I’ve had a couple of emails this week alone asking me if my business would like the opportunity to work for free. I said no.
But I know a lot of DJs work for free for ‘experience’ or ‘exposure’, I know newer dancers perform for free for ‘exposure’ or ‘experience’, and I know teachers work at big events within Australia for ‘experience’. None of whom receive free entry to the event or any equitable compensation (eg a free pass). One of the bigger areas of exploitation in the dance world is administration – running large events or regular classes.
All of this is pretty much bullshit.
I’m particularly annoyed by the way volunteering is used to gain free labour from dancers, without providing safe, reasonable working conditions. Volunteering is a good thing in many cases (and the lindy hop community needs it to work), but you have a responsibility as the employer (because that’s what you are) to provide safe, equitable, and just working conditions and terms for all the people who work for you. Volunteers, employees, and contractors.Simply justifying this lack of pay as ‘growing the scene’ or doing it ‘for the scene’ is not ok.
If you really want to ‘grow the scene’ you pay people so they can then invest some of that money back into the scene (or you know, paying their electricity bill). A healthy, growing community is sustainable, economically and socially. In other words, you want to retain skilled workers (rather than overworking them and burning them out) so you can retain their knowledge and abilities and help your community improve what it does.
You want to offer people opportunities to develop these skills and interests, so that they can move on to run their own projects, develop their own ideas, and help your community become a more interesting, diverse creative space. In other words, you’ll get better dancing, DJing, and events in your scene if people stick around longer, and feel good about what they do. Eventually people get tired of being screwed over, and they drop out.
More importantly, when you exploit people, you are facilitating conditions which make it possible for your workers to be abused in other ways. Including sexual harassment and bullying. So when you say, “Oh, you should DJ/teach/manage the door for free because I want you to, and I’m just doing this ‘for the scene’,” you’re telling people that they should do unfair, unsafe, unpleasant, exploitative things ‘for the scene’ just because someone powerful or ‘important’ asks them to.
Whenever I hear the phrases ‘grow the scene’ and ‘doing this for the scene/community’, my alarm bells ring. Volunteers, workers, dancers, DJs, teachers, students ARE the scene. So you should – you have a responsibility protect their interests and rights.
As well as all that, I’m back in the teaching rotation for lindy hop on Wednesdays, which is grand. I’ve had a chance to teach with another friend for the first time at her venue, and that was great. So I’m full of ideas. The recent revival of the discussion about sexual harassment in lindy hop has also prompted a reminder about how we need to fuck up bullshit gender dynamics in lindy hop from students’ very first class.
The main idea in all our teaching with Swing Dance Sydney is to skill up students for social dancing. Which means we need them to develop independence, and to be capable and confident on the dance floor on their own. Which is pretty much the opposite of a traditional class. Things that we focus on in our classes:
students being able to take care of the music:
find the beat on their own;
count themselves in and start dancing to the music on their own;
understand phrasing (at least in a basic way) in swing music;
being able to put the swing into their dancing;
master a basic rhythm;
dance that rhythm to the music.
Students being able to take care of their partner:
get into closed position with a partner;
talk to their partner and negotiate a comfortable closed position with them;
figure out that each partner is a different size and shape, with different feelings about being close to other people, etc etc, and then adjust their closed position to work with that. By talking to them;
introduce themselves to a new partner, and get into closed position in a respectful way;
leads initiating moves when they’re ready, rather than in a fixed sequence all the time, so they lead when both partners are ready;
move around the dance floor in closed position with their partner, using that basic rhythm, in time, and with swinging timing, to the music;
adjust their connection to make this movement happen as a unit;
Students being able to take care of themselves, and be mindful/present:
both partners are responsible for their own sense of timing (groove/bounce/pulse/whatevs) and their own sense of rhythm, and both partners respect that in their partner;
no one sacrifices their posture, physical comfort, safety, timing, rhythm or sense of music for their partner. And no one asks them to;
follows are active in the partnership. They way they touch their partner sends information to the lead. And the lead learns how to listen to that information;
…which means that it’s not just the lead’s job to stay in time, to find the beat, to keep the rhythm. Both partners do this, and the lead can listen to the follow to get it together;
when you begin dancing with someone, you use closed position to become a partnership: you collaborate to find a shared sense of groove.
We do all this in the very first class, and everyone is very good at it. We see very, very good social dancing right in their first class. They learn to move around on the dance floor in their first class, and they develop perfect floor craft by the end of the class. This week we told the students it’s just like being at a very good party. And they just applied what they knew about parties to make this work: apologising when they bumped people; avoiding bumping people; introducing themselves to new people; taking care of their partner and people around them; listening to and enjoying the music. And talking. So. Much. Talking. The noise level is incredible.
Now, I have to make it clear. I might sound like a big old hippy, but I’m not really. At least not in class. Everyone wears shoes, students choose to lead or follow at the beginning of class, and they stick to that. We only teach with real, swinging jazz. We only teach historic dance steps, and we talk about the history of the dance. We don’t use a lot of jargon or technical dance talk. I try to NEVER use the words ‘frame’ or ‘tension’. When we first get them partnered up, we say “Get into this position” and then we just let them do it. Then we say “Check with your partner to see it’s comfortable” and then we model how we’d ask and reply to our partner, and then we get them to do that. We don’t count them in using numbers, we scat. And over the course of the class, we move from getting them started to saying “Start when you’re ready”, though I love Lennart’s line, “Start when you feel it is the right time.”
We began teaching this way to actively reduce and remove the conditions that made sexual harassment possible. We wanted women dancers empowered, and male dancers ok with that. But what we’ve actually found is that we’re just making it easier for everyone to be properly social when they dance. It is AMAZING AMAZING AMAZING.
I mean holy SHIT! In one hour, they develop perfect floor craft on our tiny dance floor. They have gorgeously relaxed connections. They are confident and happy, making friends and laughing and talking really loudly. They can count themselves in, find phrases, and express knowledgeable opinions about whether a song is nice or not.
So, we’ve just found that teaching this way makes for better dancing and dancers. My mind is just blown.
I looked at them dancing this week and realised: traditional lindy hop classes spend a lot of time and energy ruining people’s natural ability to hold a person in their arms and move to the music. It’s like we’re trying to reverse engineer swing outs (or whatever) as though we’d never seen one before. When we should just start with what we all know how to do already: enjoy music and hold someone in our arms. And then take the natural or most obvious route to the end goal. Want a swing out? Do a circle to generate momentum, then let go. Any old count will do – if you insist on letting go on count X (in a beginner class), you end up with people fucking each other up on the dance floor, and being rough with each other. If you count people in 5 6 7 8 all the time, they rely on you to get them started, rather than learning to get their own body ready, getting their partner ready, and then dancing when they’re both ready. If you only teach them using fixed sequences of steps, they social dance that way too – they dance in figures. But they also (and this is WORSE) they dance as though getting through the figure is the most important thing. And as though having the best and most number of figures is most important. When it’s not! The music is!
Anyhoo, all this thinking is a result of some learning I’ve been doing:
Peter Loggins spent an hour with a couple of us at Herrang explaining what two step dances are, and how he teaches/taught in New Orleans in bars. Basically: simple is best, and the goal is just to get moving to a band. He said something quite provocative: “lindy hop is not a social dance.” I thought this was interesting, as the idea of a ‘swing out’ as the ‘basic’ step is quite problematic. I prefer Frankie’s point that the promenade is the most important move in lindy hop: closed position, moving in time with a partner to music, using a nice rhythm. But I felt a light go on when Loggins talked about teaching and dancing in crowded bars in New Orleans: music first. Don’t kick over the tip jar. Tip the band. Buy a drink. Be able to dance with randoms (ie dance, don’t do figures). Enjoy the music. Interact with the people around you like a real social person (ie don’t dominate the dance floor, obscure the band, or put dancing before real social interaction).
All of these things are on one hand reasonable rhetoric around live music and dance culture. But on the other hand, if you begin teaching like this, and dance like this yourself, you develop very good floor craft, you focus on your partner, you dance to the music instead of pushing through figures. You become a very good dancer. And a better person.
The Frankie stream/Harlem Roots stream at Herrang this year and last year taught me that figures are less important than rhythms. I was kind of excited about this because it taught me you could dance with ANYONE if you approach lindy hop like this. You can do simple figures with anyone and have a good time, and you can enjoy it too, because you can add it fun rhythms to keep you interested. And because you’re focussing on your partner and the people around you, rather than pushing through a series of figures, your floor craft is better, you can dance to any tempo, with anyone. Basically, you rule.
The idea of ‘rhythm first’ is important. Not just because it’s about understanding music and actually dancing. It also helps your partner feel what you are doing with your body. ‘Clear rhythms’ can be another way of saying ‘clear weight commitments and transfers’ and ‘engaged muscles recruited in the most efficient way.’ And if you do all this, your partner can feel what you’re doing.
I am very, very VERY STRONGLY committed to the idea of both partners contributing to the dance. It’s not just a matter of follows ‘just following’ or leads ‘leading’. It’s two people dancing together. Gotta learn to dance on your own so you know who you are, and you have some sense of rhythm and timing. Then when you dance together, dance together, and trust each other. You don’t have to do exactly the same rhythms: that is some boring and dull shit. It’s also the opposite of jazz.
But you do have to be ‘together’ in Frankie’s sense: you are in love for three minutes. They are the centre of your world. If you’re just pushing through figures, who cares who you’re dancing with, as long as they can lead/follow that sequence of figures. If you’re just jumping about randomly while holding someone’s hand, it’s fun, but that’s not really jazz either.
But if you’re dancing simpler shapes with rhythms that are dictated by the music, you have to keep checking in with your partner – looking at them, listening to them, responding to them. And because it’s jazz, it’s not formal turn taking: we can both speak at the same time, and we can say different things. Hello polyrhythms, hello layers of rhythm, hello lead and follow contributing different pieces to a rhythmic whole.
Rikard said while teaching with Jenny at Herrang: “I trust Jenny to know how to improvise. I trust her to do something interesting.” I think this mutual trust is essential, to being a human or a lindy hopper. As a lead, I don’t have to micro-manage my follow. I can let them do what they need to do. And that’s a relief. And interesting – who knows what they’ll do! I’d better pay attention! I’d also better look at them, listen to the messages they send to me through the connection, and respond to what they’re doing.
I throw out the idea of ‘hijacking the lead’ by follows, because it reveals a profound limitation in understanding of how leading and following works. It assumes that the status quo is the lead ‘driving’ and the following ‘along for the ride’. No. No. No.
I throw out the idea of ‘lindy hop like a conversation’ where leads and follows take turns ‘doing variations’. No. No. No. Lindy hop is a relationship between two people for three minutes, and we both participate in it. We might take turns, but we can also contribute all the time. We have to – we have to be present, if we want to respect and properly engage with our partner. As a human being.
So, by stripping out all the bullshit ‘technique’ and jargon talk, and all that shit about dancing as science or specialist skills, it’s much easier and fun. If we approach lindy hop as just something we can do, we empower students, we take the focus away from the teachers, and we create a more equitable power dynamic. As teachers we are discovering jazz with students, not holders of knowledge that we dole out.
Some direct consequences of this approach for me as a teacher:
You can’t teach as much content in classes. In fact, content is much less important, and you focus on other teaching goals or priorities. And you realise it’s not the number of moves you have, but the way you dance with another human that’s important;
You take longer to do things in class. Which is nice;
You talk less, and play more music while teaching. Which is grand;
You ‘correct’ students less, which means they feel better about themselves. Remember, every time you correct someone’s dancing, you’re effectively telling them they’re doing it wrong;
If you let them dance steps in any sequence, taking as long as they want, starting when they want, and giving them ages with a partner and lots of music, they solve a lot of their own problems themselves. They just figure it out, with their partner or on their own. Which means you talk less. So hold yourself back: don’t jump in and ‘fix’ them. They’ve got this;
I’ve shifted to asking them “What was hard? What was easy? What made it easier?” after they’ve danced a bit, and they tell us. Because they’re relaxed. And they ask us questions. My favourite thing when they ask a question like “Where does my right foot go?” is to say “You watch us dance and tell us” and then we do and they do. Or we reply “What an interesting question. Let’s all dance on it and observe ourselves and what we do.” And then we do, and they do, and then we come back together and we say, “Ok, what did you notice?” and they answer their own question. I LOOOOOOOVE THIS APPROACH! Because it tells students they know a lot. They know more about their bodies than we do. And that they can figure out the answer to questions by experimenting.
A direct, and most pleasing consequence of all this, is that you get intermediate students who are ENGAGED in classes, and more than willing to figure out how something works on their own.
You also get students who go social dancing and smile into their partners’ face. I love seeing our students on the social floor. They laugh and smile, they’re relaxed and happy, and they look like they’re dancing. When I see them social dancing, I think ‘Frankie would be proud.’ I look at them and I see joy. I see people being good to each other, and happy. Because they feel confident and relaxed, and ok with just being themselves on the dance floor.
I’ve had to step up and make social dance spaces for our students. They have to be friendly, relaxed, and familiar. So we just started having regular social dancing at the end of our beginner blocks. We ditched our intermediate class in those weeks, and we party on. This was something all the teachers wanted, because we all wanted to spend more social time with students, and because we saw that they found full on social nights intimidating. They needed a next, interim space for practicing dancing. So we did it. And we all LOVE it. It’s just like a real party: talking, eating, laughing, and dancing. Not just dancing.
Hey, dance event organisers and teachers!
Feeling pretty bloody awful about sexual harassment? You’re not alone. Want to _do_ something? You can!
Do you have your sexual harassment and OH&S policies and strategies up and working? No? It’s not that hard. And it makes you feel really good and powerful. Like you’re really making a difference and being the boss of jazz.
You don’t need to worry about ‘being a downer’ by addressing these issues. Making plans, training up, and then acting on them will make you and your peeps happier, healthier, and fully legit awesome.
If you want to talk about how we’re going about doing things with Swing Dance Sydney, with the events we run, and in working with other organisers – drop me a line! Email me on sam at dogpossum at dogpossum dot org
– A code of conduct (with helpful tips on how not to assault/harass someone);
– Explicit tips for not being a poop to other dancers in our FAQ:
– Response strategies for our volunteers, managers, and organisers (getting hassled at the door? Tag in your ninja-like event manager! Call the cops!);
– In-class teaching strategies for tooling up students with mad harassment-destroying skills, and getting teachers fighting fit for dealing with dodgy behaviour;
– Super powers: saying NO and STOP with confidence and pride, being cool when someone knocks you back for a dance. Like GUNS;
– Guidelines for teachers who work with us (both weekly and for big weekends): we are looking out for YOU;
– Strategies for teaching musicians how not to be pervs, and how to be forces for jazz GOOD (rock on super-powered musos!);
– Draft agreements for DJs, teachers, bands, and organisers to lay out the rules, and remind them that we all deserve safety and wellness;
– Event management rules to reduce stress, and increase joy (including the 5 minute time out rule; knowing your limits; work with a buddy; running events should be fun; listen first, talk second; speak slowly and clearly into the microphone, and be sure to point out where the toilets are).
– And most importantly: the ability to improvise, innovate, and change our strategies. Because we are jazz dancers, and that is what we DO.
Honestly, maintain the rage, but also get into the agitate-educate-organise side of things. If learning the Big Apple makes you feel powerful, imagine what learning to kick a sexual harasser out of a venue can do for you. If we’re a community of dancers, then we got to look out for each other. Step up.
Something I added to this post on fb:
Oh, and if you are running teeny tiny events or classes, and not sure you’re ‘ready’ or ‘big enough’ to tackle these issues? NO way! You’re in the perfect position to get started on this. Just like we start learning to social dance right from our first classes, you can learn to develop a good, solid oh&s policy/process with just your weekly casual practice session, or your irregular DJed party night. You’re totally in a great position to pwn this stuff.
[edit 2]And I also think it’s important to think about the things that you can do if you’re not an organiser. Punters are powerful. Organisers make money from events, they garner status and respect. Don’t buy any of that ‘I’m just doing this for the community’ bullshit. That is fucked up martyr bullshit. YOU are the community, and organisers have a duty of care to provide as safe an event as possible. So call them on it!
1. Have a look at the event’s website. Do they have a code of conduct? No? Ask them publicly on their facebook page where it is. Public questions are important, because it says “Hey, this is important to me.”
2. Most of the dance code of conducts I’ve read are completely token and useless. No practical tips, no definitions of harassment. If you read a code of conduct and you’re left with any questions, it’s not good enough. And there’s a code of conduct, but no information about what to do if you need help, ask a public question on the facebook page.
3. If they have a code of conduct but some sort of vague line like ‘see one of our staff’ (rather than ‘speak to Person, contact a door person (who will speak to Person), then you should ask a question like ‘How do I know who can help me? Will they wear a name badge? What happens after I tell them?”
4. If you are volunteering at an event, do you know what to do if someone comes to you saying they need help? Is there a written handbook or emergency process? Who is your point of contact? What do you do if there’s an accident? When do you call the cops or an ambulance? You should know this information before the event starts.
5. Check in again after a week or two. Still no response/code/strategy? Ask again. Be a pebble in their shoe. A little big of niggling can keep you and friends safe, and it can make it clear you mean business.
6. And if you want to say not to a dance/drink/whatevs, just say “No thank you” and leave it at that. If someone says “No thank you” when you ask them to dance, say “No worries” and move on. If you aren’t ok with people not wanting to dance with you, you haven’t grasped the fundamentals of _social_ dancing. No one is obliged to dance with you.
You are watching the room all the time, right (RIGHT?!)? That puts you in a super powerful position for keeping an eye on creepers and dodgy behaviour.
But you’re also stuck at a desk with a computer. Virtually every time I’ve DJed at a big event, some random dickface bloke has hassled me. I’ve been groped by sound guys, hit on by punters, hassled by dickhead dancers. I’ve had dancers take photos of my computer screen without permission, random men (they’re always men) have touched my computer and scrolled through my sets. Most recently I was hassled by some fuckwit dancer from Canberra while I was DJing at SLX. If I could remember who he was, I’d name and shame.
This shit is happening to all of us. If it’s happening to me – who’s pretty darn intimidating – you can be sure worse things are happening to your less scary friends. You need to step up and speak out for them. And for yourself.
Statistically, one of you reading this facebook comment is a harasser or offender. We DJs are WATCHING you. The door staff saw you come in, they took note of your vibe. They’re watching you too. And if you see me in the room, you can be damn sure I’m going to call you on bullshit if I see it. Have done before, will do again.
It’s important that organisers see that we take this seriously, and that your attendance will depend on how safe you and your friends feel at an event. If you don’t raise the issue, organisers won’t do anything about it.
Volunteers are particularly powerful, because events simply can’t work without masses of free labour. So you can really make a difference.
Organisers: if people are asking you these questions, it means you’re not doing a good enough job. So don’t get narky, get ON it.
The bottom line is this: these men (and I am talking about men, here), are not doing these things in a vacuum. Other men will have noticed that their behaviour is inappropriate. But they did not call this man out because he is a high profile teacher.
It is your job – as a human being – to say something when you see people doing inappropriate things, or when they make inappropriate jokes or comments. There is no excuse. If you saw something and didn’t speak up, you enabled it.
This sort of grooming and then assault take place over longer periods of time. There would have been times when someone saw something. Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you do the decent thing?
If you had even a niggling suspicion, why didn’t you act on it? Why didn’t you speak up?
If you are a man, this is how you can step up and be a real man: call out another man on inappropriate behaviour.
Here’s a good guide:
– If someone is a teacher in your scene, particularly a guest teacher, it’s not appropriate for them to make sexual jokes in class. At all. This is an important place to start, as it sets up the terms of the class and scene culture.
– It’s not appropriate for guest teachers to make sexual jokes. Yes, I know that sounds a little conservative. But that’s the point: teachers need to be a bit more conservative.
– It’s not appropriate for them to initiate sexual relationships with students. Yes, there are fuzzy points. But If the student is much younger than the teacher, it is 100% not ok, because we have two points of power here. If they want to begin a relationship, they need to end the teacher-student relationship. If the younger person is under 18, it is illegal. And not ok. It is over now, before it begins.
Look, let’s just make it clear: sexualised jokes in class. Not ok. Just stop that shit now.
I have many more things to say on this topic, but I just can’t.
But, once again:
Speak up when you see bullshit behaviour. Right now, as I write this, I can think of a few high profile international male teachers who are definitely inappropriate in their manner. Everything from sexualised jokes to the sort of nasty buddy-boy sniggering about women in the scene (and their bodies). If I heard them, if I was that buddy there, I’d speak up. Take a risk, yo. Become the better man. Call them on their bullshit.
Soz this post is a bit long and jumbly. I’m a bit busy atm, but I want to get this down fast, while I’m thinking about it.
Key points: I think the ‘conversation’ metaphor for lindy hop partnership is boring and limited. I think turn taking is boring. Here, in this post, I use some ILHC 2015 jack and jill videos to talk about how leads and follows can use layers of rhythm to move beyond call and response. Rhythm is about timing, and that means more than just how many times and in what order your foot taps the floor. It’s about how you use your whole body, and how you do that in connection with another person. This is how lindy hop is not like tap dance.
I have problems with using the image of ‘conversation’ as a metaphor for lindy hop and improvisation. Because most people use the word ‘conversation’ to mean formal turn taking. You speak, then I speak. But this is a highly gendered, and quite formal way of talking. It’s how we’d talk in a formal debate, or on tv. Or if we were middle class men at a dinner party. But jazz dance is vernacular dance, so is should look the way a real conversation sounds. A conversation between women. There should be interruptions, there should be layers of talk and idea, there should be shouting and quiet moments of empathy. All working together in collaborative meaning making. I’ve written a lot about language and gender here on this blog and elsewhere. There are some useful references in this post. Basically, I think we need to address the way men and women ‘do’ conversation and group talk. There are clear, documented differences in the way men talk in groups, women talk in groups, how mixed gendered groups talk, and how same-gendered groups talk. This is directly applicable to discussions about vernacular dance. I am not the first to say that vernacular dance is an embodiment of vernacular music, nor am I the first to say that vernacular music is pretty much vernacular talk in action.
Let’s have a little look at the ILHC jack and jill videos.
So far I’ve only watched about three – Laura and Remy, Laura and Skye, Jo and Peter. I’ve been seriously fucking irritated by the way both couples are introduced men-first, and the MC makes a joke about the male dancer only. But my sample size is too small. Hopefully this pattern does not continue with the rest of the MCing.
The dancing is fantastic.
I’ve only watched each video once so far, this morning.
Watching Laura and Skye, I had some issues.
It feels a bit like a dance fight. As though Laura is trying to solo dance while she lindy hops. I’ve got no issue with that – it’s a totally legit approach. But I do feel as though she’s trying desperately to fit in her improvisation where ever and where ever she can. I know that I do this when I follow. Or did, until I started leading more. And boy, she is fully legit: she is a freaking athlete of awesome. But I don’t like the way this dance looks. I feel as though they’re not dancing together. I want Laura to:
– chill and take some time to get on the same page as Skye, at the very basic level of finding a common sense of timing or bounce. She may not be a bouncy dancer (ie she mightn’t be down with using ‘pulse’), and that’s cool, but when you’re in a jack and jill (or social dancing), you should find a common ground with your partner. I can see Skye looking to make that most basic level of connection (ie how do you use the beat and the floor), but it’s just not working.
– chill and work within the shapes and energy Skye is giving. Skye is both a very clear and leading lead (ie he isn’t the ‘boss’, but he’s very definitely setting the shapes and tone for the dance), and a very accommodating, collaborative lead. I like his dancing, because I like leads to lead.
That’s how lindy hop works: one of us is making bigger structural decisions about what moves and shapes we’ll do; one of us is making those moves and shapes work, and adding texture and definition. A good lead isn’t just ‘calling’ the steps and having the follow ‘respond’. A good lead is working with what the follow is doing and how they move and feel the music. A good lead isn’t following; this isn’t like following. It’s about listening and building on what the follow is doing. Building in unexpected things. Just like a very good lead uses the floor and ‘floor craft’ to build a dance that isn’t just responding to obstacles on the dance floor, but incorporating them in a creative way to make new things. Floor craft is craft; it’s not just damage floor. It’s creative and improvisational art in itself. It’s real social dancing.
Anyhow, I feel as though Laura is desperately stealing every moment she can to squash in some sort of flourish extra bit of whatevs.
In contrast, Jo works with her partner, and what he’s doing. Peter is quite a ‘strong’ and assertive lead. I don’t mean ‘strong’ as in ‘manhandling his partner around the floor’, I mean ‘strong’ as in having a clear personality and vision for the dance. I think that you need to have this in lindy hop. This isn’t a dance for introverts. If you’re dancing old school style, both the lead and follow are bringing clear, confident personalities. The leads are very clear and strong. The follows are equally clear and strong. Again, I don’t mean in terms of physical strength (though that can be involved). I mean in terms of attitude and confidence. I think Peter brings some of that. And Jo brings that as well – she is the Norma Miller to balance Frankie Manning. Not in terms of dancing style, but in terms of self confidence and willingness to clearly be present in the dance. Neither Frankie nor Norma would quietly coddle their partner. They’d both step up and just assume their partner was going to bring it too. They’d have confidence in their partner’s ability to bring the shit.
I think this is the main problem I have with what’s happening with Laura and Skye. I feel as though she doesn’t trust Skye enough to build in responses to her dancing, to work with her. I know I do this too, with leads who don’t listen to me when I’m following. I feel as though I have to physically force my own voice into the conversation. Perhaps Laura’s been dancing with some overly domineering leads lately? I wouldn’t know. But I think that follows should trust the lead to listen to them.
When I watch Jo and Peter, I see Jo taking time to figure out what Peter’s doing, and how he feels and how he’s feeling the music. And he does the same with her, but at the same time, he initiates the steps – he takes the initiative. That’s the definition of leading, right? Going first? But once Jo has figured out this common ground, she builds in her own responses. They don’t interrupt what Peter has planned; they work within the structure he’s building. And he pays attention to that.
All this is all well and good. I think though, that a lot of dancers stop at this point. They see this to-and-fro as formal turn taking. Just like in that board meeting, or at a formal dinner party. Where speakers take turn saying things. Calling and responding. But I don’t think this is a properly vernacular discourse. I think this is very much an anglo-celtic middle class* heteronormative patriarchal structure. I think we should remember that this is jazz dance. Let’s think about jazz in New Orleans, before swing went solidly mainstream. We can hear multiple instruments improvising at the same time at various points throughout the song. The melody is still there. The structure of the song is still stable, if not formulaic. In fact, the structure is so formulaic it’s predictable. Which is essential if you’re improvising, right? You all need to be able to predict where the structure and melody will go, so you know when to come in and go out. But the improvisation is unpredictable. Yet harmonious. Except when it’s deliberately not.
Both couples are amazing dancers, physically amazing with stunning reflexes and control of their bodies, a deep understanding of the music they’re dancing to, and a thorough understanding of leading and following. This is some shit hot dancing. But it doesn’t quite feel like jazz to me. It doesn’t feel like vernacular jazz dance. It needs a little more chaos. It needs more interruption, more polyphony, more layers of rhythm. Those layers and interruptions can’t be interruptions for the sake of saying something. They need to be responses and interactions. And both speakers should be building those responses in. Sometimes when a group of women friends are talking, they are interrupting continually. They’re shouting “YES!” and “OMG NO!” in response to something their friend is saying. And in a group, there may be two people speaking at once, but all of the group is keeping track of everything everyone is saying at once, so they’re having parallel but interactive conversations. This is what happens in jazz. Many people speak at once, there’s interruption, and it’s rowdy. But everyone is still ‘with’ it, and aware of what other people are saying and doing. They know when to go still and silent. They know when to shout out or laugh or talk. Just as in a jazz band.
I want to see more of this in lindy hop.
In fact, this was something that came up in the Harlem Roots stream in Herrang this year, and in the Frankie stream last year. The teachers who were strongest proponents of this approach were Asa and Daniel, Jenny and Rickard, and Ramona (who I saw take this to her teaching with Remy). Asa and Daniel articulated it most clearly: leads, each ‘lead’ is only a suggestion. Do not ‘demand’ your follow dance everything you ask. As Ramona puts it: follows, you have a responsibility to look after the beat, and to look after your own rhythm too. To paraphrase her, it’s not ok to ‘just follow’ (as if you could anyway). Follows have a responsibility to feed energy into the dance through keeping time, and through bringing rhythm in a clear, coherent way. We are partners, here.
This is exciting, because when follows realise the leads are listening, and aren’t demanding, they become more confident. If you move away from social dancing as a series of perfectly executed steps with rhythms performed in unison, lindy hop becomes more like jazz. You can have layers of rhythm, and it’s ok. Leads don’t have to ‘lead’ every rhythm with a complex combination of body lead, weight change, and so on. The physical connection between partners can become at once more relaxed (we don’t need to see the follow’s right biceps pop out), and more solid (the lead’s right arm around the follow becomes more important, and the follow engages with that through their back and torso). And you have to LOOK at your partner a whole lot more.
What we found in practice in Herrang, was that leads on the whole used much simpler moves. Swing outs. Circles. Under arm turns. Time in open without touching, or touching. Promenade. Closed position. Even charleston became a bit too complex. These simple shapes allowed us to dance in more interesting ways, and to dance with anyone to any tempo. Because the ‘interest’ came in how you executed these steps. Your step step triple step could become a more complicated (or simple!) rhythm step. And you and your partner needn’t do the same rhythm simultaneously. In fact, you usually didn’t, and when you did, it was a happy coincidence.
The trick then becomes how to dance rhythms that are open to complementary rhythms. A bit like in musical improvisation: you should be in the right key and time signature, so you don’t get dischord, and you can stay in time with everyone else. At Herrang, each night when we were social dancing, when we danced with this rhythmic variation and polychromatic approach, we had to first find a shared time signature – we HAD to have a shared bounce or sense of time. And it was ESSENTIAL that both partners, lead and follow, maintained that sense of time. Bounce partners must bounce, or be able to move in and out of bouncing in time. It’s both a physical and visual way of staying ‘in time’ with your partner. Musicians don’t need to physically bounce, and lindy hoppers needn’t either, but you must always have an awareness of the timing, and bouncing is fun. The musicians mightn’t bounce, but the music does, and dancers are the music made visible.
The wonderful part of this approach is that anyone can do it. Total beginner dancers can find the beat and keep it.
Where is the ‘key’ in this? I think that the key is the pitch of your dancing. Or the ‘feel’. And you figure it out together. It’s a kind of shared sense of how you will dance together. And you need that moment in closed position at the beginning of the dance to find that shared sense of pitch before you begin dancing.
When I watch Laura and Skye, I feel as though Skye immediately sets out how and who he is, before they even begin. But that Laura doesn’t do that straight away, she doesn’t feel confident enough, so she feels she has to do it over and over again by stealing moments to add her notes. In contrast, Jo and Peter do find this common time and common key, but then there’s still those moments of turn taking, rather than polyrhythm. It’s not a bad thing. It’s fantastic. It’s definitely not a matter of both leads being too autocratic or domineering. I think that it’s more that the follows could use the leads’ clearness and stable ‘leading’ in a different way.
Ok, let’s look at a very clear and simple example of what I mean by layers of rhythm and mutual, collaborative meaning making.
This is a nice example because it is a class recap, not social dancing, so they are very clearly demonstrating the concepts. In a social setting, this stuff often isn’t this simple. Particularly when you see very good dancers doing it. And I want to make it clear: ‘good’ can be anyone. The skill you really need to pull this off is social skills: communication.
A few simple examples:
0.10 Asa initiates a break step, and Daniel doesn’t do it perfectly in time with her. He doesn’t yank her into stillness, he doesn’t force her to do something else, he doesn’t try to sync up with her. He lets himself be still (which gives her a contrasting still to work with), and then he joins in with the stomp off on ‘and 8’. This little moment works because they share a sense of timing. He’s not ‘bouncing’ hugely and visibly, but his core is engaged, his arms are relaxed, and he clearly shares the timing with her. He is listening, and yet prepared, so when it comes to the end of the 8 he’s ready with the stomp off.
More interestingly, they have a shared sense of jazz conventions: they both know where 8 is, they know that a stomp off is a conventional way to end an 8 (or begin a move – why is 8 the end of a move, instead of the preparation for the next!? It needn’t be!), and they both ‘get back together’ for the final 8 of the phrase. Asa pulls out her rhythm in the penultimate 8 of the phrase, then clearly listens to Daniel as he ‘finishes’ the phrase with a simple circle, and a synchronised rhythm.
It gets better. There is a temptation in choreographing and dancing to let the phrases be unbreachable barriers. You do feel as though you have to ‘finish’ a move at the end of a phrase, then start something new for the next one. Similarly, we often feel we need to ‘start’ on 1. But Frankie didn’t start on 1 all the time – he started where the music said start. If you’ve done the ‘Frankie 89’ choreography, danced to ‘Wednesday Night Hop’, it starts on 7. Because that’s where the music says start.
When we watch Asa and Daniel in this little section of the song, they respond to what’s happening in the beat and the phrasing, but they work across the phrases by continuing jig walks from the last 8 to the first of the next phrase. But the timing of the step changes in the next phrase.
Right here, we see some really complex rhythm work happening, passed back and forth between the lead and follow. It looks and feels a bit like the shouty chorus in a nola jazz song: lots of layers of rhythm and sound. But it all works because both partners share a sense of timing and ‘pitch’.
But things level up.
At 0.30 they dance in side by side, but both dancing completely different rhythms. They don’t sync up again until about 0.41. But they maintain connection. Note how Daniel’s arm around Asa’s back stays connected, but is less intense and demanding. He allows her physical space, but also space in the connection so his body doesn’t demand she dance the same rhythm as him. So they both understand how the points of physical connection allow partners to hear and share where a partner’s weight is (and what the rhythm is – you feel this through the way muscles engage in your partners’ body, a relaxed, rubbery connection clears the line so you can ‘hear’ this, but it all often happens at a subconscious level – you just feel and respond), but they both also understand that you don’t have to be in a state of intense connection all the time. You can be listening and dancing, but not synced up. And then after this, Daniel initiates a different move, and asks for more connection from Asa, and she agrees, and they work the same rhythm together.
If you listen to the music, it’s building in intensity – the melody introduced earlier is emphasised, the little tinkles are joined by a more intense brass section.
The phrasing is important, but it’s not everything.
And, then, when we get to 0.54, we get a very familiar couple of moves: a curl (or around the world) and then points. It happens at a very climactic moment in the music. It’s as though all that rhythmic play before culminates in a couple of 8s of very structured, historic, authoritative movement. Finally, synchronised rhythm. This is the money shot. But then it ends with both partners varying the shapes and energy – so it’s not perfectly synchronised after all. I think this part makes it most clear, and it clearly identifies the sort of revivalist project I want to be involved in.
My revivalist project:
learn and preserve historic steps
understand and practice the values of historic jazz dance: improvisation and jazz music
innovate, change, and bring your own style and personality: polyrhythms and improvisation within musical structure, and with reference to historical steps or a ‘canon’ of authoritative steps
-> in this way we can both recognise and preserve the history of this dance, and yet do something new and innovative
=> in this way we embody the tension of vernacular dance: be in the past, the present and the future at once; embody mindfulness, but also be intellectually active and predictive; innovate and change, but preserve and respect.
You can see here how ‘musicality’ is a complicated thing. It’s about understanding tempo, timing, phrasing, and syncopation. But it’s also about understanding the way an arrangement works across phrases, how different instruments contribute as individuals and as groups and so on. If you allow this sort of polyrhythm work to happen in a dance, you invite the music in.
As we say to our students, the most important parts of lindy hop are taking care of the music, and taking care of our partner.
One of the most obvious results of this approach to lindy hop that I have noticed, is that partners give each other more attention. You HAVE to! Because anything can happen! I have noticed that partners look at each other more, and interact more. Frankie has been telling us this all long: you are in love for three minutes! This is the queen of the world! Doods: YOUR PARTNER IS IMPORTANT. They’re not there to provide/execute a perfect sequences of steps and moves. They are there to be there with you. Whether your dance is a lovely sequence of simple ‘basic’ rhythms, or a storm of rhythm.
I hope you’ve already figured out that this approach is far more than just the formal turn taking of a ‘conversation’ between colleagues. It’s much, much more than ‘I do a variation, you do a variation’. That’s boring. That’s easy. That’s not feminist, either. That’s equality. I don’t want equality. I don’t want to be ‘equal’ or have ‘the same’ as my partner. I want us both to bring what we each have and want in that moment, and I want a shifting, changing relationship. Or else it is TOO BORING.
So how do you level up this approach? In the Harlem Roots track at Herrang, I was in the advanced stream, and after the first day I asked myself: “Is that it?” because we had basically done the same stuff as last year in the mixed level Frankie track. This ‘stuff’ was: listen to your partner, leads don’t demand follows do as you ask; leads expect and allow for follows changing what you are dancing. Follows: bring your shit; you’re not passive in this dance, be present. Stuff we’d all done last year. Yes, it was fun, and it had blown my mind last year, but I wanted more. I figured I’d mastered this.**
I thought that this was just the basic, beginner level stuff. Surely we’d be doing something harder and more challenging in the advanced stream? But then I figured it out: it really is this simple. This is how we play lindy hop. As Lennart says, lindy hop is really a very simple dance. What makes it challenging is what you bring to the dance. Having top shelf physical skills makes you more present. Having a very good understanding of jazz music makes you more present. But because the game is this simple – listen, respond, talk, play – anyone can play. You can have an excellent dance with anyone, so long as they are present and using this approach. Beginner, old timer, international teacher – they’re all great dance partners in this game.
And when I figured this out, it was like I’d been given the best present ever. I got over myself and my ‘is this all there is?’ and I started playing properly. Tempo isn’t an issue, because you don’t have to execute a series of perfect swing outs with the step step triple step rhythm. You can do ANYTHING. I think this is where we have to really LISTEN when we hear old timers say young lindy hoppers don’t do enough half time at higher tempos. The old timers aren’t saying ‘dance half time when it gets fast’, they’re saying ‘stop following these arbitrary rules about how you dance, and start playing with timing and with your partner.’
Rhythm is the best fucking fun ever. And this is why we have to learn to dance on our own. It’s coming at things the wrong way to say ‘you should learn to solo dance to improve your lindy hop’. It’s more that we learn to dance on our own, so that we learn who we are, and what we want to bring to the dance. We develop the skills to contribute to the dance. A musician learns to play their instrument so they can play in a band. I can dance on my own all the time, and that’s great. But it’s dancing and improvising in a band, or in a partnership, that makes it really fun. I think it’s because humans are both highly social, and also really good at pattern matching and problem solving. Improvised jazz music is immensely satisfying and intensely challenging. It ticks our boxes. For me, it grounds me, utterly. I have to be present, utterly and completely present in the moment if I want to lindy hop like this. I can’t be thinking about other things, or wondering about my next dance. I have to be right there with that partner. All the time. They have to be the centre of my world for 3 minutes.
And best of all, this game will never be over. Each dance step or rhythm break I learn becomes another pencil in my pencil case. Each dance is as important as each class, as I learn new things with each partner or teacher or class.
To sum up, I guess I should just show you a video of two dancers doing some mad shit. In this video Ramona and Nick show, in a very simple, obvious way, how you can do both turn taking and layers of rhythm. But, in a demonstration of much more skilled dancing, they move beyond this, building up interest. Best of all, we see how a very good follow can work within a set framework or structure from a clear lead, to build trust on his part, but also to innovate and bring the shit on her part.
They begin (and continue) with clear moments of taking turns with the rhythm, and then doing a little moment of layers of unsynchronised rhythm. This is a clear and simple articulation of what the music is doing.
They then use this musical theme in their broader body movement – a series of pass bys/turns/swingouts where Mona does most of the turns, with moments of extended stretch to match the longer notes in the melody, culminating in Nick doing a couple of tight spins on the spot. It’s excellently simple and effective. But if they’d continued the dance like that, we’d have died of boredom. But they level up.
As the music moves into the next section, they change up how they take turns, and they add more moments of layered rhythm. I think that Ramona is utterly fantastic in these moments. I really, really like the way she responds to Nicks’ smoother less bouncy approach to timing, but doesn’t compromise her own solid pulse or employment and articulation of the beat. She uses gorgeous moments of extended stretch and timing, but also quicker, more concentrated and intense smaller movements.
Nick is initiating these to a certain extent, but it’s as though Mona takes these ideas and this broader framework, and then exaggerates or extends or highlights them. In this way she is working within his clear, solid frame work (ie following a leader), but she does not compromise her own rhythmic variations, nor the way she actually uses her body.
As an example, she takes extended, stretched moments in open, but because she’s a physical machine, she can also respond quickly when she needs to, because she understands how to use graduated modes of engagement. To the audience, this gives us moments of calm and rest to contrast with the intensity. Her body seems calm and restful (because it is – she uses only the muscles she needs), but it can also seem intense and excited (when she engages more muscles in graduated ways, moves faster, changes her timing). I think this is the clearest difference between her dancing and Laura G’s. Laura always seems ON; I’d like to see more gradations of energy, and hence a more textured approach to timing and rhythm.
*middle class: I think most Americans use this term in a different way to we use it here in Australia. What I would term the ‘working class’ is closer to what the Americans call the middle class. So middle class in my discussion here, means having a degree of disposable income, owning a home (with a mortgage), probably tertiary educated (though not necessarily so), having a stable income, living above the poverty line, having a degree of privilege that all this accords. Working class, though, means that you are perhaps struggling more to make ends meet, though you can put food on the table, and pay your bills. Just.
**Oh, the arrogance of the intermediate dancer. I got served, that’s for sure.
The radio show is a good one. We have a bunch of lindy hop related podcasts and vlogcasts, but all of them are American, and show a decidedly American bias. To the point that I can’t actually bear to listen to most of them any more. I don’t like to hate on people’s creative projects, but I’m very tired of listening to discussions pitched as discussing ‘the lindy world’, but really only discussing a few people’s experience of contemporary urban American lindy hop. Booooring. The more I learn about lindy hop in Asia, Europe, and the antipodes (of course :D), the more embarrassing some of those American podcasts become. Bros need to travel.
An exception to this cringe is Ryan Swift’s the Track. At first glance, an hour and three quarter long podcast where two people just talk about dancing seems intolerable. Interminable. But Ryan manages to pull it off. Mostly because he chooses interesting people, but also because he’s a master of the well directed casual conversation. I am of course completely biased, because Ryan is an Internet Friend, but in this case, the bias is justified.
But From The Top is exciting. It’s short, just 20, 15 minutes. Professionally edited and presented, with good topics, well-constructed stories, and a far-reaching, open-eyed approach to truly international lindy hop culture. This is no accident. The presenter and producer Alexei Korolyov is a professional journalist, and it really makes a difference. Previous episodes have discussed Health, Well-being and Social Conventions; Being a Swing Musician Today; Regionalism vs Globalisation in Lindy Hop; and Time Traveling back to the ‘swing era’ (you can find them all here on soundcloud.) And they’re all really interesting and good listens.
The latest ep is about Gender Roles in Dance. I think it’s pretty good, but, to be honest, it’s not quite as good as previous episodes, mostly because I think it’s a complicated issue that could have done with a little preamble to define some terms and perhaps set the tone. I guess it did, in a way, but I don’t quite agree with the approach and definitions Alexei takes. But yolo, right? Despite this, I think he takes a very open approach to the issue, and has some interesting guests. This is a good piece, and it does good work.
I really liked hearing from Rebecka DecaVita, a woman dancer I’ve long admired and really wanted to hear speak about these issues. Jo Jaekyeong from Korea is an old friend of mine, and I really liked hearing her speak clearly about her experiences in Seoul, a city and scene I’m currently very interested in. I don’t know Gregor Hof Bauer or Patrick Catuz, and while Patrick’s comments were the ones I found most problematic, I was very interested to hear from some men in this discussion. And men who’d actually done some proper thinking about this issue, beyond the sort of glib jokey rubbish I’ve been hearing on the American podcasts.
It was particularly cool to hear from Gregor, who’s an out gay bloke, speaking about following. This was especially cool, because I do feel that a lot of the American and mainstream lindy hop commentary has been very coyly stepping around the issue of queerasfuck dancing, managing not to have any openly gay peeps speaking in podcasts, vlogcasts, or in public talks. I think this is one of the features of a European production: they simply are more politically and socially progressive than the American productions, so we hear a more grown up and interesting discussion. Or at the very least, this program is better journalism for its presentation of a more diverse range of voices.
I was the other interviewee on the program this month, and I wasn’t all that happy with how I did in the original interview. I feel like I crapped on too much, and could have been more succinct. But Alexei has edited the bejeebs out of me, so I come out of it sounding a lot more coherent than I actually was. Overall, it was exciting and flattering to be asked to be involved (SUPER flattering), and I enjoyed it. I admire Alexei’s work, and it was so nice to be a part of something I admire. Such an honour.
In the rest of this post, I’ll engage with just one part of the podcast, which is really just an accidental language slip. It is where Alexei says (as Laura pointed out) “Sam is actively involved with feminism”. This is a true statement.
It’s also kind of lolsome because I don’t feel like feminism is this thing outside myself (the way this statement implies). Feminism is what I am and do. To say “I am a feminist” is a way of saying “Hey, I think we need to talk about gender and power, and I’m not going to shoosh up about it.” Saying “I am a feminist” is a political act.
For a woman, speaking up like this, expressing discontent and generally disturbing the status quo by not being a quiet, conciliatory woman, is explicitly political. When a man says ‘I am a feminist’, the act itself means something quite different. Because we do exist in patriarchy. For a woman, the very act of speaking up, of dissenting, of being a ‘difficult woman’ is a political act. It’s dissension. It’s dangerous. It’s powerful. So it’s not so much that I am ‘involved with feminism’, it’s that I AM A FEMINIST. I don’t prevaricate, I don’t add caveats or qualifications when I say that. I just am a feminist.
And when I say this, it means that I think that the way we do things is a bit fucked up. I think that there are problems. I think that men have and take advantage of privileges and advantages that women don’t have. Yes, you, white straight guy. I’m speaking to you. I’m saying to you, you have advantages that I don’t. And if you’re not paying attention to that, if you’re not asking why that is so, you are just quietly maintaining the status quo. You are complicit in patriarchy. And I’m not ok with that. I’m not going to let you rest easy on that. I’m going to be the pebble in your shoe. I’m not going to sit down and shoosh. And it’s not going to be comfortable for you. It shouldn’t be. Because patriarchy is not fucking comfortable for me.
Our culture makes things easier for you, men. You have advantages. As I say in that podcast, I doubt anyone says to you, male lead, “Oh, you’re being the boy?” or even comments at all on the fact that someone of your gender is choosing to lead in a workshop. But for me, it is so common it’s normal. But it’s also a constant niggling question of my right to be in a class as a lead. It’s a continual itching doubt that I am a ‘real’ lead. Because apparently real leads are all men. And of course, women are complicit in patriarchy by doing things like policing gender roles by asking women if they are ‘being the boy’, or asking a teacher to have men give up following so they can lead (and rebalance the gender/lead-follow ratio).
So this is why I am not so much ‘actively involved with feminism’ or a feminist project. I am a feminist project. I am feminism. I am a feminist. And feminism is about dissension. It’s about destabilising. It’s about being a good goddamn pain in the arse. I’m quite used to being thought of as a ‘bitch’ or a ‘difficult woman’.
So when I enter professional relationships and interactions in the lindy hop world today, I go in reminding myself that I am awesome. It’s very important to enter these interactions with confidence. With rock solid confidence in your decisions, your ideas, your skills. A lot of confidence. You must be as iron-clad in your determination as a man would be. Even though a man doesn’t have to deal with all the niggling critiques and policing. Because as a woman, you will be confronted or bullied or tested by men.
I saw it happening in Herrang, in a range of contexts – male teachers testing female teachers, male students testing female students, male DJs testing female DJs, male everyone testing female organisers and administrators. Some things that happened to me at Herrang this year and last, as a woman DJ, that didn’t happen to male DJs:
– I had my ‘knobs twiddled’ without permission by other other DJs while I was DJing.
– Male DJs said “You need to fix the levels” instead of “Are the levels ok? It’s a bit squeaky where I was?”
– Male DJs physically took up more space than I did in the DJ booth while I was DJing.
– Male DJs said “Do you just DJ locally?” instead of just assuming as they do with other men that I was actually an experienced DJ who’d DJed overseas and nationally for years (and hence meant to be there).
– A male DJ described going to DJ blues as “Going to get some pussies wet” in front of me, and blanched a little when I replied “I took a few dance classes today and that did the job for me.” Apparently pussies are things you do things to, rather than things you have for some male DJs.
– Male DJs assumed I was much younger than I am, and were patronising until they discovered my real age (and dancing and DJing experience).
…and there were many more incidences. These were all from male DJs who are very nice guys, who were generally very good to work with. But these are the sorts of micro-incidences that remind me that I am a woman, and that challenge me.
And the only real way to deal with this, as a woman professional in lindy hop, is to say to yourself:
“I am a professional.”
“I know my shit. I am a fucking good DJ/organiser/manager/dancer.”
“Here are my accomplishments, here is my history, where I did a bloody good job.”
“When I speak, I know what I am talking about, so I will speak with confidence, and in declarative statements, not questions.”
“When I make my needs and requirements clear to a man, I know what I’m saying, and I don’t need to justify myself.”
“When I challenge a man for his behaviour, I am doing the right thing. I am in the right. I am justified in my call. And he should respect that.”
“When I am challenged or tested by a man simply because I’m a woman and he’s used to being an alpha in interactions with women I should feel good about stepping up and pushing back. I should – I will – push back.”
“I will not second-guess myself and my actions as an employer or manager. I will not verbally justify my decisions or authority with someone I’ve employed. I am the boss, I’m good at it, and I am here to kick heads and take names.”
“As a woman boss or employer or manager, I don’t have to become a jerkface bloke, or take on hegemonic modes of management or problem solving. I can be collaborative and gentle. I can talk about how I feel, and I can take into account my peers’ feelings. I can be emotionally honest without being manipulative. And I can still be an arse-kickingly good boss. This does not make me weak or unprofessional.”
I also think it’s essential to be supportive of other women. And to remember that men who push or challenge are often feeling a lack of self confidence. The difficult male DJ is feeling doubts about his ability, and not sure you’re a decent manager. So you need to convince him, through your confident manner, that you are capable, and that he can trust you to set reasonable limits and be his guide and manager. Yes, it sucks to have to mother these fucktards (god, emotional labour, much?), but just assume that they’re little babies and need to be babbied.
When you’re working with other women, you need to let them know that you think they’re legit. Sisterhood is powerful, but collaboration is mighty. Lindy hop teaches us how to work with other people in close, emotionally intense partnerships. We can definitely take that to our off-dance-floor professional relationships.
So, yes, I am involved with feminism. In the most intimate of ways. I am a feminist.
So, we continue with our project to actively prevent sexual harassment in our lindy hop scene.
You can read about our three part strategy here. Our Code of Conduct has come together, we’ve been working on our in-class teaching tools for at least 3 months now, and we have begun doing some direct intervention with offenders. There have been some scary moments, but, for the most part, it’s actually been a very exciting and positive experience. Sitting down and thinking about what we want to do, and talking about the good things we want to see has been very exciting. It makes us feel good. This is what activism is about: you start by getting angry. You do some learning, and then you start doing things which make you powerful.
Reading and writing this makes me feel good:
Statement of Intent
We believe in jazz music and dance. We believe in the best throw-down, heart-stopping lindy hop, and that every song should be a solid sender that makes you leap to your feet. We believe that every dancer and musician has a right to good feels.
We are stepping UP. We do not tolerate harassment or bullying, and are actively working to prevent sexual harassment in the swing dance scene.
You are WITH us on this. In joining us on the dance floor or agreeing to work with us as a teacher, DJ, musician, sound engineer, volunteer, performer, or event manager, you agree to treat all participants with care and respect and to abide by our code of conduct. You also accept that all minors must be accompanied by an adult.
Code of Conduct
1. There’s room for all of us on the dance floor.
2. We’re looking out for our peeps.
3. Talk nice.
4. Your body is important.
5. Be ok with people saying no.
6. You can say no.
7. Play safe.
We decided a while ago that we needed to directly address how to give feedback to your partner in class. We’d had some in-class ‘teaching’ from experienced students, we’d seen that people were already figuring out how to work collaboratively in our intermediate class, and we’d decided that we needed to tool women dancers up with the skills to say ‘no!’ to dodgy touching from male partners. We wanted to create a culture of respect for our own and our partner’s bodies, and of being ok with articulating your limits and and boundaries.
So we got serious.
All of us teaching in the teaching team (there are 4 of us teaching in varying partnerships) had begun talking about how to touch your partner the right way. We usually just explained it as “Don’t put your hand too low because it’s weird and creepy,” which is a very common approach. But that didn’t feel like enough. And it’s really not addressing the whole range of ways we can touch each other. And we were generally shifting away from just listing ‘rules’ in our teaching anyway. We wanted people to find out for themselves why we might do things in a particular way, and we wanted them to be aware of their own actions and how they communicated with their partners. Because just telling someone isn’t teaching or learning. Figuring things out for yourself is learning. Good teaching is about facilitating learning, not dictating rules.
I can’t remember how it happened exactly, but I know in our class we were just in a beginner class one night, and we’d had a few conversations earlier in our teaching team about what women should do when men touch their boobs or hold them too tight. We knew we should just SAY “Stop that!” but we all knew how difficult that could be.
So anyway, we were in class. And we got to a part where we’d usually say “Don’t put your hand too low here, leads…” blah blah. Instead we posed it like a question: “So what do we do if our partner’s squeezing our hand too tightly or their hand is too low?”
And then we sort of role played it:
Teacher A: Hey, you’re squeezing my hand a bit – can you can loosen your fingers a bit please?
Teacher B: Oh, sorry, I didn’t realise! There, is that better?
Teacher A: Yep, that’s great, thanks!
We try to make it a really casual, no worries, no stress sort of exchange, to model how giving and receiving feedback is no big thing.
It’s always funny to watch, and people laugh. We don’t do it in a preachy way, we do it a lol way, because it’s actually really funny and kind of strange to role play this stuff.
But then we said to them, “Ok you guys, I want the leads to say to the follows, “Is my hand ok here, should it be higher or lower?” and then follows, tell them. And then, the magic: they immediately had a very loud, engaged conversation with their partner! ALL of them!
It was SO EXCITING!
After that point, we could just say, “Ok, can you check in with your partner to see if the connection is ok, please?” and they’d just DO it! It was very, very exciting. Very exciting.
Since then we’ve streamlined it a bit. When we first say, “Can you just check in with your partner,” they often assume it’s a sort of rhetorical question. But then we say, “No, can you actually do it right now, please.” We say, “Can you ask your partner, ‘how does that feel for you?’. Newcomers to our intermediate class often just reply to their partner “Fine”, but if I hear any of those rote politeness answers, I say, “No, I want you to give your partner actual feedback on how that actually feels.” And then they do. Because it’s not enough to just tell them they can do these things. You have to actually have them PRACTICE it. You have to push through the ‘polite don’t cause trouble ‘fine’ response’, particularly for women responding to men. You have to make it clear that ‘fine’ isn’t enough – your partner wants actual feedback, so you have to figure out how to give useful feedback.
It’s exactly like when you explain how to do a particular move. Explaining to them, then them nodding is useless. You have to explain, then they DO it, immediately afterwards.
This has been one of the biggest breakthroughs in my teaching, ever. Stops me talking too much. Makes them masters of their own dancing and bodies. It’s something that might stress you if you’re the sort of teacher who’s used to micromanaging a class, and standing in the middle of the circle being the centre of attention. But you have to – step out of that circle. Let them make mistakes and then figure it out themselves.
In an extension of this, I’ve also started talking to the follows about how they touch the leads, and what this can say to the leads. My favourite thing at the moment is to talk about how the follow’s left hand on the lead’s right shoulder is an important way for the follow to give feedback to the lead. I often use the expression, “This is how you reassure the lead. The way you put your hand on their shoulder tells them that you have confidence in them, and that you trust them.”
I started talking about this in a class where I was explaining how I danced with very new dancers, or with leads who were freaking: I just relaxed my body as much as I could, and tried to communicate to my partner that I was totally chilled. Because if I touch them with stress, they get stressed.
When I talk about it in class, I say this “This is the hand of reassurance” to the follows, and they usually then reply with “Oh, if I hold my hand like this” and they scrunch up their hands or let their arms hover, “It says I’m feeling scared or don’t trust them.” If they don’t see that connection, I explain it (in a nice way). The goal here is not to tell students “Don’t hold your hand like that,” but to say to students, “The way you touch your partner communicates how you feel to them,” and then letting them figure out what they want to communicate to their partner.
I had a moment like this in class last night. An older woman was doing the arm-hover, fingers-pinch left hand, and she was also doing some really disconnected footwork which was making it tricky for the leads to lead. So I explained the ‘this is how we reassure the leads’ thing. And she figured out straight away that she needed to think about how she was communicating with her partner.
This is especially good for follows because it stops them getting into that ‘the leads not doing it right’ loop, and it makes them think about themselves as an active part of the partnership. I never say this bit, but it also improves their connection so the leads can feel their weight changes and be more effective leads.
Of course, all this does actually make the leads relax and feel more confident. :D
This was really an extension of a talk we’d had in the intermediate class about how connection between partners isn’t a one-way street where leads signal to follows. It’s a two-way, and constant communication, where follows return the energy the lead gives, and leads constantly listen to the follow, to see how they’re balanced, what they’re digging, whether they’re going to bring some improvisation.
If you’re engaged with your partner as a living, thinking, feeling human like this, you’re also going to be doing empathy, and less likely to sexual harass them, or throw them into unwanted dips or lifts. It makes me quite tired to have to keep doing this, but we have to teach men how to think of women as active agents, capable of making their own decisions. We have to teach men that they aren’t the boss, and they aren’t always right. They have to work in cooperation with women, not in control of them. Fraternity not patriarchy. The ‘reassuring arm’ is a way of saying to men, “You don’t have to feel insecure in this new equal relationship. We don’t have to have a boss and a submissive in this team; we can be equals and it’ll be ok. Your partner is with you; we can both rock feminism together.”
I find that even the most ‘unsexist’ of men can find this difficult, because they have a lifetime of gender programming to overcome. You can often talk the talk, and your brain can understand that you have to think of women as equals, but it’s much harder to undo the unconscious ways of using your body and occupying space that the privileges of patriarchy give men. Manspreading: it is about patriarchal colonisation of space. Lindy hop: it teaches you how to be a feminist.
This is turn developed from a conversation about bounce and finding a shared sense of bounce or time or rhythm with your partner: you spend time in closed at the beginning of a dance, where you have all that physical contact in a moment of chill. Here, you both work to find a shared sense of bounce and timing. No one sacrifices their bounce or rhythm, you just work to find a compromise. A shared sense of music which is a combination of you both. We all know this is magic.
I don’t think we talk enough about how follows contribute to the partnership. I still treasure a moment where Naomi Uyama explained her role when she’s following is to maintain the beat and rhythm when a ‘storm of rhythm is coming at you’ (she was teaching with Skye): she stays cool. I also like Ramona’s line: follows, don’t ever sacrifice your rhythms for the lead’s.
Anyhow, all this stuff is something we can talk about with beginner dancers, and we SHOULD, right from their first class. Because classes are about teaching us how to social dance, right? We use Lennart’s approach to teaching lindy hop, where the beginner classes teach you to social dance right from the start. The students count themselves in, they decide which steps to do in which order, they can stop and restart whenever they like. None of this ‘calling steps’ and dancing fixed sequences. And you let them dance for a loooong time with the same partner. Last night they danced a WHOLE Song with a partner, just 20 minutes into class, and it was FANTASTIC! They dance really well, and learn how to do floor craft (we encourage them to move around the dance floor), how to apologise, how to stop and start, how to lead and follow, what to do when you confused. We stop them every now and then to give tips, but we keep it practical – how do you improve your communication? What do you do if this happens?
Any how, students can do this immediately, from their very first class. And they fucking LOVE this type of class. You can see them approach a problem (‘why isn’t this working?’), work together to resolve it, then resolve it and literally cheer together. The noise level is incredible. The laughing and talking and shouting out with excitement. It’s just wonderful. And we just float around the class giving tips and feedback. Our focus is always on safety and mutual respect, and we resist the urge to tidy or ‘fix’; we give them a lot of time to figure things out with their partner. And they make their own fun, they find that real joy in solving problems together, and then just enjoying music, being awesome and victorious.
So, giving them tools for giving and receive feedback is essential to this approach. And, honestly, they love it. And once you’ve shown them once, they just do it themselves during the class. And then you can continue to dismantle the conditions that enable sexual harassers.
To finish off this long story, last night after class I was chatting to some of the students, and they said that they particularly loved that part of the class where we explained how to give feedback, and then had them try it. They said it was really FUN, and really helpful. This surprised me. I don’t often think of this as fun, I think of it as practical. But they really liked it.
And you know, it’s true – it is fun. When we first say “Ok, do it,” in class, there’s this sudden rush of noise and really enthusiastic conversation that’s quite surprising. It’s not angry talk, it’s this loud, cheery laughing talk. It’s as though people have been waiting all day to actually talk to someone in a meaningful way. I know follows like it, but leads like it too. And they are really good at it. They’re respectful and nice to each other.
Teaching in a way which implicitly discourages sexual harassment, by encouraging good communication between leads and follows.
– I am keen on the rhythm centred approach as a practical strategy. Less hippy talk, more dancing funs.
– I like simple things like talking to both men and women about being ok with people saying no to you.
3. Developing strategies for actually confronting men about their behaviour.
– I talked about how I do this in class in Dealing with problem guys in dance classes
– I’m working up to addressing the more nebulous issue of sexual harassment by practicing on more concrete stuff like telling men to stop pulling aerials on the social floor
– Talking to and about men confronting other men. Because it’s men who are doing the dodgy stuff in most of these cases, and we need to ask men to take responsibility for their own actions. Whether those actions are harassment, or condoning/enabling harassment by not using their power to speak up.
Working on this, I’ve discovered that a bunch of words is next to useless. We need simple graphics, pictures and posters. Using a range of resources (the AFL’s response to sexual assault is particularly powerful and useful), I’m thinking that we need to add a few things to the prevention/response strategies. I’m considering making up a simple, powerful website and postcard outlining what’s ok, and what’s not. They have to have a light-hearted, fun vibe (because lindy hop), but they also have to be very useful and not too twee. The tone of these texts should suit the vibe of my business, but also give an idea of national and international lindy hop culture (as if there was such an homogenous thing!)
These two assets could work in concert with a poster or sign, and with a practical training program for teachers, door staff, and ‘safety officers’ (ie the people you go to when you need help).
Luckily, lindy hoppers have already gotten on to this. We actually have a discourse of ‘etiquette’, which is the way we manage and control social interactions in our scene. We also talk a lot about ‘floor craft’, which is another way of managing how we take care of ourselves and others on the dance floor. The basic message of both is ‘Look out for others or you won’t get any dances.” Lindy hop has a powerful shaming tool at its disposal, and we should make greater use of it.
I think we can just tweak these two sets of ‘rules’ a little to make them a bit more powerful and directly address sexual harassment and assault. A lot of dancers don’t want to address rape and sexual harassment explicitly because it’s a downer (and lindy hop is supposed to be all happy clappy all the time), and it’s a bit of a social taboo to talk about sex and sexual violence in an explicit way. And it’s really difficult to talk about sexual assault and violence without actually talking about breasts, vulvas, vaginas, penises, bottoms, and how we touch and use them.
Added to this are the broader social myths about women’s bodies, women’s sexuality, and men’s sexuality. The bottom line in responding to sexual harassment and assault is that you have to accept that it’s about power and violence more than it’s about sex and sexuality, and you have to accept that patriarchy exists. A tall order for people who ‘just want to dance’.
But I don’t want to reinvent the wheel when there’s fab stuff like this around:
This is an etiquette guide produced by Holy Lindy Land, the Israeli lindy hop community. Which of course you should know about, because they sent an open letter of peace and friendship to the lindy hoppers of Palestine, which makes me cry like a little baby with the love. (You can read more about the two scenes’ work in this lovely piece).
I like this poster because it does simple things like replace my awkward description
Avoid ‘boob swipes’, touching a partner’s bottom, groin, upper legs – you know the deal. If you accidentally do so, apologise immediately. If you do this repeatedly, you will be warned, if not ejected from the event.
I think that lindy hop could also do with some of the sharper edged humour that would help us get real about sexual harassment.
There was a most excellent swing memes thread on yehoodi years ago, where most of the images are sadly missing now :( I’m especially fond of Good Guy Greg.
And of course tumblr brings the gif with people like lindy hop problems.
But these are, of course, not ‘official’ responses to sexual harassment. They are very important, because they give us a way to comment on issues, and also to ‘talk back to power’ if we don’t think organisations are stepping up.
I’m thinking something by an artist like Tomeito would be pretty useful:
At any rate, I’m working on it. Slowly but surely…. :D
the SES (State Emergency Services) position sexual harassment as an occupational health and safety issue rather than a ‘women’s issue’ or ‘sexual issue’, and have some EXCELLENT training material available
AFL (Australian Football League) have Respect and Responsibility, a hardcore response to s.h. and assault which targets men (because it is a male-dominated sport), and uses the Australian discourses of ‘mateship’, ‘team’ and community responsibility (or club-loyalty) through the language of the sport (‘taking the tackle’ etc) in a powerful way. Their posters are great. I admit it, my Uses of History: Frankie as Teaching Tool in-class strategies are an attempt to do the same thing. To use the language and model of our most important and powerful cultural imagery as a strategy for dealing with sexual harassment.
A friend has been patiently managing an ongoing thread about ‘obesity advertising’ on her facebook page, and I’ve chimed in today.
One of her friends wrote this excellently sarcastic reply to a piece about dieting:
I am NOT going to read the article, but in response to the tagline: Yes, clearly it is better to increase the pain and suffering of fat women through stigma and discrimination. After all, shame is strongly correlated with positive health outcomes.
For me, this point, that shame stops you being healthy and powerful, is the most important. I see it as directly related to the perpetuation of sexual harassment. If we are continually questioning our own worth, if we are taught to see men’s sexual desire for our bodies as the only reliable proof that we are ‘attractive’ and of worth, then we will tolerate sexual harassment. Even if it frightens and upsets us, we won’t speak up about it, because we are supposed to want this. A particularly unpleasant man commented in a public space recently that we need to “loosen up” and dance in closer position. As though our reluctance to be manhandled by unpleasant, aggressive men was a symptom of frigidity, and that we aren’t actually capable of knowing our own minds and making logical decisions.
It is this sort of bullshit that makes me very, very ANGRY and also very, very determined to encourage women dancers. Your body is important for far more than what it looks like. It is a wonderful machinery, and a woman dancing is mighty. Your mistakes should be confident because they teach you. Your dancing should be brave because it is YOU dancing, telling us something about music and the way you feel and think. You can lead, you can follow, you can solo dance, you can do balboa or charleston or whatever the fuck you like, in whatever way you like, so long as you respect your partner and yourself. And being fat or skinny will not in any way affect the value of your movement.
I replied to that comment on facebook with this:
The thing that bothers me most about all this, is that we’re continually reminded of our bodies, and how we should be thinking about what we look like, all the time. It fills up our brains. It makes us ask, over and over “Do I look ok?” The answer, of course, will never be a definitive ‘yes’, because what is ‘ok’ changes every day as well. Yesterday your eyebrows had to be skinny, today they have to be thicker. Yesterday you wore skinny jeans, today you wear leggings.
Various industries benefit directly from encouraging and perpetuating this anxiety about your personal, bodily value. Governments like ours make it clear that women’s bodies are not as important as men’s (the amount of money spent on commemorating the loss of Anzac bodies vs the lack of money spent on discussing domestic violence makes that very clear).
Even our parents and families and friends are recruited into policing our bodies: the aunts who ask if you’re really eating that second serving, the mothers who put girl children on diets, the fathers who won’t let daughters walk alone at night, the parents who ask when we’re going to provide grandchildren.
The idea that I might use my body simply for my own pleasure and satisfaction is utterly sinfully wrong: being fat is a ‘lack of control’. Eating for pleasure is ‘naughty’. Enjoying sex is ‘problematic’. Dancing until your heart stutters and your calves tighten is ‘dangerous’. As an adult, I should be allowed to choose how I enjoy my body. But enjoying your body, being happy with the way you look is not allowed. That’s how patriarchy works.
My most serious problem with this, is that it takes brain time away from what we can do with our bodies or our brains. And of course, if we are busy doubting ourselves and bodies, we don’t have time or confidence to stop and say “Hey, what the fuck, patriarchy? I’m a fucking amazing writer/engineer/doctor/parent, and all this time and money I spend on what my body looks like is detracting from the time and money I can spend on being a writer/engineer/doctor/parent.”
In an example, women on average spend so much more time on grooming than men do. Yes, some men are groomers, but women spend a lot more time on hair removal, makeup, clothing choices, etc etc. And I decided a long time ago that I’d rather spend that hour every day writing more. Reading more. That’s an extra hour a day I can spend on tap practice. On laughing at jokes. An extra hour every day that I get to spend doing things that make me feel good, rather an hour every day that I spend assessing and inspecting my appearance.
For me, specifically, this constant nibbling at my self esteem stops me questioning patriarchy. If I’m always worried that I’m too fat, too big, too small, too never-going-to-be-right , then I won’t have the confidence to question bullshit.
So, as practical examples, if I’m feeling anxious and low confidence, I won’t confront that man who’s been touching his female dance partners’ boobs all night. I won’t get on the microphone and say my own name to advertise my own DJing/teaching/event. I won’t put my hand up for a staff DJ position at Herrang. I won’t start my own business.
The bullshit about ‘obesity epidemics’ has a direct effect on my confidence: I won’t get up on my feet and speak up.
So I say NO NO NO and fuck YOU to talk about diets and obesity epidemics and all that shit. I eat what I like, I exercise too much, and I assess the value of my body through my ability to breathe freely, to dance too much, to bend and move easily, to bring me pleasure and ridiculous joy.
And I take a great deal of satisfaction in telling men to fuck off when they try to mansplain the value of my own flesh.