мужчина: on men and dancing
prolegomena to me thinking I'm clever: I originally sent out drafts of this article under the name "malchik", Russian for "boy", and decided when it was done to call it мужчина(moozh-SHIH-nah) which is Russian for man, and then realized no one would know the joke unless I explained it.
side note 2: Cierra totally predicted this turn of events and that shows just how clever I'm not
I’m writing this long overdue blog post partly out of a necessity of needing to explain an idea I’m working on(a men only blues dance workshop), and partly because of larger issues that have swirled in my head since I started dancing myself and honestly long before. I want to explore what I see as damaging limitations men are socialized with and how and why those can be broken in the dance world, especially because they were and continue to be broken down in my own personal life.
For those who have never read me before, I’ll warn you, I use hyperbole, and broad generalizations, and swear words, and am not overly careful with what I’m going to lump together. My writing is an arrow seeking a target, if I say something like “men do this”, and you’re a man who doesn’t do that, it doesn’t fucking apply to you, trust me.
This Shit I Can’t Stand
Here’s a short and incomplete but I think powerful list of terrible habits I want to break in myself and other guys I meet(some of this stuff only applies to straight dudes, I realize that):
Unwillingness to express emotions, whether by literally showing those emotions in a way others can see, or denying those emotions exist in your private mental life
Fear of pursuing interests because of how you will be judged by women and especially other men, or society at large
Disconnection from your own body and sensuality, seeing it as a giant tool or machine you pilot, rather than something that can move in different ways, that has permission to be sexy or sensual or beautiful.Feeling and being attractive don’t only belong to women, and vanity in moderation is totally ok
Unwillingness to engage men in genuine and open friendship, and unwillingness to separate what you actually want from women(those you want to be friends with, those you only want to be sexual with, mixture of the two)
Not engaging in art for the sake of art but rather viewing all labors as brute and mechanical.
General fear and skittishness in the way they move through the world(which ironically can result in a weird paternalistic condescension towards others in their lives)*
*here’s a great video of Patrice O’Neal explaining this peculiar love of self-hatred in white culture:
While a lot of what I’m saying may be countered with “you’re only talking about white cis American straight dudes”, I write on the theory of throwing things out that either will resonate or won’t. If none of this is familiar to you, then it’s going to be boring, I admit that.
What Does This Have To Do With Dancing?
Whether it’s a symptom or a cause, there is something in the dance world that I can’t stand that I need to comment on, and that is dancers who don’t actually dance, but rather just move around.
This is a two-fold problem, one is mechanical: viewing the dance as nothing more than a series of movements that have to be executed at the proper time, and more alarmingly, it’s a philosophical male conditioning. That conditioning is one that in my lifetime and study I’ve distilled into this: men don’t live their lives for their own sake and their own will. In dance and outside, all of their lives are lived with two massive inhibitions:
Everything I do as a man has to be “useful”, and useful is usually defined as getting me closer sex, money, or status
Everything I do as a man is done under the shadow of the expectations of others, most especially fathers and societies definitions of masculinity at large
The first problem(mechanization of male movement), creates just aesthetically displeasing dancing. This is the difference between something real, and a simulacrum. If you’ll permit me some gratuitous analogies: it’s like the difference between two people having sex vs two actors doing hardcore pornography. It’s a fluent conversation between native speakers vs someone translating texts with several dictionaries. It’s Van Gogh compared to Kincaid. It sucks.
The second problem is bigger and more important in scope, and it’s really my primary concern, because it also attacks the first problem. Now, the problem I’m particularly concerned about is how and why men specifically do it in this scene, because I’m a straight dude raised in this American culture, that’s what I care about, that’s what I know, that’s what I’m going to speak on*.
*side note on why I’m kinda weird: my own background in culture is slightly unique though to be honest. In Armenian culture being loudly emotive and musical are prized masculine traits, I grew up around men who expressed themselves, danced, highly valued singing and playing musical instruments, and who looked at women to actually run households. This has some obvious parallels in black culture(not to mention things like respect for elders, punishment and finance being controlled by women, etc etc) but don’t mistake me for saying it’s the SAME, but it gives me some unique outlooks in my own expression and how I view manhood and femininity.
(pictured: my peoples displaying their trademark subtly and restraint)
But first let’s take a slight turn back to the original topic, since this is a blues blog after all.
What is Leading in Blues?
Essentially this boils down to idea that lead and follow dynamics in blues are representative of black American values, and specifically black expectations of male and female gender roles. Now don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying leading is a thing for black men only, or men only, I’m saying black male values shaped the lead role and black female values shaped the follow role. So two things to remember:
*Anyone can step into that role as long as they can be willing to try to step into those values*
Learning from black male values can be valuable for men in white culture regardless of lead/follow at all, just like black female gender dynamics can be impactful to someone socialized female who never follows at all
Those values are difficult especially for our men because in a lot of ways they are the inverse of the traditional white American male ideal…this motherfucker
He’s a study oak, he is square, his suits are all muted, neutral colors, sharp, clean lines. He hides his emotions, he moves like a solid block, and even his over the top sex life and scandalous past is hidden, he never acts in a way that betrays his inner life. He is the exact opposite of the type of black male that is popular in his community:
Look at this dude, he oozes sexuality, he moves, he wears a style that is unique and loud. He is musical, openly sexy, ostentatious. He is an extreme example, obviously, just like Don Draper is the extreme caricature of a subtler truth.
But they both demonstrate this point:
In black culture, being a man means, among other things: being in touch with your body and it’s movements, being artistic(singing, dancing, playing instruments), and displaying emotion and passion.
In white culture, the masculine ideal is stoic, he is not artistic, expressive, emotional, or in touch with his body. He is a essentially a robot. The things his body are allowed to do is labor, violence, and fucking.
(another side note: I’m not saying the black American male is the antidote to all male problems, they obviously are susceptible to a lot of the concerns I’ve raised and have unique problems within their own culture too. I’m saying adopting any set of unique values can solve and illuminate many problems, even if by no means is it all of them)
The reason our men don’t dance is because dancing is not their value, so much so that even our male dancers find ways not to dance, they turn the dance into something clinical, technical, a means to an end, they move around their follow(or let themselves be moved and nothing else if they are following), but they don’t dance their own bodies.
*side note: how many times are solo finals and prelims pretty much entirely female? Have you noticed our only successful male solo dancers are almost never white? Have you noticed how our non-white men are much more stylish, expressive, and comfortable in open and breakaway positions? Have you noticed men are less likely in large numbers to pursue dance seriously? Have you noticed how even our blues dancers find ways to dance blues in a way that looks like American ballroom/American tango?)
Now I’m not saying that we can solve all the problems of masculinity that I outlined if white dudes were simply better at dancing within the black aesthetic. However, I think the serious and emphatic exploration of these different values can open up some very important and powerful new worlds to men who have lived under this social conditioning. These values don’t fix everything but they demand a connection to artistic and emotional expression, a connection to the physical body, a connection to dancing for oneself and for music rather than to please others, and give us new ways to define what we want and like about ourselves.
What I’m Trying To Do
My mission is pretty simple, I want to see people dance, and because to me the value of this dance for the community as it currently is largely in that it forces us to try on new values, to explore something unfamiliar, and to become better artists, not just better movement specialists. For those that don’t agree with me on this, we must part ways, I care about men and I care about the aesthetic, and if you don’t, so be it. For me, I want to teach these values to the men in the scene, to care about their dancing as an art, to unlock their bodies, to be expressive and emotional and passionate.
What I want and what I don’t see is men dancing and living their lives for themselves, first and foremost. I find time and time again that men cannot break from the attitude of dancing to show a woman a good time, to display their skills, to win competitions or prove themselves, rather than doing it for the love of doing it. I want to teach men that they can have an existence that is not contingent on *doing labor for others or winning status*.
I want to host workshops and events that promote this mindset, I want to show this in my own dancing and glorify those who show it in theirs. This is by no means the entire scope of the problems we face, or the problems men face.
I candidly also think lack of dancing is a problem that seeps into every area in our community at large, but it has different causes, and I’m not about to set here and tell women how to deal with problems of female socialization(that may be Cierra’s job)
I want an initial, flagship event to be a workshop only for men, where male dancers I admire will teach these values and try to re-align what men dance for, and what they look for in dancing. I believe it has to be a men’s only space because I’ve participated in men’s groups and they’ve given me a tremendous amount of useful tools and amazing experiences. I want more community leaders to start men's groups in their scenes on a regular basis.
For those that don’t want, or understand male spaces, I’m not going to debate them or defend them with you, this is an invitation to the guys who want to work on this with only other men around. An invitation to learn how to dance, how to express the music through solo dancing, leading, and following as well.
(cw: Chappelle discusses rape and sexual violence against men)
I’ve heard it said by a lot of people that they feel the scene is hostile, openly or implicitly, to men. While there is truth to this, I want to make a larger point from my own perspective as a pessimistic existentialist: the truth of the matter is the whole world is going to be hostile to you if you decide to become a real person and beak the expectations that you are raised with. This is the dangerous path I believe is worth walking, because in the end we’re spending way too much time making ourselves miserable for people we don’t like who don’t care anyway.
*this is actually a quote from Rudyard Kipling, but Nietzsche repeatedly expressing similar thoughts and both dudes are badass anyway.
Q: Are you equating maleness to leading, and leading to pretending to be a black male?
NO, I’m equating leading in blues to a certain value set that was informed by black culture’s expectations of black men; the role itself is open to anyone who wants to shape the direction and rotation of a dance while inhabiting the values I outlined. It’s not about being a man or pretending to dance like what you think a black man dances like. My focus on men is simply because I’m a guy myself, and leading will come up a lot simply because most of the leads in this scene are men and the problems are very related.
Q: Is your workshop about making men better people?
Not exactly, while my overall mission is to help men become better and more fully actualized human beings, the workshops I want to run are about becoming dancers. To me becoming a good dancer means exploring issues that are philosophical and emotional, however I don’t think it’s possible with my resources to have some sort of massive, total existential spiritual retreat to make guys more like Patrick Stewart.
Q: Are you saying everyone in the scene sucks?
Obviously not, the scene itself is going through a transition of what it values(hear anything about aesthetics recently?) My only point is that lead/follow is not expressing the actual values of this dance and that’s why it looks wrong, *when* it looks wrong. When it’s amazing, I celebrate it, and I’m not here to list all the dancers I think are doing it right or wrong.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish then?
Philosophically I want men to dance for the sake of loving to dance, by connecting to the music and their bodies. Not to turn it purely into a sport, or a way of making their partner do something or feel a certain way. This is especially a problem I see with men and leading, they think their job is to make a woman feel good and find them sexy.
Practically speaking I want them to enjoy the movement in themselves, in solo dance, to dance more in breakaway and open and push their partners, not just use their partners as weighted props they move around. I want them to give a shit, to find the emotional connection that will hopefully inspire them to want to be better technical dancers as well, and inspire them to explore different aspects of their personalities and become more fully actualized human beings(remember, just because I want this doesn’t mean that will be the focus of the workshop, the focus would be the dancing because I think that can get them on the path, but a betterment retreat is beyond the scope of what I or a workshop can accomplish)
Q: If I become a better guy, will I get laid more?
Q: Who the fuck are you to say any of this shit?
You got me there.