Category Archives: communication

My Comfort or Your Culture: Close Embrace and Code Switching

It’s time for a funding drive at the Headtail Connection. If you appreciate my writing, you can give a little back here.

 

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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A Birthday Lookback

A few weeks ago wordpress invited me to celebrate the Headtail Connection’s birthday! I knew when I sat down and started blogging that this was something I really had a lot of time and love for, but I never thought that I’d end up known in my department as “the blogger,” I never thought I’d wind up going toe to toe with Hofesh and co. or shared by Neil Gaiman… I never thought I’d have such an awesome bunch of readers interested in what I have to say. I hope you’ll stick around for the next birthday, and as long as I can keep this blog going.

Since blogs are THE medium of the 21st century for getting your opinion out there, and since they’re so, well, free to start, here are some of the things that I’ve learned in a year of blogging for all of you who might want to give this a go.

Things I’ve learned in a year of blogs:

  • Keep to a schedule. It seems trite, but your audience will only be as consistent as you are. I (as I’m sure you’ll all have noticed) have a couple of shorter formats that help me keep putting posts out (just about) once a week. I’ve started to keep a list of topics in a scrap book as well for when I really run dry. Is writing a blog post sometimes the last thing I want to do? Yes. Is it worth it to see people reading and responding? Has it got much harder since I’ve been asked to maintain organizational blogs as well as my own? Hell. Yes.
  • Know your own conscience. This blog is my official professional platform, and sometimes that means not writing about topics that I can’t maintain a professional demeanour about. On the other hand, some of my favourite posts have been the ones where I’ve pushed that boundary. Little old me a year ago wouldn’t have said a word publically against three giants of the choreographic world, but then they messed with my students, and I couldn’t NOT say anything. Keeping a blogs helps you know what you want to say and how you want to say it, and I’ve also pulled a guest post on another, larger blog this year because they edited my viewpoint to the point where my conscience was distorted.
  • Which leads me nicely on to… you cannot be anonymous on the Internet, and you cannot restrict how you get used. When I wrote “A Rebuttal,” I wrote it mainly for my students’ eyes… and then someone tweeted it directly at the big three. I got a lot of lovely responses from all over the dance world, and I got some horrible ones too. One chap thought he could say appalling things and disguise his identity behind a false name. Unfortunately he forgot that the dance world is too small for that… Five minutes later I knew his full name, age, email address, career history, and where he’s hiding. I’m not going to tell all of you that because I’m But be warned.
  • Twitter is your friend – if you use it wisely. Do not spam.

Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam.

But do send posts to people you think will like them. At the very least they will share them on and you’ll get more people looking at what you do. At best, Neil Gaiman reads your blog and you twitter like a ditzy fangirl for the rest of the day.

  • You don’t have to attack someone when you state an opinion. I’ve covered some emotionally laden subjects this year, and I intend to keep doing so. In part because more of you seem to care about LGBTQ visibility and educational ethics than you do about comic book characters reviewing critical theory. (I’m still going to do the comics too though, if only for my pleasure). My aim has always been to state my point in such as way that someone who disagreed with me could hear what I had to say without feeling insulted or alienated. Sometimes that means walking more of a middle line than you’d find me holding down in conversation with my friends, but this is a public forum, and I want it to stay that way.
  • You can speak about difficult topics in simple words. I’m always surprised how much people LOVE the In Three Sentences posts. Among by dance academia buddies they are an absolute hit, and I know that students have made use of more than one. I always knew I wanted an academic dance blog that could be read by people from outside dance academia, which has meant cracking down on the Derrida, the intertextual-hyphenating, r(and)om brackets that PhDs love to play with. Is that the route for everyone? No. Do I think there’s a valid place for non-specialist writing? I think it’s essential.
  • Practice what you preach. Your students have read your blog. Your friends have read your blog. People who hire you, your relatives, and people in China who you’ve never met but who happen to be involved in dance will tell your brother in China that they’ve read your blog. So if you start telling people what you believe the ethics of a particular situation are? You’d better be prepared to stick to them. I’ve started to really hold myself accountable for which photos I use since I wrote my piece about pay – I Google search through creative commons and I only use what comes up. I recommend it for everyone, even though it makes it much harder to find the pretty.

Last but not least? I’ve learned that I love blogging. I love having people talk to me about posts, and I love seeing in my statistics that I’ve got readers in a new country. Thanks to all of you for sticking around and making this such a happy birthday. See you next week!

Improvisation and Vernomenology.

Improvisation is a key component of Practice as Research. Improvising allows the body to explore creative habits, to discover new ones, to juggle around an idea until some understanding of it is reached within your kinaesthetic intelligence. I am totally fine with all these pieces of information.

In fact, I love improvisation! In my work with Rosemary Butcher I would improvise with deep and particular focus on a given stimulus for up to half an hour without pause, and I would be as happy as a clam. I’m a blues dancer, which is social dance form relying entirely on improvisation, and a good contact improv jam is one of the happiest places for me to put my body.

But I’m also an improvised talker, and that’s where Practice as Research begins to have a problem with me.

Vida Midgelow talks about Practice as Research as a process of liquid knowing: knowing built on a foundation of experience that runs through your whole physical system, without needing conscious cerebral processing; as if the verbal brain were a pot-holed by-road through a washed-out ex-industrial (and horribly over-hyphenated) town, which you could avoid simply by taking the physical super-highway.

I agree with her about so many, so many things! That life is a constantly improvised process! That knowledge is emergent! That immediate, instinctive knowing draws on and bounces off the world and keeps on learning as it goes – the idea is glorious! …But then she explains that “Coming to language is a significant process,” (versus the simplicity of improvised movement), and I wonder why it has to be that way.

You, and I, have a liquid brain.

That is, the knowledge we hold verbally is based on the whole-body experience of our improvised lives, and we should not under-privilege* the capabilities of that expression. A great deal of care is taken in academia to be careful with our words: to treat them as if they were all automatically conclusions, whereas in fact they are as ephemeral as dancing. In the era of technology this is doubly the case: I wrote the introduction to this article three times before I started, all of it denied to you with a swift brush of ctrl+z. Yes publication, yes transcription, yes digital archiving, but those are the outcomes, not the production of emergent linguistic knowledge.

To borrow a phrase from Candace Feck, language is “shaped at the point of utterance.” We have poetic and artistic forms dedicated to the idea that improvisation can occur at the end of a pen; and yet I feel like I struggle to find a place for that which occurs between lips and tongue in the scholarly world. To phrase this in terms of multiple intelligences, I am a discursive thinker who needs words to play in the space before I choreograph them into any kind of structure in my head.

So, practice as research, I’m totally with you on the subject on the subject of knowledge produced via improvisation… how do you feel about the knowledge that words can dance?

 

 

 

*It’s unusual to claim that verbal expression is in a situation of being under-privileged. Written language certainly experiences a high degree of privilege in almost any environment, but lived-experience oral histories often do not. In the current climate of dance studies, physical knowledge often also enjoys privilege over that which can be expressed verbally. My thanks to Lucas Weismann for requesting this clarification.

Introduction to comm lag – conversation magic!

Credit: I was introduced to the concept of comm lag by Ted Madry Andrew Smith, who are phenomenal social dance teachers.  You can keep up with Andrew at Life of a Southpaw.

Since then I’ve led numerous workshops, roundtables and excitable debates on the subject, and the concept has become so entwined with the management of my day to day life that I feel like a hard copy is worth putting out there for people to refer to. So whether you’re coming here having already talked about this with me, or whether you just want to try out my favourite way of improving your conversation/social interaction, this is a casually transcribed version of my introduction to comm lag. Enjoy!

What is comm lag?

Comm lag is the time it takes to parse and respond to communicated information. When someone asks a question, some people will reply almost instantly, where others will take a certain amount of time. The longer it takes, the longer your comm lag.

Obviously this will depend hugely on context: you’ll generally be able to respond quicker to “How are you?” than to “What were the five most significant moments of your life between the ages of 3 and 10?”… although people with fast comm lag will still usually answer both questions much more quickly.

Additionally, some people (in some contexts) will have negative comm lag: they feel as if they’ve understood what’s being said, and will respond before the speaker has finished. Sometimes this is more successful than others but, as with all ranges of speeds, none of this is prescriptively good or bad.

Even just given those three pieces of information, you probably already have some idea of whether you have fast or slow comm lag, or you already know some situations that can effect your speed. If you don’t feel like you know your own comm lag, or you want to give it a chance to appear, I’ll be adding some exercises shortly that you can try out. You also might have an idea of how your comm lag speed affects how you interact with other people, and how they interpret you, because comm lag can look like a lot of other things, which leads it to carry both positive and negative associations.

Wait a second, why is this on a DANCE blog???

Because dancing is communication. Because I’m passionately involved with the world of social dance, which leads me to think about socialising in general. Because dancers talk to each other. Because improvisation is a place where comm lag can manifest… and it can be a place where people can interact with a totally different comm lag style. Because as a dancer I have found comm lag to be useful, relevant and interesting to my practice. Because comm lag can be danced.

What is comm lag NOT?

Comm lag is not the same as introversion or extroversion, although I’m fairly sure there is some statistical correlation. What is definitely true is that we respond differently to individuals with fast and slow comm lag, and this can push them into particular social roles… roles they might not be best suited to or most comfortable occupying.

Traits associated with different types of comm lag:

Using a particular speed of comm lag can give an impression of your character. From group discussions, those impressions can be grouped as follows:

Positive Traits Negative Traits
Slow Comm lag Empathetic, attentive, understanding, respectful, community-focused. Slow, stupid, unfocussed, disinterested.
Fast Comm lag Smart, good leaders, enthusiastic, in-synch, capable. Brash, over-eager, disrespectful of groups.
Negative Comm lag Intimate…. fast comm lag x10. Arrogant, dismissive, bored.

The above may be true… or they may be how you are read regardless of your intention if you tend strongly towards a particular response speed. I have extremely fast comm lag, combined with an academic/articulate speaking style, so it’s very very easy for me to come across as butting in, taking over, and not really caring about what anyone else has to say. I also know that I’m likely to jump in and respond to questions or problems, even when others in the conversation are far more capable of answering, or more qualified to do so.

For my friends with slower comm lag, the opposite is true. Leadership opportunities, interview situations, and task management are socially geared towards people with faster comm lag. If someone jumps in before you have time to process, often you won’t get a say, and people assume you didn’t have anything to contribute. You come across as shy or anxious when you want to be social, and people think you need extra support when all you need is extra time.

So what can I do?

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that there are some good reasons to try and even out the comm lag divide. At the same time, comm lag is not something you do AT other people, it’s your particular comfort zone within a conversation. It’s much easier for people with fast comm lag to slow down than it is for people with slow comm lag to speed up, but speaking from experience it’s uncomfortable and somewhat frustrating… so what are some strategies that don’t require people to make long term changes to their speech?

For everybody:

  • Make your comm lag explicit. “I’m jumping really fast – I love what you’re saying, but can I check that you’re finished?” “I tend to take a minute to process, can you give me that time?” If people know what’s going on, it’s easer to accommodate it, and less likely to be read poorly.
  • Pick a comfortable medium. Technology is a great way of letting people take the time they need to respond. If it’s important to have a conversation, re-route it to a medium that suits the speeds of everyone involved.

For slow comm-laggers

  • State your intention to answer by repetition or affirmation. “That’s a great question…. let me see… ok, here’s what I think.”
  • Ask for what you need. “I’m really excited about this topic, but I need a second to process, can you come back to me?”
  • Gesture. Nod, “hmmm”, lean in… show that you’re engaged and with a conversation.

Fast comm-laggers

Sorry guys, you probably have more work to do. In part because slowing down is much easier than speeding up, but also in part because I’m writing from the position of a fast comm-lagger, and I’m much more able to come up with things that seem to work for me.

  • Multi-task. Take notes, do your hair, look salient points up on google… give yourself practical, useful reasons to wait until the end of sentences or slow down your processing speed.
  • Validate. Remind yourself of the value of the person speaking, and the fact that they have a viewpoint different to yours. Obtain it…. all of it.
  • Invite. Use your speed to the advantage of others in a group by directing the conversation towards those with slower comm lag. If you’re going to grab the ball, make sure everyone gets to play.
  • Keep a tally. How often have you been the first to answer? How often have you heard other people speak? Should you do something about it?

What you shouldn’t do, is stress about it. For one thing, stress will probably exaggerate your comm lag in the direction it already tends. If I’m anxious I chitter like a hamster on caffeine (it’s TERRIBLE,) but you might just as easily end up freezing like a rabbit in the headlights. I like to talk about comm lag not only because I think it helps conversations better, but because it helps people understand me. I know that when people ask me to slow down, they really ARE talking about my conversation speed, and not implying anything about my attitude or character. I’m also hugely touched when my friends notice my own efforts to slow down for them, or when we can mutually appreciate the satisfaction of an explosive, perpetually interrupting bricolage of ideas.

Conclusion

As I said originally, this article is usually presented as a discussion, with opportunity for everyone participating to join in and talk about how they experience comm lag, and ways that it can work for them. It can be role-played and tried out physically. Hopefully everyone can come away feeling like they picked up some useful information. To that end, I welcome all commentary on this post… of course, in your own time.

p.s. If you’re interested in having an in-person discussion/conversation/facilitated workshop on comm lag, please use the links about to get in touch.