Our culture is white? Is it not just “normal”?
Most of us agree that Lindy and swing are Black art forms — yes, I have heard debates on this and read too many articles claiming it to be “American” along with jazz. But, when you hear “American”, I’d bet it’s not my family you think of — and yet when one looks at “the scene”, it’s clear the majority is white. Although most Lindy Hop dancers know that there is a lack of diversity issue in the scene, it’s always funny to me the reasons people come up for this gap.
”We are too nerdy for them”
”Black people don’t like jazz anymore”
“They are too cool for us”
”These dances are too old”
”They don’t live here”
The one thought no one ever gets to -– without help — is that it is the communities’ willful ignorance, at best, and at worst, outright hostility, that keeps people away. Y’all do know Blerds (Black Nerds) exist, right? Many church functions and households still play jazz. I’m willing to bet there is a Black jazz fest in your area, or the Black festival features it.
Although many Black folks don’t idealize the past — we will come back to that — some like history, just dancing, or are looking for a way to meet new people. Just like white dancers. It seems obvious but honestly, the hoops that are jumped through to avoid realising; (1) we are not strange and impossible to understand foreigners and (2) the common factor in Black dancers not joining, or staying, in the Lindy scene is the community itself.
Ironically, the majority of us who have stayed, stayed despite the scene, not because of it. Those of us with high thresholds for discomfort or a deep love of the dance/music that goes beyond the swing community are the ones that stay – assuming we don’t get chased off in time.
So, why have we been having the wrong conversation, and what’s so bad that there isn’t much retention of Black folk? That’s what this part of the series is about. Let’s break down some bias!
Notice, in the above excuses of why Black people don’t join the community long term, the language was always “othering”. As if we are the weird ones who won’t stay. This othering makes it hard to really see us, and this issue is older than all of us.
In the second part, I went over a lot of the history that got the scene to the point that it is at right now. One important thing we have inherited is the erasure of Black values in the dance and those who do it. Although overt and intentional in the past, I don’t think many people are doing so now. Instead, we take the viewpoint we are accustomed to and assume that it is the reality for everyone. That the values we have are the “right and just” ones and anything else is deviant.
A line I say every so often is that Black culture isn’t a deviant version of white culture — and yes, white people, you have a culture. I have to live in it, it’s real. It is its own fully-realized set of values, beliefs, and ideas. Ones that in many ways directly conflict with Black culture; which naturally creates some issues. It’s just, that in white-dominated spaces, that were never Black, it’s even harder to notice for the average white person. It’s not culture but the way it’s done. Then we, Black folk and other minorities, quietly adjust.
When is the right time to be at a meeting that is at 10?
Most white folks, WASPS, and formal cultures will say something akin to 15 minutes early or “if you are on time, you are late”
Whereas black culture, as well as many others, run on CPT, or other variations of timeliness.
Now, I’ve had people bristle at me about this. They say it’s disrespectful to be anything but early, that you use that time to get settled in, that it’s the right way, and that being “on time” is important. And they are right, in cultures that care about that. What Black culture loses in our less strict sense of time is not a lot. Our culture doesn’t collapse because our meetings start 10 minutes late. Instead, we value interpersonal connection more. Small talk can be an hour in and of itself, meanwhile, work only takes 15 minutes. Not only is it just as effective but feels more humanizing and community-focused. To me, one doesn’t show up early because it’s rude at best and at worst you get put to work. Having such strict timing seems stifling, forced, and stressful. Unfortunately, though, Black folks don’t often have the power to request our timing from white folk so we have to shift the best we can.
Another way of looking at this is:
Is the reckless driver a good one, or is everyone around them forced to be a defensive one, making them feel like a good driver?
This little experience with time is a small (but not minor) example of how having a limited perspective can shape how two people feel about one simple thing. Take this issue, expand it, and we have a part of why many Black people don’t feel like joining or staying. Not, that you are nerdy, or that we don’t like jazz.
There are a few key areas I want to talk about in this piece.
I wrote a post about this many years ago that you can read here, but I think I have better ways of talking about it now, if I’m honest. A great place this 2020 – ugh, I know – but as 2019 came to an end, I was very vocal about a concern that people would say things that boiled down to “let’s go back to the 20s”. That many of the New Years’ Eve parties would be Gatsby-themed, and be romanticizing the time. Memes went around talking about the “good ol days”, wishing they lived during the “Lindy heyday”, and people mentioning feeling like they were born in the wrong era.
I sat there irritable for weeks, feeling like a killjoy. Having to remind my network that these words don’t mean the same to all of us was unpleasant. Many Black folks don’t romanticize the past because, even with the struggles of today, it’s better than the past. Those who do like vintage as an idea, typically follow the idea that I first heard from the historical costuming community, “vintage clothing, not vintage values”. But our history with vintage doesn’t come from that perspective but from the “swingers”. The folks who were more focused on rebelling and having a good time by going “back to the good days”. Which then was adopted by the 90s dancers and has since then taken a life of its own.
There is a lot of social and professional capital around being able to dress in vintage fashion. Yet, for many of us, it’s inaccessible or at least complicated. Many true vintage clothing items that exist today weren’t made for Black bodies, nor were they trends that we celebrate. Meaning there isn’t a good way for many of us to get dances, win competitions, and get hired. Although it’s not the only factor in this, it marks us as outsiders. At the same time, most of the Black folk that do participate in the vintage style have to go outside of the community for support, representation, and assistance.
There is a deep hurting humiliation of everyone getting dressed, and doing hair and makeup together, only for your friends to look at you sheepishly because you can’t participate. To see people excited about certain brands and looks, and realize, that those clothes are only made for the ideal white body type and no one else. Yet, it’s not as though Black communities don’t offer these things. Although less common, there are Black people into vintage, and yet I have never seen those vendors, or services available and supported.
Then people assume that it’s something other than a complicated issue and lack of support that stops Black folks from participating in this way. Which long term only contributes both to a simmering resentment and also feelings of exclusion. But one only needs to look at primarily Black communities – a great foil to the Lindy community is Steppin’ – to see not only the culture around dress for us but also what it looks like to be in a community where the “uniform” was inclusive of our bodies and ideals.
In white America, everyone acts as if they don’t know how to care for Black bodies. If I can recall that you need sunscreen and remind you so you don’t burn, you can learn about the needs of our bodies.
One of the many things that people should be more aware of – particularly in a “post” – BLM time is the importance of representation. It’s only been in the last few years that Black bodies have entered centre stage of the Lindy Hop community. Even then, a significant part of that was through the work of Black folks and Black groups. Without them, I doubt we’d have much in terms of representation. Today there is a weird dissonance between the overflowing love of Frankie Manning and yet watching elders not get danced with. To see that it’s mainly those who look the closest to white ideals that are celebrated.
But Black people and Black bodies aren’t a monolith, nor do our bodies follow the same exact needs and styles as white bodies.
From taking photos in too dark environments, making assumptions about weight and physical ability, and assuming if we aren’t in the “uniform” that we are the help (particularly those who aren’t fitting into the “Black Lindy Hop dancer” stereotype ), all contribute to a feeling of being unseen and not cared for. But unfortunately, it doesn’t end there and the list is long. The dual objectification and threat of Black men in the scene; particularly if they aren’t… nerdy, queer coded, young, well-dressed, or already connected to the dance community. Then there is the flat out ignoring of Black women and the existence of Black queers in the community.
But then, the representation we have is a very specific type of Black person. Even still, those who DO fit the mold often have to hide parts of themselves to stay. One of the major things that were talked about in the past by white magazines and dancers around the time of the creation of swing dances was how they could be cleaned up. Black dancers were seen as “wild”, “amoral”, and “unstructured”. They mentioned how inappropriate it was, how it was something they thought would only appeal to Negros unless they made it better.
Most of us know about Arthur Murray, but it wasn’t just him. Even one particular step, ie The Jockey Step was created by white ballroom instructors specifically for white dancers at a festival. In time, these ideas and values took over how the white world looked at the dances and music, and the narrative shifted. It was *us* who were doing it “wrong” while the white values were the “right” and “proper” way. Today we have only continued down that path stifling what Black values remained to the point that acting or dancing with Black values is frowned upon.
When I’ve mentioned this in the past many white dancers get incredibly defensive. So let’s consider a minor thing:
When you joined the community did you clap on 2+4 or 1+3? Do you know why? Who taught you to clap on 2+4 — if you don’t already do this, I’m happy to be that person — and how awkward was it to switch? Have you ever been the single person in the room clapping on 2+4, quietly frustrated at a room clapping on 1+3 for not getting it, hoping to shift the tide with enough eye contact and loud enough claps? Recall how impossible it feels. At some point, you have to decide.
To stay, even if it feels weird, or to go.
Imagine this but about most things, including you, your body, and your culture. Particularly since this is a Black dance it feels doubly alienating and uncomfortable to be forced to code switch, knowing it doesn’t make as much sense.
Exactly. Then, but then we get to address something I hear often: Lindy Hop isn’t about politics.
It’s been said, “Lindy Hop isn’t about politics.” But one only has to look at any Black art to see that it is. It always is. And, for the foreseeable future always will be. Because so much of our lives are defined by and impacted by oppression.
“If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected – those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! – and listens to their testimony.” – James Baldwin
Still, the argument is that Lindy is a happy and pure dance and therefore can’t be associated with politics, or that a single Black person said it wasn’t. But, who says that being political inherently negates all joy? I’m sure talking about politics when it means you have to face the legacy from your ancestors — and it’s rarely good and nice — is an experience filled with guilt and shame that deters one from thinking of it as a positive. But, it is the past that is sad, while the future holds significantly more potential for many Black folk. Politics embodies that hope.
Then again, our arts are also always filled with duality. Finding joy, in hard times, is not only a major part of our culture but also in and of itself a political act.
This misunderstanding is why our scene is not the legacy of the Savoy — which all considering wasn’t that interracial – but that of the 40s or the 50s Rock-a-billy Sock Hops, an idealized white vision of “the good ol days” just… ignoring that it wasn’t good for all of us. But, by the 50s, swing and jazz had lost its’ politics, as they became whitewashed, while Black political action and arts existed elsewhere. To understand Black arts is to understand the Black struggle and without it, all that remains is a shell of its former self.
If you are going to participate in our arts and culture the least one could do is care about our rights and lives.
“Lindy Hop isn’t about sex”
“Lindy Hop is pure and wholesome”
“Lindy dancers don’t do drugs”
“It’s a dance between a man and a woman”
Lindy Hop (and most Black dances) were made by teens and young adults. without WASP values. Even if you wish to pretend they weren’t making out and sleeping together, drinking and doing drugs, the music and writings of the past tell a VERY different story. And unlike their white counterparts, Black youth aren’t as repressed and quiet about it. There were even accounts of same-gender couples (typically women leading women), prior to the war, only by the 50s the image of swing to be strictly heteronormative. (except during the war where images of women dancing with women is seen as a statement about sexism rather than the norm originally)
We often focus on the stories of the dancers who were considered elite dancers but not what the average person did, and that’s important. Like today instructors and performers have a very different relationship with the dance than more casual dancers. So for most people imagining that everyone took it so seriously and strove to innovate is just not realistic.
Our culture is passionate. We are bold and lively. Our culture around sex and consent has different strengths and issues. Distinctly though, in general, it’s not demonized. There is a reason for the “club on Saturday: church on Sunday” saying. We understand that being chaste/nonsexual/nonsensual isn’t a moral positive. Moreover, these things are a part of the experience of life. Naturally, these aspects of Black life showed up in the dance and events. We didn’t go from rent parties to “good clean fun”, by white standards, once the music shifted to jazz.
The venues that did dissuade certain behaviours, did so either to stay out of trouble or out of respectability politics. The fact that these things were enforced implies it wouldn’t have been that way if left alone.
To be Black in this scene is to most likely be moderately to extremely uncomfortable, just by walking in the door, let alone interacting with people. The scene and the dance have taken on so many white values that many of us are torn between embracing our heritage and legacy and feeling alienated. It’s so pervasive that many don’t know swing dances are Black, and attempting to convince Black others to join is an awkward affair.
“Please join me in doing an amazing dance we inherited but; you won’t fit in, the music will sound off, you’ll be encouraged to dance and “act” white, and if you decide you want to be in leadership you are likely won’t get there. Unless you happen to be thin, light, pretty, academically inclined/nerdy, and quiet…. Then maybe after being passed over for years.”
Then there is also the normal racism to deal with.
See, it’s a hard thing to sell.
Most of us regularly question if it’s more than we want to deal with and stay, while even more phase out. This is why so many of us get an exasperated look when the conversation eventually turns back to, “How do we get more Black people into swing” or when we start hearing the sorts of things this piece opened with. This is missing the point.
The only way these issues can go unseen is to not see them from our perspective. You can not divorce these dances and this music from their culture without destroying them, or distorting them until they are no longer recognizable nor functioning the same. Blackness matters and no amount of colorblind treatment will change that. If there is to be a real conversation around race in Lindy Hop, there also must be one around who really owns this dance and who is a guest participating in it. And by that, I mean whose values will shape the dance and those who do it, moving forward.
Everyone is welcome to participate, but that doesn’t change the fact that Black people own the dance, and the values that went into its formation can not be tossed aside. They are an intrinsic part of the dance and its music, not an optional addition. If that statement makes you uncomfortable, I think it’s important to reflect on why not being able to own a thing is so hard. If it’s because one Black person said it’s ok, I’d also look at why you feel they speak for all of us and can give away our heritage.
People have been breaking the rules for a long time without having taken the time to learn them. Attempting to innovate blindly, indiscriminately tossing things or sharing superficially, without knowing the importance of what was/is being lost. I’m not saying you shouldn’t share the love of swing, stop dancing, or anything like that. I’m saying, it’s time to look at if you love this dance or just the (white) idea of it. If not from a moral standpoint wouldn’t you want to dive deeper into what makes this dance amazing, by learning about the values that created it? You may even find some of the issues the scene has suddenly disappear once we aren’t placing while values on a Black dance.
On that note, that’s the end of this part, and I hope you check out the previous and upcoming pieces as we continue to explore Blackness and Swing.
In the next part, I’ll be discussing celebrity, deification, and why blind love of the past can hurt people today.
Want to read the next part? It’s out now!