(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

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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). Full disclosure: It should be noted when prompted for an APIA swing dancer interview for an Asian American Cultural Center gallery, none some did not respond. IMPORTANT EDIT: Alain Wong was one of the individuals who graciously responded. Otherwise, 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

 

 

 

The Sound of Silence (Or Simply: Consent)

There was a time when I wrote articles about how as dancers, we should say yes to all or most dances. As I dance more and am exposed to more dance environments, I would hesitate to do just that. With Sarah Sullivan’s courageous post a little over a year ago and several other accounts, I can not in good faith tell anyone to dance with just….well, anyone.

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GIF via Cinemagraphs

Full disclosure: I did not know what consent was growing up. I mean, I intellectually understood, but my EQ (emotional intelligence) about the issues surrounding consent left much to be desired. As an AAPI cis female, I assimilated into the notion that people like me were quiet. It’s what the media told me, it’s what each Miss Saigon performance reinforces and it’s what Cho Chang tells in the HP series. Love your oppressor, stay quiet, stay where you are. Be terribly, utterly sad and don’t stick up for yourself.

So, as a result, when someone asked me to dance, I felt obligated to say yes. Now, I know better. There are some dancers who will hurt someone when dancing. I have come away from dances with bruises on my hands from aggressive thumbs or leads who say simply, “You need to turn when I tell you.” If that’s not an abusive relationship, I don’t know what is. I have been TOO SILENT on this issue and many others because I was not aware of my own participation in a system of delayed consent.

Follows, leads, ambidancers–you have GOT to understand consent. A dancer can reasonably say “no” to you because you hurt them, physically or emotionally, when you have danced previously. Or, perhaps you were being unintentionally mean. As a fairly awkward individual, people have confided that I can come off cold or standoffish. However, this is different from a dancer copping a feel. Intent and consent matter. I do know when people are being abusive, and I refuse to stand by as we all get hurt.

Swing Dance Nashville does this wonderful thing during their beginner lessons about how to ask someone to dance. From an educator perspective, the organization does a LOT of modeling about what to do and how to do it (absolutely brilliantly). SDN also takes a moment to show what NOT to do, using humor to draw in audience attention. I think many times in the lindy community, we forget to set behavioral norms alongside the standard “how to step.” We need to model, model, model what good practices look like.

On the dance floor, a creative space must exist where everyone can freely express themselves. Physically and emotionally, the space will fluctuate. Perhaps you might be sad one day, so the physical space you need is a close-knit circle of caring friends. Or, if you’re like me, you just need to get out of that physical space to have emotional space. The point is, everyone is different. BUT…you must, must, must always ask questions and realize what consent means. That is a standard we in the lindy community are obligated to uphold.

Swing Out Syndicate #2: Shot Heard Round the Lindy World

So, first of all, I just wanted to highlight this Reddit post. (Also, did you all know that swing dancing had a Reddit? I mean, I guess everything has a Reddit these days…)

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Having visited this particular scene many times and considering it a home, but also dancing with this energetic, fun dancer…I feel a bit conflicted.  Yes, many lindy hop scenes are majority white. Yes, sometimes I feel a bit alone as one of the only AAPI dancers, or a bit frustrated sometimes. I want more diversity in the scene. (I spent every single outing with my heavily AAPI church in undergraduate begging them to come out swing dancing). I also want people to have fun with each other and not make snide comments. Do I want to leave the scene? No, I think lindy hoppers are loveable goofballs with a TON of wit. Do I think sometimes we as dancers, of any dance, can be a tiny bit rude or snooty? Yes, a resounding yes. We need to be nicer. However, I think there are several scenes out there doing a phenomenal job of bringing the joy, through diversity, a welcoming attitude, and just plain acceptance. To give a few shout-outs: Tulsa’s Vintage Swing Movement, Heartland, and LindyGroove. At LindyGroove, a friend-of-a-friend actually came to pick me up for their big weekend dance. How sweet is that? Further, the author mentions some drawbacks of majority white dancers, but I would like to say majority-anybody can be mean in a scene. I’ve met harsh dancers of many creeds, but I’ve also met lovely dancers as well. I think it’s more about checking your privilege in many cases. Of course, there have been great posts and discussion on both sides, but I just really wanted to gauge what you all think. How do we be more welcoming? How do we love the dancers and communitites we already know?

Mostly though, I wanted to highlight this brilliant post from musician Gordon Au. Instead of encouraging separation anxiety of those in tune with traditional jazz and modern jazz fans, Mr. Au encourages dances and musicians alike to grow in appreciation for fantastic representations in each camp. It’s a bit of an extensive overview, but necessary nonetheless for the dance-happy looking to be more jazz-happy.

Also, did you know he has a rather spiffy Instagram page as well?

Take a lead from Gordon (@gordonautrumpet), leads:

Dig that gorgeous polo coat in the last shot.

Also, before I forget, the first set of Charlie Stone dance flats are SOLD OUT in most sizes. I know, I was quite inconsolable for a time too. Until…I saw these:

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While the Katherine models were in solid black and a red/white model, these new models currently in production are too fabulous. Look at that darling eyelet peeptoe! Look for updates here.

That’s all I have for you folks this week.

Remember, swing out happy!

Love & Lindy,

Y.Y.

 

5th Annual Nevermore Jazz Ball

You know a good event when you neglect your DSLR at home and manage only to take a handful of images off your smartphone. Seriously though, Nevermore. You kill it every year.

As one of the first events I traveled to two years back in my lindy years, Nevermore has a special, coveted place in my heart. Nothing beats the the crisp fall weather on Cherokee and sunshine spilling through autumnal leaves. This year proved just as if not more wonderful that my first lindy encounter in St. Louis.

Thanks to an amazing friend, I was able to secure a party pass fairly late in the game. After an arduous 5 hour drive from Nashville and settling into a great AirBnB, the dancing commenced. Miss Jubilee opened the event on Friday night at the Franklin Room. An expansive ballroom, the floor left dancers a bit wanting in the amount of stick. However, perfectly fine for bal, and of course, St. Louis Shag. Speaking of which, John and Jenny gave a great intro lesson into St. Louis Shag right before the dance. After a few hours of intense, happy dancing, we went just 4 blocks over to the late night Broadway gym venue. Groggy though everyone was, the live band soon sparked happy feet all over the dimly lit gym.

Saturday went by in a whirlwind daze of Cherokee Street strollin’. From ice cream samples to vintage shopping and dancing in fine dining establishments along the way, life felt like such a breeze. Props to all the amazing musicians dotted along the street, from coffee shops to bars alike. That evenings dance left no one wanting, with the fantastic music stylings of Michael Gamble’s Rhythm Serenaders. Hours later, we were still on our feet. Throughout this event, I could feel how “sore” my dance muscle memory was, simply from not traveling too often in the last few months. It was a much needed trip to this beautiful event with friendly dancers everywhere. I, unfortunately, petered out at the late night after scarfing down a Jimmy John’s sandwich (which, in retrieving at 1:30am, was quite the feat itself). Tottering home, I passed out at my AirBnB before driving back to campus in the morning. I managed to catch the fantastic St. Louis Shag competition the next day, but what a treat it would have been to see it live.

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Nevermore never disappoints, as it was the same this year. I am always awed by the level of friendliness, dance floor etiquette and connection with local bands. This jazz ball really captures what it means to love swing–the joy, the rhythm, and the community.

Feelin’ It

The Cheng Gong Elementary dance studio.

The Cheng Gong Elementary dance studio.

One of my good friends asked a poignant question about dance breaks the other day. As someone who has taken at least two long breaks from swing dancing, it really got me wondering about my priorities. Last year, I probably spent more on dance weekends and travel than any other expense abroad. For the first time, dance felt limiting, leading me to events where I was rarely asked and others just assumed I was a beginner.

I remember walking into this studio (which won’t be named for privacy’s sake) for a dance weekend, only to be looked up and down by the other follows there. Some commented about my outfit, others about my shoes. That weekend, I neglected to pack my usual swing dance gear, so I was stuck with what I could buy that morning. It was really upsetting, especially since they all seemed to have a swing dance “uniform.” Think Mean (Swing) Girls, decked out in beige Keds, pastel tops, and neutral skirts/pants. Hello animosity outright. Suffice to say, I was a klutz that evening and left the event in tears.

The next day, I had gone home and came back with more comfortable shoes and clothing. Can you believe I got even more scrutiny? Certain people scoffed that I simply had style inspiration from the instructor, laughing about how I made a scene the day before. Of course, not everyone was like this. Many people were kind and forgiving, helping to bandage my hand or introducing me to places nearby. Overall though, I have never felt more alienated by a dance scene.

When you’re not feelin’ it in a community, it influences your dance and even your self-esteem. Was everyone at the event critical of my outfit or skills? Hardly, but the few who did made me want to shrink into the wallpaper. The most dancing I did in this area was alone, in a studio where I worked.

When you’re shedding more tears at a workshop than laughing or practicing, it’s time to take a break. I used to think lindy was my world, and that I would some day accelerate into swing fame. Definitely not the case today, but I left my dreams so reluctantly and with such bitterness, there was a time when I absolutely hated going out to dance. It felt like a chore.

This brings up something that happened recently. At an unnamed location, I had danced with several people. One bystander decided to make fun of me, pointing out my aimless solo jazz on the side as a means to impress his friend. I felt so ashamed and indignant. Even though I had been enjoying myself, I immediately felt left out. After a few songs, I got up and left.

I ended up skipping a week in my routine to go out dancing. It doesn’t feel the same anymore, and I’m not sure that it will ever again. Perhaps I’m past the honeymoon phase, and it’s time to decide whether this whole commitment has been worth it. So much time, energy, and money spent on learning the right moves, only to learn that people can be cruel in any context? I hope not. I’d like to believe that there’s still something human left in all of us.

Perhaps we need safer spaces, places where it’s not about fame anymore but people.

Wishing you happy feet. 🙂

S.