How Do We Do Better? Personal and Political Dilemmas

Premises the following assumes are true:

  • We live in a racist society – the systems this country uses are generally biased toward white people.
  • Race, while often signified by physical characteristics, is *not* an appreciable biological difference (e.g. black humans and white humans are all homo sapiens), but a socially formed idea that white people are better/more human/more powerful than other groups. It is a social concept that uses physical differences to assign social status to individuals.  If this is confusing, check out this excellent PBS page.
  • ALL of us, as products of our society, are a little bit racist.
  • Awareness of our biases helps individuals navigate interracial interactions and conversations, and provides a starting point for making things less racist.
  • Appropriation occurs when a piece of a culture is used for gain – monetary or otherwise – by people not of the original culture.

If you disagree with the above, the rest of this will probably not matter to you or not be relevant to your worldview – feel free to message me if you want to talk more about any of these points.

As a cisgender, heterosexual, middle class, able white woman, I have a lot of privilege – I don’t have to think about how I will be treated when I get pulled over, I can publicly display affection toward my romantic partners without fear of reprisal, I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll have money for food tomorrow, and a multitude of other things. I believe that with that privilege comes great responsibility. Call me an idealist and you would not be wrong. But that’s what I believe.

I am involved in both the blues dance and lindy hop communities, as they exist today in the US. These communities are made up of people. These people, whether they realize it or not, are products of American society, and thus are subject to the systems that have created racial inequality. These dances — specifically lindy hop and blues — were originally created by black people, and that is the dynamic that I’m going to mostly talk about. There are clearly other groups in the U.S. that have been historically oppressed, and I’m not discounting that, it is simply not the focus of this post.

The history of inequality as it pertains to black people in this country is horrific. A lot of it is not taught in high school history class, and I encourage you to do some research on post-slavery America between 1863 and 1965.  I am just now coming to really understand the way that those experiences echo down through the generations. If you are non-black, here’s a thought experiment for you. If you are black, you may want to skip the next paragraph.

Imagine, for a second, that your great-grandmother was the daughter of a slave. Chances are, she was not raised by her biological parents. Chances are, she witnessed horrible things happen to her loved ones. Chances are, she was treated as if she were subhuman for the majority of her life. Imagine her children, your grandparents, growing up under Jim Crow—not just being required to eat, drink, and generally live separate from whites, but getting arrested for looking at someone wrong or standing still for too long or being alone in public, seeing their friends and neighbors lynched, having crosses burned in their yard. Imagine their children, your parents, growing up under segregation. Being told where they can and cannot drink water, buy lunch, go to the movies, VOTE. Your parents.

My parents were born before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which officially made it illegal for polling places to discriminate based on race. That is not that long ago! My parents lived through that, can talk about it, experienced it. Not only that, but that is a *century* of disenfranchisement. A *century* of federal policy that did not adequately reflect the opinions and experiences of black citizens.

Now, consider, that this is the context out of which emerged Blues, Jazz, and countless other black art forms. Can you honestly say that knowing that context doesn’t influence your artistic choices? I can’t. Understanding that these art forms were in many ways a coping mechanism—a way to express and move through pain, suffering, and hardship—fundamentally changes the way that I think about them. To me, dancing to this music means acknowledging that history, acknowledging the incredibly difficult lives that many of these artists had, celebrating the fact that somehow they had the resilience, strength, and drive to create brand new art forms that would change our musical landscape forever.  

Yes, dance is fun. And a lot of the time, we dance for fun. But I think social dancers sometimes forget that they are creating art. Or dare I say, Art. And that Art has an incredibly rich, deep, painful history. Not only that, but the echoes of that history are still being played out today.

The dance communities that I am a part of (that you are also most likely a part of if you’re reading this), are majority white communities. The circumstances that created these communities were, again, shaped by the racist structures that are present in our society. Meaning that white people tend to have more time and money to take formalized dance lessons and go dancing for fun outside of family functions. More white people tend to have the resources (monetary and otherwise) to attend college, and thus, join a college dance club. As these communities have grown, more and more people (mostly white people) have made teaching these dances their livelihood, whether part time or full time. So we have a situation in which a lot of white people are making money off of art that was created by black people, and more often than not, not acknowledging those creators and that history. I am part of this. I make money teaching blues dance. And that situation is appropriative. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

That being said, there is concrete value in sharing these dances with people. Art changes everything. Giving more people the tools to express themselves adds value and meaning to their lives. Teaching these dances specifically, to me, is an opportunity to educate people about our history. It’s an opportunity to get people to think about racial justice as something that directly affects their lives.

So this is my dilemma, and something I think about on a weekly, if not daily basis. Is continuing to participate in, organize, and teach these dances, in this community, an ethically viable option for me? Is that doing more harm than good? Would not being involved at all make things better? 

If I decided to stop, and instead put that energy toward engaging with racial justice and politics, would that do more good than continuing? A big part of my brain thinks it would. And my heart hurts thinking about it because these dances, and this community are an enormous part of my life. Losing that would change everything.

If I continue to be a part of these communities, I will continue to include as much history, context, and honoring of the creators as I can. I will donate any money I make to racial justice organizations or use it to support black-owned businesses. I will stay uncomfortable. I will push myself to do more, to do it better, to stay accountable to the POC and old timers in my communities. This is my promise to myself, and to you.

At this point, I am continuously re-making the decision to continue. Someday I might make the decision to quit. But that day is not today.

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Community

Community has been on my mind lately, and I wanted to say a few things about the national blues dance scene. ***Sappy post alert, read on at your own risk***

I love this community. I love that it allows people to learn dance in the context of a genre that deals with all the ups and downs of life, and that it gives them an opportunity to connect to more parts of the rich and varied thing we call American culture. I am deeply appreciative of the amount of work that we, individually and collectively, put into this art form.

I love that our competitions are truly friendly. Feelings happen, but we deal with them, we get support & commiseration from our friends, and we move on. Not making finals is not a deal-breaker for belonging here, and I think that is so important. 

I love that we are having discussions around race, gender roles, and cultural appropriation. Even though they’re hard conversations, even though people get angry, and people get hurt, and people mess up, and apologizing is hard, and admitting you’re wrong is hard, and the internet is not the ideal place to have these conversations, I’m so glad we’re having them. To me, this is The Work. My impact on society at large is not going to be significant, but my—and *your*—impact on this community is much larger. The blues dance community is not very big! And because of that, every. single. person. here. matters. You matter. Your actions matter. Your words matter. Your help, no matter how big or how small, matters.

There are days that I have burn-out feelings. There are days that I wonder if we’re doing a Good Thing. And I know that we still have a long way to go on many fronts. But most days, the love, and kindness, and passion, and care that so many people show every day inspires me, and makes me happy to call this community my home, and my family.

Visioning: Or How to Be Awesome at Planning Events

At the very last Winter Blues, I taught a class for the Organizer Track called Visioning. Which sounds like some hippy-dippy nonsense, but was actually a primer on what types of events to plan and why. I’ve gotten a few nudges to turn it into a blog post, so here it is!

Organizers should always start with why. Why do you want to have an event? What gap are you trying to fill? What kind of event will fill that gap? Planning an event is really asking, then answering, a very long series of questions. This blog post is structured as a practical exercise. You can answer the questions for yourself, and your scene, as you go. Should you choose that approach, be as specific and concrete as possible in your answers.

In community development literature, visioning is actually a very specific process (my background is in Urban Planning and Community Development). It goes like this:

  1. Inventory: Where are we now?
  2. Trends: Where are we headed?
  3. Vision: Where do we want to be?
  4. Action plan: How do we get there?
  5. Implement & Monitor: Are we getting there?

This process can be used to advantage in a few different ways. If you are organizing a large, national-level event, you can use this process to hone in on what *your* event brings to the table.

If you’re a local organizer, you can think about your city’s scene as a whole, and get a big picture sense of where the scene is going and how to get there. If you’re one of several local organizers and you’re thinking about starting something new, this is a great way to determine whether there is space and demand for what you want to do.

So let’s do it.

Inventory

It is essential to recognize what you *already* have. Chances are, you have resources you tend to forget about. What are people already doing? What events are already established? Every little thing counts – list them. What about resources you have? Things like: that one person who’s really good at spreadsheets, the band you heard once and have been meaning to get in touch with, the new person who is super excited about getting involved, the physical spaces you have access to.

Trends

This often gets covered when doing Inventory. Given what’s already happening, without any new inputs, where is your scene (or the national scene) going? What will people get better at? What might naturally evolve from current activities?

Vision

The visioning stage has two parts, and it deserves lot of critical thought. Whether it is just you thinking about things, or it is a conversation you’re having with other people, take some time with this one.

Part one is the vision. This the fun part, but there’s also a lot of potential for becoming unfocused so STAY FOCUSED. Talk about 1 year goals, 3 year goals, 5 year goals. Be specific – where do you want your scene to go? If you’re thinking about a national event, what do you want to offer that doesn’t already exist?

Part two of this stage: Why? Why are the goals you picked important to you? What about to your scene members? Who would be into what you want to offer?  

Action Plan

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Now that you know what you want and *why* you want it, how can you get from where you are to where you want to be. Use your list of resources. Think in terms of your 1-, 3-, and 5- year goals, and think in terms of what is actually doable. Be as concrete as possible.

For larger events in particular, this is the point at which having concrete goals for your event becomes incredibly helpful. What are your goals for the event? What do you want people to get out of it? Who can you hire that will further those goals? Which types of venues will further those goals?

Implement & Monitor

Once you’ve got a plan for moving forward, put a check-in on your calendar 6 months or a year from now. When that rolls around, take a look at what’s changed. Do you have more or different resources? Have your priorities changed? Does that change your action plan?

For me, the best events are always the ones that have a clear, focused vision. bluesSHOUT!, Austin Blues Party, Sweet Molasses, and North Star Blues (what? I’m not biased) all come to mind; each has a specific focus and clear message that they send to the scene as a whole.

On a more local level, going through this process has helped me and my scene to a) not burn anyone out, b) keep tabs on what people *actually* want, and c) steadily grow our pool of intermediate dancers and our planning board.

If you went through this as an exercise, I’d love to hear what conclusions you came to! Put ‘em in the comments!

 

The True Value of Dance

Over the past year, I went from being a full time employee at a non-profit and doing dance on the side, to doing dance and part-time food delivery, to being a part-time admin at a software company in order to do more teaching and traveling for dance. Looking back on these transitions, and the financial implications of all of them, has had me thinking a lot about the relative perceived value of different kinds of work.

Body work, or work that involves the body outside of the medical field, is seen as relatively low value, despite it’s impact on physical and psychological well-being. “But Laney,” you say, “it’s not low value. People charge a lot of money for private lessons/teaching dance/massage/acupuncture/etc.” And you’re partially right – people charge a fairly high hourly rate for those types of things – up to and exceeding $100/hour, in some cases. The key there, however, is hourly. Many folks who provide these types of services do not come anywhere close to billing 40 hours per week. The closer one comes to doing work that is sanctioned by the western medicine behemoth, the more legitimate the work seems to mainstream society, and the more likely it is to provide an actual living.

Dance in general, social dance in particular, and street dances even more, are not viewed as valuable on a broad scale. There is, of course, a community of people that do value it, and spend many of their precious (and often scarce) extra dollars on dances, lessons, events, and performances. However, The Public does not see it as providing something that many people need and/or want.

Personally, dancing in general, social dancing particularly, and specifically blues and lindy hop are all incredibly valuable to me. They have given me a community. They add beauty and pleasure to my life. They also open me to *all* of life – blues music expresses so many things, and a lot of them are not pretty, or happy, or good. As I have become more educated about blues music and dancing, I have also become more concerned with social justice, and more engaged in issues that affect the whole country. There is much to be gained from dancing beyond the obvious of fun and meeting people – and I think those things are important and worth being spread.

There are a few currently running events that are doing the work of opening up our communities to the wider world – Boston Blend and Burque Blues Blowout are the ones that come to mind. Creating choreography and sharing amazing performances can serve this purpose as well. In Minnesota, we’re finally starting to work with the Blues (music) Society to collaborate on various projects.

What is your scene doing? What can you do?

2014 in Review

I just looked at my dance event log for this past year, and hot. damn. I went to a lot of stuff, folks! More than twice as many events as 2013, and that’s not even counting the ones I organized. Dang. It’s simultaneously gratifying and exhausting to look at that list.

The more I think about it, though, the more it makes sense. This year was the first year that I really felt like I was making enough money to travel as much as I wanted. And clearly, I wanted to travel *a lot*. Which makes me feel even better about recent decisions I’ve made for my life. Cue anticipatory music.

After much hemming, hawing, excuse-making, and general terror, I have finally admitted to myself that teaching dance is my dream job. In light of that, and after some pretty intense number crunching, 2015 will be the year of making that happen. Or at least getting it started. Ramping it up. You get the picture.

Which is incredibly exciting! I have so many things I want to do, events I want to go to, classes I want to take, classes I want to teach, and ideas for my local scene. I’m super stoked.

But did I mention the terror? Yeah, that hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s worse.

But it’s tempered by the freedom of finally knowing that I am committed to something that I love. I have wanted this for five years. Five. I’ve never wanted anything for that long. Beyond my family, I don’t think anything or anyone has remained such a huge part of my life for as long as dance has. So I’m giving myself three years. I’m keeping my job, for now, but I am going to try to go part time. And I’m giving myself permission to pursue dance 100% of the time that I am not at work. That permission? That’s huge. Even just in the past couple of weeks it has made a big impact on my productivity.

So in conclusion, 2014 was a big year, in many senses. And I’m going to make 2015 an even bigger one. Here’s to reckless confidence yall!

Gender in Lindy Hop and Blues

**This is another Facebook note that I posted in March 2011**

I recently attended the Heartland Swing Festival in Des Moines, Iowa. As part of this event, there was a team competition that raised some latent concerns of mine. Another part of this event was the Miss Heartland Swing competition. I want to make clear right from the start that I am in no way judging this event, its organizers, the women in the competition, or the teams involved. The combination of these two events just coalesced some of the thoughts I’ve been having about partner dance.

Briefly, my issue with the Miss Heartland contest was only that it was gender specific. I think it is a great promotional idea, and I loved the vintage feel it gave to the event. However, because it was female-specific, rather than being both pinup and beefcake (don’t google it unless you are prepared to see junk, non-scandalous examples below), it gave off the vibe of being more of a beauty pageant than anything else, which to me is objectifying and, frankly, sexist.

 

 

 

 

As far as the team competition goes, there were three separate routines that  all contained  segments in which the follows were depicted as puppets, ragdolls, or other objects controlled by the leads. Three teams independently going with the same chauvinist theme reveals how pervasive sexism is in U.S. culture in general, but also specifically in dances in which there is a lead/follow dynamic. This is a topic that I have been thinking about a lot, both in regards to lindy hop and blues dancing. While the best instructors of these dances use language that stresses the equality of the two roles, the fact that we live in a patriarchal society influences the way traditional gender roles map on to leading and following. My concern is that many in the swing and blues communities do not recognize the agency inherent in following or the flexibility and openness required for leading, which contributes to a continuing devaluation of the role of women in the dance, as well as a more restricted role for men. Sexism hurts everybody.

 

I realize that the dynamic today is probably much better than it has been in the past, especially since there were a number of women leading and men following at Heartland (outside of the same-gender strictly competition),  and I am increasingly seeing blog posts about queer-friendly scenes and  events. However, as a resident of the midwest, and a person who grew up in a rural area, I know how easy it is to just accept the status quo. I would like to challenge any and all who teach, organize, or are otherwise prominent in their scene to take a minute (or twenty, or an hour…you get the idea) to think about their conception of leading and following, how they talk about it, and how the two roles are expressed by others in the scene. In order to keep the dance scene on a track toward equality, we all need to think and talk about how gender roles fit into and are perpetuated by the structure of the dance.

 

I want to reiterate quickly that I absolutely loved Heartland, it was an extremely well-organized and well-run event, and I highly recommend it to anyone reading this. It just happened to be the place where all of these thoughts swirling around in my head came together.

 

I’d love to hear what other people think about this.

Musings on Dance and Race

**This is actually a Facebook note that I posted in April 2013, and resulted in the group Blackness, Whiteness, and Blues, which I moderate.**

Often when heading home from dance weekends I’ve had the sensation of returning to “the real world”. Lately, though, that sensation has weakened. Over the course of a couple of conversations this past weekend at bluesSHOUT! 2013, I realized that I have come to a point where I have accepted that this dance, and all of you, are my community and will be for the foreseeable future. And though it may not be mainstream, it is just as real as any other community. We make it real, through going to events, taking lessons from instructors who rely on dance as part of their livelihood (or all of it), and supporting the myriad musicians that make the music that is the foundation of these dances, be it lindy hop or blues.

For me, with that acceptance comes commitment and loyalty, and an increased desire to not only bring new people into the fold, but also to educate those who are already here. These dances did not just spring out of people’s heads twenty years ago, they have an historical basis. That history is sometimes uncomfortable, but it informs our idea of what Blues and Jazz are, and influences the way we interpret the music. There was a lot of terrible stuff that went down in American history and just learning about it makes us more conscious of where the majority of the people who wrote and performed this music were coming from, black or white.

I was absolutely ecstatic about the lecture classes available at bluesSHOUT! (one on how to be a local social dance historian, one on the legacy of minstrelsy in blues and blues dance) this year. I’ve thought a lot about the racial implications of our (largely white) dance scene(s), and I’m so glad such a prominent event is addressing those issues directly. Kelly Porter was an excellent lecturer, and I very much hope they bring her back next year.

My friend Anna and I were talking for a while about starting a blog or some other online discussion space specifically for conversations about the topic of race and dance, but never got anywhere with it. I’m now thinking of starting a Facebook group for it, moderated by a few choice people. Thoughts on that course of action and whether it’s needed/appropriate? Would all you intelligent people be interested in participating in something like that?

P.S. I tagged the first people who came to mind, please feel free to share with relevant parties.

When in doubt, move more!

If you’ve talked to me in person recently about anything remotely exercise-related, the ridiculous amount of love I have for my current gym has probably come up. I joined The Movement Minneapolis in October of last year, finally making a serious move on my long-term crush, strength training.

It started with wanting to re-frame what it meant for me to be and feel healthy, personally. I have gone through various ups and downs nutrition & exercise wise (as most of us do), tried Weight Watchers, tried to get into running, done yoga, and of course gone to a ton of dance classes, all with varying degrees of success. And I went from defining healthy as “10-20-30 pounds lighter” to “eats veggies at every meal” and “is active 3-4 times per week”. But the major changes came when two things happened – both inspired by Nerd Fitness. First, I started identifying myself as a healthy person. No, I’m not kidding. I have said to the mirror many a time, “I am a healthy person”. And weirdly, it helps.  But I also reinforce that with doing things that make me *feel* healthy. Like doing body weight exercises. Pushups, lunges, squats, under-table-inverted-rows, etc. It is super gratifying to see myself improve week by week – take note, TRACK EVERYTHING.  But more importantly, it made me feel good. Body weight exercises have the added satisfaction of being completely self-contained – if you can do one pull up (something I’m still working toward), you just hauled your own ass up over that bar. And that’s badass.

Eventually, I wanted more. More weight, more challenges, more variation. I set out looking for a gym and/or trainer, and that’s how I found The Movement. I’ve been training there for about nine months now, and I love it. Not that I haven’t had bad days – days that I *really* didn’t want to go to the gym, days that I ate super poorly and felt guilty, days that I ate super poorly and felt like it was the best choice I ever made, bad moods, sleep debt, yada yada yada. Those things happen. But there are a few things that keep me on track. My gym is pretty expensive, as gyms go, which keeps me motivated to get as much value out of my membership as possible. I have an accountability partner – in my case, a friend that I check in with daily, and we keep each other on track for various things.  And I have a routine. I am at the gym Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5:30 without fail, unless I am out of town. On weeks I am out of town on Friday evenings (because dance events), I usually try to squeeze in a workout Tuesday or Thursday night, or work out over the weekend. Partly because I don’t want to be mega-sore when I get back to the gym, but partly because – and I know everyone’s heard this a thousand times, but holy crap is it ever true – I’m happier when I work out regularly.

The other day, I went rock climbing for the second time in my life, and was unsurprisingly much better at it than the first time I went several years ago. And much like body weight exercises, it is extremely satisfying to get to the top, look down (or not, still not awesome with that height thing), and think “I just hauled my own ass up this very tall wall.” That thought gave me great joy. And more joy is one of my life goals. Which brings us back to the title of this post, and my own current daily mantra. When in doubt, move more. It fixes more than you think it will.