Preservation, Politics, and Power: Re-doing in the Blues Dance Community

Blues dance. A collection of idiom forms that have clustered into new shapes; a mostly-white community of practice based around black vernacular dances; stories and histories and dances with very different voices raised in conversation and conflict. What are we doing when we dance blues?

Right now I see a number of debates going on in the blues dance world about how best to bring blues forward. These issues include how to teach culture and history alongside dance, how to introduce beginners to specific idioms and cultural information without overwhelming them, how to maintain respect for the dance and the communities who have practiced it over time, while still making it work for the community dancing it now – recognising that these communities might not always be easily separable or reconcilable. I see these debates becoming heated and personal, devolving into arguments of good and bad, right and wrong, with many folks withdrawing from our community because they cannot make their voices heard, or are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. Being somewhat uniquely positioned to offer an alternative perspective on these debates, I have started framing here some things to consider as we go into these conversations.

I am a blues dancer, and teacher, and organiser. I am also a dance scholar, and have spent years getting certified in the preservation and reconstruction of dances through Labanotation. Labanotation is a way of scoring a dance on paper in the way that a musician might score music. It is mainly used for concert dance, but has also been used to record tap, Bharata Natyam, American Sign Language, and vernacular jazz dance – among other things. I have recorded and reconstructed stage works, dance techniques, and pedestrian movement; I have brought concert works to the UK for the first time, I have been part of copyright cases, and I’m currently talking to NASA about putting dance in space. I run a blog discussing notations of “jazz dance” and how that relates to the blues community.

While I viscerally disagree with the notion that dance has to frame itself through an academic lens to be taken seriously, what this experience gives me is access to language and literature that I think could be useful in framing some of the questions that come up around the “authenticity” of contemporary blues dance practice, and how to approach the work of remaining respectful without shame, and accessible without diluting dances down.

Firstly: what are we doing?

We’ve come to a communal agreement in blues that we are trying to do-again a certain collection of idiom and vernacular dance forms. But there are a number of ways of approaching that project depending on resources available, the identifying features of the dance in question, and the purpose of the redoing. For example:

To reconstruct is to attempt to get a dance back with as much authenticity as possible, by drawing on a wide variety of available resources. Embodied knowledge, videos, scoring, supplementary documentation, and cultural inquiry.

To restage is to take key identifying features of a dance and keep them present, while adapting the rest of the dance to the circumstances of the production.

To reimagine is to rebuild a new version of a dance based on and adapted from our own understanding of what the dance was.*

We need to be able to make realistic decisions about what we are able to offer to a given scene at a given time, with the knowledge that we have about a specific dance.

But what IS a dance anyway?

In concert dance the big pitfall is to say that the dance is the steps. But what about dances that are improvised? That are choreographed to represent the deeply personal experiences of a selected body of performers? That are an embodiment of certain kinds of cultural knowledge? That are representative of a certain kind of physical movement system? Any dance might be any and all of those things, but how we decide what is more or less key to how we dance blues dance will radically alter how we teach and share our values.

There are some things that we cannot get back. We can never train or practice ourselves into another body. We cannot erase the physical and mental history of our own dance experience and cultural socialisation. That doesn’t mean that we can’t train very hard to inculcate our bodies with new knowledge, techniques and experiences – but we can only build on who we already are.

We also should not say that what we can get back is necessarily the thing just because it’s all we have. Learning the choreography of Hellzapoppin’ from video, for example, would not mean that we have learned to Lindy Hop. We understand that Lindy Hop is an improvised form, that Blues is an improvised form, and therefore that the ability to improvise must be present in our re-doing of the thing in order for it to be blues. For a long time we called a certain kind of 1990’s slow social dancing blues, which many of us agree now is definitely not blues. But at the time, with the information they had, a lot of folks in authority thought they were doing the thing. When did we actually start doing the thing? Have we ever?

We understand that in Blues there are technical and aesthetic principles in play that we can train ourselves towards. But we can only come at those principles from the bodies and culture that we have, and from the perspective of our present moment, however well-researched that perspective is. We are not always sure what technical, aesthetic, and cultural fluency is necessary for dancers to be able to say they are dancing blues, who gets to draw those lines, and what the consequences for falling outside of them should be. We have different opinions about what we have permission to let go of or change. We know that some dancers of the past had strong feelings about how certain things should be done, and why their voices were offered a certain degree of validity. There are voices we will never hear speak.

We do know that some black dancers appealed to formal systems of copyright in order to cement their rights of ownership and personhood in the eyes of the law, with varied success. We know that others relied on less formal, but still incredibly salient systems of copyright and ownership for the codification of who did what how, and who had the right to do it again.** We also know that part of the resistance to white ownership and theorising of black bodies has been to keep certain kinds of meaning deliberately intelligible… and that this did not stop white dancers and writers attempting to own, adapt, explain and codify what was going on anyway.*** We come at blues from a long history of white dancers appropriating black dances into new technical forms and social structures.

As we adapt blues to a new kind of social existence and transmission, we have made certain decisions about what we want to keep and what we want to change. We have adopted names, rules, and principles of movement that provide accessible shortcuts to certain kinds of knowledge.**** The act of naming creates a boundary of differentiation – these things may fall under this name but these things may not. We draw those boundaries in different places – those boundaries have always been drawn in different places. What is blues dance?

This post is not written to answer any of these questions. It is designed to open up the field of questions, and maybe provide some avenues for starting towards answers. I hope that it gives us some language to talk through our differences of opinion, and to think about what evidence might be needed in order to resolve those conversations – and what to do when that evidence isn’t there. I will continue to dance, and teach, and organise, and to strive for clarity in articulating what I am doing and what I am aiming to do and why I feel able to say that the thing I am doing is what I say it is. This includes how I teach blues to beginners, why I make certain movement choices, and how I shape my local and national community. I hope people remain interested and invested in continuing this conversation with me.

* A number of these debates are laid out in Preservation Politics: Dance Revived, Reconstructed, Remade. Particularly the article “Is Authenticity To Be Had” by Ann Hutchinson Guest

** Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance. By Anthea Kraut.

*** Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom by Sarah Jane Cervenak is a very academic look at this.

**** Brenda Dixon-Gottschild is the obvious example here.

 

With thanks to Chris Wells for his help editing.

 

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A Holiday Guide To Dancers – Part 3

Greetings from the Headtail Connection!

If you haven’t read any of the holiday guides to dancers, you might want to catch parts one and two. All done? Ok, well, this year we’re taking it to the expert level as we try to distinguish between British and American contemporary and social dancers, and I give you some handy transatlantic hints for Christmassing in these two countries.

British Contemporary Dancers

vegan-mince-pies

The place to be: London

The place they actually are: The southwest and midlands with their parents

The drink: Bucks fizz

The food: Mince pies

The accessory: Tinsel

The song: Merry Christmas Everybody

The phrase: “What are you doing on boxing day?”

Do NOT say: “Won’t everything be better after Brexit”

TRANSATLANTIC REACTION
Holy hell America you don’t even know what a mince pie is, do you? They’re 17p each at Tesco…. You don’t know what Tesco is either. Ok then. They’re small pies filled with mincemeat, which is not made of meat, but is rather a deliciously sweet concoction of dried fruit, sugar and brandy. Making these for myself in the states has been quite a quest, since you can’t buy a jar of mincemeat, nor can you buy a number of the ingredients to make mincemeat in a grocery store (supermarket). A bucks fizz a mimosa, but posher, because the queen drinks them at Buckingham palace.

British Social DancersChristmas-cracker

The place to be: SCOTLAND!

The place they actually are: Zone 3 and 4

The drink: Craft beer

The food: Christmas pudding

The accessory: Crackers

The song: Fairytale of New York

The phrase: “Shall we go out for a bit of a walk?”

Do NOT say: “We should go shopping on Oxford Street Tomorrow!”

TRANSATLANTIC REACTION
American Christmas carols still seem to me to be a little… saccharine. Sure we like our traditional tunes, but we’re more used to hairy shouty men and drunken swearing, which explains why this song from the Pogues remains endlessly popular. A Christmas cracker is a small cardboard tube, crimped to leave a handle at either end. When you and a friend pull it apart there is a GIGANTIC bang, releasing a small trinket, a terrible joke and a paper crown, which you must then immediately put on for the rest of the occasion. We cover our Christmas puddings in alcohol and set them on fire – ‘nuff said. (The video at this link may be one of the most British things on the internet).

American Contemporary Dancers

sweater

The place to be: New York

The place they actually are: The relentless suburbia of a flyover state

The drink: Wine

The food: Sugar cookies and frosting

The accessory: Ugly Sweaters

The song: Santa Baby

The phrase: “So I’m driving to my parents today, and then leaving at three to see my boyfriends’ parents and then driving back here tomorrow for the Christmas party and then I’ll probably go to Iowa for a bit and then…”

Do NOT say: “Just think, it’s been a year of Donald Trump!”

TRANSATLANTIC REACTION
American Christmas is not so much one holiday as the tail end of the sugar-soaked glut of celebration that starts somewhere around Thanksgiving and rolls on into the New Year. The ugly sweater is a Christmas-themed woolly jumper (except they don’t call it a jumper) that people wear somewhat ironically, and which is sold by the rack under that name in clothes stores and thrift stores (charity shops) all over the place. Sugar cookies are sweet, pale biscuits that would be overlooked if they didn’t come with a can of violently coloured frosting (icing) and a tub of sprinkles for you to decorate them with.

American Social Dancers

lindy

The place to be: Lindy Focus

The place they actually are: Freezing cold

The drink: Whiskey and egg nogg

The food: Green bean casserole

The accessory: Fairy lights

The song: Baby it’s cold outside. “Only with the remade lyrics.” “Well ACTUALLY…”

The phrase: “So what events are you doing next year?”

Do NOT say: “What do you think of the turn to idiom dancing?”

TRANSATLANTIC REACTION
Green bean casserole… I still don’t understand. You take a perfectly good vegetable, cover it in a can of condensed mushroom soup, and bake it topped with potato chips? Or something? It sounds like student cooking at its drunken worst, and yet it gets served with such ubiquity that I think it’s something of a national treasure. Now egg nogg on the other hand I can get behind: milk, cream, sugar, and whipped eggs and spices. British folks reeling back in horror will just have to trust me that it’s delicious, especially when spiked. The fairy lights are more tasteful than TV led me to believe. American Christmas carols are slightly dodgy, flamboyantly well intentioned, and – quite frankly – drunk.

Merry Christmas, wherever and however you do or do not celebrate!

 

 

Social Dance In Three Roles

I’m still on a dance high from DJX – the absolute peak of my fusion dance calendar, and an event I have tried and failed to get back to for years now. Beautiful people, wonderful, creative dancing… the House dance workshops with Marcus Tucker pushed my physical expertise in new directions, and required much more of me than I’m used to at weekend exchanges. I’ve come home feeling stronger, more connected, and with new movement and music ideas to feed into my home scene.

At DJX I was also hired to be a DJ, which means I’ve now been a core organizer, taught, competed, and DJ’d at international dance exchanges this year. This is also the year where I’ve started saying honestly “I cannot afford to come to your event unless I am organizing, teaching or DJing.” I thought this might be a good moment to reflect back on those roles, how I got into them, what they mean to me, and where I want to go with them. I hope that’s useful for folks out there who maybe want to expand in one of these directions and don’t know how, or who are interested in how it all might fit together. I’m leaving aside my work as a researcher and writer for now, because I’ll be talking about that much more soon in other areas (more details to come!). I am not a Rockstar, but most of you reading this have seen me around and danced with me. I hope this post also humanizes those of us making the dances happen and the trains run on time.

Teaching

Ironically, the work that I am best at is the work that it’s hardest to get into. When I first started teaching the phrase “I teach solo” or “I teach switch” was deathly poison in a lot of the places I was applying to. Luckily it was highly sought after in others. My biggest breaks came from more experienced instructors using me as a teaching partner, and even though I still prefer to teach solo for big gigs I am so happy to co-plan a class with anyone who wants to learn how to teach on our local scene.

Most teachers start teaching because they’ve won competitions, which makes me something of an anomaly – it’s do-able to build up a reputation as a teacher without competing but it is MUCH, MUCH harder. I did a lot of teaching for free, I made the most of my specialist research skills, and I did a lot of other roles before people would start hiring me to do what I wanted to do. A lot of events won’t hire you unless they’ve seen you teach, and I couldn’t afford even to go to other events unless I was being paid for, which led me to organizing (see below).

I put a huge amount of time into my pedagogy, and I ask that anyone I hire does the same. I’m still always pushing for how I can teach things better. One of the ways I challenge myself is to never settle on one right way of teaching content – beginner content in particular – so I can always try out what information, delivered in what way, gets people closest to the heart of the dances I love, and then what inspires them to take that class onto the dance floor afterwards.

I want to teach like my nerdy little self, and I never want to be someone who people are afraid of asking to dance. I’ve been teaching dance for over a decade now in all kinds of contexts, and there is still no better feeling than knowing you’ve led a good class.

Organizing/volunteering

When you want to social dance and you live below the poverty line you wind up doing a whole lot of volunteering. I am always and forever grateful to the team at European Blues Invasion, who have an incredible means-dependent scholarship program that does not require you to give back your time, but it just so happens that I really LIKE volunteering anyway. I like being the welcoming face of the event, whether that’s on the first night or at stupid o clock on Saturday and Sunday morning. I like being a part of all the extra work that makes the dances I love happen. If I turn up at a dance early, you will find me pitching in to rig lights, cook food, put out chairs, sit at the door… eventually people saw the value in that and started paying me a little extra to get a volunteer who loves their work, rather than someone who may or may not show up five minutes late and always be trying to get back to the main event.

Organizing, and core roles in particular, are not the same as being a volunteer – although my reputation as a volunteer is I think what got me asked to organize. Any named role at a dance exchange is incredibly hard work, and you will often not get a lot of dancing time around doing it. You have to love facilitating, you have to be willing to put in work before and after the event, and to think through the event from the perspectives of everyone involved. You have to be able to smile as your friends and peers go off without you, or when you have to literally and metaphorically pick up the scene’s trash. If you are a safer spaces official – which is one of my jobs locally – you have to be prepared to step into situations that feel WAY beyond your pay grade and come up with kind and ethical solutions for everyone involved.

I used to swear that I would never organize. Now I love it. I love seeing people happy in the space I’ve made. I love seeing an event from every side. I will always respect and love those folks who put in that time for big events year after year – we can’t thank them enough.

DJ-ing

I NEVER expected to be called a DJ. I have been DJ-ing for my local scenes for literally years now, and the invitation from DJX telling me they liked my audition set still had me gasping in shock and – quite frankly – terror. Some people DJ for a deep love of music and sound, they have super-expensive kit, they orient to music in the same what that I orient to pedagogy: how can I share this thing in the best possible way. I started DJ-ing as an organizer and a teacher, to facilitate an experience for my scene. I wanted to introduce new kinds of music and musicality, and I wanted to take people on a ride that felt good. I wanted to stretch peoples ears beyond the cultures they were used to, and make a welcoming space for as many different dance backgrounds as I could persuade to come out. I did not think of it as a vocation, just something that I worked at until I could do it well.

I didn’t understand why I’d been asked to DJ at DJX (which, for the uninitiated, stands for DJ Experiment and is ALL about DJ quality) until I looked at the instructions chosen DJ’s were sent out. DJX wanted at least five contrasting genres in every hour of set, which was absolutely what I was doing. Whether it’s blues or fusion, I want to show the connections and juxtapositions that bind our dance experience together across (oh goodness) space and time. I really care about set transitions, because they enable me to put surprises next to each other and convince people to jump joyfully into something new.

When I mentor new DJs into my scene I try and get them to find their own voice, not to duplicate mine. I advocate for spending a lot of time learning what you appreciate as dance music, and thinking about what kind of DJ you want to be. I was privileged that at DJX people took time to help me with hardware and software, to encourage me in my more unusual musical choices, to remind me that it was ok to still have questions. I stepped to a level beyond where I thought I was with my music and I found that I could do the job – with a little help from my friends. When I bring in new DJs to the scene I try and listen to what they’re offering me in a set – I assume they’ve worked hard and thought generously about the kind of experience they want to give the floor.

 

Al three of these roles can hit highs and lows of being celebrated and de-valued by our community. It is awesome to be told “that was the best class in …. I’ve ever had!” and it sucks to have people take your material uncredited and – worse – teach it without the pedagogical care it needs to work. It is awesome to be recognized for a hell of a lot of invisible labour, and it sucks to be treated like you are always and forever on call for whatever needs doing. It is awesome to see a floor of people moving to your music, and it sucks when people assume that they can do exactly what you do just by hitting play on spotify or pandora. I’m writing this post from my own experience, but I want people to recognize and celebrate the work of all teachers, organizers and DJs. I want people to demand a high standard, and high skills from the people who facilitate our dance experience, and I want those skills to be recognized and compensated. I want to do more of all of these things.

 

Happy dancing!

 

p.s. It’s the end of the year, which means it’s nearly time for another Holiday Guide To Dancers – watch this space!

 

The Hardest Thing In the World

In 1930 Martha Graham was a young dancer transitioning between the comfortable institution of Denishawn into the risks of a choreoraphic career in New York. Léonide Massine, star choreographer of the Ballet Russe, invited her to take time away from her burgeoning company to dance the role of the “Chosen Maiden” in his version of Sacre Du Printemps [Rite of Spring]. Influences from this piece can be seen in many of Graham’s later works: claw-footed intensity, archetypical femininity, choric ritual, and yet for Graham the main lesson she took away was one she shared almost immediately with her own dancers in rehearsal, which I may be paraphrasing from poor memory and lack of sources: “I have learned the hardest thing in the world, I have learned to stand still. And now I will teach you.

As I write this I am cruising at an altitude of 35,000 ft., travelling somewhere between five and six-hundred miles an hour (thank you Shelly Voegl, United airlines) – I am doing the very opposite of standing still. I am flying between concert and social dance, teaching and conferences. I have moved through Columbus Day to World Mental Health Day to International Coming Out Day, and I am looking forward to a hike in the mountains.

I wonder, sometimes, why dancers have such  a propensity to liberal activism. Many of us have, in pursuing the fine arts as a career, eschewed some of the central tenants of capitalist society, but that doesn’t explain why the trend exists in social dancers too, even among those in the upper echelons of the economic spectrum. Maybe as people whose lives are literally lived in touch with one another we are more attentive to the responsibility and precarity of human care, and the strange shapes that sometimes has to take.

On the other hand, I have been exploring the notion recently that dancers are often activists because we deeply and viscerally understand the idea that stillness is a choice. Standing inert is not a neutral action, and choosing not to act is as inherently politically weighted as any other movement you can make. Standing still indicates a decision, a perspective, an opposition to doing anything other than occupying a position and, perhaps, observing.

In a dance class stillness can be time to attend to and care for one’s self – to listen to breath and heartbeat, to ground and settle, to allow movement to come from a more connected place. In social dancing stillness is a play, a responsiveness to music, a test of partnership and connection. On stage stillness can indicate anything from a benevolent presence, to resolve, to a complete lack of capacity. Each stillness occupied is different, and that difference holds meaning. Stillness never fails to signify, and as dancers we develop our ability to choose our own messages – we are never still by accident.

If you beg a human to help you, and they remain still, a choice has been made.

If you ask people to let you in, and they refuse to move, you have your answer.

If people shout for change, and you remain inert, you have made your refusal.

In the current political climate it is not uncommon to hear that stillness is a position of privilege: that only those who are comfortable, secure, and supported can afford to remain where they are. It is not uncommon to hear in reply that stillness indicates a lack of information, indecision, a place of too many contradicting options, or not enough – being trapped. Is it possible for audiences to distinguish the stillness of “wait,” and “help,” from the stillness of “never?” How could we move to resolve that crisis?

To an audience asking for movement, stillness looks like opposition. To a population demanding answers there is little functional difference between being ignored, the composition of a complex response, and the breath before speech. That is not to say that sometimes stillness is not powerful or needed – to obstruct, to block, to insist upon the reality of your presence, to resist the momentum around you is a powerful choice. It should always be one that you have chosen to make.

Imagine that you are a teenager, who has just come out to your parents. They stand, still, silent. You know from the internet and the experiences of your friends that the responses may run the gamut of loving acceptance, passive aggressive guilt tripping, pathologisation, denial, homelessness, violence, and death. You have moved yourself from a position of safety you occupied through silence into a position of risk facilitated by speech and movement. Your parents stand still and silent. You are afraid. Each moment the stillness stretches out ratchets up the churning in your guts, the tension, the fear. You want to give them the benefit of the doubt, to anticipate their answer, but in the light of all you know might – is likely – to happen, that seems impossible. What will they do?

Imagine you are a child on the playground and a boy has just hit you. He says you deserve it, and you go to the teacher. What lessons are learned from the teacher supporting one side, or the other? What if they say “well I can’t possibly know the truth,” or “well you’re both mature enough to sort it out for yourselves, stop making a fuss?” Having learned those lessons, what happens if he hits you again?

Martha Graham understood that stillness was hard perhaps because it is much more difficult to preserve integrity in stillness than in action. When we are prevented from moving or speaking by any kind of artistic or social choreography it is incredibly difficult to communicate who we are, what we mean, and why we have made our choices. When we are asked to act, or speak, and do not, we are asking those around us to interpret on the evidence of our non-action. That might be deliberate, and a choice you make for all kinds of reasons – to start off, it is much easier to discus and debate and potentially conflict with the thing someone did, rather than the infinite myriad of things they didn’t do. It is easier to defend an internal movement that no-one can see than the external evidence of that thought process.

If we look at the situation with dancer’s eyes, however, we become aware of stillness as a choice that serves a purpose, and that holds meaning. We are not maidens shocked into immobility by awareness of our immanent sacrificial demise, we are not deaf to the music of the world around us that asks us to respond. Take time to be learn how to be still with integrity, breathe, ground, listen, but be aware that nothing can stop and wait while you do. Your stillness is seen. What does that mean in a world where you have been asked to move?

 

Boys in Dance – Too Much of a Stretch?

A few months ago a colleague sent me a flyer for a dance conference, and I sat with this post and that flyer for a long time before I decided to write about it. The Male Dancer Conference was advertised as:

…a groundbreaking, educational and social event designed exclusively for male dancers. It features education, connection and conversation all designed to improve the present skills and future lives of male dancers. It stands as one of the only large-group, multidimensional events for male dancers to gather, learn, share, and connect. MDC participants leave as better dancers who feel enriched, empowered and connected to a community.”

Focusing on conversation, connection and education, the conference held supervised discussions, panels, classes and workshops for male dancers and the community around them, there were social activities, and a visit to the pop up shop boysdancetoo [sic]. Testimonials speak to how inspirational and empowering the experience was:

This conference filled a void in the dance world. Instead of summer intensives where our boy is the only male dancer or one of a few, this conference was all about them. It spoke to the emotional and physical demands of being a boy dancer. It was a much needed safe space for them to be their authentic selves. It was a community of friendship and support, for the boys as well as their parents. It was a nurturing and empowering four days and they all left stronger dancers (physically and emotionally) when it was over.”

…. The thing is, I’m not sure there IS a void in the dance world. Or at least, I’m not sure this attempt to address the gender imbalance in the dance world was quite the way I’d have wanted to center the conversation. This conference, and others like it, and the literature advertising boys dance classes (of which there are many) focuses on a problem of numbers:

“The male dancer has been present throughout history, but the significant lack of male dancers in the field has been and continues to be a question and a challenge. From early childhood dance and movement classes through secondary education and beyond, the dance world is faced with the question of how to attract more boys and men to the field. This problem is not limited to one genre of dance, age group, or country; the dilemma is global. This symposium seeks pragmatic solutions to address the dearth of male dancers in our studios, schools, and companies as students, professionals, and educators.” – Men In Dance: Bridging the Gap Conference

The common strategy for addressing the problem seems to be to design events for boys only, and for classes to focus on fitness, flexibility, and dance forms outside of feminine stereotypes. A dance created by men, for men, separate from “girl dance,” where (or so it seems) different skills are being learned in a way that will isolate, intimidate, and otherwise alienate the next generation of Baryshnikovs, Poulins, Wheeldons, and McGregors.

At the same time, the professional dance community is speaking out strongly about the lack of female representation all over the dance world, especially in creative and managerial roles. The appalling lack of female choreographers, and the disparate opportunities and funding offered to those who do try and make a name for themselves in contrast to their male counterparts is striking. The narrative of the oppressed, isolated male dancer who needs to be given resources and a chance might be sweet, but rippling up the field it becomes the same old glass ceiling, the same old grandfathering system, the same old privileging of male authority and creativity.

So what’s to be done?

The first question we HAVE to ask is: do boys need safe, isolated spaces, and is that the best way to make dance equally attractive to dancers of all genders?

Consider a world where dance was more about what you do than who does it. Consider classes that focused on skills like dance story telling; dance making; high energy, athletic dance; or fundamental dance technique, so that students could choose the outcomes, rather than the settings that interested them. Consider a dance class in which you weren’t immediately considered to be unique or different because of your gender – it happens in other clubs and classes all the time. While most codified, examined syllabi continue to differentiate students by gendered dress and vocabulary, other forms of dance are leading the way in terms or normalising mixed groups. In what ways could more codified dance forms address the divides in their teaching, rather than doubling down on the separation?

This ideal doesn’t take into account the cultural reality of homophobic attitudes to men in ballet, and the pervasive attitude that certain parts of dance are only for men and women – but isn’t that a belief we’re supposed to be working against? Alexei Ratmansky went on a particularly vicious screed this week along the lines of “men have the strength to lift and women have lines,” which is worth answering despite how beautifully and completely it was deconstructed by other dancers, because it shows some of the quieter, nastier beliefs at play in this logic: I have met a number of female dancers who could quite easily lift me in a full press, but the effects of that training on their bodies gave them a shape outside of the stereotypical ballet aesthetic. Are we ok with bodies outside of the stereotypical ballet aesthetic, and if we are, why can’t we teach them in a way that builds the development of muscle? What about adopting lifts from techniques that aren’t strength dependent, or lifts with more than one base? Why is so important that one man lifts one woman anyway? As to the belief that men don’t have lines… I invite my readers to post their favorite video in the comments that disproves that old chestnut.

Secondly, I’m not flat out opposed to Male Dancer conferences, or Boy’s Dance classes, especially as dance works to change its image in public consciousness. What I find appallingly absent is a discussion of male responsibility in a world where men hold a shockingly high degree of power and privilege, as well as (frequently) control over the physical safety of their partners’ bodies. If we are teaching boys that they hold a different position in the dance world, what are we teaching them to do with that position, and how are we teaching them to view those it’s not offered to?

Here are a few examples of male dancers taking responsibility in my life:

  • Seeing my love of flight, and deliberately going across the floor with me so we could enjoy a mutual challenge of strength and power.
  • Insisting I be allowed into “boys” classes.
  • Offering to teach me “male” repertoire.
  • Creating pieces where the repertoire wasn’t gendered at all.
  • Letting me base them.
  • Showing up to pas de deux classes and learning how to dance both roles.
  • Seeking my advice on how to do both roles better.
  • Inviting me to give my perspective in classes they were teaching.
  • Comparing contracts with me so we could check we were being hired for the same wages.
  • Recognising and speaking openly about their advantages as male dancers.
  • Telling people who reached out to hire them “Actually, Fen has more experience.”

Yes, you read me right, I have had male dancers in my life turn down work because they felt it was being offered to them unfairly over their female colleagues, and in some cases over me. It’s weird, but that behaviour meant that institutions and companies had to take a step back and think about why they were offering that job in the first place. I’m not telling people to turn down jobs they’ve worked hard for, or that they’re bad if they don’t. I’m not saying it’s bad or wrong to have one man lifting one woman. But we do have to think about how dance reflects wider patterns of gender discrimination in the professional world, as much as it holds the potential to subvert those patterns.

The dance communities I’m part of work hard to challenge the notion that gender defines our role as dancers, and the kinds of opportunity that are offered to us. There is a massively long way to go. But if we are going to create isolated spaces for boys and men to learn what it is to be a dancer, we ought to be taking a long, hard think about the kinds of dancers, and people, we’re teaching them to be in those spaces, and how they relate to the rest of the world when they come out.

 

 

The Linen Closet – And Other Collections

When I opened my program to write about Susan Petry’s new work: “The Linen Closet – and Other Collections” I found a perfectly preserved rose petal. Lush tactility, an evocative scent, and a little bit of magic… it was a perfect memento of the performance, which I urge you to go and see.

“The Linen Closet” explores fabric; it’s symbolic, cultural and historical warp and weft in the United States. It is a work of metamorphosis: a comforter becomes a play space, a lover, a child; the gestures of pattern cutting become a protest at the deep inequalities of children’s and women’s labour conditions. From the moment we walk into the theatre we are asked to immerse ourselves to the elbows in texture, pattern, repetition, detail, stacking and sorting, and the futility of attempting to categorise the riches draped before us. Petry transforms over the course of the performance to match her subject, flirting with kitsch and camp, simultaneously tongue in cheek and deeply sincere. For me the highlight was the vignette of a needle-eyed, voguing catwalk model, fierce and powerful, who exposes the urgency underpinning the soft surfaces of the work. History with a critical eye; domesticity with a bite; silk and chiffon as agents of change.

In “The Gift Project” Petry embodies the work and person of five different choreographers. As in “The Linen Closet” she makes light of the virtuosity required by her project, showing us the preparation and change from one body to another. The delight of seeing old friends in a new physicality, and five very different works approached with love and commitment is a breath of fresh air in an artistic and political climate where difference and diversion is often so divisive. The sole odd note of the evening occurs as Petry becomes a hip-hop performer for her final gifting: a good portion of the audience sniggers, breaking the generous suspension of disbelief that has been the tone of the work so far. Petry has to work hard to convince them that “no, really, I am genuinely embodying this presence.” She succeeds – totally and completely – but departs the state leaving me with questions in her wake.

The final work of the evening, “O Mortal” is breathtaking. A study in clarity and control, we see Petry as herself, finally, present and essential. Around her lies a ring of donated garments, and she moves through an introspective series of progressions to become the ever-flowing center of her own multiplicity. Together, the three works form a rich investigation into that which we put onto our skin and bodies: clothes, identities, and movement. We are asked to see and to witness, clearly and with love, who we are, and how we can choose to become.

 

Cats, Carrots, and Teaching through Shame

I am trying, and failing, to get my cat to stay off the kitchen counters.

She is a fluffy, spoiled, ginger princess who has never quite got a handle on the whole “no means no” thing, let alone the “no means no now, and also no in every conceivable instance where you might want to do this in the future” thing. She is reluctantly getting better at the distinction between cat food and people food, and polite manners if you want to share someone’s bed, but the counters remain our biggest battleground.

Half the problem is her sweet temper, which seems to shrug of any attempt at discipline. She never bites or claws. But no raised voice, spritz of water, time out in a closet, loud noise nor any other disincentive seems to put the slightest check on her desire to snuggle and love… or her desire to be on the counters.

And yes, part of the problem is me. I am no disciplinarian. From small children to large children to adults to cats, there are some strategies I just don’t want to employ. I don’t want my cat to ever have reason to be afraid of me, and so I won’t teach a lesson through fear.

Which finally brings me to the point of this blog post, which has been germinating for a few weeks know in response to the pronouncement of one of my very smart colleagues. We were looking at an unsuccessful pedagogical instance (which I will not describe), and trying to pin down why it had failed: “It wasn’t the lesson taught that was ever the problem.” My colleague said, “It was the fact that it was taught through shame.”

Teaching through fear. Teaching through shame. In the dance classroom we’re no strangers to these strategies. Stereotypically it’s ramrod ballet mistresses who do the worst damage, particularly around size/food and yes, I met that problem… and I also met the ballet teacher who taught me how to think better than that. But while we can all imagine how shame and fear might be mobilised in that scenario, a more complex problem arises in the tangling of academia and ethics going on in humanities classrooms, and I want to think about how shame and fear are coming into play in the shaping of student’s beliefs about themselves and the world.

For those of you outside of dance in academia, let me back up a little and say that dance is providing the language and techniques for some of the best social scholarship being done at the moment. You’re probably familiar with the term “social justice movement;” what is the choreography of that movement? When a politician makes an ineffective gesture, what shape did they attempt to trace on the world, and why was it interrupted? How has dance been used to represent culture, and how could it challenge the representations that do harm?

So in dance classrooms, and especially dance theory classrooms, there’s a weight given to certain beliefs and attitudes, and certain conclusions that get implied in scholarship. Those conclusions are not bad. They are often demonstrably true. At other times they are more tenuous, or have holes themselves. But when we encounter students who do not already share those conclusions, there’s a temptation to skip the demonstration of the facts and jump right to the “but why don’t you know this already” teaching that’s extra dangerous now because it involves a value judgement about someone’s ethics.

From the opposite perspective, students face massive obstacles to critical thinking in these areas where scholarship and ethics intertwine, because there are certain question they’re afraid to ask their professors. A challenge to knowledge can all too easily become a challenge to ethics and a challenge to personhood – are we being clear about where we’re drawing the line?

An example from my own career: a few years ago I taught a group of students in their 20s who claimed to have never heard the term “patriarchy.” I really hope that the “Dear Lord, really?” didn’t show on my face as I put my lesson aside for a while to go over that term. Maybe it didn’t, because as I discussed household gender values a student interrupted me to point out that “actually, in my experience of Jamaican households and neighbourhoods the power structure looks very different to that.” I’m glad that I was young enough and unsure enough to admit the incompleteness of my argument then. I also wonder whether my students would point out that additional perspective now.

In a liberal climate, my identity categories mean that I am rarely told to check my privilege, and on a lot of subjects my experiential knowledge is accepted as a kind of truth. But I don’t want my students to accept things because I say so, or because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t. I want them to have the tools to decide for themselves whether something is valid, and yes, I hope that often our views will align. On a very basic level, I want them to do homework because they believe it will help them with school and the world, not because failing to do it will result in funding, security, or future opportunities being taken away. I want them to speak up in class because the material is interesting, rather than because they don’t want to fail on a participation grade. I’d rather teach with carrot than stick.

In the outside world, where I also teach dance, the same logic applies. Our organisation expects people to dance in ways that make their partners feel uncomfortable, and that is why we have a safety policy: so that teachers and organisers can fix people’s technique and make that happen less. What that policy is not is a statement of what all good, decent people should be doing automatically, and anyone who falls outside it is a terrible human being. In my learning-to-dance trajectory I have accidentally grabbed breasts, dipped myself against my partner’s consent, knocked people flying… and I am in CHARGE of dance safety on my scene, in part because I’m good at judging when someone is still learning, and when someone has learned that it’s fun to cross lines. My ideal is when I can tell someone that the way they’re holding me is hurting, have them change their grip, and still happily ask to dance with me again 20 minutes later.

In the outside outside world, where I happen to live as a human being, my pronoun is often a cause for contention, and other people feeling ashamed. I wish that weren’t the case. Yes, I wish they’d get the pronoun right, but I also think they’d be more likely to get it right, and less defensive about their mistakes, if they could feel calm about what the consequences of a mistake would be. Hugs and high fives and thanks the first few times they get it right are, I’ve found, not a bad way to start the switch from stick to carrot, and I’ve had all sorts of people ask me all kinds of cool gender questions as a result. (I don’t always have time or energy to answer, but that’s another matter).

I am by no means perfect, especially just after I’ve watched the news. A few weeks ago a dear cis friend said something about queerness and I snapped back “well that’s just factually wrong.” Luckily we know each other well enough that after a break to breathe we could come back to the conversation, and listen to the point being made and why it might or might not work in context. I’m glad that my abrupt closure of the discussion – shame is a really quick way to shut down a discussion – wound up not preventing that. I need spaces in my life where I am not playing teacher, and where I can yell and judge and be angry to my heart’s content. I know there will be consequences for that anger if I let if fly at the wrong place and time. I’m glad I have people around me who can forgive me when I do.

Yes, this is all a very idealistic perspective. As John Molyneux says, the argument that there’s always some right on both sides is, in itself, a bias that there are only two sides, and the truth is always split between them. That’s just factually wrong. A lot of things are. Ignorance, however innocent, does not have the same rhetorical validity as truth, and I am not arguing that it does. Nor am I pretending that people don’t go into situations wanting to create shame, fear, and other bad feelings of their own, they do.

But in classrooms, where we’re trying to prepare students for the world, I’m trying to be extra careful about the persuasive strategies I employ as models for how people might go out and persuade others. I try not to make it so that the views I value most highly are the ones that make my students feel afraid. I ask myself: if the only way I have to teach this viewpoint is shame or fear, why do I believe in it? If the only way I have to teach this viewpoint is by making my students feel shame and fear, is it really a lesson I want to teach?

A dance blog for the thinking body.