I love everything about it. I love those chins, and they way they’re lifted as a sort of challenge/invitation. I love that grace! The sophistication! But also the sheer, testosterone-laden, machismo of it! My favourite part is probably the very end when they raise their arms to accept applause and do the little pantomime with the handkerchief. This is just gorgeous. It’s exactly the type of masculinity I like to pretend I can do when I’m pretending to be a sophisticated mandancer. Except that I suspect I come off seeming a bit more like someone’s unsavoury uncle.
(linky c/o Jerry, who I feel as though I’m stalking with all these links and shares and reposts and such)
Appropriation, step-stealing, cultural transmission, imitation, impersonation, copying, poaching….
So my last chunky post ‘Historical Recreation’: Fat Suits, Blackface and Dance has kind of hit like a ton of bricks. Cultural transmission in dance – the movement of dance steps and forms and ideas between and within cultures – is pretty much my core research interest, and I definitely don’t want to leave this topic just yet. I certainly didn’t want to leave things with a fairly despairing discussion about blackface and discomforting appropriation.
This is a very long post, and it’s divided into these sections:
Right. What do I mean when I talk about ‘cultural transmission’. Basically, in this context, I’m talking about the movement of cultural ‘stuff’ – in this case dance steps/rhythms/styling/etc – between cultures. But why stop there? I like writing long posts, and this is such an exciting topic. So strap in.
Wait. I’ve just dated myself. Ok. So another cool example is the way Krumping was promoted in the mainstream by David LaChapelle’s 2005 film Rize. Fark. My cultural references – they are out of date! And I don’t want to suggest that just one film or music video is enough to stimulate the shift of a dance from marginal to mainstream spaces. There’s quite a bit more going on, and quite a few more people involved in the process, from dance teachers to performances by lesser-known dancers to trends in night club cultures and DJing interests.
Basically, we’re talking about dances moving from one cultural context (in these cases queer culture and urban African American youth street dance culture) to another (mainstream, predominantly white-owned and organised music industry). These two examples suggest that this cultural transmission thing is a matter of one rich, powerful culture ripping off another. Maybe. But cultural transmission is more complicated. Not every example of borrowing or step stealing is dodgy.
I often talk about the cake walk as an example of cultural transmission, and I’ve listed a bunch of references for my ideas about cake walk in Dance competitions and policing public space. In this case, slaves borrowed particular movements from the culture of the slave owners. And then fucked with it. This is a bit more transgressive than Madonna having some kids vogue in her video clip.
Power, class, identity and cultural transmission
But I do think we need to keep Katrina Hazzard Gordon’s words in mind: “Who has the power to steal from whom?” What are the broader power relationships at work in the society where this transmission is happening? Who has the most money? Whose opinions and beliefs are most frequently presented in the media? Which types of sexual relationships are presented as ‘normal’? Yes, it is possible for less powerful people to steal dance steps from other groups, but what does it mean when they do?
If we’re going to do informed thinking about this, we have to recognise that societies and relationships are structured by class, by gender, by sexuality, by age, by ethnicity and so on. The choices we can (and are allowed to) make, the way we dance, is affected by who we are, as social beings. If you totally believe that none of this matters, and that the individual is simply who they have made themselves, then this is not the post (nor the blog) for you. I’m not saying that we are powerless to change our fates, but I am saying that it is naive to assume that we are just the sum of biology or individual choices. Social animals, yo.
In my work I’ve argued that cultural transmission involves some sort of ideological and structural reworking for the thing or practice being transmitted. Dance steps aren’t just carried, whole, to new cultural locations and traditions. They get changed a bit. They’re usually toned down for conservative mainstream audiences. There’s quite a bit written about this, stacks talking about hip hop, but quite a bit on partner dancing. For example, Jane Desmond talks about mambo and its popularity in white communities in the 1950s, and Sheenagh Pietrobruno discusses salsa classes in Montreal. But this repackaging of marginalised practice for mainstream consumption isn’t restricted to dance. Rosetta Tharpe’s guitar playing was retuned for white audiences. The recent remake of Hairspray pretty much undid all the badass subversion of the John Waters original – folks got whiter, language got cleaner, dances go duller, drag queens got undragged.
It’d be easy to just give up, to dismiss cultural transmission as indelibly marked by class and power and ethnicity and the work of The Man. But then, you’d be giving up before you got to the good part. Yes, the commodification of dances like mambo and lindy hop can be read as the appropriation of street dance by elite groups in the mainstream. But cultural transmission doesn’t work in only one direction. We hoomans, we’re complicated beasts. And terribly creative. Cultural transmission can be subversive and exciting.
Cultural transmission via Star Trek fans
I developed my ideas about step stealing and cultural transmission by way of fan studies. Or, more specifically, by way of textual poaching, Camille Bacon Smith and women SF fans. Women who wrote slash fiction. The idea here, is that fans of the Star Trek television show imagined whole new lives for the heroes, Captain Kirk and Mr Spock. Whole new relationships. In the tv show Spock and Kirk are platonic friends. Very good friends. But in the imaginations of fans, they could be so much more.
I really like this idea that characters in a story have entire lives we don’t see. I also really like the thought of fans – people who are painted as helpless consumers – totally fucking up the myth that they are victims of aggressive television. Basically, I took this idea of textual poaching (where fans ‘poached’ characters or stories from mainstream media texts) and applied it to dance. Thing is, I wasn’t the first person to get up on this idea. Frankie Manning himself had a reputation as a hardcore step stealer. Someone who’d copy your steps, then pull them out himself. Of course, the trick lies not in creating an exact copy of that original step, but in remaking it and performing it a new and unique way that makes people SQUEE. And Frankie certainly made people SQUEE. Nor was he first at this. It’s a feature of vernacular dance generally.
Cultural transmission between generations
I’m also very interested in the transmission of dance steps and forms across generations. It stands to reason that young people gonna do young people things, and there are types of dances which they’ll invent to suit their needs and interests. Lindy hoppers totally understand this. We regularly tell each other stories about how the swingout was an adaptation of the European partner dance format. Or, to be clearer, there’s a story about how Shorty George Snowden and his partner broke out into open during a dance contest, and totally blew people’s brains. And of course, there’s also the story about how Frankie Manning and Freda Washington, keen to bring something new to win a dance competition pulled out the first air step and blew people’s brains with that.
Vernacular dance happens in cross-generational spaces, from homes to street parties and church dances. There’s quite a bit written about this: Katrina Hazzard Gordon has a book called Jookin’, LeeEllen Friedland talks about this in reference to tap dance and hip hop. As a result, dance forms do not simply die out or disappear when the current generation moves on to something else. ‘Old’ dances live on in the dancing bodies of older people in the community, and are regularly revisited and ‘borrowed’ by younger people.
Jonathan David Jackson argues that black movement traditions are ‘choreologically contemporaneous’. That’s another way of saying that new dance steps and styles (like lindy hop in the 20s/30s, breakdance in the 70s/80s) develop at the same time as old fashioned steps stop being popular with young people. Jackson argues that rather than disappearing, replaced by new steps, old steps are recycled.
principles of physical, spatial, aural, and qualitative action are passed on from one tradition to the next (41).
This is pretty exciting stuff. It means that lindy hop didn’t die out in the 1950s. It just changed shape. This also means that older dances are continually revived and rediscovered by younger people. How? By watching old folks dance, by learning from old folks. But also by the fact that principles of movement (balance, spatial awareness, everyday rhythmic movement) persist in a community. They don’t just disappear.
I really like this cross-generational aspect as it encourages a relationship between young people and older people which is based on mutual respect, and cements the role of older people in our community. I once gave a talk at a conference on cultural transmission in dance where there were some young Indigenous Australian dancers from Bangarra in the audience. I ended up talking about this idea of learning dance from elders with a young koori woman choreographer. We were both excited about the idea that our dance cultures were so community-rooted, but we each also had frustrations about how this could limit what we did as women dancers. In her case, there are some warrior dances which women aren’t allowed to learn, but which she found particular exciting and inspiring. So there are limitations to this cross-generational stuff as well.
Improvisation, making stuff up and dance-as-discourse
Yet this cross-generational ‘choreography’ also implies and responds to social change within the community and wider society. Lindy hop was a response to the development of swinging jazz and the rise of the Harlem renaissance: new music demanded new dance steps. Jazz, at its most fundamental level, combines improvisation with formal structure. For me, this is the most exciting part. Jazz music is vernacular music (or it was – I’ve been meaning to write about jazz’s shift from folk or pop music to ‘art’ music). Jazz is also all about improvisation – making stuff up. Innovating. Changing. Being flexible enough to bend and respond to the user’s needs and ideas. So jazz dance has to be the same way. It’s all about innovation, improvisation, change, response.
Improvisation, making stuff up and ballet
So, if innovation and change are essential parts of vernacular dance, what about concert dances like ballet? I’d argue that they’re all about managing change and in many cases restricting it, preserving dances as they are. But even there, choreographers and dancers are innovating. And it’s certainly true that vernacular dance is also carefully managed. There are, for example, some dances you wouldn’t do in front of your parents. Frankie Manning used to tell a story about his mother going out to dance in a way that she didn’t think was appropriate for a young boy to see (let alone do). This is an example of how dance at once reflects cultural and social mores, but is also regulated and managed by community values. Just like ballet, only it’s done in a different way.
George Balanchine is a good example of a ballet dancer and choreographer who brought African American movements and aesthetics to ballet, pushing some barriers (not without challenges) and introducing new ideas to a fairly resistant culture.
(Katherine Dunham, 1943 Life Collection) Katherine Dunham was a dancer and choreographer who did similar work, stretching concert dance with movements and shapes and ideas from other cultures. In this case, we can see clearly politicised goals at work – Dunham was making it clear that ballet and ‘elite’ white mainstream art dance was enriched by contributions from other dances and other dance cultures.
Pearl Primus is another example of a black woman dancer moving into ballet/concert dance and bringing with her quite radical ideas about movements and types of movement.
Cultural transmission in dance as politics
These are all examples of ethnicity and concert dance as a place for cultural transmission. I talked a bit about the specific changes and differences between these different dance traditions in gimme de kneebone bent. I’m really excited by the idea of dance as a product of culture as well as physiology. Our sense of aesthetics in dance is informed not only by our cultural values and who we are, as social beings, but also by our ideas about gender and beauty and art generally. This is partly why I get so worked up about shoes. High heel shoes make feet seem smaller and pointed, and the leg seem longer and straighter. Legs in heels aren’t some sort of objective marker of ‘beauty’. Feeling that legs in heels is ‘sexier’, ‘more feminine’, ‘better’ than legs in other shoes is a product of how we are raised, of social/economic class, the culture we live in, and how we think about bodies and beauty. And not everyone shares these ideas. I simply think it’s a mistake to box ourselves in with limited ideas about what can be beautiful or skilled dancing. We are capable of such wonderful things; why limit ourselves to just one small corner of that?
So change (often through individual improvisation and innovation), is a necessary feature of vernacular dance. Re-presenting everyday life in dance lets dancers express themselves, and engage with the ideas and powers of their local community and wider society. This become especially important when the dancers involved do not have access to the ‘official public sphere’ – to newspapers, films, mainstream media, public lectures, the education system and so on. Dance can give disempowered folk a chance to recreate gain ‘control’ of their often hostile everyday life.
Everyday life and cultural transmission in dance
Vernacular dance – street dance, folk dance, rather than concert or stage dance – are responses to people’s everyday lives and environments. So you see types of movements in vernacular dance which echo the dancer’s everyday movement and lifestyle. LeeEllen Friedland talks about rhythmic movement in day to day life, arguing that when you live in a culture where music and dance are part of everyday life, there’s no clear line between ‘dance’ and ‘rhythmic movement’. So, for example, the basic charleston step which we lindy hoppers are nuts about, is structurally very like walking. The arms swing, the legs move forwards and back, the bounce which generates energy in the movement originates in the torso (or core) travels out through the body, to the arms and hands. Just like when you walk. More specifically, there are plenty of jazz steps which are deliberate references to everyday activities and movements. For example the ‘cherry picker’ (or I’ve heard it called ‘praise allah’) looks just like reaching up to pick cherries, then down to put them in a basket.
One of the things I’ve especially liked is the thought of dancers imitating real live people in their neighbourhoods. Or ‘types’ of people. The pimps in Harlem. Sailors on the docks. Plantation owners. For a people without access to the mainstream media, dance offers a right of reply, a discursive space for the thrashing out of ideas, the resolution of conflict, the management of public identities and social norms.
What all this then means is that dance becomes an extension of everyday life, rather than a discrete, separate activity.
Cultural transmission in modern day lindy hop
That’s pretty much what my research was about. Except I then went on to talk about what happens in modern day lindy hop contexts. Because I was grounded in media and cultural studies, I was particularly interested in how dancers today use digital media to do all this. I talked about digital video clips and learning dance steps and sharing dance ideas cross-culturally. I also talked about online talk and developing and cementing international and inter-scene relationships via online talk. And I talked about DJing using digital tools.
Ok, so let’s go there. Let’s talk about modern day lindy hop and cultural transmission. If we can agree that black American dancers imitating and step stealing and poaching is empowering and subversive, what does it mean when modern day dancers start doing this stuff? I think it can be highly problematic (as I described in ‘Historical Recreation’: Fat Suits, Blackface and Dance. But we can’t stop there. What about Korea? What about Japan and Singapore? What about black American dancers today learning lindy hop? What about Asian-Australian dancers imitating Dean Collins? Shit is wacked, right? I mean, we can’t just write off the modern lindy hop project as fucked up appropriation or racism. For every blackface performance there’s stuff like this:
This is, of course, a group of Korean lindy hoppers making a birthday greeting for Frankie Manning, combining traditional Korean song and dance with the shim sham. It’s the ultimate mark of respect for an older man, a teacher, and a hero for these young Korean people. It’s also a brilliant example of cultural transmission, combining all sorts of musical and dancing influences. I think Frankie would have adored it. I know I do. It makes me tear up with its sincere respect and affection for Frankie Manning.
And we have to think about the Two cousins video clip. Neither of the men in that clip are African American, but they are of African descent, and they are thoroughly grounded in the history of this dance, both creatively and politically. I remember Ryan François talking about how important it was a young black British man to discover lindy hop and Frankie Manning. This recreationism can be suspect, but it can also be wonderful and empowering and exciting.
I’ve talked a lot about race and ethnicity here. But let’s talk about gender and sexuality.
Historical recreationism, gender and having a clue
I have some reservations about a hardcore historical recreationist approach to lindy hop today. Mostly because, hey, we don’t live in the 1920s, 30s or 40s. Yes, the costumes and the music and the dances are fun. Super fun. And it’s totally ok to spend lots of time and effort into recreating them. But the 1920s, 30s and 40s weren’t terribly awesome places to live. Particularly if you weren’t white. It was even a bit shit if you were a woman. I mean, I like the right to vote, to own property, to divorce. I like having clean water and food, and good solid health care. I like knowing my child won’t die from polio or that I won’t die from a botched abortion on a kitchen table because I didn’t have access to safe contraception. And I’m a white woman. If I’d been black, in America or Australia, things would have been way shitter.
I don’t want to recreate those days. I don’t want to pretend that they were so wonderful and great. And I think that if you’re going to get into historical recreationism, you need to be very aware of your own privilege and power, and of the broader historical contexts of the clothes and music and dances you love. I mean, a Pearl Harbour dance, today? Not so cool. Blackface? Again, you gotta have a think about what that meant at the time, and what it means now. This is why I’m really not ok with WWII themed dances. I’m not at all ok with planning a dance – a good party time – based on the idea of conflict that killed so many and to which my own grandparents were so seriously opposed. Sure, I think we should remember these conflicts, but I also think we should think about those wars and the meanings behind the symbolism we just mash into our dance events.
Being right on and doing historical recreationism: fan SQUEE
Ok, so how do I reconcile all those misgivings with my absolute passion for the dances and music of the period? How do I do recreationism without giving myself the shits? Firstly, I go for the intent and the ideas behind and within these dances. Lindy hop, jazz dance, vernacular dance can be so subversive. Think of that cake walk, the mocking of slave owners, the thumbing of the nose to the oppressor. That’s an excellent idea. Think about impersonation and derision dance – speaking back, responding to bullshit politics on the dance floor. This is exciting for me because it is non-violent, creative activism. But it can also just be plain good fun. I mean, it blows my BRAIN that leading in lindy hop can at once be so incredibly subversive (a woman making decisions? a woman, complete without a man? unpossible!), but is also (and more importantly) so much FUN.
I’ve always thought that while getting angry about injustice is useful for galvanising the self, it’s also bloody depressing. Eventually, I need to get active and to empower myself. And I see being physically strong and capable (to the best of my ability), being creative, finding pleasure in my self and my own body as the most exciting way of fucking over the patriarchy. I mean, the sweetest, finest revenge is simply being happy and confident. Particularly in my culture, where the ‘beauty industry’ is all about trying to make me anxious and self-doubting. I choose not to waste my time and worry on what my hair looks like or whether I’m pleasing some man. I choose to spend my worry and time on getting that goddamn swingout as fine as it can possibly be.
The fact that we can do all this in public is also pretty damn good. Dance is a public discourse. It’s an engagement with ideas and social forces and structures. It’s a way of expressing our own ideas. Our own selves. That is why I’m so keen on the idea of diversity in dance, and in not enforcing a particular way of dancing as a woman or a man. We are all the more richer for our differences.
What do I find so great about this? First, it’s great dancing. I like what I see. It’s historical recreationism to the nth degree. These are two modern day dancers performing choreography inspired by a particular film sequence, wearing costumes inspired by that same sequence, using the sound from that sequence. SQUEE! But unlike the Day At the Races routine, we’re not seeing any dodgy fatsuits. Race is still happening here – these are two white kids performing a routine danced by two white man. Whiteness is race, is ethnicity. I think class is also at work (and a central theme for the original routine, of course). But the gender stuff is what I get most squee about.
I really really like it that Sarah has co-opted the part of a male actor and dancer. So many of the solo jazz routines danced by women around the lindy hop world have them in some sort of sexeh frock, doing teh sexeh ladee dancing. But in this case, Sarah is wearing trousers, a blouse (rather than a shirt), flat shoes, and her hair is tied up. She definitely reads as conventionally female, but not in a spangles-and-sex sort of way. More importantly, she’s dancing virtually the same steps as her male fellow performer. I especially like it that this performance works in complement to her existing ideas about shoes and whatnot. I think it’s particularly subversive that she can do all the gender stuff.
Dancing in drag
I’m quite keen on this idea of dancing in drag, or of performing gender in this way. I mean, I often think about my own dancing in this sort of way. I make extensive, and thorough, use of historical clips myself. I use them as a source for new steps, for ways of holding my body, for styling, for attitude. But I’m using both the male and female dancers for this. When I’m dancing, I frequently think to myself “I’m Frankie!” or “I’m Al!” or even “I’m Skye!” It’s not that I’m actually imagining I’m these men in particular, or a man in more general terms. I’m very happy with being a woman. And with femininity (just not that boringly conventional heteronormative ladygirl femininity). But sometimes, in those moments when I’m dancing, I can imagine that I’m occupying that space that is awesome dancing and freedom of movement and creativity that I associate with my male heroes and role models. I want to occupy that Al Minns Leon James attitude, that Frankie power and excitement, that Skye dancing-squee enthusiasm. It makes me feel confident and happy. I know I’ll never dance like them, nor do I really want to be just like them, but it can be important to me to put on that identity like a costume. So when I’m dancing, I’m wearing that attitude, and it gives me confidence. Also, playing dress up and make believe is bloody good fun.
So when I see Sarah in that clip, I think ‘Yep. That works for me.’ It’s a moment where the dressing up and recreation is super fun and exciting. I don’t have to negotiate dodgy race politics. I can just enjoy the subversion of a woman ‘dancing man’ but owning it in her way. I guess, though, that this is how hegemony and patriarchy work. The smooth fit of class and race seems ‘right’, and anything else is kind of jagged and unsettling. We’re used to seeing these sorts of images of healthy young white male bodies being athletic and creative, ‘speaking’ and articulating a clever commentary on social relationships. Not much is being challenged by the original sequence. Really, the best part is Sarah’s occupying the male character and reworking it to accommodate her own gender.
Eccentric dance: where I’d like to live
I think this is why I’m very interested in eccentric dances. I had this sudden moment about a year ago, when I was doing lots of solo work, when I suddenly thought, watching videos of myself “Why am I trying to be ‘beautiful’ or ‘cool’ or otherwise conventionally attractive or ok? These guys aren’t.” You know that moment when you first watch yourself dancing on video and you cringe? Well, I realised that I was trying to get rid of that feeling by conforming to the sorts of ‘cool’ dancing I saw in modern day comps. I gradually realised that it wasn’t really possible for me to look like that. I’m not tall and thin; I’m kind of square with some round parts. I’m not hugely athletic. I have a round belly and lots of jelly all over me. I have big slabs of muscle in my legs and arse, and my arms don’t quite get straight. I’d been thinking of these as problems to overcome. But then I decided that these could become my strengths. No one else is quite my shape, or moves quite my way. I don’t need to please the people watching me – I can make them uncomfortable. Or nervous. Or embarrassed. Or – goddess forbid! – make them laugh.
This is when I started getting serious about using archival footage for finding role models.
Snake Hips Tucker: in the 1930 film Crazy House. It doesn’t seem possible to do what he does, but watch his hands – how does he contrast their light fluttering with the crazy stuff in his joints? Or the way he makes walking interesting in Love in the Rough in 1930. He was a frightening, aggressive, violent man who could do amazing, mesmerising things on stage that wouldn’t let you look away.
Al Minns Leon James: does more with his face than with his body, but at the same time, his movements are so precise and so carefully planned, they make you watch every second.
James Barton: in 1929 film After Seben. There’s that moment at 2.08 when he stops to wipe his shoes, where it feels like he’s disrupting the flow of the routine, and doing something silly and inappropriate. How can I use that idea of disrupting narrative ‘flow’? And he’s a white man in blackface: how can I unravel that and make it tenable? Is it even possible?
And my latest obsession, James Berry in Spirit Moves. I like the way his movements are just so strange, especially compared with Sandra Gibson. In this film, I want to be Berry. I’ve seen sultry woman dancing a million times before. But how often do you get to see strange woman dancing?
There are heaps of other clips to reference, and lots of women dancers to reference as well. I really like eccentric dances, because they’re about finding your own way of using your own body to do your own stuff. I could get really into reproducing the stuff I see in films exactly. And I do. But ultimately, what I’m really trying to do is find my own flavah flave. I want to be utterly unique. I find inspiration in all sorts of dance clips, but I don’t want to be a carbon copy of something from ye olden days.
But this post has gone on long enough. To sum up, I want to say that cultural transmission is such a complicated thing. It’s inflected by all sorts of issues, and it’s just not very interesting or useful to dismiss it all as ‘appropriation’. There are ways of negotiating good stuff, here, and I’m not ready to let it go.
Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Series in Contemporary Ethnography. Eds. Dan Rose and Paul Stoller. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
Bacon-Smith, Camille. Science Fiction Culture. Feminist Cultural Studies, the Media and Political Culture. Eds. Mary Ellen Brown and Andrea Press. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Desmond, Jane C. “Embodying Difference: Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies.” Cultural Critique (Winter 1993 – 94): 33 – 63.
Desmond, Jane C. ed. Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. London: Duke University
Friedland, LeeEllen. “Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance.” Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance. Ed. Brenda Farnell. London: Scarecrow Press, 1995. 136 – 57.
Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. “African-American Vernacular Dance: Core Culture and Meaning Operatives.” Journal of Black Studies 15.4 (1985): 427-45.
Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
Jackson, Jonathan David. “Improvisation in African-American Vernacular Dancing.” Dance Research Journal 33.2 (2001/2002): 40 – 53.
Pietrobruno, Sheenagh. “Embodying Canadian Multiculturalism: The Case of Salsa Dancing in Montreal.” Revista Mexicana de Estudios Canadienses nueva época, número 3. (2002).
I’m just doing some housekeeping over here in the blog (hence the somewhat dodgy CSS), and have been looking back through unpublished drafts. This is a post that I wrote back in July. I put off publishing it then because I was getting a bit more attention than I felt comfortable with. So I just put it on pause. It’s probably going to be read as controversial, but to my mind it’s really just standard critical engagement with a few texts. But the fact that I’m writing about people in my own community in a way that academics often don’t – ie with a real sense that my words have consequences and aren’t just ‘neutral’ observation – changes the way this will be read. And the way I think about writing this stuff.
So, I guess this is my unpacking and rummaging through a little cultural baggage. I’ve made plenty of apologetic explanations below, though it kind of shits me that I feel so little confidence in my own ideas. But, you know, this is a post about talking about important issues. Right now, in this moment when my government is taking such a shameful stance on refugees (fuck off, you’re not white, we don’t want you here), is continuing with the NT Intervention (fuck off, you’re not white, we don’t want you here) and generally being complete arseholes, I think it’s more important to take a few risks myself.
Structurally, this post begins with Lisa Wade’s article which discusses Sarah and Dax’s ESDC 2011 routine. I tie in (in a limited way), the Two Cousins video clip which starred Ryan Francois and Remy Kouakou Kouame.
Then I explain why I’m not entirely ok with Lisa’s use of ‘black’ and ‘white’ – I want a more critically nuanced approach, one which also looks at how class and gender work in ethnicity. I’m especially frustrated by her use of the concept of ‘tacit knowledge’ because it doesn’t prioritise or encourage activism (or speaking out about or engaging with racism). I suggest a more politicised approach helps. Then I suggest that all this makes more sense within cultural context: race and ethnicity in Australia, Britain and America; the way different film texts work within an historical industrial context; reading Sarah and Dax’s performance in relation to their broader online presence (ie their blog). That last bit is important because I tie their talk about bodies, beauty and gender into this performance’s portrayal of bodies, ‘fat’ and masculinity.
I started writing this comment over at Lisa Wade’s post ‘RACE, APPROPRIATION, & LINDY HOP: HOW TO HONOR OUR HEROES’, but I couldn’t really justify such a long comment on someone else’s post. I want to write and write about this, because I’ve spent so much time looking at cultural transmission in lindy hop, and the role digital media plays in this process. I’ve spent a long time thinking about this stuff, and I think I have some responses to Lisa’s question
How do white people, especially when they’re more or less on their racial own, honor art forms invented by oppressed racial groups without “stealing” them from those that invented them, misrepresenting them, or honoring them in ways that reproduce racism? You tell me… ’cause I’d like to know.
So why am I posting at all? I want to jot these ideas down. I want to participate (that is my greatest fault, I think – I hate the thought of missing out!) Also, I LOVE to talk and write. And this is my blog, so I can just ramble on as long as I like.
This is Lisa’s original post. I’m reproducing it here because posts disappear. Please note: I’m using Lisa’s first name rather than her last because that’s how we tend to address peeps in the dance world. I certainly don’t mean any disrespect.
RACE, APPROPRIATION, & LINDY HOP: HOW TO HONOR OUR HEROES
by Lisa Wade, 1 day ago [6 Jully 2011] at 10:00 am
Lindy hopper Jerry Almonte sent along a clip of the first place-winning routine in a division at the European Swing Dance Championships. Lindy hop is a partner dance invented by African American youth in Harlem dancing to swing music in the early 1930s. It’s near and dear to my heart; I’ve been a lindy hopper for 13 years (minus that year with a broken leg).
Modern day lindy hop raises difficult questions. In a post I wrote when the beloved Frankie Manning died, titled Race, Entertainment, and Historical Borrowing, I tried to capture the conundrum. I’m going to quote myself extensively, only because this is a tricky issue that deserves real discussion:
Though lindy hop was invented by African Americans, lindy hoppers today are primarily white. These contemporary dancers look to old movie clips of famous black dancers as inspiration. And this is where things get interesting: The old clips feature profoundly talented black dancers, but the context in which they are dancing is important. Professional black musicians, choreographers, and dancers had to make the same concessions that other black entertainers at the time made. That is, they were required to capitulate to white producers and directors who presented black people to white audiences. These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with: blacks were musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky, etc.
So what we see in the old clips that contemporary lindy hoppers idolize is not a pure manifestation of lindy hop, but a manifestation of the dance infused by racism. While lindy hoppers today look at those old clips with nothing short of reverance, they are mostly naive to the fact that the dancing they are emulating was a product made to confirm white people’s beliefs about black people.
So we have a set of (mostly) white dancers who (mostly) naively and (always) wholeheartedly emulate a set of black dancers whose performances, now 70 to 80 years old, were produced for mostly white audiences and adjusted according to the racial ethos of the time. On the one hand, it’s neat that the dance is still alive; it’s wonderful to see it embodied, and with so much enthusiasm, so many years later. And certainly no ill will can be fairly attributed to today’s dancers. On the other hand, it’s troubling that the dance was appropriated then (for white audiences) and that it is that appropriation that lives on (for mostly white dancers). Then again, without those dancers, there would likely be no revival at all. And without those clips, however imperfect, the dance might have remained in obscurity, lost with the bodies of the original dancers.
It is this paradox that stirred Jerry to send along the clip of Dax Hock and Sarah Breck performing a routine that was an homage to a famous clip from the movie Day at the Races, featuring Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. Here’s the original clip from 1937.
To be as clear as possible, I do believe 100% that Dax and Sarah have no intention to mock and, as essentially professional lindy hoppers, I doubt very much that they’ve never considered the ideas I’ve explained above.
Dax and Sarah are not my target here and, besides, they’re just two people. All conscious lindy hoppers struggle with these issues. My target, and my own personal struggle, is the entire endeavor.
I leave this as an open question for discussion, and one that extends far beyond lindy hop to jazz, blues, rap, and hip hop music; other forms of dance, like break dancing and pop and locking; and even the American obsession with spectating sports that are currently dominated by black athletes. It also extends far past the relationship between blacks and whites, as Adrienne Keene well illustrates in her blog, Native Appropriations.
How do white people, especially when they’re more or less on their racial own, honor art forms invented by oppressed racial groups without “stealing” them from those that invented them, misrepresenting them, or honoring them in ways that reproduce racism? You tell me… ’cause I’d like to know.
For more, I’d be thrilled if you read my original post, inspired by the passing of Frankie Manning.
I’m interested in Lisa’s points, but I think some of the key issues need a little expansion. I find some of her conclusions troubling. So I’m going to address them here in a disorganised, ad hoc way. Cool. Not.
Initially, I’m not comfortable with talking about race or ethnicity without also talking about class (and then gender and then sexuality). This becomes particularly important when you consider lindy hop in Japan or Korea or Singapore. The majority of dancers there are not white, but perhaps they are middle class? I think that it’s very, very important to interrogate class as an engagement with social and cultural power; it is not enough to end with skin colour as the defining marker of race or ethnicity.
In a related point, I also have some troubles with the way Lisa talks about ‘white people’ as though they were a homogenous group. I mean, setting aside class, sexuality and a heap of other issues, it’s been fairly stunning to me to see how simply having a group of women perform the Tranky Doo changes its meaning. So I think we need to be careful of using ‘white’ and ‘black’ as blanket terms, lumping masses of people together under single terms. ‘Black’ is especially interesting, as the word works in different ways in Australia, in America, in the UK, in Europe. And then within those countries the word is used in different ways by different groups and individuals.
And I have some concerns about approaching this discussion via the concept of ‘tacit knowledge’. Simply, I think there are other, more useful ways of talking about what’s going on in the clips. I’m with Katrina Hazzard Gordon and Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy and bell hooks and Judith Butler… I think we need to engage with the ideology at work here in an actively politicised way. Because these performances aren’t ideologically neutral, nor are the effects of their actions neutral. We need to engage with these issues, we need to unpack the politics, interpersonal as well as institutional. To do otherwise would be to ignore the way these texts embody the wider discourses of the societies in which lindy hop scenes exist, how they function culturally and socially in the modern lindy hop world, and how they articulate power within lindy hop today.
As an example, Lisa suggests that we cannot articulate why a performance might be racist, but we have ‘tacit knowledge’ of what racism is. I find this approach a little lame. Racism does not exist in a black/white, on/off dichotomy. It works in complex ways and a particular text might be articulating racist ideas in a range of ways, might be read as racist because of how it frames or reproduces and supports racism through the relationship between textual elements, reception and then dissemination. I would suggest that not being able to articulate why something ‘feels’ racist should just be the starting point. Don’t stop here! Speaking up about racism is very important – do it!
If I find a particular routine or image discomforting, I don’t say ‘oh, it’s racist because I have a tacit knowledge of racism’. I start analysing the text, the way the text is framed, where I found it, what other texts were circulating at the same time. I start interrogating my own feelings and try to figure out what’s happening. The goal here is that we learn how to articulate our concerns, and then develop the confidence to articulate them. Tacit my arse. Let’s get fucking ACTIVE here!
After all, if we simply say ‘I think it’s racist but I can’t explain why’, how is this any more convincing an argument than ‘I don’t think it’s racist, and I don’t have to explain why’? You need to start expressing your ideas, and exploring your concerns so that you can then say to those ‘I don’t think it’s racist’ people: “I’m suspicious of the fact that we see so many scenes where black dancers are dressed as servants in films. So I reckon we should think twice before we recreate those scenes.”
Cultural context is important. It’s difficult to apply American critical tools for discussing race and cultural transmission to the UK or Europe (where Ryan Francoise and Remy Kouakou Kouame are based), for example. The black British migrant experience is also quite different to the American, and histories of slavery in Britain, America and Australia are quite different. I faced similar challenges discussing lindy hop in Australia, where our discursive engagement with race is quite different to the American example.
It’s very difficult to talk about black American dance in film in the 30s without also talking about slavery, blackface and minstrelsy and segregation in American history. It’s difficult enough addressing these issues in an American setting, but it’s even harder in an Australian context. Many Australians simply aren’t aware of this country’s slave history. A recent debate about the use of blackface on a tv program revealed not only most Australians’ unfamiliarity with blackface in Australia, but with the racial politics at work in blackface in an American context. Nor do many Australians really understand the long standing history of segregation in this country. They simply don’t know that black Australians couldn’t eat, drink, shop, swim or travel in the same spaces as white Australians. So when Australians watch sequences from films like the Day At The Races, with all its intonations of segregation, black face, slavery and so on, these themes don’t resonate in the same way as when an American watches. I guess, here, we also need to talk about audiences and reception as well as cultures of production (and institutions producing and disseminating media texts).
When we’re talking about dance clips, who is watching? Where are they watching? The Slow Club text is a music video. We are talking about Dax and Sarah’s showcase routine as an AV recording of a performance at a dance competition in Europe. I am a white, middle class woman living in a large, well-serviced, safe city in Australia watching these clips on my (reasonably ok) internet connection in my own home on my own computer. I am a dancer, but I am not a brilliant dancer. I am/was a media studies scholar who’s studied and published and taught film and media studies and who wrote a PhD on race/gender/identity in dance and digital media. All these things shape the way I read these texts. What I see will reflect who I am and what I am reading for. How I use these texts will reflect these things as well. I am also reading these texts in relation to each other, and in relation to a vast body of audio-visual recordings of dance. I’m accessing them online, and I’m reading them in relation to other online texts – Sarah and Dax’s blog, Faceplant, the Yehoodi discussion board, the Yehoodi Talk show, Lisa’s blog, etc etc etc. These texts don’t exist in isolation. They are part of and constitute a discourse on/about dance.
The Slow Club clip is interesting because it’s a British band featuring European dancers. The song exists in an international context, and is referencing American television performances by black American dancers. But these performances circulate today again in an international context, and are most familiar to middle class dancers in a number of countries.
I think we need to talk about masculinity as well. Luckily Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall have done a lot of the heavy lifting for discussions about black British masculinity and identity.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m on some sort of anti Dax and Sarah vendetta. I’m not. It’s just that they keep/kept leaping into the public discourse with such enthusiasm. As I wrote in the ‘Women talking about their own bodies…’ post, I think that lindy hoppers need to think through their public personas, and to be aware of the fact that teachers and performers – ‘celebrity lindy hoppers’ – are going to attract a great deal of public scrutiny.
As I write this I’m thinking about my own experiences with public scrutiny. The recent attention to this blog has been difficult to adjust to. I’m not sure I like all this attention. I know I haven’t liked some of the unpleasant comments I’ve had to delete, and it’s definitely been strange being approached by strangers at dance events who feel they ‘know me’ or have a right to regale me with their opinions at 2am while I’m DJing. I haven’t liked that. But then, this is the internet. If I’d wanted to keep my ideas secret, I shouldn’t have posted them…
… wait a minute. Fuck that. It smells a little too much like ‘don’t wear a short skirt or walk about by yourself at night if you want to be safe’. Don’t we all deserve respect and safety, just BECAUSE?
Which is why I want to repeat: Sarah and Dax are great dancers, I suppose they could also be great people (I wouldn’t know). But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there are some problems with the things they’ve said online and done in dance performances. I feel that we need to engage with the ideas behind and within dancing as well. That stuff isn’t ideologically neutral: dancing IS discourse. And when you put it out there, in a competition, you are inviting discussion. So I’m going to discuss.
Firstly, I certainly don’t think Dax or Sarah intended offence, and I’m almost certain they intended their dancing as homage. That routine also has to be read in reference to other recreations of iconic routines: in this setting, and by these dancers, this routine was almost certainly intended as a mark of respect and admiration for the ‘original lindy hoppers’. It is however, I’m fairly certain, not a critically reflexive performance of racialised identity. In other words, I don’t think Dax and Sarah thought this thing through. Which, really, isn’t that surprising if you read them as young white people who haven’t had to engage with the issues of race and power embodied in the Day At The Races film. When you are a member of an empowered group, you don’t need to think about these things. Because they enable what you do, rather than inhibit you.
The troubling part seems to be the ‘fat suit’ (and what a troubling term that is), and I would have liked to see Lisa place this in the foreground of her article, rather than setting it aside. It seems to me that the suit initiates connotations of ‘humour’, and that is where many of the difficulties with this routine lie. It is difficult to negotiate when and how the ‘joke’ begins in this routine. Fat people are funny? Black fat people are funny? White fat people are funny? I find all these ideas deeply offensive, but also indicative of both the dancers’ ideas about physical beauty (which they have both articulated at length on their blog) and of modern lindy hop’s ideas about ‘beautiful bodies’. Would the routine have prompted such debate if it had presented a more familiar example of male athleticism? If Dax had appeared in his usual muscled, fit, and conventionally attractive body?
I’m wondering if the fat suit works as a sort of ‘blackface’. It’s a performance of a particular type of masculinity which, while it isn’t physically ‘black’, is continually referencing the black bodies dancing in Day At The Races. The very point of that routine is that it requires audiences’ familiarity with that film. Race is there, even if it is ‘invisible’. And I must say, here, that whiteness is as much about race and ethnicity as blackness is. To make whiteness ‘neutral’ or unmarked by race is wrongtown.
But then, how are we supposed to respond to this routine? Are we supposed to ‘laugh at the fat guy’? I know that in most lindy hop culture the muscled, athletic body is valorised (you only need consider the popularity of P90X and Insanity for evidence). If we are supposed to ‘laugh at the fat guy’, is it possible to also admire and valorise this ‘fat body’ at the same time? The crux of the original Day At The Races clip lies in exactly this tension: the dancer’s ability to perform impressive acts of athleticism with his body. Additionally, ‘fatness’ and fleshliness carried different connotative values in 1930s black American culture. So Dax and Sarah bring a different understanding of ‘fat’ to that clip, and to their performances. And audiences watching Dax and Sarah perform are watching from another point in time and culture.
I think gender is important here. The ‘fat suit’ – the ‘fat guy’ – only works in reference to the other male bodies on screen, and most particularly, the female body on-screen and on-stage. Dax in the ‘fat suit’ only works when compared to Sarah’s presentation of highly conventional female ‘beauty’. While she is also in connotative ‘blackface’ (at that same distance Dax is – through reference to the film and in her costuming), she is also in ‘whiteface’, wearing an athletic, healthy, conventionally ‘female’ body. The joke requires the conventionally attractive white/black heterosexual woman as foil for the ‘laugh at the fat guy’ joke. Part of the joke is the implication that ‘the fat guy’ has to be a seriously badarse dancer to secure such an attractive partner, because she’d otherwise have no interest in him.
I suspect that this is where the real conflict lies. One of the most persistent taboos in lindy hop today is disrespecting dancers from the 30s or 40s. It makes us uncomfortable to negotiate the disrespect of ‘laughing at the fat guy’ when this ‘fat guy’ (Dax in costume) is meant to be one of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. Not only is Dax appropriating a black performance (of awesome dancing) from a film produced in decidedly unjust social context, he is also capitalising on the joke. He is not going to be the butt of this joke – we know he is wearing ‘the fat suit’ – so he is ‘safe’. He’s ‘not actually fat’. He doesn’t need to physically experience what it is to be ‘fat’ in modern American culture. He takes no risks. But at the same time he can also claim credit for the dancing ability he demonstrates – it’s good dancing, he is a good dancer. This is also where their performance fails, really, to realise the goals of the original performance. The original dance scene was impressive because he was a ‘fat guy’ who danced well despite/with his body. We never forget that Dax is ‘wearing the fat suit’. He has nothing to ‘overcome’, here.
[I would to talk about a Yehoodi talk show interview (16 March 2011) where Dax talks about dancing with an injury on So You Think You Can Dance, and how this is different to ‘dancing fat’, but I don’t really have space or time or brainz to do it. Except to say that there’s something interesting to be written about dance, injuries, perceptions of injuries, pain and masculinity.]
There is the chance, though, that Dax and Sarah didn’t intend this reading. Perhaps they are working to present an alternative portrayal of white masculinity. The physically large, well-fleshed heterosexual man as desirable, desiring, powerful and admirable subject. Perhaps they are trying to say “Look – ‘fat’ is, after all, only an arbitrary evaluation of physical size articulating western consumer values and notions of ‘beauty’.” Perhaps they are trying to comment reflexively on bodies and embodiment in dance. Perhaps. I’m not convinced. The thing is, this clip is existing in the same discourse as their blog, where they have both repeatedly articulated conventionally heterosexist and patriarchal ideas about gender, sex and beauty.
They are not, unfortunately, fucking over the patriarchy here.
Where do I leave this discussion? With a loud sigh and a bit of head shaking, I’m afraid. I don’t really have a solid ‘solution’. I think it’s a really excellent thing that we are actually talking about this issue openly in lindy hop today. It’s something that’s bothered me as long as I’ve been dancing. I mean, there are some problematic things happening here as well. I’d be very surprised if Australian dancers actually participated in this online discussion about race and dance or engaged with it in their dancing.
[EDIT: wtf does Lisa mean by “white people more or less on their racial own”?! When the fuck are people ever on their ‘racial own’? And what does that even MEAN?]
I’m really interested in the discussion of official versus community policing of public space in Chris Brown’s article ‘The Occupy Movement and the Battle for Public Space’. One point I took from this was Brown’s juxtaposition of the formal, highly ordered occupation of public space by the police and ‘official’ entities with the informal, collaborative and negotiated management of public space by community groups. I think that both types of management of public space happen in all sorts of communities, and that they’re really just two points on a broad spectrum of behaviours. I want to spend the rest of this post taking this idea and applying it to dance competitions. Competitions which can be at once ‘officially’ managed public spaces and also collaborative or informally managed public spaces. At the same time!
I’ve always been interested in the way dancers regulate the social dance floor (which I’ve always thought of as ‘public space’ or public discourse). One of my favourite topics is derision dance. Or using dance to deride someone (using the dictionary definition “contemptuous ridicule or mockery”). This can be as simple as directing a crude gesture to your opponent, but it is often more complex, involving layers of imitation, impersonation and subtler mockery. This last type is what really fascinates me. I wrote about derision dance and layers of meaning in what again?! I’m still crapping on about dance, power, etc; I used derision as a tool for understanding blackface in blackfaces and performing identity. again. (again using the idea of layers); and I talked about cake walk as an example of derision in hot and cool.
I keep coming back to the idea of dance as a forum or tool for deriding or subverting authority or an opponent because it’s a contribution to public discourse which doesn’t use words. I get a bit frustrated with work on public discourse which prioritises the written word, as there are all sorts of dodgyarse power dynamics happening there. Not all of us have literacy and linguistic competency on our side; class and race and ethnicity are pretty important factors here.
Of course, I’m not alone in talking about bodies in public space. That’s why I like that Chris Brown article. It describes the way non-verbal occupation of public space is regulated by official and community powers. When I think about dancers regulating the public space of the dance floor, I think about official ‘laws’ or guidelines like a sign forbidding aerials in a particular room for safety or heritage-building reasons. Or a more experienced or authoritative dancer telling an idiot lead to stop tossing follows into the air. But I’m also quite interested in the unspoken, unofficial and less overt management of public space in dance communities. It’s a little too far along the spectrum to ‘official’ to really illustrate my thoughts, but I want to begin with (and probably end with – as I’m off to the beach in a tick) dance competitions.
There are all sorts of cool things to say about the way the studio uses Youtube and faceplant, where I found the clip, and which is so central to the studio’s promotional and community development work. But I’m not going to do that here. I want to start with the dancing itself.
… suddenly, I’m realising that this might be beyond me right this second. I want to do a close textual analysis of what is happening on the dance floor. There’s lots to be said about the mise en scene of the film itself as well. I think this type of close analysis of the dance-as-public-text requires a certain about of specialised knowledge. If you can’t read bodies as a dancer, you can’t really understand the power plays. More specifically, if you can’t read popping, you can’t really understand who’s the more proficient dancer, the intertextual and historic references in each movement, the etiquette for this sort of battle type competition. To add a few extra layers of meaning, this is a battle hosted by one particular dance studio, so you’ll see institution-specific action and ideology at work here. Not to mention the fact that these kids are from all across Asia, speaking a number of different languages as well as English. I’m a white Anglo-celtic girl living in Sydney and I only speak English. I’m going to miss most of the more nuanced physical gestures and postural moments. So my analysis is really only a beginning place, and I couldn’t possibly see all the detail at work here, least of all because I’m not into popping.
This is a pretty important point. I can’t see all the regulation and management of this public place – this moment of discourse – at work here. So I’d be bound to make mistakes. But because I am a babby, I’d probably be excused quite a few mistakes. So long as my participation improved. These guys are really friendly and welcoming, and I know I’d be cut a fair bit of slack. But eventually, even the most tolerant teachers and peers lose patience with social ineptitude and rudeness in a public forum.
Interestingly, the dancers at this studio encourage new dancers to enter battles almost from the very beginning. I’ve sat in on a casual battle, and a lot of leeway is granted for new dancers. In contrast, there’s a real sense in Australian lindy hop that only the ‘best’ dancers enter competitions, unless the competitions are for ‘up and comers’ or ‘amateurs’. Of course, definitions of ‘best’ vary between cities, and don’t match up comparatively. And, really, the most successful dancers have a very strong sense of self worth and faith in their own abilities. They really believe they are – if not the best dancers – in with a shot at becoming the best. That’s just how competition works. If you don’t really believe you have a chance, you won’t work hard in preparation, you won’t devote time and effort to the project, and you won’t bring your A-game in the final moment.
So this means that we don’t see lindy hoppers developing performance and competition skills in a relaxed, welcoming and informal setting as very new dancers. I’ve noticed the dancers at Crossover develop a real sense of self-awareness and understanding of lines and visual presentation far earlier than most lindy hoppers. They work with mirrors right from the get-go. They spend a lot more time looking up and making eye contact (particularly in battles). In brief, ‘their movements go right to the end of their finger tips’, whereas a lot of lindy hoppers don’t even really know they have hands.
So, when you go to a battle with these guys, there’s rarely an explanation of the ‘rules’, beyond the very basics. This confused me when I first saw them in action. How was judging decided? How long did dancers have to perform? How did they decide who danced in what order? You’ll find rules for competitions on websites before the event, but mostly you just have to figure them out. And of course you won’t be in the competition if you haven’t at least acquired even that much cultural knowledge.
The same sort of thing happens with lindy hop competitions. Though most of the more popular recent comps have far more implied than stated rules. In fact, there was a conscious movement away from prescriptive rules in the US at some point in the early 2000s (I can’t really remember the details, sorry). Most Australian competitions followed this American trend largely as following a trend (rather than as a critical engagement with existing competition culture) a few years later. The exception is Hellzapoppin’, which was deliberately developed as a lindy hopper-run and regulated competition advertised as having ‘no rules’. Though of course it does have rules, and these are listed quite clearly.
These rules are just a little different to other more prescriptive events like the ASDC and rock n roll or ballroom competitions. The inaugural Western Sydney Swing Dance Competition had quite strict, ballroom/rock r roll type rules, but I found it really difficult to discover much about the competition beyond this flyer. I ended up messaging the organisers on faceplant to find out more, then had a fairly long list of rules emailed to me as a pdf (which you can have a look at here). I found these rules really difficult to understand, in part because I’ve done very little competition, but also because I’m not a part of the rock n roll or ballroom dance scenes, which are far more tightly structured and formally organised than the lindy hop scene. I simply don’t have the language tools or cultural knowledge to navigate this sort of text.
The Crossover competition, though, is far more familiar. Rules for larger battles are often discussed in an informal way on faceplant, but more usually discussed in person. But learning the rules of competitions is more a matter of enculturation. The competitive space is as highly regulated as the WSDC, it’s just that the regulation is managed in a different way.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the past analysing lindy hop competition footage in close detail (‘lindy hop followers bring themSELVES to the dance; lindy hop leaders value this’ is probably the best example of how I approach this). It’s a very common practice for most lindy hoppers, and learning how to read dance (whether in footage or in person) is an ongoing process. Dancers are also on the lookout for different things. Leaders and followers often read a dance clip in quite different ways. I look for gender stuff. Someone else might be looking at shoe types. A DJ might be listening for new songs.
I’m going to get completely off-track here with a reference to a very famous dance clip.
This is a still from the Big Apple scene from Keep Punchin, featuring the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers:
I’ve heard (second-hand, unfortunately), that Frankie Manning described this scene as a dance competition. In fact, the MC in the film introduces it as “The Big Apple contest”. Frankie explained that not only were couples competing against each other, but that individual partners were competing against each other. I’m not sure whether I’ve gotten that story right – it does come to be second-hand. But it’s an interesting idea. Competitors are working in pairs, focussing their performance on each other, as well as on those around them.
This is a bit like the Crossover battles (as far as I can tell – I’m not 100% sure about this next bit). In these battles competitors may enter as teams of two, but they dance alone, focussing their attentions on a particular member of the opposing team. There’s lots to say about focussed competition, and about how dancers in these battles turn their aggressive (yet never violent) competition on when they begin dancing, and then off when they move off the floor. I’m particularly fascinated by the way the non-dancing team member stands in a decidedly ‘I’m not dancing’ pose; they turn off their competitive dance energy, often by not making eye contact with their opponents. That’s some pretty basic non-threatening body language right there.
Right, back on-track, now…
It was quite interesting to see the new competition format for the Harlem 2011. Solo Jazz Contest held in Lithuania. It looks a lot more like the Crossover popping battle than other solo jazz comps in the lindy hop scene. How?
Firstly, here are some screenshots from those clips to illustrate my points:
(Harlem 2011, one of the rounds)
(Crossover popping battle, final)
The three people sitting in the middle at the back are the three judges. We see this in the Crossover battle. They don’t write things down or discuss the competitors in detail, they just point to the dancer they think should win (or cross their arms to indicate indecision). In every other lindy hop competition the judges walk around the floor with clipboards, staring intently at competitors and writing things down before going out to another room to discuss the competition and arrive at a collaborative (or comparative) decision. Sometimes there’s an audience appreciation component. ULHS has a very strong audience appreciation component.
Competitors can dance as long as they like to the song before ceding the floor to their competitor. This is very unlike most other competitions in the lindy hop scene. The ASDC gives each couple one minute from the beginning of a recorded song to do their thing, followed (or preceded) by an ‘all-skate’ where they share the floor with other dancers. The more organic ‘jam format’ gives dancers a phrase (or two) of music each, and each couple or dancer must enter and leave the floor at the beginning/end of that phrase. Failing to do so is read as a failure in basic musicality. The Crossover format assumes that a dancer will dance for as long as they need to bring their best shit. Failing to cede the floor is perceived as a failure to judge their audience, the tone of the competition, and a display of egotism. This is where my understanding of the format ends – I don’t know how dancers know when they should bow out, or when everyone knows too much is too much. This format was also used by the Harlem 2011 competition, and it’s interesting to watch all the clips and see how competitors, audiences, judges and MC negotiate an understanding of these rules. Collaborative meaning making or what?!
Audiences cheer and yell out and otherwise engage with competitors, indicating their approval, admiration, disappointment, awe and so on. This participation is often very important for a dancer making a joke, referencing an historic or iconic move or dancer, or engaging in a little derision, mockery or impersonation. Dancers are focussed on their opponents, but they rely on the audience audibly signaling their engagement with the performance. This all means that the best audiences for these sorts of competitions are also dancers.
There’s so much more to say about this. I’d like to go through and carefully analyse what’s going on in the Crossover clip, and to compare it with various lindy hop and solo clips. There are interesting things to say about the placement of DJs in the competitive space. Or how competitors in a pro or invited jack and jill comp sit in a line at the back of the competition space (they are often actually formally judging each other). This demands comparison with the way lindy hop couples line up in order along the back of the competition space waiting to enter the jam, and are far more actively engaged with the dancers currently on display. And of course, I want to talk about the way the competition space is delineated by these lines of competitors, by the audience, by lighting, by the dance floor itself.
All of these things relate to how the physical competition space is regulated and negotiated by the community, and also by official forces. The ultimate authority is the individual or organisation running the competition. Yet one of the greatest delights in watching street dance (or vernacular dance) competitions is waiting for the moments where rules and authority are deliberately contravened, or at least stretched. When judges request a rematch. When competitors physically touch each other (forbidden!) When competitors touch the audience (doubly forbidden!)
I’d also like to talk about how conversation is managed, both formally and informally. There’s lots of lovely stuff written about all-male and all-female conversation and how formal turn taking dominates all-male talk and interrupting and collaborative meaning making (eg women saying ‘oh no!’ and nodding or saying ‘yes’ regularly interrupt but do not disrupt the speaker) characterises informal all-women talk. I think of dance as discourse, and occasionally use this idea of dance as conversation to explore dance as discourse. It’s not a unique idea – dance teachers use this idea all the time. But while I might have begun thinking of dance partnership in particular as conversation with formal turn taking, I’m now a lot more interested in a model of high level partner dancing as more like collaborative, overlapping conversation. And of course, I extend this idea to include jazz music, with its sections of structured unison, its layers of individual, interrupting parts, and its moments of solo improvisation. I probably like New Orleans stuff because it favours layers of improvisation instead of carefully choreographed unison and demarcated solos.
(Photo of Amiri Baraka by Pat A. Robinson, stoled from here).
Long time no post. I’ve been busy with a few different projects lately, most of them impeded by vast quantities of randomly-generated anxiety. I’m bossing some DJs for MLX11, I’m bossing some DJs locally, I’m sorting some solo dance practices, I’m looking at venues, I went to Church City Blues, I’m doing lots and lots of exercises to help my knees, I’m trying to improve my own DJing, and I’m working on at least two websites. They’re actually all the fun things. Also, we’ve started cooking meat at our house. The less said about that the better.
Perhaps the most challenging part of all this is trying to get my brain in gear for writing coherent sentences. More than one at a time. Ones that link up and make paragraphs. Anything more than that is really a little too ambitious right now. Writing. Why are you so demanding? The hardest thing in the world is writing properly when your brain won’t stop buzzing and fretting. Dance workshops? Actually quite good when you can’t make your brain shush. Forty minutes of slow, careful strengthening and stretching exercises every day? Quite calming, actually. But anything creative or requiring sustained creative thought – choreography, writing, editing… that shit is impossible. So here is something messy. Because it’s like learning to dance fast. If you never actually do it, you’ll never be any good at it.
Right now I’m thinking about writing about music. Again. I think it’s because I like to write about music. I’m also a woman. Wait – that last part is important (have vag will type). And because the things people write and say about music shape the way dancers and DJs think about music. And that affects the way they dance to music, which bands and DJs they hire to play their events, whether and how much they pay musicians and DJs, and what sort of music they put into the event programs. I know this is kind of old school literary studies/cultural studies/media studies stuff. And I even wrote about it in my PhD.
But now, I want to write and think about it again. Because I am organising DJs for MLX, and because I’ve noticed a clear trickle down (or bleed out?) affect from the developing online dancer discourse to the face-to-face. Yes. My PhD has come to life. Basically, Faceplant, blogs, podcast, youtube and all those other goodies are having a clear effect on face-to-face dance practice. Dancers are writing more about music (and dance), Faceplant has increased the penetration of this writing, and dancers are now reading more about music and dance. And this is having clear effects on how dance events are run. And on the interpersonal and institutional relationships and power dynamics of the international lindy hop scene. Yes, I will make that call. I can’t help it. I’m trained to see words as articulating power and ideology. And discourse as at once articulating ideology and creating it. I CAN’T HELP IT. I HAVE LEARNT TO USE MY BRAIN. ALL THIS THINKING WILL NO DOUBT RESULT IN THE COLLAPSE OF CIVILISATION AND RISE OF OUR FELINE OVERLORDS (WORSHIP THEM).
So what I’m saying, here, is that I’m getting that niggly tingly itchy feeling in the back of my brain that tells me there’s something going on that I need to pay attention to. Some dots are being joined. Unfortunately not by my conscious, rational brain, so you’re going to have to muddle through some fairly irritatingly vague, malformed or downright wrongtown blog posts til I get it together. If this was a magazine or an academic journal you’d be reading coherent sentences. But it’s not. So you’re getting dodgy stuff, but sooner. The fact that I’m still managing all those buzzing-brain anxiety issues means that it’s going to take me longer than usual to make this all into proper paragraphs. But then, I figure it’s a goddamn improvement on the past few months that I’m actually able to set fingertips to keyboard and make with the sentencing.
Words: why are you so demanding?!
I’ve been trying to get an idea of how jazz journalism works, both in historical and contemporary contexts. I’ve read a bit about the history of jazz journalism/criticism, a lot of which is really concerning. Lots of white, middle class guys writing about jazz, to paraphrase Amiri Baraka. Very few not-men, very few not-white anyones. To quote Baraka:
Most jazz critics began as hobbyists or boyishly brash members of the American petite bourgeoisie, whose only claim to any understanding about the music was that they knew it was different; or else they had once been brave enough to make a trip into a Negro slum to hear their favorite instrumentalists defame Western musical tradition. Most jazz critics were (and are) not only white middle-class Americans, but middle-brows as well. (Baraka, Amiri, “Jazz and the white critic”, The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, ed. O’Meally, Robert G. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998: 137-142. pp 140)
Yeah! Baraka brings the smackdown! Old school 60s politics style!
What I have read has, for the most part, been really annoying. It’s kind of frustrating to see jazz studies – jazz criticism – failing to really get a grasp on gender and race politics. It’s like the 60s didn’t happen for so many of these guys. And it’s maddening to read the arguments that jazz histories emphasising black contributions are ‘racist’. Reminds me of those fuckwit people who try to argue that affirmative action policies are ‘reverse sexism’. …wait, I’m going to derail here for a bit of a rant:
IF we were all starting from the same place on the running track, it might be reverse sexism. But, dumbarse, we are working within PATRIARCHY, so affirmative action policy isn’t ‘reverse-sexism’, it’s simply an attempt to get us all at least onto the running track together. Of course, you’ve got to be a real ninja to actually pull off that sort of affirmative action effectively. So it’s ok, dickhead. Your power and privilege really aren’t in a whole lot of danger. We still have quite a bit of work to do. And anyway, most of our most important successes have been sneaky, and you haven’t noticed them. But, FYI, just like that beefcake guy in that rubbish film Crazy Stupid Love says, convincing women they’re learning to pole dance ‘for fitness’, that’s not a feminist victory. Convincing women stripping for money is empowering: that is not feminism. That’s old school sexism. So you’ve pretty much scored a point there.
…but back to my story.
Some of these jazz writer guys are entirely lacking in a sense of cultural and social context. And they really, really need to do a few introductory gender/race studies classes. Hellz, some introductory literary studies subjects.
But it’s worth having a look about at what has been written about race and class and gender and ethnicity in reference to and within jazz criticism. Queer studies? Yeah, don’t hold your breath, buddy.
And then of course, there’s Amiri Baraka’s own work on the topic. But if you’re a sooky la and you don’t like radical race politics, you should probably not read that one. Actually, you probably SHOULD, because it is exciting and thrilling and fun to read such strong emotional stuff written without any ironic detachment.
So there is some critical (in the sense that these authors are engaging with the ideology and assumptions at work, rather than ‘being negative’) attention to jazz histories and jazz criticism/journalism. I’ve written a little bit about it before (in the post the trouble with linear jazz narratives + more and New Orleans jazz?), but I’m certainly not well read on this topic.
(Photo of Ellen Willis (with Bessie Smith), feminist and music journalist stoled from Ellen Willis tumblr)
That was made quite clear when I bitched (yet again) about the lack of women jazz journalists on twitter. @hawleyrose suggested I talk to @elementsofjazz (herself a woman jazz writer), who then hooked me up with Nate Chinen’s article On women in jazz (criticism) and Angelika Beener’s article Nice Work If We Can Get It: Women Writing on Jazz. Then I followed a million links from each of those articles to many more articles. The bottom line, here is that I mouthed off without researching the topic properly. I fell into that old ‘invisible women’ trap. Because I didn’t see women writing for big name jazz publications, I figured they didn’t exist. Just like that arsehat who recently bleated that there weren’t any women bloggers or tweeters writing about politics. With that bloke, the problem was a) that he defined ‘politics’ using the usual, very limited party-politics-institutions-and-polls definition and b) that he didn’t bother with bloggers and tweeters outside his usual sphere.
So my problem was a) I wasn’t looking in the right places (I was only looking in the conservative ‘official’ jazz journalism public sphere), and b) I hadn’t bothered to do much work to find those women journalists. Now I know better. And I’m delighted to be wrong. There are lots of women jazz journalists. Particularly when you broaden your definitions and include independent media, especially online media.
I think it’s worth talking about the history of jazz criticism here. And how small independent print publications were so important to the development of jazz criticism and writing from the turn of the century. But it’s also worth giving an eye (or ear) to the larger print publications like Esquire and Downbeat. I’ve written about this before, quite a few times, so I won’t go into it here (search for ‘magazines’ and you’ll find some old posts, or follow the links from More Esquire Talk).
What I do want to say, here, is that I’ve been thinking perhaps I should be asking “Are there any women writing about early jazz?” I’m wondering if the usual industrial and labour divisions of the early 20th century made it harder not only for women to get published, but for women to get read in the early days. And if there’s a resistance to writing about early jazz in the modern jazz publications and sites. Surely I’m once again voluntarily making women writers invisible. Surely. Time for more research, yes? YES!
Since France introduced its burqa ban in April there have been violent attacks on women wearing the niqab and, this week, the first fines could be handed down. But a legal challenge to this hard line may yet expose the French state as a laughing stock
[EDIT 13/6/13: It makes me very sad that this post is still relevant. It’s been linked up again, by a few different people around the place, because those people are having bad times with arseholes in their dance scenes. So I think it’s worth bumping this post again. This is such heartbreaking stuff to talk about. But we have to. We HAVE to.
Please, if you’re in strife and need some help, call one of the lines I’ve listed below. And if you want to change things in your own scene, start working on constructive plans with women, not for them. We don’t need no white knights, here. And if you’re in a bad way, and need some help, I know that services like Beyond Blue here in Australia can help if you’re having trouble with anxiety and/or depression. And god knows the only sensible response to this issue is sadness.]
[EDIT 4/4/12: I receive emails about this post, or comments on this post every couple of weeks. I published it almost a year ago. It breaks my heart that this issue is still one we need to address.
Please, if you need help, don’t hesitate to call someone. Doesn’t matter whether something happened years ago or this morning – there are people who have got your back. Give them a call.
If you’re in the UK, Rape Crisis has good links, or call 0808 802 99 99 (not 24 hours, though).
If you’re in Canada, Europe, Japan, Korea, Singapore, or somewhere else, please do google ‘rape help line’.]
It was inevitable, really. But my thinking about slutwalk and my thinking about dance have finally gotten together in my brainz and become the Difficult Conversation About Sexual Violence in Swing Dance Communities. Despite my mixed feelings about slutwalk, it has meant that I’ve had more conversations about gender, violence, safety and community since it hit the media than I have in years and years. And most of those conversations have been with dancers who do not openly identify as feminist, or who aren’t otherwise politically engaged. To me, this is a marvellous thing.
For most victims of sexual assault reported to the police, the perpetrator is likely to be known to them. The most commonly reported location where the offence occurs is a residential setting.
This point is expanded on pg 24:
All available data sources indicate that over half of perpetrators of sexual assault are known to their victims. NCSS 2002 estimated that 52% of all adult victims knew the offenders in the most recent incident in the previous 12 months; 58% of female victims and 19% of male victims knew the offenders.
The most commonly reported location of sexual assault is residential, often the victim’s own home.
It’s important to note that these are reported assaults, and that most assaults are not reported to the police at all. The report continues (pg 13-14):
There is evidence that most victims of sexual assault do not report the crime to police, and that many do not access the services available to provide support. Factors affecting the decision to report sexual assault include the closeness of the victim-offender relationship and the victim’s perception of the seriousness of the crime.
Victims are more likely to report sexual assault to police if: the perpetrator was a stranger; the victim was physically injured; or the victim was born in Australia.
The ABS report also points out (on pg 32) that in assaults in the last 12 months, 60% did not involve alcohol, 38% did. The figures don’t indicate where the perpetrator or victim had consumed alcohol.
The following facts are also noted:
In Women’s Safety Survey 1996 data :
approximately one in six Australian women (16%) reported that they had experienced sexual assault at some time since the age of 15
one in six Australian women (15%) reported that they had been stalked during their lifetime
one in four Australian women (27%) reported that they had experienced sexual harassment in the previous 12 months.
It’s important to point out that men are also victims of sexual violence, though at lower rates, and with far smaller numbers of assaults reported.
It’s also important to remember that ‘sexual violence’ and sexually threatening behaviour is broader than the conventionally heterosexual definition of penetrative intercourse (where the p3nis penetrates the vag1na). So ‘rape’ or ‘assault’ leaks out beyond the heterosexual notion of ‘sex’. To talk about sexual assault, we need to expand our definitions of rape, and of sexual activity and of violence. This then allows us to talk about men as victims of assault (as well as perpetrators), and men as the victims of male and female violence. I think it’s also important to remember that the sexual abuse of children constitutes rape.
So, then, a useful point from the slutwalk protests and discussions around the place:
What you (male or female) wear is not the reason you were assaulted.
Yes means yes and no means no, whatever we wear, wherever we go.
Most assaults happen in the home (or domestic spaces), not darkened alleys, and most people are raped/assaulted by people they know. In most instances there’s no alcohol involved.
How does all this relate to dancing?
Sexual assault and harassment happens in the lindy hop world
Firstly, there have been sexual assaults in dance scenes all over the world. Most are no doubt not reported. I have personally heard of one incidence in Melbourne, where community discussion of the assault was not terribly useful, largely phrased in terms of a woman ‘being violated’. I don’t know if she knew her assailant. Perhaps the most widely discussed (in the United States and online) sex offence was Bill Borgida’s arrest for possession of illegal pornography (specifically pornography featuring children). This was discussed at length in the Yehoodi thread ‘Bill Borgida: Two Counts: Child Porn’. Borgida responded to the issue with a public letter to ‘the dance community’, also posted on Yehoodi, in the thread A letter to the Dance Community from Bill Borgida.
This second issue is particularly disturbing, as Borgida travelled internationally, visiting Australia as well as many other countries. I knew him quite well, and my own feelings about this issue are fraught. I felt furious, upset, sad, hurt, betrayed, guilty, anxious, angry, confused. I want nothing more to do with him, ever. But the responses in the open letter thread on Yehoodi are more complex. Many people feel still support him and forgive him. I cannot.
Most significantly, I’ve been stunned by many people’s regard for the possession of prnography as a relatively victimless crime. There seems to be a vast chasm between consumption and production in this thinking. They cannot seem to grasp the idea that possessing and consuming pornography featuring children is at once supporting a market for the material and endorsing its production. The production is beyond reprehensible: this is sexual assault. Of children. Many, many children, over many years. All recorded and distributed for adults’ pleasure. Possession of this material is equivalent to producing it.
I don’t want to suggest that using prnography is the same as raping, or that using prn leads to raping people. It doesn’t. But the way we use prn and produce prn, and our attitudes towards sexual activities are informed by broader issues of gender and power and identity. So sexual assault becomes a symptom of, or expression of, a perpetrator’s ideas or feelings about power. Having it, not having it, taking it, fighting it. Child abuse, then, is about perpetrators with power harming less powerful people – children. Using child prnography is about finding violent power sexually exciting. These sorts of ideas and feelings about power and other people do not stay safely partitioned in your ‘private life’.
I’ve also been suprised by many dancers’ willingness to separate what happens on the dance floor from what people do off the dance floor, or in their ‘private lives’. I can’t. I increasingly believe that the way we dance reflects our broader ideas about the world, and about the way we feel about other people. For example, the rough or inconsiderate lead is frequently socially inept or clumsy and disrespectful of women off the dance floor. I am unwilling to disassociate dance from cultural context.
But I shouldn’t be surprised. Thinking about people you know – and like – committing acts of sexualised violence on other people you know – and like! – is really difficult. It’s so difficult and horrifying that many of us would just rather not think about it at all. If we make it disappear by defining rape in a way that simply ignores most assaults, the problem become manageable and less frightening. It won’t happen to me if I don’t wear a short skirt, if I drive a car, if I don’t drink, if I don’t talk to strangers. My wife/sister/friend/lover/daughter is safe if I walk her to her car or I fight off an attacker in the street.
Dancers do not challenge sexually inappropriate behaviour often enough.
I also frequently come across the sentiment in dance discourse (online and face to face) that swing dancers are ‘good people’. Yes, many of them are. But I am certain that many of them are also capable of, and do perpetrate, sexual assault. I think this is a difficult idea to talk about in dancing. So much of what we do is dependent upon the idea that we are all ‘good people’ who just want to ‘enjoy themselves’ in ‘harmless dancing’. We also trust the person we are dancing with, who we touch, intimately, and who we work with, creatively. I find it deeply disturbing to think about being in a closed embrace with someone who is capable of sexual violence.
There is very little violence at social dance events. I’ve only ever witnessed one incidence, in extreme circumstances. But I have witnessed many incidences of bullying and sexual harassment. There are endless stories about leads who physically handle women into lifts or air steps in dangerous contexts. Or followers who do not take responsibility for their own balance or kicks. We’ve all got a story about the guy with the tent in his pants who presses too closely to uncomfortable women in the blues room. We’ve all got a story about that guy who always ‘accidentally’ does the boob swipe in class or on the dance floor. Many of us also have stories about women who perpetrate an unwelcome ‘beaver clamp’ in the blues room or spend too much time draped over men off the dance floor. Though it’s difficult to compare men’s and women’s inappropriate behaviour, and they work in different ways within a broader context of patriarchal society.
Most disturbingly, swing dance culture advocates tolerance of these sorts of actions. We are told, repeatedly that we should never say no to a dance. Women in particular are encouraged in most scenes to wait for a man to ask her to dance, and then to be so grateful for the dance she should tolerate all sorts of inappropriate behaviour just to be dancing. Women are also discouraged from dancing with other women, where they might have the opportunity to dance in a clearly nonsexual partnership. And, just as worryingly, it is very, very rare for a man to talk to his friends or other women about women’s inappropriate behaviour. Men are expected a) to enjoy sexual attention, and b) to not feel threatened by women. I mean, when I wrote, explicitly and in detail about particular men in the post Hot Male Bodies, was I crossing a line? Was that inappropriate?
This raises yet another issue in dance. What does sexualised dancing mean? Is this public or private space? Is it appropriate to take something from the dance floor and then decontextualise it, take it away from the dancer themselves? Dancers seem to negotiate this stuff every day in sophisticated ways. I mean, there are millions of amateur clips of performances, but it’s much less common to find footage of social dancing. It is as though most of us have agreed that social dancing is ‘private’, even when it’s conducted in the exact same spaces with the exact same people. If it is regarded as private, then, is that why we have so much difficulty making clear, hardline condemnations of sexual harassment on the dance floor – the tentpants, boobswipes and beaverclamps which make us so uneasy, but are so unlikely to be openly and immediately censured? After all, our broader societies find it so difficult to legislate domestic violence and sexual assault…
There are covert methods for dealing with this sexual harassment and bullying. We tee up a friend to quickly intervene and take us to the dance floor if a ‘dodgy’ person approaches. We learn to physically ‘block’ a partner who wants to get too close. We hide ourselves in a crowd to make approach from ‘undesirables’ difficult.
I’ve also learnt how to deal with men want to bully me in a professional setting. I’ve figured out, for example, how to a) not let male DJs (and they are always male) bully me into letting them DJ when and how they want when I am working to an event coordinator’s brief, b) not feel obliged to hire difficult or bullying DJs, c) make sure everyone pays entry fee when they are required to, regardless of ‘status’, d) not to end up being overworked and exploited by event organisers (either by their design or their incompetence).
It’s important to note that most volunteers at dance events are women. And that we are engaged at all levels in the management and running of events. We have also managed to develop non-confrontational methods for dealing with difficult people. Unfortunately, these methods are usually ‘invisible’, so avoiding the public demonstrations of women’s conflict resolution skills. Their invisibility also maintains the idea that swing scenes are always ‘nice’ and ‘friendly’ and ‘safe’.
I’m framing these ‘everyday’ instances of sexually inappropriate behaviour as sexual harassment and bullying for a reason. Let’s remember those points from the ABS data. Most perpetrators of sexual assault are known to their victims. If we insist that sexual violence only occurs in public places, is only perpetrated by ‘strangers’ with weapons while women risk their safety wear revealing clothes on the street, we make real rapes invisible. We hide the fact that we are more likely to be assaulted by the man who has driven us home, walked us to our door, gone out to dinner with us many times before. We also discourage women from speaking up about inappropriate actions. Don’t make a scene – the Uppity Woman will not get another dance! It’s not sexual harassment if a man continually touches your breasts on the dance floor?! In this context, the sexual assault by a known person in your own home is also disappeared. The perpetrator doesn’t believe he’s raped someone. The victim is left wondering what she did to deserve this. After all, she’s learnt that she’s not to speak up if she’s touched in a way she doesn’t like or want.
So what are we to do?
This is all bloody depressing. It’s fucking horrible to think about my dance community this way. I do not want to think about the idea that people I know and dance with or share a room with, assault or harass people. I hate the thought that I knew and travelled and danced with Bill Borgida. But I’m certain he’s not the only person who has done these sorts of things. It’s not statistically possible. It’s like last night’s episode of 4Corners about live animal trade, A Bloody Business (Mon 30th May 2011). These things are happening in my community. I’m participating in their continuing by not asking about it, by not looking, by not watching. And, awfully, sexual assault and harassment can happen to me or to people I know and care about. Someone I know could do these things to me. Sexual harassment and assault are a real, immediate, visible part of my life.
So, really, what are we to do? What can we do?
Firstly, I think it’s important to think about broader social and cultural context. This is why I bang on about women dancing and the way we think about women dancing. Do we encourage passivity, acceptance, submission in women dancers? I think we do. Do we also encourage, or at least enable, inappropriate behaviour by men? I think we do. I also think we need to talk about these issues. And to do what we can. For me, that’s meant learning to lead. But it’s also meant asking questions about things like unequal divisions of labour in the dance community. Who is always working the door at social events? Do they actually want to be sitting there all night? Who does get paid and who doesn’t? Why don’t people get paid?
Secondly, I think that going on and on and on about the shitty stuff, getting angrier and angrier and feeling more and more upset without doing something is disempowering. It weakens us with despair. So we need to a) pay attention and ask questions, b) talk about this stuff and then, most importantly, c) DO SOMETHING. I’m a big fan of small, localised change and action. A rally was cool for getting us talking. But it’s not enough. We need to saddle up, friends.
There are things we can do.
I want to talk about how we get home from dancing, because it’s about getting from ‘private’ place to ‘public’ places. This is a tricky one. We’re out late at night, usually on public transport or walking to our cars alone. We’re out with a large group of people, some we know well, many we don’t. All sorts of people come to swing dances. Many of them are socially awkward or inept. Many of them already ring our internal discomfort alarms and have us avoid dancing with them. We go out to drinks or meals after dancing with large groups of people, many we only know by first name even though we see them every week. At the end of the night, how do we get to our cars, to our homes?
My usual instinct is to get a ride with someone in a car, or to organise a group to go via public transport, and then to call Dave so he can meet me at the station. But is it really such a good idea to get a ride with someone from dancing? Even if you’ve seen them every week for a year, what do you really know about them? This is where it gets really tricky. I don’t want to advocate mistrusting every man just because they’re a man. This is why it’s attractive to think ‘only strangers are a threat’. It’s impossible to be wary all the time. And being wary all the time is disempowering. If we’re spending all our time being angry or worrying about being raped, we don’t have time to be excellently powerful and strong. But it also makes sense to think about safety and to be safe. To be aware of our surroundings.
Perhaps a solution is to organise groups of women to travel home together, and to have clear sets of rules for how you get home. No one walks to the station or their car alone. Send a text message to keep in contact. Or to get help. I’m not sure how this should work, but I think we should organise these sorts of things! Sometimes it’s hard to get to know other women at dancing well enough to develop these sorts of support networks and practices. We dance mostly with men in class and socially, we women don’t develop solid peer networks of trust and confidence in each other. Although I have always found that leading, and doing solo stuff with women socially is a key part of developing creative and personal relationships with other women in dancing.
But this talk about ‘getting home’ is still accepting that myth that sexual assault is only done by strangers, only happens in public places, late at night. We should think about the idea that sexual assaults happen at dance events. When we walk to the toilets through the gardens to the toilets at the back of the hall. In the toilets. In the carpark. In dressing rooms. In empty ‘breakout’ rooms at late night dances. At the reception desk while everyone is in dance classes.
These thoughts are far, far more frightening than the idea that we’re only at risk for that 40 minutes on our way from dance to home.
We need to think about safety at dances. And, much more importantly, about dance culture.
So here is what I do.
I pay attention to the people at the dance venue. Who is in the room? Who are they watching? How are they acting? If a man slips into the blues venue on Friday night, asking me to “hold the door” which is usually locked, do I know him? If I don’t, where does he go? It’s harder to pay attention to the whole room when I’m dancing than when I’m DJing. When I’m DJing, I’m constantly watching the people in the room. I notice who sits and does nothing. I see the guys who watch women dance and move and sit and talk and walk. I recognise the difference between a sort of general interest and an unnervingly close attention. I take note of the men who boobswipe or target the less confident women, the newer women dancers, the younger women. I pay attention to men who only dance with these type of women or who stand too close to them. There’s often a reason these men are avoided by women dancers who’ve been around. Sometimes it’s just social awkwardness that sets them apart. But sometimes it’s a nameless, discomforting creepiness.
I call people on their bullshit. This makes me less popular. But what the fuck. I’m not 20. I don’t need everyone to be my friend. And if I see some guy picking up a shyer, less confident girl and tossing her into some sort of bullshit lift, I’m going to say to him “Stop that.” And I’ll say to her “He’ll hurt you. Don’t let him do that.” Then I’ll make sure I talk to her later, about other stuff, so she knows I’m not shitty with her. I won’t (for the most part) let some dickhead chuck me around. I will call attention to a boobswipe, even it’s to make a joke, even if it’s an accidental boobswipe. I’ll also call guys on sexist jokes or crude, cruel comments. I try to be gentle, but I’m often quite confrontational. This does mean that I’m not going to be asked to dance by some men, many of whom are the ‘best dancers’ or high status. But who gives a shit? And why would I want to dance with that arsehat anyway?
I’m also equally determined to appreciate and show my appreciation for positive, excellent behaviour and attitudes. I think it’s like applauding awesome boogie backs when you want to encourage solo dance. It’s easy to get angry. But it’s healthier to get constructive. Carrot rather than stick. This is where men come in handy. If we want men to be the most excellent men they can be, we need excellent men to model excellent behaviour. On the dance floor and off it. Men should call other men on bullshit talk or actions. They needn’t be stroppy. Jokes are very powerful. More importantly, men are excellent, and when they do excellent things and we all applaud them for their metaphoric boogie backs, we are showing other men that being excellent is a lucrative business. We need to change cultures of masculinity, not ridicule men. The challenge, then, becomes how we go about doing this. How, for example, should men express their sexual interest to women? Or appreciate a particularly fine frame on the dance floor? How should men and women do heterosexuality in a positive, empowering ways? We’re creative people, right? We can figure this out.
Dance classes are important. Dance classes are a key point in the socialising of new dancers. How do the male lead and female follower model appropriate behaviour on and off the dance floor? Who does most of the talking in class? Who interrupts who, and how often, and how? Who makes the jokes? Who’s the butt of the joke? What type of jokes are they? Is there sexualised talk or joking? What sort of language do teachers use to refer to gender or to leading and following? What analogies do they use? How do they dress? How old are they? What are their relative ages? Where are they teaching? What material are they teaching? Who are the dancers they mention?
I could go on and on and on with this. But I think it’s important to figure out ways of making this work in your own life, and own social context. But, mostly, we need to be Excellent To Each Other.
We also need to be aware of the fact that dance scenes are not all flowers and ponies. Bad shit does happen, and we should do something about it.
I began this as a post where I’d just link up some badass solo comp clips from Lithuania. But it has become a sort of hardcore manual for feminist activism. Geez, bloody feminists. With the raging and the ranting. And the badass fall-off-the-logs. These are the things I say to myself; where I say ‘you’, I’m talking to myself. I’m encouraging myself to be more awesome. If this is too much for you, go back to the post full of clips. Or you can keep reading about how I love jazz dances because they’re built for feminist badassery.
A year or so ago, after I came back from about nine months off dancing with a shitful plantar fascia injury, I discovered the thing I’d missed most about dancing was the solo stuff. I love lindy hop. I love it so much. But I think, ultimately, I want to dance alone.
I like dancing alone, as in, not with a partner in a formal lindy hop dance (I do like dancing with other people on my own) for lots of reasons. One of the things that pushes many women in particular into solo dance is the lack of leads in their local scene. I use the word ‘push’ deliberately, because I suppose most women in a lindy hop scene approach social dancing looking for some partner dancing. Dancing alone is not always taught as a staple in regular classes, so most new dancers don’t feel as comfortable dancing alone as they do with a partner.
I like dancing alone because I’m often frustrated by leads who don’t listen to what I’m bringing, or more often, I’m frustrated by leads who just roll us through a series of fairly set combinations of moves without listening to the music. That drives me NUTS. For me, it’s the music that makes me dance. So I like to explore everything a song has got. If I’m being rushed through swingouts one after another, bang-bang-bang, there’s no time to explore the delaaaay that’s so central to swung rhythms, let alone all the other lovely layers in a song.
I do a lot of leading when I social dance. I get asked to dance by followers a lot, I ask other women to dance, and I also follow myself a lot. But I do like solo dancing most. I could WILL! make arguments about how women leading and solo dancing fuck up gender and power dynamics. In fact, I’ve done so, many times. And if you go out dancing in a scene where there are women leading, you can actually see how this shifts the social dynamics. Women aren’t just standing about on the side of the dance floor waiting for a dance, wondering if they’re not being asked because they’re a crap dancer/too fat/too old/too uncool/too weird/too horrible/wearing the wrong clothes, etc. Women aren’t rushing at male leads, competing for a dance. Women aren’t basking in the attention of a lead on the dance floor, grasping at a moment of confidence and self worth.
When women lead and solo dance in a scene, you see a shift away from bloke-centred social dancing dynamics. Suddenly all those women standing about on the side of the dance floor have moved onto the floor, experimenting with movements and rhythm, becoming better dancers, enjoying each other’s company and generally having a bloody good time. The blokes are no longer the centre of their universe.
I’m sure you can see how I then get particularly shitted off when a bloke wades in and drags a woman out of that sort of setting to dance with him. Back off, motherfucker! The hot shit is being brung!
How do you get to the point where you have lots of people (male female and inbetween) solo dancing as well as partner dancing at a ‘swing dance event’? Well, firstly, it’s worth pointing out that there’s next to no solo dance in rock and roll and the RnR type ‘swing’ dancing, at least not here in Sydney. When you go to those dances, most people only dance with people they know or even with just their own partner. Because that scene tends to be a bit older, a lot more conservative, and also rooted in a different dancing culture. I think that if you ground your lindy scene in vernacular jazz dance, then you’re setting yourself up with some nice conditions for solo dance as well as partner dance peppered with wonderful improvisation.
So how do you do that? Despite what you might think, reading this blog, I’m not actually a big fan of preaching at people. I like to work out my thinking and ideas in word-form, especially in places like this blog. But I firmly believe that if you want to initiate cultural change in a dance scene, you need to get your bad self out there on the dance floor and do it. Talk means nothing when you’re making a point about dance. Dancers are very much influenced by what they see on the dance floor. Duh. So if you want to see more solo dance in your scene, you need to get yourself out on that dance floor and do that solo dance. You need to do it with confidence, and with as much skill as you can. Work on that shit and be as good as you possibly can be. And if you can’t get any better, enjoy what you do badly and let that pleasure show.
In other words, you need to model the behaviour you want to see.
Same goes for women leading. If you’re a woman tired of the bullshit gender dynamics in your scene, get your fine self out there on the dance floor and model the shit you want to see. And do it well and with confidence. Own it. Work on it in your own time or in classes and improve. Don’t let your leading be a novelty. Let it be a legitimate act. Don’t enter comps hoping to get noticed just because you’re different. Go in comps and bring the best shit you’ve got. The novelty will wear off; you’re going to need to back up your claims with some pretty good stuff.
And I also think it’s important to say positive, encouraging things to people who are doing awesome stuff. Or, really, if you see the awesome, applaud it! Rather than getting shitty and snarky about something that shits you (eg not getting asked to dance by blokes), get positive and supportive. There’s no point continuing the nastiness of dodgy culture by making yourself unhappy. After all, that’s how patriarchy works: women and men collude in their own oppression. Seek out the unusual and the wonderful. If someone has a brilliant idea, tell them it’s brilliant! Don’t get jealous and resentful! Sometimes being an audience – the response to the call – is more important than being the performer. In practical terms, if you see someone do a rockhardawesome boogie back, cheer them, loudly! And then tell them, later, that you thought that was totally cool.
I think of this as a very nice approach to all sorts of social activism. Just talking about this stuff is fairly useless. This is why I think that we shouldn’t just be doing scholarly writing and talking about gender and power. We also need to get out there and do feminist stuff. To be feminists, with our bodies as well as with our brains. I know a lot of academics feel that theorising activism and culture is how they contribute to feminism, but I feel very strongly that this only touches a small proportion of our community directly. No, writing newspaper articles isn’t a way to ‘engage’ with the wider community. It’s too safe, yo, and too distant. Take a risk. Let yourself be changed.
I think that we need to bloody well open our eyes and engage with the everyday places in our lives where we can make a difference. On the bus. At the shops. In cafes. On the dance floor. Make eye contact, hold doors open, step in when someone needs a hand, ask your employer if they do maternity leave, even if you don’t need it yourself. And I also think it’s a good idea to make it as fun as you can. Getting angry is useful. But in and of itself, it’s not productive. You need to be an agent for positive, constructive change, as well as a mighty smashing force of rage. Find small ways, everyday, where you can fuck shit up. Or at least vibrate at very low frequencies until you rattle that patriarchal bedrock to bits.
That’s why I like dance. Fucking up the patriarchy, smashing gender binaries and generally being difficult can be super fun. It can also be positive, friendly and engaging. You won’t win friends to your cause by being rude and aggressive. But you will by making jokes, being kind and friendly, and by being sneaky. Jazz dance is built for this stuff. As the public discourse of an oppressed people, African American vernacular jazz dance has all the tools you need for misbehaving.
Ok, so yes, modelling stuff in a social setting is important. What if you’re a teacher and you want to see more solo dance in your scene, regardless of gender? Same goes. Get out there and do it. Do it in a social setting, but also get out there and do performances. You need people to see what makes solo dance so awesome. And then you need to make them want to do it too. It’s no good you just getting out there on your own every week if you want to see new stuff in your scene. Other people have got to want to do it too.
Running classes in solo dance is the next obvious step. I’m a big fan of classes devoted to solo dance. But I’m even more a fan of classes which work on combining solo and partner dance. How do you fit a shorty george into your swingout? Why is the shim sham an absolute gold mine for steps to add into your lindy hop? I don’t like to use the phrase ‘variations in a swing out’ because it suggests that the swing out is still the centre of the dance and the jazz steps are ‘variations’ on that single step.
Yes, swing outs are central to lindy hop. But this isn’t a one note song. I think that jazz steps – dancing alone – is just as, if not more important than, the swing out. So when you use jazz steps – things like shorty george, suzy Qs, kick-ball-changes, broken-legs, crazy-legs, and so on – think of the swing out as a framing device for your hot shit jazz step. Or better yet, deliberately choreograph sequences that break partners apart and require some sort of solo bling. I think that if you’re teaching solo jazz steps – jazz steps – as an integral part of your lindy hop, and as key part of your classes, you’re setting up students with the skills and materials for dancing alone on the social dance floor. You’re creating the expectation of improvisation. You’re provoking creativity.
So, to sum up, this is what I say to myself when I’m going dancing or working on dance:
Solo dancing is good. It’s good socially and culturally (diversity! creativity!). It’s good for your lindy hop. It’s good for your dance skills. It’s good.
Lead by example. That’s a very patronising way of saying ‘convince people solo dance is awesome by getting out there and doing awesome solo dance’. Quit bitching and getting unhappy; get out there and fill yourself full of glee.
Without jazz steps, your lindy hop is flat. You will never really fulfill your potential as a partner dancer if you can’t dance alone. Or, in other words, learn how to dance by yourself so that you can actually dance with a partner.
Don’t accept any arguments that start “Men only do…” or “Women always do….” You don’t want to be like everyone else. Be like yourself.
Your body is a brilliant tool. This is the one that’s most important to me. If ever I start thinking ‘oh, I’m too fat for that’ or ‘I don’t have long enough legs’ or ‘I’m not fit enough’ I stop myself and say, very sternly, “Self, you have a unique body shape, and a unique approach to music. Stop bitching about not looking or feeling like everyone else, and START exploring what you are capable of. That short, square body you have? What can it do that no one else can? How does it let you move in ways that are utterly unique? How can you emphasise your short legs or your wide arse or your round belly? How can you exaggerate these parts of yourself in ways that no one else will be able to copy?” The goal is to be utterly unique, not to look like everyone else. You want to get people’s attention, to arrest the eye. Patriarchy demands women make themselves invisible, make themselves simulacrum of some impossible ideal. Why not fuck that shit up by making yourself defiantly unique? And, best of all, enjoy sticking out?
I don’t know if this is a useful approach for everyone. It can be tiring, being so determined. Sometimes it is nice to just sink into following, and to become the extension of some bloke’s creative vision. But I figure, that’s ok. Just don’t make everything you are the result of someone else’s ideas. Do misbehave. Do be that Difficult Woman, if only in a little way, sometimes.
Another reminder that green/feminist movements are as marked by gender and class as right wing politics…
I’m seeing correlations between slutwalk discourse and this little trail of articles dealing with race/food politics/gardening/environmentalism/cycling. While I’m fascinated by discussions of food and health and environmentalism as a socialist project, for a while now I’ve had a little voice in the back of my brain saying “Dood, where’s race in all this? Can we talk about ethnicity a little bit more? And not in a ‘Mysteries of the Orient’ Food Safari way?” I stumbled over The Doree Chronicles’ post ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Eating: How the Food Culture War Affects Black America’ on Tumblr, then traced its references back. This post read as a sort of snippet of idea, in the context of a general Tumblr blog dealing with all sorts of things the author found interesting. Tumblr shits me a bit as this sort of backtracking is unnecessarily complex, but I guess that’s a consequence of personal sites which encourage a ‘collector’ approach rather than a ‘writerly’ approach.
Can Pollan not drive home the point that Americans need to cook more often without guilting American feminists?
I’m really not up to speed with food politics’ talk, but I feel as though all this talk is echoing some of my reservations about slutwalk, and some of my thoughts about food politics. It also reminds me of some things I’ve read about the civil rights movement in America in the 60s, where the peace movement in particular was also quite sexist. In that context, the ‘free love’ discourse was a double-edge sword. While the pill gave women contraceptive control of their sexuality and bodies, there was also an attendant shift in the way many men began thinking about these women as ‘sexually available’. I wonder if we should perhaps be a little sceptical of a new women’s movement (or new stream in a broader feminism) that lauds heterosexual freedom in such uncomplicated ways. Because of course the pill didn’t function the same way, ideologically, for lesbian women that it did for straight women.
I feel as though we’re also revisiting issues raised (and continually raised) by women of colour from that period and recently. For those women race was a far more pressing concern, organising their activism in a way that gender did not. And these women were very critical of ‘mainstream’ feminists for not interrogating their own privilege. Or, more simply, for not noticing that everyone signing books in the wimminz bookshops was white.
I’m of course thinking about bell hooks and Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, but I’ve also heard Australian Aboriginal women like Marcia Langton make similar arguments. I haven’t found it, but I’d be certain there’d be some cool stuff written about ‘bush tucker’, the Northern Territory intervention (where government pensions are ‘retained’ specifically for buying food), gender and equity. I’m also certain that there’d be some really interesting stuff by migrant women writers in Australia (and elsewhere) about food, gender, class and social (as well as bodily) ‘health’. Someone has to have taken the bike movement to task as well? I mean, if I’m banging on about it on Faceplant when people say stupid things like “There is no excuse not to ride distances under 10km”, then surely someone else has made the same points more cleverly?
I’ve just had a quick look but I CAN’T find that interesting study a Victorian university group did recently where they found that if women felt safe cycling in a city, then the numbers of cyclists in that city over all were higher. I was telling this story to some hardcore environmentalist/sustainable energy types at a party the other week, and they were all “Oh shit, I’d never thought of that!” And I was thinking ‘That’s because you’re over-achieving, able bodied, young, male engineers living in well-serviced cities who dismiss feminism as ‘something for women’.’ But I didn’t say that out loud. Instead I laboured through a gentle (and brief) point that environmental movements have to be socially sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable. I wanted to talk about how birth control for women in developing countries is directly related to environmentally sustainable development in those same countries, but I didn’t.
I think there are also some really important points to be made about ‘food security’ for children in poor communities and families in big cities, and how food security is directly related to educational and social achievements, and how getting enough to eat (let alone eating ‘well’) is directly related to justice and equity in relation to gender and race and all those other lovely identity markers. I don’t know much about this at all, but I heard an interesting Health Report podcast about this and started thinking about the relationships between organic gardening, social justice, ethnicity and economic power. And goddamn bicycles.
To sum up this messy, ill-informed, poorly researched and unsubstantiated introduction to my mess of thoughts, I direct your attention to Tammi Jonas, who’s trekking through the American wilds with the Jonai clan in glorious 70s campervanning style, writing and thinking about food and family as she goes. Her progress is written up at Crikey, but I quite like the posts on her blog. Tammi is all over these issues.