Category Archives: community

….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

Advertisements

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.

… it’s STILL not what you think…

A while ago I put up a post about a video from SF Globe that you can find here, which is useful to read before continuing this post.  Half an hour after putting up I received this comment:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 6.19.49 PM

and this is from one of MY favourite dance teachers/partners/friends.

My initial thought was “Oh dear god I’ve been horribly arrogant.” After all – I’d criticised SFG for failing to understand what was going on in the video by claiming ownership of a particular community… and here I was totally failing to recognise one of that community’s major figures.

For those interested, Jean Veloz is a living legend who was a star of  swing dance on the silver screen and a fabulous live exhibition dancer between the 1940s-80s, who then came out of retirement in the 90’s to continue being kickass at community events worldwide.  Admittedly I had to go and learn all of that after watching the two linked videos – particularly recommend the one from Groovy Movie.  You can learn more about Jean through her own website.

So… are they going to take my swing dancer card away?  Should I be embarrassed about not knowing the history of my practice?  I mean, I do for other dance forms don’t I?  But how much of that is being specifically a dance scholar in those styles?  I sat for a while after receiving that comment alternating between mortification and a ton of questions, some of which I think I have answers for, and some I’ll be posing to you.

At the end of the day, my social dancing is… umm… social!  It’s a practice that links me to a community, and one which I very much love.  But is my practical participation enough to identify me as a member of that community?  I mean, I know some of the historical/contextual information, but clearly I also have some very large holes – do they matter?  I’m sure that for some members of that community the answer would be “Yes.”  But would they be right?

So what defines this particular community’s membership?  Practice?  Knowledge?  Skill?  Contribution?  Investment in the values of the community?  Self-identification?  A mix of all of the above?

My hypothesis is that all communities have different rules, worked out from a combination of the social norms of participating members.  I’m going to show my linguistic side here when I say that there is a difference between community participation and community membership – but going to admit that I’m lost about where to draw the line.

Also, where are the boundaries of the community?  Swing dance has local, national and global chapters, as I’m sure do many practice-based social groups.  I’ve participated at all those levels, but where am I actually a member?  Given that I’ve just moved countries, do I have to be accepted by the Columbus community in some way before I can identify as belonging there?  What constitutes acceptance?

My ties are strongest to skill practice and to values: dance as a method of positive community building; dance that can be shared with everyone; dance that seeks communication with others.  I call myself a social dancer because I’m always somewhat carrying those values with me wherever I go, and because I can identify others who share those community values around the world.  So perhaps I can hold on to my swing dancer card for now…

…and I’m glad I got the chance to discover Jean Veloz and work towards not getting it wrong.

It’s not what you think…

Update: I wrote a follow up post in response to a comment received on this post.  You can find it here.

 

SF Globe… you got it wrong.

A few days ago this article popped up on my news feed: She Looked Like a Normal 90 Year Old. Then The Music Started. Oh My God.

Total click bait I know, but I was in the mood, and elderly people dancing always makes me smile even if they are being hijacked by a facebook algorithm or million… so I clicked it!

SF Globe… you got it wrong.

From looking at your website, I can see that you’re largely devoted to click-baity video and feel-good articles, and I’m not going to judge you for that.  But I am going to point out that you have, in this case misrepresented the facts of what your putting up for us to see.

It’s not that the woman in the video link isn’t a pretty damn cool dancer, she is!  Kudos as well to her for keeping dancing well into her nineties.  But this isn’t spontaneous birthday grooving, nor are the her guests so moved they can’t help but join in – some of them might not even know her name!  This is a formal community tradition that is probably happening in a town near you tonight, if you live anywhere in the U.S.A., the U.K., and probably a majority of places in Europe.  And it’s a community that I share.

Here’s what I can see from watching this video: this woman is a swing dancer – a social dance form.  She’s probably done it for a while now, since she knows lots of the step patterns and she’s got some great style going on.  Give me five minutes alone in a dark room with google and facebook and I could probably tell you exactly where she dances, and what days and times, but that would be creepy and stalkerish and NO.

But anyway.

Lots of social dance forms have a tradition at dance nights that if it’s been your birthday that week, you get to join a birthday jam.  Someone plays a song, and you dance with as many people at the event that can fit conveniently into that song.  I’ve been birthday jammed myself and I love it.  Some people love it so much that they chose to carry on the tradition into private birthday parties, especially when they have a lot of dancer friends.  There are cities and groups I can’t HAVE a party among without it dissolving into social dancing, and I am all kinds of ok with that – so I’m not going to argue with their statement that it’s her own birthday party, it could well be.  It’s not uncommon even for social dance scenes to THROW the birthday party of a particularly contributory member, or one who’s reached a significant age.

This woman, whoever she is, is much MORE to me than click bait.  She’s a representation of how communities can come together and enrich the lives of everyone part of them.  It’s a video about how dance can bring together disparate groups of people in the practice of a skill, and protect marginalised groups, such as the elderly, from loneliness and isolation.  It’s a powerful point in the favour of historical, social dance forms being maintained and practiced today, with absolute contemporary relevance.  SF Globe completely missed out on the chance to have any one of those great discussions with us, which is kind of disappointing even if I don’t actually read them regularly.  We could have educated people about the amazing, vibrant and powerful dance world, but we didn’t.

So I’m sorry, if you were expecting more from the link, but this woman isn’t some kind of unheralded Twyla Tharp, I’m sorry she just isn’t.  She’s a human being, who is part of one if not several cultures that allow her to bring joy and dance into the world of the people she socialises with, and I wish her absolutely all the best on her birthday.  I congratulate San Francisco on having some great dance in their area, and I’m sorry that story got put to one side in favour of the cheap click.

I don’t know whether I have to hammer the point home here, but just in case: you might not see culture when it’s happening.  You can make judgements that misrepresent people and ideas if you have a gap in your cultural knowledge.  That’s not necessarily your FAULT.  But if you’re publishing your evaluation of an individual out there for people to see, let’s try and contextualise what we’re seeing before we turn people into unnecessary click bait, rather than relevant contributors to something far richer, and far more worth talking about.  Please?

Rock out Twyla.