In three sentences…. Derrida

Words mean different things to different people.

The relationship between words and the things they refer to is complicated.

Anything anyone says will have more than one meaning, and that’s ok.

 

 

 

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… it’s STILL not what you think…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not what you think…

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

 

SF Globe… you got it wrong.

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

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

SF Globe… you got it wrong.

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

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

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

But anyway.

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

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

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

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

Rock out Twyla.

 

The evolution of exotic birds

I am a dancer.  I am also an academic.  I am a curious wanna-be polymath who does quadratic equations in her spare time and helps run a podcast on aerospace medicine.  I’ve spent the last seven years working in disability provison, and the last two teaching in primary schools.  I swim, I bike, I go and look at beautiful things and I am a human being who defines themselves both in and outside of their professional sphere – just like all of you!

And yet…

I’m proud of being a dancer and I would’t do anything else.  In fact that’s how I decided to go to dance school in the first place: I looked at all my options and all my interests; where I seemed to get high marks; what might get me a decent job at the end of it all, and at the end of the day I stuck with the one thing I couldn’t NOT do.  Whatever else I might be doing, I never stop being a dancer.

And yet…

I know I am guilty of covering my dancing self.  To cover, as beautifully explained by Kenji Yoshino (http://www.kenjiyoshino.com/covering.htm) – is to downplay a disfavoured trait in order to blend itnto the mainstream.  Not that I believe dancing is disfavoured as such, but rather that it places you in a very specific box in the mind of non-dancers.  A fellow grad student put it perfectly when she refered to it as “exotic bird syndrome.” “Either you’re the Dancer, which means you have all kinds of special artistic/somatic insights, or you’re a dancer, which means you’re vulnerable, you can’t think, and you don’t know what to do in the real world.”  Usually I find it’s somewhat a combination of the two, and sometimes I downplay the dancer side of me just so I don’t have to explain my way out of that box.  That yes, I can go to grad school.  That yes, I do write, and read, and think.  That yes, it’s a career, and it’s just like your career except that I happen to like mine better.

Because if I tell them I’m a dancer then two questions down the line comes “So what IS contemporary dance? ….what does it look like?” And I just don’t know yet whether I’m invested enough in this stranger to get into that discussion.  (Readers, how do you deal with this?  Anyone got a great two-sentence definition you can hand out to the curious new aquaintance?)

And yet…

I’m so happy with the gifts that persuing dance has brought into my life.  I attend one of the best dance graduate programs in the united states, and it kind of appalls me when students from other programs don’t even know that we’re here!  Dancing has taken me to a plethora of countries that any gap year student would go green over, and has put me in touch with some of the most smart, generous, open-hearted, talented and beautiful individuals I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.  Dancing has given me the skills I’ve needed to organise projects, to communicate where no language existed, to do all kinds of generic jobs to bring the rent in month by month, to be a better friend to my friend and to greet each new day from a deep wellspring of joy.

And so…

New academic year, new leaf.  Here’s to throwing off the covers and dancing in the streets.  If I’m an exotic bird, then I need to adapt and evolve until I’m one of the more brilliant native species.  Here’s my pledge to be a better advocate for myself and the things in my life that truly matter – the things that I can’t not do.

And yet….