Everyday racism and lindy hop

I think Suzanne Nguyen and Daniel Reeders´╗┐’ piece Defining and Responding to Everyday Racism is useful to the discussion about race, ethnicity, and anti-semitism in lindy hop happening at the moment. It gives me some tools for figuring out just why these recent events get right up my bum.

I am heartily tired of people insisting that such and such is a ‘really nice guy’ (oh, i’ve known him for a million years, he’s my bff, he’s so nice!) or ‘just made a mistake (yet again)’ (she’s russian! we don’t know about black face!), or ‘he’s harmless’ (he’s just being a dick. Again. He’s harmless), and so they can’t have been engaging in racist/anti-semitic behaviour.

There seem to be an awful lot of privileged white guys who are ‘just joking’ when they wear black face or black face or a fat suit or make an anti-semitic gesture in high profile dance competitions. Just once, and I’d think aberration. But so many times, and I’m thinking pattern.

I don’t even think these are as simple as the ‘micro-aggressions’ described in Suzanne and Daniel’s piece: this is a straight up pattern of bullshit which reminds the lindy hop community that straight white folk have power in our community. And if we question the dodgy things people do, we are just ‘not getting the joke’. Apparently ‘the joke’ is that it’s ok for white guys to pull offensive bullshit that effectively normalises racism, anti-semitism… and all that other nasty stuff.


  1. Sam, I have a question about how do you think status in terms of skill level relates to this issue at hand?

    An intersting trend I have noticed is on Tumblr following the #lindy-hop and #swing-dance tags that individuals who vocalize about being margalized often are younger dancers who are novices to intermediate dancers at best. I wonder at times if many of these issues they mention aren’t at the forefront of our conversations mainly due to their status as a newer dancer versus a pro at larger international events.

  2. I want to answer this question, but I just don’t read lindy hop tumblr, so I can’t really comment. Got a linky? Or, better yet, got some ideas to share?

    But I do think that there’re clear hierarchies in lindy hop discussions. So, for example, when Peter Strom or Bobby White chime in on a discussion, people listen. Not just because they make interesting, clear points. I think gender plays a role, but it’s more about the way lindy hoppers are very used to respecting and listening to teachers. I think there are some interesting things to be said about fandom in lindy hop, and the way teaching is the highest status thing we have going, but I’m not up to that discussion today!

    …I do think that sometimes newer dancers enter into conversations lacking some useful knowledge about dancing itself, and that can be a problem. I notice that mostly when we’re talking about leading and following in lindy hop. Less knowledgeable dancers have a fairly limited understanding of leading and following. And I suspect that’s why a lot of them feel that blues is more ‘liberatory’ than lindy hop. When the only real difference between the politics of leading and following in lindy hop and blues is aesthetics.

    The essential technique and biomechanics are the same. I think that a lot of people teach lindy hop in a way that makes it seem really complicated and hard, whereas they approach teaching blues as though it was much easier. So students come away from lindy hop classes thinking “Fuck that shit is hard,” and come away from blues classes thinking “Hey, I can just make shit up and it’s easy!”
    When, really, both are equally simple. Lennart says about lindy hop: “Oh, it is a very simple dance.”
    The essentials of both dance traditions are quite simple. But the thing that makes both of them exciting, is that you don’t have to stop at simple – you can move on into super complex rhythms, weird-arse uses of momentum and energy, different tempos, etc etc etc.

    Anyway, back to the point. So I do think that sometimes newer dancers’ opinions or contributions to discussions are quietly left alone by more experienced dancers. Because the newer dancers simply don’t see the more complex/nuanced things happening on the dance floor, and we do have this culture in lindy hop of being kind to new dancers. It’s totally uncool to say to someone “Everything you think is wrong, because you don’t know anything. But that’s ok – we all do that until, until we’ve been dancing a bit longer and learnt a bit more.” So more experience people just go quiet or don’t respond.

    When it comes to off the dance floor politics, newer dancers’ opinions don’t carry as much weight as experienced dancers’ (particularly teachers’ or high profile dancers’) because lindy hoppers today really like nice, clear hierarchies. Look at dance comps: we all agree there are problems with judging. But by fuck we seem to love the thought of a nice, clear ordering of dancing and what it means and what’s important. I don’t think _every_ dancer feels this way, but I do think that the majority of nice, white, middle class, straight, politically mainstream lindy hoppers do.

    Our culture is based on teaching and pedagogy. And it’s formal, institutionalised teaching: classes, schools, businesses. In Ye Olden Dayes Of Hop, learning happened in dance classes AND on the dance floor, in lounge rooms, parties, back yards, school yards, etc etc. There was more emphasis on learning (and self-guided learning) than on teaching. So Frankie tells a lot of stories about learning how to do an air step, or how to develop his own style, but he doesn’t talk about being taught how to do things.

    A lot of time and money is spent in modern lindy hop convincing dancers they need to take classes to get good at dancing. The idea is there that you take a beginners class, then you do an intermediate class, then you do advanced classes and then you are a master. There’s this idea that you naturally progress up this ladder, so long as you work hard enough, pay enough for classes, and go to classes. ie you spend money. Damon Stone (I think it was Damon) wrote a really interesting note on facebook about these issues, and offered an alternative way to think about different levels of classes at events.

    My personal feeling: in the first few years of dancing (ie the first 5 years or so), this is how you look at lindy hop. If you take the classes, you’ll get better, until you are an advanced dancer. Most people are pretty much convinced at about the 2 year mark that they are as good as Skye Humphries. Then they have their ‘Steven Mitchell moment’, where an experienced old time teacher explains why their dancing sucks. They either give up dancing, or suddenly realise they need to spend a lot of time practicing on their own.
    For the next 3-5 years they do classes, but spend more time on workshops at big events, doing privates, and practicing.

    Then they have their ‘Frankie Manning moment’. Daniel and Asa tell this story of doing a private with Frankie, where he watches them dance the fanciest stuff they know, then sighs and says, “Why don’t you dance what you teach?” Because Asa and Daniel just teach very simple shapes, with an emphasis on solid rhythm, interpersonal connection, and a deep pleasure in and connection with the music. What I think happens in this story is that Frankie’s experience as a black man growing up with dance is suddenly set in contrast with a ‘professional dancer”s approach to dance. And Daniel and Asa then suddenly realised that less is more. Fewer tricks, more dancing.

    When you have that moment, you stop with all the bullshit fancy arse ‘moves’ and just do the basics.

    You see this in Skye’s dancing. In his earlier years (until he started working with Frida, pretty much), his dancing is crazy busy and exciting. It’s quite fun to watch. But then he gradually calms down. And his dancing gets really good. If you watch him, he dances very simple shapes – swing outs. Side by side charleston. Back charleston. Circles. A bit of solo in open. But these simple shapes are gorgeous, and the product of solid rhythm and just excellent control of his body. So when he does drop in some crazy arse move, it really shines.

    So when newer dancers enter discussions in lindy hop discourse, it’s not simply that they’re missing the knowledge necessary for reading more in dance technique. They’re also missing the knowledge about dance culture that leads you to that less is more approach. I think that most people can grasp that point intellectually straight away. But it actually takes a lot of hours of dancing to really understand it with your body. To get to the point where your own dancing is just so great that a simple swing out becomes a truly magnificent thing. That it’s just so good that you really don’t need anything more. I kind of feel that you need to go through that ‘do all the things!’ stage too. Because you’re younger when you do that, and younger people take risks and do silly things. When you get older, you can’t take those physical and social risks any more, and you want different things from dancing.

    ….my own personal feeling about lindy hop is that we are at our very best – we are the very best dancers ever – in the first few months of dancing. After that, it takes us about ten years to come back to the point where we have that unstudied joy and pleasure in dance. Which is why I think that really, really good dancers enjoy dancing with beginners so much.

  3. I’m new to swing dancing and have gotten fairly involved in my home scene. I find all of this really interesting in terms of “politics” within the Lindy Hop World. I agree with you 100% about how fucked up ALL of this is, but what I find interesting (although not surprising) is how many people want to excuse/forget these people’s behaviours simply because…they’re good dancers?

    What I’m getting at is the cult of celebrity that surrounds the pro dancers, from my somewhat new and outsider perspective, is a little messed up. Don’t get me wrong, it’s totally normal that people’s opinion that have been around longer (like Peter Strom et al) would carry more clout. There will always be hierarchies in Lindy Hop as long as there are teachers and competitions.

    What I find the most messed up is the probably lack of fall out for these international instructors. I think what would send a really strong message about all this? Not hiring these people to teach at workshops, and not inviting them all the “invitational” competitions for a few years(especially ILHC). I came to Lindy a bit older (mid thirties) and I’m fairly settled in my career – and if I ever pulled some shit on this scale? It would probably have serious repercussions. Just because you’re a great dancer doesn’t mean you get to act like a total asshole. And the thing is: there are plenty of great dancers out there who are even better instructors (because being a great dancer does not mean that you can teach well). I can totally understand that the people at the very top might have a “je ne sais quoi” that I don’t see as an intermediate dancer, but frankly, how much difference was there in the quality of dance in all star strictly vs the invitational strictly? Weren’t some people from the all star invited to the invitational a few years ago? (Mike Roberts comes to mind). Who decides who’s “good enough” to become an international instructor?

    The fact that some people are given leeway just because they are good dancers, from the outside, looks batshit crazy to me. If these people are “leaders” they should be held up to some behavioural standards by the community. I’m not saying that we should scrutinize and invade their personal lives (although everyone does which is also all kinds of fucked up), but the way that supposed professionals behave publicly (like in a routine, or daring someone in a routine) at an international competition should be taken into consideration when evaluating their suitability in being hired or invited to other events.

  4. Hey newbie! :D

    I agree with you 100%.

    I think that quite a few people have a mindblowing ‘Frankie moment’ with a big name teacher, or are emotionally moved by their dancing, and then that person assumes this mythic hero status. So any critique of them – in any form – is perceived as an attack. We all know you can be an utterly amazingly wonderful dancer, and a fairly woeful human being. Though I do actually think that it’s difficult to be a truly wonderful partner dancer and an awful human being, because lindy hop requires mutual respect between partners.
    But I think an awful lot of people tend to conflate ‘nice person’ with ‘nice dancer’. I think that system of valorising teachers and hierarchies of knowledge and status reinforce this valorising power dynamic. So peeps get all misty eyed about their teaching mentor (particularly if that teacher manipulates the relationship to encourage it), and see them as more than just a teacher. This tends to happen even more when people make lindy hop their entire life – the only mentors, role models and heroes they have in their lives are great dancers.

    And as someone who organises events and hires teachers and DJs and bands and performers, I pay attention when someone high profile pulls a dodgy stunt. I risk a lot of money (not all of it mine) and reputation on events, so I’m very wary of avoiding ‘talent’ who’ll damage my reputation. I actively seek out ‘talent’ that will build my reputation by being great people, good teachers, and great dancers. Who are kind and respectful to all.

    When I see someone do these bodgy things, I think “That person does exercises poor judgement in public settings,” and then I think “I do not want a teacher I employ exercising such poor judgement when they are teaching at an event that contributes to my professional reputation. Nor do I want them making poor judgements when they are instructing students in an activity that is physically challenging and occasionally dangerous.”

    After all that, I think (usually when I see a bloke being fully sexist, “I’m a woman managing an event. I don’t want to have to deal with a guy who disrespects me, 90% of my employees, and 60% of my customers.”

    I’ve actively chosen not to hire DJs who’ve pulled stunts which demonstrated poor judgement in the past, because I need to work with people who are professional and reliable. I have no time for bullshit at 3am on a Monday morning. I avoid teachers who have a reputation for being a pain in the arse to work with.

    At the end of the day, whether or not it was anti-semitic isn’t anywhere near as important as what they were thinking when they did this. Or rather, why weren’t they thinking?

    Obversely, whenever I do speak up about these things, I wonder if speaking up will brand me ‘a trouble maker’ and then make it difficult for me to get DJing or managing or teaching gigs. I guess I just hope that my professional reputation and references from people I have worked with will stand me in good stead. I take dance work very seriously, and I try to be as professional, reliable, and trouble-free as I can. Particularly when I’m DJing or teaching, because in those roles I am the public face of the event organiser, and I want to help make their event look professional, well organised, and top quality.
    For me, personally, that means I try not to swear when I’m working (whether teaching, DJing, or organising), I treat people with maximum respect, and I laugh and am easy going over the weekend. If I see a problem I try to fix it on the day, but it it’s a systemic issue, I address it after the event, when the organiser has the brain and low-stress to respond.

    As an employee, I actually choose not to work at events which exploit workers, or which are associated with horrid gender politics or racist bullshit. And I often say this publicly: I cannot DJ at event X because they do not pay their DJs. That’s very risky for me, I think, but I’m also very loud about events that I think do fantastic jobs. If I’ve dealt with a really great organiser or event (Dargof at Herrang, for example, and Devil City Swing in Hobart), I tell the whole world. If I’ve worked with a particularly fantastic DJ (eg Trev Hutch, Jarryd Reynolds, Justine Kinkade, …. wow, there are so many of them!) I tell all my professional contacts, and blab about it online and to anyone who’ll listen.

    So I guess, when I look at these guys doing stupid things in competitions in particular, I think “Why aren’t you respecting your audience? You’re offending/dehumanising/insulting people here, and you don’t seem to care.”

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