Size Matters and other Annual Ruminations

I started this blog three years ago because there wasn’t much Lindy related to read online. I thought I might as well start my own site. Much has changed since then, and now everyone has something to say.

I think that’s great. Some people don’t think so. I’m discovering how little faith my friends have in free speech for the masses. I’ve been accused of being a bit of a populist though. One thing I’m realizing is that what I’m looking for in online discussions is probably not going to materialize because it comes down to the fact that our scene isn’t that big.

Of course you have to ask, who are we including in this definition of “scene?” If we counted everyone who has ever taken a Lindy Hop lesson, then you could say tens maybe even hundreds of thousands of people. But you know most of those people never stick around. Do we count those people who just call themselves swing dancers? Those people that do a lot of side by side Charleston, but view any other moves using more than 6 counts as a foreign concept? Do we count the Blues and Balboa communities? I’m sure some people would object to including anyone that can’t swingout, but if that were the main criteria for being a member of this community, then we’d have to kick out most of the people who call themselves Lindy Hoppers.

Do you count all those local dancers that come out every week, but never travel or are not even interested in the latest YouTube clips of Skye & Frida? Do you count those dancers that made the finals of every competition they entered six years ago, but now only come out to the local dance once in a blue moon?

I think about these things because I get the impression that many people, especially those newer to Lindy Hop and its associated dances treat it like it’s much bigger than it is. And out of those people, a few of them seem to think that they can get away with things as if no one would notice or call them on their bullshit.

The latter is actually fairly true. A lot of people just don’t like confrontation, and when you inhabit such a small sphere, any blow ups tend to get some on you as Rebecca Brightly talks about in her Anti-Gossip Manifesto post on her blog.

But the flip side of that coin is that the only way to get any kind of reliable information is via word of mouth. Sure, we’re connected more than ever via Facebook, YouTube, and numerous blogs, but rarely does anyone speak frankly online about teachers, events, and musicians outside of saying how great they are.

The fact of the matter is that local scenes and big events alike are made or broken by lots of intangibles.  You don’t want to fill your event with unnecessary drama by pairing up instructors that don’t like each other or musicians and dj’s who aren’t attentive to dancers’ needs. Not all of us have the luxury of jet setting from event to event to judge for ourselves, so the only way you find out those little details is by asking around.

The result is that it’s pretty easy to learn a lot of crap about a lot of people you wouldn’t normally find yourself in a position to know. Most of it isn’t true, but surprisingly, a lot of the stuff that is true is actually more outrageous than it deserves to be for a dance that should have died out sometime after the Japanese surrendered on the USS Missouri.

On the one hand, people get paid real money for this stuff. When you think about the fact that a bad or even neutral comment can make the difference on whether or not a person will make their rent payment for the month, then it’s easy to see how shit gets real very quickly for some people.

For others, I think what makes some of it unreasonable is that many of them lack any kind of perspective. That’s sort of the void I try to fill here with this blog. However, I’ve been finding that harder and harder to do lately. The reason is because there are times I just want to be completely up front about someone or something. Not just give friendly advice or ambiguously non specific criticisms to some namelessly gender neutral dancer. Sometimes, I just feel like straight up cutting somebody.

There’s this one dancer out there that’s been doing all the right things for the past few years. Placing in competitions; (even winning a couple); performing the big performances; Brownnosing networking with the right people. But no matter how hard they knock on the doors, they’re not getting hired with any kind of consistency. Being an introvert, I tend to shy away from people, but I’m sorta looking forward to the day when this person finally gets around to pulling me aside and asking me why they are not getting the gigs. To which I’ll respond, with no ill will, “It’s because you’re an asshole.” But the reason why I would be able to say something like that is the same as the reason why I don’t need to.

Let me back up a bit. Every once in awhile, I play this thought experiment and wonder what would have happened if it wasn’t Frankie. What if it was the other way around and it was Dean Collins who had lived to his 90’s while Frankie, for whatever reason, was not brought into the spotlight?

By most accounts from people who knew him, Dean was not a pleasant man. In fact, quite a few of the surviving old timers take pride in the fact that they lack the kind of tolerance to deal with most of the rhythmically challenged people that come to Lindy Hop. In addition, contrary to the quaint images we have of many of them, there are many stories of some of them holding dance business related grudges to their graves.

Maybe he had some of those old time grudges in mind when Frankie chose a more kindly worded path going into the revival of his dance career in the 1980’s. So many people out there have stories of Frankie giving them encouragement, or even him telling them how good they were. I’ve seen videos of some of these people. Even by the lowest of standards of those days, much of their dancing should have barely qualified for politest golf claps. Gotta wonder what Frankie thought in those instances. Frankie had fine eyesight, and he was not an ignorant man either. Yet, he was always able to display a kind of warmth and generosity that seems quaint in our very self aware, irony laden internet age.

On top of that, during the three decades of being the dance’s unofficial ambassador, the odds of Frankie running into some ignorant racist crap by some otherwise well intentioned people is astronomically high. At Lindy Focus this past year, Lennart Westerlund, one of the founding pillars of the modern Lindy Hop scene, recalled having a Black & White party to create some interest and excitement in preparation for the first time they brought Frankie’s former teammate, Al Minns, to Sweden in the mid 1980’s. In this case “Black & White” meant everyone showed up to the party wearing black face.

After Frankie passed away, at Frankie95 I heard Norma Miller just be in awe of Frankie’s power to bring so many different people together. This was a woman who was there on Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. She was an entertainer for decades after tearing up the Savoy Ballroom, but even she wasn’t sure she had the kind of patience that Frankie had to deal with all of these people.

Recently I was at Midwest Lindyfest where they had their last dances at a venue they were about to lose. As my local friends left for the last time, they looked up at an illuminated picture of Frankie that Peter Storm had hung up. We joked a bit at possibly genuflecting or kissing that portrait. We laughed it off, but there was enough of a pause in that conversation that I think some of us actually gave it a moment’s serious consideration.

Earlier that weekend, I had a super long conversation with Peter about the near religious significance of the way people view Frankie and his “message.” So many people are now interpreting his message for their own purposes; some of them having nothing to do with dance. It kinda makes you understand how the whole Tower of Babel deal went down.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of venerating Frankie into near saint status, but he was a regular person. I’m pretty sure the US Postal Service, where he spent a significant part of his professional life, didn’t care about Hellzapoppin or the Big Apple. Do the math on the ages of Frankie and his eldest son Chazz and you’ll find a kid who didn’t always have dancing as a priority. But we mostly know Frankie as a person who loved to dance, and did everything he could to help others experience his joy for it. That passion now connects hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people across the world. Whether we know it or not, we’re all caretakers of that legacy now. However, we do not live in a vacuum. Everyone affects everyone else.

I usually operate under my own version of the Prime Directive. I like dancing. I like watching dance. I like talking about dance. When I can’t do any of those things myself, I like to spread the word about stuff I like as done by other people. What I don’t do is post something and say, “Hey look at this! This sucks!” At best (or worst) I try to post with open statements, so people can go into them with open minds. The reason why I do that is because I want to see people to continue to post good, fun stuff for all of us to enjoy. I don’t want people falling into the trap of seeing something cool and trying to replicate it with diminishing returns. Kinda like most iterations of Christianity after 1054 AD or flashmobs. Especially flashmobs.

Quite a few dancers have magnanimously invited me to publicly critique their work even in cases when it’s not so good. I usually just nod and smile at those offers. It may not seem like it, but I am way more cynical towards the way I critique dancing in private than I am online. I keep a lot of those thoughts to myself because even with stuff that I find very tired or weak, I recognize that the only way for our dance to continue to grow is to maintain a big tent attitude towards people’s efforts.

I gave a talk recently to a local swing club, and I think I may have underestimated how developed our scene was when the big revival hit in the late 90’s. Really old timers refer to the many different revivals that have occurred over the past 30 years or so. So by the time the infamous Khakis Swing Gap Ad hit in 1998, there was a decent sized network in place to spread the Lindy love. Herrang had been happening every summer for a decade and a half. Organizations like the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association, The New York Swing Society, and the Washington Swing Dance Committee had existed for almost as long. On top of that you had guys like George Gee, Bill Elliot, Tom Cunningham, Dean Mora, Paul Cosentino, and the Carling Family playing swing dance music for years, and in come cases, decades in places very far removed from any possibility of notoriety or a reliable paycheck. Much the work of all of these people was fueled by the kind words of Frankie.

It’s the hard work of these people that made it possible for young new dancers like Nina Gilkenson, Skye Humphries, Frida Segerdahl, and so many more concentrate on getting really really good. By building and nurturing the Lindy Hop scene, they’ve grown it to a point that allows people who have never danced or played music as little as a few years ago to actually be able to call themselves professional dancers and musicians today.

Despite or probably because of all the blessings and opportunities that that this scene bestows on people, I can’t shake the feeling that one day, I’m going to have to butt heads with someone in a very hard core way. It almost happened once. It’s silly to think about because this is Lindy Hop, right? It’s just a dance.

But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say on one hand that this is a great community that has all these wonderful opportunities and then turn around and say that none of it is a big deal when you suspect people are getting screwed over.

This is Lindy Hop world that I struggle to comment on today. I don’t post as much because I don’t have much to say. It’s because I’m still trying to figure out how to say it.

It’s easy to say that we should all follow Frankie’s example, but sometimes you have to say something. Just recently, the folks over in Baltimore had a very public, if somewhat vague, discussion about people making others uncomfortable. This is an instance where my faith in the democratic nature of our scene is validated. Despite the influence of one man like Frankie, the scene and the dance is bigger than any one person. Sure there are some very not honest people out there, but the masses seem to do a pretty good job of recognizing quality dances and dancers, events and event promoters, music and musicians. It’s not that hard to figure it out. Sometimes it’s just a matter of looking up view numbers on YouTube, and sometimes you just ask around.

Still, I’m glad that we have decent people to set a good examples. Check out this video (you knew there had to be a video eventually)

One of the reasons why I like this performance is how Skye and Naomi include this random guy. This could have easily just have been two of the most influential dancers in our scene holding court for the masses to admire. Instead they sandwich a bit of simple social dancing in between choruses of the Shim Sham, a line dance that Frankie taught everywhere he went. The beauty of which is it has so much room for individuality as everyone here demonstrates. We can all do the same thing, but we all don’t have to do it the same way. I think it’s a nice allegory for our scene.

The nature of our community is such that we all take turns taking the lead before melting back into the crowd. Lindy Hop is a social dance. A lot of people have different interpretations of it, but one thing that is irrefutable is that it cannot be done alone.

7 Comments

  1. Thom said,

    June 11, 2012 at 3:28 am

    Great post Jerry. I don’t have anything particular to say in this reply, except that I want you to know that some of us miss your blogging. As ever, you are right about so many things.

    Oh, and I can take a pretty educated guess at who the arsehole is. In fact, some people on my local scene were recently approached by someone offering a workshop, and I advised them not to book for precisely that reason. I guess we’re talking about the same person, but if we’re not, that just makes two of them missing out on gigs for the same reason. Lesson: don’t be an arsehole.

  2. candacekay said,

    June 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Nice post, and thought-provoking. I can see the awkwardness of wanting to warn people off some so-and-so, yet not wanting to sound like a so-and-so yourself. It’s one thing to come out and say “Dean Collins was a jerk” and a whole ‘nother thing to say “Joe Schmo IS a jerk.” I guess if I were tempted to trash someone I’d want to make sure first that it was really in the interest of helping someone else not get screwed over, and not just because it’s fun to badmouth people. On the other hand, it’s NEVER a bad thing to give praise where praise is due.

  3. Kevin said,

    June 11, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    So do you feel that our scene is still too small or young to have significant critical evaluation going on? Is social cohesion more important than social “accountability” for us now? Is that sort of what you’re getting at?

    • Jerry said,

      June 11, 2012 at 4:41 pm

      I’m hoping the size of the scene allows for accountability on a very broad basis, but fear its still small enough where an all out brawl would take out a lot of bystanders.

  4. Apache said,

    June 11, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    Awhile back I made the decision to stop writing event reviews. While because many other people did them already was a factor, the main was I started to feel I couldn’t write completely candidly.

    As an organizer I know how beneficial or deadly word of mouth can be for an event. Even though I don’t have the readership the size of larger blogs such as yours, push came to shove I decided I didn’t want to risk being known as “the asshole who pubically badmouthed X event.”

    I’m glad you wrote this post. Weighing the value of being honest and how to convey your views in a tactful manner versus the cost of potentially burning bridges is never an easy decision.

  5. June 12, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    I think the problem is we take ourselves too seriously in the wrong ways, and not seriously enough in the right ways.

    As in, lindy hoppers feel safe squabbling over scene politics, like it’s some big life-or-death thing. That time would be better spent learning and applying good people management, financial, and business skills (for example). It’s really too bad we don’t take it that seriously.

    When we treat lindy hop as a respectable vocation, higher level discourse will come out of it. There’s only so much you can do when you’re grabbing for every dance dollar you can get, and there’s constant downward pressure on prices and pay.

    I’m glad my husband has a good job. It means I can blog more. Yes, my blogging is a direct result of him having a respectable job and income.

  6. dogpossum said,

    June 26, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    This is a really interesting post, Jerry.
    I’ve found that while I’m quite active online, I really have no idea about the nitty gritties of scene politics in other countries (hellz, even within my own country). So I’m pretty sure I’ve missed 99% of the references you’re making in this post. And to be honest, because I don’t know 99% of the people involved in most dramas, my care factor is quite low when it comes to extra-scene dramas and politics. And I write this as someone who _loves_ gossip.

    I just LOVE it. I love a story with lots of drama and all the complications of hooman emotions. I don’t like mean gossip or nastiness (I’m not especially interested in someone’s slagging off person X just because they had this one fight this one time), but I do love hearing all the details of some complicated drama. Especially relationship dramas. I love love stories. And love stories with dramatic endings. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I have a rubbish memory, so I tend to forget the details as soon as I’ve heard them.
    If it’s gossip about working conditions for volunteers or DJs or teachers, or some other issue of equity or exploitation, I’m inclined to act on my opinions. I usually begin by finding out the real story, then thinking carefully about what I might do. Frankly, if someone is getting screwed, then I see it as all our responsibilities to help. Community, yo. Just gotta be tactical about it. And gentle. I don’t think it’s helpful to stew and stew on something that enrages you. The rage just burns you up and makes you unhappy. And that’s no good for anyone.

    So when I write about high profile international teachers, for example, it’s unlikely I’ve met them in person, or ever will, except in passing at one event in Australia. I try to remind myself that this is no reason to be cruel: play nice. Be nice. But be firm. I think there’s a reluctance to question the opinions of ‘famous dancers’ just because they _are_ famous. When being a good dancer doesn’t really make you a better teacher, or even right. Unfortunately my experience in academia has trained me to engage critically with ideas, and to speak up if I don’t understand or disagree. That’s not something that most teaching and performing models in the lindy hop world can accomodate today. We’re meant to just shoosh and do as we’re told. So I have trouble remembering to be properly obsequious when it comes to dealing with ‘famous people’. Raised by hippies, I tend to think ‘we’re all just hoomans. Be kind, but don’t kiss arse just because someone’s got ‘status’. Kiss arse because you love that arse.’

    The biggest challenge I’ve found in engaging with American dancers online, is that there are some pretty fundamental cultural differences. We just have pretty major ideas about what’s polite, what isn’t, what’s kind and what isn’t.

    RE Apache’s comment about reviewing events:
    Lately I’ve been wondering about how I should approach reviewing CDs (which I do now and then). Reviewing CDs by bands I know specifically for dancing readers isn’t like the reviewing work I used to do for academic journals. The stakes are far higher. Honest reviews are more useful than politically safe ones, but it doesn’t take much to hurt a musician’s feelings. I’ve decided to take it on a case-by-case basis, reminding myself to be kind _and_ honest. I’m keeping track of useful references for reviewing here: http://dogpossum.org/2012/06/how-to-write-reviews/


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