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Fusion – the Two-Branch Model

Hello the Headtail Connection!

A little while ago I wrote a post called Fusion… What is it? and let me tell you the response was HUGE. I’m glad to say that it was also overwhelmingly positive! I’ve had some cool conversations about the specifics of wording and what I mean by them, but overall people seem open to the idea of fusion as an ephemeral style rather than a codified form.

BUT

That ephemerality has to be backed up by something if we want fusion to be communicable, and over the course of a conversation with Mark Carpenter we worked out that one of the things we’re both excited about is using a two-branch model of dance teaching as a method of communication, and as a way of identifying fusion techniques. Mark has generously agreed to collaborate with me on this post – I’ve done most of the writing but Mark has worked with me to make sure this reflects both of our ideas – and I’m excited to share where we’ve landed.

First of all, I’d like to isolate the Two-Branch Model from the huge range of definitions in the last post. I’m also going to start capitalizing it, since we’re making it a “thing.”

The Two-Branch Model is a way of visualizing fusion pedagogy. One branch deals with the material content of fusion – different dance forms and techniques that people can bring to their dancing – while the other branch looks at how we put that content together.

We first generated this idea at the 2018 Mile High Fusion instructor summit, where a pool of internationally known teachers* got together to play with some of the main dance forms we see in fusion and the technical elements that identified them. Our reasoning was that Blues, Lindy, Zouk, Contact Improv, etc. have provided significant movement data to the national fusion scene, and that by isolating those elements we might get a sense of how different dancers of different backgrounds might bring their skill sets to the fusion floor.

We can make an analogy between the Two-Branch model and painting. We describe the first branch of the model as the colours an artist might put on their palette: a Blues dancer brings a sense of grounded pulse, a Contact Improv dancer brings whole-body listening, a WCS dancer brings particular step patterns, etc. etc. Someone trained in, say, Blues and Tango will be able to access at least two very different ways of engaging their weight and moving with the music, and they can combine those methods as is appropriate to a given song, partner, or context. In a fusion classroom we can teach these skills in isolation, or as part of the dance forms they emerge from – more on that later.

The other branch of this model involves techniques of negotiation and combination – or in my painting analogy, brushwork. How do we put colors together on the canvas in a way that is satisfying and sharable? I’d argue that all dance forms have elements of brushwork as dancers come together, which might include combining dance forms, communicating with a partner, musical and emotional expression, etc. While many dance forms base their partnership on the understanding of a shared movement language, fusion works on the basis that partners will have to communicate across different dance backgrounds, musical affinities, preferences, etc. to create a shared sense of how that partnership works. This branch teaches not just the combination of colors, but how to shape that combination into a clear and satisfying stylistic vision.

What are some of the skills that we should put on this second branch? Postural shifting to create changes in weight and emotional texture is a brushwork skill, as are techniques that enable both a shared point of connection and radically different movements within a partnership. A lot of switching techniques feel like they fit here, in part because switching has always been welcome in fusion, but also because the physical skills needed to flow between different ways of leading and following are the same skills that facilitate flow between partners. Other skills that fit on this second branch include the ability to recognize stylistic elements in the music, or in your partner’s dancing, and to respond to those elements in a way that furthers the dance partnership.

There are some skills that might fall onto either one of these branches, or both, depending on how they’re taught. For example, tone matching is a very necessary fusion skill for communicating across a dance partnership, but its also a very necessary skill in a number of other dance forms, and so might be taught as an element of brushwork or as a colour.

Thinking about the Two-Branch Model can help us put words around the kinds of learning we seek out and how we want to build our scenes. One of the biggest failings of fusion pedagogy is that classes, workshops, and even whole events can focus entirely on one branch to the exclusion of the other, and to the detriment of learning. Anyone hiring instructors needs to consider the individual balance between branches that one instructor or another brings to their teaching. In my scene I tend to hire a lot of people who teach on the color branch so that when I teach I can do what I love – which is brushwork.

The Two-Branch Model is also compatible, although not perfectly, with pre-existing language for talking about different kinds of fusion. The color branch of the model translates roughly into the fusion-as-fusion mindset: fusion brings in content from different dance forms and styles. A fusion-as-philosophy mindset, which the Dancing Root describes as “Dancing in a way that expresses the music using whatever capacity for dance and movement the dance partnership has at its disposal” is more attuned to the brushwork branch. Interestingly I am a brushwork instructor who would usually identify softly with the fusion-as-fusion mindset, and this vocabulary allows me to explain myself. Mark self-describes as identifying most strongly with the fusion-as-philosophy mindset but teaches both colour and brushwork classes with regularity. He’s interested in finding a base set of colours for the fusion community, and in using colour-focused classes to share historical and cultural information.

What I love about the Two-Branch Model is that it gives instructors, event planners and students a way to talk about what they want out of fusion, and to identify areas of growth for a particular scene. I’m trying to find WCS and Zouk instructors for my scene because those colours are missing from our dancing. Another nearby scene has lots and lots of colour, but tend to communicate through super-high tone – they could use some different kinds of brushwork. I also love the space that the Two-Branch Model opens up for teaching the culture and history of dance forms on our colour branch – something I think that the fusion world could really pay more attention to. I think that an instructor prioritizing colour should a) know that, and b) be able to explain how they’re taking technical elements from a known dance form, and what the stakes of that are in terms of appropriation.

Our main goal for introducing the Two-Branch Model is to give people a very practical way to start improving their fusion. We’d like to empower organizers and instructors to look at the kinds of dancing they see around them and analyze how to make that dancing better, and in the long term design the classes and curricula that can level up fusion dancing across our community.

 

 

 

 

*Joe DeMers, Emily Webb, Mark Carpenter, George Longshadow, Heriberto Perez, Nika Obrosova, Rachel Farley, Rachel Stirling, Aimee Eddins, Jeannie Lin, Katrina Rogers, Kelly Howard and myself.

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Social Dancing With Pride

Hooray! It’s Pride Month! The time of year when my city gets decked out in rainbows, and the memes pages of the internet are full of people like me! Woo! Pride weekend always seems to coincide with my being at a dance event, and over the last few years I’ve seen organizers make a wide range of choices about what to do with that information – including ignoring it entirely.

If you are a LGBTQIA social dance organizer, then by all means organize your dance your way with regards to Pride. But if you are a cis, straight organizer and your dance falls over Pride weekend, here are some things to think about before you pull out the rainbows and decide you want to run a pride dance:

First: If you want to have a designated “Pride dance” then you MUST involve diverse LGBTQIA organizers and you MUST pay them for their time and you MUST listen to what they have to say. Otherwise stick to acknowledging Pride within the boundaries of your event, without calling it a Pride event.

Second: don’t assume there’s only one Pride event in your city when you’re scheduling. A LOT of queer and trans people have been frustrated by corporate sponsorship of Pride, by pinkwashing, by how events are policed, by the presentation of only a very narrow vision of queerness, by the appropriation of Pride as a party for straight people. As a result, there are now a large number of alt prides/community prides, or other Pride events that you should be on the look out for too.

Third: “celebrating” Pride at your dance will not fool ANYONE if you’re not already running an inclusive scene already.

  • Do you have LGBTQIA leadership?
  • Do you hire LGBTQIA teachers and DJs?
  • Do you have a gender-neutral bathroom?
  • Do you have an inclusivity statement on your website or facebook page?
  • Do people of all genders regularly ask each other to dance in multiple roles?
  • Do you actively seek to recruit dancers from LGBTQIA populations? Especially LGBTQIA POCs?
  • Do you know what the above acronym means and why it’s important?
  • Do you know about the LGBTQIA history and culture of your dance form?
  • Do you have a transparent and active approach to inclusive space-making?

Or

  • Do your instructors divide the room into “men” and “women”?
  • Do you have separate door prices based on role or gender?
  • Does your advertising literature feature only heterosexual couples?
  • Do men do the majority of asking people to dance?
  • Do you dismiss the concerns of LGBTQIA attendees?
  • Are some LGBTQIA people more welcome in your scene than others?

 

If you have thought about these things already and it’s genuinely important to you to acknowledge Pride… personally, I’m all for it. I really do appreciate when scenes show that they’ve realized their LGBTQIA attendees are spending time with them on a politically and historically important day. I like it when my identity, and queer liberation, is celebrated within my community. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for things you can do to acknowledge Pride as an ally organizer:

  • Frame your intentions in the event description: we know we’re on the same day as Pride, so we’re running a Pride Dance with the leadership of… / and while we’re not running a Pride dance, we do want to welcome and celebrate any members of the LGBTQIA community who want to come out and dance with us.
  • Make a special effort to hire LGBTQIA teachers and DJs. Maybe bring someone in from out of town. Pay them. Invite them to play some songs that reflect that it’s Pride. A well-meaning ally is not an LGBTQIA person.
  • Give money from the event to an LGBTQIA charity or cause.
  • Have a snowball or jam for your LGBTQIA attendees.*
  • Put up articles, songs, or videos about LGBTQIA history within your dance form.
  • Update your information and policies to make sure that they’re sexuality and gender-inclusive. Maybe pay an LGBTQIA person to look things over with you… I can be hired to do just that – get in touch.
  • Model the behavior you want to see at your event: offer your pronouns as you introduce yourself, ask someone of your gender to dance, ask which role someone prefers. Teach your attendees to do the same.
  • DON’T monetize Pride and feed that money back into your own organization if you’re not an actively LGBTQIA-led scene.

You don’t have to do ALL of these things, but if you are looking at all of them and thinking that they all sound like a lot of change and effort, then maybe you don’t care as much about Pride as you want people to think you do. At the end of the day, Pride should be a chance to celebrate the values and community that you already have, not a one-day vacation into rainbow-feel-good-land because you like our colour palette. There are a lot of really lovely, inclusive scenes out there being run by allies with whom I’d be happy to share my Pride day. I hope other scenes use Pride as an invitation to do better now, and in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

* Make sure you’re really clear about the place of allies in any spotlighting activity. I still cringe about the song explicitly “for queer attendees” that was completely DOMINATED by a straight, cis “ally” who wanted to showcase himself. On the other hand, maybe someone identifies as LGBTQIA and hasn’t told you yet. Use your good judgement, or ask someone to make that call if you can’t.

Unbound, We Howl

It is international women’s day… and I am not one.

I am frequently mistaken for a woman, in fact I have been for most of my life, and I could probably still pass for one if I chose. So what are the political stakes of deliberately choosing to step outside of the identity – in fact the political position – that is being a woman, and say: “no, I am something else?” Feminist and theorist Laurie Penny writes that she is biologically non-binary, but politically a woman because she believes that the experiences of her life in her body make it fundamentally necessary to speak to the position of women in today’s social environment. What is it, then, this political identity that is “woman” that I have never been a part of? Where does it intersect with “feminist” – which I am? How can that identity and politics and weight and necessity be communicated to those who sit outside of that identity and politics in every direction? Well, if you believe Alexandra Stilianos, and I usually do, you start with anger.

Unbound, We Howl is an unashamed polemic on the state of women in humanity. It begins with seventeen dancers – women and not – seated on the floor of the stage, facing away from the audience, watching a collage of found footage and scrolling, distorted headlines on transgender suicide and bathroom bills. Rather than setting up transwomen as the limit break case on the breath of identity, Stilianos places them right away at the center of her community, and then gets on with the serious business of exploring the heart of what being a woman actually means. In this space, what it means is these dancers, captured in life-size portrait on the backcloth of the stage. The seated cast rises to take their place in a two-dimensional pencil outline of themselves, fitting into the shapes that have been left by them in a moment of captured time, filling them out into three-dimensional reality. And then they move.

It starts very simply, with a short run and a one-handed appeal to the audience. We begin to hear fragments of text from Sylvia Plath, Jeanann Verlee, given voice by the dancers, or by electronic distortion, or even Siri – reminding us that we have consistently chosen a women’s voice to anthropomorphosise the idea of passive service. (Incidentally, while Siri, Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, Google Home and Facebook M will all tell you they have no gender, they all present as female, and advertising literature refers to them interchangeably as “she” and “it.” Woman or object… why not both?!) The dancers on stage emerge, explore, trace the present materiality of their bodies, crawl towards us, all with a gradual undertone of wary tension – a coming storm.

It is Andie Altchiler who breaks the tension first, with a stumbling, tripping, whirlwind of a solo that flings her legs and arms and hair all across the stage, only brought to a halt by a shout from another dancer. The cast retreat back into their portraits, but only for a second, crawling straight back out to make tornadoes of their own. The portraits become a home-base, a space owned by the dancers inhabiting their bodies, from which they can emerge to speak out amidst the tumult of cascading voices. This play between the general torrent of opinion and the specific kinesthetic appeals of each dancer, belies an easy theorization of the piece’s thesis or driving point. Each dancer becomes a manifestation of her own identity, gathered within the collective umbrella of a shared political identity: woman. At last they run forward and stand shoulder to shoulder at the front of the stage, visible and present, ready to be seen.

But the dancers are not interested in us, yet. Instead their gaze drags ours upwards to where an additional cast of dancers marches above us in silent protest, trapped by the bars of the lighting grid and unnoticed until this moment. The unusual perspective that keeps them from us and us from them shows us the vulnerability of bodies hitting the floor, but also renders their protest partially illegible – we are not used to seeing from below, and we cannot access the complexity and completeness of what it is they are trying to say.

Back down on the stage the tornadoes continue, but now the dancers add their individual voices into the play of sound around them. Stilianos joins her cast onstage to create a live mixing of light, sound, and projection, lending a sense of authenticity and spontaneity to this impassioned moment. Kat Sprudzs cranes her “poor, female head” into the microphone as she writhes across the floor, Laura Deangelis clambers on top of another performer to say… something about sex that she can never really quite get high enough for us to hear. The thwarting of the dancer’s voices and the impossible attitudes they have to enter into in order to amplify themselves explains why some simply try to stand by themselves and shout without the microphone, trying to make their point against the noise and movement all around them. The work begins to expand into the audience, the performers linking hands in a long, anchoring line as Emily Gaffga – finally in control of the microphone but with her voice distorted, walks among the seats asking questions about make-up: “Are you selling your body?” The line breaks down and struggles within itself as dancers fight to be heard, while above us more and more of the marchers collapse to the floor and shout at each other – the text on the back wall reads: “RECKONING.”

Some kind of accommodation: the dancers run and walk around the stage, are picked up, stand above the crowd, fall, roll, return to walking and running again. They return to their portrait line and stride forward together. Chaos. Dissolution. One dancer lays down erratic taped pathways while another dancer flings herself behind to stick them to the floor. Text drops from the ceiling to be read, the back of the stage reads “FEAR.” The dancers appeal to the audience for help but the project remains unclear – we don’t know how to productively intervene. Each dancer shouts, runs, dances, implores us to understand, but most of all we are asked to bear witness to the struggle in front of us: the performance that lacks unification but which is fundamentally about unity; which is as complicated as politics and as difficult as it is to define what it means to be human. Given torches, all the audience can do is shine a wavering light on the movement or image that makes most sense to them in the moment.

Just as I am beginning to understand, the lights cut out and – for a moment – we all breathe together. Exhausted.

Links to the full work can be found at Stilianos’s website.

The Territory of Togetherness: CDA Works #2

When I moved to Columbus five years ago, I won’t lie; I despaired of how I’d managed a PhD without becoming absolutely and totally starved for art. In all fairness I’d just spent nearly a decade living in London, one of the great art centers of the world, and I had some very British misconceptions about the Midwest and what a “town with an attitude” like Columbus could offer. Well, I’m grateful to say, I was wrong.

The dance scene in Columbus was far richer than I knew, and has grown exponentially over the last five years. From the world-renowned dance degrees in the area – and especially at Ohio State – to a flourishing landscape of local companies, studios, projects, showings and pop-ups, the city is doing well. While I regret the loss of wonderful projects like the MINT collective and Feverhead, I’ve seen the rise of SEA<>BUS dance company, bringing sophisticated and intelligent improvisation-based work to the area, I’ve seen Flux and Flow build itself up from scratch and turn an empty shell of a health food store into a vibrant community class space and dance company. I have become an advocate for living, working, and dancing in Columbus, and as I look to the future and new jobs on the horizon I feel a profound sense of sadness about the community I’ll be leaving behind.

Last night those feelings became particularly poignant during the #2 showing of the Columbus Dance Alliance, a program of dance and movement, founded by generous donations and housed by the Wexner Center. The program last night demonstrated the breadth, versatility and beauty of the Columbus dance scene, and the committee should be congratulated wholeheartedly for holding such an open and proud space for dance in this city.

Lost Brotherhood by Gamal Brown opens the night – a sweetly moving work that set my own mood of fond nostalgia for times and friends gone by. Dancer DaRius FIncher brings a delicate touch to the space, gliding lightly through a complex turn series before coming to rest on the balls of his feet – poised on the fine line between present and future, self and community. Brown’s work is supported by a Columbus Dances Fellowship, and uses choreopoem and performance to tackle social justice issues of the present and past.

Inclusion by Melissa Hinchman (leader of the non-profit Cultivate Dance Project) is the second dance on the program, once again playing with individual creativity and unity. The choreography is articulate and full of refreshing, quirky details, making use of the dancers’ arresting performance dynamic. As the music breaks down, dissolves and returns, so do the dancers move from crisp unison towards a gradual dissolution of self – their attempts at partnered support gradually lost in individual isolation.

The final piece before the intermission – Michael Morris’s Elemental Rites at the End of the World – reaches out to the audience and draws us together in an urgent community of survival. Inviting us into a circle around them, Morris calls to the North, West, South and East horizons in a time of endings, invoking the elements with body and breath and ritual text. We are reminded that Earth, Water, Fire and Air are around and in and with all of us, that the spark in each cell is the wildfire that rages, is the witch burnt at stake and the women who we still do not believe. As their body strikes, flows, quakes and drifts, Morris shows us the layers of relationality between ourselves and the world, and they offer – with gentle hands – a way to hold those layers present and to care for them as we care for ourselves and each other.

Lauren Slone, choreographs and dances hot night slow drive fast car: a puzzle of a piece with a cobra in its belly, beautifully crafted and performed. Slone writhes and flicks her limbs across the stage with calm surety as the text and soundscape around her hint at profound internal struggle. hot night is a challenge to the superficial reading, and the dismissal of history and ritual trained into the body or inked on the skin. Interrupting balletic technique with a casually jutting hip, tracing pathways that are at once obscure and yet relentlessly determined, Sloane offers half of a story, and leaves us straining to see more clearly.

I have always loved the intersections of poetry and dance, and so the penultimate work: From these old pages, choreographed and danced by Megan Davis Bushway and Victoria Alesi was a treat to my eyes, ears and heart. Juxtaposing fragments of poems to shape new linguistic constellations, Bushway and Alesi invite us to consider how texts shape our humanity and response to the world. Their movement is quiet, with a responsive flow – a favourite moment is when the dancers grasp hands like a ballet bar, but instead on stasis they generate a swinging, circular, collaborative momentum, evolving and shifting until a compass line is traced around the stage. Poems become fragments become maps become the terrain we know, and how we explore it together.

On Board(hers), the final work of the night, takes us starkly from the free flow across maps and countries to the harshly linear space of customs and immigration control. Lucille Toth’s work, based on the testimonies of 15 Ohio-based immigrant women, has gathered interest and attention from all over the community, and I was justly excited to see an excerpt tonight. Amrita Dahr is flawless as the Orwellian customs agent, propelling the performers through a counter-intuitive ritual of routine subjugation. Toth and dancer Bita Bell bark at the audience in French and Farsi, in a powerful demonstration of what it’s like to be treated as a stranger in your own home. On Board(hers) makes its protest in the language of the marginalized – through empathy, and the unmistakable presentation of humanity, despite all the forces lined up to these things away. The full work will be shown on March 28th at the Beeler Gallery, and I urge all those who can to come and see it.

Thank you to the Columbus Dance Alliance for bringing these six works together, and I look forward to program #3!

The Big 5-OH – Celebrating OSU Dance

I am delighted to have been at OSU for the occasion of the department’s 50th birthday, and their Big 5-OH showing. Congratulations to whoever came up with that particular title, and the tagline: “…throwing our weight around for 50 years…”* I’ve always appreciated a really nuanced pun, and this big ten university dance department really does know how to throw it’s weight around, and how to stand up for itself, as the four dance pieces on tonight’s program demonstrate.**

The pieces are neatly tied together on the theme of Rudolf Laban’s principles of movement analysis: space, weight, time, and flow. The OSU Dance Department has been a home to Laban’s theories for many years, and when the vast repository of scores and documents previously held by the Dance Notation Bureau were orphaned, OSU’s archive reached out to shelter them under its expansive wings, turning the university into one of the foremost locations in the world for Laban-based research. Projecting scores onto the theater floor was an inspired touch – an invitation to literally get up and walk through pieces – a tool that I hope gets used with the next class of analysis students!

On my way into the theater I look through the archival display, lovingly crafted by Chris Summers. Here the department’s capacity to make art out of history and history through art is woven together in a compelling and accessible format. I pass the department chair, who pulls me in to look at a yellowing list of department alums from the year I was born. “This is so important!” She tells me, and I feel our collective pride in where we’ve come from and what we have done with dance – and what we’re going to do.

The space section of the evening is taken on by Susan Petry in her work Trace, and quite frankly I could have sat and watched its introduction all evening and still gone home satisfied. This is the first work I’ve seen in the Barnett Theater since it was reconfigured in the round, and the cast is clearly hungry for every extra inch of room the new layout affords them—they reach, roll, leap and dive through movement that stretches out to early modernism, but is still totally supported by the dancer’s conviction, and the starkly contemporary lighting design by Dave Covey. The formations of this work are its triumph: the dancers spiral in and through each other, knock each other out of place, bind and unravel, find and re-find clarity… even more astonishing is the humanity with which they achieve such calculated precision, causing me more than once to hold my breath, or double take, or even spontaneously applaud as complexity flourishes unexpectedly from chaos. I loved space. I just wanted to give it more time.

Time, thankfully, I had in abundance thanks to Daniel Robert’s work Nomadic Drift, which followed in the evening. Robert’s desert is a harsh space, but a rich one, incorporating the tectonic shift and grind of mountains wearing down, and the explosive bloom of day-flowering vegetation, the scurry and calculated mastery of survival. The dancers are at home in this landscape, and once again the virtuosity that could easily have been clinical is instead empathetic and full of life. The role-reversing foot-to-foot duet that marks time at the beginning of the work is as delicate as glass, and as certain as diamond. A later trio with the theme of diving through is gigglingly playful, while the central solo by Sydney Samson is as crisp and clear in the silence as a shadow carving through the sunrise. The Cunningham-based techniques in the piece feel at home in the atmosphere of the past, but this work is a showcase of all that the dancers in this department can do right here in the now.

Of all the choreographers commissioned for this anniversary show, it is Eddie Taketa who seems to have most fully grasped the brief that tonight is a birthday party. Kipuka is a flat out romp through jazz and funk, the dancers smiling and wheeling, and having what is clearly a wonderful time. If you weren’t looking carefully you might get caught up in the celebration and miss some of the sophistication of flow within the work, which would be a shame when this dynamic is so intelligently explored. Watch Alizé Raptou as she whips and spins across the floor, then breaks on a dime to turn back the other way, seemingly pulling momentum out of thin air. Watch a trio of dancers throw and catch each other across the space, moving with gravity but never allowing it to pull them even a hair out of rhythm with their partnership. This is not flow that pulls you on uncontrollably, this is flow taken up and mastered as a way of getting you exactly where you want to go. What is hip? This is.

It seems trite to say that a piece on theme of weight makes an impact, but that is without a doubt what Lush Departures by Crystal Perkins does: slamming a foot decisively down in the space and yelling “here we are, this is what we can do, and no-one can stop us.” Weight is a springboard that lets the dancers fly and rebound, their communal energy spiraling up and out and all through the space. Perkins has clearly made this piece with a lot of love for the department she called home as an MFA student, and which now celebrates her as a faculty member. Alumni photos hang like a benediction over the dancers, and a central section of the work uses archived sound of Vera J. Blaine coaching a past class of dancers in lightness. As we hear Blaine’s voice and see the cast embody her exploration we realize that we are seeing time: the innovation that becomes tradition that becomes innovation reworked again. It is a statement of past and future, reverence and pride, and fills me with hope as I step out and leave into the ongoing dance.

 

Happy birthday OSU Dance, here’s to many more years.

 

 

 

* I hear it was Susan Petry, which doesn’t surprise me at all.

**A fifth work Well of Pearls took place as part of the celebrations in another theater, but I was unfortunately unable to attend.

 

A Lesson in Fear

I thought that the next post up on the Headtail Connection would be dance-specific one. In fact I have a dance post, all written out, but I’m waiting on feedback from a collaborator. So very soon you’ll get the next installment of “What Is Fusion.” But in the meantime… it’s been a very trans week. The republican government is attempting to redefine protected identity categories in order to create a legally actionable definition of gender that is indistinguishable from sex-as-assigned-at-birth. The UK government has also been pursuing an update to how it offers Gender Recognition Certificates, involving a lengthy public consultation.

I wasn’t going to bring those issues here. Instead I wrote an extended post on my facebook page about actionable ways to support transgender people, which has had an incredible reach and which I will include at the bottom of this post for those interested. As much of the content of this blog is personal, it’s mostly a geek-oriented and non-partisan space.

But then I read this article by the Reynolds School of Journalism and featured on Medium.com. If you don’t want to click out on the link, the summary of the article is that Republican students on campus feel afraid, and outcast, and think their teachers and peers are acting against them for having certain political views. This seems to fall nicely under my remit as a dancer, geek, pedagogue and blogger, so I’m going to talk a little bit about that fear.

I have republican students in my classroom. I know it. I have students who support Trump, I have students who have never met a queer person, who grew up attending all-white schools, who come to school wearing merchandise featuring Native American mascots, who don’t want to have any involvement in politics, who think dance is an easy A, who don’t want to dance with anyone of the same gender, who… you get my drift. It’s a mixed classroom.

I’m a masc-of-center non-binary queer, who takes they pronouns, and advocates for inclusivity, and wears button-downs and a buzz cut, and lectures about race and gender and sexuality and representation in the arts. While the university asks me to keep my political affiliation quiet, there is NO WAY that students do not know something of how I feel about Trump and republicans and conservatism. And since my students have to write essays in my classes about race, gender, sexuality etc etc… that’s a little bit of a problem. Admittedly not all teachers will have their politics made obvious by their identity in the same way that I do, but the way these teachers frame a discussion around issues of identity and politics will usually make their position fairly obvious.

Talking with my colleagues across the university, it’s clear that not all teachers inspire the same amount of fear in their students. A teacher with a visibly marginalized identity will be seen as “biased,” and will receive treatment and teaching evaluations to that end, while a white cis-male professor can be far more politically active in his content and will be reviewed as impartial. So for someone like me, it’s really important to try and remove the perception of bias from my classroom.

So how do I do that?

At the beginning of every semester I go through the syllabus with my students, and we discuss what it means to create an environment where it is safe for everyone to learn and grow. I promise that I will grade their research on accuracy, not politics, and that I do not have to agree with everything they write for them to get an A. I hold myself to that, taking advice from my colleagues and my rubrics when I think I’m in danger of not being fair.

I make a point of answering questions and opinions from a place of historical evidence/fact rather than from a place of opinion or feeling. People say things in discussions that I absolutely disagree with – about art as much as about identity – but if there is space in the evidence as far as I know it to validate their opinion then I will. If not, “that’s an interesting interpretation and I can see how you got there but in fact…” or “I’m not seeing how you got that, can you explain some more” are good ways to start dealing with difference.

Where I do draw a line is that if a student says or writes something that is to the best of my knowledge inaccurate, it is my job as an educator to correct or clarify for them. That can be difficult to do well. A while ago a student in my class expressed doubt about the existence of white privilege, arguing that white people exist in states of extreme poverty and deprivation, so white people can’t all be privileged. In that case I clarified that yes, white people definitely do live in extremes of inequality, but that I’m talking about white privilege as a structural system that favours whiteness over other races, not making a statement that all white people enjoy the material and social security because of privilege, or aren’t affected by other forms of inequality. This system has been demonstrably proven to exist, even if its manifestations aren’t always clear. We agreed that that was a reasonable basis for discussion.

I hope that in that instance my student didn’t feel like she was pressured into agreeing with me. Since she continues to speak up in class I’m assuming not. Luckily in that case I had three other adults in the room: my TA and two university staff members, one of whom sent me a very nice email saying how much she admired my fair approach to cultural and political discussions. So I feel validated in saying that I try and treat all my students well, even if they disagree with me.

I also think that stepping outside of the white historical canon is a political act. There would be far less dissent (and less critical thinking) in my classroom if I taught canonical dance history, or used white male authors. That choice would be seen by many as politically neutral, and that by mentioning Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, or Frederick Ashton’s desire to be female (at least sometimes), I’m dragging politics in where it doesn’t belong. But these are historically demonstrable statements with a profound effect on how we understand the lives of these artists and the works that they make. If we treat all voices as equal then that means all voices, not just the ones that are easy, and don’t challenge us to confront our bias. It would make me a very bad teacher.

So what about these students who are all feeling afraid? Or other people who feel like they are being “bullied” for holding conservative or controversial views. It’s a hard call to make in academia, because so much of our history is about genius pushing through entrenched and dogmatic opposition, so it’s understandable why people want to cast themselves on the side of the oppressed genius, and keep pushing on with their viewpoint against all the evidence and odds. Both sides tend to believe that their opponents are entrenched, dogmatic, and oblivious to both the facts and the humanity of anyone who disagrees with them. They poke holes in any conflicting evidence, demand an exorbitant standard of proof, and resort to ad hominem attacks and traumatized rage in this desperate struggle to… to do what?

This is a point that I’ll try and make clearly and fairly, but my politics are going to show for a bit. It is now the desired policy of the republican government that trans people do not deserve protection against bias. It is the desired policy of the republican government that homosexual people be denied the right to services, up to and including housing and medical care. It is the official policy of the republican government to separate migrants from their children, and to house those children in brutal, inhumane conditions. It is the desired policy of the republican government that women lose their right to abortion, and to birth control. It is the official position of the republican government that climate change does not exist, and should not be discussed. That these goals and desires exist is supportable by evidence as best as I can find it. So even if they only selectively adhere to republican politics, students voting for a republican government are seeking for these things to happen, and to exacerbate. In contrast I have not seen any desired policy of the democratic party that seeks to deny social or civil rights, or services, to straight, white, or cis people. Or republicans.

There are people out there, and in my classrooms, who would argue that these are good things. That they are backed by logic and sound reasoning. I live on the internet, I have had those arguments. What I have not yet found is any good evidence supporting these policies as successful ways of achieving their intended aims. They rely on fundamental misunderstandings of economics, social sciences, biology, human behaviour, etc etc. It’s like UK austerity politics, they don’t work. We know they don’t work. All the evidence shows they don’t work. They do a huge amount of harm. Just because they sound appealing on paper to a certain subset of the population doesn’t mean that at the end of the day they work. Arguing for them is not lone genius pushing against dogma, it’s an old idea proven wrong by new evidence.

So back to these students.

We have to be able to tell students that they are wrong when they are wrong. We have to tell them when their evidence is flawed, or non-existent. We have to do it without calling them horrible people or blaming them for views they have come to through completely understandable routes. As educators we should be aware of the paucity of information available to some of our students and the bias with which much information is presented. The free availability of absolute garbage, and the algorithms by which it appears to us as truth. A big problem is that the “truth” is now an intensely political quality, and students aren’t willing to believe science and facts any more if they contradict a political ideology. And we return to this idea that students are simply trying to say what they know, in dread of the political bias and mindless adherence to false beliefs by their teachers. It’s really, really sad.

In the linked article students said that they wanted to be known as individuals before they were judged for their politics. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable ask. But I can like a student very much as a human and still desperately want to shift them from a belief that will lead to them growing up to do harm, those aren’t conflicting positions for me. I can still teach the evidence as best I know it to be true. I can still teach my required curriculum – which is about race and gender and representation – and ask students to gain competency in that. I can still follow the rules of the university, which reject bias and prejudice against statistically marginalized identities. I can ask students what they are afraid of, and weigh the potential harm against its risk, and set safeguarding measures in place. I can hold myself accountable every single time I answer a question in class, or grade. What I can’t do is let fear – anyone’s fear – rule my classroom and distort my teaching the best that I know to the best of my ability.

There is a subset or republican and conservative and evangelical and TERF fear that’s about white nationalism and homogeneity. There’s also a subset of republican and conservative fear that’s about social shame and social change. Liberals are not kind to those who they view as actively seeking to take away people’s human rights, and – I speak from experience – believing that someone loathes your very existence, and having them argue that at you like it’s rational, is a powerful disincentive to pleasant conversation. People out there are getting very, very upset about being told they’re factually wrong, because they know that their incorrect opinions are associated with a set of beliefs that are associated with monsters… and also with their parents. And their loved ones. And their churches. And their communities. It can be as dangerous for republican kids to dissent as it can be for gay kids to come out – which is pretty damn dangerous. And if they get that dissent wrong, or not all the way or fast enough, they get a huge amount of hate from both sides. I don’t think I would want to do it.

I’ve talked for a long time, and all my solutions were done a long time ago. When you politicize the truth and you hold up the humanity and life of identity groups as the stakes of that truth there is no easy way to have a debate. I will continue to try and be kind and fair and accurate in my classrooms. I wish the best of luck to anyone trying to do the same.

 

 

As promised, here is my post about supporting trans people:

I see a lot of cis people on facebook urging everyone out there to support the trans community. Thank you. But what does that support look like practically? Here are some ideas!

– Firstly, vote. Vote tactically and get the people who want to make this horrible law the law out of power. Vote.

– Offer to accompany your trans friends to the bathroom if they have to go to the bathroom in public. Don’t assume that a space is safe enough for them, show them that you’ll make spaces safe for them.

– Use the right pronouns and names for people, always and forever. If you can’t get it right, practice on your own time. No excuses any more.

– Introduce yourself with your pronouns. When you assume that everyone knows your pronouns you make non-binary people’s lives incredibly hard. You don’t have to ask people what their pronouns are, but you can offer yours into the space like all pronouns belong there.

– Speak up against sexually essentialist and/or binary language. Stop saying “men and women,” stop conflating genitalia with gender. People of any gender can get pregnant, people of any gender can menstruate. Support this in your conversation.

– Take delight in appropriately gendered language. Find out who among your friends wants to be “one of the boys,” who should be invited on a “girls night out,”who wants to talk to you “man to man.” Affirm people’s gender, even and especially when it creates a discordant image. (caveat: don’t out your friends).

– If you have money, put a little bit of it aside every month and put it towards getting trans people the transitional care they need – especially since it might be taken away soon. (Anyone who wants to give money towards my top surgery, hit me up!)

– Educate yourself, read articles by trans people about their experiences, learn how to make the case that trans people want you to make for their humanity, rather than coming from a medicalised narrative.

– Make sure that any policies you’re in charge of are trans-inclusive. “You are welcome to wear the uniform most concordant with your gender identity”would work WONDERS in the workplace.

– Does your workplace have a gender neutral bathroom? If not, ask why not. Find out where the closest facility is so you can direct people there. Is there a way for folks in the men’s bathroom to dispose of menstrual products? If not, why not? A $5 trashcan in each stall would be an easy blessing. +10 points if you can put some sanitary products in there to use also.

– Do not offer arguments against the humanity, existence, or human rights of trans people the same validation as reasonable debate. “That’s not scientifically true.” “That’s not factually accurate.” “That argument is based in transphobia.” Do not get derailed by folk who would like to pull the level of debate endlessly back to “but are they even real though?” We know the answer to that question and the answer is yes. Move on.

– Vote.

p.s. I’m not a monolith and all the trans people you know will have different ideas about this.

p.p.s. I’d really love it if as well as liking this post my friends would commit to one or more of these things that they’re going to do!

 

 

Success is Spelled Like

“You will be deemed incompetent in your field if you continue to write the way you write.”

“I always thought from your emails that you were dyslexic – I just didn’t want to say anything.”

“You’re an A-grade student on your content and an E or F on spelling and grammar.”

…..

When I was little my mother made me do writing practice constantly. She kept a spelling journal, and every time I spelt a word wrong I would have to sit back down again and write it out three times, five times, ten. I wrote lines, Bart Simpson-style, as a punishment for bad behaviour – 20, 50 100. I remember that once I changed the text of the line because I couldn’t spell one of the words she’d asked for, and she made me write the whole hundred out again (the word was cacophony, and I was 8 – high pressure household)!

It didn’t work anyway – I have never been able to spell.

So why not?

A few years ago the New York Times published an article about aphantasia, or blindness in the mind’s eye. It was me! I make no mental images, I see only the world in front of me, and until my teens I had never really understood that anyone else had a different experience. I wrote – badly – to the nice scientists doing the experiments and they sent me their tests, which very firmly confirmed that this is the way my mind works. I’ve also been recently delighted to learn that my very dear Aunt experiences it too, so maybe there’s a genetic element to it? Seeing nothing internally makes me incredibly good at remembering conversations, skim reading, spotting patterns, and organizational thinking. It gives me tremendous difficulty with geography, remembering faces and, apparently, spelling.

One of the tests they ask you to do to see whether you have aphantasia is they ask you to picture a house in which you have spent a long period of time, and count the windows. Most people will picture the house and walk around it internally or externally, counting as they go. I had to do it narratively: “ok, so I get home and I go through the back door and there’s a toilet by the back door is there a window in the toilet I think so because I’ve watered plants there, and then I go into the kitchen and I know I can look out the window as I pour the kettle and do the dishes so that makes two more and…” and despite my best efforts I forgot the existence of two whole rooms in a house where I lived for ten years.

It’s pretty much the same way with words. I can’t see them. I read extensively and furiously for work and pleasure, but I can’t call up a picture of a word in my head. I usually write in a kind of flow state, knowing that if I challenge myself on a particular word and its (it’s?) spelling I will be unable to determine whether it is right or wrong without spell check and Google. As an instructor I dread the moment when I have to turn around and write complicated words on the blackboard because I have absolutely no idea whether or not I’m getting it right or not, and I dread the day that I freeze in front of my class because someone has asked me to spell “pressure” (a word I almost always bail on) and I crack under the… strain.

Why am I writing about this? Because I remember one of the first arguments I had with a co-teacher was whether I should grade my students on the spelling and grammar of their writing or on their comprehensible fluency. I teach a huge number of students who speak English as an additional language, or who write a form of English that is not the standardized norm, and I know that the decision about how to grade student writing has huge impact on the power we give to race, class, and educational privilege in our classrooms, and since I have a pronounced RP English accent it can surprise people how fervently I argue that if I can understand it, I’ll grade it just fine.

In an educational system that simply does not teach students how to write academically unless they come from extremely advantageous circumstances, teachers in higher education have to have strategies for dealing with multiple forms of English and students who don’t know how to write. I know how to write. I may be a first-generation student, but I went to an intensely good grammar school and I took essay subjects at A-level, which means I have all the tools at my disposal for crafting academic arguments. My brain just won’t let me spell. It means, however, that I can empathise with the students who haven’t got the tools that I’ve got, which to me means aiming for “can I understand you” rather than “are you writing perfect, standardized English.” I’m also lucky to be in a field in which experimental writing is supported, and can thus recognize the beauty in a grammar, syntax and flow that is not my own.

It also means that I can be a model for students who think that their writing capacity defines their potential in higher education, or as a scholar. I am a PhD student, I have lectured internationally at university level, my writing has been published in field journals (they give you editors when you publish in journals, it is AMAZING), and I keep this blog, which is read all over the world. Students, I can’t give you much advice for getting over issues with writing, because I haven’t got over mine, I’ve just got better at faking it (except that my spell check now corrects into both American AND English spelling seemingly at random and it is a PAIN). But I can tell you that your voice is valuable, and what you have to say is worth saying. Don’t let anyone tell you that your dialect or your spelling or your grammar has to match a certain standard for what you write to be worth reading, or that it can stop you from doing what you want to do.

Teachers, I understand that especially before university level there’s a world of standardised testing that gets in the way of adopting a comprehensibility-model of grading. I urge you to offer your students opportunities to gain credit for their own speech, as well as teaching them the standard. Ask whether your students have the tools to write a certain way, and if they don’t, is it worth blaming them for the failures of an educational system we know is chronically underfunded and a curriculum with gaping flaws? Ask how we can raise up the voices of students who take their grade as a measure of their worth, and how we can reward conviction, clarity, poetry and power, as well as spelling and formal rhetoric. From someone who can’t write, to all of you who can: keep trying, you can do it, I can’t picture it, but I believe in you.