Category Archives: social dance

Social Dancing With Pride

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.

If you are a LGBTQIA social dance organizer, then by all means organize your dance your way with regards to Pride. But if you are a cis, straight organizer and your dance falls over Pride weekend, here are some things to think about before you pull out the rainbows and decide you want to run a pride dance:

First: If you want to have a designated “Pride dance” then you MUST involve diverse LGBTQIA organizers and you MUST pay them for their time and you MUST listen to what they have to say. Otherwise stick to acknowledging Pride within the boundaries of your event, without calling it a Pride event.

Second: don’t assume there’s only one Pride event in your city when you’re scheduling. A LOT of queer and trans people have been frustrated by corporate sponsorship of Pride, by pinkwashing, by how events are policed, by the presentation of only a very narrow vision of queerness, by the appropriation of Pride as a party for straight people. As a result, there are now a large number of alt prides/community prides, or other Pride events that you should be on the look out for too.

Third: “celebrating” Pride at your dance will not fool ANYONE if you’re not already running an inclusive scene already.

  • Do you have LGBTQIA leadership?
  • Do you hire LGBTQIA teachers and DJs?
  • Do you have a gender-neutral bathroom?
  • Do you have an inclusivity statement on your website or facebook page?
  • Do people of all genders regularly ask each other to dance in multiple roles?
  • Do you actively seek to recruit dancers from LGBTQIA populations? Especially LGBTQIA POCs?
  • Do you know what the above acronym means and why it’s important?
  • Do you know about the LGBTQIA history and culture of your dance form?
  • Do you have a transparent and active approach to inclusive space-making?

Or

  • Do your instructors divide the room into “men” and “women”?
  • Do you have separate door prices based on role or gender?
  • Does your advertising literature feature only heterosexual couples?
  • Do men do the majority of asking people to dance?
  • Do you dismiss the concerns of LGBTQIA attendees?
  • Are some LGBTQIA people more welcome in your scene than others?

 

If you have thought about these things already and it’s genuinely important to you to acknowledge Pride… personally, I’m all for it. I really do appreciate when scenes show that they’ve realized their LGBTQIA attendees are spending time with them on a politically and historically important day. I like it when my identity, and queer liberation, is celebrated within my community. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for things you can do to acknowledge Pride as an ally organizer:

  • Frame your intentions in the event description: we know we’re on the same day as Pride, so we’re running a Pride Dance with the leadership of… / and while we’re not running a Pride dance, we do want to welcome and celebrate any members of the LGBTQIA community who want to come out and dance with us.
  • Make a special effort to hire LGBTQIA teachers and DJs. Maybe bring someone in from out of town. Pay them. Invite them to play some songs that reflect that it’s Pride. A well-meaning ally is not an LGBTQIA person.
  • Give money from the event to an LGBTQIA charity or cause.
  • Have a snowball or jam for your LGBTQIA attendees.*
  • Put up articles, songs, or videos about LGBTQIA history within your dance form.
  • Update your information and policies to make sure that they’re sexuality and gender-inclusive. Maybe pay an LGBTQIA person to look things over with you… I can be hired to do just that – get in touch.
  • Model the behavior you want to see at your event: offer your pronouns as you introduce yourself, ask someone of your gender to dance, ask which role someone prefers. Teach your attendees to do the same.
  • DON’T monetize Pride and feed that money back into your own organization if you’re not an actively LGBTQIA-led scene.

You don’t have to do ALL of these things, but if you are looking at all of them and thinking that they all sound like a lot of change and effort, then maybe you don’t care as much about Pride as you want people to think you do. At the end of the day, Pride should be a chance to celebrate the values and community that you already have, not a one-day vacation into rainbow-feel-good-land because you like our colour palette. There are a lot of really lovely, inclusive scenes out there being run by allies with whom I’d be happy to share my Pride day. I hope other scenes use Pride as an invitation to do better now, and in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

* Make sure you’re really clear about the place of allies in any spotlighting activity. I still cringe about the song explicitly “for queer attendees” that was completely DOMINATED by a straight, cis “ally” who wanted to showcase himself. On the other hand, maybe someone identifies as LGBTQIA and hasn’t told you yet. Use your good judgement, or ask someone to make that call if you can’t.

Advertisements

Fusion… What Is It?

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.

What is fusion?

The question comes up frequently as our scenes develop, and our communities try and find ways to discuss the work we’re doing. There have been attempts to re-name fusion and define is as a specific dance technique. There have also been a number of umbrellas applied to different approaches: Fusion as Fusion, Fusion as Philosophy, and Fusion as Aesthetic are three of the big ones. I subscribe to none of them… or rather, I do, but for me they’re not the answer to the question of “what is fusion?” and the subsequent question of “…and how do we teach it?”

Issues that arise in answering the question:

  1. The west coast tends to think it owns fusion, and that what’s happening on the west coast is what’s happening all over the country/world. This is not true. Folks who don’t travel to fusion events where a broad range of local fusion practices are represented make sweeping generalizations about what is “happening” in fusion, and ignore the very present and very valid approaches of other fusion scenes.
  2. Fusion gets a whole lot of shame and dismissal from other dance communities. I remember vividly standing in an airport this year while around me blues dancers performed a hideous parody of “fusion” to general laughter and agreement. The broader dance community is unwilling to recognize fusion as a unique and identifiable form of expertise.
  3. Fusion is FULL of experts… but they’re often experts at specific things that are not fusion. Folks trying to define fusion are often bringing in their own standards of what is neutral, universal, most efficient etc., without acknowledging the cultural weightedness of those assumptions and how they are producing limits and exclusions on the dance floor and in the classroom.
  4. People are coming to fusion wanting to be experts in just fusion, without the investment in other dance techniques. Everyone wants this to be possible, but no one is sure of the best way to go about doing it respectfully, and in a way that produces good dancers.

So where am I coming from?

I’m originally a conservatoire-trained concert dancer. I have a professional career in ballet, contemporary and modern dance that I started concurrently with my entry into the social dance world. I started blues and swing when blues was more like fusion, but I also danced fusion as a separate practice. I’m a contact improviser. I’m a trained movement analyst. I’m getting a PhD in dance, specifically in the construction of discourse. I lecture on dance in university and conference settings and I teach dance technique in the same. I organize my local fusion scene and I teach and DJ at national-level social dance events. I publish academically about blues and fusion. I am a full-time professional dance geek.

To start answering the question “What is Fusion,” I first want to introduce you to a few other terms: dance techniques, dance forms, dance aesthetics, and dance styles. I’m going to use those terms slightly differently than you may have heard before.

Techniques: physical, internally motivated ways of doing things. Techniques cluster together as…

Forms: recognizable collections of culturally connected techniques. Forms are often recognizable through their…

Aesthetics: externally recognizable traits of a dance form. Not the same as technique (see below). Individual practitioners of a form may use a combination of technique and aesthetics to produce…

Style: an individual or communal way of practicing a collection of techniques, or a dance form. Consistent enough to be recognized over a period of time.

The difference between aesthetic and technique… ok, here is where some blues dancers start to raise their hackles and get bitey, but bear with me. When Brenda Dixon Gottschild began writing about Africanist Aesthetics she was identifying features that could and should be recognized from outside the black dance community – visible things. When we teach the blues aesthetic in dance classrooms what (I sincerely hope) we are teaching are the internal, physical techniques required to produce that aesthetic. I know there’s a ton of classist and standardizing baggage around the term “technique,” and it makes sense to use an in-community word, but I am using the word here in a specific context to distinguish two important ways of doing. In other words:

You can recognize this as the aesthetic of ballet….

index

But this is the aesthetic produced by technique…

drama-swan-lake-1-tkhunt

….and this, plus ideology, is why I do not think fusion is an aesthetic.

Ideology?

In an abstract, ideological sense, fusion has no limits as to the kinds of dance it can produce. This is where Fusion as Philosophy comes in. In practice, fusion absolutely does have cultural norms and limits, which take into account the safety, comfort, and assumed background of everyone at the dance. At least 80% of the dancing is done on two feet, for example. So I say that the ideology of fusion – the ideals that shape and guide it – are different from the facts of its practice.

Returning to my point, I’d say that different scenes have different fusion aesthetics, produced by local pools of forms and techniques influencing the dancing. But fusion as a whole does not have/is not an aesthetic.

So what is fusion?

Fusion is not a dance form because of the way we treat techniques. Individual fusion dancers pull in a range of techniques from a huge variety of extant social and concert dance forms. I said that dance forms were clusters of techniques that are culturally connected – to history, to music, to a given population. Fusion does not really meet any of those criteria. Individuals share their techniques and add them to the local or national pool, but there’s no expectation of technical common ground when we go to dance with each other.

Ah hah! You’re talking about fusion as fusion!

Well… kinda. I do believe that for a dance to be fusion there need to be at least two dance forms meeting within the dance, but those two forms could meet in one solo performance. They could have been encountered only as techniques taught in fusion classes. They might be expressed between the partnership and the music, rather than between the partners themselves. I don’t think that it’s impossible to dance fusion as the only dance you do, which sets me out of alignment with the center of the fusion as fusion argument. It becomes clearer when I start talking about teaching fusion.

I believe that there are two strands to teaching fusion, and that both must be present for scenes to be successful: we must teach dance techniques (n.b. NOT forms, although I’m hugely in support of teaching the histories and cultures of those techniques as we share them), and we must teach methods of collaboration and combination. My current favourite analogy is to compare fusion to painting: we have to put colours on our palette, and we have to develop skills in applying them to a canvas in order to make art. A solo dancer with blue and red can still dance purple. A partnership may share green, or may come to it as a collaboration of blue and yellow if they have the skills to do so… or they can dance blue and yellow as distinct and separate colours, together.

The techniques of combination and collaboration across difference are the expertise of fusion. There are no fusion techniques, although there are dance forms that contribute our primary colours: blues, contact improvisation, tango etc. Individuals and local communities develop different fusion aesthetics because of the different colours offered to the palette, and because we by no means agree on how combination and collaboration should best take place – brushes, finger-painting, abstract splatters etc.

Wrapped all together, what does this mean? For me, fusion is a dance style: an individual or communal way of practicing a collection of techniques, or dance forms. Consistent enough to be recognized over a period of time. At its heart fusion is an individual practice that we choose, as a community, to do together. It is a shared exploration of technique, form, and aesthetic wherein we use the physical inspiration of others – dancers, DJs, videos – to develop a style that we can call our own. As we teach fusion, we are offering dancers the tools to continue that exploration for themselves, and to paint new designs and details in their own bright colours.

Fusion as style.

 

Thanks for reading!

The (Dancing) Body Politic

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?

This morning I woke up to a post from the New York Times about Tango dancing in non-metropolitan areas as a wonderful way to come together, listen and be vulnerable in a non-political space.

Wait… what?

In the academic world in which I circulate, dance is ALWAYS political. There’s the argument that dance is political because it is a reflection of the political environment in which it was created. There’s the argument that the medium of dance is the human body, and that the human body is the place where political power is enacted. There are goodness knows how many examples of dance being used to control, pacify, protest, claim space, comment, and otherwise act politically – and just in case you think I’m only talking about vernacular dance let me offer you two examples from ballet: that the entire repertoire of the Paris Opéra was changed in light of the French Revolution so as to reflect new attitudes to the aristocracy; and that the famous Fairy Variations in Sleeping Beauty used to be about the gifts of a powerful leader, before people got uncomfortable with women in charge and re-wrote the choreography and libretto to be about gifting grace and beauty instead.

Going down another trajectory, dance has to be political because it is not universal. Each dance has a unique trajectory through history, geography, class, race, gender etc. For many dances, Tango included, that trajectory shifts radically when it comes into contact with white American popular culture. That’s where things get sticky, and the word “should” gets really, really loud.

Should dance be about the politics of its past?

Should dancers have to learn about the culture dances come from?

Should people be codifying certain types of dance?

Should certain dances be closed off – or open to – certain kinds of people?

Who should be allowed to answer these questions?

The answers, of course, are staggeringly complex, and highly divisive. Often there’s a feeling that political awareness must be balanced by freedom of consumption, but the tip of the scales varies hugely based on who’s currently loading each side. The need for safety vs the need for escapism. The need for just having fun vs the need for cultural respect. The need for autonomy vs the need to welcome a diverse community. These decisions cannot be made in a bubble devoid of a world in which some people have more power than others… and we come back round again to why dance is always political.

A point brought up in the article is the need for a space where people don’t have to discus politics. Where they can share physical space, regardless of who voted for whom. What the author appears not to have noticed is that the politics is always there, even without the discussion. Here are some ways in which politics shows up very obviously for me, personally, in a dance space:

Is there a bathroom that will accommodate my gender?

What happens when I ask women to dance?

What happens if I offer men the choice to follow?

Am I expected to dance with one partner or to rotate between many?

Does the population who will dance with me or ask me to dance vary according to how I am dressed and what role I take?

Where do I stand during class?

Is there a class?

…. I could go on.

Yes, many of these things are tied to my gender identity. An identity that the government has recently stripped of protected status. An identity that on the basis of which I can be denied housing, medical care, food, and employment. An identity that could be a legal defense if someone kills me. An identity that people find so abhorrent that they have proposed bills advocating for legalizing my execution… bills which already exist in a number of countries. I do not often sit and write out those facts, but the thought of putting my body in a dance partnership with someone who voted (passively or actively) for those conditions does not seem like a fair price to pay for fostering peace between us. Where I dance with my body is always political.

For some people, that’s not always perceived to be the case. I would argue that in the same way that atheism is a religious position, calling anything a-political is a political action. I would rather discus in what ways politics is acting, who is being affected and in what ways, and how politics shapes the way dances are happening than pretend that nothing political is happening. I would rather find ways for politics to be embraced and discussed than have the existence of the space dependent on covering up that conversation. I’ll admit that letting politics dance in under the radar can be a great way to change minds… or to protest without getting maced and arrested… but again, stealth politics is still politics, even if it takes advantage of the fact that people want to pretend it isn’t.

In conclusion: it is your decision whether or not you want to dance Tango – or anything else – with Trump voters. I am not going to place any more weighty shoulds into the conversation around dance politics. I am going to keep dancing, and to keep using how I dance, and where, and with whom, to be politically active in the world, and to keep having conversations about how that works. I hope you’ll keep joining me for them.

 

My Comfort or Your Culture: Close Embrace and Code Switching

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

 

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

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

Ok.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And.

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

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

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

So.

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

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

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

BUT

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

Preservation, Politics, and Power: Re-doing in the Blues Dance Community

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.

 

Social Dance In Three Roles

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

Organizing/volunteering

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

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

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

DJ-ing

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

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

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

 

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

 

Happy dancing!

 

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

 

The Hardest Thing In the World

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?