The footage at the end is probably a mix of the 1938 gig and a 1950s Newport gig but YOLO BASIE LIVE https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYjq1HgnQO4
Before I went off on my trip last month I did a little interview with the blokes from ‘From the Top’, a radio show produced by ig hop in Vienna.
The radio show is a good one. We have a bunch of lindy hop related podcasts and vlogcasts, but all of them are American, and show a decidedly American bias. To the point that I can’t actually bear to listen to most of them any more. I don’t like to hate on people’s creative projects, but I’m very tired of listening to discussions pitched as discussing ‘the lindy world’, but really only discussing a few people’s experience of contemporary urban American lindy hop. Booooring. The more I learn about lindy hop in Asia, Europe, and the antipodes (of course :D), the more embarrassing some of those American podcasts become. Bros need to travel.
An exception to this cringe is Ryan Swift’s the Track. At first glance, an hour and three quarter long podcast where two people just talk about dancing seems intolerable. Interminable. But Ryan manages to pull it off. Mostly because he chooses interesting people, but also because he’s a master of the well directed casual conversation. I am of course completely biased, because Ryan is an Internet Friend, but in this case, the bias is justified.
But From The Top is exciting. It’s short, just 20, 15 minutes. Professionally edited and presented, with good topics, well-constructed stories, and a far-reaching, open-eyed approach to truly international lindy hop culture. This is no accident. The presenter and producer Alexei Korolyov is a professional journalist, and it really makes a difference. Previous episodes have discussed Health, Well-being and Social Conventions; Being a Swing Musician Today; Regionalism vs Globalisation in Lindy Hop; and Time Traveling back to the ‘swing era’ (you can find them all here on soundcloud.) And they’re all really interesting and good listens.
The latest ep is about Gender Roles in Dance. I think it’s pretty good, but, to be honest, it’s not quite as good as previous episodes, mostly because I think it’s a complicated issue that could have done with a little preamble to define some terms and perhaps set the tone. I guess it did, in a way, but I don’t quite agree with the approach and definitions Alexei takes. But yolo, right? Despite this, I think he takes a very open approach to the issue, and has some interesting guests. This is a good piece, and it does good work.
I really liked hearing from Rebecka DecaVita, a woman dancer I’ve long admired and really wanted to hear speak about these issues. Jo Jaekyeong from Korea is an old friend of mine, and I really liked hearing her speak clearly about her experiences in Seoul, a city and scene I’m currently very interested in. I don’t know Gregor Hof Bauer or Patrick Catuz, and while Patrick’s comments were the ones I found most problematic, I was very interested to hear from some men in this discussion. And men who’d actually done some proper thinking about this issue, beyond the sort of glib jokey rubbish I’ve been hearing on the American podcasts.
It was particularly cool to hear from Gregor, who’s an out gay bloke, speaking about following. This was especially cool, because I do feel that a lot of the American and mainstream lindy hop commentary has been very coyly stepping around the issue of queerasfuck dancing, managing not to have any openly gay peeps speaking in podcasts, vlogcasts, or in public talks. I think this is one of the features of a European production: they simply are more politically and socially progressive than the American productions, so we hear a more grown up and interesting discussion. Or at the very least, this program is better journalism for its presentation of a more diverse range of voices.
I was the other interviewee on the program this month, and I wasn’t all that happy with how I did in the original interview. I feel like I crapped on too much, and could have been more succinct. But Alexei has edited the bejeebs out of me, so I come out of it sounding a lot more coherent than I actually was. Overall, it was exciting and flattering to be asked to be involved (SUPER flattering), and I enjoyed it. I admire Alexei’s work, and it was so nice to be a part of something I admire. Such an honour.
In the rest of this post, I’ll engage with just one part of the podcast, which is really just an accidental language slip. It is where Alexei says (as Laura pointed out) “Sam is actively involved with feminism”. This is a true statement.
It’s also kind of lolsome because I don’t feel like feminism is this thing outside myself (the way this statement implies). Feminism is what I am and do. To say “I am a feminist” is a way of saying “Hey, I think we need to talk about gender and power, and I’m not going to shoosh up about it.” Saying “I am a feminist” is a political act.
For a woman, speaking up like this, expressing discontent and generally disturbing the status quo by not being a quiet, conciliatory woman, is explicitly political. When a man says ‘I am a feminist’, the act itself means something quite different. Because we do exist in patriarchy. For a woman, the very act of speaking up, of dissenting, of being a ‘difficult woman’ is a political act. It’s dissension. It’s dangerous. It’s powerful. So it’s not so much that I am ‘involved with feminism’, it’s that I AM A FEMINIST. I don’t prevaricate, I don’t add caveats or qualifications when I say that. I just am a feminist.
And when I say this, it means that I think that the way we do things is a bit fucked up. I think that there are problems. I think that men have and take advantage of privileges and advantages that women don’t have. Yes, you, white straight guy. I’m speaking to you. I’m saying to you, you have advantages that I don’t. And if you’re not paying attention to that, if you’re not asking why that is so, you are just quietly maintaining the status quo. You are complicit in patriarchy. And I’m not ok with that. I’m not going to let you rest easy on that. I’m going to be the pebble in your shoe. I’m not going to sit down and shoosh. And it’s not going to be comfortable for you. It shouldn’t be. Because patriarchy is not fucking comfortable for me.
Our culture makes things easier for you, men. You have advantages. As I say in that podcast, I doubt anyone says to you, male lead, “Oh, you’re being the boy?” or even comments at all on the fact that someone of your gender is choosing to lead in a workshop. But for me, it is so common it’s normal. But it’s also a constant niggling question of my right to be in a class as a lead. It’s a continual itching doubt that I am a ‘real’ lead. Because apparently real leads are all men. And of course, women are complicit in patriarchy by doing things like policing gender roles by asking women if they are ‘being the boy’, or asking a teacher to have men give up following so they can lead (and rebalance the gender/lead-follow ratio).
So this is why I am not so much ‘actively involved with feminism’ or a feminist project. I am a feminist project. I am feminism. I am a feminist. And feminism is about dissension. It’s about destabilising. It’s about being a good goddamn pain in the arse. I’m quite used to being thought of as a ‘bitch’ or a ‘difficult woman’.
So when I enter professional relationships and interactions in the lindy hop world today, I go in reminding myself that I am awesome. It’s very important to enter these interactions with confidence. With rock solid confidence in your decisions, your ideas, your skills. A lot of confidence. You must be as iron-clad in your determination as a man would be. Even though a man doesn’t have to deal with all the niggling critiques and policing. Because as a woman, you will be confronted or bullied or tested by men.
I saw it happening in Herrang, in a range of contexts – male teachers testing female teachers, male students testing female students, male DJs testing female DJs, male everyone testing female organisers and administrators. Some things that happened to me at Herrang this year and last, as a woman DJ, that didn’t happen to male DJs:
– I had my ‘knobs twiddled’ without permission by other other DJs while I was DJing.
– Male DJs said “You need to fix the levels” instead of “Are the levels ok? It’s a bit squeaky where I was?”
– Male DJs physically took up more space than I did in the DJ booth while I was DJing.
– Male DJs said “Do you just DJ locally?” instead of just assuming as they do with other men that I was actually an experienced DJ who’d DJed overseas and nationally for years (and hence meant to be there).
– A male DJ described going to DJ blues as “Going to get some pussies wet” in front of me, and blanched a little when I replied “I took a few dance classes today and that did the job for me.” Apparently pussies are things you do things to, rather than things you have for some male DJs.
– Male DJs assumed I was much younger than I am, and were patronising until they discovered my real age (and dancing and DJing experience).
…and there were many more incidences. These were all from male DJs who are very nice guys, who were generally very good to work with. But these are the sorts of micro-incidences that remind me that I am a woman, and that challenge me.
And the only real way to deal with this, as a woman professional in lindy hop, is to say to yourself:
“I am a professional.”
“I know my shit. I am a fucking good DJ/organiser/manager/dancer.”
“Here are my accomplishments, here is my history, where I did a bloody good job.”
“When I speak, I know what I am talking about, so I will speak with confidence, and in declarative statements, not questions.”
“When I make my needs and requirements clear to a man, I know what I’m saying, and I don’t need to justify myself.”
“When I challenge a man for his behaviour, I am doing the right thing. I am in the right. I am justified in my call. And he should respect that.”
“When I am challenged or tested by a man simply because I’m a woman and he’s used to being an alpha in interactions with women I should feel good about stepping up and pushing back. I should – I will – push back.”
“I will not second-guess myself and my actions as an employer or manager. I will not verbally justify my decisions or authority with someone I’ve employed. I am the boss, I’m good at it, and I am here to kick heads and take names.”
“As a woman boss or employer or manager, I don’t have to become a jerkface bloke, or take on hegemonic modes of management or problem solving. I can be collaborative and gentle. I can talk about how I feel, and I can take into account my peers’ feelings. I can be emotionally honest without being manipulative. And I can still be an arse-kickingly good boss. This does not make me weak or unprofessional.”
I also think it’s essential to be supportive of other women. And to remember that men who push or challenge are often feeling a lack of self confidence. The difficult male DJ is feeling doubts about his ability, and not sure you’re a decent manager. So you need to convince him, through your confident manner, that you are capable, and that he can trust you to set reasonable limits and be his guide and manager. Yes, it sucks to have to mother these fucktards (god, emotional labour, much?), but just assume that they’re little babies and need to be babbied.
When you’re working with other women, you need to let them know that you think they’re legit. Sisterhood is powerful, but collaboration is mighty. Lindy hop teaches us how to work with other people in close, emotionally intense partnerships. We can definitely take that to our off-dance-floor professional relationships.
So, yes, I am involved with feminism. In the most intimate of ways. I am a feminist.
Hey, happy International Women’s Day, friends. In previous years I’ve listed women dancers (2011, 2012, 2013, and in 2014 I was distracted). This year I’ve been too busy to do daily posts, but I did write this on the facey today:
Happy international women’s day, everyone!
IWD has a nicely worker-centred history (https://unwomen.org.au/iwd/history-international-womens-day), and it’s about celebrating the achievements of the ordinary women around you.
I’m lucky enough to get to work with many, many _extra_ordinary working women in the lindy hop and jazz scene, so I’d like to say THANK YOU to them for be inspiring and encouraging and occasionally mighty fierce!
Thanks to Laura, Bec, and Alice, my co-teachers, who pull out great material and fun, challenging classes. Thanks to Sharon, who said YES to our new Harlem project.
Thank you to Ramona for showing me just how exciting it can be as a woman whose body is an instrument and a source of joy.
Thank you to Marie N’Diaye, for showing me how a fierceness of intellect and of spirit can make for the gentlest and most beautiful dancing.
Thank you to Sylvia Sykes for saying ‘lead or follow?’ when I asked her to dance.
Thank you to Loz for being _determined_ to dance and inspiring me.
Thank you to Lexi who simply expected me to run a business of my own.
Thank you to the women who come to our dance classes and overcome shyness to shake it like queens on the dance floor.
Thank you to Sugar Sullivan for correcting her gender-specific language in one of my first Herrang classes, and saying “Because anyone can lead.”
Thank you to Naomi, Loosha, Justine, Alice, Kat, Manon, Allie, Loz, Fatima, Leru, Superheidi, Bec, Barb, Shaz, Sarah, Naomi, Giselle, Tina, Heather, Mary, Christine, Kate, Kate, Kate, Michelle, Di, Sharon, Peta, Georgia, Jen and the many, many other women DJs who challenge me to bring the shit.
Thank you to Claudia for backing my mad schemes.
Thank you Sarah and the other women who spoke up about sexual assault in our community.
Thank you to Justine for the wickedest sense of humour and solidest DJing and managing skills.
Thank you to that shy young trans girl at fair day who wanted to know about lindy hop but was almost too shy to speak.
Thank you to Marie at the Chicago studio for answering all my emails. Thank you to Hetty Kate for marrying humour and a wicked sense of fun with the best music of all.
Thank you to Eleonora, Jan, Jenny, Elizabeth, Liz, Nurani, Nicola, Julie, Amanda and all the other venue managers who answer all my questions.
Thank you to the women musicians I haven’t met, and won’t, but whose music makes me dance til I drop. Thank you to Lexi, Tina, Kerryn, Megan, Cheryl, Kara, Karen, Leigh, Peta, Sharon, Trish, Trish, Kate, Kate, Cheng, Marybeth, Justine, Olivia, Becky, Sarah, Melinda, Mel, Trudi, Sandy, Vivi, Bethany, Tania, Luna, Fiona, Alice, Lauren, Evelyn, Sing, Sophie, Emma, Nikki, and all the other hundreds of women who organise dance events.
Thank you to the women dancers I meet all over the world who immediately make me feel welcome.
Thank you to the women jazz dancers who came before us and invented this thing.
Thank you to Shorty George’s unnamed partner in After Seben who actually did the swinging out.
Thank you to Norma for demanding “Where’s your swing out?!”
Thank you most of all to the hundreds of women who work at the door of dance events, and who tidy up afterwards, who move chairs and arrange tables, who arrive early to set up, who host visitors, who make sandwiches and beds, bank money and count out floats, figure out how to manage events for the first time on their own, chauffeur guests, design flyers and send emails and answer questions and make all this possible, every night of the week, all around the world.
Since I wrote this, I’ve thought of one million more women I want to thank. Thank you to Anaïs for that big brain and that wonderful dancing. Thank you to Kira for showing me burlesque can be empowering. To women DJs I missed. To the formerly male-identified dancer who chose our dance last night on mardi gras weekend to come out onto the dance floor as a woman. Gaby and Anaïs and Marie the women dancers who are putting together chorus line projects. The women who come social dancing for the very first time. The women who ask me to dance because they want me to lead. The queer women dancers who’ve come out recently in the lindy hop scene because they feel safe and proud of who they are. The older women who come dancing and rock it on the dance floor with the finest young men they can find. Women band leaders like Laura and Naomi and Hetty Kate and Georgia who bring it on the stage. Nicole who kept a public record of her physical transition. The women who are more than happy to just rock out solo style on the dance floor. Those fierce, ambitious women dancers who move on to teach internationally because they are so determined to be GOOD at this…. there are just so many. So many of them! I can’t even begin to name them all!
In my everyday work in the lindy hop community, I deal with far more women than men. Though men have most of the higher profile spots (playing in bands, teaching guest workshops), women by far provide the bulk of labour in the lindy hop community. In Australia, they are most of the volunteers, they are most of the organisers, and they are most of the DJs. They’re often also most of the dancers. Despite this, we are encouraged to compete for male dance partners, and discouraged from leading and dancing with other women. Lindy hoppers very rarely point out to each other that most of the labour in the lindy hop world is provided by women, and we tend to privilege the male dancers from the swing era. This last point prompted my Women’s History Month posts in the past, and of course my Women Jazz Dancers site.
I think it is important remind ourselves of all the different forms of labour that go into a jazz dance and jazz music community. I hear some men argue that the real ‘art’ of jazz or authentic ‘artistic life’ can only be defined as living form music and dance, as a dance teacher or performer. But that is just complete bullshit. I’ve written about that in Heroes of Jazz and Other Visible Mythologies.
In the simplest terms, there can be no jazz at all without all the invisible labour provided by women. There can be no jazz dance performance or party without a woman to work the door, to clean the floors, to cook the food, and serve the drinks. There can be no jazz musicians working endless gigs without a woman to care for their children, wash their clothes, cook their food. And if these women are not in their lives now, they were there when they were children and young adults studying their art.
Art is not the product of individual creativity and genius. Art is the work of a whole community.
There’s recently been a fairly loud and emotional discussion about sexual violence in lindy hop. I don’t want to rehash it here, because I find it very upsetting. Rehashing this stuff in detail disempowers me. I don’t want to discuss the male teacher named in this discussion, because I don’t want this to be all about him. Again. I want to take that power away from him. I want to find power in this, for me, and for other women.
Here is something I wrote on facebook today, in response to Gwen Moran’s piece How We Can Help Young Girls Stay Assertive. This piece described Deborah Ann Cihonski’s article ‘The experience of loss of voice in adolescent girls: An existential-phenomenological study’. I don’t know what that original research is like (haven’t read it yet), but it’s an interesting place to start.
This article is particularly relevant to the current discussion about assault and safety for women in the lindy hop scene.
I am deeply disturbed by comments emphasising how we might ‘protect’ women and girls in our communities. I think it is problematic (to say the least) to perpetuate this idea of femininity as vulnerable (and passive), and masculinity as dangerous (and active).
It’s important to remember that most sexual assaults happen in privates spaces (dance halls, practice rooms, bedrooms, lounge rooms and so on), and most women are assaulted by people they know. ‘Rapists’ aren’t wild bears or volcanoes: they aren’t forces of nature that we have to protect women from. They are people who need to fix their behaviour.
We need to remind women that they are powerful and capable of caring for and protecting themselves, and for making decisions about their bodies and lives.
So I think that one of the most effective tools for making safe spaces in lindy hop is is empowering women. Some practical tips:
- Do use gender neutral language in class (ie follow does not = female by default). I have heard many male teachers resist this, saying that it’s ‘too hard’, or ‘not important’. Believe me: it is important. If you are a woman leading in that class (or thinking about leading), it makes you feel part of the group. It makes you feel like a lead.
- Follows are not passive; following is an active process (ie leads don’t ‘tell follows what to do’, and follows don’t ‘carry out’ leaders’ creative ideas)
- All partners should take care of each other (ie it’s not that ‘leads look after follows’, it’s that we all should look after each other). eg follows are responsible for floor craft too.
- List the female dance partner in a teaching team first. This is ridiculously rare in lindy hop, and we need to make up for lost time by over-representing women as the ‘first’ member of the teaching team.
- Teach female students how to say “No thank you” if they are invited to dance, but don’t want to. Teach yourself how to say this.
- Don’t use sexualised humour in class. This makes it clear that classes are learning spaces. If all the sexy jokes in the world were gender-win, it’d be ok. But most of the sexualised jokes teachers make in class use gender stereotypes that disempower women.
- Have female role models in your scene: women MCs at big events, women musicians (!!), women organisers, women teaching on their own, women DJs, women publicly making decisions and solving problems (ie female managers), women doing physical labour (beyond cleaning, aye?), women eating well-balanced meals with enthusiasm at shared tables (and not talking about ‘being bad’ when they eat delicious food).
- Value other types of work, particularly the types of work dominated by women. Working the door is as important as DJing. Make that clear. Name all your volunteers in your PR copy.
- Talk about old timer dancers who are women. Al, Leon, Frankie: they’re all wonderful. But so are Norma, Sugar, Josephine, Dawn, Big Bea.
- Research women dancers and teach their material, in their names. And that means more than just another class on swivels. Talk about women choreographers, troupe leaders, and managers.
- Teach solo dance. Women dancing alone is an act of agency and power in a partner dancing world. And teach a variety of styles: sexy, sweet, powerful, aggressive, humorous, gentle, sad, athletic, witty, cerebral….
Congruently, men in lindy hop need to be taught some things too:
- Work on your own strategies for speaking up when you hear a sexist joke. You know you should call that guy on it, but what exactly will you say or do? Will you walk away? Will you laugh along?
- What are your limits, when it comes to ‘blokey’ or ‘boys own’ behaviour? Sexy jokes? Talking about women you see in the room in a sexual way? Competing with other men to ‘get’ a woman? Know your limits, then act on them.
- Defer to female opinion and example: if you’re in a discussion, listen to women before you speak. In all matters, not just sexual safety. Once you’re good at it, then start working on ways of expressing your opinion in a collegial way.
- Don’t call women girls unless they are actually girls (ie under 13). It’s patronising. Don’t call women or girls ‘females’, unless their gender is what you want to discuss: eg “Female dancers are as capable of leading as following” is as good as “Women dancers are as capable of leading as following” but “Females are good leads too” is not ok. Women are not meerkats.
- Encourage women to take up leading. Encourage women who lead. Encourage women to comment on leading. A compliment on their technique is good, but asking a woman for her opinion on leading is even better. If a woman chooses to lead in class, don’t make a big deal about it, and make it easy for them to stay in that role (deal with uneven follow/lead ratios in other ways – eg talk about how if you’re standing out, this is a chance to work on your dancing)
- Seek out women DJs. They may be harder to find, but don’t default to the usual male DJs at your events. Men are more likely to speak up, so you need to keep your eyes and ears open for women DJs.
- Proactively encourage women DJs, women leads, and women organisers.
- Use your online time to support women, and to support other men. Men are less likely to chime in with a supportive comment on a general thread about dance than women are. Men generally speak up more often, but they aren’t as likely to just say something like “Hey, great idea!” and then leave it at that.
- Support men who are doing good gender work: compliment or say ‘yeah!’ when you see guys doing good stuff.
- Support male follows: don’t make that sexy “wooo!” noise when you see two men dancing together. When you make that noise it announces to everyone that you are uncomfortable with two men dancing together. Probably because you think that two men dancing together is a sexual thing. Which means you probably think partner dancing is a sexual thing. Which means you need to check yourself.
- When you thank the teachers for a class, say thank you to the female teacher first.
There are a bajillion ways we can be better humans in lindy hop. They don’t have to be formal policies or official responses. Be the change you want to see: men should assume that if they’re not pro-actively changing things, they are part of the problem.
The nice thing about all this, is that being a better human is really quite nice: you get to be nice to people, and that makes you feel good. Doing genderwin stuff can be an empowering thing for you. If it feels a bit hard (eg some guys say using gender neutral language is too hard), then remind yourself that you are a jazz dancer: we love hard things! We love challenges! We dance the most complex, wonderful dance in the world, because we love complex, we love challenge, we love creative solutions!
The point of this, of course, is that feminism is good for all of us. Change can be confronting. But that’s why we love break steps, right? Because change is exciting and stimulating too!
A final note: it’s ok to have heroes. It’s totally ok to fansquee for a big name dancer. Having a crush on your dancing hero (no matter what your sex or theirs) is also ok. It means that you are inspired by what they do.
But don’t stop there. Use the inspiration they bring to become a better dancer yourself. Tell them you love what they do, but stop there. Then move on and tell someone else you love what they do, even if they aren’t a big name dancer.
And remember that if we are all to be held accountable for our actions, we need to be sure that we all have the power, the agency, to make our own decisions, and to control our own bodies and actions.
I have written about these issues many, many times here on this blog. I am an old school feminist, and I believe in the idea of patriarchy, and in discourse and ideology. The bottom line is that I believe that if you want to prevent sexual assault, locking up rapists is not the solution. The solution is in dismantling ‘rape culture‘, or a culture of sexism and patriarchy. I know! It seems like so much work! Good thing we have jazz to sustain us, aye?
Here are some of these posts:
- Dealing with problem guys in dance classes (Dec 2012). This is an important one, as it outlines how we (two women teachers) developed strategies for dealing with sexist, disruptive, and dodgy behaviour in class. It’s important because it’s an example how we moved from policy to practical strategy, informed by feminist thinking.
- A difficult conversation about sexual violence in swing dancing communities (May 2011) (note: this one can be upsetting to read).
- I vant to be alone (May 2011) (about women, solo and partner dance, and positive change)
- Lindy hop followers bring themselves to the dance, lindy hop leaders value this (Jan 2011)
- If you can jazz dance, gender neutral language is a fucking cake walk (Jun 2013), I am So Done (Feb 2013), Gendering Dance Talk (Feb 2013) (this one has good references for why gendered language is important to us as dancers and humans), and More than gender neutral language (Oct 2013)
- So not done. Not done ( Sep 2013) about sexual harassment, etc
- A manifesto should upset and excite. It is revolution not reassurance (July 2013). This piece was about the responses to feminist talk within the lindy hop scene.
- Ladies first: sometimes we are triumphantly cycling to victory in our sports bras (Feb 2013). This piece looks at how I feel as a feminist speaking loudly the lindy hop world. And how scary it can be. It also hooks up HEAP of links to great pieces by other women lindy hoppers looking at gender, sex, sexuality, etc in our scene.
I need to say this very clearly: I am not aligning myself with the ‘ambidancetrous’ discourse in any way.
I don’t like the implications that everyone should learn to lead and everyone should learn to follow. I think that that’s a dodgyarse approach to lindy hop.
I do feel that we should be able to choose whether we lead or follow or do both (or do neither – something I’m finding with our solo classes, where we get students who don’t lindy hop, but are beginning to come social dancing to solo dance only…. but only in tiny numbers so far).
I don’t think it’s ok to assume that everyone do both. Some of us have very good reasons for only doing one role: for some women, only leading (and only dancing with women) is a very important thing. For some men following is just too confronting. Some women just want to follow, all the time. And only dance with women leads. Some men just want to follow all the time, with male leads. Or female leads. And some of us can do both, but would really rather only do one tonight.
And if we aren’t ok with that, then we are arsehats. Gender is a real thing: it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to partition lindy hop off from the rest of your life (and the rest of your gendered experiences as an embodied person). And sometimes it’s just easier to be a woman who follows or a man who leads. And we have to be ok with that. While we are all capable of – and do – perform gender in a flexible way, who we are, and having particular preferences that are relatively immutable is actually ok.
I think the term ‘ambidancetrous’ is misleading, as it presumes being able to do both is the preferred or optimal state. I don’t actually think being able to do both is the preferred state. I’m actually (and I surprise myself as I write this) pretty much convinced that if you want to take your dancing to the highest level, you specialise in leading or following.
But of course, if you’re a ‘normal’ person, and not working 24/7 to get into the Harlem Hot Shots or whatevs, then doing both is totes fine. And I think the difference really only kicks in at the highest levels of dancing, when you simply don’t have enough hours in the day to devote to both leading and following: practicalities just demand specialisation.
I’m actually ok with doing both roles myself. But I do find that if I want to improve my leading – really improve – I need to spend all my dancing time leading. All my teaching, practicing and social dancing leading. And solo dancing. Because solo is BEST. But I might want to do this – I might just be so interested in and just so much enjoying leading (for example), I don’t particularly want to follow. At all. And my following just naturally might suffer a bit, because I’m not doing it as often. But then, I’m not going to say no when a leading friend asks me to dance. I’m going to follow. And I’m not going to care if I fuck up a bit and don’t do the best following job: dancing! Yay!
And I am very certain that I don’t want to have to go to every lindy hop class and have to lead and follow in each class. Sure, that’s a very interesting idea. But leading and following are DIFFERENT, requiring different skills and methods, and sometimes I just want to work on one of those. Actually, to be honest, I rarely want to do a class or workshop as a follow. I am fascinated by leading. I like following, but I’m just not as interested in doing it, as I am in leading. In classes, anyway. Social dancing is a different thing.
I also have trouble with the suggestion that leading and following in lindy hop are somehow the same. They’re not. Sure, there are similarities in posture, biomechanics, etc etc. But they work in different ways. And when you’re lindy hopping, someone’s gotta lead, and someone’s gotta follow.
Sure, blues might be a different animal and totes open to a less regulated lead/follow dynamic. But lindy hop is different. Leading and following are DIFFERENT. I don’t give a flying fuck whether it’s men or women or WHOEVER leading or following, nor do I care whether I’m dancing with a man or a woman. But I personally think you need to make a choice: in this moment, I am leading. Or I am following.
I feel this partly because the overall structure of a swing song is such that bigger understandings of structure take place over the course of a song, and leading can involve thinking ahead, not just across an 8 or two, but across phrases and the whole of a song. Particularly when the music is faster, and the overall structure of a song is more immediate than it seems in a slower song.
So, in sum, I’m not comfortable with the term ‘ambidancetrous.’ But mostly because I think it’s a clumsy word.
Ok, so let’s say you want to encourage more women to lead, and more men to follow. Or at the very least, you want people to feel ok about choosing either role. How do you get brand new dancers feeling as though they can choose?
This is how we do it.
We begin each class by introducing ourselves, and we do it like this:
“Hi, I’m Sam, and I’ll be teaching as the lead tonight.”
“Hi, I’m XX, and I’ll be teaching as the follow tonight.”
That immediately makes it clear that we could be doing either role, and that our choice isn’t necessarily permanent. This is actually a very practical thing for us at our venue, because I occasionally teach as a follow (and I find that very challenging), and we have a range of female and occasionally male teachers drop in, teaching either role.
But if you’re a brand new dancer, these words ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ mean exactly nothing, because you don’t know how this dance works yet.
So we follow up with something like:
“This is a class for new dancers, and we assume you’re brand new, so you are very welcome if this is your first class. Tonight we are working charleston/lindy hop/(whatever it is we’re working on).” And then we demonstrate that. So if we’re working on swing outs, we do some swing outs.
That let’s the students see the partnership in action (though most people can’t really see how leading and following works before their very first class), and it gives them an idea of what they’re in for. It also lets them imagine that this is how they’ll be dancing during the class, which is a nice thing.
Then we do our warm up (all solo stuff).
Then we learn the basic step/rhythm for tonight – charleston, whatever. Again, on our own.
Then we say:
“Ok now you need to decide whether you’re leading or following. If you want to lead, then put your arm in the air.” Or we ask the follows to put their arms up, and then we have them pair up.
This is usually about 10 minutes into the class, so students’ very first experience with lindy hop is that being able to dance on your own is essential. They also learn that leads and follows do the same rhythms and steps. We teach them how to do the rhythm on both feet. So they learn that being able to do both ‘sides’ is really important for everyone. This, incidentally, gives people a chance to get used to being in a dance class on their own first, and it introduces them to learning, and our class culture, on their own. Before they have to do the most confronting part, which is touching someone else. Holding someone else in their arms.
If we’re teaching our level 2 class, we begin with “If you dance both lead and follow, please choose one and dance that for this class.” We don’t care what people do, so long as they stick to one for the entire class. If we have uneven numbers, we try really, really hard not to make dancers feel they need to change their role to suit the numbers. If I know someone is there to lead, and we have massively more leads than follows, I work with that – I don’t try to even the numbers. Uneven numbers is actually a benefit, and I articulate that in class. Our regular students know that if you’re on your own in a rotation, you use that time to work on your own dancing, and most people figure out it’s a real advantage.
I have had trouble when I do substitute teaching at other people’s classes, because the dancers standing out without a partner have to be encouraged more than once to keep dancing. But my feeling is: you’re here to dance. So standing about watching other people is a waste of your time. Unless of course you need a little break, which is ok.
And that’s it. It’s really that simple. If you treat it as normal, so does everyone else. And for us, it is normal. It’s important for us to identify who’s leading and who’s following in the teaching partnership, especially for brand new dancers, because they often can’t identify the role on their own.
We always say ‘lead’ or ‘follow’, and we never use gender specific terms. Because that’s dumb. And gender isn’t actually important. It’s much more important to talk about the role – leading, following – and to use the words ‘lead’ and ‘follow’, because it helps you develop an identity for each role, that isn’t about gender, but is about dancing qualities. So, in my mind, a lead leads – if I want to have a follow step towards me, I need to take a small step back (rather than yanking on our arms). If I want the follow to do a particular footwork rhythm, I need to do it too, and first, and with confidence. If I want my follow to be relaxed in their body, I need to relax my body. And so on. Similarly, following isn’t about ‘doing as you’re told’, it’s about maintaining momentum. I might say “I’m deciding what move we’re doing, but (follow’s name)/the follow is deciding how we do that move, and they’re responsible for maintaining the momentum. We’re both responsible for keeping time (with our bounce), and we’re both responsible for doing good, clear rhythms. We are both (as Ramona says), responsible for taking care of the rhythm.”
I find that avoiding gender specific language actually frees my mind and my teaching to explore the way leading and following actually work. If I can’t say ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’, I have to find other words that describe what we’re doing. And that makes me a much better teacher.
We didn’t begin with this model. When Alice and I started, we would say “Traditionally men led and women followed, but we don’t need to do that,” or something similar. And then, looking back through old photos, I realised that that was just plain wrong. Women have always led, men have always followed, and men have always danced with men, and women have always danced with women. For the same reasons they do today – a shortage of the other gender, a preference for the same sex (whether romantically or just because fronds), wanting to dance with friends, coincidence, dancing skills and preference, etc etc etc. So we stopped saying that, because it’s WRONG. And I think it’s extra wrong to tell a bullshit version of history when we’re dancing a historic dance.
So if you’re working on this stuff – good luck, and do let me know if you have other strategies! I will TOTALLY steal your ideas!