In modern Lindy Hop, most people’s entrance into the community is through a class. I think perhaps Back In The Day, you just got out on the floor and learned ‘in the wild’. But Nowadays, instructors rule our world.
Good and bad, right? I think having instructors as the leaders gives Lindy Hop an attitude of constant learning and sharing. Education is at the root of our gatherings so frequently. (Think how often classes are involved in events and weekends.) I think the more we learn how to dance, the better language/tools we have to dance awesome and collaborate.
But on the other hand, with so much influence and power in the hands of instructors – they are the faces and the voices of how to dance, how to act, how to look - they can perpetuate a lot of negative things, maybe codifying a certain technique as Correct when it could essentially be a fad, or propagating harmful stereotypes about dancers or style. (This is why Sarah Breck took so much heat for her comments about high heels – she has clout as a travelling performer and teacher and there was an expectation that her advice would be of higher quality than many people thought it was.)
Also consider the monopoly teachers have on our world. The same people who are teaching at an event are also judging the competitions.
I’ve watched dance classes with eyes on the instruction for many years and my impression is that many of the teachers don’t seem to acknowledge the incredible influence they have on their students in terms of attitude and community initiation. Or perhaps they do understand their influence, but not how their words and actions affect their students.
From a 30 minute pre-dance crash course, to Masters classes at major events, our dance teachers are teaching us more than moves. By their example and their language they teach their students how to relate to Lindy Hop and to each other.
For most Lindy Hoppers, an instructor has at least for some time served as a role-model. I think it begins with admiration of their dancing, but it can easily carry over to behavior, fashion, attitudes about the purpose of Lindy Hop, and how their gender is performed in the swing scene’s context.
Other than just being a dancer, my identity in this dance (and in life) is as a facilitator and teacher. I have been teaching locally in Iowa and Nebraska for about 7 years and I love it and want to do more. I acknowlege and embrace my special role as gatekeeper to the community. I want to be the one to show people how amazing Lindy Hop is, and how they can and should make their own path, and be the best person/dancer they can be here. I want women and men to know that they don’t have to conform to a single way of gender performance; I want them to know that Lindy Hop is for everyone.
So the central issue of my discussion: How do teachers treat negative stereotypes of gender in Lindy Hop? What unhealthy attitudes could they normalizing about social dancing, our community and the way men and women ought to behave?
At the most basic level, an instructors’ words can normalize the idea that women are automatically follows and men are automatically leads. ”All men stand over here, women over there.” “Ladies, I want to see good footwork!” ”Lead like the men you are! With purpose! Conviction!” An instructor can make a very different impression if they remove gendered definitions for their dancers. Just stick to ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ and give the dancer the freedom to define their own gender. Our dance roles might be binary, but our gender isn’t. Start right away in that beginner class – when asking students to divide up for footwork, use our lead/follow vocabulary. And allow people to choose their own partners for those first couple minutes – they’ll partner in the way that’s most comfortable and natural to them.
Something wild to try could be letting the students try both sides during the course of the lesson. It’s not so much a problem of instruction (how to teach both sides?) but of people-moving and organization (how do accomplish my goals with these space and time challenges?). Logistically, we’re not at all used to that format in the very formulaic classes we see, but c’mon – we’re creative and flexible dancers. I think we can figure something out.
On a more serious line of discussion, I’ve heard some really rotten things said to beginners, apparently with the intention to lighten the mood, or simply a concept. Not only do I see instructors frequently gender their instruction, they sexualize it, normalizing a very hetero and inequitable relationship of dance partners to each other.
That sad explanation of leading and following along the lines of, “Gentlemen, you are the leads in this dance! Finally, you’re in change of something in your relationship.” And everyone laughs nervously.
Or when discussion were that hand on the back goes, or how to avoid the ‘Accidental Boob Grap’ how it becomes about men having to tip-toe around the women lest they get slapped and labeled as a creeper. There are MUCH better reasons we hold the back where we do, and for the follow to turn to face the lead on the swing out – connection! And that reason is frankly a thousand times more useful than a stupid joke about sex and stereotypes. (EDIT: And I must add as per Dog Possum’s recent post about sexual abuse on the dance floor, these jokes don’t actually raise any awareness of advocating for your own boundaries and dignity – they make inappropriate contact a joke.)
What’s so frustrating is that in many of these examples, I know that the instructor is probably just making a joke and they don’t really perceive their partners or themselves that way. (Or maybe they do?) But what they don’t realize is that their students are taking it all in. They are in an unfamiliar environment and they really really want to fit in. They want to do everything right, they want to know how to behave and they’re going to look to their instructors for clues about what’s expected and appropriate in this community. The students do, on some level, take these jokes for serious.
Dance content for leads always seems to contain the elements of the analytic ‘male’ mind – very technique driven – it’s about what you do, it’s about the content. Follow instruction is typically more ‘soft’ in that the technique is less concrete, if any technique is discussed at all. The role of the follow in class is often to ‘not think’, as so many teachers describe following especially in beginner classes.
Following is extremely technical as I’ve experienced it – Lindy Hop is a very technical dance. Even in a beginner class we could start introducing the typically female experience of following as a deep, active experience. Talk to them about adapting their footwork clearly, about matching and activating points of connection, how to turn and keep your balance. But instead so much of what I see all the way through all the skill levels is an emphasis on how follows should look. Recently at Hawkeye Swing Fest back in April, they scheduled a class that was one whole hour of how Nina Gilkenson swivels. Attendance was maxed out. In the same block of time? The Leads were invited to Everything Leads Need to Know with Andy Reid, a class that talked about connection, rhythm, line and composing movements. Ass-shaking for the ladies. Learning to dance for the men. (From what I hear, the swivel class was a pretty candid self-assessment by Nina – ‘I belly dance, so my swivels are affected by the muscles and techniques I take from that. That’s my influence. That’s my body. So let’s do some of that.’) (Did not get a low-down account of Andy’s class.) What concerns me isn’t what Nina and Andy chose to do in their classes (because the class schedule is often lined up by event organizers), it concerns me that these two classes were set opposite each other as equal.
The primary content for follows should not be formulaic variations, their primary mode of contribution should not simply be the open part of a swing-out. They participate in every moment – we should teach about every moment. We should teach them how to add their creative input and contribute equally to the dance.
Don’t make swivels a sexual performance for the lead to watch, as a reward for all their hard work coming up with all the moves. Please, please, please. That is weird as hell. I hear that said in classes all the time and I’m aghast. Please don’t say that stuff. Don’t make follows for that.
Using words like ‘hijack’ and ‘backleading’ give the impression that a follow’s initiations are destructively disruptive when they really aren’t. We should treat follow moves exactly like lead moves and do our best to include them as frequently as possible.
Who Is Teaching
Almost always, the teachers for a dance class are a male lead and a female follow. This does make an impression. This does show students that women progress to excel only as follows and males progress to excel only as leads. It’s not wrong for a women to become an excellent dedicated follow, but the status quo sort of… begets more of that. Without alternate examples of role-models it can be more difficult for new dancers to see that the other options out there really are viable. That’s why all the dancers in this YouTube playlist are so cool – it shows people rocking hard in the ‘other’ role. Shows it can be done and be all badass.
This is also why I was so stoked to see what was called the Leading Ladies workshop in Seattle Washington. Rebecca DecaVita and Kelly Porter – two accomplished female leads – invited women in the area to come learn to lead Lindy Hop.
I think me and Dog Possom were on some strange extra-universe wavelenth. Just as I’ve been working through writing this post, Possum comes up with a great article about Sexual Abuse in the dance community and has a paragraph on this very topic I’m addressing.
Dance classes are important. Dance classes are a key point in the socialising of new dancers. How do the male lead and female follower model appropriate behaviour on and off the dance floor? Who does most of the talking in class? Who interrupts who, and how often, and how? Who makes the jokes? Who’s the butt of the joke? What type of jokes are they? Is there sexualised talk or joking? What sort of language do teachers use to refer to gender or to leading and following? What analogies do they use? How do they dress? How old are they? What are their relative ages? Where are they teaching? What material are they teaching? Who are the dancers they mention?
I especially like the part that mentions what other dancers they reference. We hear a lot about Al Minns, Leon James, Frankie Manning, Dean Collins, but we hear significantly less about the mothers of our dance. Luckily Bobby White and Dog Possum are setting us straight!
I don’t want this post to be so much of a You Are All Bad Stoppit as a We Can Do Great Things For Students Of Lindy Hop. We can make class more valuable and build a more accessible, welcoming community by looking at the role of instructors in our scene and using their powers for good. We don’t want our instructors to fall back on the traditional dance teacher models we might take from ballroom dancing or Olden Times, formats and ideals that make light of important issue, ignore the diversity of our dancing population, and ultimately give new dancers the wrong idea.
We want our instructors to see the influence they have and be creative and purposeful with how they teach and how they behave in a class situation.Tagged with: feminism • Lindy Hop