Women of colour respond to white appropriation of the margin(alised)

Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s piece ‘I walked out of the Brisbane Writers Festival Keynote Address. This is why.’ is being linked up a bit in my book-friend circles, with emphasis primarily on Shriver and the topic of the piece. But I’m mostly interested in how the author got up the guts to walk out of this talk in such a public way. It’s essentially a marginalised woman ‘speaking up’ in a white elite space. It’s an act of bravery.

Breai Mason-Campbell’s talk ‘Dancing White: Race, America, and the Black Body…’ was linked up in a dance group last night by Anaïs, and something about it reminded me of this keynote article. I think it’s Mason-Campbell’s highlighting of the literal framing and display of OGs* at a dance event. It’s very much like the framing and display of marginalised folk in Lionel Shriver’s keynote.

And both pieces are by women ‘speaking out’ about the appropriation of POC’s bodies and minds by people in power for their creative work. In one case the ‘speaking out’ is non-verbal and in the other it’s after the fact. Both of which reduce the ‘danger’ of these acts for the women.

But these two pieces together are making me think and rethink very carefully my approach to OGs in the modern lindy hop scene. Part of me wishes we did ‘acknowledgement of traditional custodians’ at the beginning of every dance event. And that we asked our OGs if they wanted to do a ‘welcome to country’, and if they didn’t, we didn’t go ahead.
*(Original Groovers)

Mason-Campbell’s talk (start at 37.20):

A straight up rantfest

So here’s the thing that’s bothering me today.
When the whole Mitchell issue became public, a lot of lindy hoppers decided all ‘the Russian’ dancers were rape apologists because some organisers in Russia kept hiring and defending Mitchell.
Lately a few people are circulating the rumour that the Ninjammerz ‘started’ an event in Sth Korea specifically to compete with the ILHC after the video of their anti-semitic routine was removed from youtube by the ILHC committee. This rumour has led to implications that all ‘the Korean’ dancers are blind Ninjammerz fans.

Here are the facts:

Russia is a fairly big country, and it has a fairly diverse scene. There are large scenes in both Moscow and St Petersburg and in other cities. Even within those cities, there are are the usual factions, groups, and diverse opinions.
I have met and worked with many of the Moscow Swing Society dancers over the past 3 or 4 years, and they are not only aware of these issues, but actively work to prevent and avoid bullshit gender dynamics. Even more importantly, they are hardcore into the ‘Harlem Roots’ approach to lindy hop, which focusses on history, respect for O.G.s, respect for your partner, respect for the music. And good community vibes.
Similarly the ‘eastern bloc’ lindy hop scenes are diverse, politically, socially, culturally.

‘South Korea’ is home to zillions of lindy hoppers, in Seoul, Busan, and other cities. The internal politics and opinions are as diverse as any large scene would be. In my experience with Korean dancers, there are plenty of politically active peeps who are also actively involved is dismantling bullshit power dynamics.
The Busan Swing Festival was running long before last year’s ILHC, and has hired a range of teachers from different backgrounds. It is certainly not a ‘rival event’ founded by the ninjammerz. What a load of bullshit.

So the next time I read a lindy hopper babbling that ‘all Russians are sexist rape apologists’ or ‘all Koreans are racist anti-semites’ I will give them SUCH a telling off. Because these comments are clearly ethnocentric and edge into racist territory.

Learning by doing; teaching by learning.

Damon Stone linked up this post, On Kinesthetic Teaching Part I by Cierra (August 26, 2016). Damon introduced the post by saying,

So similar to my own experience.

Both Damon and Cierra are African American, or as Cierra puts it, Black American. I think it’s important to note the way both Damon and Cierra place ethnic and cultural identity right there are the front of this discussion. This is a story about race, about culture, about People, about cultural practice, cultural values, and about identity. It says, ‘These are Black American dances. We are Black Americans.’
The ownership, the cultural positioning is very important. Because, as Cierra’s post continues, dances like blues or lindy hop or vernacular jazz have been appropriated by not-Black-American communities all over the world, and commodified by not-Black-American teachers and schools. As a white woman, I think it’s important to remember ownership, to do things like show appreciation by asking permission, or signifying respect by listening. And I have long felt that the way we share dance knowledge reflects relationships of power. If I package up a dance and sell it, I am appropriating it for my cultural and financial gain. If I position the dance in particular ways through my teaching methods, I am appropriating the dance for a particular ideology and social discourse.

For me, lindy hop is social discourse. It is ideas in motion. And that means, if I am do to good feminism, if I am to show respect for this dance’s origins, I need to be cognisant of my own privilege and social power. I also see it as a responsibility to name check the creators and creating communities of these dances. I need to remember who my elders are, and who (to borrow from indigenous Australian discourse) the traditional custodians of culture are. I think that the least I can do is rework my teaching practices to destabilise the power and authority of a middle class, white woman’s body. And to remind students of their own power and ability.

I’m sorry that I responded to this post by telling a story about me. I should have just let that original post stand, and said ‘yes!’ as loudly as I could. But, well, I didn’t. Anyway, here is the comment I wrote on Damon’s post. Thank you for writing the original post, Cierra, and thank you for drawing it to my attention, Damon.

I wish there was a follow up post on this topic I could read immediately. It was very interesting, and I want MORE!

To refer to some comments responding to Damon’s post, I don’t take the ‘kinaesthetic teaching’ title as a specific signpost that this post is about Gardener’s ‘multiple intelligences’ learning theory (which has been thoroughly disputed). Instead, I think it’s a good way of saying, “Hello! Look out, this post will talk about learning-by-doing; teachers encouraging students to try/learn through encouraging them to value their own experiences and judgement (‘you know what cooked chicken looks like’); and student-centredness.” In other words, students learn by getting in and trying it, valuing their own observations, rather than being ‘told’ the answer, reinforcing verbal learning/teaching.
I think the references to ‘european teaching traditions’ foreground ethnicity in learning and cultural practice.

I especially like this bit in the article: by using this alternative teaching model,

Students learn to be empowered, how to focus on the music, how to relax, be athletic, work in partnership, own their ideas and how to be dancers and not just to follow a pattern.

To me, this clearly articulates the way dance classes and dance spaces can be agents for social justice. Social, vernacular dance is radical. And exciting. So beautifully accessible.

Which very much echoes much of the literature which critiques traditional classroom models in western teaching practice. ie a class where the teacher is the authority and centre, a model of teaching where teachers ‘inject’ knowledge into a student’s blank-canvas brain (therefore making teachers the source of all knowledge), and a classroom model where students sit silently (metaphorically) in rows, facing a teacher/blackboard.

We’ve been experimenting with some of these methods in our lindy hop classes, and one of the most interesting points in Cierra’s article resonates with things I’ve noticed in class. Some students really struggle with a class model where they’re expected to learn through trying, and not given a quick, concise answer to their question by a teacher-authority. I see older white men in particular really struggle with developing cooperative learning/experimenting skills, I see them get frustrated by not having a single, definitive answer, and we regularly have to signpost their progress so they don’t get shitty.
In contrast, we see women, POC, and younger people enjoy the fact that we say (in response to questions) things like, “Hey, that’s an interesting question. Can you all take some time with the music now and work with your partner to see what you think?” and then we put on the music, and just let them figure it out for themselves. When we then bring them together, they give multiple (and often conflicting) reports, and we say, “Oh yes. I think all of those answers are correct,” some students really struggle with this. They want to know the RIGHT way to do things! They want to know exactly how to hold their partner’s hand, where to put their feet.
And I think this is because they don’t trust themselves to know what to do. Which makes me so sad: we know how to hold hands! We know how to embrace someone! We know how to walk! We know how to enjoy music!

For me, as a teacher, the hardest part has been unlearning a lot of the learning and teaching skills I had from working in universities: I’ve had to step back and let students figure out how to do things on their own, rather than jumping in to ‘correct’ them all the time. It’s really hard. I’m having to work very hard on not working so hard in class :D
The very best consequence for me is that I find teaching far more fun, and less stressful, and students are more likely to ask me to dance or hang out with me like a buddy. They don’t teach me like an unreachable TEACHER. And as a person in class with students, I find classes a really valuable learning opportunity. I’ve learnt so much about dancing since I started teaching. And I love it.

Leading, following, and their relationship to the beat

Ok, so I’ve been thinking about the way leads and follows relate to timing and tempo. I’m not entirely sure what I know, and what’s accurate, because I’m still working my way through this stuff.

I have big problems with the insistence in some quarters that leading and following are interchangeable. They’re not; they’re very different. Not just because one of you leads and one of you follows. At first I thought it was because the lead had to ‘be more confident’ and initiate stuff (which we tend to associate with hegemonic masculinity). But now I don’t think that’s quite it. I have found that the biggest difference between leading and following, for me, is about my relationship to the beat. And this is why I am finding it harder and harder to switch between leading and following these days: I have to consciously change my relationship to the beat. I’m getting better at this (especially since starting tap), but I’m definitely not there yet.

I think that leads are closer to the beat, and follows swing a little more. They’re further behind the beat. Not just because of physics (ie leads ‘go first’ so they are closer to the beat, and follows physically a moment behind). But because of the way this makes us feel when we dance to swinging jazz.

I can’t remember the reference, but I’m pretty sure I read in Gunther Schuller’s book The Swing Era, about the different parts of a big band having different relationships to the beat. I think that we also addressed it in a session with a band a couple of years ago. The rhythm section (piano, bass, drums, guitar) all have slightly different relationships to the beat, and it’s the way each of them work together that then makes for this lovely complicated network that makes dancing so much fun. And so interesting. It’s not just that everyone is sitting way deep in the pocket. It’s that some people in the band are a little deeper than others, and this relationship – an almost-tension – is what makes the music feel so good.

Anyhoo, a drummer friend Andrew Dickeson linked up Ethan Iverson’s blog post The Drum Thing, or, A Brief History of Whiplash, or, “I’m Generalizing Here” on facebook recently, and it caught my attention. I don’t think it’s the most coherent or awesome of pieces, but it did ping my radar a little. So I wrote a long comment there, which I’m going to copy here:

I’ve been thinking about this article a bit.

Tuesday night in tap with Ryan we did this exercise where we tapped a rhythm straight, then swung it. The straight version was very stressful, because it feels like you’re rushing and there’s less time to move your body.
On Sunday at the Unity Hall Jazz Band gig, I danced to a nice swinging, yet faster, song with a lead who was rushing the beat, and it made the dance stressy because we didn’t have time to get through movements. I was following, and follows typically lag a little more than the lead. I found that the lead was cutting me off before I could finish my rhythms or movements, and this was stressy, and difficult, because I never quite had enough time to move from point A to point B, because he was starting the new move before I’d finished the last one.

Last night in class, Alice and I were looking at how slight changes in our posture, and covering less ground affected our timing and ability to dance faster. If covering more distance = using more time*, then it’s harder to dance fast if you try to cover more ground (ie move too far away from each other). So we were working on staying closer together, but with a free-er, less controlling lead**. So the follow had more time to complete her movements. If the lead (that was me) swings more – ie doesn’t rush the beat – then the follow, who sits naturally a bit further behind again has more time to finish things, and the whole dance looks and feels really relaxed. Hence the ‘swing’ in lindy hop. Or, in african dance terms, you get a ‘cool’ body with ‘hot’ legs (ie chilled, relaxed upper body, and energised legs and feet).

Anyhoo, we were testing stuff out with different songs. Because I’m still crushing on that Lester Young Mosaic set and listening to lots of Basie, we started with ‘Feedin the Bean‘ (Basie 1941, 180bpm). It feels really relaxed, and felt super easy to dance to. As a DJ, I often use this song when I want to build energy for a faster, more exciting follow up song.
Then we moved to ‘Pound Cake’ (Basie 1939, 186bpm). It feels similarly chillaxed and not fast at all. Then we tried ‘Lopin” (Basie 1947, 190bpm). It has a more exciting, energetic feel, so it feels faster.

The point is, these are only incremental changes in tempo, but when you dance fast, you need to relax your upper body so you can move faster. If the rhythm section is pushing pushing pushing the beat, you feel as though you have less time to move, so it’s stressier, and you tense up. If the lead is too close to the beat, and stressing, pushing the beat, the follow doesn’t have time to get shit done, and complete their rhythms nicely. The syncopated triple steps that are central to lindy hop just get flattened out. And that just makes a mess of the whole thing. It feels yuck.***

Anyhoo, we noticed that the chillaxed drumming was really important. The base gives you the tempo, but a chillaxed drummer takes the edge off, so you can make it swing.

When I DJ, I find this ‘feel’ or energy in the room is what I’m manipulating with song choices. I might move the tempos up and down, but I want to move the energy up and down too: I think of it as working the ‘feels’, and it’s about the way everyone in the room is sharing feelings. I don’t know why humans do this, but when I read the quote from Ellington in this article, it just articulated what it’s like when the room is ‘warmed up’ (that’s how I think of it – when I DJ or lead a class, I need to ‘warm up’ the room before we start going hard):

Sonny Greer and I were real tight buddies and, naturally, night creatures. Our first night out in New York we got all dressed up and went down to the Capitol Palace…

My first impression of The Lion – even before I saw him – was the thing I felt as I walked down those steps. A strange thing. A square-type fellow might say, “This joint is jumping,” but to those who become acclimatized – the tempo was the lope – actually everything and everybody seemed to be doing whatever they were doing in the tempo The Lion’s group was laying down. The walls and furniture seemed to lean understandingly – one of the strangest and greatest sensations I ever had. The waiters served in that tempo; everybody who had to walk in, out, or around the place walked with a beat.

Anyhoo, thanks for linking up this article, Andrew. It’s been rolling around in my head since I read it, and really joining up some dots for me.

*This is why the lead taking a huge rock step on 1-2 of a swing out is an issue. It extends the first 2 counts of that move, and changes the emphasis of the rhythm. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, we change rhythms all the time. But if you do it on every rock step of every move, you change the entire rhythm of the dance. It also means you take up lots of room on the floor, and you feel you like have to RUN to get to the end of the movement, as you’ve ‘used up’ a lot of time at the beginning. For the follow, it means that you have to take an enormous first step which throws off your balance and timing. If you want to dance fast, you’re really going to struggle, because there’s less time for each step, and the follow has to cover more ground in less time. It also means you won’t be emphasising the rotational part of a swing out (the 3-and-4), which means you won’t be getting that centrifugal force that you need to then sling shot back out again into open.

In dancing, distance = time. So you have to take that into account when you’re dancing to a specific tempo. It’s especially interesting when you’re looking at air steps, where gravity is a constant (ie it always takes the same amount of time to fall), and you have to take that into account when you’re timing a landing. This really struck me watching this video about the physics of Simone Biles’ turns. She adjusts her rotation and timing just by moving one hand against her body!

**By ‘freer, less controlling lead’, I mean a few things. First, that the lead doesn’t ‘steer’ the follow out of closed using their left hand. They just step back and out of the way, dropping that hand immediately so the follow can ping out of closed position, choosing their own speed, direction, and rhythm.
Secondly, the lead lets go on 5 of a swing out, so the follow can come out sideways rather than always coming out backwards. Follows who are always let go later and always asked to come out backwards tend to habitually turn themselves to come out backwards. Ain’t nothing wrong with coming out backwards. But if a follow always turns themselves to come out backwards, rather than having variations in directions, we have an issue. Even more importantly, taking time to turn your body 90* takes time and energy away from booming out of closed like a gun, or rocking out like a rhythmic jazz superstar.

But more important than the direction a follow comes out of closed, is the fact that by letting go earlier, the lead gives the follow more physical freedom, earlier. The longer I touch the follow, and keep that back connection, the longer she has to pay attention and respond to me and that connection. Well, she doesn’t have to. But by letting go, I’m making it super clear that she can do as she likes, and is 100% responsible for direction, timing, angle, etc. Experimenting as a follow, I also found that letting go earlier means that the follow needn’t go as far away from the lead. They can choose to reach the ‘end’ of the swing out earlier, and turn and be ready to come back in again earlier. They don’t have to end earlier, but they can.

I hope I’m making it clear, here, that there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these things. But if we always do things one way, then there’s an issue. We… well, I aim for flexibility and mindfulness. I want to make conscious choices about the way my body moves, so that I am mindfully responding to the music and absolutely present with each partner, rather than just dancing by rote. Because dancing by rote is boring and limited. And dancing mindfully with each partner makes dancing with everyone much more interesting.

I am suspecting that insisting a follow goes really far away into open (ie covering a lot of distance) + the larger rock step by the lead on 1-2 = changing the rhythmic emphases of the swing out. Instead of being a constant state of motion, the swing out becomes two extreme stretches in long, straight lines, with a tiny bit of rushed rotation in closed in the middle. I’d prefer my swing outs to have constant energy throughout, so that I’m not dividing the music up into blocks of 8 counts so aggressively. I want my swing outs (or moves) to just be different shapes put on top of rhythmic movement across the floor, where the emphasis can vary, and the rhythms are functional as well as fun. ie the triple step, with its added step, is not just rhythmically interesting, it also gives you an extra step to travel further, or to turn or to ground yourself as you rotate at speed.
And, to sum up this digression, if you give the follow more time in open, or with a less demanding, less intense connection, you give them more independence. This means that they a) bring their rhythmic wonderment, and b) pay more attention to you, because they don’t feel like they’re waiting for the rare chance to bring their shit; they know you’ll give them plenty of time, and that you’ll be working together, with their hot shit integrated into the dance, rather than slotted in as a separate ‘gap’ in the lead’s predetermined pattern.

***Or you change your basic steps, replacing the triple step with a kick. If you check out very early lindy hop, you see more kicking than triple steps, because the music had that more vertical feel. It feels super exciting, because it does push a little bit more, but it doesn’t make you triple step or swing out the same way. It’s not about tempo (ie speed), but about the relationship to the beat each musician holds.

Fundamental disagreements

I’m part of a very good facebook group about teaching lindy hop and swing dance, and there was a recent question about ‘heavy’ following, which referenced this 2010 article of Bobby White’s.
My first response was this:

One day someone will write an article about the heavy/light lead, and we’ll get to argue about whether or not it’s too do with men’s physical weight, physics, or their just not being a very good dancer.

…i’m sorry to be so snarky in such a friendly forum, but honestly. This discussion tires and depresses me.

While Bobby has updated his post with a little disclaimer, his post still circulates in the lindy hop community, frequently touted as an important or useful source of information. Me, I think it’s total rubbish. Questions about ‘heavy follows’ are rooted in a fundamentally unhelpful and flawed understanding of partner dancing. It is, as I’ve ranted elsewhere, based on the assumption that lindy hop is about successfully completing a series of moves. Leading them ‘well’ and following them ‘well’ for a ‘good dance’. In this context, if you can’t perfectly ‘follow’ the lead’s leading, you are a ‘bad follow’. This sort of thinking leads to nights where follows stand around the dance floor moaning that there are ‘no leads’, when there are in fact plenty of leads, it’s just that they are looking for leads who can set out a perfect sequence of moves for them to complete. It’s the sort of thinking that leads to women competing with each other for dances with particular men (yes, women do actually queue up around the edges of the dance floor), with big-headed leads convinced that they are the fucking business because they have these queues. It leads to the myth that we have a ‘lead shortage’ or, worse, ‘too many follows’, which in turn leads to bullshit registration deals for events, where leads receive cheaper registrations, or more flexible registration deadlines.

If you’ve read any of my posts before, you’ll know that I’ve really moved away from this idea of leading and following. If we stop thinking of a ‘good dance’ as a sequence of moves perfectly executed, then we can start thinking about a ‘good dance’ as one where we have just two rules: take care of the music, take care of your partner.

More importantly:

The term ‘heavy follow’ is profoundly sexist, places the power in the lead-follow dynamic firmly with the lead (who is usually male), and prioritises moving across the floor, performing a sequence of inflexible moves ‘perfectly’.

I think it’s fucked up, and I refuse to accept it as in any way legit.

But I think my immediate response to the post (which I’ve quoted above) wasn’t productive in this particular group, where the values we espouse in our jazz-centred dancing carry on into a discussion based on kindness, mutual respect, and listening to one another. So I apologised.

I did write a long comment in response, but when you find your comment is too long to fit in one comment on facebook, you know it’s time to write a blog post.

Interestingly, it seems Anaïs was writing a response at the exact same time I was. A post which sets out many of my own values, but in a much more gentle, productive way. Anaïs Sékiné’s lovely post about leading and following and dance as collaboration, is a nice alternative to the ‘heavy’ follow paradigm. I recommend reading it. It’s full of good feels.

But here is the long comment I wrote on facebook, but didn’t manage to post:

I don’t accept the premise of the ‘heavy’ or ‘slow’ follow.
I think it encourages a focus on moves-based dancing, rather than rhythm-based dancing. I also think it makes us focus on moving across the floor and executing moves perfectly, rather than listening to the music and connecting with another human being.

I’ve been thinking about my own dancing a lot lately, as I’ve done a few very useful and interesting workshops this year (Herräng most recently, but also the Little Big Weekend in May with Jenny and Rikard, and Snowball classes in December 2015). These, and the work I did last year, as well as lots of interesting talk in that facebook teaching group, and with my co-teachers, have been really inspiring. My general focus has been on simple shapes and solid rhythms, and is connected by the content and focus of the Frankie and Harlem Roots streams at Herräng in 2014 and 2015. I’ve also been inspired by Lennart Westerlund’s approach to teaching and learning.

Thinking about my own dancing hasn’t just been about getting my shit together (ongoing project, right?). It’s also about improving my dancing and understanding of what I do so that I can be a better teacher. And this in turn helps me improve my own dancing. I see my own limitations reflected in my teaching and hence in my students’ dancing: I’ve been thinking about how to dance faster, more relaxed, and with interesting rhythms at all tempos.

RE the swing out in particular, and how to make it work if one partner isn’t moving as fast as needed.
As a lead, my first response would be to change my plans. I don’t need a swing out to be a 360* turn. It can be 180* or 90* or any old degrees, fitting into the space on the floor, working with my partner, and the music.
I think this is the most important thing: leads need to work more actively with their partner. This is why I think we need to talk about ‘active leads’ rather than ‘active follows’: leads need to be able to change their swing outs and respond to what’s happening with their partner. Not just get cranky if a follow is ‘too slow’ to make the lead’s preferred swing out ‘work’.
1) Teaching translation: we say that to our beginners in week 1: You don’t have to have rules about the angle you cover. Just aim to be open, in closed, then in open. They immediately stress less.

My second response would be: am I asking the follow to move too far? My current bugbear is leads who ask the follow to go three million miles away in open, but still somehow run in and get around 360*, all at a million bpm. With this sort of swing out, the follows end up super fast and strong (in their bodies), but also more likely to send themselves miles away from their partners. So you get a kind of flattened out rhythm, where the emphasis is on horizontal movement across the floor, rather than a more nuanced rhythm-as-movement using different planes. I also see a lack of good, relaxed, swinging timing. There’s a lot of rushing, with a rhythmic emphasis on the extremes of the move – 3 and 4 in closed, and 7-8 in open. This emphasis often starts to look like a ‘dead spot’ where there’s a hold in the rhythm. Which is totally ok, but begins to ignore the music if it happens on every swing out.

So I fix this by staying closer to my partner, at all points of the swing out (closed and open). Rhythmically: I don’t go flat when the follow is in open – the rhythm I keep provides the timing for how long a follow should be traveling. And time = distance here.
2) Teaching translation: look at your partner; keep dancing leads, don’t stop when the follow goes into open. Don’t think of the rhythm as sets of 8, but as a continuous rhythm with the music.

My third and most important response: am I hauling arse? If a lead stands on the spot and asks the follow to do all the moving, then it’s twice as hard as it needs to be. If a lead steps up and moves their bodies, then the follow needs to cover half as much distance. If you stay closer together, then you can halve that distance again. And this means you have more time in the music for fun.
As a lead: I need step up and haul arse. I really need to hustle.
3) Teaching translation: leads, haul arse. Move your body. Do not let the rhythm drop. Everyone learns a new rhythm on their own first. Everyone has to carry the groove; it’s a shared rhythm. (all this keeps bodies active)

My fourth response: how am I oriented to my partner?
This is my current issue. I am trying to aim for a 3/4 profile for my partner. I describe this as the ‘perfect instagram selfie pose’ to our students: you want a 3/4 profile, and you want your weight on one foot, rather than split. If your butt’s out, then you are immediately ready to rumble. Or leap out from the blocks and beat Usain Bolt.
I am trying to stop myself ‘squaring up’ to my partner, because it’s inefficient, and makes it harder to recruit the bigger muscles that help me haul arse. It also lets your arms relax, and encourages an efficient weight change. A squared up profile is harder (this is 100% Rikard teaching btw).
4) Teaching Translation: 3/4 instagram perfect profile.

Fifth: I also try to be more ‘alert’ in my connection when we get into open. This is helped by having that 3/4 profile.
I use that triple step at the end of a swing out or move to say ‘Hello, I am ending the swing out earlier, I think, so please listen to see what happens next – we can choose something else to do.’
If I just go ‘dead’ or ‘limp’ in my arm as the follow gets out (at about 6), then the follow feels no signal, so they often just continue that last message or momentum I suggested. I’m not talking about ‘tension’ or any of that stuff – I’m talking about facing my partner, about moving my body, etc.
5) Teaching translation: leads, don’t let that rhythm or groove drop. Both partners – watch them move away from you, and be ready. Because you don’t know what jazz they’ll bring (a practical beginner exercise is just having them do a call and response jazz step – so as they move into open, one does a jazz step, and the other echoes it for 8 counts – they naturally have to watch each other, and stay closer together).

Sixth: out with the butts.
The other thing that’s important (when I’m following), is to not send myself so far away from my partner, and to check my posture. We’ve been talking to our intermediates about this – ‘out with the butts’ as eWa says. If you have your butt out, as a follow (but not sitting down into the shape), and you come out of a swing out sideways (ie the lead lets go earlier and doesn’t ‘steer’ the follow out with their left arm), then you are more engaged in your glutes, etc, and in a more athletic posture that helps you respond faster, or move faster, or just plain bring the shit.
Out with the butts is very important coming out of a swing out for follows. It stops them leading groin first (which makes it harder to balance or control yourself).
6) Teaching translation: out with the butts. Practical exercise: anything Frankie related.

Seventh: feel the love.
Asa and Daniel were crapping on about this in Herräng: get closer to your partner in closed. Treat it like an embrace. So they didn’t do this squaring up thing where the follows grip the lead’s bicep and clamp the lead’s right arm with their elbow. Instead they moved closer together. Learning from so many first gen revivalists in the Harlem Roots stream at Herräng stream, two things were made very clear: closed position is much closer (in a v-shape, where the follow’s arm can be further around the lead’s shoulder, and the lead’s arm further around the follow’s back). This embrace makes it easier to feel what your partner is doing with their body, too.
The second thing: follows are much more likely to do stuff like just go into open if they were sick of closed. Catrine, eWa, Asa – all those Swedes who worked with Frankie. None of them were worried about ‘backleading’ or ‘hijacking’. If they didn’t like a move, they just didn’t do it. And their leads were all 100% ok with this – they just saw it as normal. This signalled a fundamental shift in lindy hop ideology in the mid 2000s in America in particular: lindy hop follows stopped seeing this ‘just don’t do it’ as ok. They saw their goal as ‘follow perfectly’. To me, this is the most important point, the absolute total point of all this: FOLLOWS DON’T HAVE TO AIM TO ‘FOLLOW PERFECTLY’. Being a ‘good follow’ doesn’t mean ‘do exactly what the lead asks, perfectly and quickly.’ Being a ‘good follow’ means ‘go with your feels.’ Trust yoself.
7) Teaching Translation: when you’re in closed, check in with how you’re touching your partner. Ask them if this is ok. Remember that the way you touch your partner sends them information (eg the claw of panic from follows; the floating weirdo right hand from leads). If it doesn’t feel ok, tell your partner.

For me, these things have made lindy hop much easier: don’t move so far from my partner; feel the love in the embrace; out with the butts; perfect instagram selfie pose; take more time to feel the groove before you start dancing; clear rhythms.

Just in the few weeks since we’ve been back from Herräng and focussing on these things, we’ve seen massive changes in our students’ dancing. They can dance much faster, and have greater freedom to improvise.

I don’t worry about ‘follows being heavy’ because it’s simply not an issue. I don’t even recognise it as a thing.
I do worry much, much more about leads who don’t haul arse. I think the lazy arse lead is a much bigger issue than the ‘heavy’ or ‘slow’ follow. I also get very cranky about leads who never look at their follows: it makes for bad connection, bad vibes, and dancing that focuses on horizontal momentum rather than good solid rhythms, polyrhythms, and call and response. ie jazz.

…having said that, if a lead is physically slower or older or infirm or fragile (as with our lovely Extremely Elderly student), then hauling arse isn’t the issue. He has mad rhythm skills (tap dancer!), so the follows have to figure out how to make this work with him. Much more important skill set.

As Anaïs says in her gorgeous post,

Lindy hopping is about sharing through dancing and through jazz. That’s our common language. The rest is up to each and everyone of us.

As Lennart says,

…it is a very simple dance

As one of our beginners said in their first class

A swing out is when you are together and then you are away from each other.

And that’s it.

There is always something you can do, and always a chance to say something.

I was having a conversation with some friends the other day about why I’m so fucking fierce about stamping out sexual harassment and assault. Or rather, why I continue kicking up shit and being a pain in the arse. Even when it’s scary to confront famous, powerful organisers and dancers. Even when the consequences for me mean losing DJing gigs or teaching gigs or other real world stuff.

I think about those stories my women friends tell about being assaulted by Steven Mitchell over many years, as girls and then as adults. Other dancers who knew Steven Mitchell often say, “I didn’t know what he was doing,” or “I was never in a position to say something,” or “I didn’t have a chance to do anything.” The girls telling their stories say, “You had so many chances. There were so many times when you could have done something, I was begging you, silently, to step in and help me. And you didn’t.”

And as I was talking to my friends the other day, I said:

I think about that. That those girls say there were times we could have helped them. But we didn’t. I think about how we might have been standing about after a dance, talking and laughing, and one of us offered that girl a ride home. But Mitchell interjected, “Oh, it’s on my way – I’ll take her with me.” And we just accepted that, because she didn’t object. It seemed like a sensible solution, we might even have thought that he was a nice guy for keeping an eye on younger dancers.
I think about that girl. Not saying anything. Not objecting. But silently wishing, praying one of us would reply, “Nah, Steven, it’s cool – us girls are gonna hang.” It would have been that easy. But we didn’t. I can imagine her panic and dread as the conversation continued, and she knew she was going to have to get into a car with him. Go home with him. And she wanted, desperately to say something. But she was too afraid. And she can’t understand why no one does anything. Never does anything, each time there’s a chance.

I think about her terror. I think about how often those ‘chances to do something’ happened, but we didn’t do anything.

When I was telling my friends this imaginary story (this is an imaginary story), I teared up, and I got so full of rage and sadness and fury. I could have done something. We could all have done something. There were so many times we could have done something. We can do something. Now.

This is why I don’t just sit back and let other people deal with these issues. This is why I make myself be brave enough to challenge teachers who do dodgy things. This is why I demand events address safety and talk about sexual assault. Because of that girl. Those girls, who are trapped and desperate for us to take all these opportunities to do something to help. It might make me nervous to speak up. It might make me scared. But it does not in any way compare to the way those girls are feeling. My fear is nothing like theirs.

That’s why I keep being a goddamm pain in the fucking arse. Because there are plenty of chances to speak up, to do something, and if you don’t, you are just letting those girls get in that car to be raped and hurt and terrified. When you could have just said one small thing.

It’s ok to say no; be ok with people saying no to you.

Hey, you can just say no to an invitation to a dance. “No thank you, but thanks for asking,” is a nice response. You don’t need to give anyone a reason or excuse. Sometimes a lindy hopper just don’t want to dance.

You can also be ok with someone saying “No thank you,” to your dance invite. Just smile and say “No wuckers,” then find someone else to dance with. If you get a couple of knock-backs in a row maybe check people’s body language before you ask?

Also: sometimes people just don’t want to dance with you. Be ok with that. If you practice being ok with that, you’re actively undoing the bullshit power dynamics that make women feel they have to dance with rough, creepy, or just plain nasty people. You’re being totally awesome.

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!








[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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 5.40.02 pm
Meghan Gilmore, DJ boss.
Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 5.40.13 pm
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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 4.18.38 pm
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.

(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.
Folketshus herrang
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.

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.