I’m going to assume that you know what Herrang dance camp is, and that you have some passing familiarity with concerns about the enterprise. People who know me are surprised that I keep returning to an event that seems to break all my personal and professional rules. Why do I keep going back, trying to be useful and to contribute to constructive political work at this huge, rambling pile of a dance event?
Why do I go back each year?
It’s a huge enterprise. 300 odd paid staff + volunteers + 20-odd DJ + dozens of musicians + dozens of teachers, over 5 weeks of camp programming, and two additional weeks of set up and bump out in a small village in rural Sweden.
There is no other event like it in the world.
Buildings need to be cleaned, food cooked, classes taught, music played, bills paid, cars driven, sound gear fixed, dance courses administered, classrooms booked, dance floors built and repaired, sets built. For 7 weeks. Each week a new group of staff needs to be inducted. A huge, volunteer and largely untrained staff. Managers start from scratch, with staff of varying ability and inclination.
Because it’s the only long term event in the world, we get to see processes and ideologies play out in real time, in a durational sense. We see the usual tensions of late nights and high adrenaline play out over a longer time. Which means that we see things that we don’t at other events. We see how humans from a range of cultures and language groups interact with each other in a pressure cooker environment. Structures or systems that might be stable over a weekend or a just a week might not remain stable over 5 weeks. Ideas or processes that work for 3 days with a staff working to the brink of exhaustion show cracks over longer periods, where staff must begin thinking about care, rest, recuperation, down time. All elements that don’t come into play at other dance events.
Sexual harassment and assault are symptoms of power relationships and dynamics between individuals and within groups of humans. They aren’t inevitable, but they are characteristic of patriarchy. They can be managed and eradicated, but only through concentrated, strategic planning and policy. And most of this work is conducted by inexperienced ordinary people. This work is increasingly professional and sophisticated. I often wonder, though, if the codes of conduct and safety policies of American events, for example, would stand the test of a five (or seven) week time frame. They are, essentially, experiments in social politics, and working largely against the broader patriarchal culture of their home societies. Would Lindy Focus’s exceptional approach to sexual violence remain steady over five weeks? I think that it could, perhaps, but it would require a lot of on-the-ground, real time adjustment and tinkering. Because shit changes over time.
While Herrang does not have an over-arching code of conduct or safety policy, each of its many departments _does_ have a particular set of rules and guidelines for determining how staff and volunteers should treat each other and the general campers. As DJs, for example, we were reminded again in week 3 that drinking to excess while DJing is not ok. That we have to treat fellow DJs with respect and professionalism, by turning up on time for our sets, checking in with our DJ peers, and being supportive of their work. We were reminded of emergency procedures and shown how to use the emergency phones placed around the camp.
Each of Herrang’s departments change staff each week, so the managers and more permanent staff have the opportunity to edit, change, and adjust processes to respond to their participants’ changing needs. And the work of training and enculturating an entirely new group of people each week.
This agile people management is the most fascinating part of Herrang. Shane and Spela are juggling hundreds and hundreds of staff members across hundreds of roles. They are dealing with changing and unpredictable conditions (too many campers! a water shortage! disease! excessive heat!) within a framework that has to be reflexive and responsive. It’s a truly impressive thing to see in action.
These staff coordinators manage a base of general staff and volunteers, but work through and with a group of department managers. Each of those managers juggles a 24 hour schedule and a shifting group of workers of various skill, ability, and inclination. If you thought it was difficult managing entitled middle class white men on the dance floor, imagine trying to get them to work hard in an industrial kitchen for a black woman manager.
One of the primary concerns of the staff coordinators and managers is morale. How do you keep so many people feeling good over a long period of time under difficult circumstances? They don’t sleep enough, they don’t eat properly, they’re saturated in endorphines and adrenaline, and they’re doing unfamiliar work. How do you keep the whole machine running?
Herrang has a broad system of processes for handling these issues, from staff appreciation parties to balanced shift lengths and times, and a fairly efficient process for handling complaints, concerns, and questions. It is certainly not perfect, and it has flaws. But not because no one is trying. The staff managers and coordinators are caring people, and they work hard to improve processes every year. They’re also clever and inventive. Because they are also jazz dancers :D
What I’ve noticed about Herrang, is that the more permanent staff (people who are there for more than two weeks) tend to be curious, inventive, industrious, cooperative people. To the point of obsessive. Living in the countryside for 7 weeks, they start making things. Inventing things. Experimenting with things. While a conventional office workplace might foster pranks, Herrang staff move beyond your random ‘wrap a car in toilet paper’ prank to ‘wrap every item in the camp in toilet paper’. They come up with brilliant ideas, but then they truly relish figuring out how to execute these plans, and then do so within a contracted time span and limited resources. Someone might decide that the theme for this party is ‘Savoy’, and by the end of the day, staff have build an entire New York neighbourhood out of cardboard, wood, and fabric. A woman might have lost her phone, and by the end of afternoon, staff have built a human sized phone, put a jazz band on a truck (including a piano) and moved the whole thing across the village to her dinner table where she’s serenaded by her friends and peers. And giant phone. Someone else finds a giant glowing model moon, and by the end of the week she’s not only suspended above the square, she’s lit from within with a suspended table and chairs beneath her to be enjoyed by dining lovers.
This is the part of Herrang I like most. It’s exciting. It’s stimulating. Over-stimulating. I really enjoy real-time problem solving at the best of times, but on this scale it’s invigorating. Thrilling. Dangerously addictive.
I really like working with such a clever, creative group of people from all over the world. They manage language differences, tiredness, negative budgets, and sexual tension with enthusiasm and professionalism. And good will. Yes, people crack the shits and get overtired. But they also laugh a lot every day, and seek out ways to delight each other.
They’re also some of the kindest, most generous-hearted people I’ve ever met. One of the most common things I see and hear in the camp is a person going to great lengths to find out what their colleague likes best, hunting it down (even going driving hours to find it), then surprising them with it. Just because they looked tired or a bit sad. Or because they love them. Yes, there are pranks, but they aren’t cruel pranks. They’re loving, affectionate pranks. Filling a new teacher’s classroom with balloons for their first class. Swapping wardrobes with another dancer for a day. Learning an entire, complex jazz routine in a day, then recruiting a jazz band to surprise someone with it in their office at lunch time. Organising a parade of children and adults playing musical instruments and wearing costumes to tramp through the camp, just to entertain the participants and audience. Leaving a punnet of perfect strawberries on a colleague’s desk, because you know they are lovely.
And on top of all that, they love to dance and sing. To eat and cook and make love. To work hard and sleep deeply. To argue and talk and laugh.
These are the reasons I, personally, go back to Herrang. I like to spend my days visiting people’s offices, learning about their work, seeing how they do things. Watching people be kind and generous. Laughing til I can’t breathe.
I’ve seen this image being circulated a bit on facebook this week.
“My body, my choice” only makes sense when someone else’s life isn’t at stake.”
Fun fact: If my younger sister was in a car accident and desperately needed a blood transfusion to live, and I was the only person on Earth who could donate blood to save her, and even though donating blood is a relatively easy, safe, and quick procedure, no one can force me to give blood. Yes, even to save the life of a fully grown person, it would be ILLEGAL to FORCE me to donate blood if I didn’t want to.
See, we have this concept called ‘bodily autonomy’. It’s this…cultural notion that a person’s control over their own body is above all important and must not be infringed upon.
Like, we can’t even take LIFE SAVING organs from CORPSES unless the person whose corpse it is gave consent before their death. Even corpses get bodily autonomy.
To tell people that they MUST sacrifice their bodily autonomy for months against their will in an incredibly expensive, invasive, difficult process to save what YOU view as another human life (a debatable claim in the early stages of pregnancy when the VAST majority of abortions are performed) is desperately unethical. You can’t even ask people to sacrifice bodily autonomy to give up organs they aren’t using anymore after they have died.
You’re asking people who can become pregnant to accept less autonomy than we grant to dead bodies.
I have a few problems with this chunk of text.
The first is that it’s based on a false premise: that ‘we’ all have the same bodily rights, and that these rights are applied to us equally. I’m going to assume that the author was writing in, and about the US. And I want to state, very clearly, that even beyond the world of childbirth and reproductive medicine, we do not all have the same bodily autonomy. Women of colour, people of colour, first nations people, women, children, gay men living with AIDS… basically everyone other than straight, white, wealthy men have their right to bodily autonomy curtailed by the law, by the state, by medical institutions.
The history of the US is based upon slavery, the clear legal fact that some people can be owned by other people. First nations people were not (are not?) considered people at all by invading colonisers. People of colour are more likely to be incarcerated. Women’s accounts of their own physical pain or illness are less likely to be taken seriously by doctors than men’s accounts. Children are legally not capable of bodily autonomy.
..and so on.
We cannot talk about abortion without also talking about social context. Women and girls are not considered capable human adults or citizens in the way that white men are. We are not considered capable of making sensible, logical decisions. About anything. Let alone our bodies.
I feel that a debate about abortion is a misdirect.
Access to free, safe contraception and good sex education are the demonstrably better way to reduce abortion rates. And incidentally increase women and girls’ autonomy and social power.
By focussing on abortion, rather than sexual health, the discussion is framed as one of individualism, rather than collective responsibility. If we focus on women’s choices, we can avoid a discussion about the state’s role in health care. If we suggest that women’s bodies and their choices are the problem, the we don’t have to talk about the importance of the welfare state in caring for children. Because there, of course, we are reminded that women were once girls, and girls’ education and bodily autonomy is the real issue here.
The abortion debate is about legislating women’s bodies, but more importantly, it’s also about restricting women and girls’ knowledge of their own bodies. I want to expand from this to tie contraceptive rights to access to education generally in a more direct way.
We know that access to education – going to school – generally reduces birth rates (ie girls are less likely to have babies, and fewer babies). For a range of reasons including (but expanding far beyond) knowledge and tools for preventing pregnancy.
The thing I’m often struck by in this sort of debate is the implication that the only reason women and girls have lots of babies is that they don’t know how to stop themselves getting pregnant. Or that they don’t know penetrative vaginal sex with a man leads to pregnancy.
But we know that choosing when and how to have a baby is about more than knowing how to stop sperms get into eggs. It’s also about having a range of choices and options for employment, education, community participation, etc etc etc.
Good education isn’t just about ‘not getting pregnant’ it’s about being able to choose when and how we do have children.
An educated girl is a mighty person. She knows how to access all sorts of resources. She’s not confined to a domestic space and domestic isolation. She’s a _citizen_. This is far more frightening for fundamentalist christians and other patriarchal institutions.
As an addendum, I’ll also note that good sex ed isn’t just about how not to get pregnant or STDs. As that story about the young Swedish men who intervened in a rape in America shows, good sex ed also teaches men and boys about how to communicate with and empathise with their partners’ needs and desires. I think that this is the other thing that terrifies the patriarchy: that men and boys might begin to think of us as humans.
A few years ago, in 2015, I did a survey of Australian dance events, to see if they included a code of conduct on their event websites. There were mixed results, including a fairly unpleasant email from the organiser of an event which did not have a CoC at the time, and has since folded.
I (or someone else!) should at some point revisit this survey, to see if things have changed much in Australia. Do we see CoC at all Australian events? If not, which events don’t have them, and why not?
But that’s not the topic of this post.
Now I’m wondering if events (including local party nights) have follow-up processes to accompany their CoC. It’s all very well to have a list of things attendees cannot do at the event, but I have some questions.
Does the CoC provide specific examples of what constitutes sexual harassment or assault in a dance setting?
What are the consequences for people who break the rules?
Who enforces the rules?
Is there a spectrum of responses from warning, through banning, to calling the police or evacuating a building?
If these responses exist, are they listed in the CoC?
What is the in-house process for these responses?
Who has the authority to call for a consequence and then enforce them?
How are these actions documented?
How are these documents stored?
Who has access to them?
Is there any follow-up on these actions?
Is there any scope for the repatriation of banned offenders?
What are the terms for their return to the event?
Who monitors this process?
How is information about who is banned passed between generations of staff at an event?
How does this communication of knowledge account for Australian defamation laws, which would deem this publication of a potentially defamatory statement?
If a banned person does decide to sue for defamation, who would they sue – the organisation/business? An individual working at the event? If the latter, how does the host organisation respond to and support this person?
How does the host organisation ensure that staff are not exploiting their power to break the CoC rules? What measures are in place to police the policers?
I feel at this point the majority of events have gone no further than simply cutting and pasting a CoC. These later questions all ask for a fair bit of work. And I know there are some organisers which do not prioritise safety to the extent that they would invest in this sort of labour.
On the face of it, nothing. There is nothing wrong with teaching a class where students experiment with ‘gendered’ movements. In fact, a class like that is very powerful and empowering, because it teaches us how gendered movement is constructed and learnt through the way we hold our bodies, the speed of our movements, how we occupy space, the way we hold our head, our gaze and eye line, etc etc etc.
I’ve seen a number of classes where this has been done very cleverly, and very well. Once Marie N’diaye was teaching a chorus line class at Herräng, where students were taken through the ways in which chorus lines in the 30s were gendered: how to emphasise your hips v your shoulders, how to turn your head, present a particular profile, focus on shapes or sizes of movements. I’ve also seen ‘girls’ hip hop’ classes taught by a man at a local street dance studio, where the students were taken through very femme movements and choreography employed by women dancers in music videos.
All of these classes make it clear (implicitly) that gender is something you can perform. That you can put on gender and take it off again, like a suit of clothes. And this idea of ‘performing gender’ is borrowed from Judith Butler’s book ‘Gender Trouble’. This is very important. Let me make it clearer: Butler (and other feminists and transpolitics writers) lay out very good cases for the idea that gender is something we _do_, not something we _are_. We learn to behave in ways which align with a particular gender role. This gender role is constructed by the culture in which we live. And the gender we choose is often chosen for us, by our families, our schools, our communities.
Right here and now, we can borrow from black feminists, who point out that there is no single way of being ‘female’ or ‘male’, and that these gender identities are culturally specific. So authors like bell hooks in We Real Cool point out how the dominant masculinity in modern American culture is _white_. It’s informed by race as well as gender. And then authors like Thomas Defrantz in Dancing Many Drums go further, pointing out how black masculinity isn’t just regulated by white ideas of what it is to be a man, but by heterocentric ideas of what a man should be.
In sum, gender is made.
Gender is not just about skin colour or the food you eat. It’s about class, it’s about sexuality, it’s about age, it’s about who we are and how we live every day.
And there are ‘dominant’ ideas of gender in different cultures. By dominant, I mean ‘most preferred’, or ‘seen most often’ or most favoured’. In some cultures there are more than two acceptable gender identities. But within western capitalist heterosexuality, there are only two. In this limited world, there is a dominant, hegemonic masculinity. This idea of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is culturally specific. I like this term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ because it asks us to talk about class – capitalism – as well.
An ‘ideal masculine’ varies between cultures. If we’re talking about lindy hop, then, we need to allow for the fact that lindy hop today is a cross-cultural, international activity and community. There are different types of masculinity. Many cultures go another step further, and order different gender identities (or ways of being masculine or feminine) in hierarchies. Or, some ways of being a man or being a woman are considered ‘better’ than others.
So what is the ‘hegemonic masculinity’ at work in today’s lindy hop? The answer is going to be different, depending on which country and which city and which local community you’re considering. Let me start with Australia, because that is where I live. And let me start with white, mainstream culture. Here, hegemonic masculinity is:
white (anglo-celtic, coloniser)
Where did I get this list?
Well, if we have a look at a few things in my culture, we can find answers very quickly:
The nation’s political leaders (prime minister, cabinet ministers, etc);
The people with the most money (millionaires, industrialists, business owners);
Religious leaders in the most popular religions (bishops, ministers);
The most commonly-seen and employed actors and entertainment figures.
All of these people are male. And until very very recently, openly heterosexual (often ‘proved’ by having a wife and children), white, able-bodied. Rich. Coloniser.
You can do the same sort of exercise with the dance world. What are the most powerful roles in the modern lindy hop world? How many of these roles are filled by men, or filled by women? And what types of men and women fill these roles? How does your local scene compare with what you see in the videos and websites for huge international American, European, or Asian events? How does your national scene compare with these?
But what about women?
Hegemonic masculinity cannot exist without a dominant model for ‘femininity’. This ‘ideal woman’ is:
white (anglo-celtic, coloniser)
But she is dependent on a male partner, as she is also
physically weak or vulnerable
economically weak or dependant
Her heterosexuality is proven by her ability to have children, and her physical appearance (her sexual appeal). This ‘appeal’ is again contextually dependent. In Australia, she is slim, long-legged, pale-skinned, long (straight) haired, has small feet and hands, clear skin, ample bosom (but not too ample), hips (but not too broad)… and so on.
In fact, her body is an impossible ideal. Women are trained to pursue this impossible ideal at the expense of all else. They are trained to spend more time on how their body looks, than on how it works. To spend more time thinking about what they look like, than on what they can do. They spend time in the gym working on their body’s appearance, rather than their body’s functionality.
From here this ideal femininity and masculinity can also be defined by how they behave, or how they act. Men are active, physically tough, powerful, defensive and offensive agents. They take up physical and aural space in public. Women are passive, acted upon, vulnerable, hurt, weak. They make themselves small and speak softly so they don’t take up space. These two models are used to justify the relationship between the ideal male and ideal female: the female requires a strong man to protect her. The strong man requires the vulnerable female to give him children (and incidentally prove he’s not gay :D ) and keep his home. The active, fierce man is complemented by the passive, emotional, gentle woman.
And so on.
All of the things I am writing here are old news to anyone who’s done any feminist reading. I myself have two theses and a bunch of articles drawing on extensive field work and textual analysis to prove these ideas. In fact, my doctoral thesis looked at how this stuff plays out in the lindy hop world.
Let’s go all the way back to that first question:
What is the problem with teaching ‘traditional’ gender roles in lindy hop?
Nothing. While some feminists would disagree with me, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being vulnerable or small or pale or delicate. Or strong and bold and heterosexual. But I do think there’s a very big problem with a) these models being presented as the only ways of being a man or woman, b) with ‘man’ and ‘woman’ being the only options, and c) with these dichotomies (either-or options) being the most preferred models.
In lindy hop today, we see traditional white, heterosexual gender roles rewarded and valorised across cultures.
Take a look at the winning ‘couples’ at ILHC, the Savoy Cup, or any of the other big competition events. Who wears the dresses? How does each partner move independently, and in reference to their partner? What is their ethnicity? What angles and lines do their bodies make?
The competition finalists and winners are almost exclusively white, heterosexual-presenting, and adhere to these very conventional gender roles. We can make occasional exceptions, we might even see one same-sex couple. There may be a few women wearing trousers. But taken as a whole the repeating, and therefore dominant elements do nothing to reconstruct or challenge the gender norms. We never see women leads in winning couples. We never see men as winning follows. In fact, we rarely see a deviation from this gender binary: man/woman. How dull. How dangerous.
What’s the problem with this?
If these winners align with the dominant values of their community, is there anything particularly wrong with this?
This is where things get really interesting.
What exactly is the problem with these two gender roles?
These two roles encourage particular types of behaviour. That’s a very general comment, so let’s get specific. I’m going to take an issue that’s very important: safety.
How do these roles contribute to sexual assault and harassment in the modern lindy hop world?
I’m going to assume that you agree with me that sa and sh are bad things. Remember, this isn’t a universal belief. There are plenty of people who don’t believe that sh and sa are actual real things. I believe that they are. I believe that they are bad, not only for the people involved, but also for the community as a whole.
sa and sh physically hurt people, but they also discourage women from entering high profile or well paid roles (DJing, teaching, MCing, organising). This means that sh and sa limit the way our communities grow and do things. It makes us ordinary.
Let’s take that dominant feminine identity and apply her to lindy hop.
The follow role is associated with the feminine
We only have women or femme folk teach as follows at big events, we see workshops in ‘feminine styling for follows’ (but rarely other gendered options).
Follows are ‘quieter’
She doesn’t initiate moves or outshine the lead. She doesn’t interrupt or speak louder than the lead in class.
Follows are objects that things happen to
She doesn’t turn or spin; she is spun. She doesn’t decide where to move; she is moved. She doesn’t choose moves; the moves are chosen for her. She isn’t an equal partner; she makes the lead’s moves ‘work’.
Follows ‘look beautiful’ – they have long legs, small hands and feet, a slim build (with bosom, but not too much), they have pale skin, they have long straight hair
She wears clothes that exaggerate these elements – dresses and skirts, form fitting trousers, high heels (to make her legs seem longer and her feet smaller), make up. She dances in ways that exaggerate these elements – she points her toes and straightens her legs and arms, she extends her neck and drops her shoulders, she opens her arms with the palms up and open.
SHE IS WHITE. SHE HAS STRAIGHT HAIR. SHE HAS PALE SKIN. SHE HAS A SMALL ARSE AND THIN THIGHS. SHE HAS SMALL MUSCLES, NOT BIG, STRONG MUSCULATURE.
Follows are helpful, polite, and unaggressive
She does as she’s led, she doesn’t abort moves. She spins as many times as the lead wants. She turns in the direction the lead wants. She doesn’t interrupt the lead’s moves, or distract from him. She is passive and helpful. She does not solo dance alone. She looks at the lead all the time. She does not say no to dances. She does not stop dances mid-way. She doesn’t tell men to stop hurting or touching her. She will compromise her rhythm or timing for the sake of the lead’s rhythm or timing.
Follows are vulnerable; things happen to them, which they need to be protected from
She is vulnerable to kicks and accidents on the dance floor, and has to be protected by her lead. She is vulnerable to sh on the dance floor, so she needs a man to protect her. She doesn’t say no to dances. She must be walked to her car.
The follow is dependent on a (male) lead
She doesn’t say no to a dance; she cannot solo dance (she’s too afraid, she doesn’t know what to do). She cannot dance with a woman; only men can/are lead properly. Dancing with a woman would make people think she was a lesbian. She gains her worth from her heterosexual relationship with a man. She doesn’t tell a harasser to STOP; she reports him to a (male) organiser.
And so on and so on.
But remember: you cannot have this ideal femininity without an ideal masculine, and vice versa. Because in this story, the ideal fem or masc is heterosexual. Without a man, a woman is a lesbian (or a failure). Without a woman, a man is gay (or a failure).
We can do the same exercise with men and this ideal masculinity.
Can you do that? I’m a bit tired of typing, so I’ll leave you to make a little list. Write it down. What are the ways ‘leading’ is gendered hegemonic ‘masculine’?
These are all things that happen on the dance floor. But the modern lindy hop culture encourages us to see dance floor behaviour as the ideal model for off-floor behaviour. The most influential and powerful people at events are teachers and competition winners – people valued for their dance skills.
What happens when we extend this idea that a woman never says no to an invitation to dance? She is, in effect, told that she cannot say no to a man wanting to touch her. That she should smile and facilitate all the things that he wants to do to her body.
I wish that I could dismiss this as an exaggeration. But if we keep in mind the whole rest of the culture in which lindy hop is embedded, then we see that it’s not only unlikely, it’s also very difficult for a woman to say ‘NO’ to a man’s desire to touch her body. On and off the dance floor.
Here, look: this is how a dominant gender model informs lindy hop culture, and how this gendered dancing enables sexual assault and harassment.
Let’s go back a step.
Because I can’t stop there. I can’t stop at this feminist analysis. I need to do some feminist activism as well. I need to do and say something that will make it possible for me to go to lindy hop events. Make it possible for me to dance.
What are the problems?
1. We are using only white, middle class, mainstream Australian culture as a source for gender identities.
2. We haven’t considered this dance in historical context. What was happening in terms of gender in the 1920s and 30s?
3. We haven’t considered this dance in historical cultural context. What was happening in terms of black gender in the 1920s and 30s?
4. We haven’t considered this dance in contemporary cultural context. What is happening in terms of black/Asian/poc gender in Australia today? What is happening in terms of black gender in America today?
There are ways we can rethink gender in lindy hop: by actually watching and listening to black dancers.
In other words: thinking intersectionally about lindy hop (decolonising lindy hop; taking it out of white hands) will help us prevent sexual assault and harassment. I’m saying it clearly: there’s a problem with white, middle class, mainstream masculinity and femininity. And it has done bad things to lindy hop. Bad things to black lindy hoppers as well as white.
So, as a white women, I need to get my learn on.
For me, the first thing I have to do is sit down and listen. Stop talking. I need to watch and see what black dancers are already doing. I don’t ask them to come and give a lecture or wait at my beck and call in a dance class. I look at their work now.
Let’s look at those examples I listed above, where we had men dancing the ‘femme’ role. Let’s look at vogueing. Here, at first glance, we have ‘men’ performing that dominant femininity. But that sentence doesn’t go anywhere near explaining all the things that are happening. For a start, the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and ‘female’ and ‘masculinity’ seem awfully limited.
Who are these people dancing? Would they describe themselves as men? As women? As trans? As nonbinary (enby – N.B.)? As soon as we ask these questions, and we ask these people these questions, we get a sudden explosion of gender and identity. I like to imagine that a black and white binary drawing (man/woman, male/female, strong/weak, good/bad) just opens up in a massive rainbow spectrum of colour and identity. Strength, weakness, power, vulnerability, creativity, gentleness, violence, beauty, ugliness.
Right here, we see a whole range of ways to do femininity or masculinity. Lots of different ways to be a man or a woman. Or to be a person that doesn’t want to fit into this binary.
Queer studies gives us lots of ways of to think about gender and human relations.
Let’s go back again. Remember where I mentioned Tommy Defrantz? Where I talked about the kneebone bent?
Defrantz is a queer black dancer, whose book looks at black dance history in America and asks ‘where is the queer black masculinity here?’ He himself offers us a very different way of moving his body:
Dood is extremely gay. He is so gay. He is the gayest. And he’s out. And he’s black. And he’s political. He’s also a dancer. A street dancer. A concert dancer. An academic. A thinker. An activist. He is all these things at once, AND he’s a man. This is a different way of embodying masculinity. Look at him while speaks the language of tertiary academia, the academy, territory of white masculine power.
But listen to his higher pitched voice. Look at the way he holds his hands close to his body, taking up less space. The way he shifts from foot to foot, implying uncertainty or a lack-of-obstinant-determination. Then watch all that change as he STAMPS into the ground with the buck dances. The way he embodies this role of the ‘buck‘: aggressive, fierce, determined, sexualised, large. And then he shifts again, demonstrating the wing dances, which he morphs until THERE! we see vogueing, and the ballrooms of 1980s queer black Harlem.
In this single two minute clip Defrantz takes us through a hundred years of black dance and black masculinity. He shows us how rhythm can be style. He shows us how rhythm can be black masculinity. And because he can then take it off again, he shows us – all of us, whatever our gender – that this masculinity can be put on and taken off at will! Imagine a black woman putting on that identity for a moment. Buck dancing!
But what if we actually look at a black woman dancing lindy hop. First ‘vanilla’, then ‘with sauce’. Here, Cookie (Angela Andrew) shows us how to dance as a follow, as a woman, as a black woman. Her skin is black. Her hair is up in a turban. She wears loose trousers and shirt. She addresses the camera. She is with her partner, but she is also taking creative space, saying I AM HERE with her clarity of rhythm. HERE I take a triple step and make it a stomp off. HERE I pause, I stop moving, I hold the time in my body and groove it on down. And HERE I suggest a rhythm to my partner, and because he listens to me, because he is open to my contributions, he takes it up and he joins me. We are together in this moment as equals.
And what is the next step?
I actively choose not to hire teachers who run workshops which prioritise gender norms, or who exploit those gender norms. That means that I don’t hire teachers who’ve been reported for sexual assault or harassment. I don’t hire their friends who’ve stood by them and not called them up on their behaviour.
I do not hire teachers who’ve done publicly racist or antisemitic things. Nor do I hire their friends who’ve stood by them and not called them out on their behaviour.
I hire dancers of colour. I pay them good cashmoney for their work. I choose to hire teachers who are either actively engaging with gender, in a critical way, or I choose to hire teachers who are implicitly engaging with gender in an active way. Simply through being and dancing gender in different ways. This means that I can hire white teachers who talk the talk and attempt to walk the walk, and I can can hire dancers of colour who are teaching me about being gender simply by dancing-while-black.
More importantly, I can take their classes. Yes, that means you, dancer who thinks they’re too good to take classes any more. Be humble. Show you are willing to learn from this person of colour. Say, with your open face and willingness ‘I value what you have to teach.’ Be present in that class, be mindful. Learn. Assume that you don’t know how this works. Learn. Be open. Learn.
I think this is important: it’s not ok for me to ask teachers or dancers to articulate exactly what they are doing that makes them ‘black’. It is my job to learn to see how ethnicity informs who we are and how we move. It is my job, as a white woman, to stop seeing ‘whiteness’ as a default ‘norm’. It is my job to take my assumptions about what ‘good lindy hop’ is, and to see how my own privilege as a white women has shaped this set of values. All of this jargon – frame, connection, musicality, tone, leading, following – all of it is language circulated and controlled by white teachers, and commodified in formal dance classes. It is, truly, the colonisation of black dance.
It is my job to learn how to learn in new ways. To learn how to be in a class with a teacher and see how their movements, their ways of holding their bodies, of taking, of looking at students and each other, of being inform their dancing. Whether they are black or white, hispanic or asian. If dance is culture, then I need to do more than just ‘have a class with a black teacher’. I need to learn how my entire understanding of dance and classes is informed by my own ethnicity.
Here is a list of people you may choose to hire, who are not skinny white heterosexual women and men. Some of them are lindy hoppers, some tap dancers, some do dances traditional to their peeps, some are musicians. I haven’t even really gotten into Asia with this list, and it is totally not exhaustive.
And please note: being the old black/queer/asian in the village can be tiring and intimidating. Why not hire two! Or three! Or ALL of them!
After dealing with sexual assault and harassment in public dance forums for a number of years now, I’ve noticed a clear ‘type’.
He presents as a feminist ally, someone who knows a lot about antisocial behaviour and feminism, and professes to be very anti-hegemonic masculinity.
Yet he’s always the loudest voice in a fb conversation, dominating discussion and correcting others.
And he later proves to be an offender.
I don’t want to think on it too much as it’s too upsetting, but this feels like a type of gaslighting: I’m an ally, I can’t be an offender! Look at me talking the talk online!
I’m ok with talking about gender and using gendered pronouns in class. I just like to be sure I’m not just using the same two boring pronouns all the time, and that I’m using people’s preferred pronouns.
I’m not ok with gendering leading and following, or skills related to leading and following.
This is partly why I’m not ok with some elements of the ambidance movement: I don’t want to do away with all gender.
But I do want to do away with the essentialist coupling of skills and ideas with two gender ‘norms’.
How then do I work to deconstruct gender in lindy hop when I’m teaching?
1. Use the words ‘leads’ and ‘follows’ (or the role name, and I’m with Dan when it comes to avoiding leader/follower) rather than ‘ladies and gentlemen’, ‘men and women’, ‘she/her/he/him’ etc etc.
2. Use people’s actual names rather than the role. It’s nicer generally, but it also encourages us to think of people as individuals, not roles. I try to use my teaching partner’s name.
3. Rather than talking about or around your teaching partner (eg “The follow will do this,”) speak to your teaching partner, asking them to describe what they’re doing (eg “How do you know I’m asking you to move forward, Alice?”).
Then there are trickier, less obvious things.
1. Always ask permission before you touch someone. It’s quite common for leaders to simply ‘grab’ a follow in class/their partner to demonstrate on them as though they were an object. I always try to ask them if I can touch/demonstrate. And I always apologise if I’ve just thoughtlessly grabbed them.
I started doing this after we started asking students to always introduce themselves and ask someone to dance before touching a new partner. It rubbed off on me :D
This stops us treating our partners like objects/just ‘the follower’. And this issue happens more with leaders grabbing follows than vice versa.
2. Conceptualising lindy hop as something other than ‘leader says, follow does’.
We are currently using ‘call and response’ and both partners can do it. We also use ‘leader invites follow to do X, follow decides whether to do X, how fast to do X,’ etc etc etc.
3. Don’t use words that position follows as objects.
eg never using words like ‘push’ to describe what leads do: ‘the leader pushes the follow’. No. This a) not technically accurate, and b) disrespectful.
4. Always try to talk about and think about your partner as a human with feelings and emotions.
When we get really technical, it’s easy to reduce our partner to an object force/momentum happens to, or a subject who generates force/momentum. We are real people with real feelings. So while physics is at work, our feelings and emotions are much more important. So we use language that describes what’s happening from that POV first. In nerd terms, this means using ‘external cues’ rather than ‘internal cues’.
eg. I ask Alice if she’d like to go to the snack table, then I take her hand and go with her to the snack table. vs ‘I hold her hand with my fingers in X position, then I engage my core, prepare, and then lift my left foot, swing it back 20*, place it back behind me, and then she engages her core and activates her frame…..’
The technical jargon encourages us to talk about our bodies and partners as technical objects, not as real live humans. It also slows down learning :D
5. Speak and act as though your partner and other dancers have opinions, and that these opinions may differ from yours.
We often try to hide the way we ‘make the sausages’, but it’s more useful for learners to see us discuss things, perhaps disagree, share different ideas. So ask your partner and students what they think and feel. Allow yourself to learn from your students and be surprised and delighted by this new information.
-> all this stuff is about deconstructing not just a gender binary, but a hierarchy of gendered power with straight white bro at the top.
And what of historical accuracy in all this?
I think it’s important to talk about gender in a historical context when we talk about lindy hop. So while a gender neutral pronoun is very much something white, middle class Australian teachers are experimenting with, that’s not how black dancers might have spoken of each other in the 30s.
Again, though, I like to take care about generalising. While some dancers today would have us believe that the 30s were a time of rigid gender norms, that’s not entirely true:
– There were women leads and men follows (and every gender ID ever) in the olden days,
– There were queer dancers and musicians (I’m currently reading about queer culture in NY in the 20s-40s… helllooooo genderflex ID and jazz dance!) and genderflex lindy hoppers fucking up the patriarchy then. Lester Young, anyone?
– Some of the most supportive teachers I’ve had have been black OGs, who’ve used gender neutral language and openly said they support women leads/male follows/genderflex dance IDs.
So when we talk about ‘ungendering’ lindy hop, that’s perhaps not helpful. It’s more that I want to widen my understanding of gender (and sexuality) in dance to more than just straight men leading and straight women following. The world is huge, and jazz asks us to improvise and innovate.
My friend has a male work colleague who thinks of himself as a feminist ally. He has a ways to go yet, but he listens carefully and is open to new ideas and information.
He recently said something about how there are women who repeatedly use abortion as contraception. He then expanded, telling this story of being a teenager in Wangaratta in the mid-80s and listening to his parents in dinner party conversation with the town obstetrician who told them that he’d just seen a patient who had come in for her eighth abortion.
My friend, in conversation with feminist friends, wanted to know where she might go from here in addressing the many issues raised by this highly problematic anecdote.
My first feeling is:
Why does he assume this is a true story, not an exaggerated one?
Is he sure is recollection is correct?
One anecdote is not a good sample size.
So he should begin by interrogating the premise of the question, rather than assuming that it is a legitimate claim. He should be asking himself “How many women have abortions?” And then “How many women have multiple abortions?” And finally “What demographic are these multiple-abortion women (if they actually exist)?”
This is the sort of research task that can easily be done by an ally (and should be).
Actually discovering data is a key part of untangling patriarchal myths. He has to understand that this tedious task skills him up (in terms of research skills), gives him an appreciation of the type of work and thinking feminists have to do to counter cultural myths, and also gives him useful knowledge.
This idea that ‘women use abortion as contraception’ is a persistent myth in our culture. It suggests that being sexually active outside of reproduction is morally wrong or self-indulgent. It also suggests that having an abortion is quick, easy, and physically just like taking the pill. All points that are easily disproved. Particularly if one is living in 1980s Wangaratta.
Acquiring an abortion requires knowledge (where to go, how to book an appointment, an understanding of termination as a real option), time (being able to go to an appointment, then get home, without dependent children or work demands), and money. If not money, then access to public healthcare. In Brisbane in the 1980s and 90s (when I was a young woman, and my friends had abortions), you also had to find a GP who would refer you to a specialist for the termination. It was illegal to acquire an abortion if you weren’t at immediate medical risk; you could go to jail for this ‘crime’.
Wangaratta in the 1980s was a regional centre. Finding a doctor for a termination in that town at that time would have been incredibly difficult. And as this anecdote suggests, maintaining confidentiality would have been hugely difficult.
But let us assume we do accept this increasingly unlikely premise. That one woman this one time had multiple abortions (ie more than 5) I’d be looking at other data:
Is she catholic or otherwise unable to use contraception (eg has an abusive, controlling husband/partner)?
Is she the victim of serial abuse by a family member where she’s desperate to terminate pregnancies and doesn’t have the autonomy to get the pill?
What was the time frame for these abortions? A year? 30 years?
The doctor had a duty of care to discuss the issue with her. Had he? Why not?
So if women and girls are educated and have access to contraception, they have fewer pregnancies. They are also, consequently, less likely to terminate pregnancies. Multiple terminations in one woman’s life then supports the theory that she does not have bodily, reproductive autonomy. In other words, she cannot make informed choices about her own fertility and body. Whether because she doesn’t have the education she needs, she doesn’t have access to contraception (which isn’t that unlikely in semi-rural Wangaratta in the 80s), or she isn’t free to choose whether or not to become pregnant.
So i think the other important point here for my friend’s male friend, is to recognise how issues like sex, reproduction, bodies, healthcare, etc are employed in patriarchal discourse. He should ask himself “Ah! A comment by a male professional with institutional power about women’s bodies which perpetuates a myth that can be used to control women’s bodies! This ticks some boxes; I need corroborative evidence.”
Of course, the fact that it’s hard to find the answer to this question tells us that this data may prove awkward for men who want to retain that myth of sexual woman = out of control hetero breeder.
Which should make us all the more curious: why hasn’t anyone asked this question before?
Speaking of the black experience in jazz and blues dance…
I haven’t yet ready anything in the blues and lindy hop community about the black queer male body dancing.
There’s been some good work on black women’s bodily experiences in modern jazz dance culture, and a bit about black masculinity. Quite a few too many white men have whitesplained how blues works as a black space, and far too many white women and men have avoided talking about vintage fashion as an ethnicised scene.
Apparently the black queer body in a well cut suit or gorgeous gown is too terrifying even for whispers.
I saw Looking For Langston (an art film by Isaac Julien) last night. The whole project – a film made during the 80s AIDS crisis by a black British man, about a black American man of the Harlem Renaissance – is a meditation on queer desire, jazz aesthetics and the blues. The name (and a lot of the content, including some proto-vogueing) reminds me of Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna, and the queer-eye-on-art. It includes voice work by Stuart Hall and Toni Morrison, Paul Gilroy gets props, Jimmy Somerville plays a cherub (again), and Tongues Untied is referenced. Also there is some cock.
The installation at Rosley Oxley9 Gallery features some beautiful large scale black and white stills from the film, depicting black men dancing in closed embrace. Photos I regularly see linked up on facebook as examples of queer dance in the swing era. Ha.
In a continuation of the discussion begun by Damon’s post, Kelly posted a lengthy, intelligent piece on facebook. This one was only visible to friends (not everyone), so I won’t copy and paste it here. But she did begin some interesting discussion about being a white woman engaging with this topic. I chimed in there in a less careful tone than I would on Damon’s post, as I know Kelly better, and I wouldn’t splash my feels all over the page of someone I don’t know.
Anyhoo, this is how I responded:
While i can get behind the statement, ‘Some historic blues dance styles are defined by a close embrace’, i cannot endorse the line that walking through the door at a blues dance event _is_ giving consent for a closed embrace.
Whatever the history of a dance, drawing an equivalence between those two points is rubbish.
I’m also very unkeen to just recreate the past. Honour our history, yes, but i’m not just going to give a blanket ok for wholesale reenactment of ‘history’.
I go to dances with my brain and eyes open. One of the most important parts of the cultural transmission of dances between generations, communities, and cultures, is adapting them to make them socially relevant. That’s why canel walk in 1930 and camel walk in 2018 aren’t exactly the same.
So i’m saying it bluntly: even if the historical ‘truth’ was that you (women, it is implied), give up the right to withdrawl consent at blues partirs, i am NOT ok with that now. And i do not want to revive or preserve that little nugget. And i sure as shit won’t tolerate retrosexist bros who use this ‘history’ to enable contravening women’s rights.
No punches pulled there, right?
But I’m finding it so difficult to stay chilled on this topic.
A couple of black men responded, but again I won’t cut and paste their comments here, as they weren’t publicly visible. When a post and comments aren’t public, we assume that the authors assume a degree of anonymity or ‘safety’.
But I did continue, after some thought, with the following post. I think it best sums up by difficulties in dealing with this topic. It’s so, so hard to unpack privilege and assumptions about race and ethnicity when your brain is being pounded by the effects of vicarious trauma.
Lately the topic of intergenerational trauma has entered Australian discourse about indigenous Australian rights and compensation. Part of me would like to talk/write about the physical consequence of trauma and violence (and living with the threat of violence) for people trying to participate in public discourse. Basically: it’s fucking hard to be calm and coherent when your brain is pouring adrenaline through you. And I think that this is why we need allies. We need people who have the privilege and advantage of not being physically threatened by patriarchy to do some heavy lifting.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I get so upset about this particular point. I understand with my brain, but then my emotions just come raging in.
I think it’s an old school trigger. I have heard men use exactly this argument -“It’s a blues hold”, “Relax and go with it,” “This is how you do blues dance” – when a woman asks them not to hold them so tight it hurts, not to touch their breasts or groin, or gets so upset they cry and leave the dance. I’m dealing with these men in my local dance scene at the moment.
So when I hear just the beginning of this sentence, it’s like a switch gets flicked in my head, and I hear those women literally crying, ashamed, and telling me what the man said as he held her down and groped or assaulted her. Repeatedly. “Relax. It’s a blues hold.” It’s line built for gaslighting.
I know I feel this way because I’m dealing with vicarious trauma from working on so much s.a. and harassment stuff. But my brain isn’t in control here. My emotions are.
At this stage, I simply can’t accept this approach. As I type this, I’m starting to feel a bit distressed. But right now, I’m 100% not ok with even getting anywhere near supporting or even taking apart this argument to see how it works.
I’ve also been wondering: am I doing some low-key racism here? Am I policing a topic for my own privilege? I’m not sure. I do know that I’ve heard white male offenders appropriate the ‘this is authentic black history’ argument to justify serious harassment, as social dancers, and as teachers, _teaching_ other men that this sort of behaviour is legit. And that makes me super, super angry.
So I’m going to sit on this for a while until I don’t get so seriously triggered. Then revisit it.