It might sound as though I’m conflating two things—male predators and female finishers—in a troubling way. And I am. Because when women do what needs to be done in order to write or make art, we sometimes feel monstrous. And others are quick to describe us that way.
This resonates with me. Because doing ‘the right thing’ and tackling sexual harassment (taking on that feminised role of caring) has had direct consequences on my own creative work. Less time to write, to DJ, to work on my own dancing, to work with musicians. My energy and health spent on tidying up after bastard men rather than fostering my own work.
Men are largely absent in the Australian dance scene’s responses to s.h. There are _some_ very good men squirrelling away, but for the most part it’s women writing codes and policies (for which male organisers are happy to take reflected credit). Women who could be dancing or playing music. It’s a second subtraction from our creative lives: we pay once when we fight off these arseholes, and we pay again when we pick up our sisters and chase down the offenders.
Yes, this caring labour does build skills and networks and confidence. But it also detracts. And choosing _not_ to step up and help is a bastard act. Monstrous. As this writer notes, choosing to pursue our own goals, to set aside that role of carer is monstrous. It feels that way. And it is oftenmen who are quickest to dismiss the woman lindy hopper’s failure to ‘help’ their lead as a moral failure.
So, we’re continuing to wade on with the work on sexual assault and harassment in the dance world. There have been great strides made. By women. At this point, men are continuing to offend at the same rate as before, men are covering up and enabling other offenders, whether deliberately or by neglect, and almost all of the work on codes of conduct, safety committees and cultural change is done by women.
Even more significantly, women are doing all the emotional labour of convincing men we need these things. There are still plenty of men in the international dance scene who don’t think we need codes of conduct (when your mates stop raping us, we won’t need a list of rules that say ‘don’t rape us’), think we should leave all this to the police (when the cops and legal system actually prosecute and punish offenders, we won’t need to police this shit ourselves), and think we should just leave all this to ‘common sense’ (when men actually have the sense to see that raping and harassing women isn’t ok, we’ll actually accept that they have any sense at all).
At this point, years after Bill Borghida was jailed for possession of child pornography, two years or more after some very brave women outed Steven Mitchell as a violent sexual offender and pedophile, a year after more brave women outed Max Pitruzella as a violent rapist and offender, and as every day we see more and more women reach out for help from anyone who shows even the smallest hint of empathy, women are still doing all the goddamm work.
And here’s the deal: men are still doing all the goddamm raping and assault. Yes, there are some women who offend. But at this point, I’ve come across dozens of male offenders in the past two years, and only two women. And those women’s offences were far, far less severe than the things men have been doing to women dancers.
Yes, all men. All men are responsible for their own behaviour and for the behaviour of their male friends. But they aren’t stepping up and taking on that responsibility. In this sense, men are failing to do community, and women are doing all the labour. Maybe we should just ban all men from lindy hop events. At this point, that seems the only way to put a stop to all the sexual violence.
But some people actually quite like having men around. So, men, if you want to prove that you actually deserve a place in our communities, you’re going to need to step up.
Yes, there is some emotional labour for YOU to do.
We’ve done a pretty good job of getting women up and engaged with safe space policy to deal with sexual harassment and assault. And they’re engaged as agents of prevention and response, rather than as ‘potential victims modifying their behaviour so they don’t provoke men into raping them’.
But we don’t have many men involved.
We’ve tried a range of strategies, from the ‘most offenders are male, so you need to step up’ offence, to the ‘we need you to be there for us’ to …. well, all sorts of things.
Getting organised as allies, and as actively engaged in preventing sexual assault is straight up emotional labour: thinking and planning, using empathy, working to discourage other men from offending, reducing micro-aggressions, dismantling less overt elements of rape culture.
And we’re just having no luck.
I don’t want to micromanage …work. I want a partner with equal initiative (ref).
So now we need real strategies for getting men to get involved. Because the women on committees and so on are bloody tired of this shit. We’re basically now 100% responsible for responding to and preventing men from raping women.
Things I’m having some luck with:
– pushing the ‘we are looking out for each other’ line, and having short examples in our PR copy, our speeches, etc etc (eg ‘see someone looking crook? Offer to sub in for them for a break’).
– coming at it indirectly in class by having all students learn and practice asking their partner ‘does this feel ok?’ and then being constructive (rather than defensive) with responses.
But this is not moving fast enough. And I’m just too tired and busy fielding emails from frightened women, producing documentation, and looking after my own health to actually do all the work for men too. Can you just fucking step up and do something GOOD, for once, lindy hopping men? Because I’m beginning to despair of you.
What are some useful suggestions for getting men to do this sort of emotional labour? Because unlike neglected house work, neglected violence kills people.
We’ve been gradually increasing the amount and type of hippy teaching tools in our classes.
I’m trying to balance full-on hippy fun with historical repertoire, name-checking OGs, and disciplined rhythms and skills.
Interestingly, I’ve found that my definition of ‘technique’ has expanded from partner connection to the ability to create and execute rhythms precisely, to observe and learn-by-watching-and-trying, and most importantly, to do all this stuff _as a teacher_ while I’m guiding student through these skills.
So I can’t teach rhythm-first if I don’t have preceise control of my rhythms.
I can’t see if they’ve got control of their rhythms if I can’t see what their bodies are doing.
The hippy tools
I’ve been working with include:
1. “We’ll do it three times, then you try it”
(A sequence of them trying it with a partner in their own time, us all coming together and them articulating what they’ve had trouble with or observed/been amazed by, them watching again, them trying again, us all doing it together, a technical note or two (usually related to dance technique. This is an extension of the solo jazz warm up where they ‘just have a go’). This is ideal for uneven lead/follow ratios as they can work in groups of 3).
-> skills: learning to understand rhythms or sequences with the eye or ear (not broken down); self-reliance; prioritising what to look for first when learning (and suiting their own needs, not the teachers’ priorities in breaking things down); working with a partner(s) to solve problems (cooperation, mutual respect, listening, speaking, trying); learning by doing, rather than learning by thinking; trying; making confident mistakes; ‘errors’ as a natural and useful part of learning; finding their own ‘style’ through problem solving biomechanics.
2. I-go, you-go where the teacher leads or they do it with a partner.
(The starter does the rhythm, then the follower does it immediately afterwards in time, then the starter moves straight on to something else. They usually begin by watching and following the teacher (with the second teacher ‘on their team’ with them), but also do it with a peer in class. This ‘exercise’ or ‘game’ is also applied to teaching a specific rhythm or move in class.)
-> skills: learning by watching/listening rather than having it broken down; super-focus; mindfulness; proprioception; understanding rhythm as patterns; pattern recognition and creation; being ok with errors, and not fixating on them; demonstrating or dancing as clearly as possible; team work; gauging a partner’s abilities or state of mind and adjusting to suit; realising that a ‘success’ is where one demonstrates well and the other figures it out well: collaboration.
3. If you have a question, watch us demo it/try it yourself/watch your peers and find the answer.
-> skills: self-reliance; try before asking (they eventually learn to try before they ask questions); valuing their own judgement and skills; confidence; observation (physical, aural, visual); mindfulness; proprioception.
These three tools are great. And we can build them into our classes as ‘exercises’. But eventually a class full of exercises feels boring, and disconnected from actual social dancing.
So what I’ve been working on is building them into classes and making the connections between the exercises and actual social dancing skills and dancing history obvious and useful. How?
We’ll do it three times (ie learn by watching/observing, as part of ‘talk-less’ teaching) is a really nice tool that informs most of the way I teach now. I’m less likely to break things down first (though I may later on if they need some clarification, and if the intermediate dancers want technical connection nerdery, or we want to do rhythmic nerdery and tighten up their syncopation, etc). This is how we’ve done it this block. In fact, the following section is a description of last night’s class. FUN.
– We do our warm ups this way, beginning every single class, where the leader in the circle dances a step/rhythm for a phrase (repeating it 4 times), and the students just join in. Straight away, they learn to just try and have fun.
– A ‘warm up’ after the solo jazz warm up, where everyone copies the teacher. Last week we did this as a preparation for the following game/exercise. The teacher just danced rhythms, and because it moves so quickly, and we don’t dwell on a rhythm until people get it right, they don’t freak out. A teaching note: you gradually increase the complexity, in keeping with their progress. If none of them get a rhythm, you repeat it slower. You build on the rhythms, using different variations of the rhythmic components you’ll be using in class.
– We have them do games with partners, where the starter dances a step, the other watches and joins in, then on the 4th 8 of the phrase, they both do a ‘break step’ (ie anything they like, as long as it’s different, gradually progressing to a very deliberate ‘step’ or rhythm that they come up with while doing the 3 repetitions of the move). We find that this develops some pretty bloody good skills – they get GOOD at this. We did this this week and it was FUN.
[NB at the beginning of the class we did a ‘where would we start?’ exercise where we listened to a song and had to make a visual sign on ‘1’. Then we did it for ‘8’. Then we did it for the beginning of a phrase. They could do any sign they liked. And as we progressed, they weren’t allowed to repeat a sign. It was gold. And of course, to keep time, they were grooving like crazy. And their ‘signs’ got more interesting. Until they were just dancing like freaking superheroes.
Then we stepped up the exercise, and they had to walk around the room doing any old thing, then on the last 8 of the phrase, they had to stop and stand still. Then we stepped it up and they had to do a specific rhythm on that last 8. Then they had to do it on the spot. It was also fantastic.]
[last week]They learn a basic step earlier in the class (eg last week we did an under arm turn from closed into open). They then did a game where the leader danced the basic rhythm (step step triple step) and the follow practiced dancing a new rhythm over the top. We explained the leads’ job as “Keeping time and structure for the follows while they’re a storm of rhythm.”
We had them do this a few times with a partner, then rotate. After a few rotations, we said to the leads, “Ok, leads, so you’re paying attention to your partner, right? Now the follow will dance their 8 count rhythm while you keep your basic rhythm, and then you will repeat it back to them immediately.” And the leads were all eee! But they did it and were grand.
Then we had them do some lindy hop, and when the leads led the under arm turn, the follow could insert their new rhythm, while the lead kept the basic rhythm.
After a few rotations, we said to the leads, “Ok, now you learnt at least three different rhythms from your partners. Start adding them in!”
It was super magic and they had a GREAT time. Note, this was a group of beginners in their 4th week of classes. And they were doing quite sophisticated stuff.
Learning outcomes: all the above, _and_ they all had very relaxed (but alive) connection, and were REALLY engaged with their partners. They were also in time, swinging, and had a clear sense of call and response. It was 100% jazz. And they had SO MUCH FUN.[/]
– They dance lindy hop with a partner, and take turns being the ‘starter’. The ‘follower’ has to observe the break step or rhythm and repeat it back. The starter can repeat it three times, or as many times as they like. This exercise can be structured so that they do 3 x 8 of one rhythm (eg charleston), and then 1 x 8 of a break (which the follower gets to observe once a phrase). As you can see, varying the phrase structure – eg ABAB – can improve this exercise.
We did this last night, and the progression of this exercise was to explain how even though we can make up anything on the spot, the very best dancers have a really good sense of rhythm and music.
Then we talked about Frankie Manning, and how he was really good at this stuff. So we then taught them a mini dip. We positioned it as a step that’s taught a lot today (as part of the lindy hop ‘canon’), and that’s because it’s really fun, and just feels _good_.
I liked positioning the step this way, as it name checked an OG, it referenced what makes a rhythm really ‘good’, and it also made musical sense. We taught them the step by teaching it as a rhythm first. Then we showed them how it’s really just two people passing by each other. Then we had them watch three times then try it. And BOOM.
Things we pointed out: the follow is a free agent and can do anything they want. So the lead and follow have to keep an eye on each other to know when to do it.
Thing they learnt: the timing of the rhythm is affected by where your body is. eg if you take longer while rotating your body to look and check in with your partner, you delay the final hit of the move, which changes the rhythm. This is ok, but if you pay attention to your partner, you can do more things.; they learnt that they can ‘feel’ the rhythm through relaxed connection when they’re holding hands, as well as ‘see’ it and ‘hear it’. So they began to experiment with stretch (though we didn’t say stretch): eg a lead said “If I’m too far away from my partner, I can’t do X fast enough”, and a follow said, “Because the lead’s goes down low, I know where to go myself.” Both of these are examples of stretch (moving away from each other horizontally, moving away from each other vertically), and they saw how it affected their connection and rhythmic timing.
Because we had set this all up as an experiment or game, they were all saw these things as variations on the rhythm, not mistakes. And they figured out that ‘deliberate’ rhythms require planning ahead, and control of your body, as well as connection with a partner.
We had a student arrive late, and so I said, “Ok, what if your partner doesn’t know this rhythm? How would you teach them?” They drew on the previous week’s class skills, and figured out that they’d dance it _for_ their partner. We then set them free to social dance it, and to adjust the rhythm of the mini dip however they liked, just as long as it was deliberate.
SOLID GOLD. These were a mixed class of total noobs (in week 5) and experienced people. They had FUN.
-> you can do all this stuff with total noobs (these guys were all total noobs – weeks 4 and 5). They progress REALLY quickly. And classes run really smoothly and are a lot of fun.
-> it is really, really important to use solid swinging jazz to make this work. They find it really hard to do good syncopation (vs straight beats) in a stomp off, for example, if they don’t have the good solid swinging jazz playing to help them make it fit the music. If the song is playing, I noticed that they self-correct to make their straight stomp off swing.
-> mini dip is a fantastic step for teaching about swing and syncopation. And because we framed it as a historic step that’s stuck with people, they made the connection between something they immediately recognised as ‘really good’ (they all went “Ooo!” when they saw it, and felt cool doing it), and the importance of a good choreographer with a good connection to music.
For me, I really really really liked that they realised that they could invent a break step or rhythm (anyone can), but a really good, satisfying rhythm is the work of a master. And something you work towards. They also figured out that sharing the rhythm with a partner is what makes lindy hop so great.
One of the things I like most about Seoul is the culture of visual information. ie signs with pictures. It draws on comic book culture, but also reflects, content-wise, Korean communitarian ethos and values. So informational signs like this one from the subway focus on individuals doing the right thing not for their own safety, but for the safety and comfort of others. Many of the signs also emphasise on younger people’s responsibilities to older people. It’s a really great discursive tool for peeps to have at hand.
Another thing I really like is the way the Dance Safe peeps in Seoul have used these practices to do some pretty impressive stuff. Here is one of the posters I saw stuck up outside SwingTime Bar in Seoul, above one of the benches where everyone sits to change their shoes (Seoul dancers change shoes before they enter the studio space). So, perfect placement.
The poster itself is solid gold. It has a light hearted, charming feel very much in keeping with Korean visual educational media texts. It uses animals rather than ‘women’ or ‘men’ symbols, which means it avoids gender binaries and norms. Even though I don’t read Korean, I can still get the message.
Dance Safe are a group of Korean peeps (men and women!) who’re working super hard to raise awareness about personal safety, sexual harassment, and mutual respect in the biggest lindy hop scene in the world. This is no mean feat, as the sheer scale of the scene means they need a zillion posters, pamphlets, and people involved. They’re doing some fund raising (with the support of various local organisers) to get $$ together to cover their printing costs.
My media studies/cultural studies brain is super interested in this project. This is almost exactly the sort of work I did in my Phd: how do dancers use media texts within a community so focussed on the body?
These guys are doing things that fascinate my academic brain, but also my activist brain and event organiser brain. How, _how_ are they pulling off this stuff?! I see some racist bullshit coming out of the English speaking lindy hop world about ‘Asian’, and ‘Russian’, and ‘French’ dancers, accusing them of not understanding ‘safe space’ ideology ‘because of culture’. But in my experience with dancers from these countries and other NES scenes, the activism is as exciting and engaged – if not more so – than the English speaking world.
Part of me thinks we need a conference to get all of the safe space activists in dance together to share this sort of information. How exciting!
Lindy Hoppers: Many of you came to the dance and found a comfortable space where you could spread your wings. You found a place where you could be geeky, nerdy, techy, punky, introverted, extroverted, or whatever. You could be any of those things feel like you belonged. For many of us, we wouldn’t be the people you are now if we hadn’t found a place like this were we could be boldly ourselves. Beautiful, isn’t it?
This is NOT the experience for everyone who comes to this dance. In this case, this is not the experience of many LGTBQIA+ who have come across this dance scene. We are pushing people away. It takes courage to be “out” in this scene. Some utopia.
In the past few years, the illusion that our dance scene is a place free from the dangers of the real world has been shattered. As a result, we’ve done a lot to listen, learn and are making worthwhile changes. Also, we took our heads out of our asses. We can be proud of that. It’s beyond time to do the same here and realize that this haven that we found, is absolutely not a haven for everyone. We have to realize this and change, just like we shown ourselves capable of doing.
We need to open the doors – fucking wide. We need to shout “I see you. You are not invisible. You are welcome here”… just like others did for us. If (part of that) that means we make gestural changes like changing names of cheesily named dance contests, go for it.
But, far beyond that, I suggest you to take a moment to lightly and politely ask someone different from you about their experience in the scene. If they feel like sharing, you’ll learn something. If you think you don’t know any LGTBQIA+ folks in your local scene, either you are wrong and they are hiding (that speaks volumes) or your scene is tragically homogenous (also speaks volumes).
In the comments, I will be posting statements from different LGTBQIA+ people in our dance scene. Straight (and straight-ish) friends, before discussing this with your other straight (and straight-ish) friends, read some of these – including the comments, some of which are profound – no joke.
It takes effort to try to see the world through other people’s eyes, but it is immensely worthwhile.
This is what I started writing in reply, but didn’t leave on fb:
Nice vibes, Andy. And I dig your post.
Here is my rant.
I’d probably rethink the pronouns, because your call does not rework the status quo or question power:”We need to shout “I see you. You are not invisible.”
As though it is only through being recognised by the straight white male gaze that the other becomes real.
The lindy hop ‘we’ already includes peeps who aren’t straight, white guys. The lindy hop ‘we’ is already queer, black, trans…. everything _as well as_ straight white men. The LGTBQIA+ folk in our scenes ARE ALREADY SPEAKING. Maybe the straight white masculine world of lindy hop should _stop_ speaking for a second.
I’m also a bit suspect about “politely ask someone different from you about their experience in the scene.” Are we outing people now? This ‘asking’ is still an act of managing the public discourse. Why is it everyone else’s responsibility to educate the straight white man? Why is it everyone else’s responsibility to make sure the straight white man is looked after? AGAIN?
Maybe you should be quiet and listen and watch for a while instead. Because WE ARE ALREADY SPEAKING. Maybe you should watch for a while, before asking. See when a man gropes a woman on the dance floor, then tell him to quit. Hear when a straight man makes a bullshit gay joke, then _not laugh_.
So perhaps your call should be, “Hey, straight white guys. We’re the numerical minority in this community. So we should ask why we hold the majority of positions of power and influence. Maybe we should cede our place to the rest of the community. Also it’s time for us to stop talking.”
The lindy hop world is not that special or unique: it is within and a part of the wider community in which it lives. Of course sexism and homophobia and racism are here. Because it is in our wider lives as well.
This is how this will have to work: the most powerful people in our communities will need to give up some of that power. That includes the power to ask questions and speak. And they’re not going to be too happy about that.
I’ve also been struck by some of the comments like this from (straight white male) dancers: “In the past few years, the illusion that our dance scene is a place free from the dangers of the real world has been shattered.”
I was especially struck by the recent ep of the Track where Gordon Webster spent quite a bit of time telling us how shocked he was by the Steven Mitchell issue. He recounted some heart warming stories about the safety of the dance scene, and how surprised he was to discover that things Have Changed.
And I got really really angry. YES POWERFUL WHITE GUY, THE WORLD IS A PRETTY SAFE AND LOVELY PLACE FOR YOU. Your being able to leave your envelope of cash unattended, and without any accountability IS A MARKER OF YOUR POWER. Your being able to set aside the responsibility of paying your staff before you go off and get on stage IS A MARKER OF YOUR POWER. Your leaving the door staff to sell your CDs and make change from your band’s pay IS A MARKER OF YOUR POWER.
It wasn’t because ‘the scene is a utopia’ that that envelope of cash didn’t go missing. It’s because you are a powerful, influential person. And it’s good to be king.
I was especially angry about his reluctance to believe that HIS friend could possibly be dodgy as fuck. When even I, who’d only met Mitchell once or twice and live in another hemisphere, could tell he was a pain in the arse and well dodgy. He didn’t see the problems with Mitchell, because they didn’t affect him directly. He WASN’T LOOKING FOR THEM.
The rest of the dance world (who aren’t straight, white, or male) were already quite sure that the dance world wasn’t a utopia.
News at 5: ‘white man discovers his experience of the world is not universal.’
Because the women, POC… pretty much most of the peeps who aren’t representing hegemonic masculinity in our scene know that it’s not a utopia. And we’ve always known that. And we’ve been talking about it for years. Hell, even Norma Miller’s been shouting it at people for years, and not even she’s been listened to!
I’m going to go on and on about the music at Little Big Weekend 2017 for quite a long time, so best to give you some facts.
Andrew Dickeson and I are big jazz nerds, who love swinging jazz and live in the same neighbourhood. So we’ve been collaborating on putting together live music programs for dancers that make musicians happy. Which means we go to each other’s houses and argue about which songs we should play (ever tried to narrow your favourites down to a dozen?), argue about whether cats or dogs are better, and sigh over Duke Ellington.
We began working on these projects in 2014 at Jazz BANG, a solo jazz weekend here in Sydney. And we’ve done a zillion gigs since. Each gig we seem to pick up another musician who almost cryfeels about the experience of working on this type of music with this band leader, and this crowd. And each gig we see more musos flying or driving to Sydney to be part of it.
You must understand that all these musicians are trained professionals who’ve been playing for years and years, and have recorded heaps of music. Ones like Bob Henderson have been playing since the 50s. Andrew is a lecturer at the most prestigious tertiary institute for music in Australia – the Sydney Conservatorium of Music – where he teaches jazz history. Georgia is a hardcore dancer, teacher, and performer, as well as a trained musician, vocal teacher and performer.
To my mind, the success of the Blue Rhythm Band lies in the relationship between the band leader Andrew Dickeson, and his bff Brad Child. Andrew is a drummer who knows when not to play. He doesn’t bang pots in the kitchen; he places cups and plates on the table, moves them around, rearranges the flowers so everyone can see. When the band sets up on stage, he’s right in the middle, where he can see everyone. And where everyone can see and hear him. So Andrew brings structure, clarity, and direction to the band.
Brad is more about the feels. Standing near the band (or sometimes right in the middle of it when I’m working), you can hear Brad yelling out things like “There, now, I’m going in!” and then pumping the energy. Or, “Back off, back it off, nice and gentle!” He has the sort of unerring ear and eye for energy and vibe which I’ve only seen in one or two exceptional DJs. It’s truly a rare talent. He’s not just watching the crowd, he’s feeling the crowd, and the band, and he’s bringing them all together, on a very nice trip through jazz.
When you add responsive, clever, talented musicians to that pair, you get a lovely, vibrant, powerful band. A solid group who take improvisational risks, but are still very solid. Sound. Or, if you’re thinking about lindy hop, this band has very tight rhythms, excellent timing, but knows that it’s ok to relax and just improvise around simple shapes rather than trying to jam complex figures into one dance. And they know how to look at their partners. :D
But this weekend was the most ambitious. I was collaborating with Sharon Hanley on the dancing parts. Sharon is a long-time balboa nut, and she was bringing some very good balboa dancers to town, dancers strongly rooted in the history of the dance, and who understand swinging jazz. I was bringing two teachers who are all about lindy hop and solo jazz dances. Also very much informed by jazz dance history. Sharon and I run separate dance businesses in Sydney – Swing Time Australia (Sharon), and Swing Dance Sydney (me). These businesses focus on our dance and musical interests. We’ve worked together lots of times in the past, mostly on DJing, and on running parties. This was our first large project together.
It never occurred to us that balboa and lindy hop couldn’t have fun together on the same dance floor. It’s the same music, right? Solid, swinging jazz. After all, when we DJ together, we’re into the same music. And it never occurred to us that east coast influenced swing dances (lindy hop, balboa, shag) couldn’t sit well with Harlem-centred swing dances (lindy hop, solo, tap, etc). After all, that’s how Sydney works: all these dances play well together at our parties and live music gigs.
For me, it’s the music that makes the point of all this. Working with musicians, musicians working together, dancers working together. It’s all about improvisation, playing games, having fun, and just being filled up by that good sound. Andrew and I have just had so much fun doing these parties, and we just LOVE the music so much, and the relaxed fun of social dancing with live music, we just figure: let’s do MORE!
I want to do more and more and more of this. I can see how it could become addictive. I can see how musicians have problems with drugs – uppers to keep you going. Downers to help you finally sleep. Putting together a few little shows for the weekend, I just thought ‘Ha! There are some serious talents coming, I’ll just set it up and let them go!’ and then we set it up, and let them go, and it was amazing. Musicians and dancers. I really do love this approach to events and dancing: get some solid framework in place, then let people improvise on top. And make sure everyone has a lot of fun and feels good and safe. Amongst friends.
So what did we actually do?
Friday: the usual Blue Rhythm Band line up (Brad Child (sax), Peter Locke (piano), Mark Elton (bass), Andrew (drums), Georgia Brooks (vocals).
AND we did a little introduction performance where we introduced our artists (musicians and dancers (Marie N’diaye, Anders Sihlberg, Kate Hedin, Bobby White)) one at a time. It was SPLENDID.
I had a few goals with this performance.
1. I wanted to place the musicians right in there on the same level as our guest teachers. I wanted dancers to see them, know their names, and hear how they added to the band. So we did a ‘Now you has jazz‘ style intro, where we began with Andrew, then literally had the musicians walk in one at at time and start playing. When that bass hit. WOW. The room just LEAPT. I couldn’t believe how effective it was.
2. I wanted to really begin the weekend, not just have it stagger up to speed. So we had a bit of mellow music, lots of snacks and drinks and conversation as people arrived, and THEN we introduced the band and the teachers.
3. I wanted the vocalist (Georgia) to introduce everyone, and to sing. Which was just magical. When she sang that chorus of Honeysuckle Rose, we just sighed.
4. I wanted a well known song that feels nice. Honeysuckle Rose is a lovely song, about loving someone. It’s my favourite. And it can be funny. So it’s perfect for an intro.
This just went off so well. I loved it. I was so happy. Such talented artists!
Saturday: we got super ambitious. Because this Little Big Weekend is a balboa/lindy hop event, we had two bands. We had a swinging combo (Brad, Peter, Mark, Andrew, Bob Henderson (trumpet), Chuck Morgan (guitar)). Adding a guitar: the band was pretty much perfect.
THEN we decided to get all Benny Goodman on our crowd (because balboa dancers – and everyone sensible) loves Goodman’s small group. VIBRAMAPHONE! (Glenn Henrick) and Brad played clarinet.
THIS was pretty freaking amazing. Vibraphones! It’s a magical instrument. I had no idea just how wonderful it sounds in a big room. It just feels all velvety and vibratey, and you can almost feel it on your skin. In the band, it just sort of filled in all the gaps in the music, softening the edges and really feeling like that gorgeous mushy-strong feeling of a good connection between partners.
But then it got better.
ALL the musicians were on stage together, not playing from charts, but paying close attention to Andrew’s leadership, and listening very carefully to each other.
The huge, ugly 70s ballroom (with amazing acoustics and raised seating for non-dancing punters, and a full bar) was just crammed with happy people and great music. Musicians brought their friends and family, and we had a very good time.
With this night, I wanted to really marry the two dances (balboa and lindy hop), by making it clear that we really did love the same music. While Goodman’s small groups are popular with balboa dancers, it’s also wonderful for lindy hop.
And when the band played a beautiful ballad (Moonglow!) people didn’t think ‘oh no, I don’t blues dance!’ they said (SHOUTED in some cases), “I LOVE THIS SONG!” and then just found a person and just enjoyed the song.
…thinking about it now is making me tear up. It was quite magical.
SUNDAY the band was pared back to the Blue Rhythm Band format again, and we just danced and danced.
But first we did a little ‘story of jazz’ performance, where the band showed us how jazz changed from the 20s to the 50s, and our guest teachers showed us how the dancing changed. Tap. Balboa. Pure bal. Bal swing. Lindy hop. Charleston. Breakaway. All of it. And at the end, we all got up and swung out to Shiny Stockings, and some people cried.
Here, my plan was:
1. Make it clear that the music literally comes first,
2. Show that the dance styles may be different, but they’re still the same in that they listen to the music.
3. Invite everyone onto the dance floor together. Literally. We ended with Shiny Stockings, and when I said, “And in the 50s, band leaders like Basie reminded us to dance together… so if you feel the urge, join in and dance with us,” everyone leapt to their feet and danced. It was a very special moment.
One of the best bits happened next. We were doing this as a snowball, to make sure we had everyone feeling welcome. But I added ‘slow motion!’ and ‘Freeze!’ and ‘snowball’ as calls. At first I could hear the musicians saying to each other, “What’re we doing?” and replying “Snowball means change partners!” and then they all got INTO it. When I called ‘freeze!’ the second time, the band literally froze. And then we picked up in perfect time. And everyone in the room laughed and cheered. It was totally improvised, but it felt really, really good. Because we were improvising and playing a game.
Things I loved about the weekend:
– The band was so good, everyone danced to any old song. They don’t worry about speed or who they’re dancing with; they just get up and have some fun.
– The floor was full of all the dances. Balboa, lindy hop, solo, shag, people just holding hands and swaying.
– the noise level from the crowd. Shouting out to the musicians, talking, laughing, cheering, clapping, whooping, hollering.
– the musicians’ massive smiley faces, and the way they’d talk to the dancers or yell out to each other.
This song Benny’s Bugle is important, because the original Goodman small group included Benny Goodman, Cootie Williams, George Auld, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Artie Bernstein, Harry Jaeger. So Basie’s powerhouse rhythm section got together with Goodman’s perfectionist control, and then they made an amazing song. There are some very interesting outtakes from this recording session, available on box sets like Charlie Christian:Genius of the Electric Guitar. And you can listen to it on youtube here.
Andrew Dickeson’s Blue Rhythm Band is strongly influenced by Basie’s rhythm section. And we all know how lindy hoppers feel about Basie. Goodman is just perfect for balboa, because he has that precise, clever instrumentation matched with a glorious swinging timing. That’s balboa, right?
So this song is important: balboa and lindy hop = <3
do you have advice for gaining a reputation as an instructor outside of your local/regional scene?
Of course I had a long reply!
I can’t comment as a high profile teacher, but I can as an event organiser. I tend to seek out teachers who offer something unique, are great dancers, are nice people, and are great teachers. So comp-winning videos aren’t enough reason for me to book someone.
So I’m an example of a particular type of organiser with a particular brand and clear idea of what I want in teachers.
It helps to know the organiser types, and which ones you want to work with. eg experienced dancers from small friendly scenes; new organisers from small scenes; right on up to very experienced dancers and organisers running huge international events with huge teaching staffs.
So when I look for teachers, I look for:
– A clear set of terms (their pay rate for teaching, performing, competing), food and accommodation requirements, minimum hours, etc. And good PR photos. This stuff tells me they are professional and organised, and it makes my job SO much easier.
– Evidence that the teacher is working on their own teaching and dancing all the time, not just trotting out the same old classes in sixty different countries every year. I am not interested in a package deal; I want a teacher who is growing and developing. There are a couple of exceptions (people like Syliva Sykes for example could get away with this), but I’ve done workshops with the same teachers a couple of times in a year in different countries and had the exact same class taught in exactly the same way, despite the different crowd. It’s ok to have a type of class or to teach similar material, but each time they teach it should be adjusted to the class and event, and be a bit better. This is actually why I don’t just hunt down the A list teachers for my own learning or events; I don’t want a cookie cutter experience. I’ve been dancing too long for that.
– Personal anecdotes about learning from them, from people whose opinion I value (eg teachers I know who’ve taken classes from them).
– Personal anecdotes or recommendations about their personalities from people who’s opinion is valuable (eg from people who notice whether a teacher is kind and interacts as a real person, v a person who is a bit star-struck and thinks ‘dancing with everyone’ makes a teacher a nice person).
– Opinions or recommendations from other guest teachers (this is a good one – they can (subtly usually) let you know what person X is like to work with, or if they’re a very experienced person, they can point out a talent you might not have noticed)
-> be super careful on this, because no teacher wants to be known as a gossip. So don’t push for details. Just pay attention when they talk about events.
– Videos of comp performances, choreography, demos, etc that show me interesting dancing (ie they’re not just repeating what every joe is doing), the sort of dancing I value (and you know what that means), and some historical reference points.
– My own good experiences with that teacher in their class, or just interacting with them socially.
– My own observations of that teacher’s interactions with other people. eg I’ve seen a few big name teachers be total jerks at events when they’re not working, so even though they are ok when they are ‘on’ and working, I still won’t hire them.
– Teachers who talk to anyone and everyone, not just people who can get them stuff (ie not just other teachers, organisers, etc; they talk to all sorts of people). It’s ok for teachers to be shy or less gregarious, but I have no time for arse kissers or professional shmoozers.
– Teachers who offer the right material for my local scene at the right time. Not necessarily in terms of ‘the right teaching to get my scene better’, but more ‘the right vibe that will sell tickets and make people happy now’.
– Teachers who offer more than just classes. So I like teachers who are doing interesting research, are DJs, are musicians, like working with musicians, give good talks, etc etc. They don’t have to do these things at my event, but it does offer something more.
– The right interests and class content to suit my own projects. eg I was talking to a very high profile teacher about working at my event, but eventually chose not to work with them, not because they wouldn’t bring crowds (they so would), not because they were rubbish, but because their values and interests didn’t mesh with what I was doing. eg I look for teachers who want to try new things, work with musicians in interesting ways, and perhaps do unconventional class structures. This often doesn’t gel with the top name professional teachers who have a very set way of teaching and working at events (and that’s ok).
So I guess I’d recommend:
– Thinking about how you’d like to work as a teacher, out of the classroom. eg do you want huge events? Do you want to travel internationally? Do you want to travel to places like Asia v Europe? How much time do you want to spend traveling (eg coming to Australia takes at least a week of travel jet lag and work)? etc etc
– Be yourself, and work to your own values. Don’t try to be ‘fashionable’, unless you just want to get gigs quickly.
– Cultivate networks. And by that, I mean socialise like a real person, not in a fake shmoozy way. Don’t try to be super-social if you’re not; it’s ok to be shy or quieter. Just be a real person. Oh, and don’t be a dick. Be a nice person. You want to work with people you like and who share your values, not just with any old stooge. And go to the type of events you want to work at, or to the type of events that attract people you want to work with. So your crowd at ILHC isn’t like your crowd at Lindy Bout.
– Cultivate contacts. There are people in the scene who recommend teachers for gigs, are regularly consulted by organisers about teachers’ reps, and are generally very useful people. But they mightn’t be famous teachers or organisers or DJs. They could be that woman in her 60s who social dances, does classes, and doesn’t hobnob. But everyone seems to know her, and she’s been dancing for 20 years, and done every type of class or party under the sun. She’ll be the type of person who’ll know whether a teacher is a nice person or not, or have been privy to rumours about misconduct.
Think long term about this – you might meet them this year at LoneStar, but not see a gig come your way for two years. A good contact takes their time and doesn’t offer their recommendation lightly.
Things that put me off:
– Gendered language in classes, inappropriate behaviour, etc. You’d think it’d be obvious, but teachers who drink to excess, who hit on lots of people, who swear too much, who are disrespectful or sexist or racist or homophobic, who take advantage of organisers or other dancers, etc are shithouse.
– Aggressive self-promotion by teachers.
I’m regularly approached by teachers at events wanting to talk about coming to teach in Australia. I usually don’t mind if we are already friends or have some sort of rapport; it seems the logical extension of our relationship if we ‘click’ professionally. But I do get random teachers who approach me when I don’t even know them, trying to pressure me into booking them. It makes me supremely uncomfortable, and I’m pretty sure it’s a cultural thing. I often close the conversation with a vague comment about already having booked someone. And then I run away. So putting organisers on the spot is a bad idea. If I am interested in someone coming to my city, by the time I mention it to them in person, I’ve decided I WANT them.
– This is a culturally specific thing, but in Australia we are quite uncomfortable with ‘tall poppies’ who self-promote aggressively. It can be ok for an American to list all their accomplishments and send an email to other Americans soliciting a gig. But for many Australians this can seem too aggressive and arrogant.
As a heinous example, we often get single American men (usually blues teachers) approaching non-organisers with a ‘deal’ where they fly to Australia if the local person organises a gig.
This generally makes experienced organisers pretty uncomfortable, and it can exploit inexperienced people who don’t know how to say no, or feel flattered. These guys often arrive acting as though they’re literally a great white savour bringing dance to the colonies. When they really aren’t very great dancers and aren’t good teachers. They often do a bunch of gigs in the region, which tells me they don’t have any/many regular bookings, and have a wide open schedule with no local business or teaching commitments. All this stuff is mighty suspicious, and we often find out later they weren’t on the right visa, were sexually inappropriate, and did things like buy or use drugs inappropriately or illegally, borrowed money from dancers, or used dancers for their homes or resources.
I’ve noticed, working with Korean organisers, that there are cultural differences that are hard to discover until you’ve tripped over them. Even just working with translators requires a particular set of teaching skills and personality.
So research the dance and culture of new countries and scenes before you go there. And go to a scene to dance as a punter before you start trying to get gigs there.
-> so maybe talking about general dance stuff with organisers, casually saying that you like the sound of scene X in their city, and are interested in traveling more is ok.
And as this week continues, we hear more and more brave women talk about being assaulted by Max Pitruzella. Even worse, we hear more and more men making excuses for why they didn’t step in and tell Max to stop that shit and quit being a fuckwit. It is difficult to stay positive in this climate.
One of the hard parts of feminism is that it often feels like we have to be continually angry and hating on things. But it’s not true. Feminism is very good stuff. It can bring you happiness and power.
I see the dance world’s action on sexual harassment as a very lovely part of feminism.
One of the ways I turn this issue around (and why I love teaching beginners so much), is by focussing on how to treat your partner with respect, but in practical ways. Our whole Swing Dance Sydney teaching and learning group has come up with very good, simple and practical ways to integrate respect and consent with old school lindy hop dancing. It’s easy, it’s FUN, and it makes classes rowdy, full of laughter and happiness. I do recommend.
What we did with our beginner (week 1) students this week was explain about how to ask for a dance, to introduce yourself before you touch someone, and how to make sure your partner was touching you in the right way, and to be sure your partner is ok with the way you touch them.
With the intermediates we talked about how to understand your partner’s body language as communicating their feelings: how a clenched hand and tight arm might mean an uncomfortable, worried, or nervous partner. And we talked about how to be nice so your partner feels safe. And we reminded both leads and follows that we don’t ever demand or tell our partner to do a rhythm step. We invite them to join us in that step. And that we should be totally digging their response, whatever it is! Even if they ignore us!
All of this was part of a very general discussion about having relaxed swing outs where we let go early, don’t yank in early, and take care of our own posture and rhythm. Leads don’t try to micro-lead, follows bring their shit. People dig that, because they see straight away that this type of partnership is how the jazz gets in.
Our intermediate students are already right on top of these issues. Most of them volunteer or work on our events, so they know our safety policies, and how to deal with reports, the police, etc etc. They are all very active about spreading the word to other people too.
I’m lucky. They are a very wonderful group of people. I’d hashtag this blessed but I’m too cynical for that.
I love the Petersham Bowling Club. They took a punt on us when we first starting teaching lindy hop there in 2012. They let us put on live band nights whenever we want (well, any Wednesday, and a lot of Sundays). They have air conditioning, and they don’t try to force us to make our dancers drink more. They are a community-run, pokey-free venue that has solar energy, tank water toilets, and are in the black. Their staff are lovely, and we love them. I love going every week and seeing Jon and everyone. I don’t drink, but I love their care and attention for quality beers, and will happily listen to a long story about the latest barrel, and even have a taste.
They are pretty much the perfect venue for our dance classes, and we love them. LOVE them. We ran the first weekly solo jazz class in AUSTRALIA there every week for years. The PBC was where I ran my first Sam-run live jazz gig. It has good acoustics. The musicians love it – we’ve had local bros, and big international acts play for our beginners, and it’s been wonderful every time.