Goats: THROWN!

Imperial Swing from dogpossum on 8tracks Radio.

Last weekend I DJed my first proper lindy hop set since November, and it was super fine. It was the first set of the night at Imperial Swing, a social gig put on by Swing Out Sydney. TOTAL FUN. It’s a great venue, and the sound system is pretty damn special. The DJ after me – Kat – is now my new favourite DJ. She was ON FIRE. Here’s the set list, because a friend asked for it. I aim to please.

Anyways, this set is pretty much what I think of as a ‘potato chip’ set: these are the sorts of songs you can just eat down by the handful. Nothing too crazy or confronting, lots of familiar stuff (C Jam Blues!), lots of energy. I was aiming for a high-energy party feel, and wanted to keep the tempos kind of reasonable as the crowd included some very new dancers. I figured familiar was also good, as many of the regular dancers who’d arrived were feeling a bit unsure of themselves in a queer space, so I wanted to help them find their feet. And, you know, we overplay C Jam Blues because IT’S A GREAT SONG.

title year artist album name song length (links -> where you can buy the album direct from the artist)

Blue Monday 1957 Jay McShann and his Band (Jimmy Witherspoon) 125 Goin’ To Kansas City Blues 3:40

Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop 1945 Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra 135 Hamp: The Legendary Decca Recordings 3:21

C-Jam Blues 1999 Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis 143 Live In Swing City: Swingin’ With Duke 3:34

Blues In Hoss’s Flat 1958 Count Basie and his Orchestra 144 Chairman Of The Board [Bonus Tracks] 3:13

The Spinach Song 2004 Terra Hazelton (feat. Jeff Healey’s Jazz Wizards) 165 Anybody’s Baby 4:57

Percolatin’ Blues 2011 Smoking Time Jazz Club 135 Lina’s Blues 4:14

I Like Pie 2012 Gordon Webster (with Aurora Nealand, Jesse Selengut, Gordon Au, Dan Levinson, Matt Musselman, Cassidy Holden, Rob Adkins, Jeremy Noller, Steven Mitchell) 162 Live In Rochester 5:38

Sales Tax 2012 Leigh Barker and the New Sheiks (Matt Boden, Don Stewart, Alastair McGrath-Kerr, Eamon McNelis, Heather Stewart) 132 The Sales Tax 3:43

Good Rockin’ Tonight 1959 Jimmy Witherspoon with Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Woody Herman, Earl Hines, Vernon Alley, Mel Lewis 160 The ‘Spoon Concerts 2:27

Don’t You Miss Your Baby 1980 Jimmy Witherspoon and Panama Francis’ Savoy Sutans 145 Jimmy Witherspoon and Panama Francis’ Savoy Sultans 3:56

Milenberg Joys 2010 Gordon Webster (with Jesse Selengut, Matt Musselman, Cassidy Holden, Rob Adkins, Jeremy Noller, Adrian Cunningham) 194 Live In Philadelphia 3:45

It’s Your Last Chance To Dance 2007 Preservation Hall 179 The Hurricane Sessions 4:31

Mr Gentle and Mr Cool 2005 John Hallam and Jeff Barnhart 173 Mr. Gentle and Mr. Hot 3:23

Tempo de Luxe 1940 Harry James 130 New York World’s Fair, 1940 – The Blue Room, Hotel Lincoln, 3:19
Savoy 1942 Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra (Trevor Bacon) 166 Anthology Of Big Band Swing (Disc 2) 3:05

St. Louis Blues 1939 Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra 183 Ella Fitzgerald In The Groove 4:46

Keep On Churnin’ 1952 Wynonie Harris 146 Wynonie Harris: Complete Jazz Series 1950 – 1952 2:56

I Ain’t Mad At You 1960 Mildred Anderson 158 No More In Life 3:04

Here’s what I was thinking as I was DJing:

‘Blue Monday’ is a song I often start sets with. It’s an easy tempo, has lots of energy, and a very simple structure. It worked well for me here as the music in the free lesson before the dance was mostly neo, and I needed a good transition to my more old-schooly music. Also: shouting.

‘Hey! Ba-ba-re-bop’. You know why I played this.

‘C Jam Blues’. By this point I had a lot of energy happening, and the room had settled into proper social dancing after the class. I decided I wanted to come in pretty hard with the energy (rather than easing into things), as I only had an hour. There were enough people in the room who could dance comfortably, so I figured I’d ring Pavlov’s Bell and get the kids jumping about a bit.

‘Blues In Hoss’ Flat’. I love following C Jam Blues with this. It’s the perfect Ellington-Basie one-two punch. BAM! Things were cooking at this point. A mass of people arrived in a big flow, so I needed to get really serious.

‘The Spinach Song’. Enough of that big band wall of sound! I wanted to get to some NOLA action eventually, so I needed a good transition. This song is a brilliant transition from that Kansas city blues shouter sort of vibe that ‘Blues in Hoss’s Flat’ sets up. It also echoed the Witherspoon song. But the instrumentation leans a bit more towards old school.

‘Percolatin’ Blues’. I felt as though the previous song was the crest of the first energy hill, so I needed a chillout song. Those previous songs had kind of battered people emotionally with their big, intense feelings, and I needed to give people an in to the dance floor if they’d not gotten up yet. So I dropped the tempos and the intensity so peeps could dip their toes in if they’d just arrived or finally recovered from the class and felt ready to try again. This was about twenty minutes into the set, which is the end of the first third, where I’m usually thinking we’re cresting.

Ok, enough with the molly coddling. Time to pump the energy up again. I’d said I’d play this in talk on FB, and it’s still massively popular. Personally, I’m totally over this version of ‘I Like Pie’. I’m tired of the mugging lyrics, and I’m tired of the fairly boring chorus. But each time I listen to it, I fall in love with Gordon’s piano. That shit is hot. Anyways, this was a crowd-pleaser.

But things were kind of loud and intense, and I saw quite a few tired people looking for a break after two longer songs. So I did ‘Sales Tax’. I think I made a slight misjudgement with this one. I needed to keep the energy up, but with a slightly different sound. Anyways, it wasn’t quite right. It was around this point that I realised there was some serious problem happening with the sound system. The sound was too loud at the front and not loud enough at the back. The sound guy had disappeared, so I couldn’t ask him.

‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ – a live version. I went with more Witherspoon because I wanted to kick things up with some higher tempo shouting live fun. But I was quite distracted by the technical problem, so I’m not sure it was the perfect choice (though as the song progressed it turned out to be the perfect choice). But about 30 seconds in, a seriously loud alarm started beeping in the DJ booth. The dancers couldn’t hear it, but it was LOUD. The sound guy came running down and tried to fix things. Apparently someone had turned off all the music in the pub. On Saturday night in an inner city queer pub. Nice one. It WASN’T ME.

Anyways, I was kind of shaken by that, so I just lined up the next song I had in mind, and had to physically move myself out of the way, away from my laptop and the sound gear. So the next Witherspoon – another Witherspoon – was a random choice. I’d almost played it instead of ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’, but didn’t. It turned out to be a really good choice, but I felt as though I’d lost control of things for a second there. Anyways, by the end of the song, the alarm was off, I was back at the laptop and it was time to get into things again.

By the end of that song, it was time to hit that crest again. The energy really chugs along in that Panama Francis band’s version of a standard, but Witherspoon adds a really interesting alternative to the Jimmy Rushing version we hear all the time. And I was feeling a bit smarty pants, referring back to that Basie song with Witherspoon again.

‘Milenberg Joys’. I much prefer this to the Pie and Cake song. It rocks. It pulled the energy (and tempos) up. I’d have gone faster again, but the crowd wasn’t quite up to it. There were still a lot of new dancers, and the dancers who’d been around for a while didn’t really have the skills to tackle the massively higher tempos. The room felt hot, though, and people were kind of going crazy. There were quite a few glazed crazy-eyes in the room, which was pleasing.

So I did the obvious thing after this with Preservation Hall. I’m kind of over this song. I think it’s overplayed, and unlike C Jam Blues, I don’t think it’s quite versatile enough to warrant the overplaying. But it provided a nice climax to the energy in the room. And, long song. is long.

‘Mr Gentle and Mr Cool’ is a lovely, lovely song that an Adelaidean DJ, Jarryd, put me onto. I’m obsessed with it. It actually reminds me of the Preservation Hall Hot 4 album in the piano, so in my mind it was a lovely match to the song before. I’m not sure peeps who don’t know that Pres Hall small group album would have caught the connection, but, who cares! Anyways, it’s a chillaxed, more complex song, but it still has some tempo on it, so it doesn’t let things die.

By this point I was done with that modern NOLA sound. I needed something older and funner. I’m a bit nuts about this Harry James song. It was recorded live at the World’s Fair in 1940. It starts really mellow and kind of sweet. But mid-way it picks up with a bang! and becomes a fucking brilliant dance song.
I’m interested in the World Fair from that year for a few reasons. Firstly, there’s footage of people dancing together at the Fair. And they’re all women. WIN!

The Fair did, of course, feature lindy hoppers from the Savoy doing performances, but apparently this was a pretty shitty gig. Reading through my copy of The Man Who Recorded the World, a book about Alan Lomax, I discovered that he’d designed the music bits of that World Fair as a series of ‘everyday’ music spaces – jook joints featuring blues music, town halls playing bluegrass, etc etc etc. He’d wanted to recreate the contexts he’d recorded music in during his ethnographic work. But the Fair organisers reneged on his plans and forced the ‘mock Savoy’ into the plan, and abandoned Lomax’s much more interesting ideas. I suspect this shift was partly to blame for the shitty time the Savoy dancers had at the Fair (I have, incidentally, written a bit about this stuff in the post a snot-addled, animated wander through san francisco).

More usefully to dancers on the night, ‘Tempo deLuxe’ is what I think of as a ‘builder’ – it starts mellow and gets crazy. A good transition from the mellower song before to the fun I wanted to do next.

‘Savoy’ is, of course, a song about the Savoy Ballroom. See what I did there? It’s also a stock standard. And a jolly good song with lots of fun in it.

I’ve been playing that version of ‘St Louis Blues’ for years and years and years. It’s truly fabulous, AND it was recorded live at the Savoy ballroom. See?

Ok, so things feel exciting in the room. I was building energy for the dancers, but also because we were about to have a performance by Pretty Strong Woman, who does weight-lifting burlesque stuff. And I like to set up the energy for performers.

After all that Savoy stuff I went with Wyonie Harris because the crowd had quite a few rock n rollers, and I wanted to at least throw them part of a bone. Not much of a bone, though. Mildred Anderson was a similar token effort. Both of these are great songs, but they lean towards jump blues, and I find them great cross-over songs when I’m playing a mixed lindy hop/rock n roll crowd. These two are a bit slower, too, so they’re more accessible.

And then I was done!

Fun times! And as I said, Kat played a cracker of a set after me. She really did brilliant work. And I danced like a fool til the rock n roll/neo DJs came on at midnight, and then I went home. After I saw Kira Hu-la-la do a brilliant motorhead type burlesque show. Oh, how I LOLed at her clever jokes. GOATS: THROWN!

Single Ladies, J-setting and battle

This is yet another post about Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’

and the Beyond Prejudice performance of Single Ladies routine:

The gender-flex of this routine is more an essential part of the original video than a fan-response to the choreography. The Single Ladies video was choreographed by Frank Gatson and JaQuel Knight and, to quote wikipedia “incorporates J-Setting choreography”.

J-setting (to quote wikipedia again)

…is a highly stylized modern lead and follow style of hip hop dance, characterized by cheerleading style sharp movements to an eight-beat count music. Popular in southern U.S. African American gay clubs, like the vogue-style before it, it became popular by exposure in a pop music video…

In 1970, former majorette Shirley Middleton became troupe leader of the Jackson State University cheerleading group, The Prancing Jaycettes. Middleton wanted something different, and so threw away their batons, and began dancing in formation. Based on a classical cheerleader eight-beat style, the signature thrusts, pumps, and high kicks were developed into a lead-and-follow “wave” through the troupe.[1]
However, the style was strictly reserved for women only until 1997, when male troupe baton twirling member DeMorris Adams, was asked to fill in for an injured female troupe member. After this, although the performing troupe was still female, the crowd supporters started to grow from the colleges gay community.

The wikipedia entry references “The Big Idea: J-Setting Beyond Beyoncé”, Vibe.com (February 2009. Retrieved 2009-11-22) and I think it’s worth adding the clarification from that piece: “The Prancing Jaycettes were the female dance line of the infamous JSU marching band”. Marching bands are important in the history of black vernacular dance in America, and the inherently competitive, battle challenge of marching bands (and cheerleaders and step and… so on) is important here. I do recommend searching for the ‘prancing j-settes’ on youtube for an idea of what was going on.

The Vibe piece adds another great little note:

He was not alone in his adoration of the Prancing J-Settes. “The young men would be on the sideline during practice watching and learning,” recalls Anthony Hardaway, a gay activist and historian from Memphis who was a student at JSU from 1990 to ’94. “My friends would be on the side doing the dance alongside the girls.” However, their imi-tation was not seen by all as flattery. “Teachers and coaches would run the gay boys away,” Hardaway says with a laugh, “because when it was time for the games, the gay boys would be in the stands doing the routine and outperforming the girls on the field.”

There’s something totally excellent about the thought of young, fabulous black boys being shooed away because they might a) engayen the football players (lol in the current Australian AFL climate), and b) outshine the girls. Is there any better battle challenge, any greater call to arms than this?
Here, check this out:

Of course, J-setting has changed since the 1970s, which is the way all vernacular dance works. It responds to trend and fashion to retain relevancy.

Let’s look at JaQuel Knight for a second:

Knight’s muscularity changes the choreography a bit, as do his flat shoes (which change the line of his legs and the movement of his hips). It’s interesting to compare his movements with Dana Foglia beside him. Her hips and legs in high heels give us the more Single Ladies type lines. I’ve written about this before in reference to Balanchine and the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, so I won’t go into it again. But this video gives us a fabulous modern day example of the gendering of these types of bodily aesthetics.

But wait, I’m totally off-track. Let’s just look at the essentials of J-setting for a second. This is a call and response type battle/dance. The troupe has a leader who ‘calls’ the steps, which the rest of the troupe then ‘respond’ to by repeating the steps. This is key. The lycra leotards and athletic wear are also key markers of J-setting. Now think about this as something that was happening in gay clubs, and think about gay men’s bodies in these settings. That’s some seriously subversive shit right there. All sorts of complex gendering going on. Sure, those guys are ‘dancing woman’, but they’re also very masculine in their aggressive posturing. But if cheerleading is also clearly about battle and competition, then aggression isn’t as gendered as all that… it’s just played out in gendered terms.

The call and response of j-setting works in slightly different terms in this video with JaQuel Knight, in a teaching context:

In summary, then, J-setting began with marching band dance troupes, and with women dancing. It was taken up by black gay men, partly because of the influence of a male dancer in the troupe, but more probably because the j-setting was totally fabulous, totally competitive, and totally awesome. It retain(s) its competitive element in a gay club context. Here, look at this:

(I included this dodgy quality clip because it gives you an idea of what it’s actually like doing this stuff in real-life settings: the lighting is shit, there are errors (those these guys are tight), it’s not clean and pretty).

J-setting moves out into the wider community, to the point where Beyonce wants to get into that action. Big name j-setting dancers are involved in choreographing the Single Ladies routine.

But wait. There’s more. The Single Ladies routine is referencing a Bob Fosse choreography, which most peeps know as ‘the Mexican breakfast’ dance (there was a fair bit of discussion about this, and this video is kind of interesting for its discussion of Fosse). You can see the Bob Fosse Mexican Breakfast choreography here, but ignore the subtitles.

So, to sum up, Kanye was onto something. The Single Ladies video could be the best video of all time. OF ALL TIME. And J-setting is exciting because it offers a model for competition and battle in dance which isn’t using the standard krumping/hippity hop model. This is really interesting.

My previous posts about this video:
what again?! I’m still crapping on about dance, power, etc

all the single ladies

No news

[rage edit]HEY, if you’d like to give me a serve about being some sort of elitist, how’s about you a) read some of this blog, b) read my comment below. Because I am onto your shit, and I will NOT tolerate it. While I’m at it I DO HAVE A CLUE ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN ETHNICITY, CLASS AND CULTURAL CAPITAL IN LINDY HOP, YOU IDIOTS.[/]

I’d write a post about gender and DJing, but nothing has changed since the last time I wrote about it. Women do most of the local DJing, men dominate the DJ line ups at big events. Women DJs problem solve collaboratively, male DJs don’t. Men mansplain technical problems to me when I’m DJing (even if they know nothing about sound gear). There are one or two exceptions.

I’d write a post about labour and pay in the lindy hop world, but nothing has changed since the last time I wrote about it. Teachers, DJs and volunteers are overworked, underpaid and exploited. Dancers refuse to pay more than $40 for a big live band playing for four hours, even though they’re getting the best goddamn dancing of their lives in a restored ball room with the best musicians in the country. Fuckers still make volunteers work for hours and hours, and DJs still aren’t being paid properly by large events (if at all). No, comping entry is NOT THE SAME AS PAYING.

LINDY HOPPERS: stop being such bloody tight arses. Pay more money for live music. Pay more for events run by dancers, just so you can dance. $6 for a DJed gig? IT IS NOT ENOUGH. $20 for a live band in a large, clean space with a good dance floor? INSUFFICIENT. Refusing to pay more than $10 for a four or five hour late night party featuring two rooms of music, six DJs, free food and requiring about 25 people’s worth of labour? YOU ARE TOO TIGHT, DANCERS.

Just in case you thought things were totally fucked, they’re not. This past weekend I counted three or four women who only lead, who I had not seen out social dancing before. They were all wearing nice waistcoats and trousers and jackets and ties and were PWNING ALL. Male leads: you need to level up, because the sisters PWN YOU; your half-arsed leading, your lack of triple steps, your bullshit lazy arse lack of bounce is being shown up. It’s not too late: GO TO CLASS. LEARN ALL THE THINGS. GET GOOD. Male follows: GET ON THE GODDAMN FLOOR.

The ordinaryness of the everyday and blues dance

In a post on FB, Chris asks

Charm’s Question of the 1st of June:
Blues dance draws from a rich cultural well, a constant evolution of the dance and rapid socio-economic changes.

What elements of vintage Blues dance culture (sordid and scandalous though they may be) need to be incorporated into the modern dance form while coupled with more professional dance training?

Disappointingly, I think I’m more interested in children’s rhyming songs, skipping ropes and household chores.

I read this as I was writing that last post The Rules of Connection: I think about pedagogy, lindy hop and ideology, so I ended up replying to Chris with this fairly off-topic and annoyingly preachy comment:

I have some troubles with the way ‘professional dance training’ is often defined or practiced.
I don’t accept the premise of this question: that ‘professional dance training’ (as it is defined and practiced in most of the modern swing/blues/whatevs world) is an integral part of blues dancing or learning to dance. I’d probably ask ‘how might dance pedagogy and learning dance (the two are not necessarily codependent) today draw on the history of blues dance (and music)?’ or, in SamTalk: “What can I use from the history of blues dance to become a moar orsm dancer?”

I’m actually very interested in dance as a point on continuum of everyday rhythmic movement, rooted in history and culture (which I think dance is often separated from by ‘professional dance training’).
So I like to chase down ideas about moving your body in rhythmic ways which aren’t necessarily dancing. It’s about training your brain and training your body.
eg I think this video is a good tool for thinking about and physically learning about rhythm, swing, delay, etc: http://youtu.be/2vy0dMXhlWI
This one for thinking about rhythm, timing and performance: http://vimeo.com/20853149
Or this one for ideas about rhythm, partnership and athleticism: http://youtu.be/bDOBcBKRENw

It’s an interesting question, because it’s actually asking (I think):

How can we use history (of blues dance and music) in modern teaching practice?

Which is almost exactly the question I ended up asking in that last post (The Rules of Connection: I think about pedagogy, lindy hop and ideology). How do we use history in modern dance teaching? This is something I’ve written heaps about. Heaps and heaps. I’ve gotten angry about the way some dancers and teachers insist on male/female partnerships because ‘that’s how it was in the old days’ (yes, there were male/female partnerships in the old days, but ALSO LOTS OF SAME SEX PARTNERSHIPS). I’ve gotten angry about dancers and teachers insisting that we should wear vintage clothing (shoes, dresses, suits, whatEver) because ‘that’s how it was in the olden days’ and ‘it makes you dance more better’. My standard response, at a higher level is ‘I can dig historical stuff, but I don’t want to recreate all of the history. I like having access to a good doctor, a dentist, clean drinking water, the right to own property and fucking awesome running shoes.

So I reckon we can assume that ‘just recreating’ the past isn’t really what we want to do. Well, it’s not what I want to do. That last post began to explore how I think about using history in teaching actual dance movements: I am unsure and still figuring things out.

As a dancer myself, I use historic photos, stories, footage and music to help me think about how to move my body, and what my body looks like.

  • In Things I want to talk about: #dance I mentioned the way I use historical dance to empower me, as a woman dancer.
  • I’ve started thinking about costume (specifically wearing menswear, as a woman) lately in posts like Totes dandy worthy, right? (helped along by fellow dandy-philes and peeps like lindy shopper who did this sweet post How to be a lady dandy).
  • I talked about learning solo dance as empowering in I vant to be alone.
  • And I found the Women’s History Month posts from 2011 very exciting, because they gave me a chance to focus on women dancers through history, finding excellent role models, but also excellent examples of different types of dancing bodies to learn from.
  • And then I’m really into copying male dancers (like Al Minns or Frankie Manning) as a way of playing with gender as a woman.
  • I’m also 100% into learning historic solo jazz routines, not only to develop my dancing skills, but also to furnish me with a wider, more historically grounded repertoire of moves. And these moves, of course, teach me how to move, and how to think about movement in more sophisticated ways. Mostly because, those olden days dancers? They were fucking hardcore, and everything we do today is pissweak in comparison.

In all these examples, historical footage, photos and stories are really important to how I think about learning to dance, how I think about choreography, how I think about music and how I think about getting DOWN on the dance floor. I can borrow from history (textual poaching, yo!), but I don’t have to seek to recreate it exactly.

So in that response to Chris’s question on FB, I wanted to side-step a discussion of formal teaching processes by referring to LeeEllen Friedland’s discussion of a continuum of cultural practice.

I can’t find a copy of her article online, so I had to look it up in my thesis notes. This is what I wrote about learning to dance in vernacular dance cultures:

In vernacular dance culture, acquiring dance knowledge and learning to dance, developing “new steps” and becoming conversant with dance floor politics is not a formal process conducted in dance studios, but a matter of acquiring life skills particular to a community. Sheenagh Pietrobruno argues that vernacular dance is created in a “lived context”, and is:

not formally learned but…passed on from generation to generation. Most people who grow up with the dance acquire it in childhood, its movements often taught indirectly through the corporeal language of the body, so that those raised with the dance may not have a sense that they have learned it. Dancing usually is done to music: there is no separation between the rhythm of the music and the steps of the dance (1).

Pietrobruno’s discussion of salsa is equally relevant to a discussion of African American vernacular dance, particularly as salsa – as a Cuban-identified dance – has strong cultural links with African American dance, as do many other vernacular dances of the Americas.

Pietrobruno introduces her discussion of teaching and learning salsa in Montreal by emphasising the position of vernacular dance within the everyday, and learning to dance as an everyday activity, rather than a ‘special’ event bracketed off into designated dance spaces. In this way vernacular dance across cultures is bound to live music and other vernacular cultural practice, it is communicated across generations and it is an extension of ‘wider cultural expression’:

The salsa that develops in a lived context involves more than a series of steps and turns: dancers execute movements with their entire bodies. The subtle, but essential elements of the dance, such as how dancers hold their bodies, move their heads, position their hands and isolate various body parts are rooted in motor control and movements that are extensions of wider cultural expression…A child may be formally taught specific footwork and turn patterns of salsa, but picks up body isolations by experiencing the family dance culture, similar to acquiring everyday gestures. Although these subtle separations of parts of the body may seem effortless to the outside viewer, their performance involves a great deal of skill and dexterity. Individuals of Latin descent, who are dispersed throughout the Americas, often learn the dance as an extension of their heritage (1).

Learning to dance in a vernacular dance culture is a process akin to learning to speak. Children acquire ‘vocabulary’ – dance moves – through imitating adults, through play, and everyday activities. The process of gaining discursive proficiency requires constant and everyday experiments with communication. Families, peers, and other groups and individuals in day to day life contribute to a child’s acquisition of dance skills.

Friedland explores the acquisition of dance skills in vernacular dance culture in greater depth in her article “Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance”, where she discusses the role of dance in urban black children’s lives in Philadelphia. Though researched in the 1970s and 80s, Friedland’s work is as applicable to communities of dancers in the 1930s in Harlem as it is to black dance culture in Los Angeles today. Friedland makes several key points in her work. Firstly, and most importantly, she states that dance in African American communities is not segregated from everyday activity. Dance movement itself is part of a “complex of interrelated communicative and expressive systems that constitute a whole world of artistic performance” (138). These systems include body movement, sound (including music), visual forms (including drawing and wall art, costume and hair style), language (including slang, rap and poetry) and ‘attitude’ (including ethics, creativity, aesthetics and social behaviour). Participating in all these systems is central to black children’s lives, Friedland argues, and is, it is implied, equally as important to black adults.

This continuum of creative cultural practice, and the continuity of themes and interpretive and creative practices across media and practices is reflected in the cultural practices of contemporary swing dance communities. Study of contemporary swing dance culture suggests that the older a community, the more varied its inter-community networks, the more diverse its borrowing from other cultures, the more sophisticated its own cultural practices and shared systems of meaning. This point has directed my attention towards DJing, audio-visual media and dance pedagogy in contemporary swing dance culture, as an exploration of the ideological relationships between cultural practices and media use in a particular community. As Friedland suggests, systems of meaning in dance are not discrete. They are constructed intertextually, echoing broader ideological and discursive structures within that community.

It is therefore unsurprising to find vernacular dance, as part of a system of cultural practices connected by ideology and social networks, is not only ‘performed’ on stages, but also in competitions or even on the dance floors of balls or social dances. Friedland makes her second, and perhaps most important point, that dance and dance movement are part of everyday life and movement in vernacular dance, and that dance carries with it social and cultural meanings and relationships. Both Friedland and Pietrobruno therefore argue that ways of dancing are extensions of cultural ways of being. Friedland in particular extends Pietrobruno’s point that dance “movements …are extensions of wider cultural expression” (Pietrobruno 1). The discussion of dance movement as a subclass or an extension of the notion of ‘dancing’ in Friedland’s work encourages us to expand our conception of ‘dance’. Movement – ‘body language’ – is not simply a visual illustration of spoken language. Dance and rhythmic movement are part of a wider system of cultural production and communication as viable discourse and communication in themselves.

Dance and rhythmic movement are therefore as important in the African American culture Friedland describes as spoken and written language is in mainstream Australian culture. She discusses a range of categories of dance movement, from ‘being rhythmic’, to ‘dancing’ and ‘movement play’. These categories are seen as testing grounds for children’s developing ‘dance’ or ‘movement’ repertoire, and concurrently, their social and cultural repertoires. Friedland discusses black children’s ‘learning to dance’ as a process of enculturation, where children are not only taught formal steps from older children and adults, but also encouraged to move in particular ways, and to read the movements of others on particular terms. This approach encourages us to think of dance and movement not as innate or essential abilities, but as learned cultural expressions.

The mythic association of African Americans with ‘natural rhythm’ and expressions like ‘white men can’t jump’ (as discussed in Jade Boyd’s article “Dance, Culture, and Popular Film: Considering Representations in Save the Last Dance”) are reframed by Friedland’s work as racialised, essentialist statements about ethnic identity and culture. Dance discourse and ways of moving are learnt rather than innate. They are culturally determined. With this in mind, we can draw on a range of dance studies literature to make observations about how dance movement and dance culture cross-culturally function as discourse.

So, with all that in mind, I figure that to really understand blues and lindy hop and all those historical dances, you really have to think about everyday cultural context. As a white, middle class woman living in Sydney in the 21st century, I’m never going to be able to truly recreate those original cultural conditions. And it’s a bit silly to try, as I don’t want to, not even if it meant becoming a brilliant dancer. But it does mean that I’m very interested in childrens’ games and videos like Stop Clap Go:

I’m also interested in adaptations of children’s games like doubledutch in a postcolonial/multicultural/disapora context:


And I think we can learn useful things about rhythm from everyday movements and activities:


Friedland, LeeEllen. “Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance.” Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance. Ed. Brenda Farnell. London: Scarecrow Press, 1995. 136 – 57.

Pietrobruno, Sheenagh. “Embodying Canadian Multiculturalism: The Case of Salsa Dancing in Montreal.” Revista mexicana de estudios canadienses, Vol. verano, No. 3, Jan. 2002, pp. 23-56.

low level crankiness

(A 1940 photo by Lucien Aigner from the corbis collection)

You know, photos of women dancing together are so common, I’m certain women dancing with women was far more common in the 30s and 40s (and 20s too I’d guess) than it is today. Y U SO BORING MODERN DANCERS?!

I bless the popularity of solo jazz dance, as it finally brings women back together on the dance floor. That whole period of _just_ man/woman lindy hop in swing communities only was just some weird aberration. Good riddance.