Category Archives: language

My Comfort or Your Culture: Close Embrace and Code Switching

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

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

Ok.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And.

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

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

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

So.

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

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

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

BUT

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

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Cats, Carrots, and Teaching through Shame

I am trying, and failing, to get my cat to stay off the kitchen counters.

She is a fluffy, spoiled, ginger princess who has never quite got a handle on the whole “no means no” thing, let alone the “no means no now, and also no in every conceivable instance where you might want to do this in the future” thing. She is reluctantly getting better at the distinction between cat food and people food, and polite manners if you want to share someone’s bed, but the counters remain our biggest battleground.

Half the problem is her sweet temper, which seems to shrug of any attempt at discipline. She never bites or claws. But no raised voice, spritz of water, time out in a closet, loud noise nor any other disincentive seems to put the slightest check on her desire to snuggle and love… or her desire to be on the counters.

And yes, part of the problem is me. I am no disciplinarian. From small children to large children to adults to cats, there are some strategies I just don’t want to employ. I don’t want my cat to ever have reason to be afraid of me, and so I won’t teach a lesson through fear.

Which finally brings me to the point of this blog post, which has been germinating for a few weeks know in response to the pronouncement of one of my very smart colleagues. We were looking at an unsuccessful pedagogical instance (which I will not describe), and trying to pin down why it had failed: “It wasn’t the lesson taught that was ever the problem.” My colleague said, “It was the fact that it was taught through shame.”

Teaching through fear. Teaching through shame. In the dance classroom we’re no strangers to these strategies. Stereotypically it’s ramrod ballet mistresses who do the worst damage, particularly around size/food and yes, I met that problem… and I also met the ballet teacher who taught me how to think better than that. But while we can all imagine how shame and fear might be mobilised in that scenario, a more complex problem arises in the tangling of academia and ethics going on in humanities classrooms, and I want to think about how shame and fear are coming into play in the shaping of student’s beliefs about themselves and the world.

For those of you outside of dance in academia, let me back up a little and say that dance is providing the language and techniques for some of the best social scholarship being done at the moment. You’re probably familiar with the term “social justice movement;” what is the choreography of that movement? When a politician makes an ineffective gesture, what shape did they attempt to trace on the world, and why was it interrupted? How has dance been used to represent culture, and how could it challenge the representations that do harm?

So in dance classrooms, and especially dance theory classrooms, there’s a weight given to certain beliefs and attitudes, and certain conclusions that get implied in scholarship. Those conclusions are not bad. They are often demonstrably true. At other times they are more tenuous, or have holes themselves. But when we encounter students who do not already share those conclusions, there’s a temptation to skip the demonstration of the facts and jump right to the “but why don’t you know this already” teaching that’s extra dangerous now because it involves a value judgement about someone’s ethics.

From the opposite perspective, students face massive obstacles to critical thinking in these areas where scholarship and ethics intertwine, because there are certain question they’re afraid to ask their professors. A challenge to knowledge can all too easily become a challenge to ethics and a challenge to personhood – are we being clear about where we’re drawing the line?

An example from my own career: a few years ago I taught a group of students in their 20s who claimed to have never heard the term “patriarchy.” I really hope that the “Dear Lord, really?” didn’t show on my face as I put my lesson aside for a while to go over that term. Maybe it didn’t, because as I discussed household gender values a student interrupted me to point out that “actually, in my experience of Jamaican households and neighbourhoods the power structure looks very different to that.” I’m glad that I was young enough and unsure enough to admit the incompleteness of my argument then. I also wonder whether my students would point out that additional perspective now.

In a liberal climate, my identity categories mean that I am rarely told to check my privilege, and on a lot of subjects my experiential knowledge is accepted as a kind of truth. But I don’t want my students to accept things because I say so, or because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t. I want them to have the tools to decide for themselves whether something is valid, and yes, I hope that often our views will align. On a very basic level, I want them to do homework because they believe it will help them with school and the world, not because failing to do it will result in funding, security, or future opportunities being taken away. I want them to speak up in class because the material is interesting, rather than because they don’t want to fail on a participation grade. I’d rather teach with carrot than stick.

In the outside world, where I also teach dance, the same logic applies. Our organisation expects people to dance in ways that make their partners feel uncomfortable, and that is why we have a safety policy: so that teachers and organisers can fix people’s technique and make that happen less. What that policy is not is a statement of what all good, decent people should be doing automatically, and anyone who falls outside it is a terrible human being. In my learning-to-dance trajectory I have accidentally grabbed breasts, dipped myself against my partner’s consent, knocked people flying… and I am in CHARGE of dance safety on my scene, in part because I’m good at judging when someone is still learning, and when someone has learned that it’s fun to cross lines. My ideal is when I can tell someone that the way they’re holding me is hurting, have them change their grip, and still happily ask to dance with me again 20 minutes later.

In the outside outside world, where I happen to live as a human being, my pronoun is often a cause for contention, and other people feeling ashamed. I wish that weren’t the case. Yes, I wish they’d get the pronoun right, but I also think they’d be more likely to get it right, and less defensive about their mistakes, if they could feel calm about what the consequences of a mistake would be. Hugs and high fives and thanks the first few times they get it right are, I’ve found, not a bad way to start the switch from stick to carrot, and I’ve had all sorts of people ask me all kinds of cool gender questions as a result. (I don’t always have time or energy to answer, but that’s another matter).

I am by no means perfect, especially just after I’ve watched the news. A few weeks ago a dear cis friend said something about queerness and I snapped back “well that’s just factually wrong.” Luckily we know each other well enough that after a break to breathe we could come back to the conversation, and listen to the point being made and why it might or might not work in context. I’m glad that my abrupt closure of the discussion – shame is a really quick way to shut down a discussion – wound up not preventing that. I need spaces in my life where I am not playing teacher, and where I can yell and judge and be angry to my heart’s content. I know there will be consequences for that anger if I let if fly at the wrong place and time. I’m glad I have people around me who can forgive me when I do.

Yes, this is all a very idealistic perspective. As John Molyneux says, the argument that there’s always some right on both sides is, in itself, a bias that there are only two sides, and the truth is always split between them. That’s just factually wrong. A lot of things are. Ignorance, however innocent, does not have the same rhetorical validity as truth, and I am not arguing that it does. Nor am I pretending that people don’t go into situations wanting to create shame, fear, and other bad feelings of their own, they do.

But in classrooms, where we’re trying to prepare students for the world, I’m trying to be extra careful about the persuasive strategies I employ as models for how people might go out and persuade others. I try not to make it so that the views I value most highly are the ones that make my students feel afraid. I ask myself: if the only way I have to teach this viewpoint is shame or fear, why do I believe in it? If the only way I have to teach this viewpoint is by making my students feel shame and fear, is it really a lesson I want to teach?

Debates in Dance: Documentation

“Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance” – Peggy Phelan

As far as dance scholarship goes, this quote is one of the biggies. If you want to talk about dance, or a dance, you have to deal with the super-smart lady who laid out why that was a problem. Essentially her point is that you can’t save a performance in any way that allows it to stay a performance – once the dancers leave the stage they stop dancing, and anything else that follows is just not the same any more.

“Great, but why does this matter?!” I hear you cry. Well, because dancers do things on stages (and off them) that are smart, and culturally relevant, and useful to the project of being better in the world. They dance their own selves, they dance history, they dance community. Not to mention they make some of the most incredible art out there. And one of the ways we value those contributions and get them recognised in the world is to transmit them, otherwise we end up with people and groups like Wells Fargo telling us that dance is just a phase you go through on the way to a more productive career. Ahem.

There are some pretty well-established ways of documenting dance: you can write a description of it. You can score it like a piece of music. You can film it with a camera. Phelan isn’t ignoring these, by the way, she’s just saying that none of them actually save the bit of the dance we call performance, although we’re all still somewhat shakey on what that bit actually is, and whether we’re not always performing something the whole time. But, for example, how do you record the magic of meeting someone one the social floor for the first time and having a dance that connects just right? The feeling of “I have 25 seconds to do a 45 second run around the back of the theater in time for my next entrance ohgodohgodohgod run run RUN!” or the precise way you start to cramp and lift up out of your body when you’ve been strapped to a frame for 30 minutes pretending to be frozen mid-fall?* Do these things matter?

Well… yes! Because having those experiences taught me things, and changed the way I was dancing. There is a massive difference between waltzing onto a stage from standstill and trying to recover your calm after a breakneck dash around the house – and most choreographers I know are smart enough to make you do that for a reason, even if the audience can’t see it.

But in all these cases, I’m going to try and persuade you, there is a document. Me. My memory, the growth of my muscles to accommodate the work, the tricks I learned to make my body do – the things I take forward into dancing and living thereafter. If I am a document, here are some of the things you can read:

  • Life gets better when we know how to massage each other.
  • When you’re exhausted, try relaxing, or working somewhere else.
  • It’s fun to go fast… right up until the point where you knock someone down.

And these seem like little things maybe, but I draw them out because these are lessons I learned dancing that I perform in my day to day life, and circulate among those I care about.

What am I trying to say?

Firstly, that there are living documents of performance (including those who watched the performance), and that it is worth trying to grapple with how those documents of memory can be transmitted, because they are valuable. It is worth looking at the creator behind the dance, and the document, and trying to figure out how they came to save particular things the way they did.

Secondly, allowing for the transmission of those documents is going to mean trusting what people say about their bodies and themselves. Which sounds like a small thing but really isn’t, as anyone who’s been frustrated at a doctors appointment can attest. We have a cultural mindset that tends to treat bodily experience as fallible in comparison to observed or statistical data, which is not always a bad attitude, but which sucks if you’ve never learned how to do the other thing. In dance, where the performing memory-documents tend to be women, we can get a lot out of trusting how those bodies learn to move in the world.

I know that I’ve somewhat moved away from Phelan, who I don’t think ever intended her words to be read in the way I’ve read them. Quite honestly, I’m jumping off her words because they are important, and using them to go somewhere important to me. I am stopping this post at the point where ethics start, but I invite you to go further that I have in thinking about what life has taught your body, and whether those were lessons you really wanted to learn. How can we talk about them and change them? What’s that dance?

 

 

 

* In Just the Blink of an Eye, by Xu Zhen, part of the exhibit Art of Change: New Directions from China. Photograph above by Lie Chen.

 

 

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.