID and living-with-COVID world, for safety’s sake. And that a smaller, local focus will perhaps be much more fulfilling and personally stimulating than huge-market stuff. Whether it’s a small class, or a small party where people just socialise in a normal human way, with talking and food and drink and music and dancing, rather than the strange modern lindy hop way, which is nothing but dance.

This hard reset could be a good thing for all of us. As Jon Tigert says in a fb discussion, “Im much more fulfilled by local interactions,” and perhaps this could be a much better, healthier and sustainable direction for lindy hop. Small scale, fulfilling participation in local culture, that can focus on equity and justice and joy and satisfaction on a smaller, more sustainable scale. Rather than thinking ‘I have to spread and preserve lindy hop’, we can think ‘I want and need to have meaningful social interactions because we could go back into iso any time, and I know I miss this real human contact. It’s what feeds my heart.’

And our ‘marketing’ could take that angle: real social interactions that help us get through hard times.

I’d like to see the Australian Ballet do THIS

Dance people! Argh! You’re home, you can’t dance or see your mates, you are going nuts. What can you do?

If only we had a pool of highly motivated, experienced volunteers and managerial types with time on their hands. If only we had an extensive network of local, national, and international people who liked doing community stuff. If only we had fb groups and email lists and instagram accounts! IF ONLY.

Wait. We DO.
The international lindy hop community is fully sick on the whole organisation thing.

Need a group of tired and confused people sorted into groups quickly and efficiently? Have I got the class-levels-audition judge or competitor marshall for YOU.

Need someone who can organise food and beds for hundreds of people? Have I got the housing coordinator or catering team for YOU.

Need someone who can balance a tight budget, weedle cash out of reluctant individuals, or write a shit-hot grant application? I have the event organisers for YOU.

I haven’t had a chance to think about this properly, yet, but I do know there are a lot of worried, disheartened people in my immediate community looking for something to _do_ to help. Why not put your big brains to work?

Here are a couple of things I’ve come up with:

Hassle our MPs:
– If the dole (newstart, pension, etc) is increased to a liveable wage, we’ll all be better off when we lose a lot more jobs. People with an income spend money, and that means they feed money into the economy. Which is good for all of us, not just those of us who sell bread or run restaurants.

-> So we want to hassle our members of parliament about this. Write letters. Send emails. Get tapping, folk.

Support our local charities:
– Local charities like The Exodus Foundation and Addison Road Community Centre have had a huge increase of people coming in for help in the past month. They need food, basic health stuff (TP, pads, etc), and they need volunteers.
– Lots of us are going to be needing these services soon.

-> So we need to take our extra groceries down there in person. This will give us a chance to scope out the place, and get familiar. Which will make it easier to…
-> Volunteer at places like Exodus or Addison Road. They always need people to do jobs like making food, cleaning up, driving cars, washing things, and so on.

It kind of sucks at the moment, but things will probably get worse. BUT there are things we can do. And the international dance community is kind of crazily competent. I mean, we operate huge cultural events with virtually no government funding. I’d like to see the Australian Ballet pull off the shit _we’re_ capable of!

How to plan an event cancellation

How to go about responding to COVID-19 in Australia?

A good starting point would be to collate:

  • number of cases per state/australia
  • sources for daily updates from gov
  • legal recommendations from gov (eg we still allowed gathering in groups atm).

  • Then each organisation should develop a long term plan and a short term. Even if it’s as simple as ‘we won’t close anything now, but we will reassess in (x) days. When we get to (x) we will decide.’ Then make a rough outline of jobs to be done for either closing or not closing.

    Another issue: is your insurance up to date, and does it cover loss profits, health care, etc etc?
    I’d also have a look at finances: do you have any bills to pay, any money owed to you.
    And just go over your refund policies for classes and events and things.
    -> basically get your affairs in order, so you can make informed decisions.

    I’m getting a few queries about our events this year, so you will soon, too, I guess.
    I personally feel I have a responsibility to present and promote a sense of calm capable professionalism, so I’m planning my responses carefully:

    • I do my usual ‘hello, thanks for your email, i will reply by [DATE]’ (usually a week) reply to emails if I don’t have a comment ready.
    • I am developing a task calendar of what we’ll do when
    • I’m planning out what we’ll say in our public comments, and in our correspondence to various contractors, staff, and volunteers.

    Luckily, we have an extensive and useful safe space policy (more than just a code of conduct), and I’m just rolling our hygiene and response-to-pandemic issues into that. We already have a developed tone (a way of speaking to people about this stuff), and we have developed a good sense of mutual trust, so I feel local dancers trust us to make sensible decisions.

    I don’t want to create a sense of panic, so I’m being very careful with tone (light, but also knowledgeable), I’m using solid resources (eg WHO, Dept of Health, etc, _not_ newspaper or mass media articles), and I’m planning ahead.

    I’m also thinking long term. What will we need to do to redevelop our local scene _after_ this, what will we need to do to support local bands and DJs, and what can we do to support local venues (our scene is rooted in a few key commercial spaces: Ruby’s, a dancer-run dance hall, but also a lot of live music venues).

    Afterwards
    So I’m looking at what we might need to do to restart local parties, and how we might promote our events in a post-pandemic community where people are afraid of gathering in groups. I’ve learnt a lot from talking to Christchurch organisers about how they dealt with fear after the earthquakes.
    This is changing so quickly, and the panicked tone of a lot of online talk from the US and European dance world is making me feel a bit antsy, and I can see it affecting the Australian dancers, too, so I’m also limiting what and how much I read online. Official, reliable sources only for me.
    Whatever you plan to do, it’s worth planning those public responses before you have to give them, so you’re not emailing and FB commenting in real time (ie in stress time).

    Sharon and I met last Wednesday (9 March) to discuss this issue. We decided to cancel Jazz BANG. We also discussed things we could do to foster the local scene.
    Today I put our plan to cancel into motion, sending off emails, etc.

    I noticed that some of the content in our email copy had to be rewritten because things had changed so much in the past week. Last week we thought we could continue to run local dances each week. This week we have no classes or parties running in our businesses for the foreseeable future.

    To actually put the cancellation into action, we had quite a long to-do list. It’s taken us a week of hard work (including international phone calls with teachers) to get to this point. But so much has changed in a week, we’ve had to rework some of the plans we made a few days ago. And it has been stressful, miserable work. Sending out these emails today has made me cry. And I’m not a big cryer. All our hard work, all the things we had planned, all the new stuff we were going to do.

    But then, the thought of contributing to the spread of the disease is what decided us: I can’t bear the thought of making this situation worse. Of sending friends and loved ones home sick, to spread the illness through their own families and communities.

    So please start looking at your cancellation plans now. If the international example is anything to go by, we will be locked down for many months. China is still locked down after two months, and their response has been better than Australia’s.
    I’m finding this stressful and just heart breaking. All that hard work gone. All those artists out of work. Our businesses imperilled. Please reach out to your friends for a bit of hand holding and affection before you think you need it.

This totally sucks.

We had almost sold out of passes. We had some truly epic things planned with live music and performances. We had wonderful teachers booked. The band and DJ line up was fresh and exciting. We’d spend thousands of dollars already. But the thought of sending our friends home with an infection is even worse.


Hello dear friends,

We’re very sorry to have to write this to you, but we (Sharon and Sam) have decided to cancel Jazz BANG this year, due to the health crisis presented by the COVID-19 virus.

While the Australian government has not banned public gatherings yet, we cannot be sure of the situation in May. We don’t want to risk the health of our volunteers, bands, and guests – our _friends and families_. So we have decided now to protect the health and safety of the people we care about.

What’s been happening behind the scenes?
– It’s become harder to guarantee our international teachers’ access to Australia, as the government restricts entrance to the country and enforce 14 day quarantines.

– We know that transmission of COVID-19 is facilitated by lots of people coming together in big groups and touching each other. We hate the thought of spreading illness ourselves.

– We are concerned that international and interstate guests won’t be able to return home after the event, or will be quarantined when they return. Or even worse, that they will take infection home with them.

– We have already committed a certain amount of our own money to Jazz BANG, but we are at a pivotal point. Cancelling now, we reduce our potential losses. A huge loss in May would make it very difficult to run local parties and classes in the future. So we have decided to focus on protecting the economic sustainability of our local community now.

What does this mean for you?
Registrants:
If you have already registered for a Jazz BANG pass (and we have almost sold out of all passes, even at this early stage), we will begin refunding through Trybooking from Monday 23rd March.
Why the delay? Cancelling a big event takes almost as much work as planning one, and we have a loooong to-do list.

Musicians:
We are bitterly disappointed that we won’t be able to work with you, or to show you off to the dancing world. If you have recordings available for sale, please do send us the details and we will go hard on promoting them.

DJs:
We were looking forward to working with new friends and old. Please keep us in mind for the future when you are planning your calendar. We would love to have you back in Sydney.

Volunteers and staff:
We have been overwhelmed (again) by Sydney dancers’ enthusiasm and determination to be a part of running a big party. We were also looking forward to working with you, and seeing just how epic your work can be. Thank you for your generosity. You humble us.

Again, we are writing with heavy hearts, but with the belief that we are making the right decision.

Your friends,
Sam Carroll and Sharon Hanley.

BOO a cancellation

Hi everyone,

I’ve decided to be responsible and cancel the party on the 21st March:

———

Dear friends,

I’m very sorry to have to write this to you, but I have decided to cancel this party on the 21st of March.

As we all know, the COVID-19 virus is moving into our communities. It is spread through ‘respiratory droplets’* (drops of wet stuff from our mouths and noses), and through physical contact. The best way to prevent its spread is to avoid transmission through direct contact.
That means: not touching lots of people or blowing respiratory droplets onto them.

While our government have not yet asked us to stop gathering in large groups, it would be responsible to remove another opportunity for us to germ on each other :D

It’s a very great shame, and I was looking forward to hearing the band, seeing you all, and dancing like a fool. But I think – this time at least – it’s best to be sensible.

*I know it sounds like a great name for a dance troupe, but: too soon.

Our poor old industry

So many event organisers, musicians, dance teachers, sound engineers losing thousands of dollars canceling events in the dance world. People in this industry really do live gig to gig.

I had thought it was a bit on the nose for organisers to ask before, but if an event you’re registered for is cancelled, please consider not accepting a refund.
Your couple of hundred dollars is a drop in the bucket for events that have already paid for flights, accommodation, visas, venue hire… not to mention still having to pay teachers a cancellation fee. A small Australian event has a budget of about $20 000, and most organisers are paying the bills from their own savings, before the registrations come in.

If you can, please do consider giving what you can from your registration refund.

Carers’ passes!

Topic: Carers’ Passes
or
Getting parents and carers into workshop weekends

We’ve had a Carers’ Pass at Jazz BANG in Sydney forever, and before that at The Little Big Weekend …basically forever. It’s become almost a staple at all Australian events now.

http://jazzbang.com.au/registration.html#carers

Each time I run a weekend event, I ask for comments and advice from the attending carers.

I use ‘carer’ instead of ‘parent’, because I want this to apply to anyone who’s looking after a dependant person – a baby, a child, an elder, a disabled family member, etc.
The primary goal was to retain dancers who’d gotten on with their lives and had babies after years of dancing. We didn’t want to lose them, their experience, or their $$ :D And a diverse dancing cohort is a healthy dancing cohort.

Hannah Anderson asked in another thread
“Love the carers pass- hadn’t noticed a need for it until I became a carer. Im interested in how you make it work- do the dancers sharing the pass need to dance the same role?”

First off: Diversity matters. And diversity at a management level is so important. People with different lived experiences bring a wider range of skills, knowledge, and priority to your event. Bless. <3 We just tell them to email us when they register. This way we know who's coming as a caring team, and what their particular needs are (they may also need advice about accommodation, contacts for borrowing cots, places for nursing babies, etc). I also find that talking to a real person makes a carer more confident about coming. Then we usually get about 2 or 3 couples max attend. They register for a 'carers' pass' which is the same as one workshop pass (either one day or two days). They then buy tickets to parties individually. We have two streams, and about 50 people in each stream. Part of our branding is that we keep classes small, and offer a 'boutique' experience that's community-minded, and emphasises really good music and really good international teachers. Sort of like an event from the early days (1990s and 2000s), but with really good music, organisational experience, and dancing. :D Our teachers are also prepped with info about these sorts of situations. When the couples talk to us (they may be two parents of the one child, or two mums sharing care of two babbies, or whatever - we've had all sorts and we encourage all combinations), we make sure they realise that only one of them can be in the class at a time (the other is caring for the kids). From here, we let them divide up the day how they like. - Some take alternating classes (the other one walking about with the bab, getting a coffee nearby, or in the class watching*) - Some take half a day each - Some drop in and out as needed (eg if the babby needs breastfeeding, then the nursing parent steps out) When it comes down to the actual day, we let them manage the time as they like. We don't police it. The lead/follow ratio really depends on what role the two carers dance. Most are so keen to dance (and so keen to be out with other humans) they'll do anything. Our workshops and teachers are flexible teachers, so it doesn't end up making a difference who does what. We also find that people swap themselves around in class depending on their feels. eg they may lead a class, then follow a class. We just keep our eyes on things and step in to sort things out if the ratio gets really skewed. The most popular option for single mums has been to take one class in the morning each day, while their child plays with their adult friend at the door. And then they go home for naps. I usually let them have this for free. Shhh. Don't tell anyone. We've also had teachers who are breastfeeding teaching the workshops, and we realised that you can't stick to a tight schedule when a babby needs a feed! So we actually put that in our teachers' contract, and we make it clear to all teachers: we have this many hours, we require you take regular breaks, but you can divide up the hours as you like. eg 15 min warm up session, then 1 hour exercise, then 30 min game, then lunch etc etc. In this situation, two people caring for a child may just take a block of hours between feeds, or the morning, or some other combination dictated by their child's needs. The most adamant feedback we've had is a request for a proper creche: childcare + child-safe space. I'm not sure how to do this, yet. There are insurance issues. And cost issues. Ideally, we'd spread the cost around, increasing pass prices a bit so everyone pays for this. And because we offer deals for lower income earners, we can mitigate the effects of higher ticket prices. *babbies and children are allowed in our class spaces, but they must be supervised at all times by an adult (ie the adult can't be dancing too)

Why do I go back to Herrang each year?

Why do I go back to Herrang?

I’m going to assume that you know what Herrang dance camp is, and that you have some passing familiarity with concerns about the enterprise. People who know me are surprised that I keep returning to an event that seems to break all my personal and professional rules. Why do I keep going back, trying to be useful and to contribute to constructive political work at this huge, rambling pile of a dance event?

Why do I go back each year?

It’s a huge enterprise. 300 odd paid staff + volunteers + 20-odd DJ + dozens of musicians + dozens of teachers, over 5 weeks of camp programming, and two additional weeks of set up and bump out in a small village in rural Sweden.
There is no other event like it in the world.

Buildings need to be cleaned, food cooked, classes taught, music played, bills paid, cars driven, sound gear fixed, dance courses administered, classrooms booked, dance floors built and repaired, sets built. For 7 weeks. Each week a new group of staff needs to be inducted. A huge, volunteer and largely untrained staff. Managers start from scratch, with staff of varying ability and inclination.

Because it’s the only long term event in the world, we get to see processes and ideologies play out in real time, in a durational sense. We see the usual tensions of late nights and high adrenaline play out over a longer time. Which means that we see things that we don’t at other events. We see how humans from a range of cultures and language groups interact with each other in a pressure cooker environment. Structures or systems that might be stable over a weekend or a just a week might not remain stable over 5 weeks. Ideas or processes that work for 3 days with a staff working to the brink of exhaustion show cracks over longer periods, where staff must begin thinking about care, rest, recuperation, down time. All elements that don’t come into play at other dance events.

Sexual harassment and assault are symptoms of power relationships and dynamics between individuals and within groups of humans. They aren’t inevitable, but they are characteristic of patriarchy. They can be managed and eradicated, but only through concentrated, strategic planning and policy. And most of this work is conducted by inexperienced ordinary people. This work is increasingly professional and sophisticated. I often wonder, though, if the codes of conduct and safety policies of American events, for example, would stand the test of a five (or seven) week time frame. They are, essentially, experiments in social politics, and working largely against the broader patriarchal culture of their home societies. Would Lindy Focus’s exceptional approach to sexual violence remain steady over five weeks? I think that it could, perhaps, but it would require a lot of on-the-ground, real time adjustment and tinkering. Because shit changes over time.
While Herrang does not have an over-arching code of conduct or safety policy, each of its many departments _does_ have a particular set of rules and guidelines for determining how staff and volunteers should treat each other and the general campers. As DJs, for example, we were reminded again in week 3 that drinking to excess while DJing is not ok. That we have to treat fellow DJs with respect and professionalism, by turning up on time for our sets, checking in with our DJ peers, and being supportive of their work. We were reminded of emergency procedures and shown how to use the emergency phones placed around the camp.

Each of Herrang’s departments change staff each week, so the managers and more permanent staff have the opportunity to edit, change, and adjust processes to respond to their participants’ changing needs. And the work of training and enculturating an entirely new group of people each week.

This agile people management is the most fascinating part of Herrang. Shane and Spela are juggling hundreds and hundreds of staff members across hundreds of roles. They are dealing with changing and unpredictable conditions (too many campers! a water shortage! disease! excessive heat!) within a framework that has to be reflexive and responsive. It’s a truly impressive thing to see in action.
These staff coordinators manage a base of general staff and volunteers, but work through and with a group of department managers. Each of those managers juggles a 24 hour schedule and a shifting group of workers of various skill, ability, and inclination. If you thought it was difficult managing entitled middle class white men on the dance floor, imagine trying to get them to work hard in an industrial kitchen for a black woman manager.
One of the primary concerns of the staff coordinators and managers is morale. How do you keep so many people feeling good over a long period of time under difficult circumstances? They don’t sleep enough, they don’t eat properly, they’re saturated in endorphines and adrenaline, and they’re doing unfamiliar work. How do you keep the whole machine running?

Herrang has a broad system of processes for handling these issues, from staff appreciation parties to balanced shift lengths and times, and a fairly efficient process for handling complaints, concerns, and questions. It is certainly not perfect, and it has flaws. But not because no one is trying. The staff managers and coordinators are caring people, and they work hard to improve processes every year. They’re also clever and inventive. Because they are also jazz dancers :D

What I’ve noticed about Herrang, is that the more permanent staff (people who are there for more than two weeks) tend to be curious, inventive, industrious, cooperative people. To the point of obsessive. Living in the countryside for 7 weeks, they start making things. Inventing things. Experimenting with things. While a conventional office workplace might foster pranks, Herrang staff move beyond your random ‘wrap a car in toilet paper’ prank to ‘wrap every item in the camp in toilet paper’. They come up with brilliant ideas, but then they truly relish figuring out how to execute these plans, and then do so within a contracted time span and limited resources. Someone might decide that the theme for this party is ‘Savoy’, and by the end of the day, staff have build an entire New York neighbourhood out of cardboard, wood, and fabric. A woman might have lost her phone, and by the end of afternoon, staff have built a human sized phone, put a jazz band on a truck (including a piano) and moved the whole thing across the village to her dinner table where she’s serenaded by her friends and peers. And giant phone. Someone else finds a giant glowing model moon, and by the end of the week she’s not only suspended above the square, she’s lit from within with a suspended table and chairs beneath her to be enjoyed by dining lovers.

This is the part of Herrang I like most. It’s exciting. It’s stimulating. Over-stimulating. I really enjoy real-time problem solving at the best of times, but on this scale it’s invigorating. Thrilling. Dangerously addictive.
I really like working with such a clever, creative group of people from all over the world. They manage language differences, tiredness, negative budgets, and sexual tension with enthusiasm and professionalism. And good will. Yes, people crack the shits and get overtired. But they also laugh a lot every day, and seek out ways to delight each other.

They’re also some of the kindest, most generous-hearted people I’ve ever met. One of the most common things I see and hear in the camp is a person going to great lengths to find out what their colleague likes best, hunting it down (even going driving hours to find it), then surprising them with it. Just because they looked tired or a bit sad. Or because they love them. Yes, there are pranks, but they aren’t cruel pranks. They’re loving, affectionate pranks. Filling a new teacher’s classroom with balloons for their first class. Swapping wardrobes with another dancer for a day. Learning an entire, complex jazz routine in a day, then recruiting a jazz band to surprise someone with it in their office at lunch time. Organising a parade of children and adults playing musical instruments and wearing costumes to tramp through the camp, just to entertain the participants and audience. Leaving a punnet of perfect strawberries on a colleague’s desk, because you know they are lovely.

And on top of all that, they love to dance and sing. To eat and cook and make love. To work hard and sleep deeply. To argue and talk and laugh.

These are the reasons I, personally, go back to Herrang. I like to spend my days visiting people’s offices, learning about their work, seeing how they do things. Watching people be kind and generous. Laughing til I can’t breathe.