White people, particularly white people of influence (like dance teachers) need to get their learn on. Rather than placing the burden of policing racism on the backs of people of colour, white people need to listen to people of colour, and start policing their own behaviours.
Just as men need to be responsible for policing their own sexist behaviour, rather than waiting for women to do all the labour of speaking up.
We can be certain that the preponderance of white faces in lindy hop today is a result of the white mainstream’s appropriation of black culture. Being able to steal-and-sell a cultural practice is a mark of power and privilege. The repackaging and ‘toning down’ of the black racial markers of lindy hop (and other dances) is part of this process of appropriation. Insisting on using counts, focussing on biomechanics rather than music, enforcing white middle class gender roles, and so on are all markers of white appropriation of black dances. These dances are made palatable (and marketable) for white middle class audiences through this ‘whitening’ of black dance.
If we _don’t_ address this matter in our classes, and in our own thinking, we are perpetuating it. We are doing racist stuff. We are shoring up racism.
Breai Mason-Campbell has asked people “What are you doing to decolonise lindy hop?” Because that’s how we address racism in this dance. We, white people, do something about it.
Nathan Sentance’s piece Diversity means Disruption (November 28, 2018) is important. It addresses the experiences of people of colour (specifically first nations people) within arts and information institutions – libraries, museums, galleries. My own background is in universities and libraries, with my information management postgrad work focussing on the management of first nations’ collections and access to collections.
In this piece Sentance makes it clear that diversity in itself is not useful. Just having people of colour on the team does not provoke institutional change. Representation is not enough; we need structural, institutional change to disrupt the flow of power and privilege.
In this post I’ve taken some lines from Sentance’s article (in green italics), and I’ve responded to them with specific reference to the lindy hop and swing dance world.
Why a diverse teaching line up will change the culture of lindy hop. And a lot of white people will find that uncomfortable.
Having black women teach at your event is radical.
Why hire First Nations people into your mostly white structure and expect/want/demand everything to remain basically the same?
Why hire people of colour to teach at your dance event within your mostly white structure and expect/want/demand everything to remain basically the same?
Why don’t libraries, archives and museums challenge whiteness more?
Why don’t dance events and dance classes challenge white, middle class modes of learning and learning spaces more?
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
As a result of the invisibility of whiteness within lindy hop, diversity initiatives are often about just hiring black teachers at big events, without critically examining the way the classes and performances at these events construct a white ‘norm’ that reinforces the mainstream.
Kyra describes this “When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we necessarily position marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination”
White lindy hoppers ask ‘why aren’t there any black dancers in my local lindy hop scene?
I have seen a high turnover of staff from marginalized communities, especially First Nations people, as well as general feelings of disenfranchisement.
Black dancers get tired of being the only person of colour, asked to ‘give [themselves, their time, their energy] a talk about black dance and black culture’ to white audiences, to give, to work, to be visible, to represent blackness. Tokenism is tiring. Tiring.
1.Don’t let white fragility get in the way of change.
….[white people] need to understand that [their] discomfort is temporary, oppression is not and as organisations we need to create more accountability.
It is difficult to be told you are racist, when you are pretty sure you aren’t. It’s difficult to be criticised, as a dancer, as a person, by someone you feel you are including as a charitable act of ‘diversity’.
Ruby Hamad wrote about this and how the legitimate grievances of brown and black women were instead flipped into narratives of white women getting attacked which helped white people avoid accountability and also makes people of color seem unreasonable and aggressive.
If you feel attacked, perhaps it is only that you are being disagreed with?
3. Support us.
…Being First Nations person in a majority white organisation means a lot is asked of you that is not in your role description. This needs to be acknowledged.
Being a black teacher at a majority white events means a lot is asked of you that is not in your role description. This needs to be acknowledged.
Your extensive planning and carefully structured workshop weekend might seem very good and progressive to you. But it might be alienating, discomforting, and marginalising for people of colour. You might feel your black guests are ‘helping white people learn’, but they may feel set up as a ‘great black hope’ on an inaccessible stage. When what they might prefer is to spend time with other dancers as a new friend, as a peer, and to teach using other models.
If all you’ve changed in your program is the colour of the skin of the people presenting, then you haven’t changed anywhere near enough.
Additionally, support should include providing First Nations only spaces when necessary as well as supporting staff with time and resources to connect with other First Nations staff in other organisations and to connect with different community members as part of our professional development.
Support should include providing black teachers and performers with black only spaces. …and the time and resources to connect with other black teachers and performers.
Hire more than one black person at a time.
Give black women time with other black women; ‘black girl talk’ is important.
Hire black dancers from different styles, black singers and musicians, black artists and writers, and give them time to talk and make friends.
4. Remember it ain’t 9-5 for us
Dance teachers at events are ‘on’ all the time they are in front of other people. Black dancers are black all the time. Their experiences of race shape their whole lives.
Black dancers often consider themselves part of a bigger black community, to whom they owe loyalty and responsibilities. They don’t owe you a complete and full history of everything black about lindy hop. Some things are private, and some things should remain secret. They don’t owe you all their time and energy to ‘help white people learn’. They have and need time in their own communities and families.
A useful analogy:
The Savoy ballroom was an integrated space. That means that white people had access to black spaces*.
Some spaces need to remain black spaces, where white people cannot go.
Some dance history and dance knowledge needs to remain black culture; white people aren’t owed all of black dance.
This is what it means to decolonise black dance: to take back physical and cultural space. To say “No” to white bodies and voices. And for white people to accept that.
Nevertheless we cannot have change or meaningful diversity without disruption.
Having a black teacher at your event will not change the status quo.
You will need to change the way you structure your event. The way you speak. The pictures you show. The language you use.
Having a nursing mother teach at your event will not change the status quo.
You will need to change the way you structure your event. The clothes they wear. The way you speak. The start and finish times of your classes. Their bed times.
Representation is not just about black bodies or female bodies being present. It is about disrupting the status quo – making structural change – to accommodate change.
To have more women teach at big events, to have black women teach at events mean something, you will need to change the way you run events. You cannot simply slot a black or female body into a space a built for a white man and expect to change your culture. You will need to change that space completely.
A lot of your usual (white) students and attendees will feel uncomfortable with a space that privileges black culture and black people. This won’t make these students and attendees happy. They may not have a ‘nice’ time. They may find classes challenging or upsetting. They may not like the way black teachers talk to them, or that they don’t have 24/7 access to black teachers’ time and energy. They may be angry that their previous knowledge and skills weren’t valued as highly as other (black cultural) skills and knowledge are at this event.
This will be difficult for many white organisers to deal with, both in the moment, and in feedback after the event.
Are you prepared to deal with that?
Then it is time you started taking classes with teachers who ask you to learn in new ways. It is time for you to humble yourself. To do things that are difficult and confronting. To be ok with feeling uncomfortable. Practice. Because you need to be ok with this. You are going to have to give up ownership of some of your most valued possessions.
Lindy hop wasn’t dead, white people. It wasn’t dead and waiting for you to revive it. It was alive, it was in the bodies and music and dance of a nation of black people. Modern lindy hop culture is marked by white culture and race, by class and power.
This is why black lindy hop matters.
*Marie N’diaye, LaTasha Barnes, and I were in conversation one night at a bar. Marie made this point. It made a profound impact on me, to have a black woman say this to me, at a white-dominated event that purported to be all about African American vernacular dance. “The Savoy ballroom was an integrated space. That means that white people had access to black spaces.”
It made me realise: I do not deserve or am owed access to all black dance spaces and culture. I do not have a right to learn all the black dances, to acquire all the black cultural knowledge. It is not mine. And it is important for me to remember that a desegregated Savoy in the 1930s gave white people an even greater degree of access to and ownership of black culture and black bodies in motion. A key part of decolonising lindy hop, is for me – a white woman – sit down, and accept that I don’t get everything I want. And in that particular moment, I needed to know when to get up and leave the conversation.
Because black girl talk is important. Black vernacular is important. And I shouldn’t assume I have an automatic right to participate in it, even if it’s happening in desegregated places.
Closed spaces for marginalized identities are essential, especially ones for multiply marginalized identities, as we know from intersectionality (not to be confused with the idea that all oppression is interconnected, as many white women who have appropriated the term as self-proclaimed “intersectional feminists” seem to understand it). Any group, whether organized around a shared marginalized identity or not, will by-default be centered around the most powerful within that group. For example, cisgender white women will dominate women’s groups that aren’t run by or consciously centering trans women and women of color. A requirement for all groups to be fully open and inclusive invites the derailment and silencing of marginalized voices already pervasive in public spaces, preventing alternative spaces of relative safety from that to form. Hegemony trickles down through layers of identity, but liberation surges upwards from those who experience the most compounded layers of oppression.
On the face of it, nothing. There is nothing wrong with teaching a class where students experiment with ‘gendered’ movements. In fact, a class like that is very powerful and empowering, because it teaches us how gendered movement is constructed and learnt through the way we hold our bodies, the speed of our movements, how we occupy space, the way we hold our head, our gaze and eye line, etc etc etc.
I’ve seen a number of classes where this has been done very cleverly, and very well. Once Marie N’diaye was teaching a chorus line class at Herräng, where students were taken through the ways in which chorus lines in the 30s were gendered: how to emphasise your hips v your shoulders, how to turn your head, present a particular profile, focus on shapes or sizes of movements. I’ve also seen ‘girls’ hip hop’ classes taught by a man at a local street dance studio, where the students were taken through very femme movements and choreography employed by women dancers in music videos.
All of these classes make it clear (implicitly) that gender is something you can perform. That you can put on gender and take it off again, like a suit of clothes. And this idea of ‘performing gender’ is borrowed from Judith Butler’s book ‘Gender Trouble’. This is very important. Let me make it clearer: Butler (and other feminists and transpolitics writers) lay out very good cases for the idea that gender is something we _do_, not something we _are_. We learn to behave in ways which align with a particular gender role. This gender role is constructed by the culture in which we live. And the gender we choose is often chosen for us, by our families, our schools, our communities.
Right here and now, we can borrow from black feminists, who point out that there is no single way of being ‘female’ or ‘male’, and that these gender identities are culturally specific. So authors like bell hooks in We Real Cool point out how the dominant masculinity in modern American culture is _white_. It’s informed by race as well as gender. And then authors like Thomas Defrantz in Dancing Many Drums go further, pointing out how black masculinity isn’t just regulated by white ideas of what it is to be a man, but by heterocentric ideas of what a man should be.
In sum, gender is made.
Gender is not just about skin colour or the food you eat. It’s about class, it’s about sexuality, it’s about age, it’s about who we are and how we live every day.
And there are ‘dominant’ ideas of gender in different cultures. By dominant, I mean ‘most preferred’, or ‘seen most often’ or most favoured’. In some cultures there are more than two acceptable gender identities. But within western capitalist heterosexuality, there are only two. In this limited world, there is a dominant, hegemonic masculinity. This idea of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is culturally specific. I like this term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ because it asks us to talk about class – capitalism – as well.
An ‘ideal masculine’ varies between cultures. If we’re talking about lindy hop, then, we need to allow for the fact that lindy hop today is a cross-cultural, international activity and community. There are different types of masculinity. Many cultures go another step further, and order different gender identities (or ways of being masculine or feminine) in hierarchies. Or, some ways of being a man or being a woman are considered ‘better’ than others.
So what is the ‘hegemonic masculinity’ at work in today’s lindy hop? The answer is going to be different, depending on which country and which city and which local community you’re considering. Let me start with Australia, because that is where I live. And let me start with white, mainstream culture. Here, hegemonic masculinity is:
white (anglo-celtic, coloniser)
Where did I get this list?
Well, if we have a look at a few things in my culture, we can find answers very quickly:
The nation’s political leaders (prime minister, cabinet ministers, etc);
The people with the most money (millionaires, industrialists, business owners);
Religious leaders in the most popular religions (bishops, ministers);
The most commonly-seen and employed actors and entertainment figures.
All of these people are male. And until very very recently, openly heterosexual (often ‘proved’ by having a wife and children), white, able-bodied. Rich. Coloniser.
You can do the same sort of exercise with the dance world. What are the most powerful roles in the modern lindy hop world? How many of these roles are filled by men, or filled by women? And what types of men and women fill these roles? How does your local scene compare with what you see in the videos and websites for huge international American, European, or Asian events? How does your national scene compare with these?
But what about women?
Hegemonic masculinity cannot exist without a dominant model for ‘femininity’. This ‘ideal woman’ is:
white (anglo-celtic, coloniser)
But she is dependent on a male partner, as she is also
physically weak or vulnerable
economically weak or dependant
Her heterosexuality is proven by her ability to have children, and her physical appearance (her sexual appeal). This ‘appeal’ is again contextually dependent. In Australia, she is slim, long-legged, pale-skinned, long (straight) haired, has small feet and hands, clear skin, ample bosom (but not too ample), hips (but not too broad)… and so on.
In fact, her body is an impossible ideal. Women are trained to pursue this impossible ideal at the expense of all else. They are trained to spend more time on how their body looks, than on how it works. To spend more time thinking about what they look like, than on what they can do. They spend time in the gym working on their body’s appearance, rather than their body’s functionality.
From here this ideal femininity and masculinity can also be defined by how they behave, or how they act. Men are active, physically tough, powerful, defensive and offensive agents. They take up physical and aural space in public. Women are passive, acted upon, vulnerable, hurt, weak. They make themselves small and speak softly so they don’t take up space. These two models are used to justify the relationship between the ideal male and ideal female: the female requires a strong man to protect her. The strong man requires the vulnerable female to give him children (and incidentally prove he’s not gay :D ) and keep his home. The active, fierce man is complemented by the passive, emotional, gentle woman.
And so on.
All of the things I am writing here are old news to anyone who’s done any feminist reading. I myself have two theses and a bunch of articles drawing on extensive field work and textual analysis to prove these ideas. In fact, my doctoral thesis looked at how this stuff plays out in the lindy hop world.
Let’s go all the way back to that first question:
What is the problem with teaching ‘traditional’ gender roles in lindy hop?
Nothing. While some feminists would disagree with me, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being vulnerable or small or pale or delicate. Or strong and bold and heterosexual. But I do think there’s a very big problem with a) these models being presented as the only ways of being a man or woman, b) with ‘man’ and ‘woman’ being the only options, and c) with these dichotomies (either-or options) being the most preferred models.
In lindy hop today, we see traditional white, heterosexual gender roles rewarded and valorised across cultures.
Take a look at the winning ‘couples’ at ILHC, the Savoy Cup, or any of the other big competition events. Who wears the dresses? How does each partner move independently, and in reference to their partner? What is their ethnicity? What angles and lines do their bodies make?
The competition finalists and winners are almost exclusively white, heterosexual-presenting, and adhere to these very conventional gender roles. We can make occasional exceptions, we might even see one same-sex couple. There may be a few women wearing trousers. But taken as a whole the repeating, and therefore dominant elements do nothing to reconstruct or challenge the gender norms. We never see women leads in winning couples. We never see men as winning follows. In fact, we rarely see a deviation from this gender binary: man/woman. How dull. How dangerous.
What’s the problem with this?
If these winners align with the dominant values of their community, is there anything particularly wrong with this?
This is where things get really interesting.
What exactly is the problem with these two gender roles?
These two roles encourage particular types of behaviour. That’s a very general comment, so let’s get specific. I’m going to take an issue that’s very important: safety.
How do these roles contribute to sexual assault and harassment in the modern lindy hop world?
I’m going to assume that you agree with me that sa and sh are bad things. Remember, this isn’t a universal belief. There are plenty of people who don’t believe that sh and sa are actual real things. I believe that they are. I believe that they are bad, not only for the people involved, but also for the community as a whole.
sa and sh physically hurt people, but they also discourage women from entering high profile or well paid roles (DJing, teaching, MCing, organising). This means that sh and sa limit the way our communities grow and do things. It makes us ordinary.
Let’s take that dominant feminine identity and apply her to lindy hop.
The follow role is associated with the feminine
We only have women or femme folk teach as follows at big events, we see workshops in ‘feminine styling for follows’ (but rarely other gendered options).
Follows are ‘quieter’
She doesn’t initiate moves or outshine the lead. She doesn’t interrupt or speak louder than the lead in class.
Follows are objects that things happen to
She doesn’t turn or spin; she is spun. She doesn’t decide where to move; she is moved. She doesn’t choose moves; the moves are chosen for her. She isn’t an equal partner; she makes the lead’s moves ‘work’.
Follows ‘look beautiful’ – they have long legs, small hands and feet, a slim build (with bosom, but not too much), they have pale skin, they have long straight hair
She wears clothes that exaggerate these elements – dresses and skirts, form fitting trousers, high heels (to make her legs seem longer and her feet smaller), make up. She dances in ways that exaggerate these elements – she points her toes and straightens her legs and arms, she extends her neck and drops her shoulders, she opens her arms with the palms up and open.
SHE IS WHITE. SHE HAS STRAIGHT HAIR. SHE HAS PALE SKIN. SHE HAS A SMALL ARSE AND THIN THIGHS. SHE HAS SMALL MUSCLES, NOT BIG, STRONG MUSCULATURE.
Follows are helpful, polite, and unaggressive
She does as she’s led, she doesn’t abort moves. She spins as many times as the lead wants. She turns in the direction the lead wants. She doesn’t interrupt the lead’s moves, or distract from him. She is passive and helpful. She does not solo dance alone. She looks at the lead all the time. She does not say no to dances. She does not stop dances mid-way. She doesn’t tell men to stop hurting or touching her. She will compromise her rhythm or timing for the sake of the lead’s rhythm or timing.
Follows are vulnerable; things happen to them, which they need to be protected from
She is vulnerable to kicks and accidents on the dance floor, and has to be protected by her lead. She is vulnerable to sh on the dance floor, so she needs a man to protect her. She doesn’t say no to dances. She must be walked to her car.
The follow is dependent on a (male) lead
She doesn’t say no to a dance; she cannot solo dance (she’s too afraid, she doesn’t know what to do). She cannot dance with a woman; only men can/are lead properly. Dancing with a woman would make people think she was a lesbian. She gains her worth from her heterosexual relationship with a man. She doesn’t tell a harasser to STOP; she reports him to a (male) organiser.
And so on and so on.
But remember: you cannot have this ideal femininity without an ideal masculine, and vice versa. Because in this story, the ideal fem or masc is heterosexual. Without a man, a woman is a lesbian (or a failure). Without a woman, a man is gay (or a failure).
We can do the same exercise with men and this ideal masculinity.
Can you do that? I’m a bit tired of typing, so I’ll leave you to make a little list. Write it down. What are the ways ‘leading’ is gendered hegemonic ‘masculine’?
These are all things that happen on the dance floor. But the modern lindy hop culture encourages us to see dance floor behaviour as the ideal model for off-floor behaviour. The most influential and powerful people at events are teachers and competition winners – people valued for their dance skills.
What happens when we extend this idea that a woman never says no to an invitation to dance? She is, in effect, told that she cannot say no to a man wanting to touch her. That she should smile and facilitate all the things that he wants to do to her body.
I wish that I could dismiss this as an exaggeration. But if we keep in mind the whole rest of the culture in which lindy hop is embedded, then we see that it’s not only unlikely, it’s also very difficult for a woman to say ‘NO’ to a man’s desire to touch her body. On and off the dance floor.
Here, look: this is how a dominant gender model informs lindy hop culture, and how this gendered dancing enables sexual assault and harassment.
Let’s go back a step.
Because I can’t stop there. I can’t stop at this feminist analysis. I need to do some feminist activism as well. I need to do and say something that will make it possible for me to go to lindy hop events. Make it possible for me to dance.
What are the problems?
1. We are using only white, middle class, mainstream Australian culture as a source for gender identities.
2. We haven’t considered this dance in historical context. What was happening in terms of gender in the 1920s and 30s?
3. We haven’t considered this dance in historical cultural context. What was happening in terms of black gender in the 1920s and 30s?
4. We haven’t considered this dance in contemporary cultural context. What is happening in terms of black/Asian/poc gender in Australia today? What is happening in terms of black gender in America today?
There are ways we can rethink gender in lindy hop: by actually watching and listening to black dancers.
In other words: thinking intersectionally about lindy hop (decolonising lindy hop; taking it out of white hands) will help us prevent sexual assault and harassment. I’m saying it clearly: there’s a problem with white, middle class, mainstream masculinity and femininity. And it has done bad things to lindy hop. Bad things to black lindy hoppers as well as white.
So, as a white women, I need to get my learn on.
For me, the first thing I have to do is sit down and listen. Stop talking. I need to watch and see what black dancers are already doing. I don’t ask them to come and give a lecture or wait at my beck and call in a dance class. I look at their work now.
Let’s look at those examples I listed above, where we had men dancing the ‘femme’ role. Let’s look at vogueing. Here, at first glance, we have ‘men’ performing that dominant femininity. But that sentence doesn’t go anywhere near explaining all the things that are happening. For a start, the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and ‘female’ and ‘masculinity’ seem awfully limited.
Who are these people dancing? Would they describe themselves as men? As women? As trans? As nonbinary (enby – N.B.)? As soon as we ask these questions, and we ask these people these questions, we get a sudden explosion of gender and identity. I like to imagine that a black and white binary drawing (man/woman, male/female, strong/weak, good/bad) just opens up in a massive rainbow spectrum of colour and identity. Strength, weakness, power, vulnerability, creativity, gentleness, violence, beauty, ugliness.
Right here, we see a whole range of ways to do femininity or masculinity. Lots of different ways to be a man or a woman. Or to be a person that doesn’t want to fit into this binary.
Queer studies gives us lots of ways of to think about gender and human relations.
Let’s go back again. Remember where I mentioned Tommy Defrantz? Where I talked about the kneebone bent?
Defrantz is a queer black dancer, whose book looks at black dance history in America and asks ‘where is the queer black masculinity here?’ He himself offers us a very different way of moving his body:
Dood is extremely gay. He is so gay. He is the gayest. And he’s out. And he’s black. And he’s political. He’s also a dancer. A street dancer. A concert dancer. An academic. A thinker. An activist. He is all these things at once, AND he’s a man. This is a different way of embodying masculinity. Look at him while speaks the language of tertiary academia, the academy, territory of white masculine power.
But listen to his higher pitched voice. Look at the way he holds his hands close to his body, taking up less space. The way he shifts from foot to foot, implying uncertainty or a lack-of-obstinant-determination. Then watch all that change as he STAMPS into the ground with the buck dances. The way he embodies this role of the ‘buck‘: aggressive, fierce, determined, sexualised, large. And then he shifts again, demonstrating the wing dances, which he morphs until THERE! we see vogueing, and the ballrooms of 1980s queer black Harlem.
In this single two minute clip Defrantz takes us through a hundred years of black dance and black masculinity. He shows us how rhythm can be style. He shows us how rhythm can be black masculinity. And because he can then take it off again, he shows us – all of us, whatever our gender – that this masculinity can be put on and taken off at will! Imagine a black woman putting on that identity for a moment. Buck dancing!
But what if we actually look at a black woman dancing lindy hop. First ‘vanilla’, then ‘with sauce’. Here, Cookie (Angela Andrew) shows us how to dance as a follow, as a woman, as a black woman. Her skin is black. Her hair is up in a turban. She wears loose trousers and shirt. She addresses the camera. She is with her partner, but she is also taking creative space, saying I AM HERE with her clarity of rhythm. HERE I take a triple step and make it a stomp off. HERE I pause, I stop moving, I hold the time in my body and groove it on down. And HERE I suggest a rhythm to my partner, and because he listens to me, because he is open to my contributions, he takes it up and he joins me. We are together in this moment as equals.
And what is the next step?
I actively choose not to hire teachers who run workshops which prioritise gender norms, or who exploit those gender norms. That means that I don’t hire teachers who’ve been reported for sexual assault or harassment. I don’t hire their friends who’ve stood by them and not called them up on their behaviour.
I do not hire teachers who’ve done publicly racist or antisemitic things. Nor do I hire their friends who’ve stood by them and not called them out on their behaviour.
I hire dancers of colour. I pay them good cashmoney for their work. I choose to hire teachers who are either actively engaging with gender, in a critical way, or I choose to hire teachers who are implicitly engaging with gender in an active way. Simply through being and dancing gender in different ways. This means that I can hire white teachers who talk the talk and attempt to walk the walk, and I can can hire dancers of colour who are teaching me about being gender simply by dancing-while-black.
More importantly, I can take their classes. Yes, that means you, dancer who thinks they’re too good to take classes any more. Be humble. Show you are willing to learn from this person of colour. Say, with your open face and willingness ‘I value what you have to teach.’ Be present in that class, be mindful. Learn. Assume that you don’t know how this works. Learn. Be open. Learn.
I think this is important: it’s not ok for me to ask teachers or dancers to articulate exactly what they are doing that makes them ‘black’. It is my job to learn to see how ethnicity informs who we are and how we move. It is my job, as a white woman, to stop seeing ‘whiteness’ as a default ‘norm’. It is my job to take my assumptions about what ‘good lindy hop’ is, and to see how my own privilege as a white women has shaped this set of values. All of this jargon – frame, connection, musicality, tone, leading, following – all of it is language circulated and controlled by white teachers, and commodified in formal dance classes. It is, truly, the colonisation of black dance.
It is my job to learn how to learn in new ways. To learn how to be in a class with a teacher and see how their movements, their ways of holding their bodies, of taking, of looking at students and each other, of being inform their dancing. Whether they are black or white, hispanic or asian. If dance is culture, then I need to do more than just ‘have a class with a black teacher’. I need to learn how my entire understanding of dance and classes is informed by my own ethnicity.
Here is a list of people you may choose to hire, who are not skinny white heterosexual women and men. Some of them are lindy hoppers, some tap dancers, some do dances traditional to their peeps, some are musicians. I haven’t even really gotten into Asia with this list, and it is totally not exhaustive.
And please note: being the old black/queer/asian in the village can be tiring and intimidating. Why not hire two! Or three! Or ALL of them!
Watching this post, here. As per usual, I’m not a musician, so my facts are not facts but made upness.
So if we think of this as a class exercise, and plan it accordingly.
At 2.34 all the sax do a synchronised bit.
3.10 sax 1 does a solo for a phrase (4×8), and then the other 3 have a go each for a phrase.
And then they continue, each round taking less time for each solo (from 1 phrase to 2 x 8 to 1 x 8).
With finally everyone together again.
[ in class, we have students in groups of 4 take the role of each musician, taking turns to solo for decreasing lengths of time ]
As you watch, you can see:
[ in class, these are skills we are working on, but don’t need to point out explicitly to students. ie talk less, dance more – let them learn by doing]
How the excitement builds through the structure (all together, then improvised, with less time for each, until TOGETHER: so together – solo – together is a structure that builds excitement and interest. It tells a story.
How the solos within the phrase don’t have to stick to 8 or bar-long chunks. So the first sax in particular in his first solo plays across bars (8s), creating a phrase-long piece of rhythm/notes.
-> I see this as one of the biggest weaknesses in modern lindy hop – people dance in sets of 8, rather than dancing through 8s, in one continuous block of rhythm
How everyone can find the bar, the 8, the phrase (they’re all keeping time without counting numbers)
Everyone comes in when they’re ready, and out when they’re done without being told (they keep their own time). So they are all paying attention and listening to each other.
Individual musicians pick up an element of the solo before them, so it becomes a conversation, but the whole section holds together as a piece of music, not just as a lump of sound.
-> this teaches students to listen to each other, to recognise the rhythms in each other’s dancing, and then to incorporate them into their own dancing.
Again, this is a common tap exercise.
Over all, students learn these basic skills:
keeping their own time
swinging the time
hearing and keeping bigger structures like phrases and bars
hearing and keeping a sense of a bigger, song-length structures – dynamics (loudness), energy, excitement, mood, etc
making up stuff on the spot (improvising)
they learn, in practice, that it’s easier to use simpler shapes and rhythms in this setting
how to engage with other dancers while they’re improvising (they always end up being really connected to each other, emotionally, supporting each other, when they do these games) -> ie lindy hop connection
they learn to watch and use their eyes to learn a rhythm or recognise a pattern
dealing with nerves or worry, by just going along with it and giving it a go with a group of supportive friends
they learn that making mistakes is less important than picking up the pieces and continuing on
All this stuff makes for great solo jazz, but it also makes for great lindy hop.
And as you can see, it’s not a matter of leads doing X and follows doing Y. It’s about learning about musical structure in a practical way (not as theory), and about learning to try and give things a go with your body.
I’ve just watched this video that Alice hooked up on fb. In this vid the musicians demonstrate how collective improvisation works in nola jazz.
Now, this is just one type of improvisation, in one type of jazz. But it’s a good example of how I think about lindy hop.
Both partners are equal participants in the band, but they have different roles. They share the same sense of time, the same beat. There’s a melody (because they are dancing a ‘standard’), and there’s a shared key, and they’ll be working in 4/4 time. The band leader sets the tempo.
they can do a lot of improvised stuff within that framework.
It’s a fun game to play ‘who’s the lead, who’s the follow?’ in this song. I like to think of the clarinet as the follower and the trumpeter as the leader. The leader is carrying the melody and setting the tone. The clarinet is improvising all around that.
And as the man in the video says: we are respecting the structure of phrases, of choruses, and of the build and flow of the song as a whole. So sometimes we might improvise like crazy arpeggios, and sometimes we are more subtle and find the harmony in single notes.
Anyhoo, this is how I think about jazz and how I think about lindy hop. So this is how I start all our beginners. Find the beat, keep time, learn the ‘time step’ (to borrow from tap – the basic step we use throughout this dance), then improvise. It’s ok for both people to improvise at once, it’s ok to take turns improvising it’s ok to just do it vanilla. Then of course, the way we improvise can vary, depending on the music and how we feel individually and as a team.
A student, who is also a musician, just sent me a message. They’re from a rootsy/folk sort of background, and play a lot of gypsy jazz. They’re just discovering other types of swinging jazz.
The message said:
“Surely there is nothing better to lindy hop to than Oscar Peterson. Surely.”
We had a conversation, and at first I was a bit ‘mmm, not necessarily,’ and it spread into stuff about how groovy stuff with a deep pocket was cool in the 2000s, but isn’t necessarily awesome for all sorts of lindy hop. Then I said something like ‘but that Ella and Louis album features Peterson, and it’s wonderful. Oh, and then there’s this. And this. And this.’
And I have to concede: Oscar Peterson is wonderful.
This sort of jazz has a different groove to a big Webb band in full swing, or Goodman’s small groups, or Slim and Slam.
And it made me think: I don’t want my students to always ‘bounce’ or ‘pulse’ in the same way to every single song. _I_ don’t want to groove in the same way to every song.
Anyhoo, I was listening to a bunch of different types of jazz just now, figuring out how different grooves work in the music and in my body.
Then I watched this video, and noticed how each musician has a different groove in their body, but a shared sense of time, and they’re all listening to each other. And once again, I’m thinking ‘music first: musicians can teach us a lot about dancing.’
There’s a discussion going on on facebook where people are really being WRONG.
Good thing I’m here to set them straight.
This discussion is, in the broadest terms, about how teachers can help their follow students contribute more to the partnership.
Of course, we all know that this question is predicated on a false paradigm. We all know that lindy hop is not about leaders laying out a series of moves and follows completing them perfectly. And we all know that a follow’s creativity is not based on (her) ability to slot jazz steps into the spaces between moves or into the moves themselves.
We know this, don’t we?
I have gendered this deliberately, because this is an old partner dance paradigm based on white, middle class gender and social conventions, and having very little to do with vernacular dance.
The original poster had three questions, and I answered them. The questions were expanding on a class exercise where the leads had been tasked with ensuring their partner had the best dance ever (engaging with them, etc etc), and the follows with bringing creative work and play to the dance. It apparently blew their students minds, and everyone had a really great time, including teachers.
Here I respond to the questions the OP asked at the end of their post:
1) Why were the followers so baffled at first when we gave them this assignment?
Patriarchy. Women are trained to put others’ needs before their own. That includes helping leads look good by being perfect follows.
2) Why were the leads so confident at first that they were already doing it?
Patriarchy. Men aren’t trained to put others’ needs first.
3) And how can we add in these little “life lessons” (as one of our students called it) throughout all of our classes in every level?
I have three teaching rules: Take care of the music, take care of your partner, take care of yourself. That last one is as important as all the others, especially for follows. I might extend that to include:
– follows are responsible for carrying the rhythm too;
– follows, don’t compromise your own rhythm and timing for the lead;
– connection isn’t just about follows being able to ‘hear’ a lead’s leading. It’s about leads hearing and feeling the follow,
or, as with an older woman this week in a private,
– if you have a sore knee, don’t ever push through. Stop, take a break. Ask for a pause. Give yourself credit for knowing what you need.
I think that the problem here isn’t ‘how do we get followers to do X and leads to Y (within our existing dance paradigm’, but rather ‘what the fuck are you doing? This isn’t lindy hop. You need to get back to class and relearn how this thing works.’ Of course, I’ll not be posting that on fb in a civil discussion, no matter how much I might like to.
Anyways, the thread continued, with each post more baffling and frustrating than the last.
Then there came this post:
There are many ways to approach this, but I think it’s very difficult to be expressive when you don’t have a jazz step vocabulary that’s in your muscle memory. I like teaching specific ways to play with specific basic steps. Practice that particular variation whenever that step is lead (leaders can do the same thing to work on their own style, but hopefully not at the same time) Over time, that variation will feel natural and eventually your body will simply respond to the music and/or energy of the lead to plug in whatever move in your vocabulary feels right. And you’ll also be able to utilize that vocabulary in other situation besides the ones you specifically practiced. I think that’s the best way to start. With more advanced students, you can give exercises that require the follower to get creative with certain patterns.
There is so much wrong here.
I just … I cannot. I can’t even. Why. How. What even is this? It’s not lindy hop.
But of course, I replied:
I don’t think follows ‘having a voice’ = follows slotting jazz steps into the shapes a leader proscribes.
I vigorously reject this paradigm. Lindy hop is far more complex and interesting and also far simpler and more enjoyable.
But that person doubled down with:
….You need a vocabulary before you can be creative….
And then I responded:
I totally disagree, and i think that lindy predicates innovation and making shit up. And total noobs are brilliant at being creative without a body of jazz vocab. And i’d much prefer they let the music and their partnership move them, than they just pulled out rote moves.
This poster responded, tripling down, so I bowed out.
But I want to make this point:
If we insist that students (women, follows) cannot improvise or be creative without having first consumed and perfected a body of vocabulary, we are setting up troubling power dynamics. We are saying: you can only get this vocab from me, the teacher. This sets us up as a powerful authority.
If we insist that the only way of being creative in lindy hop is via set vocab, we are also saying ‘your individuality and the steps and shapes you invent are not important to lindy hop. are not lindy hop.’ So while we are establishing our own power and status as teachers, we are also deconstructing students’ own power and confidence. And devaluing their skills and creativity.
It’s also flying in the face of black vernacular dance history and culture. ie it’s wrong. It’s not lindy hop.
In contrast, I believe that humans come to lindy hop classes with a vast body of skills, experience, and qualities that make for brilliant lindy hop.
They know how to interact with other humans. Even if they aren’t much good at it, almost every person in a dance class can figure out how to work with a partner. Particularly if you explain or demonstrate how to do it. So rather than my setting up a weirdo language-based technical jargon filled example of partnership, I might say ‘please hold this person in your arms the way you would a dear friend’. Or I might say ‘you dance one 8, then they dance one 8, and I want you to imagine your are demonstrating it so that they can memorise it.’
They will then use their eyes to make contact, they will orient their bodies towards their partner, they will stand close enough to see and hear each other. They will apologise if they kick their partner or anyone else. They will negotiate who will go first and who will do what role.
Additionally, humans are phenomenal pattern matchers. I’m astounded by how good first time dancers are at identifying patterns, then memorising and recreating them. And they get very good very quickly at doing this with increasingly complex patterns. And rhythms, of course, are just patterns. They learn very quickly how to use their senses – their eyes, ears, bodies – and their brains to identify, learn, and echo back rhythms and patterns.
This is of course brilliant for learning a partner dance. They can learn a basic rhythm from a teacher demonstration in 3 minutes. They can learn how to dance with another human in 5 minutes. And then they can map it onto a partnership with another human they’ve just met, negotiating social discomfort to create a shared rhythm and pattern. That is AMAZING. And 90% of the time the teachers (you) only need to step in once or twice to set them in the direction you’d like to see (eg consensual, cooperative, etc).
And then, humans are also incredibly good at translating this pattern matching business into finding and keeping the beat in a song. They maintaining that beat as they do other tasks. While touching someone else. And learning other, more complex rhythms across various spatial planes.
Humans are fucking mind blowing.
So if you set up the exercise/task correctly, either partner in a lindy hop couple is more than capable of being creative within the partnership right from their very first class. They don’t need to learn X number of core jazz steps. In fact, if you’re not careful, they will invent their own. _Especially_ if you tell them a little story about how jazz steps were often invented from day to day life (pecks, crazy legs, cool breeze in the knees, pimp walk, fish tail, boogie forward).
If you have already done a 3 minute solo jazz warm up, they will already have a bunch of jazz steps under their belt.
If you have encouraged them to experiment and feel ok, they will experiment and create new steps and rhythms.
If you point out which things they already do well (all this stuff), they will feel confident enough to share these new ideas with their partners and the group.
And all this long before you get to set moves or lindy hop shapes!
In fact, if you get to this points and you see your lindy hop ‘moves’ as limits or restrictive shapes, then you really need to rethink your lindy hop structures as well. Because this is the wonderful thing about lindy hop: it is DESIGNED TO ACCOMODATE ALL THIS INDIVIDUAL AND COLLABORATIVE INNOVATION AND CREATIVITY!
The goddamm swing out is DESIGNED, BUILT specifically to accomodate individuality. The closed circle is literally broken open to let individual partners improvise. THIS IS LINDY HOP.
So I don’t fucking know what’s going on here. How can you even dance a dance that tells one partner they have no right or room to be creative? WHY WOULD YOU EVEN DO THAT DANCE?!?!?!?
It’s totally ok for students to not be good at making things up or creating things. They can learn – they’re there to learn! In fact, I think that this is one of the most important parts of a lindy hop class: we learn to be ok with not being perfect at things, and we learn to learn from our peers and from ourselves. We let the music guide us, not strict studio dance class rules.
But in my experience, humans are really REALLY good at making things up.
They are so good at recognising complex patterns, internalising them, and then recreating them. Humans can always find the beat in a song! Then they can keep it as they do complex tasks on different spatial planes (ie walking in time)!
Creativity and innovation don’t need to be specific, reproduceable dance steps. It can be the way you hitch a shoulder, a little extra bounce in your step, or a hugging your partner a bit closer in the best bit of the song.
If you do a jazz warm up, students’ll have 3 minutes worth of neat jazz steps.
If you tell students the stories of how a particular jazz step was born, you’ll probably have to fight to stop them inventing their own. I mean, pecking, crazy legs, cool breeze in the knees, boogie forward, broken leg, fall off the log. Who doesn’t want to get in on that action? Create a step that reflects their own day to day life?
When the step has a story, they will really enjoy ‘telling that story’ to their partner, and their partner will listen. So both of them will make space in open or closed or without touching to ‘do some jazz’.
But even better, if you play good music, and just ask them to ‘groove a bit before dancing’, and then ‘keep that groove with you all the time’, they will become fantastical innovative creative forces.
The very nature of lindy hop is innovation and improvisation. The swing out itself is an historic, literally breaking open of a fixed shape to let in the improvisation. A swing out asks each partner to be ok with being on their own for a bit. On their own, but with a partner. Improvising or not.
This is how vernacular dance works: it adapts and changes to meet people’s needs.
I’m getting pretty curious about how these ideas and words circulate.
I haven’t heard a decent international teacher use the idea of ‘heavy’ or ‘light’ follows in years. But I still hear it at a local level.
This makes me think that either local teachers aren’t updating their learns regularly by taking classes/workshops (for whatever reasons – cost, time, inclination, etc), or those mid-level traveling teachers who do a _lot_ of teaching are still using the term and concept.
Anyways, now I’m starting to think about these quick-fix jargon type words (frame, light/heavy follows, compression, extension, etc), I’m wondering what people really mean when they use these terms.
It doesn’t seem to be used in reference to leads, which immediately makes me suspicious.
There seems to be this persistent myth that follows are 90% responsible for connection, which is then related to the idea that a good follow ‘just follows’, which suggests that following is magical unicorn trait. That tied to this inexplicable ‘heavy/light’ thing suggests some scary stuff about body size/weight and gender.
To turn it back into a teaching issue, how exactly does using this term and concept help people learn to dance?
What exactly are teachers trying to communicate to their students when they use this language?
I mean this as an honest question.
What is the difference between a ‘light’ follow and a ‘heavy’ follow?
The former responds really quickly to a lead, with no delay? The latter takes longer to respond? If this is the case, then how do we account for a follow takes the ‘right’ amount of time (eg 8 counts)? And then, how is this time measured?
Is it about time?
It really feels as though this idea of light/heavy follows is about response time. And this idea of ‘response time’ is separated from the idea of ‘time’ in a rhythmic/musical sense. A beat is a beat is a beat. The band sets the ‘time’, and if a follow is keeping that time, then they are always ‘in time’ and never ‘too late’ or ‘too early’…
Unless it’s all about responding to the lead. In this case, then it’s not that follow is too late or too early, but that the follow is not keeping the same time as the lead. This is a) bullshitly control stuff, or b) both partners neglecting the music, because we both have a responsibility to take care of the music.
Or is it about weight, mass?
But if it’s not about time, then is it about actual physical weight? That seems weird, because as a fat chick, I can easily make my hand float in my lead’s hand to ‘feel light’. It has nothing to do with my physical body weight.
Even so, I don’t think that the actual weight of a hand (or a body) is the issue, as we aren’t dead weights, we are active bodies, moving ourselves. Unless leads are asking follows to be dead weights physically wrenched around the floor. But that’s dumb.
Or is it about touching someone?
So perhaps it’s meant to be a way of talking about connection, in the physical and emotional sense? ie the difference between a limp hand that’s just being held by someone else, or a situation where two people are actively holding each others’ hands?
I’m down with that final scenario: when we dance with someone, we _both_ hold each others’ hands, and we both hold each other in our arms. Including follows. We are actively present with our partner. We are here, now.
But even here, we have moments when we aren’t 100% on. When we’re tired, or laughing too much to stand up properly, or when we’re holding our loved one, or … etc etc etc.
Can we just throw this term out the window?
Again, I think that I’m most interested in the idea of partnership as active, responsive, ever-changing, mutable. A ‘light’ or ‘heavy’ partner sounds like a fixed state. I don’t want to be a static or fixed state. I want my partner to know how I feel all the time, and vice versa. Because this is communication, not a leader giving follows directions.
Telling people hard and fast rules … just creates unnatural motion and stress
‘Rules’ in lindy hop create the idea that there are wrong and right ways to do things. My only class rules are ‘take care of the music, take care of your partner, take care of yourself.’
Here are some rules that came up in a discussion:
…follower should offer their hands to the leader if possible all time, since they can’t know, what comes next and when the leader needs this hand. Also not having elbow behind the body, cause this simply hurts.
I’ve heard this elbow rule repeated a zillion times over the past years. I suspect it came out of a class on sugar pushes that someone influential taught in the mid 2000s, and it’s just stuck in people’s brains, which they’ve then passed on in their classes when they started teaching.
I can think of a million points in lindy hop where my elbow goes behind my body: hand to hand charleston, tandem charleston, texas tommy, when I’m jazzing….
I’m also unsure of the ‘follows should offer their hand to the leader all the time’ rule.
Why? Sometimes I don’t want to stop jazzing.
Sometimes I have to scratch my arm while I’m dancing.
If a follow has jazzfeels, they may need their hand to express that. It’s all good.
…in our beginner classes we do a lot of telling leads to ‘not be afraid to be firm, give clear directions’ and follows to ‘help the leads learn to lead, by not doing the move for them, but really giving some resistance until the direction is clear’.
I’m a bit scared reading this directive to leads: ‘not be afraid to be firm, give clear directions’. If you’ve never danced before, ‘firm’ often translates to ‘omg that’s rough and you’re hurting me’ or ‘I am the boss’. There are also gendered associations at work here (eg a man being ‘firm’ with a recalcitrant woman). Nope.
If you are always working with the assumption that all leads are just invitations to do a particular shape, then ‘firmness’ isn’t helpful.
‘Clarity’ might be more useful. Or ‘purposeful’. I use phrases like ‘if you’d like your partner to do x rhythm, then you need to dance it as clearly and purposefully as you can, as though you are teaching a stranger a completely new thing you’ve just invented and want to share with them’.
I’m also a bit unsure of this: ‘help the leads learn to lead, by not doing the move for them, but really giving some resistance until the direction is clear’.
It’s not a follow’s job to help a leader learn to lead. Yes, we are a team, but we are all responsible for our own bodies.
What does ‘resistance’ mean to someone who’s never danced before? It could be translated as ‘fight the move’ or ‘resist’ or ‘don’t do it’. All troubling concepts in a teamwork environment. Maybe, if you extend that ‘invitation to dance’ idea, a follow dances and continues a rhythm or momentum or whatever they’re doing until the lead suggests something new. They suggest a new rhythm or direction or whatevs, and the follow decides whether to do it or go that way or not. Both are legit options.
I find this conceptual framework deeply troubling. It sets up leading and following as antagonistic, whereas I much prefer the idea of us as a partnership, a team, sharing ideas, rather than executing steps perfectly.
…put a little weight in your partner’s hands…
I honestly have no idea what ‘put a little weight into your partner’s hands’ might mean. It sounds suspiciously like the ideas of ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ follows, and who cares about that stuff. It’s rubbish.
…it’s def8natley important to explain to people when and how to collapse their frame if they feel they need to, for safety or comfort.
In principle I agree, but I’d never explain it like that. I often say to follows, “If a lead is holding you too tightly or you feel uncomfortable, or you’re just not into it, let go!” And I say to the leads, “If your partner lets go of your hand, _don’t try to keep hold of them!_ Let them go! Let them goooooo”.
And of course, the idea is that if a follow lets go, it’s because they don’t want to hold your hand. Or it slipped out of your hand. Or whatevs. Its a signal to you, so look at them, and see what they feel. Are they solo jazzing? Are they angry? Are they crying? What? Just ask them, and they’ll tell you.
The lesson for leads, here, is that they need to be ok with follows saying ‘no’ to physical contact, and that they need to pay attention to follows all the time. It’s not a one-way line of communication.
I think that follows are often told to maintain the physical contact _at all costs_, and this scares me.
If I’m going to get hurt, I eject! Get on out of there! It’s ok to just let go! It’s ok to step out of your partner’s arms. You might not be ready to say “Stop! I don’t like it!” but the best and simplest option when you’re worried a person might hurt you is to step out of physical contact. BOOM.
Honestly, the more I think about this line of thinking, the more upset I am.
I think we should teach leads and follows that discomfort, pain, or fear are _not_ something we should tolerate or hide. Leads: don’t be hurting people! Follows: don’t hide your pain to salve a lead’s pride!