Blog » Guest Articles » Let’s Talk About Lindy Hop and Blackness – Part 6

Let’s Talk About Lindy Hop and Blackness – Part 6

February 17, 2024

Let’s Talk About Lindy Hop and Blackness – Part 6

February 17, 2024
Grey Armstrong

The Structures That Bind Us And Unseen Individual Participation

So far I’ve been talking a lot about how we got to this point and why it matters. What I haven’t addressed yet is how it keeps going. Why haven’t we moved beyond this yet? Well, in my eyes, it comes down to two important considerations that swirl into each other and make change an uphill battle.

Structural Problems And Our Individual Participation In These Structures

The reality is that often when people think of society’s wide issues we tend to focus only on the systems and structures. Although I think that is important it’s equally important to look at the fact that *people make systems*. You can do all the work to set up the rules and policies to make the change you want but without interpersonal changes they won’t necessarily stick. Technically, it’s illegal to discriminate in America but one quick look at who is at the top and who is at the bottom– in corporate America for instance –and it becomes clear that it’s still unequal.

At the end of the day, people have a lot of impact on systems and the success of high-level changes. Then again, boiling down all issues just into personal responsibility is also not viable. Interpersonal action isn’t enough.

So, we will look at how structures and individuals maintain the status quo in the Swing Dance community. These issues feed into each other but I want to look at interpersonal issues first as it deeply impacts what the structures look like.

Our Participation

“Race blindness” is a big issue in the Swing Dance community. Post Civil Rights Era, most white Americans were taught we lived in a post racial country. With that a lot of folks were/are under the impression that it not only is rude to acknowledge racial differences but to assume that everything is exactly the same between the cultures. This gives rise to a few issues; an unwillingness to acknowledge the continuation of racism both systemically and also individually,  a lack of tools to acknowledge and discuss race, and an incorrect assumption about what Black people and culture are like.

African dancer Issa Niang. Image from LIFE.com

Commonly, I get people assuming that Black culture is just a degenerate form of white culture. That we “know” the rules and expectations, and choose not to abide by them. This idea even exists outside of the US. International dancers often visit the US and never spend any time in Black spaces and assume they just like the white spaces. Many are even actively encouraged not to go to Black areas and venues for fear of “safety”. Some friends say it’s shocking how much “it feels like a country within a country” rather than a continuation of white America. 

When white people DO go into Black spaces they often chat with me about their nerves and confusion about what to expect, how certain situations played out, and being able to tell there are rules, they just don’t know them. Only for me to laugh at them and pause them to walk them through what I’d expect for them in that space beat by beat. They often stare at me surprised. “There ARE rules and systems you know. “ I say laughing. “ We know you don’t know the rules so there is no expectation for you to.”

Most white people don’t have a great understanding of cultural competency. By extension Non US visitors aren’t aware that this is a tool they should be applying while in the US. “Cultural competence — loosely defined as the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one’s own.” By assuming there are no differences  between cultures it hides the issues that exist to be miscast as issues of the individual, rather than the assumptive person being ignorant.

Areas of difference

Leadership

STRUCTURAL

A quick look at the majority of the leadership of the community, in everything from local level events through international ones, groups, music, and vendors there is a one thing that is clear. There is almost no Black representation.

Even the most well meaning people will make mistakes around cross cultural actions. We wouldn’t accept men speaking on women’s experiences and although their efforts may be well meant, wouldn’t it be easier to just ask a woman? How many straight cis people, who again mean well, have started marking bathrooms with “cheeky” jokes about how they don’t care who you are; many trans people would just love the bathroom sign to say bathroom, or show a picture of a toilet. What seems like a big and complicated issue may have a simpler answer if the people with those concerns were a part of the decision making process.

In the case of the Swing community, that means there should be Black people on staff and in power. This will not only bring new ideas and perspectives but also help more folks feel comfortable to stay. They will believe that they have hope in becoming professionals, and will get their needs addressed. Of course not every Black person will want to play this role and it’s important to not create issues of tokenism, but I’ll talk about  how  to do this in the next part.

For now it’s important to start looking at your teams and how to get lesser heard voices and opinions in the decision making room. It’s important to highlight Black people in more powerful roles and to assist in this access through mentorships.

INDIVIDUAL

It’s important to know that you have an effect in this too. Here are some questions for yourself (as a dancer, in general as a member, and including leadership):

  • Who do you look up to in the scene?
  • Who do you more easily listen to vs others?
  • When confronted with something you aren’t used to (a speaking style, communication style) do you judge that or push through that to hear what is being said?
  • Whose lectures do you attend over others?

You aren’t going to like all of leadership, Black or not, but if there is a trend of you avoiding, devaluing, or ignoring Black voices in favour of white voices, that’s an issue. It does affect the scene. Organisations are more likely to avoid unsupported people or it becomes an act of performance. As a person who happily does lectures and panels there is a major difference for me once I know, for example the timing of the lecture. A lunch lecture is a very different level of commitment, than a lecture that takes place during popular classes vs even a smaller time slot during a dance. Just based on this timing it gives me clues about how seriously this scene values me, the amount of people that will show up, and how comfortable I may be at the event.

Many of us who are more outspoken and active end up leaving scenes due to watching our hard work be dismissed by the community– both implied and actively –for White voices and “non controversial” Black voices. Disheartened they leave. Do you request and support those Black folks trying for leadership in your communities? Without action from both sides, the status quo will be maintained and the same folks and those who learned under them will continue to run everything.

Black pannel of judges at ILHC Europe 2022. Photo from ILHC Europe.

Events

STRUCTURAL

Events are expensive and difficult. Be that on the local level or the international level. Still the simple fact is that majority of events take place in primarily white areas. When there rarely is collaboration with Black people it’s invariably always a transactional relationship. As if by hiring a single Black person for one class (or set of classes) they will bring their whole community with them. That’s not how it works. Without building a connection with your local Black dancers, college students and community members it will be hard to diversify.

For some, price is a limiting factor, and it’s not uncommon to see many of the Black participants working as volunteers for the event. Because of that, and the state of the US, it’s not uncommon for Black dancers to be treated as the help, particularly at larger events or to be assumed to not dance. Or worse to see the staff of venues and services to be treated poorly. It puts a person off from wanting to come back. Those with the disposable income question why they’d want to pay money to be treated poorly.

What does the marketing of the event look like? If the only images of Black people you have are of the old pictures what do you think that communicates to us? What about Black faces in images that aren’t performances? If you have merch, have you considered various skin tones when you choose the look? I know lots of Black folks have opted out for this exact reason. Does your event, google page, ETC clearly communicate values that would encourage Black members to feel comfortable? IF you support BLM, say it. Are your minority instructors as advertised as everyone else, or do they have time slots, against the most popular white teachers.

INDIVIDUAL

What drives you to attend an event? What are you willing to give up in an event to potentially make it more comfortable and accessible to others? Would you support an event that highlights Black voices, experiences, or values, but might not have the highest production value or status symbols?

“Status symbols, Grey?”

 Yeah, you know the “rock star dancers”, the “famous band”, the brightest and shiniest venues? So much of running events is hedging your bets to see what people will come out for, and often that’s what is the blandest and proven. It’s just that what’s proven to work, isn’t inclusive. That means for events to take risks individuals have to put their money where their mouth is. Being willing to fold on the non essentials, try things that normally “aren’t for you” with enthusiasm, and embrace the efforts and newness are a big part of any shifts being able to be made at all.

When you still attend, for example, an event with instructors that the Black community is on a whole hurt by, it tells events that that behaviour is still financially safe to do. Do our feelings only matter when it’s convenient? Do you support and attend the classes of Black instructors and review them well? (Understanding that they may not teach in a way you are used to but is still valuable).

Community

STRUCTURAL

Currently the issue is one of “in group Vs out group”. 

Look at the shift in terms away from “Jack and Jill” to “Mix and Match”. A relatively minor shift in terms that was significantly easier to change to be massively supportive of the LGBT community, who overall is still seen as “in-group”. Although it created wide discussion for many it was settled quickly and with that, the community moved towards being more compassionate and inclusive. 

Problem is, quietly many Black folks were feeling bitter. Many Black LGBT people, like myself, felt torn between feeling cared about (even if it wasn’t a priority for many) and feeling unsupported in their Black experiences and attempts to better their experience.

Race based concerns just don’t seem as much of a priority which implies we are seen as a part of the  “out group”. Our struggles are deprioritised within the community.

Organisers and leadership have a greater control of the community and culture of a scene than they think. By choosing the things you want to support and value it can create a big impact on the experiences of minorities.

A community can’t appeal to everyone and at some point there must be a choice about who is catered to. With some events and participants being blind to the needs of the Black community, and in some cases outright hostile, it doesn’t exactly encourage Black people to stay or join. This alienation can range from minor things, like the name of something, to the support of a person causing harm to Black people.

Dancers having fun at The Old School 2022 – organized by CVFC

INDIVIDUAL

What do you do when you notice an unfamiliar Black person? We see you noticing us and let me tell you the stares and then being ignored is not very welcoming. We notice what you say about attempts at talking about race in the scene. We see the lack of interest in Black dancers. We see your friendships with people who have hurt us. At the same time the scene’s assumptions about what a member looks like is extremely limiting. For example, many white dancers are outright hostile to the idea of sports. Yet, many of the nerdiest of Black men also like Sports and martial arts. Many of us grew up with hip hop and rap, and I regularly hear about how many white people think its bad. But you can tell they never really gave it a chance.

Many Black men feel like they have to be a specific way to be seen as a non threat in the community. But, at the same time they are often objectified without recourse.

On the other hand, Black women have a specific struggle. Why are there few Black women in the scene? Many assume they just don’t care about swing.

Actually with a more well rounded look it becomes clear there are a few issues happening at once. Whether we want to admit it or not there is a certain amount of “beauty” privilege in the follow community. In this case beauty meaning body and personality expectations. How you look and present yourself can directly impact how often you get to dance.

If we look at the ”ideal” white woman, what comes to mind?

I see a medium height, pale, thin blonde, who presents “traditionally”, is submissive and not outspoken. Typically the closer one is to this ideal the more popular they are, and in a sea of follows this can be a boom in getting dances. 

Black women often are, in many ways, the antithesis to this ideal. Our women are strong, outspoken, passionate, curvy, and expect a different partnership dynamic. They present in bright colours, are comfortable with their own sexuality and are various shades of brown. 

Many Black women go a whole night not getting dances, being overlooked by less talented and newer “ideal” white women. With that, a bias is created and maintained. Tired of being overlooked, undervalued, disrespected and unrepresented in classes and leadership, many Black women who would  stay, leave the community for one that values them.

If we only look at blackness as a personal fault rather than a cultural difference it’s easy to look at these women leaving as disinterest, not alienation.

The way the community treats new and old Black dancers is extremely disheartening. I’ve watched people I deeply respect get talked down to, ignored, and their bodies objectified. I’ve seen the light go out of eyes as Black folks realise that only part of them are truly welcome in the scene. That the “love” that is given to them is only because they are known, as they watch the curious Black worker, be treated poorly and never come back. We do see the comments online of how you treat and talk to Black people (inside and out of the community) and many leave or don’t push because of it.

Why aren’t there more Black people? Because many don’t feel welcome.

Services

STRUCTURAL

There are many services that get hired to supplement the scene, be that teachers, judges, vendors, or musicians/Djs. These are all areas that help reinforce the status quo. Taking a hard look at how these services cater to–or don’t –Black people is important to consider. If teachers only teach in a white style and values, not only is it alienating but it warps the dance. Judges who look for white dance values will always be unfair towards Black competitors. (I’m glossing over this a bit since Part 4) Vendors are great, if they are accessible. Much of the time they only cater to white bodies and style. It’s not as if there are Black vendors or vendors who are more diverse. By having vendors who aren’t inclusive it can feel incredibly disheartening. 

Lastly there is music. If you can’t hear the difference between Black and non Black bands majority of the time, then I think you need to listen to more Black music. Having music that has these harder to define concepts and feeling in their music can not only deeply affect how comfortable someone is but also, the dance itself. Hiring bands and Djs who know what this sound is can invite a wider range of people and expression. Diversifying bands hired beyond the staples, or encouraging them to shift up their roster (if possible), or even scouting bands can have a HUGE impact. I’ve been to events where the band is technically good, but sounds… hollow. Only to step out of the room and finding a small gathering of the Black dancers of the event in the hall. This dance is Black with a long Black history, there are Black jazz festivals in many major cities, many bands *could* learn swing music if they already play jazz/funk/R&B. If your Dj can’t play mostly Black music, are they really the best ones to be picking the music your community is dancing to? Hold your musicians and Djs to a higher standard. You’ll get a more diverse crowd and white dancers may understand how the dance is meant to *feel* and move beyond rote memorization. 

INDIVIDUAL

Whether you are providing a service to the community or just accepting it, you have a lot more influence over what the community supports. If a vendor doesn’t do Black hair, should you go there, knowing an expectation of the community is to look good? Or, if the only nude tones are pale. Do you spend your money on Black owned vintage shops too? Do you suggest them to organisers as vendors for the community?

With the other services who you show up to see/support really matters and impacts things. Speak up when you notice issues. If a venue has been running for a long time and you’ve never seen more than one Black person on the band stand, there is a strong chance that the music could be a better fit. Even if it’s your favourite band expanding your musical palette beyond the bands everyone hires, can change your relationship to the dance. By having strict expectations it limits the bands/djs that can be hired to a narrow and typically white amount of people. Support teachers who teach culture embedded into their classes, who offer various styles of learning, and who embody the expressive dancing.

Last Thoughts

The choices we make as community organisers and as participants may feel as though they aren’t that big of a deal but they are. They contribute to the maintenance of the status quo. A status quo that needs to change and will take effort from the organisational side but also the individual side too. Changing the culture of the scene to be more inclusive, functional and respectful, is going to require a lot of work and some open-mindedness.

The next post is going to be on that specifically, What actions should we take to make this shift?

Grey Armstrong

Grey Armstrong is a writer and instructor of Black culture, history, and dance. His work focuses on unpacking unconscious bias, cross-cultural communication, in addition to culture formation. He also travels teaching African American vernacular dances and giving lectures on Black history and culture. He is the founder of the popular blog and website Obsidian Tea, which explores themes of the Black experience and culture, Anti-racism Praxis, developing cultural competency, and the evolving relationship between Black and white Americans in the United States from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade onwards. This style of work can be supported on his patreon.
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