Category Archives: academia

A Lesson in Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do I do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So back to these students.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Vote.

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

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

 

 

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Success is Spelled Like

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

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

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

…..

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

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

So why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head Connections: Mental Health in the Dance Classroom

It’s the start of the new semester, hoorah!

Time to plan classes, make syllabi, greet new friends and old, and – for a large number of people – it’s time for the awkwardness, anxiety, and general discomfort and threat of getting your accommodation list approved by all your new professors, something that can be particularly difficult for students with invisible needs.

A few years ago statistics showed that in America, for every 1000 students with a disability only 87 would complete an undergraduate degree. That’s appalling. Unpacking those numbers is a complicated process involving cultures of stigma, the medical vs social model of disability, the mind-bending cost of the American healthcare system, the hideous pressure on teachers – adjunct teachers in particular – lack of education about inclusive classrooms… I could go on. In fact I do, I talk about this stuff at conferences and in pedagogy classes and in staff meetings and I co-founded a resources and information network within my own university. But anyway, some more figures:

The Guardian newspaper found that in the UK 87% of first-year university students struggle to cope with the stress of the transition to higher education. 60% say that the main stress is studying, while other issues include isolation, living independently, and financial difficulty. Students with mental health conditions have the highest drop out rate of any disability group in the US – 37%. In 2016 it was found that 78% of British students reported mental health problems over the course of one year, and 33% experienced suicidal thoughts.

Joe Booth, a UK activist, has been gaining support for his Take The Stress Out of Studying (TSOS) campaign, calling for standardized tests to be replaced with “a well-resourced, publicly accountable system, which supports and educates individuals by engaging them rather than pressuring them.” The most recent TSOS blog post, which can also be seen as a close-captioned video here, reports that 48% of 12-year-olds in England feel sad or anxious at least once a week. By the age of 16, 70% report feeling this way at least once a week, and 22% report having negative feelings as often as once a day.

Why all these numbers? Because I’m about to start speaking from personal experience. I know that as soon as someone with a mental health condition starts talking about mental health there’s a strong tendency from people to dismiss them, or to assume that they’re over-exaggerating the problem. I’m not. These numbers are the proof – if you need it – that mental health in our education system is in utter crisis. Now I want to talk to you about some of the things that crisis does.

I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and PTSD. I experience panic-inducing, frequently debilitating flashbacks, which can be accompanied by hyper-vigilance, depression, suicidality, nausea, disassociation, shaking… the list goes on. How often I experience flashbacks can vary from daily to weekly to monthly, and they can easily last a whole day, sometimes more. I started having panic attacks several times a day when I was 17, I have been on and off medication. I do not receive formal accommodations from my university. I am a final year PhD student.

I hid my mental health issues for around decade because I was ashamed of them. One of the main ways I justified this to myself was “I don’t need help because I’m doing fine in school.” If I could submit every assignment, pass every test, get to class… I didn’t need help. I never questioned the COST of submitting every assignment, passing every test, going to every class… because in my mind I could stop having mental health issues if I just worked harder. I could control them, and if I didn’t, it was my fault. But paying that cost every day had – of course – a crushing effect on my mental health. And then I stopped being able to do those things.

Dance valourises physical virtuosity. Dance champions the idea that the body is intelligent, versatile, adaptive, and capable. Dance does not do so well with the idea that your brain can incapacitate your body. Dance thinks of itself as a healing modality, one which you practice to get more healthy, happy, wise and well.

My biggest problem is not with academic or written work – there’s usually enough time given to those assignments that I can find some way to get around them. My biggest problem is that during a flashback I should not dance. Doing so makes my skin crawl, makes me want to vomit, makes me want to curl up on the floor. Dancing forces me to do the opposite of what I need to do, which is stop, listen to my self, and allow myself to come back to a place that I feel safe in again. The pressure from dance as an institution is that dance class IS a safe place, and if I would just try and be present and in tune with my body then the problem would go away. It doesn’t. Interestingly, ballet is slightly easier than other forms because I know what’s coming in a class. I know I CAN get through a class or, in fact, hold down a performing career. But I need to be able to make choices about when to make myself keep going, when to do less, and when to make myself completely stop.

Trying to tell dance teachers about this problem:

“So you have some feelings…”
“No, I have a panic disorder.”
“So you have some big feelings.”

“It doesn’t look from the outside like there’s a problem.”

“Why don’t you just start class, because you’re not injured, and just see how you go?”

“But you seem so happy.”

“I understand, sometimes I feel terrible too, but dancing always helps.”

“If you’re sat on the side you need to be watching and writing and to hand that in at the end so I can see you’re still engaged with the class.”

Sigh

All of these responses are very well intentioned, but all implicitly ask me to accommodate to the class by admitting that I need less.

In contrast, the absolute best response that I have had from a dance teacher whom I went to about this problem was this:

I don’t understand the problem, but I trust you. I will not ask you why you’re sitting out of my classes. You can tell me if you want to. You can answer questions or offer observations from the side or not as you are capable. But I will accept your assessment of what you can and can’t do on the expectation that you will do as much as you can, and that is healthy for you. If you want to walk out of the class at any point and go home, you can do that too.

I can already hear teacher’s hackles rising. I know the argument you want to make: “but what if students just use this as an excuse to get out of class whenever they’re feeling tired or stressed?” “What if what they really need is the encouragement to just try a little harder?” “What if they miss so much class that then they can’t do the work?” “I understand that YOU want to try hard and do everything, but most students, if we give them that option, will start missing class left right and center just because they’re having a bad day, and they’ll never get jobs or graduate.”

To which my answer, frankly, is: then make your classroom one that students want to be in, and your content things that they want to learn. Set clear expectations about what you want every student to know and be able to do, and hold them all to that, rather than their ability to be physically present in the room. If students aren’t doing as much as they can, their grade will drop. That’s not your problem. Your problem is giving everyone the opportunity to learn and the space for their efforts towards learning to be fruitful. If your students are not meeting your expectations, you can instigate a process to ensure they do so, and hold them accountable to that, but first you have to believe in what they say they can and cannot do, and what they need to do the things you want.

It is not a teacher’s job to decide what a student’s internal experience of mental health actually is, or what accommodations they need. This gets us into the dangerous territory of “psychological ownership” – a term coined by Julia Gleich and which we blogged about together a few years ago. In a nutshell it means that while you may have educational authority over a group of students, it does not mean you have authority over their lived experience. Teacher’s set expectations for learning and professionalism, and students work out how to meet those expectations, or if those expectations are unreasonable and need negotiation. Again, I hear the problem “but I don’t have the time to design thirty different classes and thirty different rules for thirty students based on their needs.” So don’t. Design a class that meets a broad range of needs, minds, and bodies upfront, and then only adjust for the unexpected. Mental heath issues should be expected in every single university classroom at this point, and failure to plan for them in the face of the statistics above is just asking for more work later. Build inclusivity into your syllabus and your classes and you benefit everyone, including yourself.

Some specific suggestions: at the beginning of each semester teachers usually set out expectations for what students should do if they are injured or sick. What if they added expectations for a mental health event? I’ve heard of teachers bringing red beanbags to class so that students could signal “don’t call on me today.” You could call one part of the class the quiet corner. Red socks mean, “I’m doing as much as I can, but that’s not everything.” Students who have disclosed a mental health condition can leave, and make up the time in another class, or by submitting a physical practice journal/video. Have an exercise that doesn’t involve touching as a ready backup to partnered touch work. Bring mental health out into to light of your classroom, and kill the stigma faced by individuals who overwhelmingly feel like they’re a burden, and alone.

I know I’ve gone on for a long time, but one more point: I’m a grad student. Grad students also teach. In my institution you are not supposed to cancel classes, and I teach a lecture course, which requires a lot of preparation to sub. That means that I frequently get up and teach while mid-flashback, and let me tell you that is not something you ever want to have to do. Funnily enough some of my best performance reviews come from my worst days because I’m so in control of my breathing, my affect, my pacing etc. Mental health issues have taught me to be a better, and sought-after instructor. Teachers have mental health issues too, and I am not trying to set up a binary or an opposition with this post. But when it comes to teachers I don’t really have any answers for how to tackle the problem at a cultural or institutional level, and I think that changing the culture for students might lead to some.

In the end I want more people to be able to be in more classrooms, learning what they love. I want more people to be able to talk about the mental health crisis in academia and how it affects them. I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to pay the dreadful costs of hiding and silence until they can’t pay anymore. I want dancers and dance teachers to value excellence and professionalism as personal qualities, not as scripted performances. I want everyone reaching out to be seen as an authority on their own experience, without feeling like they have to play down their needs, or like they have to play their needs up in order to deserve help.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

 

P.s. A note on responses.

This blog has a lot of readers, who give me both support and backlash. I always appreciate both as long as they’re considerate of the fact that there’s a human being on this end of the keyboard.

I just disclosed a lot of mental health stuff that I don’t usually talk about. I am aware of the risks of doing that just as I go on the job market! I hope that people will employ me for my skills and abilities as a dancer and teacher, and – like I said – trust my capacity to do any job that I apply for. I am not unique for what I can do with these conditions – I am just one voice of a very common problem. I have amazing friends, I go to therapy, I have the support I need to make my voice heard, and I hope it chips away at the walls in front of other people.

Image from the Guardian’s series of sketches inspired by the university mental health crisis.

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.

 

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?