Blackness in African American Partner Dances Done by Predominantly White Communities
Today there was a post made about some of the feelings that black dancers have within the blues community. That post, which if you haven’t seen it, was a call-to- action, this, isn’t.
Although it’s through the toska blog, This is me, Cierra speaking on my experience as a black dancer doing black dances in white community.
I’ve been dancing for 5 years (excuses a few years of being essentially disabled) and I like many of us, started with swing. I was terrified but one of the things that kept me coming back was the music and a tie to my “adoptive” grandfather. Not emotionally past his death even many years later, I found solace in being able to listen to the music we often did around the house. The old tunes reminded me of a time and relationship that was dear to me. As scared of dancing as I was, (I was teased as a kid about not being able to dance) it was comforting to be able to hear the music (swing, blues and jazz, and soul) that filled a favorite section of my life. I had spent more of my life in white schools, not going to church, not going to black salons and now I was in college feeling so disconnected my own culture. The music took me back, to a time with elders and community, with joy and singing in the home, with God and hope, with black pride that didn’t rely on removing myself from the larger american culture, and most importantly to my grandfather. I felt so inspired I created a playlist in his honor. (it’s still on my spotify) It felt like I was finding buried treasure with each song. (this has totally shaped my DJing BTW) Each song was a tiny shard of the person/culture missing from my life.
I became obsessed. Within a few months I fell in love with blues, which was always my favorite of the musical styles, was watching videos of dancers and found although i loved all videos the one’s with the right songs and movement inspired me way more. Then I went to the SHOUT website. And I saw video of this cool as black dude in a suit talking about how the dance was started with us. He was talking about what the dance was and all these things I didn’t understand. I watched all of his videos and was like I GET IT!!! I gotta learn this! I was determined to go but couldn’t afford it. I needled a friend into going to an event called Summertime blues in Columbia south carolina in 2012(?) At the first dance I found myself having fun but confused. Some people danced different than expected and everyone assumed I knew what I was doing. I was just trying to dance to the music. The next day there were classes, taught Mike the girl and Dan Rosenthal. I took all that I could and still found myself dancing more often with black and minority dancers. They got something that the others didn’t. The dance could be sexy and it meant nothing outside the dance. The musicality was different. I felt more emotionally connected to them. Them and Dan all listened and expressed in a way I admired and LOVED the songs I did and sat out the songs that didn’t remind me of my grandfather.
Still SHOUT seemed like a magical place and all other events had to be just like it. 6 months later I found out that swing was a black dance and spent most of my time either watching videos and trying to find old videos of dancers. As my swing club played more Muse and “shut up and let me go” I found myself drawn to the jazz bar in town and searching out live bands. I loved dancing to the Jazz music and was even more excited when black folk in the audience would come up and be so excited to see a young black person dancing to this music. When black band members would chat me up on breaks, appreciating my aesthetic and not understanding others. I would feel so proud and seen and excited to be preserving part of our culture. My presence would get older black couples to dance and I’d watch in awe and their simple dances always made more sense.
As I got more involved in the swing scene I found myself having… problems. Locally the music never changed. It was music I didn’t understand (rockabilly) and people kept saying “you can swing to anything!” I avoided theme nights and prefered swings songs that gave me that same feeling I craved. I liked trying to be cool with footwork and stuff and wasn’t excited about just being able to dance faster. I always messed up my dances because I tried too much. I thought if I traveled it would help, but I wasn’t asked to dance. The women around me were all sporting a pretty 1920s -50s look that I couldn’t achieve because I was black. Those girls were asked to dance WAY more than me. They had clothes I couldn’t afford so people would assume I didn’t belong. I started feeling more and more shunned by the swing scene and more like a stranger even though I knew the swing songs better than most.
Feeling more and more alienated as a person and a dancer left me with a sour taste in my mouth when Lindy dancers would vaguely talk of the blackness of the dance like it was irrelevant. “well, we’ve been doing it longer… it’s ours now” It felt like people were saying the culture that made me didn’t matter. That my relationship with the music and the dances I shared with my grandfather weren’t respected. As if I wasn’t standing right there. The more I read into the history, the more upset I got. My final straw was trying to do a project to teach dance to inner city youths. I applied for the Frankie Manning ambassador program feeling a little odd about it. It feels weirdly fetish-y for frankie and the program. But I was excited to have this show of faith and the encouragement to stay. I got in, but was asked the same weekend as event I had already promised my students. I asked if a different event was available and if not I’d go there instead. Was told there was and never heard back. I never ended up working with them, and I decided the current culture around lindy hop is not welcoming to folks like me. I am still deeply saddened by this as I still feel remorse about leaving a dance I loved but will not fight to be ok interacting with my own culture. So I focused on blues when I moved to denver. I joined a team and found myself in the community that had inspired me so much the summer before. When I came back though…. The cracks started to show. Many of my role models and peers had limited knowledge on black culture or the history behind this dance. I was constantly in discussions over what is blues music. If it was just slow sad music. And that you could “do anything” to it. No one dressed up and I found out that was a cultural thing. People still didn’t hear the music the way I did. Many folks cared they cared about the history but knew none of it. They said they like black people but constantly gave me weird compliments “lookin bootylicious”, touching my hair, men commented on my curves and starred in a way I found disrespectful. I had to work hard to “be given space” to have a voice in the dance. People said they didn’t like black music but loved the dance. They told me blues is everyone’s music and I was ruining people’s fun.
All the bands were white, all the teachers were and the few black folk I saw left early and never returned. I always understood. After feeling like my peers weren’t really motivated to learn a thing about me, my culture and heritage and yet were teachers (saying inaccurate and offensive information) I found myself steps away from quitting blues too. Then I finally made it to SHOUT and it wasn’t the dreamland I thought it would be. The music was jazzy and again I felt weirdly left out, was not asked to dance most of the time. I asked and did some dancing but it wasn’t what I thought it would be. The best part was the black folks meeting. We all got together, somewhat unintentionally, to joke and chat and realized there were more Koreans than us. After that weekend I found my fire again and was determined to force culture back into the dance. We started Toska within months.
I went to MHB in the summer and had so many poor racial interactions I rage quit and went home fuming. I found a history class offensive. I hated feeling like because I was the only black one in the room that folks would judge its merit based on me. I always feel this pressure to be the representative. A person attempted to comfort me by arguing with my reason for taking offense and making it about them. Moments before screaming in the faces of white folks. More little uncomfortable things happened. I went outside to cry. Later I watched a solo competition where everyone looked the same and did the same exact movements and timing. To me missing the point. It wasn’t to say they aren’t talented, clearly they were, but I just didn’t get it. It was everything my culture disagrees with and yet the room went wild, I was alternate and as I watched I realized that’s what was valued, and I, was not that. As the room erupted I walked home full of rage at 3am.
I spent the next month's fighting my inner demons, fighting to be taken seriously, fighting for Toska to feel like home, fighting with folks online, furious. I found myself becoming enraged that events have no way for non middle class to attend events. I resented having to not eat and volunteer to even TRY to make events where I didn’t feel super welcome or respected. Enough time passes and Vartan convinces me to go with him to Mo’ better blues. I had sorta gotten my health together and decided to compete. I did well and so suddenly I found myself going from nothing to being on a pedestal. People wanted to meet me and dance and talked about how natural it all looked for me. Suddenly I was the black expert. People want my view on things but it felt like me the black person, not me the dancer. But I saw no behavior changes. As I started traveling I found myself more and more speaking about my experiences and excited because I love culture and frustrated it had become my job and all people wanted to talk about.
I found solace in the minorities and that I wasn’t the only one that experienced this. We all felt weird. Felt like we were being praised and watched as dancers because we were black. We felt the difference between a dancer who ‘got it’ and who didn’t. We could talk about the things we have had to let go over the years and all the ways we felt like outsiders. Being with them felt like home on a strange planet. It’s been months and this feeling hasn’t eased up.
Then the discussion around the contest name came up. The issue is it came up right as a video with black lindy hoppers was released* and although I wasn’t sure I agree with everything it said, it was great to see that conversation starting. Some of us started talking about it and then lindy/blues community blew up around the comp issue. I’ve never been against people advocating for themselves but it was a weird moment when the black community watched a fresh issue be taken up, passionately defended and changed within a week. With so much upheaval, an important moment in lindy hop was missed. WE as a group had been trying to get people to care for years and myself for years. But I saw that if it has to do with my gender or sexuality the scene will support me but they care nothing about my black ass. Or at least not the black part of me.
I felt betrayed and once again unseen. I couldn’t stop seeing the lack of color. The lack of trying. The lack of the values we preach showing up in areas like competitions and who gets on teaching staff. I feel it at events who play non blues music. I feel it where there is a lack on my black peers and mentors. I feel so excited to meet new minorities because they, at least get it and care. It gets better because I surround myself with people that get it. I deepen my own understanding to keep hold of my legacy. To get to know myself better and to share in a thing bigger than myself. This isn’t to say I don’t feel cared about, I do. As a person. Or clearly I wouldn’t be here. But when you disrespect the dances by not taking them seriously and ignoring the culture behind it It feels personal. This isn’t even counting the ways white american culture has affected the dance and our expectations. And how…. not comfortable I feel interacting with those things, because I’ll be a “bad guy” vs just raised with other values and assumptions. I’ve lived my whole life in white culture just once I wish white folk would learn about mine.
Peace, and Love,