Lindy hopper Jerry Almonte sent along a clip of the first place-winning routine in a division at the European Swing Dance Championships. Lindy hop is a partner dance invented by African American youth in Harlem dancing to swing music in the early 1930s. It’s near and dear to my heart; I’ve been a lindy hopper for 13 years (minus that year with a broken leg).
Modern day lindy hop raises difficult questions. In a post I wrote when the beloved Frankie Manning died, titled Race, Entertainment, and Historical Borrowing, I tried to capture the conundrum. I’m going to quote myself extensively, only because this is a tricky issue that deserves real discussion:
Though lindy hop was invented by African Americans, lindy hoppers today are primarily white. These contemporary dancers look to old movie clips of famous black dancers as inspiration. And this is where things get interesting: The old clips feature profoundly talented black dancers, but the context in which they are dancing is important. Professional black musicians, choreographers, and dancers had to make the same concessions that other black entertainers at the time made. That is, they were required to capitulate to white producers and directors who presented black people to white audiences. These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with: blacks were musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky, etc.
So what we see in the old clips that contemporary lindy hoppers idolize is not a pure manifestation of lindy hop, but a manifestation of the dance infused by racism. While lindy hoppers today look at those old clips with nothing short of reverance, they are mostly naive to the fact that the dancing they are emulating was a product made to confirm white people’s beliefs about black people.
So we have a set of (mostly) white dancers who (mostly) naively and (always) wholeheartedly emulate a set of black dancers whose performances, now 70 to 80 years old, were produced for mostly white audiences and adjusted according to the racial ethos of the time. On the one hand, it’s neat that the dance is still alive; it’s wonderful to see it embodied, and with so much enthusiasm, so many years later. And certainly no ill will can be fairly attributed to today’s dancers. On the other hand, it’s troubling that the dance was appropriated then (for white audiences) and that it is that appropriation that lives on (for mostly white dancers). Then again, without those dancers, there would likely be no revival at all. And without those clips, however imperfect, the dance might have remained in obscurity, lost with the bodies of the original dancers.
It is this paradox that stirred Jerry to send along the clip of Dax Hock and Sarah Breck performing a routine that was an homage to a famous clip from the movie Day at the Races, featuring Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. Here’s the original clip from 1937:
And here’s Dax and Sarah’s routine (Dax, btw, is in a fat suit; an entirely different and equally troublesome issue):
To be as clear as possible, I do believe 100% that Dax and Sarah have no intention to mock and, as essentially professional lindy hoppers, I doubt very much that they’ve never considered the ideas I’ve explained above.
Dax and Sarah are not my target here and, besides, they’re just two people. All conscious lindy hoppers struggle with these issues. My target, and my own personal struggle, is the entire endeavor.
I leave this as an open question for discussion, and one that extends far beyond lindy hop to jazz, blues, rap, and hip hop music; other forms of dance, like break dancing and pop and locking; and even the American obsession with spectating sports that are currently dominated by black athletes. It also extends far past the relationship between blacks and whites, as Adrienne Keene well illustrates in her blog, Native Appropriations.
How do white people, especially when they’re more or less on their racial own, honor art forms invented by oppressed racial groups without “stealing” them from those that invented them, misrepresenting them, or honoring them in ways that reproduce racism? You tell me… ’cause I’d like to know.
For more, I’d be thrilled if you read my original post, inspired by the passing of Frankie Manning.
Also worth considering is this beautiful music video (Slow Club, Two Cousins) featuring lindy hoppers Ryan Francoise and Remy Kouakou Kouame performing vintage jazz movement. Is it different? What makes it so (other than production value and the race of the dancers)? Can you articulate it? Or is it tacit knowledge?
Inspired in part by The Spirit Moves?Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Ben Spigel — July 5, 2011
Of course, something similar could be said of, say, reenacts of medieval dances. They are primarily working off written records and descriptions of the dances. These records might bear little resemblance to the ways the dances were actually done, but rather reflect what the recorder thought was the 'true and pure' dance. This was a really interesting post! Thanks.
Ronan — July 5, 2011
Whatever your opinion about the beauty of that last video and its quality in the context of race and appropriation, it is not "knowledge". It is an opinion. If you have an opinion about it and do not feel like backing it up, just say it.
We all have lots of opinions that are not backed up by fact or reason (like when I make mine things that my parents of friends say). It is OK, but calling it "knowledge" and refusing to back it up just makes rational argument pointless. (I must say I haven't seen anyone here actually do that; it is only your suggestion that someone could that makes me react).
(I have no problem with the concept of tacit knowledge when you're talking about something that can really be known, like playing table tennis.)
Thomas Gokey — July 5, 2011
To throw something else into the mix, there was controversy on-line about
Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" video when people noticed similarities between it and a Bob Fosse routine. Beyoncé was accused of "stealing" the routine without being honest as to where she got them from. Partly in response to the on-line accusations of "theft" Beyoncé did acknowledge that the video was inspired by Fosse. You can see her talk about this here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-SlfHHd3qI
The Fosse routine is here (someone added some comments to the video): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wz7InzhwJTo
Beyoncé also said elsewhere that she became aware of the Fosse routine because someone had mashed it up with UNK's "Walk it Out," a truly inspired pairing in my view. I can't seem to find the original mash-up, perhaps it was taken down, but here is a reperformance of the mash-up: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8iLBQFeX4c
It seems reasonable to suggest that Beyoncé is being held to a double standard here, that she is pressured to acknowledge her inspirations in ways that white artists aren't when they are inspired by black artists. I don't know enough about Bob Fosse to know which artists he was inspired by, but it's fair to say that the "original" Fosse was already creatively appropriated from other dancers.It also seems like two things are tangled together in reality that we can abstract and think about separately.On the one hand culture always is a process of borrowing, modeling ourselves off of our artist heroes. As an artist myself I can tell you that I got more ideas for artworks during my art history lectures than I did during my studio art classes. Seeing something interesting that someone else has done gives me springboards to come up with my own ideas. These ideas are both my own, and inspired/appropriated by others. On this level everything is innocent. Culture functions through these mutations and splicing the RNA from several other artists together.But this slicing takes place within a larger culture of racism, in reproducing the RNA from past generations we are also copying the racist structures that molded them in the first place. So while abstractly we can talk about the innocence of artistic borrowing as being a separate matter from racism, in realty the two are tangled up in each other.I'm a certified master composter and I am working towards becoming a master gardener. One of the great things about composting is that, over long periods of time, you can detoxify soil that is contaminated by pollution. This is because even when plants grow from the contaminated soil they are drawing in material from the sun and water, so when you then compost those plants and mix it back into the soil the soil becomes less toxic. The metaphor is not perfect, but this form of culture can give us a way to think about the other form of culture.We have all been formed by a racist culture. In our process of formation we are also informed a myriad of sources, and each of us has a unique two cents to mix into what we are growing from. Beyoncé didn't just borrow from Fosse, she genuinely added something of herself to it, just like Fosse added himself to his inspiration. This is a kind of cultural composting. Whether it will lead to a detoxification of racism depends I large part on being able to appropriate artwork made under racist conditions without re-enforcing that racism. Rereading this I'm realizing the limits to the metaphor but I think there is still something in it.
Yrro Simyarin — July 5, 2011
I'd say we treat it the same way honest performers have treated derivative work for centuries - acknowledge and respect the source, then try to make the art your own. It's only stealing if you claim you invented it.
C. D. Leavitt — July 5, 2011
Just to let you know, the HTML for the link to Native Appropriations in the post is messed up. The blog can be found here: http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/
Cocojams Jambalayah — July 5, 2011
Firstly, as an African American whose maiden name is Manning, I've wish I could claim blood kinship with the great Frankie Manning. But no such kinship has been proven.
Lisa, I'm concerned that racism is so deeply rooted that even people like you who genuinely seem to love a Black cultural product, and genuinely admire those Black people associated with its creation/early years, end up using what I consider to be racist,stereotypical, offensive language to describe that creative product. I'm specifically referring to this quote:
And this quote from a commenter two years ago which you agreed to:
However, in that post from two years ago whose link you provided above, you did write that "I see incredibly effective technique. Unbelievable strength and precision.
It’s fantastic. (By the way, Frankie explained that, by the time they got to
the take you see in the Hellzapoppin’ clip, they’d performed that routine more
than 20 times in a row… they were amazing athletes.)". But this observation seems to be minimized by your other comments that I quoted and by your theory about Black dancers in those movies "wild-ing" their dancing.I'm particularly bothered by the use of the adjective "animalistic". There's a difference between performing dances that are imitative of animals, reptiles, and birds and being animalistic. The adjective "animalistic" feeds into racist images of Black people. Yet you used it two years ago and quote it now seemingly without any concern for its negative connotations.
Furthermore, instead of calling White people who produced, reviewed, or watched these movies out on their racism, you soft-pedaled that racism by writing that those movies "portrayed Black people in ways that white people were comfortable with".
For 5 1/2 years I blogged on another forum where some White bloggers were very knowledgable about Black Spirituals and other old-time music, and also were very knowledgeable about Blues, and Jazz music. There was no question that they knew and loved these genres of music. But after numerous comments posted by them, I concluded that they very much cared about that art for that arts sake, but cared very little for the people who created that art and even less for the descendants of those people.
I'm not saying that you fall into that category, Lisa. But this is what disturbs me so much about some non-Black people who are "in to" Black creative products.
Liebe — July 5, 2011
Throwing in my two cents. In the competition clip, it is clear that they love the source material dancing (which, to my untrained eye, seems to be danced better than their recreation). Apart from the dance homage, though, there is a disconnect between the context of the two. This could be said of any cultural appropriation. However, here there is another layer. The original clip features stunning talent, but under the backdrop of offensive stereotypes and portrayals (Another famous dance sequence of this type revolves around black service men and women).
Partially, I think the disconnect between black dancers now and the style is the disconnect involving such exploitation of talent. It's left this wonderful dance style in the pile of "shucking and jiving" associated with that time period and portrayals of African Americans.
The black and white dance clip is just beautiful. It's hard to compare the dancing of the two, since the artistic portrayal is completely different, but there is a huge difference in just doing an homage to something you clearly don't understand (fat suit, really?), and working through the difficult history of your people's portrayal in dance.
If that sounds harsh... I do believe that the couple above could have done that dance and not come across with such an "ick" factor.
This might seem extreme, but I'd relate loosely the dancing in the black and white clip to the movie "Bamboozled". Some parts of our history are VERY hard to reclaim, even in parody (not that this was one).
gasstationwithoutpumps — July 5, 2011
How is this different from Americans putting on kilts and doing Scottish Country Dance, despite having no Scottish ancestry? Does inventing a form of dance or music mean that no one else is ever allowed to enjoy it?
Viktor — July 5, 2011
I'm never sure what articles that are critical of cases of appropriation are trying to say. On the surface, they usually point out interesting histories, including histories of injustice and oppression and so on, and for that I'm always ready and grateful to be educated.
But there's usually also an implication that's rarely overtly stated which is that appropriation is Wrong with a capital "w," that the appropriators shouldn't be doing what they're doing, and that this new art based on appropriation shouldn't be made. If that's what's really being said then it would be nice to hear that said directly, and it would also be nice to hear the case for it.
I get the feeling that people rarely come out and say that they think art based on appropriation is wrong and should not be made because they know any argument supporting that conclusion would be pretty shaky and that such a cause would be pretty hopeless. After all, appropriation in art isn't something that rare and not very well understood - it often stands at the center of many art making methods, especially in this day and age. Banning it would be to ban a helluva lot of art.
Rob — July 5, 2011
I think some of the questions Lisa asks in the post - as to the character of the ESDC performance (illegitimate appropriation or artistic celebration?) and to the interpretation of the Snow Club clip (What makes it different?) can be answered by comparing the two. What are the differences in performance, style, aesthetics?
The first (ESDC) re-enacts the "Day a the Races" performance and stays very close to its model. The performers follow the steps and donned a similar costume - to the extent of including a fat suit. I think the fat suit does not "an entirely different issue"; it is actually crucial in that the performer re-enacts even the ridiculous element that is introduced in the movie by incorporating a fat, "jolly", Black person. So this is a re-enactment, and it is one that strips the original performance of its racist context while *at the same time* keeping the racist ("wild" and so on) elements of the performance. Thus, it does not give the audience an opportunity to reflect the racism that is inherent in both performances. I found it also disturbung that the White performers contort their faces by grinning wide - a facial expression I recognize from other (classic) dance performances, but also from other racist movies. Note that the original performers look rather more concentrated. All this, to me, amounts to a repetition of the racism inherent in the original, but it doesn't enable an audience that doesn't know the movie to reflect on that racism. That is what I find very offensive in this performance, more than the question of appropriation.
The Snow Club music clip, in contrast, is not a mere re-enactment of a lindy performanc. Instead, the performer uses the elements of lindy hop, but he (and the producers of the clip) consciously isolates the elements, defamiliarizes them through video techniques such as slow motion, clever editing, by using a black background, but also by dressing in a fine suit - which remembered me of how Black Jazz musicians and their audience would dresse in fine, stylish suits when going out. The clip isolates and emphasizes certain fragments of the performance, thus letting the viewer look at them more consciously and giving him or her the possibility of reflecting on them. Also, it takes away the "wild" aspect that is overemphasized in the ESDC performance and gives more prominence to the artistic abilities of the dancer.
So, I think the problem with the ESDC performance and the question as to why we don't feel offended by the Snow Club clip is *not* - or, at least, not only - whether or not White people should be "allowed" to "appropriate" Black culture. Rather it is the *way* in which it is appropriated that is the problem. And as both the ESDC performers and the SC clip production team made conscious aesthetic and performative choices, we have to hold them accountable for those choices and not excuse them because of "naiveté".
Umlud — July 5, 2011
Taking it out of a US context, the African-American/Japanese singer,
Jero, who is an enka singer in Japan, surprised many people when he made
his debut in 2008: a black man in Japan, singing in a style that was
popular in the post-WW2 years could easily have been taken as a negative
thing (and I don't doubt that he has his detractors). However, it is
clear from the first that his passion, expertise, and sense of the music
are all pitch-perfect (indeed, many experts didn't even think that he
was foreign when they first heard him sing).
I think that this points to
an important point about borrowing from others (either the whole piece or the inspiration for a piece): genuineness and honesty.
The point made by Liebe is a good one here, because although the white dancers may have been genuinely good with the method of the dance, the performance came off as being dishonest (at least to me) because of a lack of any meaningful depth beyond just the movements. And that -- at least to me -- makes for an empty performance. Indeed, the only way that I could say that it was more homage than parody was because of the presence of the clip of the original.
eduardo — July 5, 2011
Insensitivity aside, I find appropriations mainly problematic when the intent is to ridicule, humiliate, etc.
For example, here
is a guy from the U.S. appropriating Jamaican Patois. And here
is a guy appropriating mannerisms which we usually associate with
women. Despite the comedic potential of these videos, I don't see any
attempt to ridicule in any of them.
To be fair to
weathermen, sometimes it's
not easy getting through the
Cocojams Jambalayah — July 5, 2011
Some observations about the Day of The Races video provided above:It seems to me that the only racist depictions in that particular dance scene were the wide eyed wide smiling look that the "heavy set" man makes at .046 and the same wide eyed wide smiling expression at 1:05 and 1.06 made by the showcased young woman and young man. The woman and man also make a "hidey hidey ho" movement which I consider to be stereotypical and offensive in combination with the fake wide eyed, widely smiley look.
Looking at that video again, I'd also add the crowd's "ho ho hey hey" refrain with arms swung up and down (.045).
I think those are the types of facial expressions and gestures that were added to the movie to fit White folks stereotypes of Black people. I doubt that they were part of the repertoire of dance moves in all Black venues, and hope that they are not replicated by contemporary White swing dancers. Also, I think that the heavy set man is featured in the dance scene for comic relief but he's an excellent, skillfull dancer notwithstanding his weight.
Cocojams Jambalayah — July 5, 2011
The wide eyed wide smiling facial expression is one characteristic of the "coon caricature". Click http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/coon/ for more information about this stereotype.
Here's one excerpt from that article:
"The coon caricature is one of the most insulting of all
anti-Black caricatures. The name itself, an abbreviation of raccoon, is
dehumanizing. As with Sambo, the coon was portrayed as a lazy, easily
frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate, buffoon. The coon differed from the
Sambo in subtle but important ways. Sambo was depicted as a perpetual child, not
capable of living as an independent adult. The coon acted childish, but he was
an adult; albeit a good-for-little adult."
One way this coon caricature was expressed was the wide eyed "seen a ghost" scared look that was popularized by Mantan Moreland, though that form of that facial expression isn't found in that Day At The Races scene. But I think it's important to note that the comedic focus on the fat Black man in the Day Of The Races scene alludes to more than a "jolly fat man", as he is meant to be an expression of the coon character.
Ernest Valdemar — July 5, 2011
My own area of expertise is early 20th c. music rather than dance, but the more you know about cultural production from, say, 1890-1940, the harder it is to make claims about where "creative borrowing" ends and cultural appropriation begins. It's like trying to apply strict Linnean taxonomy to bacterial DNA -- it's a completely unworkable mess.
1) Early 20th c. culture is completely and thoroughly racialized. They had coon songs and kike songs and mick songs and dutchman songs and chinaman songs, but they had no just-plain-song songs. Even if a song appears racially neutral on the page, you'll find that the performances are all done in some kind of racial/ethnic dialect.
2) There is no point in history where American popular culture stopped being racialized. One generation's overt racism is the previous generation's invisible racism. Our grandchildren will be shocked by some of the blandest, most inoffensive music we listen to today.
3) It's important to acknowledge the intelligence, talent, and savvy of African-American performers of previous decades. And part of that intelligence is in understanding intuitively the cultural frame in which popular performances take place, and working creatively within that framework.
4) We tend to look at the past through the lens of the present. Our era's values and priorities cause certain things (white lindy-hoppers, blackface, "ching-chong Chinaman" gestures) to pop into sharp relief, while other, far more overt examples of unadulterated cultural appropriation go unnoticed. (The steel guitar is now so thoroughly associated with Country & Western, and the 1920s fad for hapa haole music so thoroughly forgotten, that nobody ever mentions Native Hawaiian cultural appropriation in the context of Nashville music.*)
My own rules as a performer are: 1) I never wear costumes, and 2) I don't do dialect or make funny voices. That's how you respect both the source material and your modern audience.
* Seriously. Find yourself some old hapa haole recordings -- Sol Ho'opi'i, King Benny Nawahi, etc. -- and you'll find that the whole history of 20th c. American music takes on new meaning. Hawaiian music is everywhere.
Cocojams Jambalayah — July 5, 2011
I understand that Lisa was describing the views of White people who made or watched these movies when she wrote "These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with: blacks were musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky". However, I don't have a clear sense if Lisa agrees with those descriptors as she didn't clearly decry those descriptors nor did she cite alternative descriptors except in the statement in her post two years ago (which she didn't include in this year's post) in which she writes "I see incredibly effective technique. Unbelievable strength and precision.It’s fantastic"..
Also, Lisa indicated that she agreed with Evan's statement that I quoted above. So, yes. I would have liked more clarification of Lisa's perceptions of those talented, skillful,creative jazz dancers and their talented. skillful, creative choreographers. I also would have liked a clearer statement from Lisa which acknowledged the racism of those White people who "portrayed Black people in ways that they were comfortable with".
mamazilla — July 6, 2011
when i first saw the dax and sarah clip, i automatically felt awkward and uncomfortable and thought that all it was missing was blackface... the performance/homage was thoughtless and ignorant... and it's amazing to me that it was used in a competition... and that they won FIRST place - it wasn't an original routine AND racially insensitive and IT WON. (!!??)
re: cultural appropriation vs cultural appreciation... as an asian american woman, here is an example of cultural appropriation to me: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cTDVB_HqsQ and here is an example of cultural appreciation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqoZKxuW_V8 . often in the asian american experience, insults like the geisha caricature or ching chonging are followed by physical violence. so, even if someone doesn't intend to offend - it doesn't change the memories/experience those images/actions come with...
i don't think dax & sarah are evil or racists. i don't care if people are/aren't politically correct - i just think if you're going to go so far as to copy something - even as an homage - educate yourselves (don't just stop at the costumes or the caricatures)... it's not hard - there are plenty of books and blogs to read, historians & educators to talk to... or if you choose not to educate yourselves - then stick to what you know - step away from the fat suit and the overalls - and just dance.
dogpossum — July 6, 2011
I'm interested in your points, Lisa, but I think some of the key issues need a little expansion. I find some of your conclusions troubling. Initially, I'm not comfortable with talking about race or ethnicity _without_ also talking about class (and then gender and then sexuality). This becomes particularly important when you consider lindy hop in Japan or Korea or Singapore. The majority of dancers there are _not_ white, but perhaps they are middle class? I think that it's very, very important to interrogate class as an engagement with social and cultural power; it is not enough to end with skin colour as the defining marker of race or ethnicity.
I also have trouble with approaching this discussion via the concept of 'tacit knowledge'. Simply, I think there are other ways of talking about what's going on in the clips that are more useful. I'm with Katrina Hazzard Gordon and Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy and bell hooks and Judith Butler... I think we need to engage with the ideology at work here in an actively politicised way. These performances aren't ideologically neutral, nor are the effects of their actions neutral. We need to engage with these issues actively, and we need to unpack the politics - interpersonal as well as institutional. To do otherwise would be to ignore the way these texts embody the wider discourses of the societies in which lindy hop scenes exist, how they function culturally and socially in the modern lindy hop world, and how they articulate power within lindy hop today.
Cultural context is important. It's difficult to apply American critical tools for discussing race and cultural transmission to the UK or Europe (where Ryan Francoise and Remy Kouakou Kouame are based), for example. I faced similar challenges discussing lindy hop in Australia, where our discursive engagement with race is quite different to the American example. The black British migrant experience is also quite different to the American, and histories of slavery in Britain, America and Australia are quite different. As an example, many Australian simply aren't aware of their country's slave history, and indigenous Australian history is not managed in the same way here as it is the US. It's very difficult to talk about black American dance in film in the 30s without also talking about slavery and understanding the slave history of America. So when Australians watch clips like the Day At The Races one, they don't resonate in the same way as when an American watches. I guess here, we also need to talk about audiences and reception as well as cultures of production (and institutions producing and disseminating media texts).
The Slow Club clip is interesting because it's a British band featuring European dancers. The song exists in an international context, and is referencing American television performances by black American dancers. But these performances circulate today again in an international context, and are most familiar to middle class dancers in a number of countries.I think we need to talk about masculinity as well. Luckily Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall have done a lot of the heavy lifting for discussions about black British masculinity and identity.While I've found the Slow Club clip quite exciting and interesting, the Dax and Sarah clip is a little more challenging. I have plenty to say about this, but I'll do it on my own blog, rather than derailing the discussion here.So I'm not going to answer your question about tacit knowledge.
I think I would have liked to see you unpack the clips a little more yourself in this post, rather than setting up a debate for others. How _are_ you reading these clips?
Adrian — July 8, 2011
Wow, that was an exhausting read through of the comments. I'll try to bullet point my thoughts:
-"[the mostly white contemporary lindy hoppers] are mostly naive to the fact that the dancing they are emulating was a product made to confirm white people’s beliefs about black people."
What you're saying is the Lindy Hop was created to "confirm white people's beliefs about black people. I doubt you meant to make such a sweeping comment. It would significantly undervalue black people's role in creating the Lindy Hop.
- "These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with"
Portraying black people in movies may have also been an attempt at drawing greater black audiences to the theater in which case this could also be considered a wider recognition of black culture acquiring a consumer capacity.
(A lot of people discuss the stereotyping in the comments. But I believe this portrayal of black people is more complex. Their performance is opposite the Marks Brothers, one of the largest box-office draws of the time. Overall the movie is kind of a variety show: music, dance, comedy. This dance scene is included not because of its racy overtones, but because at its core, the scene is entertainment. Almost all advancements in race relations are at best two steps forward, and one step back. This is one of those examples.)
- "it’s troubling that the dance was appropriated then (for white
audiences) and that it is that appropriation that lives on (for mostly
Oftentimes a cultural medium like dance is a comfortable middle ground for bridges to be built between either opposing or indifferent cultures. Sports, music, dance, all of these can also act as bridges and what you call appropriation may just as well be an unspoken treaty between otherwise hostel peoples. Even the song she sings is about unity. ALL God's children have rhythm. The scene opens with Harpo leading the musical charge. While he doesn't play directly with the band, it recognizes a kind of overall togetherness. There isn't fear or belittling between the races.
Overall, I'm not going to suggest your assumptions are incorrect, but they only speak to a single perspective on the discussion. Entailed in the DNA of the dance are so many things including race, class, gender and status. But there are other qualities that contemporary dancers can relate to like joy, energy, celebration, socializing, performing. . .
It just seems like there's more to this than you initially proposed.
Noëlle Gray — July 11, 2011
Dance is a living art from. Everyone "steals" from everyone. I disagree with the use of that word since it somehow implies malicious intent, but that's the nature of creativity: finding inspiration in the things that move you. There is no such thing as an artist who doesn't borrow from another artist. No art form would grow if this didn't happen.
If you were to go to any one of the national or international Lindy Hop camps, events or competitions you'd see two things: the preservation of the original dance as it has developed and the innovation of the form by its newest and brightest devotees. Color and race are not a factor in this.
There aren't a lot of black people dancing Lindy Hop these days, but isn't it interesting that so many of the vernacular jazz moves attributed to the dance are seen in hip hop, crunk, popping and locking, break dancing, etc? Isn't it also interesting that Lindy Hop has a style called "ball rooming" as well? I find it amusing that Lindy Hop pulls from contact improvisation, like what Pilobolus does, but very few dancers are aware of that.
Lisa seems to think that most dancers are naive to the racism, but Most of the Lindy Hoppers I know are hyper aware that the old footage is racist. I can't help but wonder who she spoke to in order to draw this conclusion? But many of them have ALSO sought out the "old timers" to ask them what got changed for the sake of the footage and to learn what the footage doesn't show. Additionally: there is A LOT of footage out there that wasn't filmed for the white audience and we watch all of it (thank you to the people who have lovingly archived these precious gems).
Die hard dancers like Dax and Sarah are preservationists (for better and worse) of a form of dance that is astounding and was almost entirely lost. Why did they win first place? Likely because they have honored the people who were dancing in that clip, not their color. Certainly because they know the history of the dance and the people who did it first. Also: with this in mind they still stay true to their own style and idea about what the dance is. And definitely because the AUDIENCE knows all of this, too!
At Frankie's last birthday party a group of dancers did a tribute to him using his favorite moves. No one saw skin color. All we saw was how beloved this man was and how much he'd influenced us. As Norma Miller has stated numerous times: the ballrooms in Harlem were the first integrated places in the US. And we all know Miss Norma.
As a Lindy Hopper I don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about how I am "stealing" or if what I'm doing is racist. I'm thinking about how I can interpret the music...what step works best. I'm thinking about the joy of community and creativity and what this dance meant to a generation of people; what it means to the current generation. I'm thinking about how I can pass this gift on to others. I'm thinking about how sad I am for people who aren't a part of it or any creative community. Lindy Hop, Modern, jazz, classical. It's all essentially the same, just a different way of playing the same instruments.
Any Lindy Hop teacher I know makes the point of giving a history lesson about the dance. Anyone with half a brain can see that some of the footage out there is racist. We as Lindy Hoppers are looking past that to see the form itself. For the dancer that is what's most important, I believe.
I asked a black coworker to come to one of my classes. She didn't want to. She couldn't believe that she could be in a room full of white people without feeling uncomfortable. She came anyway. I asked her afterward to revisit her original reservation. She said that she quickly realized that she wasn't black and the other students weren't white. "We were all just dancers."
That's how modern Lindy Hoppers think.
Gretchen — July 13, 2011
I'm way late to this party, but just wanted to say what an interesting discussion this has been to read. I've been taking belly dance classes recently and it's another art form that deals with the complications of performing (as middle class, white Americans) a style of dance that has its birth in Western colonial expectations of Middle Eastern women, and for which the golden era was during the early Hollywood film years. There's a lot to unpack when thinking about this stuff, so I really appreciate all the different perspectives on it.
Desiree_82 — November 9, 2011
So, does it mean that only white people are allowed to dance waltz? Because it's from white culture?
Links of the Week: Dressing for the Gents | Lindypenguin — July 7, 2014
[…] a bit naff (and then there’s the whole link to the zoot suit riots. Plus the whole historical appropriation of wearing a symbol of rebellious second generation Mexican American youth whilst doing a dance […]
Katherine Byrne — August 25, 2015
Hmm, Lindy is not my speciality but I know that with the blues side of things at least, that music was created by black people and for black people, Perry Bradford and the race series and all that in the 20s, the blues took off because white music producers realised the African-Americans were a seperate consumer market who did not want the same things as whites. It did take from white culture as well, but more because of the new instruments introduced to African slaves which they were told to learn for their owners enjoyment. With this in mind the blues scene as a whole is very careful to know it's origins, to not confuse white country music and blues and to be careful about what they call blues. This is why I say Fusion, not Fusion Blues, it may be inspired by the blues aesthetic but the blues is not the blues without the music, It's why I'd call contemporary white bands bluesy or blues-style or blues-danceable instead of actual blues, because the blues has a history. I just find that if you honour the artists you dance to, know your racial history surrounding the music and make sure your scene is welcoming to any black person or other POC who might want to join in then it's relatively fine. What I think we have to do is take a look at our scene and find out why people of colour aren't participating in it so much, pay attention to the POCs who are involved when they object to something as racist. I think also how expensive our events are should be looked at, in order to provide acess to a wide range of people, because we don't just have a race diversity problem, we have a class diversity problem also.
corychampion — November 3, 2015
Well, step one is stop being a racist prick. Step two is realizing that because something is fun doesn't mean you get to say stop doing it. Asshole.
gib9230 . — December 29, 2015
I really appreciated this article, and helped me (not that it's a good thing) tap even more into the borderline disgust that I have for today's swing dancers.
Speaking for the scene about 100 miles around where I live, the dancers could care less about the historical context, and certainly don't look at old clips. That would be giving them too much credit. They are solely into what they perceive to be their own amazingness, and could care less about the music itself or the time period. These are people who dress up once a year for a WWII Dance in what they think is their 1940's finery, but which looks pretty horrible, and that's their token homage to the time period. They are much more interested in blues dancing--you know, the people who can't get dates, so they borderline grope strangers for 3-5 minutes, and look down on swing, even that's where they started with their dancing.
On one hand, I guess I should be pleased that their not tapping into historically inaccurate perceptions of Lindy Hop, but one the other, they are absolutely clueless, underdressed, and stupid louts trying to pretend they are popular--doing the one thing that they probably are good at.
Sensual Bachata: Appreciation or Appropriation? — July 12, 2016
[…] swing dance styles also have an internal struggle about recognizing the Black roots of their dance. What was born out of Black culture is now very dominantly a White (and sometimes other culture) […]
Bridget Calzaretta — July 13, 2016
I am bothered more about the world according to Lindy Hop. All other dances are ignored. White kids propagating their own history of dance. It's all a refabricated fairy tale at this point. Get another tattoo and swing out.
Chamalo Créations — August 2, 2017
Stop playing dumb white people ! You are using the dance art to continue to dominate black people . It is hilarious to see the vivacity of White dancer to claim right to appropriate black creativity but do nothing for helping blacks in other areas . When blacks created hip hop among poverty sadness , commentators below type of white jump on appropriating the result without even caring for the context and the reality of black people. You are so disgusting commentators below who are trying to deny your envious racist ways through appropriation . In the whole world why are so fond of black dances and not ballet ? It is really weird to me . Ballet should be seen every where in every movie, classical music played on every radio etc etc . But no you prefer whitewash other culture creation instead of making grow the essence of yours . Classical music and ballet are dying and seen as old stop focusing on Black people or maybe your culture is to destroy the others ... watching your world wide paradoxes of appropriating while hating it makes really more sense .
Race, Appropriation, & Lindy Hop: How to Honor our Heroes – 300 News — February 2, 2019
[…] Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Source […]
Black Stereotypes In The 1937 Movie "A Day At The Races - Part II: Comments - Naa Songs — October 5, 2019
[…] EXCERPT AND SELECTED COMMENTS From https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/07/05/race-appropriation-lindy-hop-how-to-honor-our-heroe… “Race, Appropriation, & Lindy Hop: How to Honor our Heroes” by Lisa Wade, PhD on […]
Lauren — May 28, 2021
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