The cruel and the brutal; the brave and the kind

A very clever and articulate friend with a very gentle heart wrote a interesting fb post about alternative approaches to the state regulation of drugs. He wrote:

The US initiated War on Drugs was designed to criminalise the black and the brown and the poor. …It also militarised police forces, turning them in to the occupiers of poor neighbourhoods and probably now the not so poor too. We see that in the plague of police killings across the US and the cancerous gun culture that sustains it. It also promoted the worst forms of masculinity, the cruel and the brutal.

That last sentence really moved me: it “promoted the worst forms of masculinity, the cruel and the brutal.” I think a lot about masculinity and men, particularly lately as I’m writing and thinking about women’s safety at dance events. We talk a lot about how to ‘keep women safe’, when I think we should be thinking about men. I get so angry, feel so frustrated, I find it difficult to by sympathetic to men, to whom patriarchy is just as unkind.

In this post, my friend was writing about the relationship between national schemes to criminalise drug use and users, and the way it recruited white men and objectified black men. The way it asked white men to become brutal and violent, and pushed black men to violence. It all seems too relevant today, when American police kill so many black men ‘for looking bad’, and Australia police leave black men to die in the back of police cars or in prison cells. Men are forced to be so brutal, to women, and to each other.

I was struck by this sentence in this post, because this friend is a long time queer activist, practicing catholic, and profoundly spiritual person. He was one of the very best tutors I ever had at uni during my BA, and is one of the cleverest people I’ve ever met. He has worked in various community health projects, volunteering with the very ill, the very poor, the very needy. He was an inspiring force to be around when I was 19 and living in backwards Brisbane in the 80s and 90s. I learnt so much from his radical politics and truly kind, generous heart. His bravery, as an openly gay man in Brisbane at that time, was inspiring. His example continues to teach me to speak out, stand up, and give a shit, no matter what the risk.

Anyhoo, I wrote this comment on his post:

I teach dance, partner dance, and see a lot of men come to classes, struggling to express any emotion that isn’t a rough sort of humour. Our classes are very gentle. We have two rules: take care of the music, take care of your partner, and an implied third rule: take care of yourself. So the only time we step in and give very clear direction is when we see someone being rough with a partner, or stepping on someone.

And when we ask them to ‘find the groove’ in the music, and put it in their bellies, I see men, particularly middle aged men, struggle to find and then plant in their belly something in the music that brings them joy. These men are always looking for other rules or other things to do in class: where to put their feet, how to move their arms, when to start dancing. We usually say ‘put your feet wherever they need to be to get you to your destination’, or ‘let your arms relax, and hold your partner in your arms’, and ‘start when you feel ready’.

These men can’t just relax and enjoy holding someone in their arms, enjoying music together. It makes me so sad that it takes them so long to relax enough to feel safe just moving their bodies in a way that isn’t linked to violence or aggression. But when we do find men who stick with it, and enjoy dancing and treating women and other men with respect, it’s such a joy. They just light up inside. I think that it makes them so happy to see their bodies as a source of happiness and kindness, and find a place where being gentle man is valued so highly.

I do enjoy following you on fb.

Be a better DJ manager, Australia

Hello there. Seems it’s time for another reminder about working conditions for DJs in Australia. Particularly as event ticket prices are increasing, and DJ pay is not increasing at the same rate.

Here’s a tip: gender parity is often a result of good event management. So you’ll get the sisters if you run a good event and have a good reputation. BECAUSE the reasons women don’t DJ are structural and institutional, not individual.

If you are looking for gender parity in your DJing team, you will need to be sure your DJs are safe, your pay package fair, your working conditions just. If they’re not, women will avoid your event. Because omgicanteven.
And because women DJs face enough shit already. We don’t need the extra grief of DJing at a shitty event. Bro DJs get less hassle at dance events, so they’re more likely to volunteer for substandard events.

Here is my professional opinion, as an experienced event organiser and DJ. All of these things must be agreed upon in writing, well before the event.

RECRUITING DJS:
Have a clear vision for the musical program. If it’s a lindy hop event, get DJs who play classic swinging jazz. Do it right.

Do not do a ‘call for DJs’ for your event. This is not a casting call for some random chorus line spot. Nor are you some bullshit company running a competition for punters to ‘design your new logo!’ so you don’t have to pay a real designer. You are looking for talent to promote on your event program, so seek out the skill.

If you want good DJs to play your event, email those DJs directly. Woo them. Flatter them. Offer them a very attractive deal. Go above and beyond.

Hunt down new talent. Go to events. Ask DJs questions. Ask your interstate contacts about fresh young talent, for progress reports on newer DJs, for updates on older DJs.

Music should be your priority at a lindy hop event. So go out of your way to get the best DJs.
Then promote the buggery out of them. Brag that you got Reclusive DJ X to your event.

PAY:
– $30 per hour MINIMUM. This is a low rate.
DJs should be paid in cash on the night, before their first set, or at the end of their first set.
Or they should be paid by direct bank transfer by a specified date.
Or they should be paid in response to invoice by a specific date. They should never have to ask for the money.

– Band break DJs should be paid for the entire duration of the gig they are DJing, not just for the actual minutes they are playing.

– All DJs should receive free entry to the gig they are DJing.

– Use fewer DJs, and give all DJs a full free social pass to the event. Your event will suck if you use a heap of shitty DJs who have no skills, and you don’t give anyone a free pass. If you use fewer DJs and give them free passes, your event will be better.

MANAGEMENT:
– There should be a DJ coordinator, head DJ, or DJ manager, and they should be the DJs’ point of contact for the event. They should be available at all times during the event, and should reply promptly to emails before and after the event. They should provide the DJ with their agreement, terms, etc. All discussion with event management, musicians, sound crew, MCs, performers, and so on, should be mediated by this DJ manager.

– DJs should be given an agreement or contract before the weekend, which they should read and sign and return before the event. They should have adequate time to read and negotiate this contract.

– All DJs should be treated with respect by DJ managers: no shouting, no rudeness, no harassment, no bullying. All DJs should know who to speak to if they have difficulty with the DJ manager. And they should know this before the event.

SAFETY:
– DJ managers should ensure all DJs have a safe way to get home after an event.
– DJs should – as with all staff, contractors, and volunteers – know who to speak to if they feel unsafe, are harassed, injured, or in danger or injured. That person should be introduced to them, and the process explained, all in a quiet, calm place and manner.
– The sound set up should be safe, electronically and for hearing.
– The DJ does NOT set up the sound gear at a big event. EVER. Nor do they pack it down.
– DJs should not have to plug or unplug their own RCA cables to connect their laptop to the sound desk. There should be at least 2 cables ready at the desk at all times. Safety first, yo.
– The DJ must be behind the speakers, not in front of them, so their hearing isn’t damaged.
– There must be adequate heating or cooling. Both can serious issues at dance events. I’ve played gigs where it’s been so cold I couldn’t feel my fingers and couldn’t use the trackpad. I’ve played other gigs so hot and humid the trackpad didn’t work because I was so sweaty.
– There must be sufficient room behind the DJ booth/desk to sit and stand comfortably, and access to this area must be restricted to staff, or to the DJ’s friends with permission (so punters can’t just wander up and touch the DJ’s gear or hassle them).
– DJs must have a chair or stool to sit at the right height to DJ, but room to stand as well if necessary.

WORKING CONDITIONS:
A decent work space includes:
– adequate power outlets (which are safe) already set up
– a clear, flat, clean, safe area to setup a laptop, sound card, and various gear
– lighting (so they can see the dancers and gear properly)
– the DJs can see the dance floor well, from a raised platform, where dancers won’t bump their table (and damage gear)
– a copy of the event’s DJ schedule should be available in the booth
– DJs should know ahead of time (ie before the weekend, or at least before the shift) about all performances, snowballs, speeches, special stuff during their set. They should also be provided with a copy of performance music before the event. This music must be tested and of performance quality.

Let’s look at what’s happening around the Australian scene at the moment.

PAY:
At this point, $30 per hour + free entry to an event is standard. This includes band break DJing (which is often paid by the hour). This is not a good deal. It is in no way commensurate with the average rates for large events in Europe or America.

CONDITIONS:
– many events do not provide RCA cables already set up for DJs
– booths are frequently in front of speakers, where DJs can acquire industrial deafness
– many events do not have anything more than a basic code of conduct; they do not have clear emergency or safety procedures
– djs are not made aware of the event’s code of conduct, safety measures, or what to do in an emergency, or if they are harassed, feel unsafe, are injured, or endangered
– the dj gear is set up by inexperienced amateurs, who do not take proper sound and general safety precautions
– djs are often left to tidy up or close an event
– djs are doing more than just playing music during competitions
– djs are not given free event passes. They are offered unfair ‘deals’ on passes, or asked to choose between a combination of cash pay, free entry to some parties, or passes.

…and so on.

Breaking down the average existing pay rate:
If an event has only DJed music for 4 days, over 3 evening and 2 late night parties (ie 72 hours), with DJs paid at $30 per hour, that’s $2160 all up for DJ pay. Plus entry to that for a DJ team of about 15 DJs.
If an event has (as is more usual) one DJed night (4 hours), 5 band events (3 evening and 2 late nights), then they will need 10 DJ shifts (2 x 2 hours on Thurs; 1 x 4 hours, 2 x 2 hours on Fri, 1 x 4 hours, 2 x 2 hours on Sat, 2 x 2 hours on Sun). That’s 24 hours (give or take some) @ $30 = $720.
Get 4 DJs maximum to cover those shifts, and that’s 4 full social passes @ $120 = $480.

One band is paid $1500 on average for a 4 hour gig in Sydney. Each musician is paid about $250 each, plus a cut for the band leader.
The bands for this weekend would cost $7500 (usually a bit less if they work some good deals). Sound gear and engineer will cost them $4000 at top rate (usually less if they work a deal).
The basics of a weekend music budget, then, will cost $11850. 6 riders for bands and DJs @ $100 each (I just lump band break DJs in with bands for riders), and that’s $600 (which is more than you’d probably spend). That’s $12805, at the outside. The DJs are $1200 of that. Less than one band.

The value of a good DJ:
All those DJs are also dancers, often very good, experienced dancers, dancers who come with their friends to events (so for each DJ, add at least one punter you know will definitely come, and a handful of others who’ll come because your DJ talked about your event to them in person. Solid gold word of mouth PR). A good DJ is a draw in their own right. People (meaning more experienced dancers who care about music) will come to a gig if they know DJ X is playing. If DJ X also has a reputation for being associated with good music and good events, then that’s even more good PR for your event. Yes, there are plenty of dancers who don’t care about the DJs or bands on the program. But they are only part of the available market. You do want those more experienced dancers, because they have stamina, they give good photo, they bring energy to a party, and they’re another little part of the market to tap into with your event.

As you can see, underpaying and exploiting DJs is one way for dodgy events to cut their costs. Or is it?
Poor working conditions and pay make DJs shitty, and make good DJs avoid your event. Shitty DJs make for shitty dancing. That means you don’t get any good videos of good dancing to help you promote your event. Particularly if you have a shitty DJ DJing your competitions or other high-traffic events.
Shitty DJs give your event a shitty reputation. Neither of which is good business sense.

Another, very important aspect of hiring good DJs, is that you’re hiring an experienced professional. A person you can just trust to get on and do the job. You know that having a full floor is just a baseline. You know they’ll be able to run your dancers ragged, keeping the floor full, and your dancers full of strong feels and crazy dance CRAZY. Which they document like ranting nuts on facebook, document in photos, document in video. And talk about. Everywhere. Word. Of. Mouth. Gold.
Incidentally (and more importantly), a ‘good DJ’ is nice to work with. So your job as an organiser is easier. PHEW.

Let’s talk about band breaks.
When a DJ is doing band breaks, they are effectively working for the entire night, not just those minute they are actually playing music. A band break DJ is also:
– meeting and working with the sound engineer
– meeting and working with the band leader, watching them to be sure they are ready to go when the band finishes or starts
– meeting and working with the DJ coordinator, event manager, various performers, etc
– working with the band’s style so they don’t play the exact same type of music, or clash too much with that style
– they also need to avoid playing the same songs on the band’s set list. Which means coaxing a set list out of the band before the gig (good luck with that) or noting every song the band plays during their set (enjoy focussing on your dancing, DJ)

A reasonable (yet still not equitable or internationally standard) pay rate is:
– free entry for all parties (a measly $120 on average)
– pay per hour
– drinks and snacks
To make this cost effective for organisers, we should hire fewer, better DJs.

What is a top rate DJ deal for a big European (eg Herrang or Snowball) or American event which has about 1000 dancers in house during the event?
– free airport transfers (eg taxi to and from the airport to the venue)
– free flights for A rank DJs
– free food for the entire event
– pay per hour (this varies)
– full free pass for all parties and workshops for the duration of employment
– accommodation (hotel room, often shared)
– accommodation for partner (eg husband or wife)
– child care assistance
– free wifi
– office space/chill space (essential for working DJs at big events)

Additionally, their working space (the DJ booth) is set up by a professional sound engineer, who is also available at all times for repairs or assistance.

The ‘work space stuff’ is just basic amenities. Remember that DJs are working from anywhere between 1 and 4 hours at a stretch without a break.
They payment package obviously applies to the top rank events, and is less for smaller events.
A 300 person event is a moderately small event.

DJs also receive a contract or agreement, which sets out the terms of the gig (including all the above). This is sent to the DJ well before the event, signed by both parties, and agreed on. DJs are able to negotiate terms if necessary.

Finally, a word about good DJ managers:
If you want a good team of DJs who do good work, you’ll need someone to keep an eye on them. Someone to protect their interests, get the best possible work out them, keep them happy, and serve you up a good load of great music and happy dancers. So organisers need to look after their DJ managers. They need to hire good people-person type managers. They need to hire experienced dancers or DJs to be their DJ managers: head DJs is a term that means something here.

So DJ managers should have their own agreements and pay packages. They should also be happy, safe, and healthy, enjoying their job and doing good work.

…so, in sum, equity makes good business sense, and is economically as well as socially sustainable.

Why we (still) need codes of conduct and sexual assault response strategies

Here are some reasons why we need feminism in lindy hop.

First:
This year a number of high profile, influential male dancers have told me in conversation that women fake rape reports to threaten men’s reputations.
Response:
This is untrue. If a man says this to you, he cannot be trusted, and you should have a care for your safety, and for the safety of other women and girls. You should be suspicious of the men he hires or works with. You should keep an eye on his dance partners and students.

More importantly, we must always respond to a report of sexual assault as someone asking for help. So help.

Secondly:
I’ve also been told that it’s ‘common sense’ not to rape people, so we don’t need to do any more than rely on men following ‘the law’.
Response:
If this was the case, there’d be no sexual assault. And because we believe women who report assaults (and because women know that sexual assault is both common and very close to us all the time), we believe that men rape.
The law and legal systems of various countries fail women repeatedly. This is why we need to be specific and to clearly set out our rules and limits. And enforce them. We must evict dangerous men from our scene, and we must all work to protect and encourage vulnerable people.

Thirdly:
Women are feeling brave enough to report rapes. This week another high profile woman dancer reported a rape and series of assaults to the police.
Response:
These women are telling us that they need our help. So we help.
Laws do not prevent rape.
We are not done. Men are still assaulting women. So men need to change their behaviour, and we need to demand that they do so. There is no excuse.

Fourthly:
I received this charming comment from a person named ‘Henry’, whose ip address is ‘192.108.24.24’. The post was Why we need codes of conduct and sexual assault response strategies.

Are you mental? Men have a greater responsibility to call out others for sexual assault because we happen to have the same gender? This kind of neo-feminist bullshit has no place in the swing world. If you want to prevent sexual assault then teach women how to recognize the signs of manipulation and sexual intimidation and tell them to speak out. Stop acting like the fucking victims you want the world to treat you as.

From the language, I’m assuming this is an Australian.

This comment really is the reason we need codes of conduct and sexual assault response strategies. Because men blame women when they are assaulted. Because men are not held accountable for their own behaviour, nor do men feel accountable for the behaviour of other men.

Response:
If you come across this man, avoid him, and put him on your mental ‘watch list’. If a man speaks to you with such aggression and threatening language about sexual violence, avoid him, report him, and put him on your ‘watch list’.

Because men still believe this, and are willing to tell women this (even with cowardly anonymity), we need codes of conduct and sexual assault strategies. Here, friends is one of the ‘signs of manipulation and intimidation’ that lead to sexual assault. A man demanding we take responsibility for the offences of men. A man telling us that it’s our fault we were assaulted, because we ‘didn’t read the signs’ and ‘speak out’ before we were raped.

Amplification

“Female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called “amplification”: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.”

From Claire Landsbaum’s piece Obama’s Female Staffers Came Up With a Genius Strategy to Make Sure Their Voices Were Heard.

I’m quite surprised by how common it is to be edged out of conversations when I’m hanging with some DJbros or some jazzbros. As you can imagine, I’m not the quietest person in a conversation, and I’m usually reminding myself to let other people talk too. But there are definitely bros who aren’t interested in anything a woman has to say. Just because she isn’t a man.

My usual solution is to just walk away and find someone more interesting to talk to. While these women couldn’t really walk away from these bros if they wanted in to the power, we can in the jazz dance world. And if I want jazzbros (particularly musician jazzbros) to pay attention, I change my mode of interaction. All those years hanging out with punker musician bros and academic bros in my 20s has skilled me up.

But honestly. Bros. How dull.

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.