We can dance it

Which feminists fights in social dancing ?

For last year’s women’s rights day, I wrote an article about 6 things I can do daily to defend women’s rights while dancing (french), by making the dancefloor a more respectful and inclusive place for all.

This year, I’d like to present a list of initiatives, videos, books, article of inspiring people, who’s daily actions are helping to build better and more inclusive dance scenes (bal folk, swing, tango, latin dances…) and made me think about what it means to be a female ambidancer.

Further than just links and articles, I wished to organise my thoughts about the different causes in our dance communities and, if there is a feminist dance, what does it mean exactly ?

It appeared to me that to be a better person, dancer, teacher or organiser, it is necessary to reflect about our role in our tiny “under societies “ which react to the same problematics as the “normal” world but with extra dynamics  (physical contacts, artistic creation, regular incoming. ..)

By reading social medias, blogs and articles about different social dances, I found that we are all concerned about 3 main themes, sometimes crossing and melting in each other :

  • patriarchy, rape culture, sexist behaviours and gender roles assignations
  • Self-acceptance, body empowerment, respect for our partner’s body
  • Cultural and historical background of the social dance, cultural appropriation

Self acceptance and body empowerment

Body empowerment and self acceptance are two fundamentals principles of dancing. To respect our body and the other person’s body. A body it is sometimes difficult to empower, full of complexes.

Dance communities are usually the reflection of the outside world, full of prejudices : better be young, thin and white. Dance communities are a place where we meet people, and might even be seen a place of romantical encounters for some, especially for latin dances where the sexy dances and outfits can reinforce the idea of some people going there to seduce, even if they just want to be at ease

To be young, handsome, thin and sexy isn’t for everyone, and it’s a fight for everyone to take to include every types of human being into our communities.

I’ll let you listen to the inspiring TedX of the dancer and choreographer Amrita Hepi, who encourages people to be confident and comfortable in their body, no matter their gender, origin, age or corpulence.

It is also important to acknowledge that some people are discriminated because of their appearance, age or simply by not fitting the aesthetic of the dance (high heels in tango, swing clothes…). Grossophobia or old women’s invisibility is also an issue, not much talked about, but come up more and more often in the talks about invitation which exist in every dance community.

Dancer Amanda LaCount shows example

After all, everybody deserves to dance and to be invited. Because, why do we start dancing ? It is a conquest of ourselves, for our own body, the ability to move and to breath… And it’s beautifully said in the following video of the Ontario Arts Council, showing all types of passionate people.

Social construction and patriarchy

One of the most common subjects is the fight against patriarchy, involving movement #metoo, fighting against rape culture, and my favorite subject : gender roles.

Gender roles are an historic assumption meaning that in dance, a man should lead (firmly and manly) and a woman should follow (gracefully). That assumption is still strong these days in every dance scene, but more and more replaced by “what if I wanted to lead or follow when I want and it is normal ?”

this amazing vidéo “Dance Docs : Identidad” by Dance On promotes bachata free from gender roles and inclusion LGBT+ people in latin dance scenes

Of course, the idea is not that men have to know how to follow or women to lead, but a lot of thinking is in progress to know if :

  • Mastering both roles makes us better or confuse us
  • Learning both roles at the same time is an obstacle or an advantage in our development as dancers
  • Learning both roles from the start is inclusive or scary

As I see it, the first step to get rid of gender roles, is simply by opening people’s mind to the possibility of choosing. The delightful chronicle by Tanya Karen of The Social Dance Community is the perfect example, when she describes her experiment of asking every men to lead or follow in bachata. The answers she got shows there is still some work to do, but that you can make people evolve just with gentleness and a bit of humor .

When we speak about feminism, in dance or not, we are quickly referring to the #metoo movement that you can find in every dance scene. No, dance scenes are not a microcosm of ocytocine where everyone hugs, nice and harmless.

A lot of organisers are working on their scenes to make them safer, mostly by creating safer spaces and simply by creating codes of conducts.

It helps dealing with the rape culture, but these codes of conducts are also a great way to recall rules of politeness and basic hygiene which are a bit forgotten sometimes…

The tango blog les Pas Parfaits published very cute illustrations of their code of conducts, as a game “find the error”.

Illustration – les Pas Parfaits

Culture of the dance

What is the link between feminism and dance culture ? I personally think that we can’t consider our place as women or men in the dance, without thinking about our legitimacy as a person.

Can we be respectful of other dancers when we don’t know from where comes the dance we are practicing ? What meaning or belief are associated with it?

The story between women and dance is ancient.

The construction of femininity in dance (XVe-XVIIIe siècle) is the catalog of an exhibition organized by the French National Center of Dance. This book traces the perception of women in dance, from the end of the Middle Ages to the French Revolution..

It is, of course, full of morality, religion, social position, symbols, myths, group dances, and women’s bodies.

That story of social dance has shaped us, and if you look at the conference “Women: Dancing Body” animated by Béatrice Massin and Marina Nordera, scientific director of the exhibition “The construction of femininity in dance”, you’ll see that we come from far, but we are not arrived yet.

The history of social dance has several dynamics that influence us today in our practices as dancers:

  • social construct : invitation modes (like cabeceo in tango for instance), gender roles…
  • racial dynamics and gentrification of the dance

Regarding social construction, communities are evolving and working a lot on what to keep or change (pro or against cabeceo – I have my opinion on that…). Regarding racial dynamics, gentrification of dance or cultural appropriation, these are problems that are much more complex and delicate to deal with.

Moreover, when Amrita Hepi (see above) talks about the relation between women and their bodies and their access to dance, she also talks about her native origins Bundjulung (AUS) and Ngapuhi (NZ). It’s not just a woman dancing. She is an native australian woman, and it changes the way her people see her, and the way we all see her.

If I do the same dance as hers, I would not be carrying the same meaning, my relation to my body will not be the same, and the perception that people will have on me will be different as hers. I am French, and like many people in Europe I didn’t dance between 10 and 25yo. My physical coordination, my way of interpreting the dance, my social references and expectations are shaping me and I will never dance swing like an African-American person, the forrò like a Brazilian, nor the tango like an argentine dancer.

As the blues, swing, folk, and tango dancer Gregory Dyke rightly said in his podcast Walk to Work – episode 25 “Respect and meaningfulness” (en anglais) “Cultural practices like dance or music do not exist as their own entities, but exist because they are practiced within a culture, and more precisely because they are practiced within a community.

As individuals, dance teachers or organizers, we have different levels of responsibility towards the original culture of the dances we practice.

As a dancer, our role is quite limited. We can dance lindy hop without worrying about its Afro-American roots, the birth of this dance during the segregation. Even if the African-American teacher who gives you the course is directly heir from that culture, unlike your suburban teacher who discovered the dance 5 years ago

You can also dance the Argentine tango in a beautiful evening dress with 200$’s shoes, and forget that the dance was born in the suburbs of Buenos Aires and that it is originally a popular dance.

What we can do, on the other hand, is to make efforts to ensure that legitimate people do not feel excluded from their own dance, to listen to and understand the complex dynamics which, unfortunately, can push black dancers to exclude themselves from some swing evenings. We have to try and understand in order to avoid what happened in other domains like yoga where white women’s representation is erasing Indian women.

As dance teachers, we have the responsibility of sharing the social and cultural bases related to our dance, and to guarantee a certain authenticity. Finally, we must also be honest about our role and our limits. That is, we need to be clear with the students, that our knowledge has limits, that other people are more relevant than us, and encourage them to find more accurate sources and more legitimate teachers when they can. In short, encourage people to go deeply into their dance.

As organizers, many associations strive to offer events as close as possible to the original atmosphere and ensure that the most legitimate people feel welcome. There are many initiatives of all kinds, for example in the swing scene, by hiring African-American teachers or bands, by providing brochures and posters about the origins of swing, by organising debates or conferences.

There are no definite answers to these questions, but there are people who think about it and try to make a difference, and I’d like to thank all these dancers, professional or not, who are invested in their dance communities. They ask question, seek solutions, make things happening by writing books, articles, creating videos, movies … They are dancers like you and me who, beyond the dance, put their creativity at the service of the community and its evolutions.

And thanks to my daily inspirations : Tanya Karen from the SocialDance Community for her inspiring stories, Laura Riva from The Dancing Grapevine, Gregory Dyke and his weekly complicated and very interesting thoughts, Yehoody.com for their interesting articles about lindy hop, the facebook group Safety Dance: Building Safer and Empowered Social Dance Communities, and my last discovery the page Break the dance roles