Co-DJing in Herräng

I don’t often co-DJ, but when I do, I choose the finest woman DJ the Netherlands have to offer. Superheidi is a most excellent DJ and good DJ buddy, and this set was excellent fun. Note how we problem solve together, we drink tea together, we brag about our full floors together. Huzzah!

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djing

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[edit: photo credits to Superheidi, who made DJ Anton take the photos. DJ team win.]

Team DJ Herräng 2016

Once again, I’m writing a post that’s meant to be short, but will no doubt be enormous.

This summer I was a staff DJ at Herräng Dance Camp for week 3 of the 5 week camp. You can read about Herräng in this post.

djing in herrang 2016
Me DJing Thursday in week 3, with a massively crowded floor.

Herräng uses staff DJs and volunteer/guest DJs for music each night on its three (or occasionally more) dance floors. There are also unofficial official staff DJs who provide music for the special themed Midnight Ramble parties in the library. Staff DJs are provided with a pretty good renumeration package (which I can’t go into online because confidentiality, but can discuss in person), and guest DJs are given free entry to the night they DJ.

Staff DJs’ duties include:

  • Regular meetings about DJing;
  • DJing every night for 7 days, at any time between 10pm and 11am the following day;
  • DJing in blocks of at least 2 hours at a time;
  • DJing to the Herräng music brief;
  • Being available for other themed or special sets (eg early RnB, shared sets, competitions, taxi dances, shows, band breaks, afternoon dances, etc);
  • DJing for lindy hop, balboa, slow drag, boogie woogie and solo dance.

And usually a few other random things are expected of you (eg dropping in to meetings or talks about DJing and music, mentoring or riding shot gun on newer DJs’ sets, being ‘around’ and participating in camp life).

All of this is most excellent fun, very fulfilling, but quite tiring. It is definitely a full time job. And the role requires professionalism (being on time, having all the gear, being good to work with), practical skills (knowing how to work a mixing desk, how to DJ comps or special dances, mic skills, can keep the floor not only full but exciting and interesting for several hours), and a solid musical collection.
All the DJs I’ve worked with at Herräng have extensive music collections (far beyond the lindy hopping ‘favourites’), and devote hours each week to preparing sets and making sure they have an idea of what they might play. This preparation is a continual response to what’s happening in camp, the music they hear each night, the bands playing each night, and the general mood or vibe of the event.
And all the staff DJs also have a creative instinct that makes them suggest ideas for special sets, shared sets, or just general party ideas.

Volunteer or Guest DJs have a different job.
They are booked on a per-set basis, doing one set at a time, usually for one to two hours only, and may not be asked to DJ again during their stay. They must also play to the Herräng music brief, and submit previous set lists. The usual professionalism and practical skills are required. Most of the guest DJs are also then recommended or vetted by an experienced DJ or dancer.
Basically, you can’t just walk in and ask to DJ then score a spot. This is as per normal for any large, reputable event.

The Midnight Ramble DJs have a different role again. They usually have very specialised collections and/or skill sets. eg they may DJ an early RnB set, a latin set, or a slow drag set. This means that they have extensive collections of these types of music, and special skills. They’re often DJs who use vinyl or shellac, and are vastly experienced, working with the particular demands of this themed room/party.

All Herräng DJs are managed by the DJ managers. This year and last, the managerial role was shared by two very experienced DJs who also have a lot of experience with Herräng. This year we were lucky enough to have Meghan Gilmore (Canada) and Jonas Larsson (Sweden) as our managers.
Each day the managers liaise with the various stage managers, event managers, and other Herräng staff to put together a program of DJed music on three (or more) dance floors that begins at 10pm and can end as late as the first class in the folkletshus ballroom (ie 11am or later). This program juggles live performances by bands and other acts, the evening meeting, the demands of particular parties (eg Midnight Rambles, the beginner hour, balboa nights and so on), and each DJs’ skills, preferences, and workload. There are frequently last minute changes to the program, and both managers and DJs need to be able to respond enthusiastically, calmly, and competently to changes.

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Meghan Gilmore, DJ boss.
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Jonas Larsson, DJ boss.

Meghan and Jonas were the best DJ managers I’ve ever worked with, in ten years of DJing. They were calm, professional, and very excellent company. They know HEAPS about music, are very experienced DJs, and were just wonderful to work with. I felt that they really had my back and were supporting me at all times. Even when my laptop died on day 1 of my contract, they were right there holding my hand. Or at least sending me comforting fb messages. They also knew how to lead, and how to put the breaks on madcap schemes that were a little too madcap. DJs can be quite headstrong and a little too sure of themselves (and their schemes) sometimes, and both Meghan and Jonas were very good at curbing in some of the less sensible scheming. Which I think is very important. I want to know my DJ managers have limits and a clear sense of what they want, and what is achievable, so that I can just go ahead and be full-on DJ nut, knowing they’ll say No when No needs to be said.

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Week 3 Staff DJs, from left to right: Jonas Olsson (Denmark), Jonas Larsson (Sweden), Anton Cervin (Sweden), Meghan Gilmore (Canada), International DJ Sam carroll, Heidi van der Wijk (Netherlands).

Meghan and Jonas also put quite a bit of work into developing a sense of team camaraderie. They provided a comfortable office close to other Herräng staff offices, so that we could both have a place to store our stuff and work quietly, and also meet and mix with other staff. We found our office was often a popular place for unofficial catch-ups and socialising by other staff. Not as rowdy as other offices, not as full-on as other offices. The fact that there was always a stack of records or someone wanting an opinion on a particular song was only a bonus for camp where pretty much everyone is music obsessed.
We also had a couple of organised dinners and DJ-friendly parties/catch ups, which were very nice. I found that this team of DJs gelled particularly well. I adore them all, and I miss them SO much. I loved their music, I loved their commitment to DJing, but I also really liked their ‘let’s have FUN!’ approach to dancing and DJing. And they made me laugh like a fool, so many times. Having a good, solid team of buddies around me really made the long hours and challenges of staff DJing easier. And I learnt a LOT about music and DJing from them all. It was really lovely to be part of this group.

This year the DJing at Herräng was particularly good. Jonas and Meghan had worked hard to find DJs beyond the usual subjects. They found DJs from all over the world, who were both excellent DJs, and had excellent taste in music. And, incidentally, they had gender parity in weeks 2,3,4, and 5 of the 6 weeks of the camp. This is very unusual in the lindy hopping world, and the consequences were very interesting. Things I thought this gave us, as dancers:

    • A wider range of DJs, people I’d never heard before, and who had interesting, new ways of thinking about DJing;
    • A wider range of DJing styles and musical collections;
    • Better music for dancing;
    • A much more interesting and fun working environment: this wasn’t a DJ Bro team. It was a diverse, interesting group of people who worked fucking hard, valued great music, but could work a crowd like fucking ROCKstars;
        As a whole, two of the clearer consequences were crowded, crazy dance floors, and crowds who stayed up much later dancing. As a DJ and dancer, I found myself spending more time hanging around the DJ booth listening to the DJs who were working, or sitting next to them listening to them work. It was very exciting, and the BEST fun.

Who was on staff in Herräng this year?
Week 1:
Ralph Hueur(Boogie) [Germany], Felix Berghäll (Boogie) [Sweden], Philippe Crompton-Roberts [Hong Kong], Jon Tigert [USA]
Week 2:
Christina Loukaki [Greece], Jon Tigert [USA], Arnas Razgūnas [Lithuania], Leru [ Russia/China],
Week 3:
Sam Carroll [Australia], Heidi Van Der Wijk [ Netherlands], Anton Cervin [Sweden], Jonas Olsson [Denmark]
Week 4:
Birkley Wisniewski [Canada], Helena Martins [Brazil], Laura Spencer [USA/Germany], Dan Repsch [USA]
Week 5:
Kris Bauwens [Belgium], Susanne Kenross [Sweden], Haerim Kim [South Korea], Sage Min [ South Korea]
Featured Guest DJs:
Frida Häggström (week 1 to 5), Big Papa Mac (week 1 to 3), Natty Bo (July 20 and 21), Stephan Wuthe (week 3 and 5)

Guest/volunteer DJs included:
Arnas, Pontus ?, Philippe, Jonas Olsson, Sam Carroll, Alexey Kazannov, Felix, Miroslav Mironov, James Pack, Olov ?, Vasily Muravyev, Olga Moiseeva, Jon Tigert, Nathan ?, Skye Humphries, Gaston Fernandez, Veit, Rasmus, Daphna Harel, Soo chan Lee, Leo Newman, Ramona Staffeld, Ingrid ?, Naomi Uyama.
As you can see, some of the staff DJs also did some volunteer DJing. For me, it was in week 2 so I could get rid of some nerves and settle down to DJing. People like Jon T just have mad skills and love DJing. People like Olga are THE BEST.

I have to pause and rave about a couple of those volunteer DJs. Olga Moiseeva from Moscow (now based in Brussells). WOW. Just the best. She has mad skills. And has also been a key player in Moscow becoming the historically grounded, fun-centred lindy hop scene it is today. Vasily Muravyev, also Russian, still based in Moscow, has been one of those people who DJs regularly at home, and SHOULD have been DJing at bigger events like Herräng, but just needed a bit of a push to get into it. Gaston is of course, an experienced, fantastic DJ, and one of my favourites. Other DJs in this list did some lovely work too. I didn’t hear any shithouse DJing. Which is a testament to Meghan and Jonas’ hard work and carefully vetting of DJs.

But my favourite was Naomi Uyama. Yes. That Naomi. Sure, she’s a grand lindy hopper. We know that. I reviewed her band’s first album in this post and did a follow up post here.
It should surprise no one that such a talented band leader is also a fantastic DJ. But, having said that, there are a few band leaders who are also DJs, but not terribly awesome DJs.
What made her so good? 1) Song choices. Familiar, unusual, all awesome, 2) The way she put them together.
Shit. She is just such a fucking great DJ.

In sum, my picks for a superhot DJ team from Herräng’s guest DJ team would include Olga, Naomi, Frida Häggström, Vasily, and probably John Tigert. John is an interesting one, as at first glance he seems a bit of a cowboy, prone to showing off. But I’ve found over the last couple of years that I’ve ended up sitting next to him while he DJs a few times. Because he’s such a thoughtful, inspired DJ. He kind of settles into the job, focussing on the dancers, with a really good feel for what they feel, and then making good, solid, creative songs choices to work with those feels. Frida is kind of intimidating, as she’s quite reserved, but you shouldn’t let that stop you getting to know her, and her DJing. She can basically do anything. Anything old, and anything fucking GOOD. I once danced like a crazy fool to a 20s dance band set she did in the library. Not something I’d usually dig, but mate. She has SKILLS. And an unparalleled collection. Get to know her, and get to know her collection: she is A1.
I’d also make sure you had Arnas from Lithuania on that team. He’s fun, and he makes a very good coffee. He’s also a skilled DJ, who is prone to DJ cowboyism. But it always pays off.

I could go on and on and on about the DJs from Herräng this year that I loved. Heidi from Rotterdam: what a fucking gun. Tireless, fearless, fierce. Excellent. Anton and Jonas, Jonas and Meghan. Really, the very best.

Such most excellent fun. Did enjoy. Would do again.

What is the Herräng dance camp?

I’m just back from two weeks at the Herräng Dance Camp in Sweden.

Just in case you didn’t know, the Herräng dance camp runs for 5 weeks in a little town in Sweden called Herräng. Herräng focuses

on the American vernacular swing dance tradition.

That means all the dancing and music in the program (and around camp for the most part) is jazz. African American Jazz. This definition stretches a little for dances like balboa, but African dances, hip hop, various latin dances, and other fun stuff squeeze in as well. So this really is a camp devoted to dance and music of the African diaspora, with emphasis on the jazz and swing eras.

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(Tamara Pinco takes a weekly photo like this.)

When we say ‘camp’, we’re not talking a school camp where you sleep in dorms or cabins, or a tents-and-firepit camp. We’re talking about a whole range of accommodation (from private houses to dorms, tents, shared rooms, and caravans).

general accomodation in herrang
General accommodation in the gym.

The camp itself is huge, spreading across the town’s folkets hus, dansbana, school, sporting ground, marina, shop, private homes and roads, local forest, and camp grounds. Dancers are fed in a bar, ice cream parlour, and cafe (all run and produced by the camp), and a number of other local food outlets. The classes are taught on the two dance floors, and then in a series of huge marques.

ICP in Herrang
The I.C.P., or ice cream parlour
Herrang class tent
Another Tamara Pinco photo, this time of the Savoy Ballroom class marque in Herrang.

Herräng employs around 150 staff each week, and sees between 700 and >1000 campers per week. But you never really ever spend time with 1000 people at once, as there simply isn’t anywhere big enough in camp to hold us all. My usual Herräng experience is with a handful, a classful, or a dancefloor full of people.

There are 7 departments within the administration, and the camp board includes three famous dancers (Frida Segardahl, Lennart Westerlund, and Daniel Heedman).

REception staff in HErrang
Reception staff in Herrang, as photographed by Tamara Pinco.

Herräng hires 77 top shelf dance teachers, about 10 formal bands (and zillions of jam session groups), around 26 staff DJs (about 5 or 6 working 7 days per week on 3 dance floors 10pm-10am), and ~24 guest/volunteer DJs each year.

staff djs at herrang
The week 3 staff DJs, including me :D

There are full time carpenters, laundry staff, doctors, chefs, cleaners, IT workers, staff managers, bike shop staff, retail, and retail staff. It really is a little town that’s alive for about 8 weeks of the year.

Herrang no-no box
Rugged masculinity in the no-no box (where stuff gets built).
Bike shop at herrang.
Bike shop at Herrang.
The Herrang laundry
The Herrang laundry.
Bar Bedlam Herrang
Lovely Bar Bedlam kitchen staff. At 5am.

There is a program of dance classes over a 7 day period, and all night social dancing over 3 dance floors with DJs and live music. The entertainment program also includes educational library talks and panel discussions, film screenings, cultural activities on the Wednesday morning and afternoon, and free evening classes in all sorts of things.

Kinda Dukish in Herrang
Kinda Dukish band from Germany in the dans banan.
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Folketshus at Herrang (again photo by Tamara Pinco, probably)

It is truly a prodigious event, the largest in the world, and one with the most consistent reputation for presenting high quality music and dance in the historic jazz and swing tradition. It’s also know for being somewhat hedonistic and a little chaotic.

It has much in common with a european summer camp, but no doubt owes much of its longevity (and development) to the role of shared common spaces in socialist democratic Sweden. The Herräng camp perhaps would not ever have begun without the town’s folklets hus and dansbana. It has also always prioritised the involvement of old time dancers from the 20s-50s. This connection with history, as well as the 24-hour program of ‘semi-surrealistic’ events have secured it respect in the modern lindy hopping world.

I like it because it’s mad fun. I can work super hard on dancing, or I can sit about in the sun making friends and talking shit. I can stay up all night social dancing, or I can live a sensible diurnal lifestyle. The music is fantastic, I get to see a truly diverse range of the very best lindy hop, jazz, tap, etc dancing, and I get to spend time with people from all over the world. It’s the combination of diversity and quality that brings me back. I enjoy not knowing what will happen each day. I love it that I can be rowing into a misty lake in the middle of the night to look at a friend’s bunkbed accommodation on a floating pontoon in the middle of the water. Or dancing with a 10 year old to Count Basie at 2pm at a tea party. Or learning the Russian word for hello at a communal dinner table.

BUT
not everyone loves Herräng. If you’re the sort of person who prefers a hotel style event, where you are told what to do, where to go, and how to do it for every minute of the day, you’ll find Herräng’s more casual approach maddening. I have noticed that Americans and Australians who prefer a more rigidly hierarchical event with clear bosses and ‘cool people’ struggle with the more complex power dynamics of Herräng. Shit regularly goes wrong in Herräng, from you getting lost at 1am looking for your bed, to teachers not turning up for classes. There’s a chance you’ll pick up a heavy cold, or hate the food. And the dry humour of the daily evening meeting might not work if you have a more (excuse me for this) ‘American’ sense of humour.

Heaven's kitchen menuboard in herrang
Heaven’s Kitchen menu board.

As an example, this sort of sign outside the main eating area would drive you mad if you wanted to know exactly what was on the menu. But I enjoy it.

It can also be a struggle if you’re used to traveling in a pack of your friends from home. Herräng invites you to meet new people, and make new friends. Shared dinner tables and communal living are clear markers of that socialist-democracy I mentioned. And if you’re into individualism and strict rules about what belongs to whom, you’ll get shitty when you see your dress end up in lost property, then turn up on stage in an evening meeting performance. Herräng definitely has rules, a hierarchy, and very clear power structure. It’s just not as clear as at an Australian or American event. And I like that. I like that it’s assumed I’ll find my own bed, make my own friends, and enjoy sharing a table. I really enjoy meeting lots of people, and I quite like the mad, unexpected things that happen.

My next post is about being a DJ at Herräng.

Herrang: wrack and ruin

Physical duress:

    Week 2:
  • first case of Herrang flu (including head aches, fever, voice loss, cough, sore throat, snot, nausea)
    Week 3:
  • second case of Herrang flu (as above)
  • sudden onset of menstruation during week of DJing. Of course.
  • loss of hearing, voice, stamina, and brain due to Herrang flu

Emotional duress:

  • Left both my passports on the plane as I arrived in Seoul (the first of six legs in an international journey);
  • Accommodation for second city in series of four cancelled while in aeroplane, leaving only a couple of hours to book new accommodation while in in transit. This was achieved;
  • Discovered travel agent had not booked baggage allowance for third leg of international journey. Paid a frightening amount for luggage allowance;
  • Herrang flu led to development of serious snoring which led to eviction from accommodation in Herrang. Self esteem devastated, but alternative accommodation secured;

Professional duress:

  • Laptop actually broke inside. Discovered this two hours before first set in seven day week as staff DJ scheduled to begin;
  • Couldn’t DJ for two of the seven days I was hired for;
  • Couldn’t prepare for DJing for two of the seven days I was hired for;
  • Kendra, IT support queen, headed off a case of DJ panic with some wonderful support and practical testing. Goddess bless Kendra in staff coordination;
  • Hard drive salvaged by Brad, head of limo services;
  • New hard drive case fetched from Halstavik (goddess bless the limo service, most especially Brad, Ben, and the nice guy with dreds), but it turned out to be the not-quite-right-type. Still worked;
  • Lost my Australia-Sweden plug adaptor thingy. Australian power cable for laptop and phone therefore useless;
  • Borrowed a macbook air to run my laptop’s hard drive as an external hard drive. All good until I realised mid-way through the week that it was resetting all my trackpad preferences each time I shut it down and rebooted from the external hard drive. This resulted in a number of very high profile, very embarrassing double clicks while DJing to a massively crowded room of dancers;
  • Discovered the UK-Sweden power board adaptor thingy I was using with the UK-plug borrowed laptop was faulty. Had to borrow power cable from different DJ each night. Forgot on one particularly memorable night;
  • Second round of Herrang flu during week as staff DJ = lack of late night DJing stamina from me;
  • Somehow manage to bend prong of headphone jack on (only pair of) headphones, so that it no longer works with laptops;
  • Second round of Herrang flu resulted in complete loss of hearing in one ear on flight home.

I think perhaps Herrang is sending me a message: is it time to stop DJing?

Note:
People who saved my arse during all these dramas include Dave, Australian IT support; Kendra for diagnosing my laptop’s problem; Kendra’s friend in the USA who assisted in diagnosis; Phillipe, who leant me the macbook air; Brad in limo services for rebuilding my hard drive and actually coming up with a solution; Ben, Travis, and a nice guy with dreds in limo services who went to town and bought the actual hard drive; Meghan, Anton, and Heidi who all leant me power cables for my laptop; various members of reception staff who handled laptop trade-offs with aplomb (and well beyond their job descriptions); Meghan and Jonas who dealt with my being completely fucking useless for two days like wonderful professional wonderfuls. I love them.

Incidentally: Jonas Larsson and Meghan Gilmore were the DJ managers for Herrang this year, and they did a magnificent job. They were fantastic to work with (professional, boss-like, setting clear limits, yet also respecting and encouraging creative experiments), an inspiringly good management team (they have to work together to make up DJ rosters using 6 staff DJs and a range of volunteer and guest DJs across at least 4 or 5 dance floors EVERY NIGHT for five weeks), and just plain old good DJs.
They were the best DJ managers I have ever worked with. They improved our working conditions, they made sure we had a good DJ ‘base’ (ie office) that was so friendly we occasionally had to kick other staff out of it so we could work, and they did lovely things like make us have dinner together to nerd out on jazz. It was a real pleasure and privilege working with them.

Note 2:
Despite all this rubbish, I actually had a nice holiday. I didn’t stress out (except for when I discovered I’d left my passports on the plane), and even Kendra was amazed by how calm I was. But as you soon discover in Herrang: the way you respond to the first drama in Herrang dictates the type of Herrang experience you’ll have. I choose ‘whatevs’ as a response.

Ellington in the 1950s. Live.

MI0002769743 Though I have a STACK of Ellington, I’m late come to Ellington playing live in the 50s, and it’s such a joy to discover him now. DJ Ryan Swift put me onto ‘The Private Collection, Vol. 2: Dance Concerts, California, 1958’ and vol 6 of the same series.

This tip was part of a long, interesting discussion (fansquee?) between some very big Ellington fans and jazz nerds on the facey, when I was chasing a song called ‘Wailing Interval’ that I didn’t know the name of.
I’m a big New Testament Basie fan, and have stacks of live Basie from the 50s. It’s a joy to compare Ellington from this same period, and to think about the role of the Newport Jazz Festival in these band leaders’ lives.
Anyhoo, this album is quite wonderful. I intend to play it every single time I DJ until the mp3s explode. You can pick it up on itunes as I did, but you’ll miss out on the liner notes, which I have. And as we all know, you don’t learn much about jazz if you don’t know who’s in the band.

How I think about DJing.

Here’s a long post I wrote on the plane on the way to Snowball last December. As per usual, it goes on a long time, so get yourself ready. No complaints about long posts! This is a blog – that’s what they’re for!

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As Ramona says in her talk with Ryan Swift on the Track, practice practice practice, and then when you get on the dance floor, just DANCE.

This post can be summarised as:
1. Make it easy for everyone to have fun.
2. What you play is not as important as the combinations you play them in.
3. These combinations are dictated by the crowd’s feels, not how you feel in your pants.

Here is the long version:

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I reckon most DJs think too much while they’re DJing. Normally, when someone tells me I think too much, I roll my eyes at them, because that’s fucked up. But I do reckon DJing is like dancing: it’s an exercise in being present. Be right there with the dancers. Feel what they feel. Read their bodies like you would your partner’s, and work with their feels. Respond with empathy. Help them feel good, because you want to feel good too.

And you know what? Your incredible collection of rare and unusual jazz means nothing NOTHING, if you haven’t looked at the dancers during your set. Get out of your ear phones NOW. Look up. STAND up! Get the feels. Your heart should be pumping like you’ve just danced all those songs. Get a contact high. Feel their feels.

Here’s the sad news, buddy: your music is pop music. A zillion people have already ‘found’ that song before. So take pleasure in fun songs, rather than in finding something rare that no one else has. Your JOB, your PURPOSE as a DJ is to share music with people. Not share as in ‘give this bounty to the people’ but share as in ‘do you like this song? Here, I’ll play it, and we’ll see what we think.’ Most of the most popular dance songs of today are popular because they meet dancers’ needs and are nice and simple and fun. And that is ok. Lindy hop: it’s not brain surgery. It’s FUN.

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That’s how I DJ. I do all my thinking before I get out there, I practice practice practice.
What do I do before I DJ?

  1. I classify my music.
    listen to my music and classify the songs. I note bpms. I note whether it’s ‘upenergy’ or ‘mediumenergy’ or ‘lowenergy’. Which are as simple as they sound: does this song make me crazy with excitement? Or not. If I think it’s ‘fun’, ‘lovely,’ or ‘nice’, I put that in the comments. Is it really long? I use the genre tag to describe city/style/etc – eg NOLA small group male vocal; 1930s big band instrumental; etc. I give it 3 stars or more if it’s something danceable. I classify it as a ‘kissing song’ if it’s ~110bpm, and feels like you want to kiss your squeeze rather than dance. I note whether it feels like ‘charleston’, ‘lindy hop’, or ‘blues. These last 3 are just for my own brain, and give me an idea of feel, rather than how people should dance – that’s their business. And if I think it’s great, I put it in my ‘should play’ folder.
  2. I listen to my music.
    I have a really shitty memory, so I have to go back through my expanding collection to remind myself about what songs sound like. I move them around in my ‘should play’, ‘favourite’, and ‘maybe Event Name’ folders when I’m preparing for a set.
  3. I practice combining them in real time, as though I’m actually DJing.
    This is the most important one.
  4. I make sure I know how to use my computer, and I keep my system really simple. I don’t want anything to stop me looking at the floor. So I practice with my gear, and I get rid of the fancy software.
  5. I get good noise-cancelling ear phones that won’t give me ear-itch.

These days I don’t do this preparation stuff as much as I should. I don’t listen to music enough. Teaching has changed some of my ideas about music: teaching doesn’t make you a good DJ, I’m afraid. You tend to pre-select for song without long intros (social dancers are fine with intros and outros), you prioritise ‘simpler’ songs for class demos and work (unless you’re looking at un-simple ideas in music for your class), and you’re more conscious of tempo. You also try to find a variety of classic swing styles for teaching lindy hop, because that’s part of a class: teaching people about the music.

DJing is not like selecting teaching music.

Don’t be a Dick.
I’ve heard a handful of DJs say things like this in the past year: “I like to challenge the dancers,” “I want to educate them [the dancers],” “I want them to hear things they never usually hear.” That last one was from a visiting DJ who’d never played in that Australian city before.
Total dicks, all of them. And all men.

I do not ever go into a set with an agenda. That is fucked up. Don’t go out there to ‘educate’, don’t go out there to ‘blow people’s minds’. Don’t assume your audience are plebs living in hicksville who’ve never heard jazz (that one happens a bit when American DJs come to Australia. Those DJs usually suck balls).
Go out there ready to be what the dancers need, right then. Be their friend.

While I’m DJing, my only rule or ‘agenda’ is:

MAKE IT EASY FOR PEOPLE TO HAVE FUN

That’s it. That’s all I plan.
That is 100% of my job. To make it easy for people to have fun. I don’t make them have fun; they do that themselves. ‘Challenge dancers?’ Fuck that noise. The opposite is my job: make it really easy for them to have fun. Whether they want to show off, to chillax, to go like the clappers, or whatevs.

My other only rule is:

OFFER PEOPLE REGULAR INVITATIONS TO DANCE

I try to offer people regular ‘ins’ to the dance floor. Regular chances to get on the floor. Sometimes that means playing something slower tempoed. Sometimes it’s a familiar song. Sometimes it’s less manic, more relaxed song. Sometimes it’s a crazy fun uptempo song everyone knows. Whatever. I want to give people a chance to invite someone onto the floor, whether it’s a teacher, a noob, that person they love, their favourite dance partner, or Chaz Young.

I know DJs who’d die before playing Nina Simone’s ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’.
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But for me, it’s the ultimate invitation to dance. It’s slow. It has a nice walking bass line. It has a lovely vocal about a lover who wants you because you’re you. But it also has interesting changes in timing, it has really satisfying phrasing, and it’s fun to dance to. New dancers have never heard it before. Experienced dancers know it’s ‘safe’ for asking a noob to dance.

Most of these ‘invitations to dance’ songs are medium tempo favourites, but not all. Mostly, I try to make them really easy to dance to – a song that’ll get those people who’ve been standing on the sidelines onto the floor. Wether they’re tired, old, young, unfit, exhausted, overstimulated or Chaz Young. I want them to feel brave enough to ask someone to dance. I want to make it easy for them to have fun. And I like to drop these in regularly, so people who like to talk a lot can step in and out of the dance floor occasionally.

I often like to follow these songs with something a little more. Maybe it’s faster, maybe it’s more exciting, maybe it’s unfamiliar. But it’s not a huge change (because that would feel like a betrayal – I just got them out there! They’ll probably dance two songs with this person, so let’s make this one good too!).

After that, I might change it up completely.

HOW do I start a set?
But I don’t go in there planning a set like this. I don’t think ‘Ok, this is my invitation to dance song, this is my challenge song, I’ll play them in these orders.’ I go in there thinking ‘Did you do a wee, DJ? Do you have your power cord? What is the previous DJ playing now? Stop, spend a bit of time looking at the room and observing what they’re doing and feeling.’ And then I think ‘Aw fuck, go do another wee anyway. Just in case.’

I get quite nervous before DJing, particularly for my first set of a weekend, so I like a few sets over the event. And to do a few wees before my set (not only because it’s a chance to sit down in peace and quiet and get it together; mostly because one time I got locked in the stall mid-set, and I’ve never recovered). And I need to be gentle with myself before I start DJing. No caffeine or sugar (it makes me stressy). I like to walk around the room before I DJ, not dancing, but just checking out the vibe, a bit separate to the dancing vibe. Are people grumpy? Happy? Tired? Manic? Frustrated? How do they respond to the DJ’s music? Enthusiastically? Dancing just because they want to dance?

I often dread following a really good DJ, because I just don’t feel I’m terribly good at clever DJing: I tend to just go for the fun. So if the DJ before me has already played all the crazy fun, I’m going to have to work harder. And that’s where I can really suck.

I also like to have a look and listen to my music while I watch the crowd. Does this song’s feel match their vibe?
What has the DJ before me played? Avoid those songs. But get an idea of the vibe they’ve had going on before. It really helps if I’ve been dancing during the night.

Incidentally, I don’t think you can be a great DJ if you don’t dance the dance you’re DJing for. So I am rubbish at blues DJing these days. And I try to dance to all the tempos, so I know what ‘fast’ feels like. The DJs I really admire do that – they social dance a lot, to all tempos, and they’re continually working on their own dancing, deepening their physical understanding of jazz.

But I like to start with a nice song that either starts mediumenergy and builds, or comes in with a bang. I tend to start with something like Basie or Hamp, or otherwise pretty meat and potatoes. HELLO PARTY HAM IS HERE! LET’S JUMP AROUND!
Unless I’m the first DJ of the late night, then I start with a completely different vibe.

No rules
So as you can see, I have strategies. But these strategies aren’t ‘rules’. They’re just ways of applying my knowledge of my music to what I see happening on the floor.

Make it easy for EVERYONE to have fun.
Everyone. Not just the rock stars and wannabe-rockstar cliques hugging the stage at the front of the room. They don’t really care what you play – they just want you to make them look good and play songs they like.
I play to everyone in the room, especially the middle 2/3 of the dance floor. That’s the bulk of the crowd. They come early, they leave last, and they dance a LOT with LOTS of people. The rockstarwannabes only dance with a small pool of their besties, and they have limited dance skills – they can only dance with their besties to ‘cool’ songs. I like to pitch to the bulk of the room. And as a DJ friend taught me, it’s good to play to people who aren’t dancing yet as well.

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Having a full floor is my base line, rather than a mark of a successful set. A successful set is where the whole room loses its collective shit. Where they stay on the dance floor all night and occasionally run up to shout at you, all sweaty-faced, with their hair stuck to their cheeks and foreheads, and kind of wild-eyed and sweaty. They’ve forgotten to change their shirt. They’re dehydrated. They shout loud, incoherent stuff. Both up at the DJ and to each other on the dance floor. They just run and grab partners and leap back onto the floor.

I’m actually ok with an empty floor occasionally. Somewhere like Herrang, where it’s always overcrowded, a momentarily clear floor can be a good thing. Especially if it’s fast and exciting. You can follow up with an invitation to dance that capitalises on that high energy.

I usually spend the first part of a set letting dancers know they can trust me. I don’t play any shit songs. I don’t play wacked out songs that change tempo mid-way through*. Once they know I can be trusted, I play more risky stuff. I play stuff with the odd intros, because I know they know that I won’t play some piece of shit hip hop whatevs.

While I’m DJing I use my notes about energy and style to search my collection – eg I think ‘ok, they’re buggered, we need to back it off a bit tempo and energy wise. I need something mediumenergy and in the 150bpm range’ so I search for ‘mediumenergy’ and then arrange by bpm. Then I scroll through, listening to the song playing over the speakers, and looking for something that will meet these criteria and suits the feel and style of the song that’s playing. If I’m lucky a new song idea comes to me and I don’t need to search – I think ‘GOODMAN! NOW!’ and then I search through my Goodman stuff for something in a tempo range and energy style. Or I just look for a specific song.
I have to preview songs, because I have a shit memory. But I also like to listen to a song with one ear in the headphones, and one ear in the room, to see how the two songs sound next to each other. I want a nice, comfortable transition. Unless I want to shake things up (but that is a risky proposition).

Mostly, I’m trying to work a tempo wave (so they don’t die of exhaustion), and an energy wave (so they don’t die of overexcitement). I tend to work this wave with my attention 100% on the crowd, and how they look and feel. Are they physically tired? Are they emotionally tired? If it’s the former, drop the tempo. If it’s the latter, back off the NT Basie wall of sound and get some tinkly Goodman small group in there.
I do like to aim to get them worked up, so I like to get the energy really freaking high during a set. But people can’t sustain that, emotionally, for a terribly long time. Just like a panic attack only lasts about 15 minutes max (eg 5 x 3minute songs), I find the emotional highs have to come and go. Like waves. So while I build a single wave during a whole set (a tide if you will), that tide is comprised of smaller waves, working the energy up and down in steps. But once you get to about an hour, you kind of have to reset a bit and start again. Or else it’s a bit boring.

And of course, it depends on the crowd. Really experienced lindy hoppers in good physical condition at an exchange on the main night of the event (eg Saturday of a weekend) want to PARTY, so they make it easy for you: bring the adrenaline, and they’re into it. But if it’s day 5 of a 7 day event, perhaps they want something a bit more cerebral? Some Kirby small group, perhaps?

My big rules:
If I try to pre-empt the crowd, I will DJ to an agenda and fuck up.
Don’t DJ to an imaginary crowd that you’ve planned out before the set. DJ to the people right there in the room.
Like Mona says: practice practice practice, then get out there on the social floor and just enjoy yourself. Go for the feels.

*I’m surprised by how many dancers don’t realise that most tempo changes – from slow to fast – are usually where the tempo doubles. So you can just keep dancing at the same speed, except you’ll be dancing half time when the music gets faster. So be cool, yo. And like an old timer: half time is way radical awesome doods.

I dunno, I’m not convinced

Look, I don’t think I’m all that excited about dancing to careful 3 minute transcriptions of recorded big bands. I like a little more chaos with my historical recreation. I’ve been listening to some live and radio recordings from the 30s and 40s, and some modern stuff like this video from the Kansas City soundtrack, and I like it when they go off-script. There’s a really great sax battle in one of the Kansas City songs, and it’s entirely not-historically-accurate, but it is entirely awesome.

What exactly are my issues?
I think it’s a bad idea to train dancers to dance to 3 minute songs.
Recordings of bands are amazing and important. But if we just reproduce those recordings exactly, we’re missing the point of jazz: improvisation, innovation, and taking risks within a shared structure.
We need to encourage song writers and arrangers to develop new music, to keep those skills alive and to foster the recording of modern jazz bands.
I LOVE seeing a good band leader managing a band, getting a musician to solo at just the right time, because that musician is on fire, responding to the crowd, working the vibe in the room up and down. Listening to the audience, bantering with them.

As I write this, I’m thinking about Adrian Cunningham, who’s currently one of my favourite band leaders. He gets fantastic performances out of musicians I might see every week at home. But the show is fresh and exciting because he’s innovating and improvising with the whole band and whole song, even while the soloists or individual musicians are improvising within that bigger shape. I know that these guys need decent transcripts to work with old songs. And I know a big band needs a big stack of charts, and that they rely lesson improvisation and more on the careful choreography of musicians and parts. But, to be honest, big bands aren’t the bands I book or see as often as small bands. Simply because lots of musicians = lots of individual pay packets = a big hire fee for the band.

I danced to a very nice and very faithful version of Lavender Coffin by Gordon Webster’s band at Snowball, and while I had a bunch of fun, I was actually left thinking, ‘Gee, I hear this song all the time. I’d like to hear something new.’ It’s a decent song, but it’s not amazing. And it gets DJed all the time. It’s very safe. What makes the recording good is the band’s performance on the recording.
I understand what Webster’s doing with his band: this is pop music, and playing favourites to make a party. His songs are quite formulaic, and have a very clear, almost identical structure. They’re great. They’re exciting. But they’re entirely predictable. This is great if you’re dancing a set sequence of steps, or want everything in your dance to be safe and predictable.
But I dance to live music because I like to be surprised. I want something new and interesting. Sometimes that new stuff is going to suck balls. But sometimes it’s going to be wonderful.

how to exploit people

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I’ve had a couple of emails this week alone asking me if my business would like the opportunity to work for free. I said no.
But I know a lot of DJs work for free for ‘experience’ or ‘exposure’, I know newer dancers perform for free for ‘exposure’ or ‘experience’, and I know teachers work at big events within Australia for ‘experience’. None of whom receive free entry to the event or any equitable compensation (eg a free pass). One of the bigger areas of exploitation in the dance world is administration – running large events or regular classes.
All of this is pretty much bullshit.

I’m particularly annoyed by the way volunteering is used to gain free labour from dancers, without providing safe, reasonable working conditions. Volunteering is a good thing in many cases (and the lindy hop community needs it to work), but you have a responsibility as the employer (because that’s what you are) to provide safe, equitable, and just working conditions and terms for all the people who work for you. Volunteers, employees, and contractors.Simply justifying this lack of pay as ‘growing the scene’ or doing it ‘for the scene’ is not ok.

If you really want to ‘grow the scene’ you pay people so they can then invest some of that money back into the scene (or you know, paying their electricity bill). A healthy, growing community is sustainable, economically and socially. In other words, you want to retain skilled workers (rather than overworking them and burning them out) so you can retain their knowledge and abilities and help your community improve what it does.
You want to offer people opportunities to develop these skills and interests, so that they can move on to run their own projects, develop their own ideas, and help your community become a more interesting, diverse creative space. In other words, you’ll get better dancing, DJing, and events in your scene if people stick around longer, and feel good about what they do. Eventually people get tired of being screwed over, and they drop out.

More importantly, when you exploit people, you are facilitating conditions which make it possible for your workers to be abused in other ways. Including sexual harassment and bullying. So when you say, “Oh, you should DJ/teach/manage the door for free because I want you to, and I’m just doing this ‘for the scene’,” you’re telling people that they should do unfair, unsafe, unpleasant, exploitative things ‘for the scene’ just because someone powerful or ‘important’ asks them to.

Whenever I hear the phrases ‘grow the scene’ and ‘doing this for the scene/community’, my alarm bells ring. Volunteers, workers, dancers, DJs, teachers, students ARE the scene. So you should – you have a responsibility protect their interests and rights.

I am involved with feminism

Before I went off on my trip last month I did a little interview with the blokes from ‘From the Top’, a radio show produced by ig hop in Vienna.
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They’re doing some really interesting work there, with an exciting Dancers in Residence program, the usual round of parties (with unique and A1 art) and classes, and radio show, From The Top.

The radio show is a good one. We have a bunch of lindy hop related podcasts and vlogcasts, but all of them are American, and show a decidedly American bias. To the point that I can’t actually bear to listen to most of them any more. I don’t like to hate on people’s creative projects, but I’m very tired of listening to discussions pitched as discussing ‘the lindy world’, but really only discussing a few people’s experience of contemporary urban American lindy hop. Booooring. The more I learn about lindy hop in Asia, Europe, and the antipodes (of course :D), the more embarrassing some of those American podcasts become. Bros need to travel.

An exception to this cringe is Ryan Swift’s the Track. At first glance, an hour and three quarter long podcast where two people just talk about dancing seems intolerable. Interminable. But Ryan manages to pull it off. Mostly because he chooses interesting people, but also because he’s a master of the well directed casual conversation. I am of course completely biased, because Ryan is an Internet Friend, but in this case, the bias is justified.

But From The Top is exciting. It’s short, just 20, 15 minutes. Professionally edited and presented, with good topics, well-constructed stories, and a far-reaching, open-eyed approach to truly international lindy hop culture. This is no accident. The presenter and producer Alexei Korolyov is a professional journalist, and it really makes a difference. Previous episodes have discussed Health, Well-being and Social Conventions; Being a Swing Musician Today; Regionalism vs Globalisation in Lindy Hop; and Time Traveling back to the ‘swing era’ (you can find them all here on soundcloud.) And they’re all really interesting and good listens.

The latest ep is about Gender Roles in Dance. I think it’s pretty good, but, to be honest, it’s not quite as good as previous episodes, mostly because I think it’s a complicated issue that could have done with a little preamble to define some terms and perhaps set the tone. I guess it did, in a way, but I don’t quite agree with the approach and definitions Alexei takes. But yolo, right? Despite this, I think he takes a very open approach to the issue, and has some interesting guests. This is a good piece, and it does good work.

I really liked hearing from Rebecka DecaVita, a woman dancer I’ve long admired and really wanted to hear speak about these issues. Jo Jaekyeong from Korea is an old friend of mine, and I really liked hearing her speak clearly about her experiences in Seoul, a city and scene I’m currently very interested in. I don’t know Gregor Hof Bauer or Patrick Catuz, and while Patrick’s comments were the ones I found most problematic, I was very interested to hear from some men in this discussion. And men who’d actually done some proper thinking about this issue, beyond the sort of glib jokey rubbish I’ve been hearing on the American podcasts.

It was particularly cool to hear from Gregor, who’s an out gay bloke, speaking about following. This was especially cool, because I do feel that a lot of the American and mainstream lindy hop commentary has been very coyly stepping around the issue of queerasfuck dancing, managing not to have any openly gay peeps speaking in podcasts, vlogcasts, or in public talks. I think this is one of the features of a European production: they simply are more politically and socially progressive than the American productions, so we hear a more grown up and interesting discussion. Or at the very least, this program is better journalism for its presentation of a more diverse range of voices.

I was the other interviewee on the program this month, and I wasn’t all that happy with how I did in the original interview. I feel like I crapped on too much, and could have been more succinct. But Alexei has edited the bejeebs out of me, so I come out of it sounding a lot more coherent than I actually was. Overall, it was exciting and flattering to be asked to be involved (SUPER flattering), and I enjoyed it. I admire Alexei’s work, and it was so nice to be a part of something I admire. Such an honour.

In the rest of this post, I’ll engage with just one part of the podcast, which is really just an accidental language slip. It is where Alexei says (as Laura pointed out) “Sam is actively involved with feminism”. This is a true statement.

It’s also kind of lolsome because I don’t feel like feminism is this thing outside myself (the way this statement implies). Feminism is what I am and do. To say “I am a feminist” is a way of saying “Hey, I think we need to talk about gender and power, and I’m not going to shoosh up about it.” Saying “I am a feminist” is a political act.

For a woman, speaking up like this, expressing discontent and generally disturbing the status quo by not being a quiet, conciliatory woman, is explicitly political. When a man says ‘I am a feminist’, the act itself means something quite different. Because we do exist in patriarchy. For a woman, the very act of speaking up, of dissenting, of being a ‘difficult woman’ is a political act. It’s dissension. It’s dangerous. It’s powerful. So it’s not so much that I am ‘involved with feminism’, it’s that I AM A FEMINIST. I don’t prevaricate, I don’t add caveats or qualifications when I say that. I just am a feminist.

And when I say this, it means that I think that the way we do things is a bit fucked up. I think that there are problems. I think that men have and take advantage of privileges and advantages that women don’t have. Yes, you, white straight guy. I’m speaking to you. I’m saying to you, you have advantages that I don’t. And if you’re not paying attention to that, if you’re not asking why that is so, you are just quietly maintaining the status quo. You are complicit in patriarchy. And I’m not ok with that. I’m not going to let you rest easy on that. I’m going to be the pebble in your shoe. I’m not going to sit down and shoosh. And it’s not going to be comfortable for you. It shouldn’t be. Because patriarchy is not fucking comfortable for me.

Our culture makes things easier for you, men. You have advantages. As I say in that podcast, I doubt anyone says to you, male lead, “Oh, you’re being the boy?” or even comments at all on the fact that someone of your gender is choosing to lead in a workshop. But for me, it is so common it’s normal. But it’s also a constant niggling question of my right to be in a class as a lead. It’s a continual itching doubt that I am a ‘real’ lead. Because apparently real leads are all men. And of course, women are complicit in patriarchy by doing things like policing gender roles by asking women if they are ‘being the boy’, or asking a teacher to have men give up following so they can lead (and rebalance the gender/lead-follow ratio).

So this is why I am not so much ‘actively involved with feminism’ or a feminist project. I am a feminist project. I am feminism. I am a feminist. And feminism is about dissension. It’s about destabilising. It’s about being a good goddamn pain in the arse. I’m quite used to being thought of as a ‘bitch’ or a ‘difficult woman’.
So when I enter professional relationships and interactions in the lindy hop world today, I go in reminding myself that I am awesome. It’s very important to enter these interactions with confidence. With rock solid confidence in your decisions, your ideas, your skills. A lot of confidence. You must be as iron-clad in your determination as a man would be. Even though a man doesn’t have to deal with all the niggling critiques and policing. Because as a woman, you will be confronted or bullied or tested by men.

I saw it happening in Herrang, in a range of contexts – male teachers testing female teachers, male students testing female students, male DJs testing female DJs, male everyone testing female organisers and administrators. Some things that happened to me at Herrang this year and last, as a woman DJ, that didn’t happen to male DJs:
– I had my ‘knobs twiddled’ without permission by other other DJs while I was DJing.
– Male DJs said “You need to fix the levels” instead of “Are the levels ok? It’s a bit squeaky where I was?”
– Male DJs physically took up more space than I did in the DJ booth while I was DJing.
– Male DJs said “Do you just DJ locally?” instead of just assuming as they do with other men that I was actually an experienced DJ who’d DJed overseas and nationally for years (and hence meant to be there).
– A male DJ described going to DJ blues as “Going to get some pussies wet” in front of me, and blanched a little when I replied “I took a few dance classes today and that did the job for me.” Apparently pussies are things you do things to, rather than things you have for some male DJs.
– Male DJs assumed I was much younger than I am, and were patronising until they discovered my real age (and dancing and DJing experience).

…and there were many more incidences. These were all from male DJs who are very nice guys, who were generally very good to work with. But these are the sorts of micro-incidences that remind me that I am a woman, and that challenge me.

And the only real way to deal with this, as a woman professional in lindy hop, is to say to yourself:

“I am a professional.”
“I know my shit. I am a fucking good DJ/organiser/manager/dancer.”
“Here are my accomplishments, here is my history, where I did a bloody good job.”
“When I speak, I know what I am talking about, so I will speak with confidence, and in declarative statements, not questions.”
“When I make my needs and requirements clear to a man, I know what I’m saying, and I don’t need to justify myself.”
“When I challenge a man for his behaviour, I am doing the right thing. I am in the right. I am justified in my call. And he should respect that.”
“When I am challenged or tested by a man simply because I’m a woman and he’s used to being an alpha in interactions with women I should feel good about stepping up and pushing back. I should – I will – push back.”
“I will not second-guess myself and my actions as an employer or manager. I will not verbally justify my decisions or authority with someone I’ve employed. I am the boss, I’m good at it, and I am here to kick heads and take names.”
“As a woman boss or employer or manager, I don’t have to become a jerkface bloke, or take on hegemonic modes of management or problem solving. I can be collaborative and gentle. I can talk about how I feel, and I can take into account my peers’ feelings. I can be emotionally honest without being manipulative. And I can still be an arse-kickingly good boss. This does not make me weak or unprofessional.”

I also think it’s essential to be supportive of other women. And to remember that men who push or challenge are often feeling a lack of self confidence. The difficult male DJ is feeling doubts about his ability, and not sure you’re a decent manager. So you need to convince him, through your confident manner, that you are capable, and that he can trust you to set reasonable limits and be his guide and manager. Yes, it sucks to have to mother these fucktards (god, emotional labour, much?), but just assume that they’re little babies and need to be babbied.
When you’re working with other women, you need to let them know that you think they’re legit. Sisterhood is powerful, but collaboration is mighty. Lindy hop teaches us how to work with other people in close, emotionally intense partnerships. We can definitely take that to our off-dance-floor professional relationships.

So, yes, I am involved with feminism. In the most intimate of ways. I am a feminist.