Jeff: I spend a lot of time interacting with dancers of other styles. I have a habit of trying to get them to go blues dancing with me – I love this dance, and I really want to see it grow with new dancers who love it as much as I do. When I started evangelizing our dance, I was surprised by how many had negative impressions of blues dancing. And while some of these were the stereotypes I expected – “too wiggly,” “over-sexualized,” “creepsters,” and “that whole fusion thing” – there was another type of complaint I did not expect: an alarming number of people attach words like “snobby,” “elitist,” and “unwelcoming,” to our community.
People say they feel looked down on for their dance not fitting a certain mold, or for their ideas not being “real blues.” They feel anxious about a shadowy cabal of “blues police,” who wield shame like a weapon. I have heard these complaints from dancers at a variety of levels, and from a range of communities – and I don’t think this is the perception anyone wants of our community.
These feelings did not appear from thin air, and they did not become so widespread without reason. I have witnessed dozens of conversations, in both physical and internet spaces, that would clearly lead to such a perception. It is not what I want to see associated with our community. But it’s real.
“That’s Not Blues Dancing.”
J&S: We’re troubled by the current trend of blues dancers telling people they aren’t blues dancing, that they’re not blues dancers, and generally publicly policing other people’s dance opinions. Too often, the people receiving this criticism are making a concerted effort to participate in our community, learn about our dance, and share it with others. Instead of feeling welcome, they’re made to feel discouraged and alienated.
We acknowledge that there are people doing things very contrary to our values; individuals and communities are using the term blues dancing in ways that are inappropriate, appropriative, and disrespectful of the African American history, culture, and tradition of the dance. There are also people who come out to blues dances and intentionally choose to dance other styles, and are not interested in engaging with blues dance in a meaningful way. This is frustrating and problematic, but it’s not what we’re interested in discussing here.
This is only about alienating those who are trying to participate in our community in good faith – dancers of all levels and backgrounds. We have seen these critiques directed at national instructors, up and comers, and beginner dancers, all of whom are trying to share the dance we love.
Our community is called “The Blues Dance Community.” When we say someone is not blues dancing, whether we intend to or not, we are also implying, “You do not belong in our community.” And when community leaders are leveling these critiques in public forums, when individuals say these things behind people’s backs, or when people treat artistic differences as moral failings, it makes our entire community appear hostile and unwelcoming.
We would not offer unsolicited negative feedback to a dance partner on the social floor. When we dismiss or criticize the dance inspirations and opinions of others, we are attacking the intellectual foundations of their dance and art – the basis for everything they do in a social dance. This policing has the exact same effect as unsolicited feedback on the social floor.
This behavior has real and negative consequences. In the past several months, we have heard from a non-insignificant number of people that this language has made them feel uncomfortable at our events, self-conscious about their dancing, afraid to share their thoughts or feelings with the wider community, and deeply hurt them.
While the intentions behind this type of communication may be to preserve and support the art of blues dancing, no good comes from it. Even if these people had opinions that were harmful to the community, or were actively misappropriating African American culture, publicly shaming them is far more likely to make them obstinate or cause them to distance themselves from our community than to result in any kind of positive outcome.
Shoshi: If a tango dancer hears about this cool thing called “blues dancing” and starts coming out to dances, taking classes, and trying to learn our dance, but still has a lot of ingrained habits and patterns from tango, it can do irrevocable harm to tell them they’re not blues dancing. But how could they be? They only just began.
The implication (intended or not) of telling someone who is still learning (and really, aren’t all of us continuing to learn all the time?), and who is still trying to get these new ways of moving into their body, that they’re “not blues dancing,” is that until you are accomplished at this dance, you are not a part of our community. To me, this is reminiscent of hazing culture, where before being accepted into the community you are humiliated and excluded by it. Hazing our community members is not a productive or healthy way to encourage them to continue learning, developing, and participating.
If we want to be a welcoming and caring community, it would benefit us to find much more inclusive ways of expressing our values.
Jeff: As a beginning swing dancer, I had some very questionable opinions. More advanced dancers saw both my enthusiasm for dancing and my desire to joyously express that to Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.” Instead of dismissing me, they offered me encouragement and opportunities for education. I grew out of my “Big Bad Voodoo Daddy” phase on my own, because my mentors exposed me to great lindy hop dance and music – you don’t need to brow beat and bully people into submission when you have great art to inspire them.
I think it’s important to remember that we catch more flies with honey. If you make your ideas attractive and inspiring, people will latch on to them with enthusiasm.
Maybe we can do Better?
J&S: So here are some things to consider that we think are helpful, but are by no means exhaustive or prescriptive – in fact, we hope you’ll share your own ways to help make such conversations safe and respectful.
- Generally, say positive things about other people and their dancing in public forums. If you don’t have anything nice to say, simply moving along and not saying anything is often a great choice.
- This includes talking about people you don’t know, or in places you think they won’t see – perhaps because they live across the country or on another continent. This is a small community, and negative talk has a way of spreading further and faster than you might think.
- If you think someone is doing or saying something counter to your blues values, ask yourself if their beliefs are damaging the community to such a degree that you’d risk hurting or alienating them, or making them fearful or resentful of you. If the answer is no, you might want to consider leaving the situation alone, or sharing your values in a way that does not imply theirs are wrong.
- If you do feel it’s important to correct them, ask yourself if it’s appropriate for you to correct this person. What is your relationship to them? How well do you know them? Do you know how they would handle such criticism, or what the best way to engage them is?
- Carefully consider the proper forum to correct this person. Is a public forum really the best place, or could this be done through an in-person conversation or private message? If you are not close enough to this person to have this conversation in-person, perhaps you are not actually the right person to be correcting them.
- When you do set out to have a conversation with them about it, ask if they’re open to feedback before you do. You likely wouldn’t give them unsolicited feedback on the dance floor, so why would you do it anywhere else?
- Consider giving constructive feedback. “You don’t look like a blues dancer,” is demeaning, alienating, and doesn’t give them any useful information. “I’d like to see you push through the floor more,” provides actionable information without making them feel like their dancing was dismissed.
- Accept that we are a community of disparate values. Not everyone will agree with yours, and, I think, not everyone should. One of the things that makes blues so exciting is the great potential for variety and self-expression within the dance. That variety and range of expression is a huge part of what makes the All Star Jack and Jill at BluesShout so inspiring. Blues dance will not die because someone won a comp doing something you disagree with.
- If you want people to respect your thoughts and artistic values, offer theirs that same respect. They’re far more likely to consider your ideas if they don’t feel like you’re dismissing theirs. This fosters a culture of open dialog across the whole community.
A Final Thought
Jeff: I understand that this policing usually comes from good intentions. We want our dance, its culture, and its originators to be treated with respect. But our intentions do not absolve us of the consequences of our actions. When my dancer friends of other styles complained of snobbery or elitism, I wish I could have said, “No, our community is not like that at all.” But when I listened to their experiences, when I watched it happen to others, when I felt it happen to me, I knew I couldn’t. There is real hurt and real damage here.
I fundamentally believe that the vast majority of our community is amazing, and would never purposely make people feel unwelcome. I certainly know I wouldn’t, but in hindsight, Shoshi and I realize that we have contributed to this culture too. We are committed to working on our own communication, and we really hope you’ll join us.