Revitalization: Shifting Perspectives in Dance

It has been a fabulous weekend. I don’t often say that, but I really do feel as if this is how life should be. It was Midwest Lindyfest, a weekend of dancing. I’ve had bad experiences with too much dancing and lessons and stress and emotions in the past, so this year I chose not to buy a full pass and just went to a couple of the evening dances.

Having the pressure off utterly revitalized my dancing, and I feel like I’ve been completely reminded why I dance at all, and in particular I can see why I want to put more energy, time, and dedication into dancing in the future. This switch in perspective has been a long time coming: I’ve struggled with feeling good about dancing and with incorporating it into my life in the past. But as I’ve gotten further in my treatment for depression and my eating disorder, I’ve started to feel things change. There are some essentials about the way that I approach dancing that have shifted.

Part of this is obvious and easy: I have more energy, I have more coordination, I have more focus, I have more confidence. All of these things will make dancing easier and different. Just like any major change in diet and mood, getting treatment for my mental health and making adjustments in my life has impact most areas of my life. But some of the dances that I had this weekend really helped me finalize a different kind of shift, one that gets more to the core of how I approach dancing rather than simply my abilities.

For quite some time, dancing was an escape for me. Following was a very easy way for me to let someone else take control of my body, to not truly inhabit it, to let that space between self and physicality grow. I suspect that there are many people out there (particularly women) who look for ways to distance themselves from their bodies. One of the major things that has shifted in my self perception has been my ability and desire to be present in my own body. The impact on my dancing is amazing.

I feel like a person again instead of a body that’s being manipulated from afar. Now that my mind and body have connected again, my dancing is utterly different. I believe it’s better, because I think that the best thing about dancing is being really present with another person and with yourself. This ability to be present and mindful has helped me in ways I didn’t even think it would, one of which is to seriously improve my basics.

It’s easy to interpret “being present” as something abstract and spiritual and utterly unhelpful. But there is a hugely physical component to it: feeling where your weight is, holding yourself steady and balanced, being settled in your body without unnecessary tension, understanding how you fit into space. These things are the building blocks of dancing. If you don’t take the time to know your own body, how on earth can you move it effectively? Another part of this is the ability to trust my body. I have had a…stormy relationship with my body for quite some time. There were a few dances this weekend that were so fun that I just let myself go a bit and stopped trying to control everything. I found that most of the time my feet ended up under me and sometimes my “I almost fell down” turned into “wow that actually looked and felt cool”. It’s an amazing realization that my body may actually know what it’s doing.

There is something of a contradiction in this realization though, because in large part it has involved paying less attention to my body. For much of my dance career I spent a lot of time wondering and worrying about how I looked and what my body was doing and whether it felt right for the other person. This was unhelpful. I second guessed everything, I was self-conscious, I was always trying to catch glimpses of myself in the mirror to ensure that I didn’t like stupid (and usually felt that I did anyway). Those dances recently that have helped me to stop paying attention to how I look and start paying attention to what I feel have left me thoroughly convinced that thinking about my body too much is a sure way to guarantee that I will look worse and not connect as well to my body (and if I can’t connect with my own body how on earth am I supposed to connect with someone else?).

Another piece of this realization were the moments that leads really gave me space to express myself. Now normally this freaks me out and I freeze up. I compare myself to how others insert themselves into the dance, I compare myself to the abilities of others. I do this all the time really. When I’m not dancing, I’m watching others and finding myself wanting. But during a few of these moments of time for myself in dance, I found that thinking not about comparison or myself means that I get to think about my way of doing things. It probably doesn’t look quite like anyone else’s, it might even look weird. But if I explore all the ways that my body moves, I will find a whole variety of fun things I can do in my dancing.

I still have a lot of jealousy. That probably won’t ever go away. I still feel sad that I will never reach the level of many of my friends and fellow dancers. But it isn’t consuming anymore because I have had those few dances where I brought something to the table and so I know that by being myself I can contribute something unlike anyone else. This is true for everyone who dances: none of us dances the same, none of us moves the same, each of us will bring something to the dance floor. The recognition that I am utterly unique in my dancing is quite a good reminder that I don’t need to live up to other people, just myself.

Another kind of amazing thing that I did this weekend was remember names. Usually I’m shit at names. There’s at least one person that I’ve danced with for at least a year whose name I only now can remember (I swear I tried). But this is indicative of a bigger shift: a shift from self focus to other focus. Depression is self-centered, just like unhappiness and eating disorders and negativity. It’s easy for people to slip into thinking about themselves and their own needs and feelings. But I was legitimately interested in other people this week. So I remembered them. I talked more. I smiled more. I laughed more. This often leads to more goofy/fun moves because it means you can amplify what your lead is doing in fun ways. It is a complete change in perspective that utterly revitalizes my dancing. It makes me excited to ask someone to dance rather than nervous and uncertain. It’s like every person out there is an entire world unto themselves and when I dance with them I get to experience a little piece of it. Yum.

Dancing feels good again. I can feel confident. I can feel like it doesn’t matter who I walk up to and dance, I’m in control of whether I have an enjoyable dance or not (with the exception of leads who yank and hurt and creep). It isn’t exactly about choosing your attitude, but it’s about choosing your actions and choosing your reactions to things. It’s the ability to see other people again, which is joyful, especially in the context of dance.

And the best thing about this is that it’s partially the result of some really damned hard work on my part, but partially simply a result of dancing with people who are giving. It’s the moments where something goes wrong and one person goes with it and it turns into the best moment of the dance. It’s the sproingy feeling at the end of a swingout. It’s a really juicy hip swivel. It’s finding yourself at the end of a swingout hitting a pose right with your partner (not quite knowing how you got there but knowing it’s right). I may be an introvert, but these moments of communication and togetherness and energy and joy are what I want in my socializing. They’re what I want in my life.

It feels really good to be reminded why you love something, and to figure out that it will just keep getting better.

Depression and Dance

For quite some time I’ve noticed that my mental health and my ability to enjoy dancing interact in bizarre and often unpredictable ways. Movement is often quite good for depression and anxiety, particularly movement that requires just enough though to get you out of your head. Dance in particular has a way of turning into a kind of exhilarating protest against depression, and during some of my very worst times it has been the only way that I can find enjoyment in my life.

But oftentimes depression itself can keep you from finding any enjoyment in the activity because you’re second guessing yourself, you’re comparing yourself to others, and for me, I was even looking at how skinny other women looked in their nice dresses or cute shorts rather than paying any attention to my dancing at all.

I’ve often been left in a space where I contemplate going out to dance utterly uncertain whether it will save me from a bad day or leave me spiraling downwards even further. So why is it that sometimes dance is a lifesaver and sometimes it’s destruction? Perhaps even further complicating the matter is that I’ve noticed recently when I go out to dance and I’m in a decent mood, I am a much better dancer. I have better dances and because of increased confidence and the ability to play around with my partners, I simply have more fun. It’s left me questioning whether I was even capable of improving beyond a certain point when I was in the midst of depression.

As one of my coping mechanisms, dancing has been incredibly helpful. But how on earth do I figure out when it’s a good idea to hit the dance floor and when I should try to avoid it? How do I feel good about dancing when I’m down if I know that I’m not going to be my best dancer self? What is the point of dancing if there’s all this ridiculous complicated bullcrap going through my mind in a kind of calculus of “will I be ok” every time I go out?

These questions hit on one of the most difficult elements of depression across the board: it can be deeply unpredictable, and coping mechanisms are often unreliable. I keep dancing because oftentimes it’s the best I’ve got. Sometimes, the high from a good night of dance can keep me going for a week, looking forward to the next time I’ll get it. Considering the fact that when I’m in a bad place nearly anything can send me into a shame spiral, it’s certainly worth the risk if there’s even a chance that I might get the positive benefits.

The longer I’m depressed, the easier it becomes to match coping mechanism to mood, and paying attention to what sets off certain bad spirals can do a lot to make things like dance a more positive thing overall. I’ve started to get the feel for whether I have the energy to become fiercely pissed off at my depression and drop everything to dance, or whether I am trapped in my head and exhausted. For me, going out alone is the best idea when I’m in a bad place because it means I never have to try to converse, I just have to dance. This is part of using coping methods effectively: figuring out when and how to use them.

Part of learning coping skills is also learning when to abort the mission. This is one of the difficulties of using something that you love as a way to improve your mood. You don’t want to abort the mission. You want to find the good dance, the happy moment, the high. That isn’t always possible, and accepting that is hugely helpful to cutting off bad spirals. Sometimes you will go out and it won’t feel good and you’ll just have to leave.

But what about the interaction of my ability to dance and my depression? Well of course i’m better when I’m not body checking every few seconds. The dance that I do is about fun, so of course I can embody the feeling of swing music significantly better when i’m not in a mood directly antithetical to it. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a bad dancer or that I’m not learning anything when I dance in the midst of depression. It means that I’m learning how to navigate my body, learning steps, learning how to follow better, even if I can’t get into the musicality in the same way. I can focus on a different set of skills here. And in many ways that is fun. It’s a practice of getting out of my head and working on discrete skills rather than trying to work on the more artistic aspects of dance.

It is a fallacy of depression that one should only do things if one will be good or perfect at them, or that one must always be their very very best (or keep trying to be better always). Sometimes it’s ok to simply do something for fun with no eye to improvement (gasp). Sometimes it’s ok to just be where you are today rather than trying to be better or the best version of you. Improvement is a great goal, but it doesn’t need to always be the goal. In this case, I probably am improving something when I dance while depressed: my coping skills and my ability to manage my emotions. Points for me!

Swing dancing is really an expression of energy, body, and connection. These things are all incredibly hard when you’re depressed but when you can capture them they can go huge lengths to making things better. That’s why it’s just easier to dance when you’re in a better place, but why it’s so important to keep trying when things are bad. That’s also why it’s so complicated: all of these elements are deeply out of whack in the midst of depression and can change at any time. But this might also be a case where overthinking isn’t helpful: checking in with my emotions before I head out for the night, learning to accept where I am and  leaving early if I need to may be all the more tools I need in this toolkit.

Because seriously: I love dancing. I’m not giving it up to my mental illness anymore.

The Internalized Misogyny of the Follow

I’ve been on a bit of a dance hiatus for a long time after feeling a bit of a plateau and some serious anhedonia issues that left me feeling uninspired by dancing. However this week I finally got back in the saddle and made it out to a dance. Overall I found myself having somewhat lackluster dances as tends to happen after you’re gone for a long period of time, but my last two dances were with Anthony Chen and they were fantastic. Now that in and of itself is not a surprise, as it’s always fun to dance with Anthony, but what surprised me was how I felt about myself and my dancing during and after the dancing.

In the past, one of the things I’ve loved about dancing is the feeling of losing myself. I don’t have to think, I don’t have to plan, I can trust someone else to guide me and get me where I need to go. I’m not generally very good at trusting others, particularly with my body, and so for a long time I thought that this was progress: I could trust someone with my body, to place my body, to let someone else be in charge for a while and let myself simply go with what was happening.

It’s a feeling a bit like being on a roller coaster: you feel almost out of control, but you trust that you will be safe.

This dance was different. I found that instead of being told where I was supposed to go, I put forward my own energy and found someone else there with me. I contributed. I usually am extremely self-conscious of adding any flare or styling to my dancing. I get scared of screwing it up or looking stupid. I worry that it won’t fit into what my lead is doing. This wasn’t even on my mind during this dance. I simply DANCED and happened to be with another person. Each time one of us added some energy in, the other saw that and raised their own energy level to match. It was lovely.

I realize that this is not a revelation. There has been a robust discussion ongoing in the dance community about changing attitudes towards the lead/follow relationship and about the importance of equal partnership in dancing. I even was aware that this was the ideal in dancing for a long time before I had this dance (there have been few others where I’ve actually felt that I could achieve something close to this ideal). Rather what was a revelation was my own personal attitude towards the experiences of dancing equally and dancing not in partnership. I cannot speak for anyone else when it comes to these types of attitudes, but I strongly suspect that there are other women out there who share them.

I feel more comfortable when I’m not in control of my own body. I feel more safe. I feel as if I’m doing something right when I give up some of the autonomy that I have and let someone move me. It feels like an intense relief to me. Looking objectively at these two experiences, I can see that I dance better when I am on equal footing with my partner, but I am deeply uncomfortable with contributing something of myself to the dance. Instead, I simply want to get it “right” and do what the other person is asking me: be the perfect follow that is just an extension of the lead.

I have noticed this in other areas as well. For all that I hold feminist ideals and strive to be independent and autonomous, I often feel the most comfortable when someone else is telling me what to do, particularly when it comes to questions of the body. I prefer not to be particularly ostentatious with my body. I know that I have internalized these attitudes because society has told me to be more submissive than men, has told me that my body is dangerous, has told me that my body is an object.

Some people might deny the link between the objectification of women and the tendency for female follows to be passive in their dancing, but I know that it is true in my personal experience and I strongly suspect that it may be true for others. I worry that by encouraging women to be follows and that by continuing to teach follows to be an extension of the lead, we are solidifying the internal misogyny of many women. I know it has encouraged me to continue taking a backseat in my own body and in my own motion. It has not encouraged me to take up space, something that I have always found difficult and that I have actively worked to do. It has not encouraged me to be intentional with my body.

And so I worry that the way dancing is approached by many women is from a mindset of internalized misogyny that not only sets them up to dance worse than they could, but also to continue to put themselves in vulnerable positions. I don’t think it’s a stretch that the way we present our bodies and relate to others in dancing can carry over to many other places, even so far as sex (I’ve found that I’m very passive in both contexts out of much of the same motivation: fear of screwing up, fear of disappointing my partner, fear of looking stupid). But more than that, it seems that dancing could be a wonderful place to experiment with new attitudes, new rules, and new behaviors. It’s a fairly safe space (the worst that happens is you have a bad dance), and it’s one of the few places where we actively learn what we’re supposed to do with our bodies. In my mind, this gives dance teachers (especially those who are teaching beginner students) a great deal of power to make a positive impact in the lives of their female students. It certainly means that they should be careful with the language they use (e.g. I once heard a teacher refer to follows as a trailer hitch. Not helpful), and at the very least spend some good time with follows early on in dancing to set up the concept of equal partnership in dancing.

I’d really like to encourage other follows to think about the dances they prefer, the dances that make them feel comfortable and ask themselves about how that might reflect on their relationship with their body or gender. I’m certainly going to be more intentional going forward about not letting myself slip into a passive role, and I am setting myself a goal to learn how to lead. I would be very interested to hear other people’s thoughts about the relationship between gender and style of dance. Sound off in the comments!

Follow Up: From Criticism to Construction

It’s been about a week since I put up a post detailing some of the discomforts I felt with my local dance community and sexism. And I have to say that I’m entirely heartened by the response. I’ve had some people here or there throwing the responsibility for fixing it back on me, but overall people just want to discuss and improve, and that’s GREAT. I feel entirely lucky to be among a community that’s willing to listen to some random girl with a blog.

So one of the responses that I got quite often was “what can we do better”? Now I’m just one person, and so I can’t solve all the problems myself. I don’t necessarily have solutions for all the problems I pointed out, and I would really like to start a community dialogue so that we could draw from more minds and more backgrounds to get all the best ideas. I know that other people out there have ideas that I won’t think of, and I’d like to hear them, as well as hear more about other people’s negative experiences so that we can try to address a holistic picture of sexism in the dance community rather than MY picture of sexism in the dance community. Because of this, I’d really like to invite others to continue commenting, suggesting, and conversing about the issue, and I would really like to facilitate some sort of in-person forum to discuss these questions.

However as I’m not sure that will happen for some time, I do have some suggestions here.

1.Harassment policies at all venues, posted or publicly available.

2.At Heartland the year that I went there was a specifically same sex strictly lindy competition. More of these would be great.

3.More classes that ask their students to switch roles.

4.Classes specifically geared towards experienced students to start fresh with a new part. Oftentimes I think we get stuck after we start in a certain part, and don’t want to put the effort in to go back to the beginning. This kind of a class wouldn’t feel condescending or boring, but would rather meet more experienced students where they are.

5.Potentially a variety of themed dances or songs at events: a gender bender song, a solo jam, etc. I’m not entirely sure about feasibility or usefulness of this one and would like to hear some feedback about it, but I like the idea of having some time set aside for people to try something different on the social dance floor.

6.Invite more same sex teaching couples (when possible).

7.This is more of an individual choice than a community wide effort, but it could be something we could be more conscious of: experienced dancers asking newer dances to dance, and not only asking those of the opposite sex. I know we make a concerted effort to be welcoming to newer dancers, and some of the more experienced dancers also experiment with switching between lead and follow (but generally only with other experienced dancers). But if we want our community to be more welcoming to a variety of kinds of pairings, we have to be willing to model that behavior to everyone right away.

8.More awareness of gender/race/etc equality in our DJs.

The next few are very preliminary suggestions. I would absolutely love and appreciate feedback about the plausibility of these ideas, or variations of them.

9.If possible, some classes that are follow specific, particularly earlier on in dancing, to help follows understand their importance and the benefits of being a follow, as well as to give them more teacher time and focus.

10.Integrated classes between levels: a class with more experienced follows and less experienced leads or vice versa. I think this could help a lot in allowing some of the insights we gain the more we dance to filter down to some of the newer dancers. It could also help new dancers gain confidence. This might also help with the fact that in beginning dance classes we see a lot of simplified metaphors around leading and following. Treating newer or not as talented dancers like they have the same amount of intellect as more experienced dancers can only be a good thing. Even if you’re a newer dancer, you can understand the concept that leading and following are equal.

10a. A potential variation on the integrated class model could be mentors. I know that Peter holds office hours, but he can’t be everywhere at once. If some more experienced dancers would be willing to give a couple hours a week, they could be paired with a newer dancer and given some time to practice or work through things. I think this would facilitate respect between leads and follows, better dancers, and more opportunities for dialogue about the philosophy of dance.

11.More education about rights and space and sexism in the community. I’m really unsure as to what this might look like, but there are definitely some people who really need to be explicitly told that certain things are inappropriate. I’m not sure if this means we have a monthly class about dance etiquette, or when dancers first come in they get some sort of sit down about what’s ok and what’s not…I definitely would appreciate the feedback of teachers here.

12.More discussion around the concept of consent and boundaries. This means understanding that different people have different boundaries and that they may communicate these boundaries to you in different ways. Most of us understand that people can communicate non-verbally: if you go to give someone a hug and they pull away, they are not consenting. We have to respect the non-verbal cues as well. As a strong example of this in dancing, I had a dance in which a leader tried to dip me. I didn’t feel comfortable with it, and so I just didn’t. I pushed back against his lead, and stood on my own feet and basically said “NO” to the move as loudly as possible without actually yelling STOP. However the lead decided to ignore this and attempted to lead the same move two more times with increasing force each time. I know that Shawn has some documents he’s looking at that include dancer’s rights and responsibilities, and I think that posting documents like this, starting a conversation around consent, and exploring what it means to ask for consent is a good start. To leads: you ask for consent every time you lead a move. I give you my consent by either following or not.

An additional piece to this could be to remind follows that while they should follow to the best of their ability, their status as a follow comes second to their status as a human being, and that if a lead leads something they just don’t want to do, they don’t have to. That doesn’t make them a bad follow. It means that they’re setting their own boundaries. YOU GET TO SAY N O. EVERY TIME YOU FOLLOW YOU ARE CHOOSING YOUR MOVEMENT. Remember how much power you have in that.

In line with this, a reminder that clothing is not consent is always great: just because someone is wearing a short skirt doesn’t mean you get to touch her. I realize that sometimes a person might be wearing something that makes it REALLY HARD not to accidentally boob grab or whatever. You’re allowed to not dance with them for that reason. If someone else’s clothing makes you uncomfortable, you can say no to a dance. If you are worried that you might be put in a situation that makes you uncomfortable, you get to say no.

13.Finally, I would like to see the creation of more forums to discuss the philosophy, sociology, politics, and culture of dance so that we can all bring our opinions up and so that we can keep up to date on any issues that might be cropping up. This might mean an internet forum, or it might mean half an hour before one of the events where we hang out and talk, or it might mean a monthly dinner that has an open invite for anyone who comes to dance events.

So thank you to all the people in my dance community for being awesome. I really hope we can continue this momentum and move it into a long term discussion with real impacts.

Losing a Love: Sexism is Pushing Me Away from Dancing

I’ve been feeling really frustrated for some time now and I’m uncertain of what to do. I’ve been noticing some serious problems in a community that I really care about and want to be a part of, and I’m uncertain of how to address them. This is a post about swing dancing and about sexism, and if you think that those two things don’t happen together then you should probably go away right now because I’m not particularly interested in trying to convince anyone that they do exist. What I do want to do is talk about how to react when someone mentions that your scene has a problem with sexism and that it’s bothering them. Two caveats: I don’t travel much for dance, so this post is limited to my local dance scene, and I have not done much by way of digging into other people’s experiences so this is primarily my own experience. However I think that if anyone in the lindy scene is treated as I have been, then it’s a problem.

 

I have noticed from the very first time that I began swing dancing that there was a problem with sexism in my community. The examples of this are too numerous to list in full, but to begin, there is the extremely gendered nature of the lead/follow roles. Some people might suggest that it isn’t sexist to have separate roles, but any time all the people in one gender feel pressure to do one thing and all the people of another gender feel pressure to do another thing, and there is exactly 0 space for nonbinary people, I start to worry. When it’s perfectly acceptable in a class for the instructor to say “guys” for leads and “girls” for follows, even when there are female leads in the class, I get really worried.

 

In addition to the fact that the two roles are gendered, it seems from my experience that they are also weighted differently. In competition, the male’s name is always called first, and he wears the number: he is considered “the couple”. This may seem small, but it is symbolic of a larger hierarchy in which leads tend to get more attention, praise, and time than follows. Follows are generally given short shrift during lessons, particularly in beginning dance classes which focus a lot on teaching leads particular moves. In the vast majority of the classes that I have been in, the male partner of the teacher duo speaks far more often than the female, and dominates the class. More often than not, he speaks exclusively to the leads. Therefore leads get most of the class time focused on them.

 

I have also heard following described in a derogatory fashion many, many times. I’ve done it myself. I’ve seen it stereotyped as easier, lazy, unimportant, or as not contributing. I’ve heard follows referred to as trailers. Leads are told that they’re there to “show off” their follow, as if she’s an object. And as an odd pairing with this, follows are told that they’re “always right” and that leads are “stupid” in a bizarre mimicry of the putting women on a pedestal while treating them like they can’t do anything.

 

And even beyond the gendered nature of the roles and the prioritizing of one over the other, there is absolutely policing of heterosexuality and gender roles in the dance community. Some people might say that everyone is free to choose the role that they prefer, but there is a great deal of rhetoric that men are more suited to lead, and when all of your gender is choosing one thing, you absolutely get jokes or comments when you choose something else. And when you look at who dances with whom, it’s highly gendered. Sometimes women will dance with other women. That is true. Generally it’s their close friends, and when there aren’t enough men around. Men very rarely dance with each other, and a bizarre kind of fetishization takes place when they do: they get cat-called, or watched like no one else does. Men who follow get a lot of attention, but not really for the quality of their dancing, simply for being different, exciting, and “sexy”. Certain styles of dancing are considered feminine, and others masculine (seriously, try being a fly on the wall when an instructor asks guys to do hip swivels. 90% of the men look highly uncomfortable, and the instructor treats them like they’re physically incapable of moving their hips. I realize that women are typically more flexible through their hips but it’s not like we all need to be Nina Gilkenson here folks).

 

Perhaps worse than anything, some of the leaders of our community repeatedly make inappropriate and misogynistic comments and are still hero worshipped. I have even talked to other follows who have been groped while dancing with some of the leaders of our community and no one will bring it up or ask people to change their behaviors. I have absolutely had non-accidental boob and butt grabs happen to me while dancing and that is 100% Not OK. That is harassment. Plain and simple.

 

And yet there is absolutely no system in place to address concerns like this. When I have been grabbed or made to feel uncomfortable, there is no one for me to speak to about it, and I rarely feel as if there is a system in place at events for me to deal with or process it. It could be as easy as instituting a harassment policy in classes, events, or social dances, so that if someone is being inappropriate, there is someone to tell. And in addition to the lack of any oversight about harassment, the reaction when I have mentioned that things might be a little off has been…unwelcoming to say the least. When I try to bring up sexism in the dance community, every single tired old excuse for sexism gets trotted out in front of me.

 

I’m told that’s just the way things are, or that people just happen to feel more comfortable in the same role as the rest of their gender. I’m told that it’s an overreaction, that I’m the “PC Police”. I’m told that men are naturally better at leading, and women are naturally better at following. I’m told that men and women’s bodies move different ways so we can’t expect them to do the same things. I never hear discussion of these issues unless I bring them up, and when I bring them up there is so much defensiveness that I start to wonder if I’m hallucinating all these things that make me feel so uncomfortable and if I should just give up.

 

And that’s a huge problem to me. If someone in your movement takes the time to say that they feel something is wrong, that they feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in some manner, the response that they’re just making it up or overreacting is not the right response. Even if they are overreacting, you should still take the time to listen to their concerns and do your best to address whatever is making them uncomfortable. But when you gaslight, or get defensive, it alienates them and anyone else who might have had similar feelings. It illustrates that you’re more concerned about saving face and being right than you are about ensuring the comfort of the people in your community.

 

If leaders in the community, particularly instructors and those who organize dances, took the time to listen to some of the concerns, they might realize that the ways we can address some of this sexism are things that are fairly easy to institute and would generally improve the community even if sexism weren’t a problem. It absolutely wouldn’t hurt anything or destroy all gender roles or result in a breakdown of all order. It would simply allow more flexibility for everyone to learn all parts of the dance and challenge themselves.

 

Some suggestions:

 

1. Start out beginner dance classes as ambi: switching between lead and follow. If not beginner classes, then at least have ambi classes as an option.

2. Start a series of classes for intermediate to advanced dancers to learn the other part.

3. During social dances, announce one song a night that’s the gender bender song: everyone dance a different part or with a different gender than you typically would.

4. Try starting some dialogues, particularly in more advanced classes, about why people feel comfortable in particular roles and how we can make more roles comfortable.

5. Try to teach across genders: have a female teacher try to teach to the males, or vice versa.

6. Use gender neutral language when teaching.

 

I have a hard time imagining negative consequences to these actions, and if someone has thoughts about negative consequences please let me know. I can however imagine a lot of positive consequences. Each of us has individual talents. Some of them might be more likely to fall in one gender or another, but we all have talents, and if we were to be able to choose our role based upon which one we’re better at and feel more comfortable doing, rather than our gender, I imagine we’d all enjoy ourselves more. In addition, having an understanding of both parts of the dance can only make us better dancers. It increases our number of potential partners. It could help to desexualize many dances (which in my mind is a good thing: I don’t think dances should be sexualized unless both partners want it to be). If nothing else they will make us more aware of ourselves and each other, and improve our dancing by allowing us to understand more parts of the dance. So why do people react in such a negative way? Why are people so defensive about sexism in dancing?

 

To me, this illustrates that some people have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are, or that some people are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of breaking down some of the gender roles and power structures that currently exist in dancing. I’m not entirely sure why, and I’m not sure what they gain by keeping things the way they are. But every time I bring up one of my concerns and am told that people are just joking, or to loosen up, or that I’m overreacting, I become less and less interested in returning to the dances around town. I enjoy myself less and less. I know that dance communities pride themselves on being welcoming and thus may not like to hear that someone feels unwelcome, but one of the most important things to do in order to be welcoming is to listen.

 

And I’m speaking up: I am losing something that makes me extremely happy because I feel unwelcome and ignored due to my gender. I feel like I’ve been actively told to shut up when I bring up these concerns. This is not the way to handle concerns in a community, and it means that you are actively losing someone who wanted to be part of your community. I realize that I have very little power and that whether or not I continue to dance means very little to anyone but me, but I know that I am not the only one who feels this way. If something doesn’t change, you will continue to alienate people. I have no desire to attack anyone, name names, or point fingers. This is likely no one’s fault, but is rather a vestige of the past. All I ask is for some changes, or at least some acceptance that there might be a problem and that we could improve.

The Meditation of Dance

This weekend I will be dancing. A lot. You probably won’t hear from me, and I may have to miss my Monday posts as well because I’ll be really tired. I am VERY EXCITED. Last night was the beginning of my magical dance weekend, and it was composed of three hours on a paddle boat on the Mississippi, dancing to live music. Mm mm good. But beyond just waxing rhapsodic about swing dancing (which I can do if anyone wants me to. Anyone?), I do actually have some thoughts about dancing, mindfulness, mental health, and eating disorders.

 

I’ve mentioned before that I’m in DBT therapy, and one of the elements of this therapy is mindfulness. We’re working on this piece right now in class, and so I’ve been practicing the skills of mindfulness: these are observing, describing, and participating. This may seem easy, but it’s not. First, observing is about noticing, about not missing what’s going on around you. Describing is about adding words to it, and simply saying what’s going on. Participating is the most difficult, because it’s about working yourself in to a situation without forcing it, without overthinking it. It’s the point in dancing where you are dancing without worrying or self-judging or analyzing, but simply dancing. Each of these three skills should be carried out non-judgmentally, one-mindfully, and effectively. This is about being fully present in the moment, about looking at facts rather than judgments, and about doing what you need to do in order to achieve your goals.

 

Last night I did a lot of practicing of these skills. In one dance in particular, later in the evening when I was getting tired, I high-school styled it up with my boyfriend (aaaaw yeah slow-dancing). I let the sounds around me happen without engaging with them. I let myself trust my body and his body, and let myself feel all of the movements he was making, and feel where my own weight was completely. I observed all of the sensations, and yet was entirely present and participating. Throughout the night, I found myself having to purposefully work to be non-judgmental as well as effective. The space was cramped (we were on a boat) and there was carpet, not a dance floor, so I absolutely was not dancing my best. But at some point in the night I made my peace with that, and I found myself much happier for it. I stopped judging whether I was following well, whether I was making a good impression on the out of towners, whether I was having awkward or awesome dances. Instead, I tried to figure out how to achieve my goal: have fun and relax. I did that by simply being where I was and doing what I was doing.

 

Dancing to me is the essence of mindfulness. You cannot dance properly without the right balance of observing and participating. There is always some element of your brain that’s going, making sure your body is listening, making sure you’re aware of those around you, however you always have to be fully present, participating, and one-mindful. You can only be doing one thing while you dance and that’s dancing. The moment your mind starts to wander you’re screwed. And yet you’re always aware of how to make your movements more effective. You’re always striving to get better and reach some goal. The balance of this is that you have to remain non-judgmental, both towards yourself and your partner. When the voice in your brain starts telling you that you’ve screwed up or starts making nasty comments about your partner, all your effectiveness, one-mindfulness, ability to participate, dancing ability, and joy in dancing dissipate. I mean IMMEDIATELY.

 

Because of this ability of dance to promote mindfulness, I think it’s a good practice for everyone to try at least a few times. It’s one of the few things that really forces you to be mindful (even without your consent sometimes). But there’s another element of this mindfulness of dancing that has struck me lately, particularly this morning when I ran across this article.  It describes a study in which anorexia patients were treated with dance therapy. Now I’m most familiar with eating disorders and the symptoms and problems of eating disorders, however I suspect that anorexia patients are not the only people in our society who have some difficulties connecting with their bodies, feeling comfortable using their whole bodies, touching others and being touched, trusting someone else with their body, accepting the weight and size and reality of their body, or moving sensually. Because of these things, this kind of treatment could be extremely beneficial for all sorts of people, but again, I’ll be focusing on eating disorders because it’s what I’m familiar with.

 

Overall the study wasn’t horribly conclusive (it was small), but it did suggest that over time the patients became more comfortable with their bodies. Now I can speak from experience and say with absolute certainty that if it weren’t for dancing I would have nowhere near the awareness of my body that I do, the sense of identity with my body that I do, the ability to try new movements with my body, or the comfort that I’m gaining with trusting others while I dance. I still have a long ways to go in terms of these things, but every time I dance, and particularly every time I dance mindfully, I can feel myself gaining these skills.

 

There is an element of contradiction in having an eating disorder, which is that the only connection with your body that you’ve allowed yourself is exercise, however you have to learn how to connect to your body again and one of the best ways to do that is movement. That movement has the potential to lead back into exercise and the disease, or it has the potential to help improve your life. The difference is the mindfulness. The difference is whether you allow yourself to observe what your body is doing, how it’s moving, and to simply participate in it. When we dance, if we resist what is happening, we are resisting our own bodies, our own momentum. If we trust what is happening, we learn that our body can be trusted.

 

Another interesting element of dancing is that it can allow you to be sensual and connected with your body without being sexual. For many people sexuality is scary. It is not the best place to start with trusting your body and becoming comfortable in your body. It’s more vulnerable than we’re comfortable with. However our society is not very good at non-sexual touching, or trusting someone with your body in a non-sexual manner. Again, this is all about mindfulness. It’s about participating without judgment. When you judge something, you are taking the facts and adding something to them: either good or bad, some sort of conclusion. A touch is just a touch. Someone’s hand on your back is just someone’s hand on your back. In the context of larger society, touch means a lot more. In dance-land, that’s all it has to mean. You are allowed to safely be non-judgmental.

 

All of this comes with the caveat of dancing in a safe space. Some places are not safe. Some places have creepers, people who will cop a feel, people who will dance forcefully and painfully with you. But when you dance in a place with people you trust to treat your body respectfully, you can gain a great deal of self-knowledge, particularly about how your body moves, how you relate to your body, and how your body relates to others. From personal experience, this can be integral to reconnecting with your body and moving forward in treatment. But it can also be beneficial for anyone who wants to learn how to be more present in each moment, who wants to be less judgmental, and who wants to practice being mindful in context. It’s a wonderful way to practice letting thoughts go and refocusing your mind on the task at hand so as to be able to participate.

Dancing, Empowerment and Space

So yesterday I wrote about the privilege of having space, and yesterday I finally managed to get out and REALLY go dancing. There have been a few times in the last month where I’ve gone to dance events and haven’t really asked people to dance and generally just been a soggy blanket of “I’m too lazy everyone do the work for me”, and thus didn’t get dances in and didn’t get the benefits of dancing that I love so much. But last night I had a “fuck it I’m dancing” attitude, had some FANTASTIC dances, and really just let loose during some of the line dances (which I love because I feel no shame when I’m surrounded by other people looking just as foolish as I am).

 

And as I’ve mentioned before, one of the things that I love about dancing is that it requires that I take up space. It demands that I take up my own space, that I choose who shares that space with me, that I creatively interpret space, and thus MAKE space my own. It makes me bigger. It puts me in control of my body and the space that it occupies. As someone who is often part of groups (women, the mentally ill) that don’t get the privilege of space, or who are kicked out of other spaces, this feels fantastic.

 

And it got me thinking. One of the most powerful things that a minority group has is often its culture: the particular things that they use to co-opt space. More often than not these are art forms, because that is what they have access to. And one of the most powerful of these is dance. When people’s spaces and rights are taken away from them, one of the things that they almost always manage to find a way to do is dance. One of the myths about the origins of Irish dancing is that it originated when individuals were held captive and didn’t want their captors to know that they were expressing themselves, so they danced in such a way that if a guard looked in and only saw their upper body, it wouldn’t be apparent they were dancing. It was a way to co-opt the space and make it their own, a form of rebellion.

 

Or to look at the evolution of the Lindy Hop itself, it was often a way for all-black communities to break into the ballroom culture that they were barred from in white communities. It was a way taking the concepts of music and dance, but making them into something that a particular minority community did as a way of expressing its roots and its feelings to separate it from the majority community: the lindy hop of black ballrooms was NOT the dances of the white ballrooms (as told in Frankie Manning’s autobiography).

 

Now of course these dances then get overtaken by a majority culture that often exoticizes them (lindy hop was included in revues and shows as a cultural or exotic dance for a time), but the beauty of it is that no majority culture can ever take away the ability of another culture to move their bodies in space. When lindy hop was overtaken by primarily white dancers, things like hip hop started to emerge in its place. When hip hop got taken over by white dancers, we see crunking and other variations. And while I have never been an African-American dancing, I have been a woman dancing and I can guess that it feels damn empowering to choose how you move your body and to express yourself in a way that is uniquely your own, taking up space, reforming space, and interacting with others in a space that you choose to give them. Dancing is a form of empowerment.

 

There’s also a reason that you can “battle” with dancing: it’s about space and about who takes up the most space. It’s about who is the biggest. However for me, competition has never been the heart of dancing. The heart of dancing has always been about welcoming others into your space and about creating more space for yourself. My problems often don’t get space: they’re invisible (unless you talk to yourself and then you get shut away in spaces like mental hospitals). Taking space for myself is like taking space for my problems too and it feels GREAT.

 

(Photo credit to Ben Hejkel. If you can find me, props)