A Nefarious Habit

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Dancers,

We have to talk about Ksenia.* But more than that, we need to address the ongoing conversation about race in the lindy hop world. I felt deeply disturbed and disappointed to learn that this individual has indulged in black face and brown face over the years, underwent direct counsel from concerned individuals, and chose to ignore it. My question for you, global dance community, is this: Why do we choose to continue to ignore actions like these and choose tolerance over the years? Why are individuals still learning dance from someone who chooses racist actions over change? Why is stagnancy and preservation encouraged in a community where we, as a whole, profess to value innovation and improvisation?

I don’t have an answer for you. I can only tell you this: I will not be reviewing the online course I was once so excited about from this instructor and cancelled back in February. No more attention will be directed into any means of praise or even criticism in that direction. Instead, let’s re-direct: What will we, as diverse communities across the globe, choose for ourselves now?

Recently, in the last few years, two very different movies came out which I believe represent two of the many roads lindy hop and the swing dance culture at large can take — namely, Black Panther or La La Land. (Obviously, this is not a binary situation or choice, but I think this does represent major perspectives currently in play). While not a dance movie in the slightest, Black Panther, an afrocentric triumph, demonstrates what social ails exist and solutions which might be proposed. King T’Challa feels, at times, proud, tormented, and resolute. A complex character, he welcomes the audience into a similar fold about the inner mechanisms of what a true community entails — do we engage in civil war due to differing beliefs in purpose, do we compromise and make peace…or is there even a we right now? What is brilliant about Black Panther is that the story allows for multiple narratives to exist, to create, and even to destroy. (That’s all I’ll say without giving away any spoilers). Should you as a dancer so choose, you can allow multiple narratives in, to thrive given the proper growth and appreciation, to weed out the toxicity.

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On the other hand, we have La La Land. Now, don’t get me wrong, many of the themes present in this particular movie resonate with me as a dancer and as a dreamer. However, the movie also presents a unique parallel to how communities, like Hollywood or subcultures like swing-dancing, write out POC voices. The lead actors are white except, surprise, the antagonist who just so happens to be John Legend, an amazing African-American musician and artist. Still, he is pigeon-holed into a less-than, supporting role to a melanin-deprived cast. Many of the POC are sidelined as extras in the Broadway dance and song numbers. I was both excited and disappointed to see many from the lindy hop and hip hop communities represented but not highlighted on the margins. Nostalgia is weaponized to selectively “colorblind” or, rather, white-out history. It’s absolutely unexcusable and, to be honest, incredibly heartbreaking. For Old and New Hollywood alike, there is no place, apparently, for minority culture voices.

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I will be the first to acknowledge that life holds within itself a fair amount of moral gray areas. However, I hold this to be true: you do not use an identity as an insult, as a joke, or as a weapon against someone. That is inexcusable and abhorrent. Period. My issue with the lindy hop and swing dance subculture right now is not that we don’t know. I think recent conversations at Lindy Focus, at least, have shown an overwhelming willingness to learn and hope to understand. Awareness, if anything.

But now…

What am I going to do? What are you going to do about it? What will we choose to do, or what will we choose to let happen?

If there is a “we,” and I sincerely hope there still is, what will happen to “us?”

I for one am feeling a bit exhausted at…fighting assumptions. I walked to my car after an event to croakings from an older man about, “THAT Chinese girl!” nevermind that I never talked to him the entire night. I had to endure this both on the dance floor and to my car as I was walking to the parking lot alone. Strange heckling. Strange days of cultural encounter.

I hope for change here. If not, I’m making one…perhaps away from people who are not ready to accept who I am. Perhaps to a community who does already.

Resolutely,

Y.

 

*It should be noted that the first link was taken down which I’m not sure what to think of. However, in the one now linked, you can see some representation of minstrelism. As well as here.

Update: Ksenia’s response on Yehoodi. Thoughts?

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10 Things from Alamo Stomp 2018

I’m back with a list because my mind is a jumble of disproportionate and oblong thoughts which cannot seem to collect themselves. So, yes, a list is just fine. These things I know to be true about my experience.

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Taken back in the Carolina mountains in a kaleidoscope, refurbished Nikon.

  1. Attitude is everything. If you’ve followed this blog since the early years, you know I began on two left feet (figuratively in terms of dancing and tone). I wanted so badly to be somebody I wasn’t, to shed the skin I was for someone entirely different. But what a moment…to be alive in 2018, a Chinese-American transplant dancing in Texas hill country to lindy hop. You can’t make this up. Yes, there’s so much work to do in this community. No, we can’t stop here. Which brings me to my next point…
  2. We have to learn how to listen. If you haven’t read this post from ObsidianTea, you’re missing out on a whole conversation that needs to be valued. I knew I felt uncomfortable wearing a qipao but I realize each individual needs to notice and note what clothing brings up in people. Sometimes reliving and preserving the past is the last thing we need. Sometimes we need to remember how to let others move us, and sometimes we need to learn how to stand our ground. It’s wisdom to know the difference.
  3. I have to stop blaming others. It’s time for me to take ownership of my own mastery. I realized this all at once, then in steps thanks to the marvelous instructors, all of them (see below for names). It’s not enough to think others are having a good time, you have to be sure the dance feels right for you. Am I moving down a line? Am I pulsing? Am I bringing something valuable here? Does this feel good for me and my partner? I have to start questioning these things to get to…whatever is next.
  4. Learn to say thank you.  Thank the organizers. Thank the volunteer coordinators, the collaborators, and the volunteers. Thank the instructors and judges. (Check them out here: Jamin & Grace, Anthony & Irina, Shauna & Falty). Thank your fellow lindy hoppers. Thank the bands. Thank the MC and the alternates. Thank the competitors. No experience is exempt from a heavy dose of gratitude. I’m never going to forget the small act of kindness when an instructor stops everything they’re doing just to come by and fix an arm. That’s really solid, student-centered teaching.
  5. This is your moment, don’t wait. I think I waste a ton of time wondering what others think and say about me. 85% if not more. This weekend helped me realize that even if I bomb…at least I did it in a blaze of glory with the goofiness that is me. If no one likes it…well, the points only matter if you’re interested in them. (Believe me, I still am, I’m just trying to convince myself otherwise.) But in all honestly: you never know how much time you have left. “Make the most of your time here.”
  6. It’s okay to suck if you’re going to change. I know this is not my final evolution (that’s right, I’m a Pokemon master). I’m going to admit, it sucks when people see your ideas flub or if you trip…but I personally think there is more value in learning to recover than to quit. I remember seeing a dancer I very much admire slip up on stage, but she immediately nailed her next spotlight as if nothing ever happened. I’m pretty sure she left the competition with a placement despite the hiccup. You cannot literally die from embarrassment (however much you want it to happen).
  7. Learn to (not) apologize. I’m terrible at this. I always want to atone for every single thing I’ve ever said or done. My honest-to-goodness response upon some criticism recently was “I want to curl up and die.” I have to remind myself, and maybe you should remind yourself as well, from the earth and dirt and rubble comes the goodness. The soil, the dirt, the dust holds the richness for us to grow. Dust off your shoulders, relax, trust the process.
  8. Practice perfect. I had this choir director in secondary school always drill us that it wasn’t practice that made perfect, but perfect practice. Don’t stop when you master a move. Stop when you can do the move as easily as you can breathe.
  9. Draw from, don’t fossilize. I heard some interesting thoughts over the course of the weekend, notably about how music should be preserved, shared, or altered. I’m personally partial to the idea that we sit on a fine line of improvisation and preservation. My heart is leaning towards being open to the new while appreciating the history. Recognize the roots, the branches, and the leaves.
  10. Let Go…(Be Humble). The more I spend thinking about these ideas, the more I wonder about where lindy hop has been and where it’s headed. I remember telling a friend that, with all the recent tension, I wasn’t sure lindy or swing as a whole would rise above the subculture level. As responsible as we are for spreading the joy in dance…I do wonder too much sometimes. My voice blares a bit too loud over the online rafters, if you get my drift. So, please, take this as my last apology. Silence is too golden these days, and I will assure you, my future posts will be focused on quality rather than quantity.

 

On my toes…

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Taipei shadows, 2016

Yue

(Possibly) Irrational Minority Dancer Thoughts

Happy APIA Heritage Month! Here are some silly, some serious thoughts which actually go through my brain while dancing. All events described have happened. All images via giphy.com

  • I can’t dance two songs with another dancer of the same race because people might think we’re dating/married/siblings…or something. Also, there are three of us in the room and we made eye contact after a mere 5 seconds. (And no, we do not know each other.)
  • This “where are you from?” question is getting supremely annoying. Do people not understand that it’s kinda insulting and racist to ask that? Especially “Oh, but where are your parents from?” Shush.

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  • I wonder if people think I’m glaring at them because I have small eyes or a resting b*tch face…
  • I can’t wear a cheongsam again to this venue because a creepy person just stared me down for several minutes and leaned in far too close to ask for a picture. He just so happens to be wearing an American military uniform. I’m not into the whole Miss Saigon/ Madame Butterfly trope.

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  • One of my newfound friends basically said that racism in America is “not as bad” as in other countries. I want to stomp on somebody’s foot.
  • A dance partner just leaned in and used four different “hello” phrases from four different languages. That’s as if I introduced myself in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English to someone of Danish descent–stop it. Even if you did manage to land on the “correct” language, I’m a bit of a sass monster so I’ll start conversing with you in Chinese. Be prepared.
  • Did this person want to dance with me because I “look exotic?” Ugh. Are they choosing not to dance with me because I look Asian? Am I crazy for thinking either?

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  • Where are all the APIA instructors and instructors of color? How come there are so few?
  • Is lindy hop a cultural appropriation? I mean…it started off as a dance in Harlem and now it’s mostly white dancers. What does that mean? I don’t know…
  • Is it always going to be this way?

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Perhaps this is a regional discrepancy? When I lindy hop on the coasts, I feel like there’s more representation, therefore this feeling that I could belong in this community. However…stuck in the middle, even living in the middle of the U.S., APIA dancers often seem few and far between. Am I just delusional? Am I crazy? I don’t have a quaint conclusion for you, only a bit of humor to mask some bitterness.

Love & Lindy,

Yue

Safe White Spaces in Lindy Hop

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After extensive studying of Dr. Ladson-Billings’ work in Critical Race Theory as well as Leonardo & Porter’s landmark article “Pedagogy of Fear” addressing the violence in safe spaces, I must question the intent behind how we talk about race and intersectionality. For reference, I’ll take the best and biggest mother-event of North American – Lindy Focus. The Code of Conduct states (in part),

“Lindy Focus is dedicated to providing a safe and comfortable event experience for everyone, regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, ability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion (or lack thereof). We do not tolerate harassment of event participants in any form.”

The subtext behind statements like these about “safe spaces” implies those of us caught in the intersection of Othered identifiers are someone to be feared. How so? Stengel (2010) writes in “The Complex Case of Fear and Safe Space” that, “By designating fears, we construct safe space for some and unsafe space for others. That is, we construct the world as safe and unsafe and control the movement of fear but also the movement of bodies in that world” (531). Sometimes when I read about Safe Spaces in lindy hop, I get the feeling that my race makes people feel discomfort based on the wording of codes. I understand the policies are in place for my benefit, but at the same time, I wonder how will this anti-racism attitude be reinforced? When I go to events, I seldom see an APIA (Asian Pacific Islander American) in a place of power as a lindy hop professional (with a few exceptions, like Anthony Chen, Naomi Uyama, or Alain Wong). Edit: my ridiculous younger self comments removedOtherwise, I feel as if safe spaces, in terms of race, are there for the comfort of whiteness. Even after the implementation of Codes of Conduct, I still feel uncomfortable when I go to many events. As diverse as some venues are historically, I exist as an APIA and a minority lindyhopper in a mostly white space. It is never really safe nor is it ever really openly talked about.

I have had several moments where white people feel exempt from this conversation in regards to race because, “I see people as individuals” (basically, “I don’t see color” or colorblind race theory). This particular perspective reveals insidious racism based on how white privilege has seeped into consciousness, rendering Other experiences invisible. It is THE most upsetting for me because I feel like some may not see my lived experiences as legitimate or even there. Further, people openly culturally appropriate traditional Chinese garments like no other. In fact, lindy hoppers have won fashion awards for wearing cheongsams without understanding the implications of wearing  cheongsams. Chang shan (长衫)is a part of Chinese feminist history during the Republican period, as only men were allowed to wear such robes before. Taking the cheongsam from APIA culture is like taking part of my voice and agency away when people feel the need to play “dress up” in yellow face.

I once thought, “Oh, overseas locations will be different. There’s an international crowd.” How wrong I was. Nostalgia for bygone eras has crept into scenes in other countries as well, and I feel even more uncomfortable in my skin. While overseas, both in Europe and Asia, I felt this overwhelming pressure to do swing “the right way.” Event organizers idealized whiteness in fashion, in form, and in movement. What is the right way? Why are the stakes for competitive lindy hop so high? Yes, I understand the beauty in technical and musical form. However, there is also a beauty in social dance I feel is often pushed under the rug or overshadowed by the “glory” of our lindy stars. How frightening this is when the “glory” is mostly white.

This is not to say I don’t appreciate the current rigor of the lindy climate or the fantastic individuals already making waves in the scene. However, there needs to be more diversity and representation. I refuse to go to another event where I can count APIA people on one hand. I refuse to audition for another advanced track when I’m referred to as “one of the Chinese girls.” (How did you know I was Chinese? Did I tell you? Did you ask me?) I refuse to answer any more questions about where I’m originally from. Do I ask you where your parents are from? Do I question your upbringing because you don’t “look like” you’re from somewhere?

This is what I will do. I will interrupt you if I feel like you are being culturally insensitive or incompetent. I will be polite and kind about it, but I will be relentless. I will try to break through the bamboo ceiling of the lindy hop world. I will question everything and everyone, regardless of their “status” as a lindy star or a lindy novice (because everyone is a little bit prejudiced). I sometimes might need a break, because battle fatigue is real. I will pick my battles. I will do it with allies.

I want to emphasize that many will try to write me off as an angry minority stereotype. Beneath the hype, try to remember what I’m saying. There is little representation. Those who have the privilege to speak may decide not to. I want to voice my concerns because they are legitimate.

Here’s to happier, more culturally competent dancers.

#NotYourAsianSidekick,

Yue