Category Archives: Women in History 2011

Women’s History Month: Maxine Sullivan!


Geez, these posts are becoming a real trial. I am just too busy. No, actually, I’m just too can’t be bothered to do one of these every day. I just feel as though I’m listing all the big name vocalists of the swing era. Boooring. I had intended to do lots of research and come up with interesting women. But I didn’t. I suck a bit for that, because the women’s history month 2011 posts were so exciting and inspiring. I guess the difference is that I’m a dancer first, and a music nerd second. And I’m not that much of a music nerd really.
Incorrect. I’m a massive music nerd.

Anyway, to continue this tale of woe would bore us all to tears. So here’s Maxine Sullivan. If you don’t know her, you are living in some crazy town where nothing is fun or good. She did stuff with Charlie Shavers, John Kirby and that crew, so you know her shit is hot.

This is a song from her 50s come-back album with a fucking great band: Maxine Sullivan – Massachusetts (1956). You need to buy the Tribute to Andy Razaf album that I crapped on about here.

This is a song from that 1930s Loch Lomond ~ Maxine Sullivan ~ 1937:

Women’s History Month 2012: Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears!

Women’s History Month is here again, and this month I’m going to do a different woman jazz musician every day. I’m away in Melbourne for a weekend of actual, real live dancing, so I’ve pre-written this post. Hopefully it publishes properly.
I’ve started by stealing a post from last year because I haven’t had a chance to research this properly (you can read all my pathetic excuses here in this post.)

Here’s a whole band full of amazing jazz women: Ina Rae Hutton and her Melodears!

linky

You can read more about Hutton in this good little Guardian article from last year (which is where I found that cool photo).

Another look at appropriation in dance

Appropriation, step-stealing, cultural transmission, imitation, impersonation, copying, poaching….

So my last chunky post ‘Historical Recreation’: Fat Suits, Blackface and Dance has kind of hit like a ton of bricks. Cultural transmission in dance – the movement of dance steps and forms and ideas between and within cultures – is pretty much my core research interest, and I definitely don’t want to leave this topic just yet. I certainly didn’t want to leave things with a fairly despairing discussion about blackface and discomforting appropriation.

This is a very long post, and it’s divided into these sections:

1. What is cultural transmission?

Right. What do I mean when I talk about ‘cultural transmission’. Basically, in this context, I’m talking about the movement of cultural ‘stuff’ – in this case dance steps/rhythms/styling/etc – between cultures. But why stop there? I like writing long posts, and this is such an exciting topic. So strap in.


(photo of Willi Ninja stoled from here)

A fairly simple example of cultural transmission in dance would be the movement of vogueing from queer culture to mainstream pop culture via Madonna’s 2006 Vogue video clip. The 1990 documentary film Paris is Burning is a cool beginning place for looking at this stuff, and you can watch Part 1 of Paris is Burning on Youtube. You can see Will Ninja dancing in the Malcolm Mclaren Deep in Vogue music video.

Wait. I’ve just dated myself. Ok. So another cool example is the way Krumping was promoted in the mainstream by David LaChapelle’s 2005 film Rize. Fark. My cultural references – they are out of date! And I don’t want to suggest that just one film or music video is enough to stimulate the shift of a dance from marginal to mainstream spaces. There’s quite a bit more going on, and quite a few more people involved in the process, from dance teachers to performances by lesser-known dancers to trends in night club cultures and DJing interests.

Basically, we’re talking about dances moving from one cultural context (in these cases queer culture and urban African American youth street dance culture) to another (mainstream, predominantly white-owned and organised music industry). These two examples suggest that this cultural transmission thing is a matter of one rich, powerful culture ripping off another. Maybe. But cultural transmission is more complicated. Not every example of borrowing or step stealing is dodgy.

I often talk about the cake walk as an example of cultural transmission, and I’ve listed a bunch of references for my ideas about cake walk in Dance competitions and policing public space. In this case, slaves borrowed particular movements from the culture of the slave owners. And then fucked with it. This is a bit more transgressive than Madonna having some kids vogue in her video clip.

Power, class, identity and cultural transmission

But I do think we need to keep Katrina Hazzard Gordon’s words in mind: “Who has the power to steal from whom?” What are the broader power relationships at work in the society where this transmission is happening? Who has the most money? Whose opinions and beliefs are most frequently presented in the media? Which types of sexual relationships are presented as ‘normal’? Yes, it is possible for less powerful people to steal dance steps from other groups, but what does it mean when they do?
If we’re going to do informed thinking about this, we have to recognise that societies and relationships are structured by class, by gender, by sexuality, by age, by ethnicity and so on. The choices we can (and are allowed to) make, the way we dance, is affected by who we are, as social beings. If you totally believe that none of this matters, and that the individual is simply who they have made themselves, then this is not the post (nor the blog) for you. I’m not saying that we are powerless to change our fates, but I am saying that it is naive to assume that we are just the sum of biology or individual choices. Social animals, yo.

In my work I’ve argued that cultural transmission involves some sort of ideological and structural reworking for the thing or practice being transmitted. Dance steps aren’t just carried, whole, to new cultural locations and traditions. They get changed a bit. They’re usually toned down for conservative mainstream audiences. There’s quite a bit written about this, stacks talking about hip hop, but quite a bit on partner dancing. For example, Jane Desmond talks about mambo and its popularity in white communities in the 1950s, and Sheenagh Pietrobruno discusses salsa classes in Montreal. But this repackaging of marginalised practice for mainstream consumption isn’t restricted to dance. Rosetta Tharpe’s guitar playing was retuned for white audiences. The recent remake of Hairspray pretty much undid all the badass subversion of the John Waters original – folks got whiter, language got cleaner, dances go duller, drag queens got undragged.

It’d be easy to just give up, to dismiss cultural transmission as indelibly marked by class and power and ethnicity and the work of The Man. But then, you’d be giving up before you got to the good part. Yes, the commodification of dances like mambo and lindy hop can be read as the appropriation of street dance by elite groups in the mainstream. But cultural transmission doesn’t work in only one direction. We hoomans, we’re complicated beasts. And terribly creative. Cultural transmission can be subversive and exciting.

Cultural transmission via Star Trek fans

I developed my ideas about step stealing and cultural transmission by way of fan studies. Or, more specifically, by way of textual poaching, Camille Bacon Smith and women SF fans. Women who wrote slash fiction. The idea here, is that fans of the Star Trek television show imagined whole new lives for the heroes, Captain Kirk and Mr Spock. Whole new relationships. In the tv show Spock and Kirk are platonic friends. Very good friends. But in the imaginations of fans, they could be so much more.

I really like this idea that characters in a story have entire lives we don’t see. I also really like the thought of fans – people who are painted as helpless consumers – totally fucking up the myth that they are victims of aggressive television. Basically, I took this idea of textual poaching (where fans ‘poached’ characters or stories from mainstream media texts) and applied it to dance. Thing is, I wasn’t the first person to get up on this idea. Frankie Manning himself had a reputation as a hardcore step stealer. Someone who’d copy your steps, then pull them out himself. Of course, the trick lies not in creating an exact copy of that original step, but in remaking it and performing it a new and unique way that makes people SQUEE. And Frankie certainly made people SQUEE. Nor was he first at this. It’s a feature of vernacular dance generally.

Cultural transmission between generations

I’m also very interested in the transmission of dance steps and forms across generations. It stands to reason that young people gonna do young people things, and there are types of dances which they’ll invent to suit their needs and interests. Lindy hoppers totally understand this. We regularly tell each other stories about how the swingout was an adaptation of the European partner dance format. Or, to be clearer, there’s a story about how Shorty George Snowden and his partner broke out into open during a dance contest, and totally blew people’s brains. And of course, there’s also the story about how Frankie Manning and Freda Washington, keen to bring something new to win a dance competition pulled out the first air step and blew people’s brains with that.

Vernacular dance happens in cross-generational spaces, from homes to street parties and church dances. There’s quite a bit written about this: Katrina Hazzard Gordon has a book called Jookin’, LeeEllen Friedland talks about this in reference to tap dance and hip hop. As a result, dance forms do not simply die out or disappear when the current generation moves on to something else. ‘Old’ dances live on in the dancing bodies of older people in the community, and are regularly revisited and ‘borrowed’ by younger people.

Jonathan David Jackson argues that black movement traditions are ‘choreologically contemporaneous’. That’s another way of saying that new dance steps and styles (like lindy hop in the 20s/30s, breakdance in the 70s/80s) develop at the same time as old fashioned steps stop being popular with young people. Jackson argues that rather than disappearing, replaced by new steps, old steps are recycled.

principles of physical, spatial, aural, and qualitative action are passed on from one tradition to the next (41).

This is pretty exciting stuff. It means that lindy hop didn’t die out in the 1950s. It just changed shape. This also means that older dances are continually revived and rediscovered by younger people. How? By watching old folks dance, by learning from old folks. But also by the fact that principles of movement (balance, spatial awareness, everyday rhythmic movement) persist in a community. They don’t just disappear.
I really like this cross-generational aspect as it encourages a relationship between young people and older people which is based on mutual respect, and cements the role of older people in our community. I once gave a talk at a conference on cultural transmission in dance where there were some young Indigenous Australian dancers from Bangarra in the audience. I ended up talking about this idea of learning dance from elders with a young koori woman choreographer. We were both excited about the idea that our dance cultures were so community-rooted, but we each also had frustrations about how this could limit what we did as women dancers. In her case, there are some warrior dances which women aren’t allowed to learn, but which she found particular exciting and inspiring. So there are limitations to this cross-generational stuff as well.

Improvisation, making stuff up and dance-as-discourse

Yet this cross-generational ‘choreography’ also implies and responds to social change within the community and wider society. Lindy hop was a response to the development of swinging jazz and the rise of the Harlem renaissance: new music demanded new dance steps. Jazz, at its most fundamental level, combines improvisation with formal structure. For me, this is the most exciting part. Jazz music is vernacular music (or it was – I’ve been meaning to write about jazz’s shift from folk or pop music to ‘art’ music). Jazz is also all about improvisation – making stuff up. Innovating. Changing. Being flexible enough to bend and respond to the user’s needs and ideas. So jazz dance has to be the same way. It’s all about innovation, improvisation, change, response.

Improvisation, making stuff up and ballet

So, if innovation and change are essential parts of vernacular dance, what about concert dances like ballet? I’d argue that they’re all about managing change and in many cases restricting it, preserving dances as they are. But even there, choreographers and dancers are innovating. And it’s certainly true that vernacular dance is also carefully managed. There are, for example, some dances you wouldn’t do in front of your parents. Frankie Manning used to tell a story about his mother going out to dance in a way that she didn’t think was appropriate for a young boy to see (let alone do). This is an example of how dance at once reflects cultural and social mores, but is also regulated and managed by community values. Just like ballet, only it’s done in a different way.

George Balanchine is a good example of a ballet dancer and choreographer who brought African American movements and aesthetics to ballet, pushing some barriers (not without challenges) and introducing new ideas to a fairly resistant culture.

(Katherine Dunham, 1943 Life Collection)
Katherine Dunham was a dancer and choreographer who did similar work, stretching concert dance with movements and shapes and ideas from other cultures. In this case, we can see clearly politicised goals at work – Dunham was making it clear that ballet and ‘elite’ white mainstream art dance was enriched by contributions from other dances and other dance cultures.


(1939 image also from the Life collection)

Pearl Primus is another example of a black woman dancer moving into ballet/concert dance and bringing with her quite radical ideas about movements and types of movement.

Cultural transmission in dance as politics

These are all examples of ethnicity and concert dance as a place for cultural transmission. I talked a bit about the specific changes and differences between these different dance traditions in gimme de kneebone bent. I’m really excited by the idea of dance as a product of culture as well as physiology. Our sense of aesthetics in dance is informed not only by our cultural values and who we are, as social beings, but also by our ideas about gender and beauty and art generally. This is partly why I get so worked up about shoes. High heel shoes make feet seem smaller and pointed, and the leg seem longer and straighter. Legs in heels aren’t some sort of objective marker of ‘beauty’. Feeling that legs in heels is ‘sexier’, ‘more feminine’, ‘better’ than legs in other shoes is a product of how we are raised, of social/economic class, the culture we live in, and how we think about bodies and beauty. And not everyone shares these ideas. I simply think it’s a mistake to box ourselves in with limited ideas about what can be beautiful or skilled dancing. We are capable of such wonderful things; why limit ourselves to just one small corner of that?

So change (often through individual improvisation and innovation), is a necessary feature of vernacular dance. Re-presenting everyday life in dance lets dancers express themselves, and engage with the ideas and powers of their local community and wider society. This become especially important when the dancers involved do not have access to the ‘official public sphere’ – to newspapers, films, mainstream media, public lectures, the education system and so on. Dance can give disempowered folk a chance to recreate gain ‘control’ of their often hostile everyday life.

Everyday life and cultural transmission in dance

Vernacular dance – street dance, folk dance, rather than concert or stage dance – are responses to people’s everyday lives and environments. So you see types of movements in vernacular dance which echo the dancer’s everyday movement and lifestyle. LeeEllen Friedland talks about rhythmic movement in day to day life, arguing that when you live in a culture where music and dance are part of everyday life, there’s no clear line between ‘dance’ and ‘rhythmic movement’. So, for example, the basic charleston step which we lindy hoppers are nuts about, is structurally very like walking. The arms swing, the legs move forwards and back, the bounce which generates energy in the movement originates in the torso (or core) travels out through the body, to the arms and hands. Just like when you walk. More specifically, there are plenty of jazz steps which are deliberate references to everyday activities and movements. For example the ‘cherry picker’ (or I’ve heard it called ‘praise allah’) looks just like reaching up to pick cherries, then down to put them in a basket.

One of the things I’ve especially liked is the thought of dancers imitating real live people in their neighbourhoods. Or ‘types’ of people. The pimps in Harlem. Sailors on the docks. Plantation owners. For a people without access to the mainstream media, dance offers a right of reply, a discursive space for the thrashing out of ideas, the resolution of conflict, the management of public identities and social norms.
What all this then means is that dance becomes an extension of everyday life, rather than a discrete, separate activity.

Cultural transmission in modern day lindy hop

That’s pretty much what my research was about. Except I then went on to talk about what happens in modern day lindy hop contexts. Because I was grounded in media and cultural studies, I was particularly interested in how dancers today use digital media to do all this. I talked about digital video clips and learning dance steps and sharing dance ideas cross-culturally. I also talked about online talk and developing and cementing international and inter-scene relationships via online talk. And I talked about DJing using digital tools.

Ok, so let’s go there. Let’s talk about modern day lindy hop and cultural transmission. If we can agree that black American dancers imitating and step stealing and poaching is empowering and subversive, what does it mean when modern day dancers start doing this stuff? I think it can be highly problematic (as I described in ‘Historical Recreation’: Fat Suits, Blackface and Dance. But we can’t stop there. What about Korea? What about Japan and Singapore? What about black American dancers today learning lindy hop? What about Asian-Australian dancers imitating Dean Collins? Shit is wacked, right? I mean, we can’t just write off the modern lindy hop project as fucked up appropriation or racism. For every blackface performance there’s stuff like this:

linky

This is, of course, a group of Korean lindy hoppers making a birthday greeting for Frankie Manning, combining traditional Korean song and dance with the shim sham. It’s the ultimate mark of respect for an older man, a teacher, and a hero for these young Korean people. It’s also a brilliant example of cultural transmission, combining all sorts of musical and dancing influences. I think Frankie would have adored it. I know I do. It makes me tear up with its sincere respect and affection for Frankie Manning.

And we have to think about the Two cousins video clip. Neither of the men in that clip are African American, but they are of African descent, and they are thoroughly grounded in the history of this dance, both creatively and politically. I remember Ryan François talking about how important it was a young black British man to discover lindy hop and Frankie Manning. This recreationism can be suspect, but it can also be wonderful and empowering and exciting.

I’ve talked a lot about race and ethnicity here. But let’s talk about gender and sexuality.

Historical recreationism, gender and having a clue

I have some reservations about a hardcore historical recreationist approach to lindy hop today. Mostly because, hey, we don’t live in the 1920s, 30s or 40s. Yes, the costumes and the music and the dances are fun. Super fun. And it’s totally ok to spend lots of time and effort into recreating them. But the 1920s, 30s and 40s weren’t terribly awesome places to live. Particularly if you weren’t white. It was even a bit shit if you were a woman. I mean, I like the right to vote, to own property, to divorce. I like having clean water and food, and good solid health care. I like knowing my child won’t die from polio or that I won’t die from a botched abortion on a kitchen table because I didn’t have access to safe contraception. And I’m a white woman. If I’d been black, in America or Australia, things would have been way shitter.

I don’t want to recreate those days. I don’t want to pretend that they were so wonderful and great. And I think that if you’re going to get into historical recreationism, you need to be very aware of your own privilege and power, and of the broader historical contexts of the clothes and music and dances you love. I mean, a Pearl Harbour dance, today? Not so cool. Blackface? Again, you gotta have a think about what that meant at the time, and what it means now. This is why I’m really not ok with WWII themed dances. I’m not at all ok with planning a dance – a good party time – based on the idea of conflict that killed so many and to which my own grandparents were so seriously opposed. Sure, I think we should remember these conflicts, but I also think we should think about those wars and the meanings behind the symbolism we just mash into our dance events.

Being right on and doing historical recreationism: fan SQUEE

Ok, so how do I reconcile all those misgivings with my absolute passion for the dances and music of the period? How do I do recreationism without giving myself the shits? Firstly, I go for the intent and the ideas behind and within these dances. Lindy hop, jazz dance, vernacular dance can be so subversive. Think of that cake walk, the mocking of slave owners, the thumbing of the nose to the oppressor. That’s an excellent idea. Think about impersonation and derision dance – speaking back, responding to bullshit politics on the dance floor. This is exciting for me because it is non-violent, creative activism. But it can also just be plain good fun. I mean, it blows my BRAIN that leading in lindy hop can at once be so incredibly subversive (a woman making decisions? a woman, complete without a man? unpossible!), but is also (and more importantly) so much FUN.
I’ve always thought that while getting angry about injustice is useful for galvanising the self, it’s also bloody depressing. Eventually, I need to get active and to empower myself. And I see being physically strong and capable (to the best of my ability), being creative, finding pleasure in my self and my own body as the most exciting way of fucking over the patriarchy. I mean, the sweetest, finest revenge is simply being happy and confident. Particularly in my culture, where the ‘beauty industry’ is all about trying to make me anxious and self-doubting. I choose not to waste my time and worry on what my hair looks like or whether I’m pleasing some man. I choose to spend my worry and time on getting that goddamn swingout as fine as it can possibly be.

The fact that we can do all this in public is also pretty damn good. Dance is a public discourse. It’s an engagement with ideas and social forces and structures. It’s a way of expressing our own ideas. Our own selves. That is why I’m so keen on the idea of diversity in dance, and in not enforcing a particular way of dancing as a woman or a man. We are all the more richer for our differences.

Putting it all into practice: an example

So let me sum up with a nice example. I’m going to talk about Dax & Sarah – Moses Supposes US Open Cabaret 2010 performance:

Which is a recreation of Gene Kelly & Donald O’Connor in the ‘Moses Supposes’ number from the 1952 film Singing in the Rain

What do I find so great about this? First, it’s great dancing. I like what I see. It’s historical recreationism to the nth degree. These are two modern day dancers performing choreography inspired by a particular film sequence, wearing costumes inspired by that same sequence, using the sound from that sequence. SQUEE! But unlike the Day At the Races routine, we’re not seeing any dodgy fatsuits. Race is still happening here – these are two white kids performing a routine danced by two white man. Whiteness is race, is ethnicity. I think class is also at work (and a central theme for the original routine, of course). But the gender stuff is what I get most squee about.

I really really like it that Sarah has co-opted the part of a male actor and dancer. So many of the solo jazz routines danced by women around the lindy hop world have them in some sort of sexeh frock, doing teh sexeh ladee dancing. But in this case, Sarah is wearing trousers, a blouse (rather than a shirt), flat shoes, and her hair is tied up. She definitely reads as conventionally female, but not in a spangles-and-sex sort of way. More importantly, she’s dancing virtually the same steps as her male fellow performer. I especially like it that this performance works in complement to her existing ideas about shoes and whatnot. I think it’s particularly subversive that she can do all the gender stuff.

Dancing in drag

I’m quite keen on this idea of dancing in drag, or of performing gender in this way. I mean, I often think about my own dancing in this sort of way. I make extensive, and thorough, use of historical clips myself. I use them as a source for new steps, for ways of holding my body, for styling, for attitude. But I’m using both the male and female dancers for this. When I’m dancing, I frequently think to myself “I’m Frankie!” or “I’m Al!” or even “I’m Skye!” It’s not that I’m actually imagining I’m these men in particular, or a man in more general terms. I’m very happy with being a woman. And with femininity (just not that boringly conventional heteronormative ladygirl femininity). But sometimes, in those moments when I’m dancing, I can imagine that I’m occupying that space that is awesome dancing and freedom of movement and creativity that I associate with my male heroes and role models. I want to occupy that Al Minns attitude, that Frankie power and excitement, that Skye dancing-squee enthusiasm. It makes me feel confident and happy. I know I’ll never dance like them, nor do I really want to be just like them, but it can be important to me to put on that identity like a costume. So when I’m dancing, I’m wearing that attitude, and it gives me confidence. Also, playing dress up and make believe is bloody good fun.

So when I see Sarah in that clip, I think ‘Yep. That works for me.’ It’s a moment where the dressing up and recreation is super fun and exciting. I don’t have to negotiate dodgy race politics. I can just enjoy the subversion of a woman ‘dancing man’ but owning it in her way. I guess, though, that this is how hegemony and patriarchy work. The smooth fit of class and race seems ‘right’, and anything else is kind of jagged and unsettling. We’re used to seeing these sorts of images of healthy young white male bodies being athletic and creative, ‘speaking’ and articulating a clever commentary on social relationships. Not much is being challenged by the original sequence. Really, the best part is Sarah’s occupying the male character and reworking it to accommodate her own gender.

Eccentric dance: where I’d like to live

I think this is why I’m very interested in eccentric dances. I had this sudden moment about a year ago, when I was doing lots of solo work, when I suddenly thought, watching videos of myself “Why am I trying to be ‘beautiful’ or ‘cool’ or otherwise conventionally attractive or ok? These guys aren’t.” You know that moment when you first watch yourself dancing on video and you cringe? Well, I realised that I was trying to get rid of that feeling by conforming to the sorts of ‘cool’ dancing I saw in modern day comps. I gradually realised that it wasn’t really possible for me to look like that. I’m not tall and thin; I’m kind of square with some round parts. I’m not hugely athletic. I have a round belly and lots of jelly all over me. I have big slabs of muscle in my legs and arse, and my arms don’t quite get straight. I’d been thinking of these as problems to overcome. But then I decided that these could become my strengths. No one else is quite my shape, or moves quite my way. I don’t need to please the people watching me – I can make them uncomfortable. Or nervous. Or embarrassed. Or – goddess forbid! – make them laugh.
This is when I started getting serious about using archival footage for finding role models.

  • Snake Hips Tucker: in the 1930 film Crazy House. It doesn’t seem possible to do what he does, but watch his hands – how does he contrast their light fluttering with the crazy stuff in his joints? Or the way he makes walking interesting in Love in the Rough in 1930. He was a frightening, aggressive, violent man who could do amazing, mesmerising things on stage that wouldn’t let you look away.
  • Al Minns: does more with his face than with his body, but at the same time, his movements are so precise and so carefully planned, they make you watch every second.
  • James Barton: in 1929 film After Seben. There’s that moment at 2.08 when he stops to wipe his shoes, where it feels like he’s disrupting the flow of the routine, and doing something silly and inappropriate. How can I use that idea of disrupting narrative ‘flow’? And he’s a white man in blackface: how can I unravel that and make it tenable? Is it even possible?
  • And my latest obsession, James Berry in Spirit Moves. I like the way his movements are just so strange, especially compared with Sandra Gibson. In this film, I want to be Berry. I’ve seen sultry woman dancing a million times before. But how often do you get to see strange woman dancing?

There are heaps of other clips to reference, and lots of women dancers to reference as well. I really like eccentric dances, because they’re about finding your own way of using your own body to do your own stuff. I could get really into reproducing the stuff I see in films exactly. And I do. But ultimately, what I’m really trying to do is find my own flavah flave. I want to be utterly unique. I find inspiration in all sorts of dance clips, but I don’t want to be a carbon copy of something from ye olden days.

But this post has gone on long enough. To sum up, I want to say that cultural transmission is such a complicated thing. It’s inflected by all sorts of issues, and it’s just not very interesting or useful to dismiss it all as ‘appropriation’. There are ways of negotiating good stuff, here, and I’m not ready to let it go.

References:

  • Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Series in Contemporary Ethnography. Eds. Dan Rose and Paul Stoller. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
  • Bacon-Smith, Camille. Science Fiction Culture. Feminist Cultural Studies, the Media and Political Culture. Eds. Mary Ellen Brown and Andrea Press. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
  • Desmond, Jane C. “Embodying Difference: Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies.”
    Cultural Critique (Winter 1993 – 94): 33 – 63.
  • Desmond, Jane C. ed. Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. London: Duke University
    Press, 1997.
  • Friedland, LeeEllen. “Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance.” Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance. Ed. Brenda Farnell. London: Scarecrow Press, 1995. 136 – 57.
  • Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. “African-American Vernacular Dance: Core Culture and Meaning Operatives.” Journal of Black Studies 15.4 (1985): 427-45.
  • Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
  • Jackson, Jonathan David. “Improvisation in African-American Vernacular Dancing.”
    Dance Research Journal 33.2 (2001/2002): 40 – 53.
  • Pietrobruno, Sheenagh. “Embodying Canadian Multiculturalism: The Case of Salsa Dancing in Montreal.” Revista Mexicana de Estudios Canadienses nueva época, número 3. (2002).

women talking about their own bodies and how this issue was trolled or women dancers wearing high heels and talking about it

My attention was caught yesterday by a thread on Yehoodi about a blog post by Sarah Breck titled Why women should wear heels. Sarah took down the original post and replaced it with another, but I’ve just had another look and seen that the post is back up again. My post, here, is about the way this issue fits into a bigger story about how dancers control their online, public image.

A brief long time line:

  • Sarah writes Why women should wear heels about women wearing high heels while dancing;
  • there’s some comment on that blog post in the comments section;
  • Manu links to the post in a thread on Yehoodi;
  • Yehoodi readers click through to Sarah’s blog post and read it;
  • there’s a heap of commentary in the yehoodi thread;
  • the people clicking through from yehoodi comment on Sarah’s post in the blog’s comments;
  • Sarah’s dance partner and boyfriend Dax (who co-writes the blog featuring the original post) defends Sarah’s argument in the comments section of Sarah’s blog post;
  • some people write posts on their own blogs linking to Sarah’s post (taint what you do, ann mony, short girl blog);
  • Sarah deletes her original post;
  • Sarah writes another post on the issue called “altho I guarantee every follow I have seen wear tennis shoes and heels always look better in heels and that should be reason enough”;
  • Dax writes a post called Why Men Should Wear Heels (How Wearing Slick Leather Shoes Made Me A Better Dancer);
  • there’s more to-ing and fro-ing on their post on this topic;
  • I read @ryanswift’s tweet linking to his tumblr post linking to the yehoodi thread;
  • I gabble a bit about it on twitter late last night after dancing;
  • I have bizarre dreams about shoes last night;
  • I decide to read up on this issue today, write a few drafts of this post, then write this post;
  • I think about @ryanswift’s implication that women dancers’ decision to wear heels (or not) should/is influenced by historical evidence of what women dancers wore in the ‘swing era';
  • I think about the Harlem Hot Shots and how they wear whatever they like (including heels), but don’t look like Sarah (or the other women in her post) dancing in heels;
  • I think about the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers wearing sneakers and heels at different times in different contexts;
  • I think about a comment in Malcolm X’s bio about women at the Savoy arriving in nice heels then changing into sneakers to dance seriously;
  • I do the half hour blocks of exercises my physio gave me to strengthen my abs, glutes, hip joints, knees, etc so that I can relieve pressure on my calf muscle which I’ve recently torn because I overwork my calves dancing on the ball of my foot in flat shoes;
  • I resolve never to wear heels, ever again, because they are tools of the patriarchy and because I am out to fuck up The Man. Also, because my physio would give me that ‘are you on crack?’ face;
  • I think about all the Women’s History Month posts I’ve done lately, and particularly about the heels in the white dancers’ clips, and the flats in the black dancers’ clips, and I think about how heels make you look as though your toes are always pointed, and I think about how pointed toes and straight legs embody culturally specific ideals of feminine beauty;
  • I write this post.

I think Sarah has the right to retract her statement. Though good luck to her – retracting comments from the intertubes is pretty much impossible. I might include the content from both of Sarah’s posts (which I’ve just copied and pasted at 1.55pm Sat 26th March 2011) in another post, but I’ll think about it carefully before I do. If I do reproduce her posts, I’ll engage with her arguments carefully, as I think she’s making a knowledgeable contribution to a discussion about women and dance.

I was disappointed to see Sarah take down the original post, as I think she has a perfect right to express her opinion. I also think that opinion is worth exploring, as Sarah is an excellent dancer, and a big name, influential teacher. She teaches other women how to dance, and she provides an influential contribution to dance discourse. I’d have preferred she didn’t take down her post, as it disturbs the narrative ‘flow’ of this wider discussion (there are a bundle of other blog posts from other people as well as the Yehoodi thread already), but then that’s really my problem, not hers. The absence of her post is itself a statement: she wanted to disassociate herself from that public statement, perhaps, while she might still stand by her original point.

I also understand why she might like to take the post down. Manu’s original link to her post seemed a little trolly (and was the second link he’s recently made to an inflamatory statement of traditional gender roles, not counting the segment on the Yehoodi talk show), and and this sent people to Sarah’s post in a fairly antagonistic frame of mind. Sarah didn’t really get the better end of this (desperate metaphoric) stick, and there were some firey comments and discussions.

As I read it, the debate on Yehoodi and in responding blog posts (taint what you do, ann mony, short girl blog) seemed to be polarised between conservative blokes valorising traditional, patriarchal notions of femininity and leftish women firing up and attacking Sarah’s comments. I’m not sure Sarah has that much experience with online debates (going by the style of her writing and her responses to comments), and suddenly being at the centre of what was becoming a shit storm would have upset me. And I’m used to shit storms on dance discussion boards. So, frankly, I think her decision to take down the post was probably a good one. It’s her blog, she’s the boss, and frankly, she has a right to say ‘fuck that shit’ and opt out.

I can’t help but think of the (currently raging) debate surrounding Dilbert author Scott Adams’ scary, misogynist blog post which was brought to my attention by Kate Beaton (of Hark a Vagrant) on twitter. Incidentally, I like the way Beaton’s discussion of being a woman comic author in her tweeting prefaced my reading about the Scott Adams issue: I approached this as a talk about comics authors. You can read his original post here and follow that post to the discussion on Feministe, where things get mighty angry (and Adams chimes in in the comments). Scott Adams wrote the post, sparked a furore, then took down the post. He wrote a post which was doing its best to support and promote scary gender politics and roles.

Sarah’s post, though, while it might also have been promoting conservative gender identities and roles, was not aggressively misogynist, woman-hating bile. It was the measured opinion of one woman posting a comment in a public forum. Yet her writing style was gendered (just as Scott Adams’ was): she is unaggressive, non-confrontational, quick to appease and conciliate. Her male partner chimes in in the comments to defend her. Scott Adams’ style, in contrast, is aggressive, confrontational and fairly unpleasant. Different genders, similarly gendered public talk. Or, perhaps, just as interestingly, Adams’ uses the gendered language of the ‘official’ public sphere: assertive statements, aggressive arguments, attacks and defenses rather than collaboration and cooperation.

In principle, I have some real problems with the content of Sarah’s post. I disagree quite thoroughly. But I am actually very interested in her opinions and discussion: I’ve been thinking about high heeled shoes and women dancers, and I want to read more on this topic. Scott Adams, however, spews vile hate-talk that discourages me from engaging with that discussion.

Sarah is somewhat disadvantaged by her writing skills. The original post has lots of problems, simply as a piece of writing. And the most immediate consequence of this is that it makes it difficult for Sarah to communicate her points clearly and effectively. Another consequence is that Sarah’s status as a knowledgeable dancer and teacher is implicitly destabilised by her writing. While those of us with half a brain realise that being a good dancer and teacher is not at all related to being a good writerer, the weaknesses of her writing imply weaknesses in her logic and argument.

I think there are weaknesses in her argument, but these are unrelated to her writing and – more importantly – thinking skills.

This recent event also reflects a wider issue that’s been in the back of my mind for a while. The last year or two has seen a leap in the number of blogs written and maintained by high profile international dancers. Most of these dancers are what I think of as younger American ‘rock stars’. Rock stars in the sense that they have a modicum of celebrity: well-known, high-profile, fashionable with some dancers, younger, often American. Most of them have had their websites designed and implemented by only a very small number of web nerds, and all have implemented various social media tools.

This is where things get really interesting. I’d argue that these websites have included social media tools – blogs, Faceplant plug ins, twitter feeds, etc – not as part of a carefully planned media strategy, but as a response to a general trend in website design. Yes, social media tools do raise your profile, and do ‘get you out there’. But as with all public relations tools, exposure is a double edged sword. If it were me, I’d vet my contributions to broader discourses very carefully. In fact, I’m not sure I’d even post personal blog posts on my official ‘business’ website – the website promoting my professional persona. I would use my twitter feed fairly prosaicly: updates on my travel and appearances at international and local events, perhaps. I’d also be very careful about my links.

Word of mouth is the most powerful and important promotional tool in international lindy hop. It can make or break a reputation. But a good PR strategy is about knowing how to limit talk as well as encourage it.

This leaves me with some questions.

Firstly, what responsibility should the web designers who produce these multi-media/cross-discourse sites take for their implementation? In any other industry, I’d say “none.” But many of these designers are also members of this community. Should they not take some sort of responsibility for not making sure their clients’ understand how to use their sites, not only practically, but also discursively?

I’ve talked about my own experiences with these sorts of website designers in the post ‘Am I being paranoid or is this dodgy?’, and I think my concerns about aggregated content bare revisiting. Particularly as Manu has also (trolling again?) drawn attention to www.swingdancepro.com, in another Yehoodi thread. Now perhaps Manu is seeing the same sort of trend I have, perhaps he’s just trolling, looking to stir up some debate (and activity) on Yehoodi. I suspect it’s a combination of the two.

Secondly, how should high profile dance teachers use their websites, and how should they manage their online profile? Blogs are useful because they personalise a teacher, and encourage readers (and dancers) to regard the authors as appealing human teachers worth learning from or employing. I’d also imagine a lot of teachers would like to expand on the issues they only touch on in class. They’d like to use blogs as platforms for developing their ideas. I only wonder if they all have the skills and experiences to manage the results of engaging in public talk like this. There are very few blogs written by dancers (high profile or otherwise) which are well-written, carefully thought out actually worth reading regularly. But this is true of the blog world generally: most of us are just spilling out ideas willy-nilly. Grammar, logic and organised though be-damned!
How should these same high profile dance teacher bloggers manage comments and discussion on their sites? If it were me, I’d moderate very carefully, and I’d delete comments that don’t meet my carefully-thought-out-worded-and-publicised comment policy.

I do have more to say about this, particularly in reference to another recent online discussion sparked by Nick’s frank post about working conditions for international teachers, but I’m feeling a bit crook, so I won’t.