Category Archives: community

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.

 

Advertisements

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

 

Social Dance In Three Roles

I’m still on a dance high from DJX – the absolute peak of my fusion dance calendar, and an event I have tried and failed to get back to for years now. Beautiful people, wonderful, creative dancing… the House dance workshops with Marcus Tucker pushed my physical expertise in new directions, and required much more of me than I’m used to at weekend exchanges. I’ve come home feeling stronger, more connected, and with new movement and music ideas to feed into my home scene.

At DJX I was also hired to be a DJ, which means I’ve now been a core organizer, taught, competed, and DJ’d at international dance exchanges this year. This is also the year where I’ve started saying honestly “I cannot afford to come to your event unless I am organizing, teaching or DJing.” I thought this might be a good moment to reflect back on those roles, how I got into them, what they mean to me, and where I want to go with them. I hope that’s useful for folks out there who maybe want to expand in one of these directions and don’t know how, or who are interested in how it all might fit together. I’m leaving aside my work as a researcher and writer for now, because I’ll be talking about that much more soon in other areas (more details to come!). I am not a Rockstar, but most of you reading this have seen me around and danced with me. I hope this post also humanizes those of us making the dances happen and the trains run on time.

Teaching

Ironically, the work that I am best at is the work that it’s hardest to get into. When I first started teaching the phrase “I teach solo” or “I teach switch” was deathly poison in a lot of the places I was applying to. Luckily it was highly sought after in others. My biggest breaks came from more experienced instructors using me as a teaching partner, and even though I still prefer to teach solo for big gigs I am so happy to co-plan a class with anyone who wants to learn how to teach on our local scene.

Most teachers start teaching because they’ve won competitions, which makes me something of an anomaly – it’s do-able to build up a reputation as a teacher without competing but it is MUCH, MUCH harder. I did a lot of teaching for free, I made the most of my specialist research skills, and I did a lot of other roles before people would start hiring me to do what I wanted to do. A lot of events won’t hire you unless they’ve seen you teach, and I couldn’t afford even to go to other events unless I was being paid for, which led me to organizing (see below).

I put a huge amount of time into my pedagogy, and I ask that anyone I hire does the same. I’m still always pushing for how I can teach things better. One of the ways I challenge myself is to never settle on one right way of teaching content – beginner content in particular – so I can always try out what information, delivered in what way, gets people closest to the heart of the dances I love, and then what inspires them to take that class onto the dance floor afterwards.

I want to teach like my nerdy little self, and I never want to be someone who people are afraid of asking to dance. I’ve been teaching dance for over a decade now in all kinds of contexts, and there is still no better feeling than knowing you’ve led a good class.

Organizing/volunteering

When you want to social dance and you live below the poverty line you wind up doing a whole lot of volunteering. I am always and forever grateful to the team at European Blues Invasion, who have an incredible means-dependent scholarship program that does not require you to give back your time, but it just so happens that I really LIKE volunteering anyway. I like being the welcoming face of the event, whether that’s on the first night or at stupid o clock on Saturday and Sunday morning. I like being a part of all the extra work that makes the dances I love happen. If I turn up at a dance early, you will find me pitching in to rig lights, cook food, put out chairs, sit at the door… eventually people saw the value in that and started paying me a little extra to get a volunteer who loves their work, rather than someone who may or may not show up five minutes late and always be trying to get back to the main event.

Organizing, and core roles in particular, are not the same as being a volunteer – although my reputation as a volunteer is I think what got me asked to organize. Any named role at a dance exchange is incredibly hard work, and you will often not get a lot of dancing time around doing it. You have to love facilitating, you have to be willing to put in work before and after the event, and to think through the event from the perspectives of everyone involved. You have to be able to smile as your friends and peers go off without you, or when you have to literally and metaphorically pick up the scene’s trash. If you are a safer spaces official – which is one of my jobs locally – you have to be prepared to step into situations that feel WAY beyond your pay grade and come up with kind and ethical solutions for everyone involved.

I used to swear that I would never organize. Now I love it. I love seeing people happy in the space I’ve made. I love seeing an event from every side. I will always respect and love those folks who put in that time for big events year after year – we can’t thank them enough.

DJ-ing

I NEVER expected to be called a DJ. I have been DJ-ing for my local scenes for literally years now, and the invitation from DJX telling me they liked my audition set still had me gasping in shock and – quite frankly – terror. Some people DJ for a deep love of music and sound, they have super-expensive kit, they orient to music in the same what that I orient to pedagogy: how can I share this thing in the best possible way. I started DJ-ing as an organizer and a teacher, to facilitate an experience for my scene. I wanted to introduce new kinds of music and musicality, and I wanted to take people on a ride that felt good. I wanted to stretch peoples ears beyond the cultures they were used to, and make a welcoming space for as many different dance backgrounds as I could persuade to come out. I did not think of it as a vocation, just something that I worked at until I could do it well.

I didn’t understand why I’d been asked to DJ at DJX (which, for the uninitiated, stands for DJ Experiment and is ALL about DJ quality) until I looked at the instructions chosen DJ’s were sent out. DJX wanted at least five contrasting genres in every hour of set, which was absolutely what I was doing. Whether it’s blues or fusion, I want to show the connections and juxtapositions that bind our dance experience together across (oh goodness) space and time. I really care about set transitions, because they enable me to put surprises next to each other and convince people to jump joyfully into something new.

When I mentor new DJs into my scene I try and get them to find their own voice, not to duplicate mine. I advocate for spending a lot of time learning what you appreciate as dance music, and thinking about what kind of DJ you want to be. I was privileged that at DJX people took time to help me with hardware and software, to encourage me in my more unusual musical choices, to remind me that it was ok to still have questions. I stepped to a level beyond where I thought I was with my music and I found that I could do the job – with a little help from my friends. When I bring in new DJs to the scene I try and listen to what they’re offering me in a set – I assume they’ve worked hard and thought generously about the kind of experience they want to give the floor.

 

Al three of these roles can hit highs and lows of being celebrated and de-valued by our community. It is awesome to be told “that was the best class in …. I’ve ever had!” and it sucks to have people take your material uncredited and – worse – teach it without the pedagogical care it needs to work. It is awesome to be recognized for a hell of a lot of invisible labour, and it sucks to be treated like you are always and forever on call for whatever needs doing. It is awesome to see a floor of people moving to your music, and it sucks when people assume that they can do exactly what you do just by hitting play on spotify or pandora. I’m writing this post from my own experience, but I want people to recognize and celebrate the work of all teachers, organizers and DJs. I want people to demand a high standard, and high skills from the people who facilitate our dance experience, and I want those skills to be recognized and compensated. I want to do more of all of these things.

 

Happy dancing!

 

p.s. It’s the end of the year, which means it’s nearly time for another Holiday Guide To Dancers – watch this space!

 

So Emotional – Survival Tactics and General Education

I decided to study dance, and I write this blog, in part because I think dance can make the world a better place. Four years into a PhD later I am still just as convinced of that truth, and I am beginning to get a much clearer picture of how.

Part One:

In the UK we narrow our subjects early: by 15 we have around 10, by 17 that’s dropped to three or four. At university I only studied one subject and that subject was dance, which sometimes made it hard to keep track of the rest of the world. At 17 the bane of everyone’s life was “General Studies” – the everything else class. The little bit of ecology, sociology, science, politics, art, and culture that was supposed to make you a well-rounded human being no-matter what three other subjects you happened to specialise in. The class where we learned to dissect a newspaper article and an advert, and covered a whole range of subjects with such appalling superficiality that it often didn’t feel like we were learning anything at all.

It wasn’t until I started to really care about politics that I realised how grateful I was for general studies. For far too long I let my ignorance about politics act as an excuse not to engage at all: “I don’t know very much, so it’s better for everyone if I just don’t take part. Right?” Of course I eventually worked out that people with a lot less knowledge than I had were taking part and making an absolute mess of it, and if I wanted anything to change I’d better get more knowledge quickly, and then I was glad to have been given at least a basic crash course, if not in everything I needed to know, at least a sort of rough outline of what I ought to start teaching myself, and some of the issues at stake. And then I moved to America and just about had to start all over again.

For the last year I have been, essentially, teaching a general studies class. American universities – I still haven’t learned to call them colleges – require their students to take a whole slew of subjects, but General Education is still considered necessary for them to come out as well-rounded human beings, hence my class, Dance in Popular Culture. At first I thought that teaching this class was impossible: there are more dance forms on the syllabus than there are class days in the semester, and each one needs to come with its appropriate cultural background and contextual awareness. How on earth do I give everything a fair hearing without flooding my students with information? How do I teach dance forms that are completely new to me? How do I teach the context and culture of representation across an entire century and actually make it matter?

So I spent a lot of time thinking about the point of general studies.

Part Two:

Earlier this year I was made suddenly and appallingly homeless. I am still very much not ok. I am, however deeply, unendingly thankful for the human who on almost no notice gave me a safe place to stay, and who introduced me, among other things, to RuPaul’s Drag Race, and to the drag queen Sasha Velour.

I had never quite got the hang of drag before, but Sasha’s queer aesthetic, her articulate, cerebral deconstruction of gender through juxtaposition and hyperbole, her…. Her everything…. I was instantly smitten. Her drag, and undeniably, the other queens of the series, had a politics with the potential to slay conservatism in its tracks, a fierce energy that grappled with gender, race, mind and body, and didn’t shy away from deep feeling. In the face of the assaults on human rights of the last year, and on humans, I wanted to be like Sasha Velour: I wanted to tear my hair off, I wanted to cry until rose petals shook from my skin, I wanted to get So Emotional.* And for the last year, and the last months, I have not been doing those things. I did my job, I found a new house, I carried on. I had not, until I saw it, come to terms with my need to have someone else doing those other things for me.

So I had to rethink what I thought about drag.

Part Three:

I’ve come to see general studies as the class where we teach survival. The stuff we think people need to know in order to make their way in the world around their vocations. What are the messages in media, and why should we care about them? In shifts of the law, what are we being taught about power and ownership, and how do those new structures impact us, and the people around us? Dance is an art, but it’s also a lens to look at the control and emancipation of bodies, and how the fight around that is being fought on small screens, on big screens, in clubs and in government chambers. I still can’t teach it all, but I now I hope that I’m delivering the content so that my students will be able to teach themselves the stuff that matters when it matters.

My students are awesome.

Drag is on my syllabus now, at my own insistence – we have collectively decided that gender needs to be general, not just specialist education.** We go from Paris is Burning to Voguing to Sasha Velour. We talk about signs of gender and sexuality and what pop culture tells us we’re supposed to want. We talk about the need for community, behaviours of belonging, and how we have a choice in what messages we take onto our bodies. We talk about these things briefly and lightly and with nowhere near enough time, and I make my peace with that. I will be sad to leave this class behind.

When we need to teach too much, and we need to know too much, and we live in a political environment where every aspect of our society is undergoing fundamental policy shift, we have to be able to deal with a flood of information. We have to become generalists as well as specialists. We have to teach, and know, too much, and we have to be able to do so in a way that is survivable, and that matters.

We need general education. We need monsters and freaks and rose petals. We need the tools to survive, and for me that is, unexpectedly drag. And teaching. And dance.

 

 

 

*I cannot find the Grand Final version of this song, which I would dearly love to link in here. If you know where it is (NOT the Nightgowns version), let me know!

 

 

….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

Dragons on the Road…

… A Slightly Fantastic Discussion of Trigger Warnings

“There are things that upset us. That’s not quite what we’re talking about here, though. I’m thinking rather about those images or words or ideas that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much more dark and less welcoming. Our hearts skip a ratatat drumbeat in our chests, and we fight for breath. Blood retreats from our faces and our fingers, leaving us pale and gasping and shocked.

And what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this; the past is not dead. There are things that wait for us, patiently, in the dark corners of our lives. We think we have moved on, put them out of mind, left them to desiccate and shrivel and blow away; but we are wrong. They have been waiting there in the darkness, working out, practicing their most vicious blows, their sharp hard thoughtless punches into the gut, killing time until we came back that way.”

Neil Gaiman – Trigger Warning

It’s the beginning of a new term, and I’m thinking about triggers again. Background information: a trigger warning, or content warning is a message on a text to indicate that the material that comes up might be disturbing or distressing. This piece in itself may require a trigger warning, although I’m not entirely sure as I start writing how it’s going to come out.

Trigger warnings have been the subject of debate in academia for a while now: should we put them on our syllabus? Should we offer alternative readings? Are they a way to protect students or are they simply a way of coddling an over-protected student body? Do students gain more from feeling safe then they do from discussing uncomfortable subjects? Are those two ideas mutually exclusive anyway?

I’ve quoted Neil Gaiman at length because of all the discussions of trigger warnings I’ve read his is, well, the best, quite simply; it’s empathetic, considered, and well-balanced. It accepts that we can need protection and yet still be capable of dealing with fear. I will take Neil Gaiman by the hand and walk into dark places because I know that I was given a reasonable choice NOT to go, and because I trust that the journey has both worth and purpose, whatever my emotional reaction to the monsters and madness I encounter along the way. For others, the value of the journey may just not be enough… and that’s ok.

There seems to a basic misunderstanding of trigger warnings in other discussions, particularly among those who advocate for their removal, in that “triggers” are talked about as if they were specific words, concepts or ideas, which may be avoided by the removal of the subject from the discussion. These words are big, obvious, red flag words. They cannot be approached from any direction, but must be absolutely eradicated so as to avoid the possibility of distress. There are whole concepts which some people simply cannot deal with addressing at any time – or at least claim they cannot deal with, the poor, sheltered millennial generation.

But as someone who can get triggered, and as someone whose friends can get triggered, and who has spent a large number of years working with all kinds of people affected by various triggers, I have to say that this is NOT how triggers, and trigger warnings work.

Let’s think of a common trigger that’s not too terrible; let’s try loud, sudden noises. It is fairly common to be triggered by loud, sudden noises. But here I am, saying it again and again:

Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises.

…does this make me some kind of monster? I don’t think so. But if I creep up behind one of my students while they’re getting on with their work and pop balloon behind them… then I am the kind of teacher who doesn’t get invited back for the next term. My point being that triggers can be more about HOW things happen than a blanket avoidance of a given idea.

Point two is that triggers are not all common, neither are they verbal, specific or obvious. It might be a smell. A particular intonation of a particular sentence. A repetition of part of a dream can send you spiraling irrevocably into the pit of panic. No-one’s fault, but unavoidable. It is absolutely impossible to control for the number of things that might trigger someone in any given discussion… which is not an argument against trigger warnings, as you will discover if you can bear with me a little longer.

Point three is that a lot of the things that people get triggered by (and I’m disagreeing with Gaiman here) are because of more overarching issues that are under consideration or mentally present ALL THE TIME. It’s like being a woman walking home alone at night: you may be thinking about the way you’re going, the brilliance of the stars, the fun you just had. But you’re also bearing mind your escape route, whether or not you can run, where the nearest populated area is… you’re conscious of the worst that could happen, because you’re cultured to consider it. People with triggers are cultured to be on the look out for things that might trigger them; wobbling the loose tooth of trauma, reminding ourselves that safety depends on acknowledging the part of ourselves that might, without warning, fall out.

So now we know a little more about triggers, what can we DO about them? I’m glad you asked! We can provide a topical outline of things we’ll be discussing on a given day. We can work out what areas might reasonably be difficult, and take responsibility for discussing them in an empathetic and well-balanced way.

We can be the kind of teachers who, when a student says: “Can I be excused?” will let them go without demanding a public explanation. And when that student comes back and says “I’ve got a problem,” will listen to them and believe them and be generous about making things work. We will know that there is a time to speak and a time to be silent, for everybody, and trust out students to responsibly manage the silent days… we will be as kind when we manage the “over-speakers” as when we manage the quiet ones, because not everyone manifests emotions in the same way. We can tell our students publically that they can expect from us not the unquestioning acquiescence that some things are “just too much,” but instead that we will listen, and learn, and work with them to make sure that they can do the same. If we’re dancers in a class where we touch people, we can let people know that opting out, or asking for things to be explained verbally first, is ALWAYS ok.

The content warning is not: “WARNING, WARNING, we will be discussing these DANGEROUS and HORRIBLE ideas, and if you are the intellectually heroic type then RUN WHILE YOU CAN!!!”

It looks like this: “We will be discussing these ideas, in order to explore these topics, and we will be approaching them in these ways.”

And later: “If you have issues concerning the material in the class, or require certain accommodations to maximize your participation, please contact me either in person or by email so that a solution can be found and instigated as soon as possible.”

A trigger warning is not about blanket protection, the eradication of ideas or the inability to cope with danger. It is about offering a reasonable choice as to whether or not the value of the journey can outweigh the physical and mental onslaught of walking a particular intellectual path. It is about offering short cuts, benches, crutches and flying dragons (as steeds or bodyguards) to anyone you ask to walk with you, and being grateful that they chose to come, rather than churlish about how they get there.

Gaiman suggests that we label all fiction of a certain maturity: “Enter at your own risk.” I have to say that it’s never put me off. Every dancer knows that each class carries the risk of injury, but it doesn’t stop us dancing. A trigger warning is not a way of letting people decide to sit out, but a way of letting them come prepared to the table, with all that they can bring.

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.