Category Archives: music

My dance work, right now.

Who wants an update on the things I’m doing right now in dancing? Yeah, we all do!

Late last year my teaching partners and I decided to relaunch our weekly dance classes as an independent business. We used to teach with a big dance school, Swing Patrol (which is run from Melbourne), but we wanted a more local focus, and to have greater creative control over our projects and direction as an organisation. And business.

So in 2014 we announced Swing Dance Sydney (boring name, right? But it gives good googles), and then on the 14th February 2015, we launched our new business with a party. Right now, three months in, things are going very nicely.

We were, obviously, nervous about the new plan. Despite the fact that we’d been running our classes successfully for three years and had lots of experience with other dance stuff. I was particularly nervous, as I’m the general manager for the business (which is registered in my name). I do have a lot of experience running dance events and projects (you can see them all here), but it’s still a challenge, right?
Anyhow, I did a lot of research into tax, registering a business, labour relations and so on (you can read a bit about that in Making a Dance business and The business of lindy hop), and discovered that going legit isn’t that difficult.
I’ve actually found the whole process really empowering – it’s made me feel confident and capable. There is this idea in the lindy hop world that not declaring your teaching/DJing/event income, or not getting proper insurance, or not registering a business name is a way of saving money or fighting the man or whatevs. But I’ve discovered that you don’t actually lose money, and you do actually safeguard your business and your own body (insurance!) If you are teaching for someone else, friends, you MUST discover whether they have work cover for you. They are breaking the law if they don’t, and you are missing out on important insurance that will cover injuries, etc.

So what does my business do?

1. We teach dance.
We teach weekly classes in lindy hop. We also teach solo dance, but these are on hold for the moment as I hunt down a new venue. We miss the solo real bad!

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Though I’ve listed the classes first, this is only one part of what we do. And I’d like to rework the business ‘brand’ or identity to reflect the broader interests of the people involved.

2. We run irregular parties with live music on a Wednesday night called Swinging at the PBC.

I adore these. We have run 5 already, and have another planned for the 8th April, and I’m looking at one for May for Frankie Manning’s birthday. I began just by using visiting bands, but now I’m branching out, and using this as a chance to foster relationships with local musicians.

We teach in a licensed venue (the Petersham Bowling Club), which has a fantastic approach to live music, to servicing and participating in the local community, to environmental responsibility, and to fostering creativity. That’s us, that last part. They let us put on bands whenever we like, and they help us promote them. They are also really great people that we love working with. Most importantly, the venue has a bistro, an outdoor area (because bowling), and a good vibe – it feels friendly.

I am currently very keen on running social dancing in proper social spaces. I know it’s great to have heaps of room or a great floor in a studio or hall, but in those spaces there is nothing to do but dance. If you’re not dancing, you feel like you’re missing out. Or you’re just plain bored. There’s nowhere to escape the music and talk. This vibe encourages the idea that you have to say yes to every dance, that if someone says no to your dance invite you suck, because heck, isn’t that why we’re all there?
In a proper social space, you make it clear that dancing is only one of the things we do here – we also talk, we eat, we drink, we take a breather outside, we play pool or pinball, we lean on the bar and people watch. Because it’s the Peebs, it’s also totally ok to sit and read a book! If someone does ask you to dance, you can say “No thanks, I’m just enjoying this nice cool beverage,” or “Sorry, I’m waiting on a pizza!” or even, “Hey no thanks, I’m not dancing tonight – just chillin’.”

When you get used to hearing people say no thanks to your invites, you get used to the idea that it’s not all about you. People have all sorts of good reasons for not dancing. And you have to be ok with that. Especially you, men: you’re not the centre of our world. But you women, you can also be ok with the idea that if you’re not dancing, you’re still ok. You don’t have to dance (or be a ‘good dancer’) to be having a good time at a party.

We already know how to be in a pub or a bar or a restaurant, so we don’t have to teach people how to beahve at a social dance in these spaces. When we use a proper social space, we make dancing more accessible to ‘non-dancers'; we encourage people in, and we embed our culture more comfortably into the wider community. This whole approach undoes the weirdo shit that encourages ‘rock star’ dancer behaviour, makes it easier for women to enforce their own personal limits and bodily autonomy, and encourages dancers generally to think of dancing as just one of the things we do, not the most important thing. And, most importantly, it makes our dance scene more accessible for musicians.
Incidentally, I’ve noticed that having a smaller dance floor makes for better floor craft – our students keep their feet under themselves, are less likely to kick you, and are better at judging the end of the ‘string’ (ie the amount of stretch or distance between partners). A big or uncrowded space makes you less economical in your use of space, right?

These parties attract between 60 and 90 people, cost $15, and run 6.30-11pm.
The early night is good for a week night, the smaller crowd is good for socialising (in this smaller venue), and I approach these events as regular, and so contributing to the infrastructure of the local dance scene.
You would dress neat casual, you’d come for dinner, you’d expect to talk and hear very good music.

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3. We run monthly DJed parties (first Saturday of the month) called Harlem.

This is a collaboration with another organiser/teacher friend, Sharon Hanley who runs Swing Time Australia. We decided to run a regular DJed night because we missed DJing together (we used to DJ at her fortnightly event Swing at the Roxbury), and we missed it!
We decided to have a DJed night (rather than live music) because we wanted to DJ. I was keen to have an event with decent DJed music that focussed on classic swinging jazz. There are two other regular DJed events in Sydney, but the music is patchy at one, and the other is more a neo-swing/rock n roll event. I feel that it’s important to play the original music from the 20s, 30s, and 40s because Count Basie is important. Duke Ellington’s band is important. Ella Fitzgerald’s voice is important. It’s also cheaper (and less risky) to be our own DJs.

This event is also run in a licensed venue that has a restaurant. The space isn’t tiny, but the dance floor isn’t enormous. The space is a ‘mixed use’ space, with chairs and tables and a dance floor (and a great piano!), and it’s near public transport and has parking. And it’s not a shitty, grotty divey nightclub.

Again, this is a regular event. People have asked if we’ll be running it fortnightly, but, to be honest, we’re both busy with other projects as well. And I figure this way we leave a space open in the calendar for someone else to run something – diversity is important! Sharing the workload is too :D

These parties attract between 70 and 100 people (I expect this to get larger), cost $10, and run 8pm-midnight.
This is a slightly larger crowd, but not enormous. A ‘ball’ in Sydney can attract between 150 and 200 people, so we’re actually at the higher end of the scale. A really big cross-scene event can attract 700 people in Sydney, but we aren’t targeting the whole neo-swing/rock n roll/lindy hop/vintage cross over crowd.
We are encouraging vintage wear for Harlem, a slightly dressier vibe than the PBC gigs, and you would again come for a drink, perhaps dinner, and a night out, talking, dancing, socialising.

4. We do private classes, wedding privates, and corporate gigs.
For the money, and to offer extra learning opportunities for students. But we don’t promote them aggressively.

And that’s what Swing Dance Sydney does now. I’ve been looking at running a larger weekend event (Jazz BANG), but I’m still sorting that out.
I did consider running a big evening dance and workshop day for Frankie’s birthday, but I’ve since moved on from that idea. I figure it’s more important to consolidate the Swinging at the PBC nights as proper party nights, and to use our venue in a more concentrated way. It’s a good space, it’s super cheap to hire, and it’s well serviced.

In my previous role as and event organiser and administrator for Swing Patrol, I ran about 5 huge events every year. While they were fun and successful and everything, I began to feel they were big events for the sake of big events, and that the focus (financial, energy, creative, etc) on these resulted in neglect for regular social dancing. In other words, these big events became THE thing, and the focus of the whole organisation was on its hierarchy. It positioned the school as THE organising body, discouraging dancers from thinking of themselves as organisers and trying their own smaller projects. Even more simply put, the only model for ‘a dance event’ was a huge big thing that required the machinery of a big organisation to work. And this leviathan replaced or overshadowed other, more sustainable smaller projects. Really, though, as a keen social dancer, I want to be able to social dance every week, if not multiple times per week. A big, expensive dance every couple of months doesn’t meet that need.

I feel that regular, smaller scale events or parties do more to develop the social dancing skills and culture of a dance scene. Its social and cultural infrastructure. This is what vernacular dance IS. It is everyday, ordinary dancing. Emphasising less frequent big events makes social dancing seem like a ‘special’ or unusual thing, and makes most dancers’ experience of lindy hop be a pedagogic, or formal-class type experience. Boooring. This also tends to result in centralised power and status. Teachers become the most important and powerful people in a scene. Dancing becomes ‘rare’ and ‘special’ so it becomes the only focus for a party or ‘dance night’. And this power dynamic is conducive to abuse. Sexual harassment, bullying, exploitation of workers and so on thrive in this sort of environment.

Into the future.
I have a few other plans up my sleeve. In fact, I’ve always got far more plans than I do time or energy.
I’d like to expand my work with bands. This is proving tricky, as it’s expensive to pay bands. The social distance between dancers and bands (we just don’t move in the same circles here – we don’t socialise together!) also makes it difficult to initiate collaborations. Hence my interest in properly social social dancing events and spaces.

I’m doing more DJing this year. I’ve neglected it lately for my organising/administrative work, and I MISS it. I miss the music. I miss fussing over music. I miss the creative challenges and satisfaction of DJing for a crowd. My skills got rusty and I got mournful for it. So I’m back in the game. Harlem is a key part of that. But so is traveling more overseas (because my health finally allows it!)

I’m seeking out interesting dance events.
I’ve been dancing for eighteen years now, and I’m not satisfied by dance events which just slap a couple of dances on the end of 4 hours of chalk-and-talk workshops. I want interesting, creative programs of events.

I think dance events should think more like arts festivals, and offer a more interesting program. As per my thinking about regular social dancing spaces, I think dance weekends need to offer programs and spaces that are more social, but also more creatively interesting and challenging. I want musicians involved. I don’t want teachers to just throw a stack of moves at me in class. I want mixed-level classes that push me to learn new ways of learning. I want to social dance during the day. I want to go to interesting cities. I want events that offer me new ways of interacting with teachers and students and DJs and bands.

This new thinking about dance events is pushing me inexorably towards alternative funding sources. So I’m looking into grants and public funding sources for dance events. I’m not keen on kickstarter or pozible for funding – I want to see what sorts of state, local, and federal funding sources are available.

Feminist work?
I used to worry about being a woman lead and a woman lead teacher. Now I just couldn’t give a fuck. It’s so normal to me now, I just get on and do what I do. I’m also a woman DJ. And a woman event organiser. And a woman website designer. And a woman thinker and writer and reader. I figure it’s much more powerful to treat all this as normal. It’s much more frustrating and confounding for idiot sexists if I just do not accept (or even acknowledge!) the premise of their attacks.

I think of it this way: if you are up and dancing, you are automatically winning. Doesn’t matter how much your dancing sucks. And if your critic is sitting on their clack or crying and shitty about what you’re doing, you are winning twice. You are pwning them. Ha ha, suckers.

I am also thinking that a revised approach to ordinary social dance spaces is part of a feminist project. Because it undoes that teacher-centred, lead-centred, can’t-say-no power dynamic which is fucked up and bad news. Not only do we need to skill up women and remind men to be grown up humans, we also need to construct socially sustainable social spaces that make it easier to be the best we can be.

For me, personally, it’s very satisfying and stimulating to work with other women in an international community that is so male-dominated in so many ways. I really enjoy my professional relationships with women and men in the Sydney dance scene (and overseas and interstate) too. I think that for me, it’s important to be feminist by doing feminist things. I’m a woman too, and I think that it’s important to skill me up too. And to find ways of working that are creatively and personally satisfying. Fighting the good fight is really tiring. So I try not to have to do it in my everyday work. This means that I just say no to working with dicks. It also means that I have to fight an instinct many women have – that we should feel guilty about feeling good and confident.

I’m also very conscious of the fact that I am lucky enough to be able to think this way. I am a white, middle class woman living in an affluent city in a wealthy country. I have access to opportunities that many people do not. And I try to remember this, and to do my best not to let my own pleasure and satisfaction come at the expense of others’.

So, that’s what I’m doing these days. I hope you’re doing dance work and dance fun that you find exciting and stimulating and deeply pleasurable too!

Happy International Women’s Day!

Hey, happy International Women’s Day, friends. In previous years I’ve listed women dancers (2011, 2012, 2013, and in 2014 I was distracted). This year I’ve been too busy to do daily posts, but I did write this on the facey today:

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Happy international women’s day, everyone!

IWD has a nicely worker-centred history (https://unwomen.org.au/iwd/history-international-womens-day), and it’s about celebrating the achievements of the ordinary women around you.

I’m lucky enough to get to work with many, many _extra_ordinary working women in the lindy hop and jazz scene, so I’d like to say THANK YOU to them for be inspiring and encouraging and occasionally mighty fierce!

Thanks to Laura, Bec, and Alice, my co-teachers, who pull out great material and fun, challenging classes. Thanks to Sharon, who said YES to our new Harlem project.
Thank you to Ramona for showing me just how exciting it can be as a woman whose body is an instrument and a source of joy.
Thank you to Marie N’Diaye, for showing me how a fierceness of intellect and of spirit can make for the gentlest and most beautiful dancing.
Thank you to Sylvia Sykes for saying ‘lead or follow?’ when I asked her to dance.
Thank you to Loz for being _determined_ to dance and inspiring me.
Thank you to Lexi who simply expected me to run a business of my own.
Thank you to the women who come to our dance classes and overcome shyness to shake it like queens on the dance floor.
Thank you to Sugar Sullivan for correcting her gender-specific language in one of my first Herrang classes, and saying “Because anyone can lead.”
Thank you to Naomi, Loosha, Justine, Alice, Kat, Manon, Allie, Loz, Fatima, Leru, Superheidi, Bec, Barb, Shaz, Sarah, Naomi, Giselle, Tina, Heather, Mary, Christine, Kate, Kate, Kate, Michelle, Di, Sharon, Peta, Georgia, Jen and the many, many other women DJs who challenge me to bring the shit.
Thank you to Claudia for backing my mad schemes.
Thank you Sarah and the other women who spoke up about sexual assault in our community.
Thank you to Justine for the wickedest sense of humour and solidest DJing and managing skills.
Thank you to that shy young trans girl at fair day who wanted to know about lindy hop but was almost too shy to speak.
Thank you to Marie at the Chicago studio for answering all my emails. Thank you to Hetty Kate for marrying humour and a wicked sense of fun with the best music of all.
Thank you to Eleonora, Jan, Jenny, Elizabeth, Liz, Nurani, Nicola, Julie, Amanda and all the other venue managers who answer all my questions.
Thank you to the women musicians I haven’t met, and won’t, but whose music makes me dance til I drop. Thank you to Lexi, Tina, Kerryn, Megan, Cheryl, Kara, Karen, Leigh, Peta, Sharon, Trish, Trish, Kate, Kate, Cheng, Marybeth, Justine, Olivia, Becky, Sarah, Melinda, Mel, Trudi, Sandy, Vivi, Bethany, Tania, Luna, Fiona, Alice, Lauren, Evelyn, Sing, Sophie, Emma, Nikki, and all the other hundreds of women who organise dance events.
Thank you to the women dancers I meet all over the world who immediately make me feel welcome.
Thank you to the women jazz dancers who came before us and invented this thing.
Thank you to Shorty George’s unnamed partner in After Seben who actually did the swinging out.
Thank you to Norma for demanding “Where’s your swing out?!”

Thank you most of all to the hundreds of women who work at the door of dance events, and who tidy up afterwards, who move chairs and arrange tables, who arrive early to set up, who host visitors, who make sandwiches and beds, bank money and count out floats, figure out how to manage events for the first time on their own, chauffeur guests, design flyers and send emails and answer questions and make all this possible, every night of the week, all around the world.

Since I wrote this, I’ve thought of one million more women I want to thank. Thank you to Anaïs for that big brain and that wonderful dancing. Thank you to Kira for showing me burlesque can be empowering. To women DJs I missed. To the formerly male-identified dancer who chose our dance last night on mardi gras weekend to come out onto the dance floor as a woman. Gaby and Anaïs and Marie the women dancers who are putting together chorus line projects. The women who come social dancing for the very first time. The women who ask me to dance because they want me to lead. The queer women dancers who’ve come out recently in the lindy hop scene because they feel safe and proud of who they are. The older women who come dancing and rock it on the dance floor with the finest young men they can find. Women band leaders like Laura and Naomi and Hetty Kate and Georgia who bring it on the stage. Nicole who kept a public record of her physical transition. The women who are more than happy to just rock out solo style on the dance floor. Those fierce, ambitious women dancers who move on to teach internationally because they are so determined to be GOOD at this…. there are just so many. So many of them! I can’t even begin to name them all!

In my everyday work in the lindy hop community, I deal with far more women than men. Though men have most of the higher profile spots (playing in bands, teaching guest workshops), women by far provide the bulk of labour in the lindy hop community. In Australia, they are most of the volunteers, they are most of the organisers, and they are most of the DJs. They’re often also most of the dancers. Despite this, we are encouraged to compete for male dance partners, and discouraged from leading and dancing with other women. Lindy hoppers very rarely point out to each other that most of the labour in the lindy hop world is provided by women, and we tend to privilege the male dancers from the swing era. This last point prompted my Women’s History Month posts in the past, and of course my Women Jazz Dancers site.

I think it is important remind ourselves of all the different forms of labour that go into a jazz dance and jazz music community. I hear some men argue that the real ‘art’ of jazz or authentic ‘artistic life’ can only be defined as living form music and dance, as a dance teacher or performer. But that is just complete bullshit. I’ve written about that in Heroes of Jazz and Other Visible Mythologies.

In the simplest terms, there can be no jazz at all without all the invisible labour provided by women. There can be no jazz dance performance or party without a woman to work the door, to clean the floors, to cook the food, and serve the drinks. There can be no jazz musicians working endless gigs without a woman to care for their children, wash their clothes, cook their food. And if these women are not in their lives now, they were there when they were children and young adults studying their art.

Art is not the product of individual creativity and genius. Art is the work of a whole community.

Heroes Of Jazz and other Visible Mythologies

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(photo by Andy Friedman from The Nation article linked below)

There was an interesting (and particularly stroppy) discussion about the ‘lindy hop career’ on the Jive Junction facebook page a little while ago that I keep thinking about.

I have real problems with stories about jazz music and jazz dance (both historical and contemporary) that present it as a series of stories about heroic figures. Particularly heroic men. Who aren’t burdened by caring for children or partners. Or otherwise engaged with their local communities.
I get really shitty about this approach because it ignores all the other labour that makes art possible: cooking meals, earning money, cleaning houses, paying for doctors, networking with venue managers, agents, producers, and recording record labels, etc etc etc. And it ignores all the ways in which artists are engaged with and participate in their local communities, and how all these relationships shape their creative work.

This was something that the Ken Burns Jazz documentary did, and which I’ve written about a bunch of times, in posts like:

I was reminded of this today by a quote-pic (don’t you hate those? Can’t search them!) getting about on twitter. This is the bit that interested me:

Frank Barat: You often talk about the importance of movements rather than individuals. How can we do that in a society that promotes individualism as a sacred concept?

Angela Davis: Even as Nelson Mandela always insisted that his accomplishments were collective—also achieved by the men and women who were his comrades—the media attempted to sanctify him as a heroic individual. A similar process has attempted to dissociate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the vast numbers of women and men who constituted the very heart of the mid-twentieth-century US freedom movement. It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.

“A Q&A With Angela Davis on Black Power, Feminism and the Prison-Industrial Complex” – The Nation 27 Aug 2014

I’m a bit of a fan of Angela Davis, and have written about her before in A long story about blues, women, feminism, and dance.

Seoul: lindy hop capital of the world

So you know, when all that fucking awful sexual assault shit was going down, I was in Seoul, Korea, having the TIME OF MY LIFE discovering that the rest of the lindy hopping world? It is actually, in TOTAL, a quarter the size of SEOUL’s scene. And also, Seoul lindy hoppers? They are fucking amazing. The solo dance comp at that one weekend: better than any of the shit coming out of the American solo comps. It was so good, I had to stop and really think: was I just overcome by holiday feels? Were they really this good?

Look: they really are that good. Stop planning your trip to ILHC, Australia, and get on a fucking plane to Seoul.

There’s social dancing EVERY NIGHT. There are 5 different venues running social dancing parties on a Tuesday night alone. There were 200 people at one party the night I was there. And there are FOURTEEN different parties on Saturday nights.

And that is just normal. A normal week.

Also, Seoul is the fucking business. It is such a great city. Go there. GO THERE. It’s only 10 hours from Sydney, and you don’t get jetlag. It’s cheap to stay and eat there, and the food is really GREAT.

Not many live bands atm (just three that they use regularly – three more than a lot of small scenes) – but I bet, just like everything else in their jazz world, they will fix that shit by next year. Meanwhile, I know half a dozen Australian bands who are already planning their next Korean tour. The DJed music: fabulous. One hundred times better than Sydney. There’s so much social dancing, and it’s so important, that the big name DJs have facebook pages where they list their gigs _each week_. And dancers follow their favourite DJs around town.

Just think about that. So many dancers that you choose your DJs to compete with other venues.

Stop reading this post. Go to Seoul. I’m going there again in July. Because, fuck. Seoul is fantastic.

Layers of rhythm in dancing and music

Here is a post just about dancing and music, because even though we’re thinking and talking about gender politics and good business practices in the scene, we’re also dancers. Hopefully. This post is kind of rambly, because that’s how I roll.

This post is about the ‘rhythm centred‘ approach to lindy hop that a few teachers are really digging on at the moment. And music.

What is this ‘rhythm method’? Basically, we’re talking about prioritising the rhythms at the heart of a dance step, rather than the shapes. Shapes are important, yes, but the rhythm comes first.
This isn’t a new approach. People’ve been into this forever. People like Norma Miller, other old timers, the Rhythm Hot Shots… pretty much anyone who’s legit.

I think this is a bit like another approach that got around in the early 2000s: work from the ground up. In both cases, the emphasis is on what your body does, and on the foundation of good dancing. Committing your weight properly, understanding how you make contact with the ground, and how you initiate movement from your core. In other words, good lindy hop, as a partner dance, is like good solo dancing: you have to move your arse if you want to actually be dancing with someone.

Anyhow, I was in a class this week, taught by Bec and Alice at our regular Wednesday night intermediate class. They began the class with an exercise we’d picked up from Ramona and from the other Sea of Rhythm peeps (all of whom are tap dancers): in a circle one person does a rhythm, then the next person has to do a step inspired by that rhythm, and so on round the circle. Then the class continued with a fairly simple idea: you use a pass by (where the lead goes under the joined arms) as a ‘space’ for improvising, or adding in a rhythm. You can either do call and response (where one parter does the rhythm first, and the other copies on the next go through), or you can both do your own rhythms at the same time.

Nothing new, right? We’ve done this approximately one million times, though we might say ‘do your own jazz steps’ in that bit where you walk past each other. You might shorty george under there, or swivel around. It’s a nice, simple example of how jazz and lindy hop are structure + improvisation. But when you shift the emphasis to the rhythm, it gets a bit more interesting.

And I actually found it a bit nicer as a lead-follow exercise. Because if you focus on the rhythm, not the shape, you focus on how your feet strike the floor, and with what sort of emphasis. Where are you pausing? Where do you speed up? Is it a straight step, or is it syncopated? If you are doing call and response, you have to be as clear as you can, so your partner can recognise the rhythm and then repeat it back to you (this is my favourite). And in an under arm pass by situation, it’s not easy to see your partner all the time, so you have to feel the rhythm through your connected arms.

Exciting!

Of course, for this to work, you need to have a) an understanding of swung timing, straight timing, syncopation, and how to keep time while ‘paused’ (ie gotta have bounce, and b) a relaxed connection, because a hugely tight pair of arms don’t let messages (weight changes) through.
And to get those things, you need to focus on the rhythm of your basic footwork, and on leading by moving your body rather than yanking with your arms.

And, the best bit of this, is that you have to really pay attention to your partner to catch the rhythm, then repeat it back. You have to watch and listen and feel them, and then you have to watch and listen and feel them responding to see if you’re getting it right. The other best bit is that you assume from the beginning that both partners – lead and follow – can call, and both can respond. This immediately undoes the idea that follows always react and leads always initiate. It reminds you that both of you are partners, and that both good leading and good following requires listening very carefully to your partner, and responding to what they’re doing.

[Segue: if you set up this model of dancing relationships, you are undoing the bullshit power dynamic that encourages sexual harassment (which is where one partner exploits their higher position of power). In this model of dance partnership, each partner is important and powerful. You listen to each other. You respect each other. Higher power and its exploitation is detrimental to both the dancing partnership, and to the social partnership.]

Ok, so where’s the music in all this?
This is where we get amazing. This is where jazz dancing gets fantastic. We are doing polyrhythms, here. There’s the band, doing what they do. And then there’s the dancers, dancing a rhythm on the top. They might be dancing what they hear in the music, or, because lindy hop is wonderful, they might add a complementary rhythm to what they hear. Something that’s not in the music at all. Yet.
As if that wasn’t wonderful enough, if there are two of you having a rhythmic conversation like this, you’ll be adding two layers of rhythm on top of the music. Because you two aren’t in sync – you’re doing call and response. And that means that while you’re responding to your partner, they’re already adding in another rhythm. So you have to listen to and recognise that new rhythm while you’re responding with the previous rhythm! Wow!

Wait, no, we’re not done.

This is where it gets fantastic.

You don’t have to play the call and response game. You can just rock out doing whatever you like, not syncing up with your partner. So you’re doing a whole heap of rhythms all at once, on top of the music. Boom. Of course, the challenge here is to make all this actually be rhythmically sound. It can’t just be a bunch of noise and rubbish. This is why I like the call and response game: it makes you be super clear and definite in your movements. I actually like it when you have to do a rhythm, then repeat it, and then your partner repeats it. Because that way you get clear feedback about whether your rhythm is legit, and not just a bunch of banging and jumping about. If you can’t do it twice in a row, then you suck a bit and you need to clean it up. Usually that means simplifying.

The extra wonderful part of this, is that this is a game brand new dancers can play as well. And as you get more experience, and more control of your body, your rhythms can get more complex. To me, it feels like leading and following on a micro-level. Am I leading clearly enough for a brand new dancer to pick it up and follow? If not, then I suck. My partner shouldn’t have to be a superstar to recognise and repeat my rhythm.

Tell me about the music!
Right, lets talk about the shout chorus at the end of a song. Wikipedia puts it like this. The shout chorus is

characterized by being the most energetic, lively, and exciting and by containing the musical climax of the piece. A shout chorus characteristically employs extreme ranges, loud dynamics, and a re-arrangement of melodic motives into short, accented riffs. Shout choruses often feature tutti or concerted writing, but may also use contrapuntal writing or call and response between the brass and saxophones, or between the ensemble and the drummer. Additionally, brass players frequently use extended techniques such as falls, doits, turns, and shakes to add excitement.

I like ones by musicians like Sidney Bechet, old school NOLA people. Or Fats Waller usually brings good ones. That last chorus often feels more chaotic and shouty than with a big classic swing band. And there’s probably going to be some improvisation in there too. Here, check out ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ by Waller and his Rhythm, from about 2.00:

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[DJing note: I often use a song with this sort of ending to build the energy in the room. From here I can ramp up the tempos and excitement level, because the shout chorus has primed the room for something more.]

Ok, so here’s my thinking: that last shout chorus is just like when you’re playing call and response rhythms with your partner. The rhythms and notes just pile on up. It sounds a bit like chaos, but it’s not, because everyone has to really listen to each other.

This is jazz.

And this is why that idea that ‘follows do what leads say’ is just rubbish. It’s not only sexist and dumb, it’s not jazz. It’s creatively BOOOORING.

Ok, let’s look at some dancers.

Marie and Skye at GSDF in 2014:

Not much in the way of shout chorus to that song, aye? In fact, it’s the opposite: it’s a quieter, calmer, sparser arrangement and performance. The tempo is nice and relaxed, it swings like a gate, and it has a nice clear, consistent rhythm. Perfect for lindy hopping.

Then let’s look at Marie and Skye. They’re doing the same shapes, they have the same beat in their bodies, but they often aren’t doing exactly the same rhythm. I don’t want to say ‘footwork’ because ‘footwork’ is misleading: it suggests that it’s your feet doing the work. It’s actually your body that’s doing the work, and your foot placement and emphasis is a consequence of choices you’ve made with your body. That’s why it’s so much easier to see Skye and Maria’s rhythms. It’s almost as though Skye in particular has velvet covered feet. Velvet covered bricks, because though each step is perfectly and gently places, the commitment of weight is very solid and definite. And he understands that he has more than just one flat surface to his foot – there’s lots more to work with. And then, to make it more awesome, he lifts his feet from his hip or his knee… the movement begins higher in his body, not just with his feet.

Again, though, the rhythms that they bring, even to just the last 2 beats of a swing out, where you might triple step habitually, are very clear decisions, and they are working with the music. They aren’t just ramming some random combination of steps that they love on top of the music. They’re building it in. Watching Skye (because I’m a lead, that’s what I’m doing right now), he’s also working with all the instruments. There aren’t many of them, but he makes very clear that it’s the combination of instruments that make the band.

I really hate ‘musicality classes’ where teachers say something like ‘now dance to the saxophone!’ Because there’s a whole band there, and the sound they make is a combination of all those instruments and sounds. So why would I just take out one instrument? What I like about Skye in this particular video is that he’s moving between instruments, or dancing to all of them at once, and creating a series of shapes and patterns and rhythms that join them all together.
And Marie is with him, working with his overall pattern, but adding stuff by shifting the emphasis here and there, by adding in completely new sequences, by taking out sequences and paring things down. I particularly like the way her moments of stillness and simplicity (something I see Naomi Uyama do a lot) are essential for Skye’s busy-ness. If they were both going hardcore, you’d get more of a shout chorus effect, but for the whole song, and it’d be a bit much. It certainly wouldn’t suit this quieter, pared back song.

Okay, let’s contrast.

Frida and Skye at Snowball in 2014

Ok, so you see straight away, that there’s a different rhythmic relationship going on here between these two people. I’ve written about Frida before, in reference to this same issue: she brings the shit. She also has a very active, engaged and exciting edge to her dancing that isn’t like Marie’s. Watching this, I’m struck by the way Skye becomes the ‘simpler’ dancer, when Frida adds the vajazzle. Not that he’s necessarily doing simple steps; it’s just that the layers of rhythm and timing and emphasis are different in this partnership. By dancing with a different partner to a different song, his dancing is changed. Partly because he’s a very good lead, and changes his dancing to suit the music and his partner. But also because dancing with a different partner frames his approach to music in a different way.

Theres’s something more exciting about dancing to a live band, and I think it’s because anything can happen. Jazz wants improvisation, and in a recording, the improvisation is over: the sound is fixed. But when it’s live, it’s not fixed. And when dancers and musicians work together, that degree of the unexpected increases. Much more can happen now. So there’s an edge of anticipation and risk to improvised dancing to a live, improvising jazz band. Which adds excitement. And with Frida, you know that her reflexes are so good, and she is so fast, that she can not only respond really quickly to a new lead, but she can respond quickly to a new sound in the band, and add her own thoughts to both or either. And yet still make the partnership work.

Anyway, I wanted to jot all these thoughts down while they were still fresh after a couple of days of interesting dance work. Bec and Alice also led a session in our practice group last night where they taught us how to do one particular move that Skye leads in both these videos. Bec and Alice came to practice all excited because they’d realised Skye dances that same move in many ways, with many partners. And it’s always different. Our challenge in this session was to be able to dance two versions, and to understand how changes in timing (rhythm) were about changes in how you use your body, as both a lead and a follow. One thing we realised was that if you overcommit – if you get too ‘deep’ into a pause or a stop, your timing changes, and you can’t respond as quickly. It was very interesting.

So I guess this post is about layers of rhythm, and how we can think about lindy hop as sequences and layers of rhythm, both between partners, and between musicians and dancers. Long live lindy hop. You are the best.

YES JAZZ YES

Eamon McNelis (about whom I have fansqueed many times) has a new band and they’re called the Skellingtons. Just go here and buy their music IMMEDIATELY: https://theskellingtons.bandcamp.com/
It’s free, but you should plop some money into their paypal account because musicians gotta eat.

Gone by the Skellingtons

I’ve been following Eamon through various gigs for many years, ever since I saw him as a wee babby trumpeter in Chris Tanner’s Virus in about 2001 or 2002. Since then he’s learnt to sing, won bunches of awards, played with a squillion bands.

This band is exciting.
Why excited? This is seriously good Melbourne jazz musician action. Playing the sort of music we LOVE. MOAR! MOAR!
And Eamon is part of the Melbourne Rhythm Project, which means he talks to dancers about music. GOOD.

The drummer is Lyn Wallis, which should make you very excited. I think he’s the best jazz drummer in Australia. If you don’t believe me, listen to that song Gone, and then to this song Don’t You Wanna Dance:

Skellingtons:
Eamon McNelis: Cornet and Vocals
Brennan Hamilton-Smith: Clarinet
Steve Grant: Piano
Jon Delaney: Guitar
Mark Elton: Double Bass
Lyn Wallis: Drums

Remind yourself that you are a jazz dancer

There’s recently been a fairly loud and emotional discussion about sexual violence in lindy hop. I don’t want to rehash it here, because I find it very upsetting. Rehashing this stuff in detail disempowers me. I don’t want to discuss the male teacher named in this discussion, because I don’t want this to be all about him. Again. I want to take that power away from him. I want to find power in this, for me, and for other women.

Here is something I wrote on facebook today, in response to Gwen Moran’s piece How We Can Help Young Girls Stay Assertive. This piece described Deborah Ann Cihonski’s article ‘The experience of loss of voice in adolescent girls: An existential-phenomenological study’. I don’t know what that original research is like (haven’t read it yet), but it’s an interesting place to start.

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This article is particularly relevant to the current discussion about assault and safety for women in the lindy hop scene.

I am deeply disturbed by comments emphasising how we might ‘protect’ women and girls in our communities. I think it is problematic (to say the least) to perpetuate this idea of femininity as vulnerable (and passive), and masculinity as dangerous (and active).

It’s important to remember that most sexual assaults happen in privates spaces (dance halls, practice rooms, bedrooms, lounge rooms and so on), and most women are assaulted by people they know. ‘Rapists’ aren’t wild bears or volcanoes: they aren’t forces of nature that we have to protect women from. They are people who need to fix their behaviour.
We need to remind women that they are powerful and capable of caring for and protecting themselves, and for making decisions about their bodies and lives.

So I think that one of the most effective tools for making safe spaces in lindy hop is is empowering women. Some practical tips:

  • Do use gender neutral language in class (ie follow does not = female by default). I have heard many male teachers resist this, saying that it’s ‘too hard’, or ‘not important’. Believe me: it is important. If you are a woman leading in that class (or thinking about leading), it makes you feel part of the group. It makes you feel like a lead.
  • Follows are not passive; following is an active process (ie leads don’t ‘tell follows what to do’, and follows don’t ‘carry out’ leaders’ creative ideas)
  • All partners should take care of each other (ie it’s not that ‘leads look after follows’, it’s that we all should look after each other). eg follows are responsible for floor craft too.
  • List the female dance partner in a teaching team first. This is ridiculously rare in lindy hop, and we need to make up for lost time by over-representing women as the ‘first’ member of the teaching team.
  • Teach female students how to say “No thank you” if they are invited to dance, but don’t want to. Teach yourself how to say this.
  • Don’t use sexualised humour in class. This makes it clear that classes are learning spaces. If all the sexy jokes in the world were gender-win, it’d be ok. But most of the sexualised jokes teachers make in class use gender stereotypes that disempower women.
  • Have female role models in your scene: women MCs at big events, women musicians (!!), women organisers, women teaching on their own, women DJs, women publicly making decisions and solving problems (ie female managers), women doing physical labour (beyond cleaning, aye?), women eating well-balanced meals with enthusiasm at shared tables (and not talking about ‘being bad’ when they eat delicious food).
  • Value other types of work, particularly the types of work dominated by women. Working the door is as important as DJing. Make that clear. Name all your volunteers in your PR copy.
  • Talk about old timer dancers who are women. Al, Leon, Frankie: they’re all wonderful. But so are Norma, Sugar, Josephine, Dawn, Big Bea.
  • Research women dancers and teach their material, in their names. And that means more than just another class on swivels. Talk about women choreographers, troupe leaders, and managers.
  • Teach solo dance. Women dancing alone is an act of agency and power in a partner dancing world. And teach a variety of styles: sexy, sweet, powerful, aggressive, humorous, gentle, sad, athletic, witty, cerebral….

Congruently, men in lindy hop need to be taught some things too:

  • Work on your own strategies for speaking up when you hear a sexist joke. You know you should call that guy on it, but what exactly will you say or do? Will you walk away? Will you laugh along?
  • What are your limits, when it comes to ‘blokey’ or ‘boys own’ behaviour? Sexy jokes? Talking about women you see in the room in a sexual way? Competing with other men to ‘get’ a woman? Know your limits, then act on them.
  • Defer to female opinion and example: if you’re in a discussion, listen to women before you speak. In all matters, not just sexual safety. Once you’re good at it, then start working on ways of expressing your opinion in a collegial way.
  • Don’t call women girls unless they are actually girls (ie under 13). It’s patronising. Don’t call women or girls ‘females’, unless their gender is what you want to discuss: eg “Female dancers are as capable of leading as following” is as good as “Women dancers are as capable of leading as following” but “Females are good leads too” is not ok. Women are not meerkats.
  • Encourage women to take up leading. Encourage women who lead. Encourage women to comment on leading. A compliment on their technique is good, but asking a woman for her opinion on leading is even better. If a woman chooses to lead in class, don’t make a big deal about it, and make it easy for them to stay in that role (deal with uneven follow/lead ratios in other ways – eg talk about how if you’re standing out, this is a chance to work on your dancing)
  • Seek out women DJs. They may be harder to find, but don’t default to the usual male DJs at your events. Men are more likely to speak up, so you need to keep your eyes and ears open for women DJs.
  • Proactively encourage women DJs, women leads, and women organisers.
  • Use your online time to support women, and to support other men. Men are less likely to chime in with a supportive comment on a general thread about dance than women are. Men generally speak up more often, but they aren’t as likely to just say something like “Hey, great idea!” and then leave it at that.
  • Support men who are doing good gender work: compliment or say ‘yeah!’ when you see guys doing good stuff.
  • Support male follows: don’t make that sexy “wooo!” noise when you see two men dancing together. When you make that noise it announces to everyone that you are uncomfortable with two men dancing together. Probably because you think that two men dancing together is a sexual thing. Which means you probably think partner dancing is a sexual thing. Which means you need to check yourself.
  • When you thank the teachers for a class, say thank you to the female teacher first.

There are a bajillion ways we can be better humans in lindy hop. They don’t have to be formal policies or official responses. Be the change you want to see: men should assume that if they’re not pro-actively changing things, they are part of the problem.

The nice thing about all this, is that being a better human is really quite nice: you get to be nice to people, and that makes you feel good. Doing genderwin stuff can be an empowering thing for you. If it feels a bit hard (eg some guys say using gender neutral language is too hard), then remind yourself that you are a jazz dancer: we love hard things! We love challenges! We dance the most complex, wonderful dance in the world, because we love complex, we love challenge, we love creative solutions!

The point of this, of course, is that feminism is good for all of us. Change can be confronting. But that’s why we love break steps, right? Because change is exciting and stimulating too!

A final note: it’s ok to have heroes. It’s totally ok to fansquee for a big name dancer. Having a crush on your dancing hero (no matter what your sex or theirs) is also ok. It means that you are inspired by what they do.
But don’t stop there. Use the inspiration they bring to become a better dancer yourself. Tell them you love what they do, but stop there. Then move on and tell someone else you love what they do, even if they aren’t a big name dancer.

And remember that if we are all to be held accountable for our actions, we need to be sure that we all have the power, the agency, to make our own decisions, and to control our own bodies and actions.

NB:
I have written about these issues many, many times here on this blog. I am an old school feminist, and I believe in the idea of patriarchy, and in discourse and ideology. The bottom line is that I believe that if you want to prevent sexual assault, locking up rapists is not the solution. The solution is in dismantling ‘rape culture‘, or a culture of sexism and patriarchy. I know! It seems like so much work! Good thing we have jazz to sustain us, aye?

Here are some of these posts:

banjo vs Basie

The perennial argument about big band/classic swing vs small NOLA-inspired bands for lindy hop is in fruit again*. Moldy figs for all.

I have opinions of course, but for now, I’ll just post this:

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banjo in a small band with shouter vocalists playing Sent For You Yesterday. It’s NT Basie big band meets the moldiest banjo pluckin small band. How even? Is it wrong? Is it right? Who can say!

*This argument will never die, because people are basically arguing: “We should dance to this type of music because it’s the best!” and both types of music are actually the best.