Hooray! It’s Pride Month! The time of year when my city gets decked out in rainbows, and the memes pages of the internet are full of people like me! Woo! Pride weekend always seems to coincide with my being at a dance event, and over the last few years I’ve seen organizers make a wide range of choices about what to do with that information – including ignoring it entirely. Continue reading →
This is a post that’s been a long time coming – in fact I first began drafting it while I was living in England and contributing to the Dance X project, which was several years ago now. The topic was brought to light again during Mile High Fusion, particularly at the teacher’s summit, and has been kicking around ever since. Not every thought in here is 100% mine, and some of it flies in the face of some pretty well established social dance conventions. Special thanks to Mark Carpenter and Joe DeMers who helped me hash this out over exhausted Thai food. I’m probably going to get snarky. Here we go. Continue reading →
Last Friday all the queers in town showed up to throw Mike Pence a loud, joyous dance party. A man who has argued vehemently for the withdrawal of gay rights chose – in a truly STUNNING lack of foresight – to come to one of the queerest cities in the Midwest on pride weekend, and to speak from a hotel on, I kid you not, Gay Street. What did he honestly think would happen? Continue reading →
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blues dance. A collection of idiom forms that have clustered into new shapes; a mostly-white community of practice based around black vernacular dances; stories and histories and dances with very different voices raised in conversation and conflict. What are we doing when we dance blues?
Right now I see a number of debates going on in the blues dance world about how best to bring blues forward. These issues include how to teach culture and history alongside dance, how to introduce beginners to specific idioms and cultural information without overwhelming them, how to maintain respect for the dance and the communities who have practiced it over time, while still making it work for the community dancing it now – recognising that these communities might not always be easily separable or reconcilable. I see these debates becoming heated and personal, devolving into arguments of good and bad, right and wrong, with many folks withdrawing from our community because they cannot make their voices heard, or are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. Being somewhat uniquely positioned to offer an alternative perspective on these debates, I have started framing here some things to consider as we go into these conversations.
I am a blues dancer, and teacher, and organiser. I am also a dance scholar, and have spent years getting certified in the preservation and reconstruction of dances through Labanotation. Labanotation is a way of scoring a dance on paper in the way that a musician might score music. It is mainly used for concert dance, but has also been used to record tap, Bharata Natyam, American Sign Language, and vernacular jazz dance – among other things. I have recorded and reconstructed stage works, dance techniques, and pedestrian movement; I have brought concert works to the UK for the first time, I have been part of copyright cases, and I’m currently talking to NASA about putting dance in space. I run a blog discussing notations of “jazz dance” and how that relates to the blues community.
While I viscerally disagree with the notion that dance has to frame itself through an academic lens to be taken seriously, what this experience gives me is access to language and literature that I think could be useful in framing some of the questions that come up around the “authenticity” of contemporary blues dance practice, and how to approach the work of remaining respectful without shame, and accessible without diluting dances down.
Firstly: what are we doing?
We’ve come to a communal agreement in blues that we are trying to do-again a certain collection of idiom and vernacular dance forms. But there are a number of ways of approaching that project depending on resources available, the identifying features of the dance in question, and the purpose of the redoing. For example:
To reconstruct is to attempt to get a dance back with as much authenticity as possible, by drawing on a wide variety of available resources. Embodied knowledge, videos, scoring, supplementary documentation, and cultural inquiry.
To restage is to take key identifying features of a dance and keep them present, while adapting the rest of the dance to the circumstances of the production.
To reimagine is to rebuild a new version of a dance based on and adapted from our own understanding of what the dance was.*
We need to be able to make realistic decisions about what we are able to offer to a given scene at a given time, with the knowledge that we have about a specific dance.
But what IS a dance anyway?
In concert dance the big pitfall is to say that the dance is the steps. But what about dances that are improvised? That are choreographed to represent the deeply personal experiences of a selected body of performers? That are an embodiment of certain kinds of cultural knowledge? That are representative of a certain kind of physical movement system? Any dance might be any and all of those things, but how we decide what is more or less key to how we dance blues dance will radically alter how we teach and share our values.
There are some things that we cannot get back. We can never train or practice ourselves into another body. We cannot erase the physical and mental history of our own dance experience and cultural socialisation. That doesn’t mean that we can’t train very hard to inculcate our bodies with new knowledge, techniques and experiences – but we can only build on who we already are.
We also should not say that what we can get back is necessarily the thing just because it’s all we have. Learning the choreography of Hellzapoppin’ from video, for example, would not mean that we have learned to Lindy Hop. We understand that Lindy Hop is an improvised form, that Blues is an improvised form, and therefore that the ability to improvise must be present in our re-doing of the thing in order for it to be blues. For a long time we called a certain kind of 1990’s slow social dancing blues, which many of us agree now is definitely not blues. But at the time, with the information they had, a lot of folks in authority thought they were doing the thing. When did we actually start doing the thing? Have we ever?
We understand that in Blues there are technical and aesthetic principles in play that we can train ourselves towards. But we can only come at those principles from the bodies and culture that we have, and from the perspective of our present moment, however well-researched that perspective is. We are not always sure what technical, aesthetic, and cultural fluency is necessary for dancers to be able to say they are dancing blues, who gets to draw those lines, and what the consequences for falling outside of them should be. We have different opinions about what we have permission to let go of or change. We know that some dancers of the past had strong feelings about how certain things should be done, and why their voices were offered a certain degree of validity. There are voices we will never hear speak.
We do know that some black dancers appealed to formal systems of copyright in order to cement their rights of ownership and personhood in the eyes of the law, with varied success. We know that others relied on less formal, but still incredibly salient systems of copyright and ownership for the codification of who did what how, and who had the right to do it again.** We also know that part of the resistance to white ownership and theorising of black bodies has been to keep certain kinds of meaning deliberately intelligible… and that this did not stop white dancers and writers attempting to own, adapt, explain and codify what was going on anyway.*** We come at blues from a long history of white dancers appropriating black dances into new technical forms and social structures.
As we adapt blues to a new kind of social existence and transmission, we have made certain decisions about what we want to keep and what we want to change. We have adopted names, rules, and principles of movement that provide accessible shortcuts to certain kinds of knowledge.**** The act of naming creates a boundary of differentiation – these things may fall under this name but these things may not. We draw those boundaries in different places – those boundaries have always been drawn in different places. What is blues dance?
This post is not written to answer any of these questions. It is designed to open up the field of questions, and maybe provide some avenues for starting towards answers. I hope that it gives us some language to talk through our differences of opinion, and to think about what evidence might be needed in order to resolve those conversations – and what to do when that evidence isn’t there. I will continue to dance, and teach, and organise, and to strive for clarity in articulating what I am doing and what I am aiming to do and why I feel able to say that the thing I am doing is what I say it is. This includes how I teach blues to beginners, why I make certain movement choices, and how I shape my local and national community. I hope people remain interested and invested in continuing this conversation with me.
* A number of these debates are laid out in Preservation Politics: Dance Revived, Reconstructed, Remade. Particularly the article “Is Authenticity To Be Had” by Ann Hutchinson Guest
** Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance. By Anthea Kraut.
*** Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom by Sarah Jane Cervenak is a very academic look at this.
**** Brenda Dixon-Gottschild is the obvious example here.
With thanks to Chris Wells for his help editing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
p.s. It’s the end of the year, which means it’s nearly time for another Holiday Guide To Dancers – watch this space!
In 1930 Martha Graham was a young dancer transitioning between the comfortable institution of Denishawn into the risks of a choreoraphic career in New York. Léonide Massine, star choreographer of the Ballet Russe, invited her to take time away from her burgeoning company to dance the role of the “Chosen Maiden” in his version of Sacre Du Printemps [Rite of Spring]. Influences from this piece can be seen in many of Graham’s later works: claw-footed intensity, archetypical femininity, choric ritual, and yet for Graham the main lesson she took away was one she shared almost immediately with her own dancers in rehearsal, which I may be paraphrasing from poor memory and lack of sources: “I have learned the hardest thing in the world, I have learned to stand still. And now I will teach you.
As I write this I am cruising at an altitude of 35,000 ft., travelling somewhere between five and six-hundred miles an hour (thank you Shelly Voegl, United airlines) – I am doing the very opposite of standing still. I am flying between concert and social dance, teaching and conferences. I have moved through Columbus Day to World Mental Health Day to International Coming Out Day, and I am looking forward to a hike in the mountains.
I wonder, sometimes, why dancers have such a propensity to liberal activism. Many of us have, in pursuing the fine arts as a career, eschewed some of the central tenants of capitalist society, but that doesn’t explain why the trend exists in social dancers too, even among those in the upper echelons of the economic spectrum. Maybe as people whose lives are literally lived in touch with one another we are more attentive to the responsibility and precarity of human care, and the strange shapes that sometimes has to take.
On the other hand, I have been exploring the notion recently that dancers are often activists because we deeply and viscerally understand the idea that stillness is a choice. Standing inert is not a neutral action, and choosing not to act is as inherently politically weighted as any other movement you can make. Standing still indicates a decision, a perspective, an opposition to doing anything other than occupying a position and, perhaps, observing.
In a dance class stillness can be time to attend to and care for one’s self – to listen to breath and heartbeat, to ground and settle, to allow movement to come from a more connected place. In social dancing stillness is a play, a responsiveness to music, a test of partnership and connection. On stage stillness can indicate anything from a benevolent presence, to resolve, to a complete lack of capacity. Each stillness occupied is different, and that difference holds meaning. Stillness never fails to signify, and as dancers we develop our ability to choose our own messages – we are never still by accident.
If you beg a human to help you, and they remain still, a choice has been made.
If you ask people to let you in, and they refuse to move, you have your answer.
If people shout for change, and you remain inert, you have made your refusal.
In the current political climate it is not uncommon to hear that stillness is a position of privilege: that only those who are comfortable, secure, and supported can afford to remain where they are. It is not uncommon to hear in reply that stillness indicates a lack of information, indecision, a place of too many contradicting options, or not enough – being trapped. Is it possible for audiences to distinguish the stillness of “wait,” and “help,” from the stillness of “never?” How could we move to resolve that crisis?
To an audience asking for movement, stillness looks like opposition. To a population demanding answers there is little functional difference between being ignored, the composition of a complex response, and the breath before speech. That is not to say that sometimes stillness is not powerful or needed – to obstruct, to block, to insist upon the reality of your presence, to resist the momentum around you is a powerful choice. It should always be one that you have chosen to make.
Imagine that you are a teenager, who has just come out to your parents. They stand, still, silent. You know from the internet and the experiences of your friends that the responses may run the gamut of loving acceptance, passive aggressive guilt tripping, pathologisation, denial, homelessness, violence, and death. You have moved yourself from a position of safety you occupied through silence into a position of risk facilitated by speech and movement. Your parents stand still and silent. You are afraid. Each moment the stillness stretches out ratchets up the churning in your guts, the tension, the fear. You want to give them the benefit of the doubt, to anticipate their answer, but in the light of all you know might – is likely – to happen, that seems impossible. What will they do?
Imagine you are a child on the playground and a boy has just hit you. He says you deserve it, and you go to the teacher. What lessons are learned from the teacher supporting one side, or the other? What if they say “well I can’t possibly know the truth,” or “well you’re both mature enough to sort it out for yourselves, stop making a fuss?” Having learned those lessons, what happens if he hits you again?
Martha Graham understood that stillness was hard perhaps because it is much more difficult to preserve integrity in stillness than in action. When we are prevented from moving or speaking by any kind of artistic or social choreography it is incredibly difficult to communicate who we are, what we mean, and why we have made our choices. When we are asked to act, or speak, and do not, we are asking those around us to interpret on the evidence of our non-action. That might be deliberate, and a choice you make for all kinds of reasons – to start off, it is much easier to discus and debate and potentially conflict with the thing someone did, rather than the infinite myriad of things they didn’t do. It is easier to defend an internal movement that no-one can see than the external evidence of that thought process.
If we look at the situation with dancer’s eyes, however, we become aware of stillness as a choice that serves a purpose, and that holds meaning. We are not maidens shocked into immobility by awareness of our immanent sacrificial demise, we are not deaf to the music of the world around us that asks us to respond. Take time to be learn how to be still with integrity, breathe, ground, listen, but be aware that nothing can stop and wait while you do. Your stillness is seen. What does that mean in a world where you have been asked to move?
I am currently social (swing, blues, fusion*) dancing on a sprained wrist, and as a result, I caught some of my own bias around role selection and gender. Then I wondered whether all of it was really coming from me. Having discussed the phenomenon with dancers from all over the spectrum, this is my response…
Dear male dancers who follow,
Thank you. Thank you for knowing the value of both roles, thank you for learning the unexpected, thank you for being some of the best dances I’ve had on the social floor and some of the best students in classes. Thank you for starting discussions about gender in social dance and then going out there and practicing for change. Now, let me help you with something.
I’ve noticed that when I’m out social dancing, and I know I’m not the only one who does this, I usually switch/lead women and I follow men. I have a lot of fun with people who don’t fall under that particular binary, but that’s another letter for another day. This isn’t because the men on my scene don’t follow, in fact I’m really proud of how happy the majority of our dancers are in either role, but the pattern still remains. A year ago I was asked by a lovely male switch dancer why I usually ended up in the follow role with him, and I came up with a couple of suggestions. Now I return to the question, I’ve boiled it down into three main ideas of how leads, follows and switches of all genders create, and could help address, these lingering threads of disparity.
State a Clear Preference
Early in my leading career, I remember being asked to dance by several male leads who wanted to show me that I wasn’t as good as they were, so they could play teacher. I was also asked to dance a lot by very nice dancers of all the genders who thought it would be most polite to give me the “lead, follow, or switch?” option, when they really only had one option that worked for them. Side note: it is, really really, ok to have a favourite role that you prefer to dance socially; whether that’s in general, on a particular night, or to a particular song. It’s ok to take only one role in classes. I’d encourage you thinking about why a particular role is your favourite, and what you could get from the other, but human beings have preferences, and dancing is all about enthusiastic consent.
Back to the social floor. What this behaviour leads (hah) to, is a bunch of switches who don’t actually know whether you are really giving them the option to lead/follow/switch, or not, and who will default to offering you the role you are statistically likely to want to assume. If you switch later, all well and good. From the best of intentions, we are trapping ourselves in roles in ways we might not intend.
The obvious answer to this is to state a clear and honest preference for what we want to do. “Would you like to dance?” “Yes, I would love to follow.” Tells me instantly how to make a dance work for you, and means I don’t have to listen so hard for the subtext of “but I meant I wanted to lead.” It also means that if you tell me you want to follow and I don’t have lead energy, I can let you know where I stand too. If you’ve agreed to a switch dance, and you start off leading, take a little but of initiative when it comes to transitioning to a following role. The happier you are with your choice to follow, the happier I will be about leading you!
A general failing of the social dance scene in general, at least in my own experience, is that we don’t spend as much energy teaching follows how to follow as we do teaching leads how to lead. I say energy rather than time because even in those scenes that ask everyone in the class to try every role in every class-section, the information being given to leads is usually clearer, more mechanical, more active and more accessible. Follow information tends to be sense-based, intuitive, passive, and esoteric. I mean I get it: you don’t want a load of follows who anticipate, but it does mean that transitioning from lead to follow is difficult to get the hang of.
The most common issue I notice when leading a male follow is that they don’t know how active a follow has to be in creating the connection. As leads, they feel a follow move in response to their suggestion, but not what the follow did in order for the suggestion to get through in the first place. This is particularly the case in move-based classes, where the work of the follow is not always made explicit.
On the dance floor this tends to go one of two ways: The first option is that you sit and wait for me to move you, which, with me being all of 100lbs, just isn’t going to happen. The second option is that you attempt to relax completely – jelly-limbed and frameless – and drift out from under my attempt at connection.
In case you haven’t been in a class where this has been said: the connection in social dance is created by both dancers. As a lead, you use intention and frame to offer suggestions to your follow. As a follow, you use intention and frame to respond to those suggestions. I call the intensity of that mutual intention tone, and it usually works best if the follow’s tone is under, but only slightly under, the lead’s. Posture/placement of limbs is also important, but varies enough from dance to dance that I’m not going to go into it here. As leads you know this, and you do your part. As follows, you don’t have the information/don’t have the brain space/forget.
This is something much more easily explained in practice rather than words, so if you feel like you love to follow but it’s really just not working for you, go find a dancer you like and ask them to give you some feedback on how you’re creating connection. Acknowledge the work of the follow, and learn to love it.
Balance the Fun Equation
Unless you are dancing with your social doppelgänger, who has been to every class and dance you have, and danced to all the same songs and took all the same breaks you did, one of the dancers in a partnership is going to have more experience leading than the other. One will have more experience following. It might even be the same person who has both! This is all ok and wonderful. What is does impact, however, is something I refer to as the Fun Equation: which dancer needs to go in which role(s)** in order to maximise the enjoyment that both dancers can get out of this dance?
Sometimes the Fun Equation makes a choice of roles seem obvious, but it also creates pressure for people to stay in the role they’re good at, rather than trying something new. We’ve all struggled through being a beginner at some stage of our dancing lives, and we all want to keep that awkward, flailing time to a minimum, especially if we know that in another role we could be having smooth, beautiful dancey fun times.
So my final invitation to all the dancers reading this, is to think about how you can re-balance the fun equation when one, or both of you are in your less-comfortable role. Are you going to talk? Not talk? Keep it slow? Make it silly? Have a spontaneous rock star breakaway session in the middle? These are, of course, all tricks you can employ when one or both of you is an absolute beginner in any role… again, dancing is all about enthusiastic consent, however long you’ve been doing it.
So male dancers who follow, thanks again for all the work you’ve put in to your dancing. Keep dancing! I hope this letter helps you have more, better dances, whichever role you happen to be in at the time.
*There are so many more social dances out there than swing, blues, and fusion, but it’s so much easier just to type “social dance” each time. Forgive me.
**Switching can also be the most fun. The most fun.
It’s that wonderful time of the year: presents have been received; the carols have finished, and now comes long stretch of parties and socialising that lasts until the New Year. Here at the headtail connection we know that dancers can be difficult to entertain. We don’t like to sit down. We often have cruel and unusual dietary requirements. But most of all, we’re really hard to talk to.
I know there are plenty of people reading this blog who know, in the very depths of their soul, that this festive season their job will be reduced to a comparative analysis of So You Think You Can Dance. Again. You’ll have relatives who can’t differentiate your successes from your failures, and friends who think your backbreaking job is the last phase of an extended hobby.
This year, all you have to do in advance is present your friends and family with this handy hosting guide.
Those of you here in a panic because you have a dancer coming to dinner, this is your one stop solution to stress-free entertaining: simply work out what kind of dancer you’re dealing with (spotter’s tips included), and follow these very easy prompts.
Look out for: standing on one foot while the other sticks turned-out to the side.
Wearing: a draping cardigan and heels.
Most likely to be eating: very very fast.
Favourite tipple: white wine.
Ideal Gift: pointe shoes.
Bad: Do you have to watch your weight over Christmas?
Better: What are you excited about in the repertoire this season?
Best: What do you think we should do about the lack of female choreographers?
Look out for: contact improvisation with the furniture.
Wearing: stretch fabric and leggings.
Most likely to be eating: gluten free.
Favourite tipple: artisanal beer.
Ideal Gift: studio space.
Bad: So what is contemporary dance?
Better: Whose work should I introduce myself to this year?
Best: How do you think the London/New York dance scene compares with Europe?
Look out for: raiding your bookshelves.
Wearing: eye bags and a great scarf.
Most likely to be eating: vegetarian.
Favourite tipple: red wine.
Ideal Gift: ask to read their work.
Bad: Can you actually get a PhD in dance?
Better: What good books have you read recently?
Best: What’s the best use of interdisciplinary methods you’ve seen this year?
Look out for: absently-mindedly marking steps with hands.
Wearing: accessories with a school logo.
Most likely to be eating: at all hours.
Favourite tipple: gin.
Ideal Gift: a spotify subscription.
Bad: Don’t you just wish you were performing?
Better: What are you proud of in your students this year?
Best: I hate that dance is losing ground as part of education, how could we do that better?
Look out for: bouncing in seat whenever anything with a swung rhythm comes on.
Most likely to be eating: paleo.
Favourite tipple: whiskey.
Ideal Gift: event passes.
Bad: Aren’t there better ways to get a man?
Better: When was your last exchange?
Best: Could you swing out to this?
Happy holidays readers!
If you’ve got another dancer you want to add to the guide, please leave suggestions in the comments.
Another summer, another round of dance exchanges. Holes worn in all my socks, far too much coffee and trailing dusty footprints behind me home at night. But also another summer of “leads over here, follows over there,” having my arm yanked around and “Wow, you’re great! Have you done this before?!” We all know that’s it’s hard to look young and female on the dance floor.
But this isn’t, actually a post complaining about that, although it is a post about gender in the dance class. This is a practical solution to a problem I’ve heard a couple of instructors talk about: how do we handle role switching in the social dance classroom. Or rather, how can we maintain the optimum balance of friendly and welcoming, opportunity to learn, and amount of material covered when there are two roles in the room?
There are, obviously, multiple schools of thought on the matter. There are those who believe, for whatever reason, that people should pick a role at the beginning of class and stick to it all the way through. Which has the plus side of allowing people to really concentrate on what they’re doing, making sense to new arrivals, and avoiding left/right confusion (which is a real thing that happens even when you switch all the time – it might even happen more, or maybe that’s just me). There are also those out there who, again for whatever reason, ask every couple to switch roles during every rotation, making sure that everyone becomes fluent in the experience and technique of both leading and following, and allowing beginners who would usually wind up leading to relax and follow when they run out of moves – actually, that’s not just beginners either, I absolutely follow when I’ve run out of inspiration.
But what about the experienced dancer who knows that they just don’t feel in the mood for following this class? Or who’s in a class with a snazzy new trick move and wants to learn both sides? What about the lead who wants to try following in the early part of class, but doesn’t feel confident switching as the material gets more complicated? How do we advocate for switching IF PEOPLE WANT IT, while letting people make choices about what they need from their own dance experience? How do we make the most out of classes while letting people try more than one part, whatever their experience level?
Well folks, I have the answer… or an answer… a method of rotation that’s working very well for me in my home scene that I though I would share with you all. It’s very simple. It goes like this: “We will do this thing twice. Raise an asl “L” hand if you want to lead, an “f” hand if you want to follow, and jazz hands if you don’t care. Ok, go and find someone to dance with.”
- People can decide whether they want to lead, follow, or switch, and they can change their mind for whenever they want, for however long they want.
- It becomes as valid to stay in a role as it does to switch, and people learn to make good decisions about what they want from dancing and how they feel about it in the moment.
- People can dip a toe in a new and scary role without having to commit to a whole class.
- You get more of what you want out of your dance class, while being exposed to the choice of other things.
- Classes can go at different paces and people can respond to that as they need to.
- …. have I convinced you yet?
- People milling about the room in chaos, rather than traveling in neat circles.
- …. I’m not sure of more.
There is a factor that is neither pro nor con that I’d like to consider: the milling-about-the-room method of finding a new partner means that people may not dance with everyone, and if you have an odd number, there is no guarantee that sitting out time will be evenly shared. Ideally I would LIKE everyone to dance with everyone when they come to class, and I can use words to encourage that: “find a stranger,” “find someone you haven’t danced with yet,” etc. But my class is full of adults and if they want to ignore the hint they will ignore it. Waiting out is something I keep a better track of and I will shift pairs if someone looks like they’re going to miss a consecutive rotation.
Edit: I have now also added a 4th option “If you really don’t want to try something stick both thumbs down and I’ll come find you an accommodation. I have had such a positive response to that option, especially as we move towards more close embrace/idiom dancing.
As I said, this method is working really well for me in my home scene, and I believe that a number of other instructors have tried it. I’m not particularly interested (in THIS post) in the ethics of switching or not switching, but I would be interested in how it works for you practically. How does it work in partner dance forms that aren’t blues and swing? If you try it out, or if you can think of a strong reason NOT to try it out, either send me a message in the comments or through the Contact page, and let’s keep making social dancing better for everybody.