Category Archives: academia

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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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

 

….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?