All posts by fensfeet

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!

 

 

Flying Color: OSU Dance Faculty Concert

Last night I attended the OSU Dance Department’s sold-out Faculty Concert – a wonderful opportunity for students to enjoy the choreographic identities of the professionals they learn from. A faculty concert speaks to the tone of a department and the projects surfacing within it. At OSU this weekend we see an attention to physical and performative integrity, respect for tradition and ongoingness,* celebrations of multiplicity, and a dedication to art that is beautiful, meaningful, and communal.

Mitchell Rose’s A Primer in Contemporary Choreographic Iconography is a perfect show-opener: tongue-in-cheek, the piece delivers an astute analysis of postmodern choreographic sensibilities, and a deft performance of the same. Flirting with cliché but never vapid, Josh Anderson and Gina Hoch-Stall bring their masterful sense of performance and timing to this restaging. The piece works extremely well in the intimate setting of the OSU Barnett Theater, which allows the audience to delight in the richness and layering of detail. As Hoch-Stall falls to the floor “willed dead” by Anderson, Anderson’s eyes dart sneakily from one side to the other, subverting the melodrama of his stated intention in a playful “who, me?” Smart, ironic, a knowing nod to aficionados and newer attendees alike.

An Answerless Riddle by Eddie Taketa takes full advantage of the musical score by John Adams, pushing the dancers through an orchestral journey from airy virtuosity to wire-taught tenderness to flashing fire. Taketa’s breathtaking contrapuntal landscape is a complex sea the dancers navigate with confidence and flare. Kathryn Sauma’s lyrical ease subtly shapes the flow of the piece, and Marissa Ajamian strikes sparks, especially in the latter sections. All of the dancers should be praised for their fullness of line under pressure, and command of the music.

The last work before the intermission was the first work I have had the pleasure of seeing by new faculty member Crystal Michelle Perkins. The Difficulties of Flying is an essay in crystalline clarity, drawing on African American folklore in its exploration of wandering and homecoming. Sculptural unison binds the performers together, woven through by daring soloists who contrast the luscious string score with rapid shifts of weight, limb, and flow. Steve Reich’s Clapping Music closes out the piece perfectly, its drive and gravitational pulse harmonizing with the dancing and calling it forward into the infinite. As the cast circles Danielle Kfoury’s outpouring of circular energy the lights fade, but in our minds the dance continues.

From a new choreographer to one I always look forward to seeing: Ann Sofie Clemmensen’s work is consistently intelligent, structurally designed, a treat for the audience and for the bodies moving through it. Color in the Dark is no different, channeling kinetic precision and group identity into a striking investigation of presence, absence, the invisible and the seen. The cast brings a resonant physical and emotional maturity to the work: Danielle Barker standing still as the stage vibrates around her, fists to eyes, is one of the most memorable images of the night. The dancers throw themselves at the floor and each other, chaos translating seamlessly into order and back again.

The concert ends on a lighter note, beginning with Reverb by Daniel Roberts, a playful quartet inspired by Lukas Ligeti’s polyrhythmic “bending” of Shaking, by Merideth Monk. After three large-group works, the four dancers in pale light feel like a breath taken into the space, their nibbling runs and angular lines are geometric sparklers brightening up the stage. The four alight into their extensions with ease and levity, their interactions gentle, yet direct – here is an elite approach to elongated, linear technique at its finest… and at its kindest too. Paige St. John tips into a handstand and her two companions scurry her in a tight circle – a highlight moment among many, warmly welcoming us into the abstract. Special mention must be made for Jing Dian, newly stepping into her role in this restaging of the work.

The final work of the night, SISTERS by Dave Covey, is an unabashedly joyful treat, the audience laughing, clapping along, breathless and exuberant. The trompe-l’oeil of the set design is a triumph: cascading lines of light pour in arcs cross the space, transforming the black box into a fireworks display. The sure and sophisticated hand of co-director Bita Bell can be detected in the improvisation score that lives within, and yet is never overshadowed by this polychromatic wonderland. The cast are utterly together, in play and solidarity, each coming to the work in her own way – Jazelynn Goudy’s heart-pounding entrance in particular is fabulous – and spectacular as a whole. You will leave singing.

 

Photo Credit: Chris Summers

 

* A turn of phrase I owe to Janet Schroeder

 

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!

 

So Emotional – Survival Tactics and General Education

I decided to study dance, and I write this blog, in part because I think dance can make the world a better place. Four years into a PhD later I am still just as convinced of that truth, and I am beginning to get a much clearer picture of how.

Part One:

In the UK we narrow our subjects early: by 15 we have around 10, by 17 that’s dropped to three or four. At university I only studied one subject and that subject was dance, which sometimes made it hard to keep track of the rest of the world. At 17 the bane of everyone’s life was “General Studies” – the everything else class. The little bit of ecology, sociology, science, politics, art, and culture that was supposed to make you a well-rounded human being no-matter what three other subjects you happened to specialise in. The class where we learned to dissect a newspaper article and an advert, and covered a whole range of subjects with such appalling superficiality that it often didn’t feel like we were learning anything at all.

It wasn’t until I started to really care about politics that I realised how grateful I was for general studies. For far too long I let my ignorance about politics act as an excuse not to engage at all: “I don’t know very much, so it’s better for everyone if I just don’t take part. Right?” Of course I eventually worked out that people with a lot less knowledge than I had were taking part and making an absolute mess of it, and if I wanted anything to change I’d better get more knowledge quickly, and then I was glad to have been given at least a basic crash course, if not in everything I needed to know, at least a sort of rough outline of what I ought to start teaching myself, and some of the issues at stake. And then I moved to America and just about had to start all over again.

For the last year I have been, essentially, teaching a general studies class. American universities – I still haven’t learned to call them colleges – require their students to take a whole slew of subjects, but General Education is still considered necessary for them to come out as well-rounded human beings, hence my class, Dance in Popular Culture. At first I thought that teaching this class was impossible: there are more dance forms on the syllabus than there are class days in the semester, and each one needs to come with its appropriate cultural background and contextual awareness. How on earth do I give everything a fair hearing without flooding my students with information? How do I teach dance forms that are completely new to me? How do I teach the context and culture of representation across an entire century and actually make it matter?

So I spent a lot of time thinking about the point of general studies.

Part Two:

Earlier this year I was made suddenly and appallingly homeless. I am still very much not ok. I am, however deeply, unendingly thankful for the human who on almost no notice gave me a safe place to stay, and who introduced me, among other things, to RuPaul’s Drag Race, and to the drag queen Sasha Velour.

I had never quite got the hang of drag before, but Sasha’s queer aesthetic, her articulate, cerebral deconstruction of gender through juxtaposition and hyperbole, her…. Her everything…. I was instantly smitten. Her drag, and undeniably, the other queens of the series, had a politics with the potential to slay conservatism in its tracks, a fierce energy that grappled with gender, race, mind and body, and didn’t shy away from deep feeling. In the face of the assaults on human rights of the last year, and on humans, I wanted to be like Sasha Velour: I wanted to tear my hair off, I wanted to cry until rose petals shook from my skin, I wanted to get So Emotional.* And for the last year, and the last months, I have not been doing those things. I did my job, I found a new house, I carried on. I had not, until I saw it, come to terms with my need to have someone else doing those other things for me.

So I had to rethink what I thought about drag.

Part Three:

I’ve come to see general studies as the class where we teach survival. The stuff we think people need to know in order to make their way in the world around their vocations. What are the messages in media, and why should we care about them? In shifts of the law, what are we being taught about power and ownership, and how do those new structures impact us, and the people around us? Dance is an art, but it’s also a lens to look at the control and emancipation of bodies, and how the fight around that is being fought on small screens, on big screens, in clubs and in government chambers. I still can’t teach it all, but I now I hope that I’m delivering the content so that my students will be able to teach themselves the stuff that matters when it matters.

My students are awesome.

Drag is on my syllabus now, at my own insistence – we have collectively decided that gender needs to be general, not just specialist education.** We go from Paris is Burning to Voguing to Sasha Velour. We talk about signs of gender and sexuality and what pop culture tells us we’re supposed to want. We talk about the need for community, behaviours of belonging, and how we have a choice in what messages we take onto our bodies. We talk about these things briefly and lightly and with nowhere near enough time, and I make my peace with that. I will be sad to leave this class behind.

When we need to teach too much, and we need to know too much, and we live in a political environment where every aspect of our society is undergoing fundamental policy shift, we have to be able to deal with a flood of information. We have to become generalists as well as specialists. We have to teach, and know, too much, and we have to be able to do so in a way that is survivable, and that matters.

We need general education. We need monsters and freaks and rose petals. We need the tools to survive, and for me that is, unexpectedly drag. And teaching. And dance.

 

 

 

*I cannot find the Grand Final version of this song, which I would dearly love to link in here. If you know where it is (NOT the Nightgowns version), let me know!

 

 

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.