Category Archives: blues dance

My Comfort or Your Culture: Close Embrace and Code Switching

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This week I have been working in four languages (not including shifts of register), and about six different types of dance. That’s not all that I can work in, and if someone needs a substitute teacher I may well be adding more to the list. But for each of those dances and languages I carry around and switch between a cultural bubble that informs how those dances and languages are learned, or practiced, and what those practices mean.

At the moment, one of those bubbles in particular feels fractured. I try very hard on this blog not to write two articles back to back about any one element of what I do, and especially not blues because I have a dedicated blues blog anyway. But I got told by a lot of people last time that the breakdown of language around blues and re-doing was helpful, so I’m going to put my nerd hat back on for a moment and talk about close embrace, and consent, and appropriation, and try and at least work out my thoughts on the matter.

Ok.

Close embrace is a soft torso connection used in blues idiom dances. The question at large is whether consenting to a blues dance, at a blues venue, should imply consent to close embrace or not? Is it a connection you ask for and opt into, or a connection you assume will happen unless you opt out?

One of the main contentions around this question is that the majority of people currently practicing blues dance under that name are white Americans, for whom a torso-to-torso connection looks like a sexualised kind of intimacy. Or it is more contact than they would comfortably give the majority of folks they’re not sexually involved with.

Folks hung up on this might first do well to read Deidre Sklar’s “Five Premises for a Culturally Sensitive approach to Dance,” and then Brenda Farnell’s “It Goes Without Saying But Not Always.” These two articles lay out with great clarity that movement is a kind of cultural knowledge, and that for someone attempting to learn the movement – or culture – looking at the dance is not enough, and following along with the dancing is not enough to tell you what the movement means: you have to invest deeply in cultural learning to fully understand what is going on.

Secondly, the idea that blues is “sexy” is a 100 year old marketing campaign that just won’t die. Blues is sexy because we don’t want to think about why blues music might have been written, or have other meanings. Blues is sexy because it’s sold as the pop culture soundtrack to white sexual liberation. Black dancers are labeled as sexy because it lets white dancers dismiss them as untutored and uncontrolled, and justify taking the dances for themselves. In newspapers, in studies, in dance textbooks: white dancers teach, black dancers infect. White dancers (and I’m looking at you Vernon and Irene Castle) make sexy black dances safe for other white dancers, while still keeping that tang of sexy, sexy rebellion. Historically, we have been encouraged to think of blues music and blues-influenced music as sexy over and above everything else, even when the lyrics and/or context clearly emphasise other meanings.

Close embrace and blues CAN be, but aren’t necessarily, sexy things. Blues is not always danced in Juke Joints, even if that’s where we’re consistently encouraged to picture it. Blues was/is played in bright sunshine, among friends and families and children. Blues is so much more than the dance you do to get close to the person you’re attracted to.

Conclusion: white dancers doing blues have to step back from the idea that their discomfort about close embrace is because it is “sexual.” To borrow a thought from Faye Adnak – a reason that we think close embrace should require verbal consent is because we’re applying a white standard of sexualised consent, rather than the standard we apply to other kinds of dance contact, like holding hands.* That’s a problem.

And.

Another side of this debate is that many people in the blues scene find more-than-a-certain-level-of-touch or certain kinds of touch distinctly uncomfortable. There are enough folks out there who are not comfortable with close embrace because it is just too much touch for them. Or they want to be asked about it. Or they only want to do it with certain people.

Separate but tangentially related are the dancers who have been creeped on, or held too close, or too tight, or just been put through incorrect close embrace one too many times to assume that the person they’re dancing with is going to do it right.

For these folks, verbal, opt in consent seems like a really great compromise to ensure that they can keep dancing blues, but know that they’ll be able to keep themselves safe within that framework. As much as we teach listening and respect for the bodies of everyone on the dance floor, people know from bitter experience that in the community as it is now, opt out consent Does. Not. Work. Or does not work enough of the time that it makes advocating for opt in consent seem like the most respectful or safest option. That does not mean that it is the right option, especially since it brings the dancer of implying that close embrace is implicitly creepy or uncomfortable.

So.

We have already changed the culture of blues dance. The idea of blues dance classes, for example is a cultural shift. We are now haggling over the parameters of acceptable change. What degree of time, investment, knowledge, cultural participation, etc. allows a dancer or scene leader to decide that they are entitled to advocate for a cultural shift? Typically the reply to that, on all sides, is “I have just enough, but you do not.” Our recognition of who has the right to advocate on this issue frequently varies depending on whether or not we like what they have to say.

When I approach languages and dances where I am a cultural outsider, I assume that I am going to adjust to cultural norms and behaviours that are alien to my day-to-day practice. I will take on actions and ways of relating to others that I would refuse if they were requested of me within a cultural activity that I considered my own. In ASL, for example, I try to keep a lot more eye contact than I would usually make while speaking. In my West African dance class I will give formal thanks to the musicians and instructor – which I have deliberately stopped doing in ballet classes.

I also assume that if I try to converse in ASL with a fluent signer they will code switch to a slightly more English version of grammar if they want to help me participate in the conversation. Similarly In West African dance classes (which are killing me, by the way!), the steps are broken down in a way that the dancers in the class, the majority of whom are trained in white American concert dance – can understand.

BUT

I understand these shifts in practice as a means of moving me towards fluency. If I am not learning the grammar, I am not speaking ASL. If I am not learning felt-time, I am not dancing West African dance. At the end of the day I have to hold onto the fact that blues dance is not my own. I can – and have – invest a huge amount of time and effort and learning, enough to hold a respected opinion, and to write about the community. But part of that learning is accepting that I don’t get to say what is right or wrong for blues, only to make the best decision I can based on my research, and by listening to the voices around me.

Part of the reason I am writing this blog post is to work through my own conflict and confusion around these ideas, which have caused a muddle and a mess among some of my deeply held values. I believe we should aspire to fluency, and teach others as if they wish to do the same. I think we should also make space for those who are not fluent yet, and for those for whom certain kinds of fluency are out of reach. How that looks in my classroom and in my own practice I do not know.

 

 

 

* Faye’s quote in full, which she was kind enough to give me is here:
“A reason we believe that close embrace requires verbal content that the initiator has to establish is that we are committed to maintaining the idea that close embrace is a form of sexual contact. That idea is erroneous and is a product of white culture norms, compounded by white beliefs that close embrace isn’t “really” a part of blues dancing, so projecting an affirmative consent model that is used to regulate sexual contact onto blues dancing in close embrace is flawed. We don’t ask everyone at a folk dance if they consent to holding hands because that is what is a reasonable expectation in that space until someone indicates they are not doing that. We don’t ask every person at a waltz if they consent to do line of dance or waltz footwork before dancing because it’s a waltz and those are reasonable expectations until someone indicates otherwise (verbally or non verbally). Same thing for closer and open embrace in blues. (Same for close embrace in tango and bal, I think). I think there is a double standard/higher level of scrutiny on blues because white people see blues dancing and black bodies as sexy, exotic, other. And white people’s misconceptions about black dances and black culture doesn’t give them permission to dictate what the dance is or should be.

 

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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.