Random Writing

These bits of writing aren’t exactly about anything or for anything, but they’ve been floating in my head and I need to get them out. Here they are. A bit of what it’s like with anxiety and depression.

 

It’s hard when you have a bad day when you’re depressed. When other people have a bad day, they go home and they rant about the things that went wrong. But when I go home on the verge of tears and someone asks what happened, and if I want to talk, I have no words. Nothing happened. I woke up, a little tired as usual, I went in to work, did my usual things, had a therapy appointment, came home and took a nap. I purged. I had dinner. I went back to bed. That’s it. Nothing happened. But that doesn’t stop the weepiness from showing, that doesn’t stop the tightness in my chest, that doesn’t stop my hands from bunching into tight little fists whenever I stop moving. It doesn’t stop my thoughts from whirling around and around. It doesn’t make sense.

Last night, when I got home, I did all the appropriate Self Care actions. I let myself rest, I put on fuzzy pajamas, I watched a TV show I like. I finished an episode and something hit me all at once. The air went out of me, and it felt as though something was being pulled from my chest: my heart or my soul or some other unnamed bit. When it pulls, I can feel my jaw and my tongue aching downwards. Tears are pulled from my eyes and onto my chin. I shake and I don’t know why, but no matter how many times my face contorts into some disturbing silent grimace, I can’t still my heart or my mind. I won’t make a sound. No one needs to know because I won’t be able to explain, because it came from nowhere, because there is no reason or purpose except that everything is wrong and my ribcage is empty and my muscles can’t contain all the hatred and fear that’s inside of me. There’s a claustrophobia to it, as if there is not enough space for me, so I scrunch in on myself and hug my legs and rock, hoping that I can expand the world past my toes again. It never works. Somewhere in my mind, I notice that I’m having a panic attack, that there’s ways to deal with this, that I could go find some ice and put it on my face, but me, the me that feels and exists in the here and now has no time for that because breathing is taking all of my time and if I stop then my body might rip itself apart.

It hurts. There’s shooting pains down my chest and across my collarbone, cold like when you chug ice water too fast. My head is stuffed. I know it’s thanks to the mucus filling my sinuses, but it feels like all the thoughts have taken physical form and are now living below my eyes, tramping and stamping and pushing their way outwards. I am not vessel enough for them. They want their own life now.

I don’t know when it will stop. I don’t know if it will stop. If it does, there’s a hollowness to my face, filled to the brim with snot and pain and confusion. My mind has gone numb and I cannot come back. You are all very far away today. I try to smile though. That’s what I’m to do, isn’t it?

 

People are rough. They’ll rub you raw and then walk away with no further thoughts. Some of us blister and callous until the skin grows thick. The sharp edges no longer puncture. But my skin does not grow back. Every day I lose a layer of myself, and I’m down to scraps today. I’m trailing grated skin behind me: you can follow my path back to the party, to the first tear. It couldn’t be avoided. And since the first rip, each word has pulled and pricked and rubbed until I am left losing myself with every movement. How do I grow a new self?

What You Know: Reading Fiction and Nonfiction

I was talking with a colleague the other day about loving to learn and about what kinds of things I like to learn. He mentioned that he can’t read novels because there are simply so many nonfiction topics to learn about that he can’t imagine wasting time on fiction. While I can understand the drive to learn as much about our world as possible, I can’t understand cutting fiction out of my life. Most of us understand what we learn or gain from nonfiction: straight facts or insight into phenomena or incidents in the world. However there’s a lot of people who appear to miss the real learning we can do when we read novels.

As a novel junkie, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain how I view fiction as a source of knowledge.

Many people see the arts as beneficial because they allow us to connect to each other, or to feel emotions. These are good things, but they aren’t direct lessons or sources of knowledge. In addition to catharsis or other emotional and/or spiritual (in the sense of connective) elements, there is a little more to fiction. In my mind, the most important thing we can learn from fiction is empathy. When we allow ourselves to enter into someone else’s mind and story, we learn about what it’s like to be another person. We learn about other experiences. We learn how to imagine what things might be like for someone else. This skill provides us with a great deal of straight information, and as we partake in this process in each novel, we gain facts about what it’s like to be each character in the novel. While no two people are exactly the same, these insights can help us connect with real human beings and understand their motivations, histories, and experiences.

In addition, we can also understand a bit of the human psyche by reading fiction. A good author will create characters who react realistically to their surroundings, who have understandable and realistic emotions and motivations, and who make sense as human beings. Spending time in someone else’s head can help you not just to understand a specific type of person, but to understand some basic human psychology. Again, this provides you with some additional empathy.

Depending upon the genre, you may also learn something about history, a certain place, a particular incident or phenomenon, or a group of people because of the setting. Again, many fiction authors spend a good deal of time researching and understanding the setting of their novels so that they can create something that is realistic and will teach you through the story.

But there are more difficult things you can learn by reading novels. Novels are made up of characters facing difficult situations. This means you as the reader are asked to contemplate those difficult situations, and you are left with a deeper understanding of ethics, as well as your own character. You can find new roles models (I learned feminist ideals from many of my childhood and teenage reading), learn what sort of person you don’t want to be, or imagine ideals in things like friendship and family. Literature often tackles deep philosophical questions, and while you may not directly discuss them while reading, you do still find yourself thinking about them and wondering what your own reactions might be.

Examples of these issues from books I’ve read:

1.What does it mean to lie?

2.When should you trust someone?

3.Should men and women be treated the same?

4.How should you treat a friend?

5.Are adults trustworthy?

6.What makes life worth living?

I also have read fiction books that tackled everything from mental retardation to pregnancy to life in poverty to being a rich socialite. You get insight into each of these worlds, you get to inhabit each of these worlds for a time and hopefully understand better the perspectives of individuals in these situations.

In addition, the conversations that arise out of novels and fiction are hugely important to informing our sense of self and our knowledge of the world around us. We see which things we react to and we can begin to understand why when we discuss novels and fiction with those around us. We may gain empathy for one of our friends or colleagues by hearing their interpretation or perspective on a book or movie. All of these things are real and true forms of knowledge: they’re knowledge about what it’s like to experience things, and that is something that you can’t gain from nonfiction.

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.

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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)