(Try To) Write About Jazz

(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.

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!

A Difficult Conversation About Sexual Violence in Swing Dance Communities

[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 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.

Tim linked me up with this article about slutwalk by Jacinda Woodhead and Stephanie Convery, which links in turn to 4523.0 – Sexual Assault in Australia: A Statistical Overview, 2004, a 2004 ABS report on sexual assault in Australia. If you’ve been paying attention, most of the information in the report is depressingly familiar, yet in direct counterpoint to the myths surrounding sexual assault circulated in mainstream discourse. Key points for my post today are summed up on page 13 of this report:

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 vant to be alone

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.

race, food, bikes, gender

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.

From that little post linking food politics, race, ethnicity and the bike movement, I found Erika Nicole Kendall’s post ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Eating: How The Food Culture War Affects Black America’ on the Black Girls Guide To Weight Loss site. This post framed the discussion within a broader discussion of race and gender and weight loss as a health issue.

This post led me to Janani Balasubramanian’s piece ‘Sustainable Food and Privilege: Why is Green Always White (and Male and Upper-Class)’ which linked the bike movement talk to race and gender and environmentalism and food politics. I like this piece for the way it links gender to food production, and I like the question:

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.

I’d also suggest some time with Cristy Clark who’s exploring ecotarianism in real-family settings (ie, her own), and of course do drop in at Progressive Dinner Party to see related issues taken up. If you’re especially interested in kids and food, then PDP’s Head Cook Zoe is a good source, not to mention the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, which is all about kids, food and well-being.

Hippity hop: In which I get jiggy

Last Monday I did my first hip hop class. I went to a studio we’ve been using for our solo jazz practice and late night dances, and I went because I was curious, but mostly because I like going to the studio. The studio is run by a young man and his friends, and it’s in the guts of the city, in the Chinatown bit. They run lots of classes and workshops (almost all in street dances like hip hop or house or locking), see lots and lots and lots of students through the door, and are generally treated as a sort of drop-in social space as well as a class venue. Most of the students are ‘Asian’, and many are international university students. ‘Asian’ is one of those difficultly broad terms, and I don’t think it’s that useful in this context: these kids are from all over China, Hong Kong, South-East Asia, Japan, Korea and beyond. A lot of younger kids use the studio space – younger as in high school – and it really feels like a well-used space.

I always enjoy going there. There’re always people bustling about, and the reception desk is planted right in the middle of the room, directly opposite the lift doors, so you’re greeted immediately as you enter the room. People are always friendly. I’m getting to know people there, and it’s really nice to get a friendly “Hi Sam!” as I arrive. It feels like an energetic, creative space. But not in one of those desperately hip ‘art’ spaces. This is functional creativity. Functional in that this music and these dancers are part of these kids’ everyday lives, and dancing isn’t just a ‘hobby’ that they do one night a week.

There are regular classes, but the studio (which has three separate practice spaces as well as the main foyer space) is used for casual ‘jams’, which you pay for with a gold coin donation (presented as a ‘donation’ for upkeep of the studio), and there’s always music running in that jam space. The ‘jam’ is really a practice, a bit like a tango practica, where you go to test out what you know and are learning, not in a workshop or class environment, but in a more social space. This isn’t ‘social dancing’, though, the dancers are focussed and really experimenting with movement.

Dancers use the studio as an inbetween or meeting place before going off to the ‘battles’ down in a public piazza somewhere on Friday nights (this is real street dance) or out for a night clubbing. Uni students drop in between lectures, and high school girls turn up in their uniforms after school and before dance class to practice. Dance crews also use the space to meet up and touch base or to practice. The idea of ‘crews’ as a real thing is new to me. I’ve seen them in films: a group of dancers who work together in competitions or battles. But I’d thought they were exaggerated or made up for films. But they’re not. The nearest equivalent in lindy hop is a dance troupe, with all the attendant friendship and peer support functions. But crews feel less contrived and more organic, based on creative similarity, friendships and shared values rather than a formal dance school promotional function.

I first met the owner and venue when we used the space for a late night dance. I was working with a guy who was running the late night event and was also involved in the hip hop scene. He knew the studio through hip hop classes and the local scene. It was really wonderful to walk into a studio that felt like a living, breathing social space. Most dance studios feel a bit lame or a bit empty, socially. The dances people practice are formalised by their position as ‘commodity’ and they’re definitely a ‘hobby’ or ‘career’ rather than lifestyle. But at the hip hop studio, the dancing is tied in with all the other parts of people’s lives – music, fashion, media (particularly digital media), eating, drinking, socialising. LeeEllen Friedland talks about this continuum of cultural practice. But, really, this studio and dancing are just points in everyday life.

That first event we ran at the studio went off wonderfully. The dancers who turned up really liked the feel of the venue. We were very happy with the studio manager and with the layout and feel of the venue. This isn’t a cold, professional studio or a dirty, dingey bar like most late night venues. It made the dancing wonderful.

Isn’t it strange to think like that? I can’t explain, really, why it made such a difference. But I found DJing really exciting, and as a punter I had a BRILLIANT time. But a space made place really makes for excellent social dancing.

Anyway, we needed a place for our solo practice, and while we’ve tried a few other places, I pushed for us to use this studio as an experiment at least. It’s not the cheapest venue (I pay $30 for 2 hours at a church hall near me that has no mirrors or sound system, I’ve paid $20 per hour at a clean, well-lit place with mirrors, a good floor and sound system), but it has good mirrors, good floors, decent sound proofing, and feels great.

When we finish practicing, it’s hard to just leave. There are people who’re interested in what we’re doing. Interested just as part of being polite and sociable, but also interested in a creative sense. I’ve already had a few exciting conversations with hip hop people where we’ve compared moves that we have in common. Mine are a hundred years old. Theirs are brand new. But they’re the same. It’s thrilling.
This studio feels like Herrang. At Herrang, which runs for about 4 weeks (give or take), there’s always someone dancing or practicing or talking about dancing or music. You can join in with strangers, and the whole place feels alive with music and dance and rhythm. It seeps into your pores. The studio feels like that. And this is exactly what swing dancing – lindy hop, balboa, blues, charleston, all of it – really needs. A vibrant cultural, social space where dancers hang out and experiment and socialise. But not in a forced way. In a natural way that results from shared interests and a welcoming space. It’s tricky with jazz dances, though, as these are dead dances. They’re not connected to popular music and culture anymore, so it’s harder to find them, to make them part of your everyday.

At any rate, it’s not a surprise that I ended up doing a hip hop class. I had a spare afternoon/evening, and just felt so comfortable at the studio, I figured I’d just turn up and see what happened. There were two classes on, and I really didn’t plan which one I’d do. I guess I’m lucky it was hip hop and not breaking. There was ‘girl hip hop’ and ‘hip hop’ on. The girl hip hop studio was full of teenage girls in school uniforms practicing to girly rnb. That class was taught by the teacher I know, a bloke. I paid for my class, and settled on the couch as I was a bit early. When I went to join the class as it started, I was directed, “No, no Sam, you do the Hip Hop class” by the teacher. I was ‘Sure, whatevs’ and changed studio. I asked another teacher/dancer as I passed the registration desk “What’s the difference?” and she replied “It’s pretty girly. You’d like hip hop more, I reckon.” I’m sure that’s because I am built like a brick shithouse, not at all girly, and not sixteen. I don’t exactly scream sexed up nightclub dancing.
I’m glad I did do the ‘hip hop’ class. There were just two of us in there with the teacher. I was the only girl, and they were both Chinese, the teacher in his twenties, the other student in his late teens or possibly early twenties. I was the tallest, the whitest, the femalest, the oldest. Which was pretty much as I’d expected.
The class was FUN but also challenging, and a real culture difference.

Firstly, the music was on all the time, and it was quite loud. I’m used to lots of talking in classes, but that’s not how we worked. Spoken instructions were few and shouted over the music. I was kind of relieved to have so much music in the room. I don’t know any modern music, and hip hop is so far from my usual musical listening, I really needed a crash course in its rhythms and structure. Thankfully, it’s like simplified jazz, structurally, but has a different feel.

At first I stood a little behind the teacher (who had his back to us, with the other student to his right hand side, in a row). Because I’m used to standing behind the teacher to shadow what I see them doing. But almost immediately I was told to “Look up! Look at yourself in the mirror!” This was a revelation. This is the difference between partner dancing and solo dance. I was there to present myself, so I had to see what I was doing to assess my own skills. Many of the movements we did involved very clear hand and finger gestures. Our arms had to end at the end of our fingers (in clenched fists, in flowing sweeps, in sharp chops), and I needed to see myself in the mirror to be sure I was doing this all properly. I moved up beside the teacher.

He began the class by explaining how movements worked, but as he realised I could pick up the movements from what he was doing, and as the other student was much more advanced than me, he stopped explaining, except when I needed something clarified. If you’ve done a lot of dance classes, you can follow along with the choreography and movements really without thinking about it. You move with the other people in the room, turning when they turn, sinking when they sink and so on. In those moments thinking is actually a real problem. You don’t want to have to think your way through each movement before you do it. You want to just do it. I’m not a talented dancer, and I’m quite a slow learner, but all this lindy hop and solo stuff has taught me how to know how to move my body at least a little bit.

So learning the choreography wasn’t too complicated. I could get the rhythms quickly (they were much, much, much simpler than lindy hop or jazz stuff), I could turn when I should, I could face the right direction. But watching myself, I thought “This is what ballet dancers look like when they start lindy hop.” I looked like I was floating, like a really upright, ungrounded ballet dancer. And I’m usually pretty grounded in my lindy hop. But hip hop required a lot more in the ground. You get this look by bending your knees, but hip hop – this type of hip hop – requires a lot of shoulder action and a very different type of bounce.

I know, in my brains, they’re the same principles of biomechanics, but it was really difficult to figure out what the teacher was doing to get that look while also learning choreography. I realised that I had to control my hips and core, and hold them very stable and still. Instead, I had to use my shoulders, arms and upper body in much more definite, bigger ways. I had to sink down into the floor by bending my knees, but without sticking my arse out. I had to hold my chest and shoulders in a way that held my bust still and stopped it bouncing.

It was a matter of at once learning a different dance aesthetic, and also dancing ‘like a man’ rather than ‘like a woman’. I’ve had similar issues learning to lead, if I’ve been interested in leading ‘like a man’. It’s very interesting to see how gender is played out through which parts of your body you emphasise. It’s not at all genetic; this is a learned thing.

I also found that some of the movements involved hyperflexing of the joints, especially at the shoulders and elbows. This is something professional dancers learn. It’s something we try to avoid in lindy hop, because it’s about hyper-straight arms, and lindy likes right angles. But hyperflexing is something a lot of Asian kids do, in part because of genetics, but also because of cultural factors. I am very tight in my arms and shoulders, because I sit on my arse all day and type. It’s also a very anglo thing to do – to carry tension in the upper body like that. So I had to at once learn to release and relax my upper body to allow liquid, extended range of movement in my arms, but also to engage my core and upper body so that I could also do sharper, more abrupt, more ‘masculine’ movements.

After an hour I was queen of sweat.

I found I could do most of the things we learnt, except a couple of moves that were almost exactly the same as ones we do in lindy hop/jazz. We learnt a step very like a camel walk, except beginning with the toes pointed up and weight on the heel, rather than toe down, with the weight on the heel. This really melted my brain, especially as we were doing a flowing, released arm movement at the same time. I just couldn’t get it right.

But this really taught me some things: I do those ‘standard’ jazz movements without thinking about what I’m doing. I’m not conscious of my body and muscles in an active way. So I’m really not dancing very well. I’m actually doing habitual motions. Being aware of what you’re doing, and moving muscles independently and in groups in a conscious way is central to being able to dance well, to respond quickly, and to adjust to suit the music and partner. So having to learn a very similar movement really made me aware of the weaknesses in my dancing.

It was really interesting to see how those combined steps (flowing arms, sharp, syncopated footwork) reflected the music: flowing melody, grace and balance coupled with abrupt, sharp lower body movements. I had to rethink my habitual dance movements, but also the gendered movements and muscle use which I was utterly unconscious of. Our movements are marked by gender and culture, ethnicity, age, class, experience. It’s in our interests, as social animals, that these movements become unconscious, so that we ‘fit in’, and give the ‘right signals’ to the people around us.

If you think for example, of how someone who sits too close to us on the bus makes us feel, then you kind of get the idea. That’s just a tiny example, but the way someone holds their body while sitting in a public, shared space, tells you about how they think and act about shared space (especially crowded shared space), and how they use muscle tension to delineate shared space. I mean, to be even clearer, if I want to crowd out someone on a shared bus seat, I ‘land and expand’. I sit down with control, but gradually relax my muscles so I gradually take up more space. This makes my seat mate feel ‘crowded’, so they move over. This even works on male suits in peak hour.

I think that my being aware of these issues is a disadvantage most of the time. It’s better to stop thinking and to let your body figure out what to do. If you have to think your way through every single movement, you’re going to be slow and your movement will look ‘unnatural’ and make people feel uncomfortable.

Finally, then, I have to say that this class was wonderful. I felt very welcome, and I liked the way the class was quite quickly paced and felt ‘all business’. We didn’t fuck around with fake jokes, we got on and danced, all the time. I liked the way the other student modelled respect for the teacher, so I knew how I was supposed to act. I also liked the way we could relax these relationships when we got outside the classroom. Out there it was all rowdiness and comparing movements and excited, adrenaline-charged, dance-high loud talk. And not just from me.

I’m definitely going back for more. Though I suspect this will be a long, challenging road for me. Perhaps I should buy some music?

slutwalk thinking

[edit: I’m going to add links and thinks to this as I go. I won’t edit the content up the top, but will add stuff to the bottom. This is going to make this a poo post to read, but it’ll help me keep all my links in one place.]

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about slutwalk. Part of me doesn’t understand why Reclaim the Night isn’t enough. The sensible part of me reminds the rest of me that we definitely shouldn’t be restricting ourselves to one act of civil action. And that RTN obviously doesn’t capture younger feminists’ attention the way it did mine years ago.

We’re still talking about women taking to the streets to raise the profile of bullshit attitudes towards sexual violence, and to make it clear that women are not responsible for the violence of men, no matter what they’re wearing.

But I’m not convinced ‘slut’ is a word that can be reclaimed. I’m also not ok with identifying myself as a slut. My sexuality is part of who I am, but it is not all that I am, and I like to use words that reflect that. I am more than the sex that I have or do not have. But this is, of course, to miss the point that these feminists are making.

I’m going to keep thinking about this. I would ordinarily leap at the chance to protest on an issue like this. So I need to find out why I’m not leaping now. Meanwhile, here’s an interesting post at Godard’s Letterbox, and a speech by Jaclyn Friedman.

Incidentally, I have had some problems with the hollaback mission. Or rather, I remember reading a newspaper story recently (buggered if I can remember the article, though) where a wealthy white woman living in a large American city chased down a young white man who’d groped her in a public place, then loudly told him off and went to the police. As I read this article, my heart rate elevated, I got sweaty and felt really really afraid. Ordinarily, I’m in favour of talking back. But in a situation like that… well, as a woman with social power, she wasn’t in the most dangerous situations. But I think of the times when it can go terribly wrong. If you’re not physically strong or able. If you’re somewhere isolated. If he decides to ramp it up. That newspaper article declared that all women should do this sort of backtalk, or responding. Me, I think that women should think very carefully about their safety before they do. In that situation… well, maybe. But I’ve had that go wrong on me, and I’m sure I won’t be pulling that stunt any time soon. I think there are other ways of fucking their shit up. Direct confrontation is only one of those tools.

…I can’t believe that I’m taking such a moderate stance on this. But then, I am a woman who is out on her own at night, during the day, all over the place, on foot, on bike, on public transport. And I know that being safe is about how you act. While I hate it that I have to moderate my behaviour to accommodate the fucked up behaviour of others (men or women), I’m not about to start putting myself at risk to make a political point.

I will be aware of my surroundings at all time. I will not make eye contact with strange men out at night. I will walk with other women if I can. I will ride my bike where possible, I will assist other women when they need me, and I will learn how to defend myself.

More importantly, because most assaults on women happen in their homes, I will think about safety in my house, I will maintain relationships with my neighbours (many of whom are also women), I’ll take care who comes into my home.

I’m also committed to safety at dance events, and I strongly advocate women refusing to act in a way that accepts bullying or manipulation from anyone. I’m also going to continue to keep shouting about the way women represent themselves and are represented in dance talk and on the dance floor. We are more than sexualised bodies. We don’t need to decide whether we are sluts or not, or to reclaim the term.

We can just decide not to accept the premise of the question. I choose to dance in a way that assumes that I have more options for the way I present myself. This is why I like to use male dancers as role models, and seek out historical women dancers who do more than simper at men while tottering about on high heels in diaphanous gowns as they tipper tap across the stage. Someone else can fuck about with girlesque or suspender belts declaring that they are sluts. I’m going to be busy fucking up shit on the dance floor, demonstrating that there are other ways to be a woman that do not exist in a virgin/slut dichotomy.

[edit]tigtog has drawn my attention to “Sex, lies and slutwalking” by Lauren Rosewarne (9 May 2011)[/]

[edit: 15/5/11 8pm] I liked Reclaim The Night because it was for all women. Special effort was always made to make it accessible for everyone, no matter what their age, physical ability, etc. So you’d be walking along next to nannas and little babbies and kids and teenagers and all sorts of women. But slutwalk really doesn’t feel like the type of place I’d feel ok taking kids. I mean, I’m ok grownups talking about sex with kids (their own kids, mind you), but an angry, confrontational protest centred on sex… not really a happy place.[/]

hot male bodies

I talk an awful lot about women’s bodies, and women and the erotic gaze. I am, of course, working with the assumption that most dance performances are geared towards a male gaze, which Laura Mulvey introduces in her 1975 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, and which caused such a stir Screen then devoted an entire issue to the matter. But I wonder if that’s what’s actually going on in dance performances? Are we really that dull? In this post I’m going to look at some hot male bodies, and see how we might go about fucking up shit in the modern swing dance world. High heel shoes: for all!

This idea of the male gaze was originally constructed as a response to mainstream narrative cinema, and argues that mainstream narrative films are constructed (from story to shot framing and mise en scene) for an imaginary, idealised male viewer. In this context, men and male protagonists operate as the active, subjective heroes (the people the viewer wants to be) and the women are reduced to bodies to be objectified, acted upon by others (the object the viewer wants to possess or act upon).

You can see how this approach would stimulate lots of discussion. It’s an inherently heterocentric reading: what about queer women watching these female, sexualised bodies on screen? What about queer men watching and wanting to possess and be the male subject? And is it really useful to use this fairly fucked up psychoanalytic approach to cinema which boils everything down to sex? Whether you dig Mulvey’s approach or not, she certainly started people talking – in loud and quite excited ways – about the way cinema constructs stories and images of bodies and people, and she invited us to critique assumptions about gender and power in cinema studies. Which can only be a good thing.

Now I don’t have much patience with psychoanalysis as a tool for analysing film and performance. I don’t think it works, mostly because it boils everything down to sex, and I think that this approach tells us a lot more about 19th century middle class Austrian men than about cinema. But I do think there are some interesting starting points, here. And I want to apply them to dance. Because that is what I do. I’m also interested in the way vernacular dances – on-stage and off – allow the audiences and performers to interact, in a way that cinema does not. In a dance performance, the sexualised body (be it male or female) is capable of physically, verbally and discursively interacting with the audience whose gaze they’ve invited. I think this adds a really interesting and exciting element to the fairly dull model of visual pleasure.

…I have to mention, much of this discussion draws – in a fairly long distance way – on Judith Butler’s talk about gender performance in Gender Trouble. If I had room, I’d go into that, and then into transgender performance, but I don’t think any of us could be bothered with that now. Another time perhaps.

It’s tempting to leap into a discussion about burlesque here. But I’ve done that already (in this post ‘My concerns about burlesque’), and I’m kind of over it. I want to talk about something new. I want to remind people that it’s not only women who are sexualised and men who are sexualising. Just as Mulvey was a starting point for discussions of cinema, I want to move on from talking about sexualising women’s bodies in dance (in the context of contemporary swing dance culture) and talk about sexualising men’s bodies.

I’d like to pause here, and note that I once delivered a conference paper on the sexualised male body in blues dance performance. I was squished, once again, into a panel that featured no other dance talk. In fact, I was after a woman talking about child rape and sexualised children and before a woman talking about literature by women who’ve survived rape. The crowd was all women, with one or two scared young men, and these were hardcore queer studies women, who were absolutely disinterested in men. Sexually, socially or academically.
At one point during my paper, as I began a section discussing the appeal of a young, well-muscled man performing a highly sexualised solo blues routine, I thought “aw fuck.” Needless to say, my lines about the pleasures of gazing upon Falty’s fine young frame and his own pleasure in his body and performance did not go down well.

But, then, this is the point of it all. We are not all watching cinema in the same way. Each text yields – encourages! – a range of viewing positions and ways of looking.

But let’s pause and consider the clip with which I tried to excite those angry lesbian separatists:


The nice thing about this clip… well, hells, there are plenty of nice things about this clip. But the one I most prefer is the way solo dance is more accommodating of a queer gaze than partner dance. In fact, solo dance gives us a chance to side step heteronormativity. Here is a young, healthy man dancing for his own pleasure, and engaging with a range of discourses about gender and sex and sexualised bodies and audiences and performances. He is not anchored to a particular partner (and associated sexual preference). He is autonomous, sexually complete in himself. Which is pretty interesting, as women-as-sexual-object are pretty integral accessories to the heteronormative, hegemonic Man that patriarchy digs.

Despite Mike’s independent display, this is also definitely a performance for an audience – the audience in the room, watching, the audience behind the camera, the other dancers in the performance itself, who are following and imitating his movements. The last is especially interesting: here is a young, white man modelling sexualised dance movements for a range of women and men.

Fascinating, much?

Most importantly, though, Mike’s performance climbs and climbs and climbs, the tension increasing, the sexual show exaggerated and exaggerated until it suddenly tips over. His taking off his shirt is met with screams of delight and excitement, embarrassment, laughter, clapping – all the lovely responses this sort of display requires. It’s not until we see his grin that we are let in on the joke. He knows that this is exaggerated play, and we are allowed to see that he both enjoys the attention (as he should – this is the point of it all, right? Pleasure in being the object/subject as well as pleasure for the observer?) and has performed for us. He doesn’t quite slip out out of character, but it’s very clear that this has all been framed as performance. It’s not, for example, a real performance of sexual invitation. … is it?

[Note: understanding the difference between real sexual invitation and, well, just being there in your body, is something a lot of men have trouble with. They assume that all women are constantly available. If they are outside their homes (or inside them), wearing revealing clothing (or not)… hellz, just breathing. I feel the urge to explore the currently-raging slutwalk debate, but I don’t have the energy. But I would like to link to this article to suggest my concerns about the topic.

But all this makes it clear that we cannot compare male and female sexualised performance in a cultural vacuum. We need to remember context. And for me, that is patriarchy.]

Well, the point of my using this clip here is to say, well, fuck. That conference paper failed. Can you see how it went down awfully in that session? Right. Framing is everything for this sort of show.

So let me show you three other clips. They’re all blues dancing performances. Two are partner blues, one is solo blues. But to frame that one as ‘solo’ blues is a little misleading. The most successful of these types of solo blues ‘battles’ or competitions rely, utterly, on engagement between competitors, and between competitors and audience. Visual play, but also aural and oral engagement. Between dancers and audience, but also between musicians and dancers. There is no solo in solo blues competitions. Not if you’re doing it right. This is not a self-contained performance of sexual immanence. It’s a battle, a demonstration, a performance of sexualised movement which requires interaction. Demands it. This is the call; you bring the response.

I’ll begin with that other solo performance, then. This is the solo blues final from the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown in New Orleans, 2009. I’m most interested in the first minute of the competition. You might be interested in the rest, to compare the male and female performers/performances, but I just want to talk about the men, here. Though I have to note: it is rare to find men in solo blues comps. And their style is very, very different to the women’s. And don’t get me started on the whole not wearing shoes thing.


That particular dancer is Dax Hock. He’s been a professional dancer and performer for years, and, obviously, possesses the mad skills. I like the way he engages with the other (women) performers, and the way he displays his body (and mad skills) to the audience. This is at once a highly sexualised male body, but also a very professional demonstration of performance and dance skills. He won that competition.

As you watch, listen as well. Listen to the audience’s response. To the band and consider the way Dax engages with both. This, to my mind, is where the real skill lies.

There are so many things to talk about in this performance. The references to Snake Hips Tucker, a frightening, mesmerising performer. The moments where Dax spreads his legs ridiculously wide, from the hip, suggesting invitation and echoing a woman’s spread legs as invitation for penetration. In a man, this is transgressive: he invites the gaze, the penetration. But it is also aggressively hegemonic masculinity: admire the phallus (down here!). This is sex talk. With the body. He makes eye contact with the audience, with a suggestive/aggressive invitation to admire him (a cocked head, a nod, the eye contact). He repeats this when he turns to address the other competitors, but his more blatant hip thrust (and display) is less a marker of sexual invitation as an invitation to compare sexual/dancing ability in competition. It’s derision dancing at its finest (I’ve written about derision in dance in regards to race and violence in blues music here, and there are links to references there).

The comparison of male and female sex/groin/performance is interesting as well. A man asking a woman to compete with him for the audience’s attention… is he asking the women to compete with him for the male gaze? For a male/female gaze? Really, I think this is where the term ‘queer’ really comes in useful: he’s inviting women to participate as equals (well, as not-quite-equals) in a performance/display/competition to be both sexual object and subject for a male/female/straight/gay/bi queer gaze. He’s fucking up gender norms here.

But it is the music that makes it all wonderful. The song is shouting ‘sex!’, but it’s also shouting ‘humour!’ and ‘laugh!’ and ‘shout!’ and parody and engagement… so many things, so many different points from which to engage with it, that it defies that heteronormative, male gaze narrative. Which is how blues and jazz roll, really. Slippage. It has it. And Dax, wonderfully, extends that aural invitation with his body.

Do note, here, that we are looking at two young, fit, healthy white male bodies. Not too transgressive, huh? But perhaps it is…?

Let’s move on. Here’s something different. Another competition from that same ULHS 2009. This time it’s partner blues. So we see heterosexuality on display. Or do we? As with most of these sorts of dance competitions, I always wonder if the men are really engaging with the other male performers and with the men in the audience (who are also ‘dancers’) more than with the women they dance with.


So let’s look at the point where Peter dances with Ramona. They’re the second couple, entering at about 0.24 (and yes, Todd’s exit, facing them, his back to his own partner, legs spread, does invite some discussion of phallic competition, yes?). The point I like most is at 0.29, where he breaks them into open position – they’re not touching – and he proceeds to perform for her, and ultimately for us within the frame of their heterosexual pairing. Yes, this is for her (and she responds), but ultimately, we all know that this is for us, the people watching and judging. How are we to assess his performance? In part through Ramona’s response to him. She likes it? He must be hot/good. But we’re also invited to see how his sexualised display (more hips, more pelvis) invites her creative response.

With all this to-ing and fro-ing between Peter and other male competitors and the audience, I’m seeing a whole lot of queer, right here. Particularly when you think about the dance partnership as a professional, working creative partnership. It is always implied, but a professional dancing relationship like Ramona and Peter’s, is not necessarily sexualised. So while Peter and Ramona present as a nice, straight couple, they don’t work that way on every level. So they become available for a little queer co-opting.

The best part of reading on the slant like this, is that I’m pretty sure the men involved wouldn’t be comfortable with my reading them this way. Straight man panics! omg! they might think I’m gay! I’d better butch up! And NSFW!! there’s nothing queerer than the hypermasculine, right? SFW Right? And I have a feeling they’d be equally uncomfortable with the thought of straight and queer women and straight and queer men (let alone transfolk) finding this queering hot.

Here, a short aside. There’s nothing new about straight women imagining straight male pairings as gay. Queering them. Camille Bacon Smith writes about it in her book Enterprising Women, in relation to Spock/Kurk slash. Personally, I enjoy the thought of Sam and Dean Winchester as secret boyfriends. And I’m not alone. But for me, the real pleasure lies not so much in what they actually do together in this imaginary sexual(ised) relationship, but in the thought of their queering – their fucking up – the heternormative world. I like imagining that Dean and Sam have whole lives beyond the television episodes we see. And this enriches what I do see on screen.

I mean, to make alternative readings of women and women’s sexuality work, we have to have alternative masculinities as well. It’s the subversion, the transgression, the rule breaking and naughtiness that I find so appealing. I especially like the way we can read against the grain this way and no one can stop us.

But let me give you one final clip. This one is another partnered blues performance. But it’s not in a competition. So there’s display, but not the same sense of competitiveness.


This one is interesting for the fact that this is a white woman dancing with a black man. There are all sorts of discussions about the young African American man as hypersexualised ‘buck’ to be explored here (check out Donald Bogle’s work on stereotypes of black American identity for a starting place). But I don’t have the references to hand. But I do think it’s cool to see the way this performance subverts that mythology. Here is a young black man with seriously mad dance skills. He has brilliant control. We can see culturally specific as well as gendered movements and bodily awareness at work here. But they are working together as partners. The difference in style is what makes this work. The humour – the parts where we laugh or smile at the jokes – defuse the sexual tension, but at the same time heighten it. It’s the adrenaline and chemical high of laughing that makes us feel good, and we’re more likely to read sexualised subtext as sexualised if we’re feeling good. Or so the theory goes.

This is my favourite partnered blues dance performance. I like the humour, it reflects the things I like about a lot of blues music. I love the use of solo and traditional jazz steps. I adore the use of tango rhythms and styling, as tango was massively popular at the same time as blues music in the 1920s. This is recorded music, not a live band, but it’s a modern performance – Winton Marsalis – covering Jelly Roll Morton’s song ‘New Orleans Bump’. Marsalis himself suggests an engagement with race and ethnicity (though he never seems to gain any sense of reflexivity about gender and sexuality!). And Jelly Roll Morton? Well. He’s all about braggadocio and sexualised masculine performance.

There’s lots more to say about all these. But I think I want to end here, pointing out that my favourite parts of all these are:

  • The male bodies (rather than female) presented for an eroticised gaze.
    Men are presented (and presenting themselves) as sexual objects as well as subjects. I think that this transgression is a useful model not only for other male dancers, but for women dancers as well. As I said on FB, these guys make it clear that the sisters need to put their shoes on and get their action in gear.
  • The invitation to play and to laugh is central to the sexualised display.
    Laughter is about rule breaking. It interrupts power and control. It is power and control. For many women, their greatest fear is being laughed at or ridiculed because they aren’t sexy/beautiful/young/skinny/white/whatever enough. I think that we can gain some sense of self power to engage with the humour in an assertive way. Combining humour and dance is very difficult. It requires a great deal of skill and confidence. Why not model our dancing on the example set by men, and then twist it, queer it, to undo the traditional gender and power dynamics?
  • It’s all about breaking rules.
    I really, really like performances which break rules. I don’t like to see people hurt or humiliated. I do like to see assumptions about what is ‘proper’ tipped upside down. I do like to be surprised. Patriarchy is boring. Heteronormativity is dull. I want to be entertained. And these are performances. If I’m going to stop dancing and sit down for 3 minutes (or longer), you need to make it worth my while.
  • It moves us away from the boring, stupid idea of sexualised performance embodied in boring second rate burlesque. Yes, ladies, there are other ways of being powerful, sexually, than just presenting your body like a big present for male audiences.

Do, please, go on and seek out other images of men dancing that subvert the hetero stuff. There’s plenty about, from both present day dancers and historic dances. Why not start with these:

[EDIT: I would really like to engage with the race stuff in the final clip, but I don’t feel I’m properly up to date on the literature, so I’d just be bullshitting my way through. But race is absolutely central to this stuff. Contemporary American swing dance culture (accommodating all the related dances) is dominated by white, middle class young people. Dancing dances that developed in black working class and working poor American communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This has to be addressed, if we are talking power.]


Bacon Smith, Camille, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth, Pennsylvania Press: USA, 1992.

Bogle, Donald, Uncle Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films, Viking Press: USA, 1973.
(this topic is introduced in the chapter ‘Origins of Black Body Politics’ of Jackson’s book)

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge: USA, 1990.

Jackson, Ronald L, Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics in Popular Media, Suny: USA, 2006.

Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975): pg 6-18.

LOLMulvey image from alibosworth

LOLFreud image from you are doing that wrong

-> both c/o LOLTHEORISTS

LOLButler image from thrownoverboard

I hate the capitalist system, or DJing blues

Last night I did a blues set for the first time in a while, and it was the first time in ages that I feel I did a decent job. It was easier this time because we weren’t in the huge, high-ceilinged, cold room, but in a smaller, lower-ceilinged, darker room where the couches were right in there. I like an L-shaped room for this sort of thing, but only if the couches are in the little ‘leg’ of the L and the dancing in the main part. We also had a better sound system – one that used a proper mixer rather than just plugging straight into the speaker (!!!).

The space made a big difference to me, but it was even more important for the dancers, who could actually get into the songs emotionally. I saw a lot more movement with emotional commitment, or at least movement that was dancing rather than just moving about on the dance floor. There also seemed to be better communication between the partners, which was also nice to see. Once again there were too few leads, but this lead to lots of talking and fun-having by the women standing about on the side lines, which was a relief. But I’d still like to see more women leading to forestall this problem. Guess we need some good role modelling, huh?

Speaking of role modelling, in this post I’m going to explore the themes of the lyrics and delivery of the songs I played, as well as how they worked in the room. They are all pretty hardcore, politically speaking.

Here’s the set I played:
Friday 6 May 2011, 9.50-10:50

I’m Feeling Alright – Big Mama Thornton – Ball N’ Chain – 111 – 1968 – 3:00

Sleep in Late – Molly Johnson – Another Day – 87 – 2002 – 2:48

Built for Comfort – Taj Mahal In Progress & In Motion (1965-1998) – 98 – 1998 – 4:46

Ballin’ the Jack – Mona’s Hot Four (Dennis Lichtman, Gordon Webster, Cassidy Holden, Nick Russo, Jesse Selengut, Dan Levinson) – Live at Mona’s – 111 – 2009 – 5:27

Reckless Blues – Louis Armstrong and his All Stars (Velma Middleton, Trummy Young Edmund Hall, Billy Kyle, Everett Barksdale, Squire Gersh, Barrett Deems) – The Complete Decca Studio Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars (disc 06) – 88 – 1957 – 2:30

Come Easy Go Easy – Rosetta Howard acc. by the Harlem Blues Serenaders (Charlie Shavers, Buster Bailey, Lil Armstrong, Ulysses Livingston, Wellman Brand, O’Neil Spencer) – Rosetta Howard (1939-1947) – 90 – 1939 – 3:03

Moaning The Blues – Victoria Spivey acc by Henry ‘Red’ Allen, JC Higginbotham, Teddy Hill, Luis Russell – Henry Red Allen And His New York Orchestra (disc 1) – 97 – 1929 – 3:07

I Ain’t No Ice Man – Cow Cow Davenport with Joe Bishop, Sam Price, Teddy Bunn, Richard Fullbright – History of the Blues (disc 02) – 89 – 1938 – 2:51

Amtrak Blues – Alberta Hunter (acc by Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson, Fran Wess, Norris Turney, Billy Butler, Gerald Cook, Aaron Bell, Jackie Williams) – Amtrak Blues – 95 – 1978 – 3:24

Back Water Blues – Belford Hendricks’ Orchestra with Dinah Washington – Ultimate Dinah Washington – 71 – 1957 – 4:58

Cherry Red – Big Joe Turner, Joe Newman, Lawrence Brown, Pete Brown, Frank Wess, Pete Johnson, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Cliff Leeman – The Boss Of The Blues – 96 – 1956 – 3:25

Sweet Home Chicago – David “Honeyboy” Edwards – Sun Records – The Blues Years, 1950 – 1958 CD4 – 112 – 3:01

Knock on wood – Ike And Tina Turner – The Ike & Tina Turner Archive Series : Hits & Classics Vol.1 – 119 – 1998 – 2:31

Hound Dog – Big Mama Thornton – Very Best Of – 76 – 2:52

Backlash Blues – Nina Simone – Nina Simone Sings the Blues – 78 – 1967 – 2:32
Things are Slow – Barbara Dane – I Hate the Capitalist System – 91 – 4:17

3 O’clock In The Morning Blues – Ike and Tina Turner Putumayo Presents: Mississippi Blues – 64 – 1969 – 2:40

Sugar Blues – Preservation Hall – The Hurricane Sessions – 61 – 2007 – 5:02

I came in with that Big Mama Thornton song because it usually works: loud, high energy, lots of fun, hi-fi. But that wasn’t quite right in this darker, more mellow room. I was a bit nervy, though, and felt a bit out of practice, so I went with something I’d tried before.

Followed up with Molly Johnson because it’s a good change. It went down a lot better than the Thornton, but I still wasn’t happy. The floor filled up, though.

Taj Mahal after that, and that worked well. Though it still felt a bit loud and shouty, it did go down quite well. I do like the way he’s singing about being built for comfort, not speed:

Some folks built like this,
Built like that,
Don’t you howl at me, don’t you call me fat!
You know I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed.
Oh, sweet papa Earl, got everything sweet mama need.

Then a song by Mona’s Hot Four, which I adore. It went down surprisingly well for something which is quite long, quite emotionally intense (though not as serious as some). It was nice to move towards a banjo/piano/group impro sound. Also, I really dig that Gordon Webster (piano)/Jesse Selengut (vocal) combination. ‘Balling the Jack’ is a dance, but it’s also a sexual euphemism.

Because people seemed to be ok with the more serious, intense sound, I decided to slow it down and head towards some saucier, slower old school stuff. This Armstrong modern All Star stuff is good for that. I overplay this song in blues, which is kind of ok because there really isn’t a repertoire of ‘favourites’ or ‘overplayed’ songs in Sydney blues yet. I think dancers need something familiar when they’re only beginning to get into social dancing, and the Sydney blues scene is really only just finding its feet again. Reckless Blues is sung by a woman, about being a woman who takes risks. Romantic/sexual ones by implication (and the feel of the music), but the broader theme is that this is a woman who does as she likes.

Then Rosetta Howard. This is where I really wanted to be. I don’t get to play this sort of scratchy blues here in Sydney much, mostly because we tend to use venues with fucked up sound systems. But this is my blues dancing and DJing happy place. Check out the band in that song. Wowsers!
‘Come Easy Go Easy’ is about having money that comes easy, goes easy – spending money freely, whether it’s your own or your man’s.

Then, finally, I get to play Moanin The Blues for dancers! Best song ever! Of all time! It went down a treat, which was very nice. It is, of course, about a man who’s no good, and gets a good telling off. But it’s also a song about sex. And being really good at it.

Now you talk about the black snake blues,
Well you haven’t heard no moanin’ yet,
ooohhh yeah
aaaall day long
And when you hear this moanin’,
This moanin you will never forget.

aaaaiiiii oooo
mmmmm- mmmmmm
Well I know I can moan,
I don’t see how I lost my happy home.

Well it was on a Sunday mornin’,
I didn’t feel so good
I felt like a cow when she has lost her cud,
I began a moanin’
all day long.

And when you hear me a moanin’
You can bet sweet mama feel good.

aaaaiiiii oooo
mmmmm- mmmmmm
Lord I know I can moan,
I don’t see how I lost my home.

Well I’m the only one in my family
to take a biscuit to pieces
put back just how it was,
Oh, when I’m moanin’,
all day long.
Yes, I can kick my leg high,
and you oughtta see me do the bug.

aaaaiiiii oooo
mmmmm- mmmmmm

After that I had a feeling the dancers had kind of used up their scratch song skills, and would need a change of pace. So I played this last one (I Ain’t No Ice Man), and had considered following up with Butterbeans and Susie then going to C W Stoneking’s duet stuff, but aborted at the last minute. That Stoneking stuff really isn’t very good, and it would look particularly bad next to the Butterbeans and Susie stuff, which is very good.

The lyrics to this song are fairly standard blokey bravado about sexual prowess, but in this context, where I’m focussing on women vocalists and women’s feelings about sex and men, it changes the implication. Less all about men, and just one man’s contribution to a wider discussion about sex:

I ain’t no iceman,
I ain’t no iceman’s son
I ain’t no iceman,
I ain’t no iceman’s son,
but I can keep you cool
until the iceman comes

I ain’t no woodchopper,
I ain’t not woodchopper’s son,
I ain’t no woodchopper,
I ain’t not woodchopper’s son,
but babe, I can chop your kindlin,
until the woodchopper comes.

Baby, I ain’t no stoveman,
I ain’ no stoveman’s son,
Baby, I ain’t no stoveman,
I ain’ no stoveman’s son,
but I can keep you heated up,
baby til the stoveman comes.

Baby, I ain’t no butcher,
and I ain’t no butcher’s son,
I ain’t no butcher,
I ain’t no butcher’s son,
But I can promise you plenty a meat,
baby til the butcher comes.

I ain’t no milkman,
I ain’t no milkman’s son,
I ain’t no milkman,
I ain’t no milkman’s son,
But I can promise you plenty a cream,
baby til that milkman comes.

So I changed it up completely. Sort of. Alberta Hunter is a good transition because she was there in the 20s, singing that sort of old school blues, so her delivery is just right – a mix of extremely dirty and sly humour. But this is a hi-fi song with a bit of a grooving feel. It also feels like the song wants you to move around the floor. Which is appropriate, considering it’s about the Amtrak rail. But that’s a contrast to the previous few songs, which make me feel like standing on the spot working some action.

Amtrak Blues is about a woman whose man has left her, and who’s feeling really bad….mostly:

Some body come here and help me
help me, cause the man I love is gone,
Some body come here and help me
help me, cause the man I love is gone,
I’m so confused and worried,
I can hardly carry on.

Trouble and dark days,
Can’t last always,
So I’ll keep on strugglin’,
I know I’ll see brighter days
(aside: please help me, somebody! Help me!)

My two sisters told me
other people tried to tell me too
(oh lord, yes)
I said my sisters told me

Oh, they said
You don’t change your way of living,
that very man’s gonna be the death of you.

I know he’s ornery, he’s selfish
He’s the type of man that just don’t care,
I know he’s ornery, he’s selfish
he’s the type of man that just don’t care
oh, he’d pawn the holy bible, just to get his Amtrak fare,

I love him, yes I love him
Oh I love him, and I don’t mind dying
I love him, yes I love him
love him, and I don’t mind dying,

I ever run across him,
Gonna crack his head and drink his blood like wine

In typical Hunter style, if she ends up finding the man who’s left her, she’ll have her revenge. The song is really good because Hunter adds lots of ‘help me, help me’, and ‘oh lord, lord, help me!’ so you really feel her suffering. The tension builds, until the final line, which is perhaps doubt a Hunter addition. But the musical tone is a bit higher energy – this isn’t a slow, dragging dirge. We feel her suffering, but then the final line tips it all on its head, and we realise it was actually a song about how horrid he is, so that we feel for her, and when, in the final, climactic moment, she declares she’ll break his head and drink his blood like wine, we want to yell out “YES!”

Back Water Blues was perhaps not quite right here. I think I was too deep in my headphones and previewing to properly judge the mood in the room. But people were into the hi-fi, the more modern sound, and they were ok with the more intense feeling of the song. This picture of Dinah Washington is perhaps the least appropriate possible for this song, but it’s a great pic…

Back Water Blues is a Bessie Smith song, about the flooding in the south, and how it affected the poor and black folk of the area. There are quite a few songs about flooding, and they really took on greater significance after Hurricane Katrina: things hadn’t changed much in a hundred years. This one really is a sad song, despairing. It’s a woman singing about the awful things that have happened to her:

When it rains five days
and the skies turn dark as night,
When it rains five days
and the skies turn dark as night,
Then trouble’s takin’ place
in the lowlands at night.

I woke up this mornin’,
can’t even get out of my door,
I woke up this mornin’,
can’t even get out of my door,
There’s been enough trouble
to make a poor girl wonder where she want to go.

Then they rowed a little boat
‘Bout five miles ‘cross the pond,
Then they rowed a little boat
‘Bout five miles ‘cross the pond,
I packed all my clothes,
throwed them in
and they rowed me along.

When it thunders and lightnin’,
and when the wind begins to blow,
When it thunders and lightnin’,
and when the wind begins to blow,
There’s thousands of people
ain’t got no place to go.

Then I went and stood upon
some high old lonesome hill,
Then I went and stood upon
some high old lonesome hill,
Then looked down on the house,
were I used to live.

Backwater blues
done call me to pack my things and go,
Backwater blues
done call me to pack my things and go,
‘Cause my house fell down
and I can’t live there no more.

Mmm, I can’t move no more
Mmm, I can’t move no more
There ain’t no place for a poor old girl to go

Then I played that neat version of Cherry Red, which I should have played after Amtrak Blues. Same ‘moving’ feeling, a little higher tempo, hi-fi. Brilliant musicians: Big Joe Turner, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Pete Johnson, etc. I like the way Turner invites his woman:

Now you can take me,
Pretty mama,
Jump me in your Hollywood bed,
And eagle rock me baby
‘Til my face turns cherry red.

The eagle rock is a dance step, but I like the way it also works as a metaphor here. And I like it that he’s inviting a woman to take him; he’s inviting a (sexually) assertive woman.

Anyway, that song went down really well.

Then I changed it up again with that version of Sweet Home Chicago, which has a nice guitar sound, and again, that walking feeling. It’s a familiar song, but not a version most people would hear. I like the way the vocals match Joe Turner’s: big, shouty, kind of intense.

By now people were kind of getting tired. So I chucked in Knock On Wood to change things up. I love early Ike and Tina Turner. Tina’s shouting matches the previous two. I could perhaps have gone with something a little less soul and a little more blues from their repertoire, but this one has the familiarity factor. It went down well, upped the energy in the room, and got all the women standing about up and dancing together.

Hound Dog. Even I’m a bit sick of this. But it’s a good transition. More shouting women. This time, a bit slower, and more in that proper blues vein.

Backlash Blues, because this is a good transition from soul to blues. It has that same walking feeling. I almost went straight to this from Knock on Wood. I think I should have. But it’s a bit lower energy than Hound Dog, so we would have dropped down too quickly. And I wanted just a bit more fun/familiar/energy stuff before I switched gears down to more intense, slower blues.

I also love this song because it’s hardcore 60s politics. I remember some guy in Melbourne once telling me that this song isn’t political at all. Dickhead. I mean, a) Nina Simone, hardcore activist, and b), the title – Backlash Blues! Here are the lyrics (which I think were co-written with Langston Hughes, or at least borrowing his lyrics):

Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just who do think I am
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
And send my son to Vietnam

You give me second class houses
And second class schools
Do you think that alla colored folks
Are just second class fools
Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues

When I try to find a job
To earn a little cash
All you got to offer
Is your mean old white backlash
But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown
Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues

Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just what do you think I got to lose
I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues
You’re the one will have the blues
Not me, just wait and see

Then something new for me – Barabara Dane, singing seriously hardcore 60s politics. I LOVE her voice, and play one of her songs for lindy hoppers a lot (with Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band). This song from the album ‘I Hate the Capitalist System’ is a perfect transition from Backlash Blues. Almost exactly the same rhythm/beat, but a bit lighter and more humorous with some cool organ action in there. It’s a proper blues song, with serious politics, but also that 60s folk music politics. And Dane’s voice. YES. This song went down really, really well, which is very pleasing, as I like it a lot.

Then some slower, more intense Ike and Tina Turner, because I wanted to bring it down a bit again. And then I closed with Sugar Blues, which is slower, and quite intense, but a bit funny as well, so the next DJ could go anywhere, really.

Overall, it was a fun set. It’s a pleasure playing blues, because the music can be so subversive. Women singing about sex, men singing about finding assertive women attractive, labour politics, race politics, being poor, being angry, the effects of flooding on the poor…. It’s the sort of stuff that blues music does well. It’s the emotional balance to swing, which is all about partying. Blues songs are about feeling shit, and then singing a song (and telling a story) to share your feelings, garner support from your friends, and then stomp those blues til you feel better.

pop culture, jazz and ethnicity.

NB: I’ve done some edits on this post for the shocking grammar/mistypes. Apologies.
In the 1930s and 40s – most particularly the 40s – jazz was mainstream music. It was popular. Though it had been discussed in a range of specialist magazines and periodicals (including Down Beat and Metronome) for years, the mid-40s saw mainstream publications like Life, Look and the men’s magazine Esquire publishing stories and photos about jazz and hiring writers to produce jazz reviews. I think it’s worth noting the point that Esquire was a men’s magazine, that almost all the jazz promoters and managers were men, and that almost all jazz instrumentalists were male.
(Norman Granz from the Verve site)
This mainstreaming of jazz is interesting. It was also a challenge for jazz afficianados who were committed to raising the profile and status of jazz musicians as artists. Reading about Norman Granz, I’ve come across this discussion:

Beginning with the first jam sessions he organized and extending through two decades of JATP concerts, tours, and records, Granz applied three rules. The musicians he hired would be paid well; there would be no dancing at his events; and there could be no segregation on either the bandstand or in the audiences. The first of these rules responded to exploitative club owners and promoters. The second institutionalized a trend that was already familiar from other attempts to establish jazz as an art, a concert music. The third rule was most important, because it recognized the limitations of previous efforts to mix the look of jazz- efforts that had relied on an optimistic trickle-down theory of cultural-social change. Granz’s third rule attempted to ensure consumption as an act of resistance to racist conventions; it tried to direct attention both to the relation of individual consumers to the producers of the music they consumed and to the relations between individual, and perhaps different consumers of the same musical product (26).

It’s interesting to see how Granz’s efforts to raise the status of jazz as art coincided with his anti-segregation and anti-racism efforts. The popular served as ‘low’ culture, and low culture is where black musicians were situated. It’s this equating of segregation with popular culture which I find really interesting. I’m also paying attention to the way jazz is ‘artified’ by various discourses.
Today jazz in Australia has been thoroughly canonised, stuffed into the ‘elite’ or ‘art’ category. It is not popular music. ‘Modern’ jazz is ‘difficult art’, ‘classic jazz’ is daggy and something for old white people. The issue of race works in a different way: there are no black artists in the jazz bands I see at Australian dances, besides the occasional female singer. This is in part because Australian multiculturalism works in a different way to American. But I also think that these efforts to ‘artify’ jazz has effectively distanced it from anyone other than white musicians and white jazznick fans.
This is just a first thought, so please don’t take it as any final argument or position. But it’s making me wonder about ethnicity and class in Australian jazz. We were, after all, segregated as well. And we did have a White Australia immigration policy. I haven’t begun any work on Australian jazz, but I’m wondering how the contemporary jazz landscape looks, in terms of race and gender?
It’s also important to note that there’s a general undercurrent in much of the critical work on jazz that I’m reading (critical in the ‘theorised’ sense rather than ‘reviewing records’ sense) that bebop was far more challenging and engaged with race politics in America than swing. There’s also some provocative stuff about masculinity and black masculinity in the literature on bebop).

(another Gjon Mili photo from his Life magazine series)
Additionally, I’m noticing that the ‘jam session’ is acquiring mythic status throughout all the jazz literature. This is where jazz musicians (regardless of colour or class) could come together and just play, for hours or days, in ‘safe’ clubs or back rooms. The implication is of course that in jam sessions musicians were ‘free’ and in staged performances they were ‘caged’ by social convention.
My spidey sense is tingling. If these jam sessions were so free and liberal, where are the sisters? Who’s home looking after the kids or grandmothers so these uncaged tigers can jam the blues all night? You know, of course, that this brings us back to the role of gender in jazz, and in jazz journalism. And to my central research interest: the relationship between different media within a community… or in constructing community.
Knight, Arthur, “Jammin’ the Blues: or the Sight of Jazz, 1944”. Representing Jazz, ed. Krin Gabbard. Duke U Press: Durham and London, 1995. 11-53.
An earlier post on magazines and jazz
An even earlier post on magazines, jazz and masculinity