All posts by fensfeet

Cats, Carrots, and Teaching through Shame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Be Mad

Friends, it’s almost a month later. How are you doing? Are you safe?

If you’re anything like me, you’re doing a delicate dance* between trying to carry on with your life, activism, and a new phenomenon that I call Trump Fatigue, where you collapse under a blanket absolutely paralysed and despairing because you still can’t believe this is happening. Sound about right?

I see laws coming through the pipeline that massively affect me, that massively affect my friends, that massively affect the country. I’m seeing a lot more violence. I’m seeing division in communities as we desperately fight to protect a life’s worth of causes on limited resources. So here, for our benefit is my guide to the hardest part of post-Trump life: how to be mad.

mad (măd) adj. Angry; resentful. See Synonyms: angry.**

A lot of us have worked very hard not to be mad, it’s kind of a frowned-upon emotion in liberal circles. But we’re not in rational times any more, and trying to pretend you’re not mad at Trump could get you in more trouble than you’re in now, and could literally get people killed. So once again: how to be mad.

  1. Get mad about all the things, and focus on some of them. You do not have the energy to be as mad as Trump’s work deserves. This is why he’s been so successful. Across a broad ranging platform of policies he has wreaked such destruction that we can’t channel our energy enough to fight back. Be mad about that! And then pick the places where you and your anger can do the work of fighting back.
  2. Do not get mad at other people’s mad. Women’s March, I am looking at YOU. Because of step one, you’re going to have a lot of people around you with different mad to you. Some of them will be mad at you. Some of them will be ignoring your mad. These people are your allies – listen to them. You have the same reasons to be mad, why are your expressions of that mad different? Does your mad need changing? Are you aware of the ways your mad might be making extra work for other people? What can you do about that?
  3. Remind yourself why you are mad. You’re probably getting really tired right about now. Maybe you switched off from the news, or facebook, and you wish that the mad around would just be over. Stop! Remember why you are mad, and the worth of that response in the face of what’s going on in the world. If you are prepared to accept what’s going on in order to be comfortable, that is a choice. But others out there can’t, and if you can’t accept Trump, you’re going to feel mad.
  4. Be your own kind of mad. Not everyone is a protestor. Not everyone can call senators. Your mad might be loud, or quiet, or based entirely online. It might cry, and it might scream. Make it work for you. You do not need to be anyone else’s mad.
  5. But be mad in good ways! There are good and bad kinds of mad. There is the mad that allows people to get mad alongside you, and there is the mad that turns you into a threat. If you are smashing tables because you don’t like what someone has to say about your anti-abortion bill? That’s the bad kind of mad. Punching Nazi’s… ok I’m not so sure about the Nazi punching. I absolutely think physical violence is to be avoided, but if that Nazi came for me, I would want someone to punch that Nazi. But those of you saying you’d “bang” Melania Trump just to see the look on her father’s face? You are part of the problem, and I am mad at you too. You are the reason we can’t have nice things…. Like female presidents! Who aren’t Trump! Be the kind of mad that sees the world now, and sees the world better, and gets angry as the distance.
  6. Take breaks from being mad. Hormones and chemicals and tremors oh my! Mad is physically exhausting. Take time out to give yourself a break from being mad. Take care of yourself. But also remember that the people still being mad might need your support more than you need support for taking a break. Take your space to recover. Let them have space to be mad. And when you come back, bring cookies, or something.
  7. Let people see that you are mad. This is a bit contradictory, which is why I left it until after the funny cat video. There’s a lot of pressure on certain groups of people to stop being mad. Or to say they aren’t mad. They’re having to choose between being mad, and serious threat to themselves and their families. So if you can afford to be visibly mad, be mad! Be mad for yourself, and be mad for others. Say “I am so angry about what is being done to you.” Punch holes in the walls that say only some anger is valid.
  8. Make space for other people’s mad. This is the flip side of that advice: your mad might not be the most important mad in the room. You getting mad about something in the abstract might be getting in the way of someone with a quieter mad, who’s actually living it. If you silence your mad, you’re probably silencing theirs as well, but don’t get mad so loudly that they can’t be heard. Practice the balance of being mad together.
  9. Get educated. You are going to be called out and asked to justify your mad. You are going to be asked what you want to be done. You are going to be fed a lot of information about why your mad really doesn’t matter. Resist. Read books, watch documentaries, select carefully from the internet. Seek out sources from people who’ve done the research, especially people who’ve done the research who don’t live like you. If someone tells you to look at something, look at it. Have the discussion. Put a whetstone to the edge of your mad and hone it until it can cut through anything. Know, also, the risks of being mad.
  10. Direct your mad. Mad can only do so much good between four walls. Use your private spaces to grow and nurture your mad into a force, but don’t neglect using that force in the world. Let it drive you to do the things you’d otherwise be too tired, sad or scared to do. Find out, as I have, that mad can make you teach, and mad can make you learn, and often, and the best way I have found of being mad in the world?

Is kindness.

* Yes I shoehorned that in to justify publishing this on my dance blog.
** Colloquially, mad can also be a derogatory term related to mental illness. I’m also finding it really useful as a term right now. I absolutely and only mean it according to the definition, but that’s why I’ve been careful not to say “madness” anywhere in this post.

A Holiday Guide To Dancers – Part 2

Hello friends, it’s been a tumultuous year, which can only mean that it’s time for the second installment of my holiday dancers guide! This year we’re focusing on modern and contemporary dancers, for the specialist spotter. If you haven’t seen the original guide, you can read it here. Enjoy!

Screen Shot 2016-12-11 at 10.56.42.pngDuncan Dancer

Look out for: Unexpected skipping, knocking things down with scarves

Favourite tipple: White wine

Wearing: Grecian drapery

Ideal Gift: Flowers

Political Stance: I see America weeping

Conversation Starters

Bad: Have you tried my new motorcar?

Better: How do myths relate to us now?

Best: What invigorates your soul motor?

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-12-11 at 10.57.09.png

Graham Dancer

Look out for: Standing perfectly still, wild-eyed, as the room swirls around in chaos

Favourite tipple: THE BLOOD OF MY ENEMIES

Wearing: THE BLOOD OF MY ENE … Black.

Ideal Gift: Eye makeup

Political Stance: Movement never lies, but Trump…..

Conversation Starters

Bad: Aren’t you getting a bit old for this kind of thing?

Better: How do you think Jung would interpret this party if it were a dream?

Best: Can you tell me something about yourself?

 

 

Cunningham Dancerscreen-shot-2016-12-11-at-10-57-40

Look out for: Turning the christmas tree into modern art

Favourite tipple: Guinness

Wearing: Brightly coloured leggings

Ideal Gift: A blank canvas

Political Stance: Come away with me to Black Mountain…

Conversation Starters

Bad: Can you count this music?

Better: How could we stage an Event in here?

Best: What is the alignment of democracy and chaos?

 

 

Judson Dancer

screen-shot-2016-12-11-at-10-58-23Look out for: Unexplained durational activity, accompanied by blank staring

Favourite tipple: Vodka

Wearing: Beads, feathers, and a small ornamental birdcage

Ideal Gift: You really can’t go wrong here

Political Stance: NO Manifesto

Conversation Starters

Bad: Is this art?

Better: What is art?

Best: Does art matter?

 

 

Release Dancer

Look out for: Sitting on anything except a chairScreen Shot 2016-12-11 at 10.58.41.png

Favourite tipple: Wheat beer

Wearing: Hemp and bamboo

Ideal Gift: Tennis balls

Political Stance: Semi-supine

Conversation Starters

Bad: Is there any technique to what you do?

Better: Why is ballet evil?

Best: How are your fascia doing?

 

Got another kind of dancer you want added to the guide? Comment below!

 

….and what now?

…for the dancers in my life who are struggling to dance.

I can already see the theory we’ll be reading in a couple of years time – Traumatised Nation: Dancing in Post-Trump America. Things will change in light of this election, and like everyone else, dancers and artists are going to have to decide how they will move on and live in the face of the unimaginable. I’m sure I am not the only one who has doubted the significance of my choice to dance in the face of these huge socio-political events. I’m also sure I’m not the only one who’s looking for ways to do something productive. This post is about doing both.

I’ve been talking to a number of my colleagues about “breaking the movement barrier.” How do we dance now? How do we teach other people to dance now? Choreography is one thing, but how can we go through the motions of a day-to-day class leaving space for where we are, while still doing our practice the service it deserves? How can we get other people to do that with us?

I got lucky. I had to teach a ballet class at 8:30am the morning after the election. My students came to class and told me they wanted to dance. That they needed to dance. That the classroom felt safe… what could I do but oblige? When I get stuck, and I still get stuck, I remember that at least for those people in that room dancing was a way to make the world feel better, and then I can move again.

What can dance do right now? Well you can choreograph. Some people already have. If the statement you have to make is one you want to make with your body, do it. Even if that statement is confused, or personal, or you don’t know what you’re allowed to say. Watch the choreography people have already made and look at how other people are thinking.

Dance can look after you. I’ve seen so many tears since the election. So many people not knowing what to do, or how to carry on. Sometimes what you need is a reminder that you know how to breathe, you know how to move through space, and take up space, and those capabilities have not gone away. Your body is still there, and the tools you have to live in the world are still there for you as soon as you decide what to do with them.

Dance is an escape. I went to a fantastic lecture last year about tactful stuplicity – sinking into the stream of the internet and opting out of a world where too much is wrong. Right now the internet is a pretty toxic place, but can we sink into music, and clear instructions, and scripts of behaviour we understand in order to give us more energy to navigate the complicated outside the door?

Dance can build community. Under the rule of hatred, love is a radical act. In a state that polices bodies, touching each other is a radical act. At a time when words are tearing us apart, moving our bodies together in silence is a radical act. And one where we can possibly come to understand each other better. I have tried since Tuesday to keep my doors open and to offer spaces for people to gather and care for each other. The people who have come have been dancers.

Dance can protest. Dance can stamp, shout, scream and tear its hair. Dance can insist on the magnificence of its own beauty. Dance can mobilize the songs we fear to sing, and the actions we fear to take. Dance can be a space to work things out. Our dance does not have to be public: there is a powerful rebellion in turning the music up loud and moving by yourself behind your bedroom door, in full-bodied acknowledgement that things are not ok. That something went wrong, and that something has to change. In dancing, we can commit to that need for change.

As artists, we are not obligated to be political activists. We are not obligated to be leftists. There is no correct response to our new president-elect, and not everyone can do the same kind of work. I think it’s important to recognise that there are lots of very valid ways of going forward now, and we can find routes for ourselves in the practices we have spent so much of our lives building. Or we may find that we need to do things differently in order to shape the world we want to live in.

There is a sentiment going around at the moment that our protests are powerless, that our activisms are superficial, that we failed, and that we cannot do enough. We did not win the election. We will have to live for four years under whatever shape the new regime takes. But we cannot let our failures, or the incompleteness of our work, prevent us from working at all. We can keep going. We can do better. We can listen. We can speak. We can make spaces. We can work stuff out.

We can dance.

Photograph by Mike Will Art

Grad School Plus – Boats and Goats and Getting a Job

This week, I’ve been reading about an institution that has violently opposed every kind of educational technology. That has locked up and restricted access to books. That imposed a ban on private, silent reading to prevent the uncontrolled spread of information… no I’m not talking about Trump’s campaign management, I am instead talking about… universities!

Admittedly, some of those heinous misdeeds took place way back in the 14th century, when new typesetting systems had just made silent reading possible and everyone was trying to work out what to do with this scary new thing. My point is that university life has undergone massive change over time: students are no-longer permitted to keep a goat on the cathedral green, although punting down the Cam is still a haven of English pastoral bliss. Pipes have gone out of fashion. Slaves and servants are no longer permitted. I cannot, on a blog, do proper justice to the increased diversity and continuing complexities of race and gender, suffice to say that I am grateful that now I can get a PhD – in dance, no less!

University use of time has changed: in 1830, at one American university, students would get up at six for prayers at 6:45. Seniors were excused from 7am classes, but everyone enjoyed breakfast at 8, and the second class for everyone started at 11. Students would enjoy a light lunch at noon, prepare for their final class of the day at 4, and had to be in their rooms by 8.

The subjects we teach have changed, how we teach them has changed… but universities themselves are slow to change, and I offer the historical perspective as a cry to radically reconsider what it means to be a student, especially a graduate student at the beginning of the 21st century.

Right now, it is impossible to get a job simply by successfully following a course of education. From undergraduate admissions to doctoral employment, it is never ok to just do school. Let’s take dance as an example: a company will often refuse your right to audition unless you have 3-5 years of professional experience. Before you reach that magical point you will mostly work for free, if at all. But if you want to get into an MFA program you have to have choreographic experience, so you work for free and you go to grad school. In grad school you’ll get to choreograph, but if you want to get a job in the academy you’ll need to have experience choreographing for large groups, and MFA students don’t really get to do that, so you’ll work for local studios to get extra teaching on your resume and the opportunity to make work. If you want to teach as a doctoral student, you have to attend conferences and publish articles, and the performing and choreography that tie you to your field have to happen in un-credited time, and don’t even get me started on the process of tenure.

To maintain good academic standing with the university, a graduate student is expected to spend an official minimum of 24 hours a week in study time. To graduate in three years, class requirements actually work out to be about 36 hours a week – as long as you can read and write fast enough to stay within the recommended homework hours – dear other grad students, how possible is that? To pay for graduate education, students are then also asked to spend 20 hours a week working for the university. One semester out of six that 20 hours has now become 25/30, and I would imagine that for graduate students without a university stipend the burden of time needed simply for subsistence living is even harsher.

A 55 hour week is tough, but not unbearably so, if you’re generally healthy, and you don’t have kids, and your partners are understanding, and your friends are flexible, and you’re willing and able to give up your other professional commitments while you’re in a university program… and those are all gigantic and unreasonable ifs. Of course, what with time between classes and warming up and meeting with your students and another student’s crisis and rehearsals and “I’ve been grading for three hours and I need a cup of tea and a break before I start this paper” it’s NEVER just a 55 hour week. EVER. A “55” hour week that earns you a hair over $15,000 a year pre-tax, pre university deductions, pre insurance etc. etc.

And then you realise that if you want to be employable when you graduate you need to have another job on top of your extra-full-time job, and that when you are employed it is most likely to be as an adjunct – a position subject to horrific abuse by the university system, without guaranteed hours, pay, or benefits – more on that, and please watch it, here.

Am I complaining? Well… yes, I am. You’ve just sat with me for 500 words of me doing just that (not counting the introduction because, frankly, that was just fun), so I can’t really deny it. I also love grad school, and I would honestly rather be spending my time here right now than anywhere else, but loving grad school doesn’t mean that I’m blind to the fact that the conditions it imposes on faculty, staff and students are systemically… tenuous. I am not blind to the 50% attrition rate of PhD students in American universities. I am not blind to the fact that statistically 47% of doctoral students, and 37% of master’s students, met the clinical criteria for depression in 2015, not counting those experiencing symptoms of other illnesses, or those who simply didn’t quite tick the boxes.

This is not a complaint specific to my own program (I’ve simply drawn data from where I know it best), nor about any program or university in particular. It is not a demand for less work or fewer opportunities. It is simply a statement of the need to re-think what it is to be a graduate student. Or to think about what you want a graduate student to be. We’re not going to bed at 8 anymore. We’re not going punting. What are we trying to do instead? How does that mean universities have to change?

Debates in Dance: Documentation

“Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance” – Peggy Phelan

As far as dance scholarship goes, this quote is one of the biggies. If you want to talk about dance, or a dance, you have to deal with the super-smart lady who laid out why that was a problem. Essentially her point is that you can’t save a performance in any way that allows it to stay a performance – once the dancers leave the stage they stop dancing, and anything else that follows is just not the same any more.

“Great, but why does this matter?!” I hear you cry. Well, because dancers do things on stages (and off them) that are smart, and culturally relevant, and useful to the project of being better in the world. They dance their own selves, they dance history, they dance community. Not to mention they make some of the most incredible art out there. And one of the ways we value those contributions and get them recognised in the world is to transmit them, otherwise we end up with people and groups like Wells Fargo telling us that dance is just a phase you go through on the way to a more productive career. Ahem.

There are some pretty well-established ways of documenting dance: you can write a description of it. You can score it like a piece of music. You can film it with a camera. Phelan isn’t ignoring these, by the way, she’s just saying that none of them actually save the bit of the dance we call performance, although we’re all still somewhat shakey on what that bit actually is, and whether we’re not always performing something the whole time. But, for example, how do you record the magic of meeting someone one the social floor for the first time and having a dance that connects just right? The feeling of “I have 25 seconds to do a 45 second run around the back of the theater in time for my next entrance ohgodohgodohgod run run RUN!” or the precise way you start to cramp and lift up out of your body when you’ve been strapped to a frame for 30 minutes pretending to be frozen mid-fall?* Do these things matter?

Well… yes! Because having those experiences taught me things, and changed the way I was dancing. There is a massive difference between waltzing onto a stage from standstill and trying to recover your calm after a breakneck dash around the house – and most choreographers I know are smart enough to make you do that for a reason, even if the audience can’t see it.

But in all these cases, I’m going to try and persuade you, there is a document. Me. My memory, the growth of my muscles to accommodate the work, the tricks I learned to make my body do – the things I take forward into dancing and living thereafter. If I am a document, here are some of the things you can read:

  • Life gets better when we know how to massage each other.
  • When you’re exhausted, try relaxing, or working somewhere else.
  • It’s fun to go fast… right up until the point where you knock someone down.

And these seem like little things maybe, but I draw them out because these are lessons I learned dancing that I perform in my day to day life, and circulate among those I care about.

What am I trying to say?

Firstly, that there are living documents of performance (including those who watched the performance), and that it is worth trying to grapple with how those documents of memory can be transmitted, because they are valuable. It is worth looking at the creator behind the dance, and the document, and trying to figure out how they came to save particular things the way they did.

Secondly, allowing for the transmission of those documents is going to mean trusting what people say about their bodies and themselves. Which sounds like a small thing but really isn’t, as anyone who’s been frustrated at a doctors appointment can attest. We have a cultural mindset that tends to treat bodily experience as fallible in comparison to observed or statistical data, which is not always a bad attitude, but which sucks if you’ve never learned how to do the other thing. In dance, where the performing memory-documents tend to be women, we can get a lot out of trusting how those bodies learn to move in the world.

I know that I’ve somewhat moved away from Phelan, who I don’t think ever intended her words to be read in the way I’ve read them. Quite honestly, I’m jumping off her words because they are important, and using them to go somewhere important to me. I am stopping this post at the point where ethics start, but I invite you to go further that I have in thinking about what life has taught your body, and whether those were lessons you really wanted to learn. How can we talk about them and change them? What’s that dance?

 

 

 

* In Just the Blink of an Eye, by Xu Zhen, part of the exhibit Art of Change: New Directions from China. Photograph above by Lie Chen.

 

 

Dear Male Dancers Who Follow… an Open Letter.

I am currently social (swing, blues, fusion*) dancing on a sprained wrist, and as a result, I caught some of my own bias around role selection and gender. Then I wondered whether all of it was really coming from me. Having discussed the phenomenon with dancers from all over the spectrum, this is my response…

 

Dear male dancers who follow,

Thank you. Thank you for knowing the value of both roles, thank you for learning the unexpected, thank you for being some of the best dances I’ve had on the social floor and some of the best students in classes. Thank you for starting discussions about gender in social dance and then going out there and practicing for change. Now, let me help you with something.

I’ve noticed that when I’m out social dancing, and I know I’m not the only one who does this, I usually switch/lead women and I follow men. I have a lot of fun with people who don’t fall under that particular binary, but that’s another letter for another day. This isn’t because the men on my scene don’t follow, in fact I’m really proud of how happy the majority of our dancers are in either role, but the pattern still remains. A year ago I was asked by a lovely male switch dancer why I usually ended up in the follow role with him, and I came up with a couple of suggestions. Now I return to the question, I’ve boiled it down into three main ideas of how leads, follows and switches of all genders create, and could help address, these lingering threads of disparity.

 

State a Clear Preference

Early in my leading career, I remember being asked to dance by several male leads who wanted to show me that I wasn’t as good as they were, so they could play teacher. I was also asked to dance a lot by very nice dancers of all the genders who thought it would be most polite to give me the “lead, follow, or switch?” option, when they really only had one option that worked for them. Side note: it is, really really, ok to have a favourite role that you prefer to dance socially; whether that’s in general, on a particular night, or to a particular song. It’s ok to take only one role in classes. I’d encourage you thinking about why a particular role is your favourite, and what you could get from the other, but human beings have preferences, and dancing is all about enthusiastic consent.

Back to the social floor. What this behaviour leads (hah) to, is a bunch of switches who don’t actually know whether you are really giving them the option to lead/follow/switch, or not, and who will default to offering you the role you are statistically likely to want to assume. If you switch later, all well and good. From the best of intentions, we are trapping ourselves in roles in ways we might not intend.

The obvious answer to this is to state a clear and honest preference for what we want to do. “Would you like to dance?” “Yes, I would love to follow.” Tells me instantly how to make a dance work for you, and means I don’t have to listen so hard for the subtext of “but I meant I wanted to lead.” It also means that if you tell me you want to follow and I don’t have lead energy, I can let you know where I stand too. If you’ve agreed to a switch dance, and you start off leading, take a little but of initiative when it comes to transitioning to a following role. The happier you are with your choice to follow, the happier I will be about leading you!

 

Create Connection

A general failing of the social dance scene in general, at least in my own experience, is that we don’t spend as much energy teaching follows how to follow as we do teaching leads how to lead. I say energy rather than time because even in those scenes that ask everyone in the class to try every role in every class-section, the information being given to leads is usually clearer, more mechanical, more active and more accessible. Follow information tends to be sense-based, intuitive, passive, and esoteric. I mean I get it: you don’t want a load of follows who anticipate, but it does mean that transitioning from lead to follow is difficult to get the hang of.

The most common issue I notice when leading a male follow is that they don’t know how active a follow has to be in creating the connection. As leads, they feel a follow move in response to their suggestion, but not what the follow did in order for the suggestion to get through in the first place. This is particularly the case in move-based classes, where the work of the follow is not always made explicit.

On the dance floor this tends to go one of two ways: The first option is that you sit and wait for me to move you, which, with me being all of 100lbs, just isn’t going to happen. The second option is that you attempt to relax completely – jelly-limbed and frameless – and drift out from under my attempt at connection.

In case you haven’t been in a class where this has been said: the connection in social dance is created by both dancers. As a lead, you use intention and frame to offer suggestions to your follow. As a follow, you use intention and frame to respond to those suggestions. I call the intensity of that mutual intention tone, and it usually works best if the follow’s tone is under, but only slightly under, the lead’s. Posture/placement of limbs is also important, but varies enough from dance to dance that I’m not going to go into it here. As leads you know this, and you do your part. As follows, you don’t have the information/don’t have the brain space/forget.

This is something much more easily explained in practice rather than words, so if you feel like you love to follow but it’s really just not working for you, go find a dancer you like and ask them to give you some feedback on how you’re creating connection. Acknowledge the work of the follow, and learn to love it.

 

Balance the Fun Equation

Unless you are dancing with your social doppelgänger, who has been to every class and dance you have, and danced to all the same songs and took all the same breaks you did, one of the dancers in a partnership is going to have more experience leading than the other. One will have more experience following. It might even be the same person who has both! This is all ok and wonderful. What is does impact, however, is something I refer to as the Fun Equation: which dancer needs to go in which role(s)** in order to maximise the enjoyment that both dancers can get out of this dance?

Sometimes the Fun Equation makes a choice of roles seem obvious, but it also creates pressure for people to stay in the role they’re good at, rather than trying something new. We’ve all struggled through being a beginner at some stage of our dancing lives, and we all want to keep that awkward, flailing time to a minimum, especially if we know that in another role we could be having smooth, beautiful dancey fun times.

So my final invitation to all the dancers reading this, is to think about how you can re-balance the fun equation when one, or both of you are in your less-comfortable role. Are you going to talk? Not talk? Keep it slow? Make it silly? Have a spontaneous rock star breakaway session in the middle? These are, of course, all tricks you can employ when one or both of you is an absolute beginner in any role… again, dancing is all about enthusiastic consent, however long you’ve been doing it.

 

So male dancers who follow, thanks again for all the work you’ve put in to your dancing. Keep dancing! I hope this letter helps you have more, better dances, whichever role you happen to be in at the time.

 

*There are so many more social dances out there than swing, blues, and fusion, but it’s so much easier just to type “social dance” each time. Forgive me.

 

**Switching can also be the most fun. The most fun.