Welcome to Let’s Talk About Lindy Hop And Blackness, a seven-part series discussing race, specifically Blackness in the Lindy Hop community. Over the last few years, there has been a slow increase in discussions about being Black in the swing dance community. Yet, there has also been a lot of pushback around talking about racism in the community. Worse still, there has been limited action taken to do anything about it. In big and small ways, we haven’t really impacted the Black experience beyond discussing it. With the BLM gaining more “mainstream” — aka white— awareness and a wider-spread acceptance that, “Oh no! Racism is real,” only now has the community has really started to seriously look at this problem.
This series is for dancers around the world who have questions about racism in the community, how it shows up, and how it affects the Black members of the community. Most importantly, it’s here to prompt thoughtfulness and give ideas on how this community can be more respectful and welcoming to the people this heritage and legacy belong to. This is for people who want guidance on how to extend that to outside the dance community.
This first article, White Lindy Actions and Black Lindy Realities, will focus on the current state of things. I sent out a questionnaire to members of the African diaspora who are swing dancers, and some folks got back to me. For various cultural and safety reasons we often don’t speak up on our experiences bluntly. I think one of the reasons this issue remains in the community is a lack of trust and awareness around what it’s like to be Black in the community. Here are some quotes from your fellow dancers about their experiences.*
“I feel disconnected from what I feel like is a cultural inheritance. I feel such a longing for learning it and dancing it, especially at larger events, but I honestly feel like the current community doesn’t want to hold space for me or want me there and I don’t have the energy to fight my way into ANOTHER space in white America. ” – Black, 30
“I seriously doubt that I will ever travel outside of the [REDACTED] (which is where I am based out of) to dance. The classes at the events are always worth it, but not the mental toll. I have left numerous large-scale events with my head down in tears because I was passed over or denied dances after asking. Traveling to events no longer seems worth it. ” – Black American, 36
“I stopped dancing because I didn’t feel valued or welcome. I also didn’t like how the white scene leaders were obsessed with their white-washed view of history and were forcing the joyous improvisation of lindy hop into a ballroom-type syllabus that ignored the cultural history of the dance.” – Black American, 42
“I have stopped since arriving in [NON-USA LOCATION]. I felt the group wasn’t very welcoming, not even the tutors felt warm. I almost felt like I was “bothering” [them]. ” – Mixed 34
For myself, a few painful experiences drove me to leave the swing community and shift towards the blues community. I started dance in college, and it quickly became a way for me to overcome my traumatic history and connect with my heritage. I’d spent most of my life in white spaces and comfortable enough until these little uncomfortable interactions built up over time. The music only sometimes felt right. Jokes I had gotten tired of in middle school were common. People talked about “being born in the wrong time.” to my discomfort. I can only hear so many jokes about weave, tanning to my skin tone, how terrible contemporary black music was, blending into the dark, twerking, and more. I’d say specifics but it was so constant that they blended together.
I was able to dance less often than my white friends. Booths and services didn’t know how to cater to Black bodies. There was no representation for bodies like mine in promo material or leadership. I won’t mention any of the downright rude comments.
I learned other dance styles. Explored how swing dances had been innovated upon in Black culture into other styles (Bop, Steppin, hip hop, etc). I wanted to play around with those styles and dive into the movements that swing came out of. As I went deeper into Blackness and Black expression I found myself being asked to dance less and less, despite being a better dancer. I started feeling alienated. The community moved towards vintage looks (and values), structure, and speed as markers of competency, recreation over innovation, and didn’t follow through on the help and the values I was told about.
I had decided to seriously pursue teaching. I was applying to certain opportunities (which felt rather fetishistic), only to receive a scholarship and have it rescinded because I was traveling with my students to a different event. I was told that vintage style was taken into consideration in competitions, a style I both could not afford nor was interested in. I tried to work with a group that works with kids, both as a teacher and executive assistant and ended up cleaning a home while Black face played on a tv. I found out if I wasn’t being included in “secret” parties and drinking that I would never have the connections needed to be taken seriously.
Not dancing, not fitting in, and regularly being told “the swing community is ours—White folks’—because at this point we’ve been doing it longer and so can do what we want with it” made dancing to stay connected to my grandfather near impossible. So I took a break for many years.
Imagine my devastation: the alienation – surrounded by people I cared about, and feeling utterly alone.
“When I moved to REDACTED and attended an East Coast swing event I had the door slammed in my face. And not accidentally. She thought I was a mugger. People were also reluctant to dance in a way I had never experienced before coming from REDACTED. Come to find out REDACTED is probably one of the least accepting places I’ve ever been in my life.” – Black, 30
“Did not directly affect me, but the community definitely has a kind of tokenism thing going on sometimes. Also, Black women tend to be avoided like it’s still segregation when they arrive at a dance whether social or an event. Unless they know someone well within the community they are traditionally avoided like the plague.” African American, 36-year-old
“I have often been in a situation where people do not take my input seriously. My creativity on the dance floor is often downgraded, ignored, or “made fun of.” Eg: when someone else is doing exactly the same move copied from me, it is an awesome move. But when I did it first, it had no swing and was too Latin or too Urban.” – Biracial, 47
“When I first started white guys would not dance with me or my other black friends.” – African American 50
Two major issues made me take a step back from the swing community for a few years. One was the feeling that the dance had lost its way a bit. I was too young of a dancer at the time to talk about why some dancers *felt* different. It just happened they were all Black or spent a lot of time in Black communities. At the same time, I’d listen to the music played, and the songs were often missing the hallmarks of Black music. The musicians, no matter how talented, played without “soul”. On paper everything was right but experientially, something felt off unless I was with people from the Black community. Around me, no one seemed to notice. When those values that I looked for could be felt, I’d overhear negative remarks or watch those dancers go ignored.
As a young dancer, it was hard to see the folks I wanted to dance most like continuously be snubbed. While everyone going through the right motions but with little of the soul were praised.
All of the instructors, all the musicians, all the leadership – all white. In a predominantly white community that is on some level to be expected. What stressed me out was seeing my elders at the fringes of these dances. Often dressed in the pure black or white cloth of the service industry, I saw peers, people who could be my parents and aunties, or worse, an elder, quietly serving this all-white community.
As is custom, I went out of my way to acknowledge them and their humanity in this… foreign environment. Asking after them it turned out they had a range of thoughts on the community. My peers often were curious, yet were worried that they wouldn’t be accepted. They didn’t want to have to code-switch (in this context, changing to a white style of communication) to fit in. They thought they had to dress or be a certain way to participate and that this community wouldn’t accept a Black person outside of a certain mold – one that they often were not. Even when I got some to dance, there was a lot of conflict between what they naturally wanted to do (be more adventurous rhythmically, follow as men, be loud and sing, etc.) and what was seen as usual in the community. Some stayed despite this, but many felt it was too much to overcome. My uncles and aunties were often less interested but supported me dancing. They’d watch between tasks, asking about movements, how I got into dancing, and about the dance. When they heard our history they were confused about why the demographics were this way.
It was seen as a “nerdy white” thing. These elders often pointed to dancers in the crowd, talking about how some of the dancers’ movements made sense but most didn’t. They asked me, “What are they listening to [in the music]?!” confused.They too same the disconnect between what most dancers were doing and then music. Much of the time they knew the history. In the polite way of their time, they’d say that they were happy it was still being practiced and yet narrow their eyes quietly at the changes. They asked where the Black musicians were? They wondered if my generation was just uninterested in these dances, yet were excited to see me and my peers dance. We’d talked about the legacy and heritage and they wished me well in preserving this part of our history. Sometimes we danced on their breaks or after a shift for a song or two.
It was as if I was claimed as “different” than them by the white participants. Sometimes I’d step in to help the workers lift or grab stuff. Later I’d be asked if I knew them or white folks would come by and interrupt to ask if I was ok. If I wasn’t interacting with them, the Black staff quietly served the white community unseen by most eyes. I hear many horror stories about the amount of trash and mess left by dancers, the lack of tipping, the outright racism, and feelings of being unseen and underappreciated.
Having worked in service and often traded work for entry into dances, I couldn’t help but think about how easy it would be for me to be treated in the same way. Once I was no longer under the protection of being “one of the good ones.” The affection and appreciation directed towards me was dependent on people knowing me, and me acting how the community wanted. I struggled to do it.
Even when I came back right before Covid, most nights ended with a list of disappointments. I texted my friends with messages along the lines of “*sigh* right, this is why I left.”
Is this news to you? When (if) you have attended or read previous discussions, what was your reaction? What were the reactions of your friends and your community? If you don’t remember, great case studies are the comment sections of Ellie’s article, my response from a few years ago, and my article on vintage. Even if you don’t remember how you responded, I sure as hell do.
Check out this video. Talented dancers are being brought into this climate. How long before they feel as sad and jaded as many of the adults? Or this one. If they were to visit a typical swing dance, what would their experience in the community be like? Do we want these kids to grow into adult dancers, and end up feeling like older black dancers do? Can you imagine telling your grandparent or parent that the hurt they feel at the hands of your friends is all in their heads? Or imagine telling your kids or siblings that it’s ok for them to be ignored or get the door slammed in their faces for going out dancing. When they ask for help, you say that it’s not that big of a deal, or that fun is more important than helping them. What if a sibling or a best friend came to you crying because they went out to go dancing and never danced, no services/products worked for them, they were followed suspiciously, and had been touched inappropriately all night? What would you do? What would you say?
I know it can be overwhelming to think about it. It’s easier to assume that the problem is isolated individuals. However, these accounts show that yes, individuals are a problem, but it’s also much bigger than that. It’s cultural and systemic. This series is about how pervasive this hostile culture and system is towards Black people and bodies, and what to do about it. I don’t want, and most others don’t want white guilt. No quick fix will address these issues. Immersing yourself in books or throwing money at the problem also won’t fix this in isolation. Nor will self-flagellation, denial, abandoning us, or allowing your discomfort to overshadow the reality that something needs to be done. How do you start? At the beginning.
*note: In the questionnaire, dancers were asked what terms they use to describe themselves as a part of the African Diaspora. The variety of labels are used to reflect the wide range of identities, and experiences, to remind readers that we are not a monolith.
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.