Gender Drama in the Lindy Blogosphere

There has been a blow-up in the Lindy Hop blogosphere having to do with questions of gender.  I speak here about two blog posts in particular.  Nathan Bugh, a friend and occasional partner of mine whose teaching prowess and analytical understanding of the dance I greatly admire, wrote a blog post called “Ladies First.”  (That’s Nathan in the photo header of my website.)  Setting aside the title for the moment, the post essentially makes a pedagogical point, arguing that when it comes to effectively teaching lead/follow technique, the dance is constructed in such a way that the follower’s technique is logically prior to the leader’s technique.  I won’t paraphrase the argument, as I think Nathan summarizes it quite well in the following paragraph:

“However, when it comes to learning and teaching lead/follow skills, the follower’s technique is a much higher priority than the leader’s.  Her dancing ability, her awareness, strength, balance, use of the floor, etc. are the elements from which spring her following ability AND the leader’s leading ability.  She is the beginning of the logic in the dance.  In class, the followers empower the leaders to learn.  Leaders judge their progress according to the results that their partners embody.  Followers are the focus of the lead/follow process, and they have to follow before the leaders can lead.” (emphasis mine)

To flesh out the context of this post a bit further, I would argue that by now it is a commonly observed phenomenon that often in Lindy Hop classes, instructors structure their teaching such that they are mostly speaking to the leaders about how to lead moves.  Instruction given to followers beyond “and followers, follow” can tend to be lacking.  (As Nathan says in a Facebook comment related to his post, “In moves classes, teachers should make sure the followers have something to practice that doesn’t depend on the leaders’ rightness.”)  This phenomenon is one motivation that led to the creation of so many follower-focused weekends in the mid-2000’s, including my own Southern Belle Swing Bash weekend.  (NB: In 2009, Nathan attended Southern Belle as a guest leader/helper.)  It’s also my anecdotal understanding that the dynamic I’ve just described has improved somewhat, partly due to the influence of such events.  In fact, one reason that we decided to stop organizing Southern Belle was because we perceived that the “point” of the weekend had ceased to be as relevant as it once was, which is a good thing.

[Sidebar: This perhaps points to what is often a controversial point among feminists, namely when and whether some particular feminist initiative ought to view its ultimate goal as its own dissolution.  For example: ought we to hope that “science for girls” programs ultimately become obsolete, because “regular” science programs finally incorporate a perspective on gender that enables them to effectively do outreach to both girls and boys, thus bringing girls into science at the same rate as boys?]

Given the above context, when I first encountered Nathan’s post, my initial reaction was that it was refreshing to see a perspective (advocated by a high-profile international instructor, no less–and a dancer whose primary role is as a leader!) that elevated the importance of the follower when approaching the pedagogy of the dance.

Not everyone shared my reaction.  Notably, frequent gender-and-Lindy blogger Sam Carroll over at Dogpossum was less than impressed.  I was disappointed in Sam’s analysis of Nathan’s post, particularly because I have often agreed with many of the points she makes in her blog posts, and I greatly appreciate the service her blog does in keeping gender alive as a topic of conversation in relationship to the dance.

From what I can gather, Sam has two major problems with Nathan’s post.  One is the title, “Ladies First,” and the other is Nathan’s use of traditionally gendered pronouns (“she/her” for followers and “he/him” for leaders).  While I’m sympathetic to Sam’s perspective on both points, I believe she elevates offense over these two points to a level far above what’s called for, given the subject-matter and the ultimate thrust of Nathan’s post.

The title “Ladies First” harkens to an old trope in which (white, straight, upper-class) women were placed on a symbolic pedestal, paragons of virtue and innocence, but simultaneously weak and helpless.  Therefore: chivalry.  I don’t feel the need to go on and on about this point and why “ladies first” as a social convention is problematic.  Personally, as a very independent, can-do feminist woman, I nevertheless take the view that most contemporary social expressions of chivalry are also signs of respect and caring towards a person, and I try to make those signs gender-neutral by, for example, opening and holding doors for men.  [If you want my rant on chivalry, ask me sometime about men who “help” women with their luggage on airplanes.]

If you know Nathan, it’s immediately clear that the title of his post is tongue-in-cheek.  Perhaps Nathan makes a mistake by presuming that everyone who might come across his post would grasp that.  So, while it may be worth critiquing the title, the content of the post, as the meat of what Nathan has to say, is really much more important and should actually help to shed light on the intended connotation of the title.

I already highlighted (above) the paragraph that I believe sums up the point Nathan tries to make in the post.  Sam, however, fixates on the potentially problematic use of pronouns in the post and infers (incorrectly, I argue) that his fundamental point is: “that we should give follows more attention in class so as to best improve the leads’ dancing.”  This conclusion is problematic because it misreads the central thesis of Nathan’s post.  Nathan says: The followers’ learning is (logically) prior.  Sam says: Nathan says the leaders’ learning is prior (in terms of value).  I think a good half of the problem here is the dissembling and misunderstanding possible when we use words like “responsibility” and “priority” which have multiple meanings depending on context and usage.  Sam says, “Language is important: the words we choose reflect and affect the way we think.”  Language is important, and I think this is an example of a time in which it pays to attend more closely to the words that we use so as to be as clear as possible.

Nathan claims (rightly, I believe) that leaders rely entirely on the results that followers embody to assess the quality of their leading.  This is descriptively accurate.  If it is therefore also the case that, logically speaking, leaders cannot improve their leading (through analysis of the embodied results) unless their followers are following well, that does not necessarily entail that the only reason we ought to care about followers following well is in order to improve leaders’ leading.  Presumably, we want followers to follow well AND leaders to lead well, and both in service of the partnership dancing well together.

Sam critiques Nathan for gendered use of pronouns which she believes imply that leaders are (always) men and followers are (always) women.  Rather than engaging with the pedagogical point that Nathan makes about the structure and logic of leading and following, Sam jumps to the conclusion I reject above: that Nathan must think that the only reason we ought to pay attention to women (followers) is in order to help men (leaders) improve.  “Making women responsible for men’s learning is so boringly old fashionedly sexist, I can’t even begin to engage with it.”  I think there are a lot of problems with this sentence all by itself, but I won’t go into them here.

The main point that I want to make is that, rather than taking the gender-neutrality of leading and following seriously, and then asking whether Nathan’s thesis about the logical priority of the follower holds up under those conditions, Sam uncritically accepts the assumption she accuses Nathan of making in the first place.  (That is, that all followers are women and all leaders are men.)  How clearly that assumption jumps out if we substitute those words: “Making followers responsible for leaders’ learning is so boringly old fashionedly sexist, I can’t even begin to engage with it.”  Without further evidence that Nathan is a sexist jerk, what’s called for here is benefit of the doubt.   Sam makes assumptions about Nathan’s values and his beliefs about gender on the basis of his use of gendered pronouns, without any additional evidence regarding Nathan’s character or his beliefs regarding gender and dance.  She writes, “I think that Bugh’s consistent use of gendered pronouns reveals the gender bias at work in his thinking.”  And yet: “Though I know he’s quite popular with students, I’ve never done a class with him, I’ve never met him or seen him in real life, and I think I’ve watched maybe two or three clips of him dancing.”  Sam takes Nathan’s use of gendered pronouns–a use that is massively widespread and which reflects the actual demographics of leaders and followers in our community–as sufficient basis for accusing Nathan of gender bias.  This strikes me as, to put it mildly, a stretch.  It also strikes me as sloppy thinking.

Ad hominem kitteh sez, ur wrong... ...bekuz ur stupid!

Rather than celebrating a refreshing perspective on the centrality of followers (who are overwhelmingly women) to the lead/follow logic of the dance, Sam manages to turn Nathan’s words around and claim that here’s an example of the awful specter of sexism in Lindy Hop rearing its ugly head.  I strongly agree that there are plenty of problematic gender dynamics and instances of sexism in Lindy Hop which deserve public critique.  However, I really don’t think this is one of them.  Partly I don’t think so because of my personal knowledge of Nathan’s character, although clearly his post ought to stand on its own merit whether one knows him or not.  (Hence my perspective that Sam’s criticism of the title is probably on-target.)

Sam’s commentary about how we ought not hesitate to disagree with or criticize international dance instructors is well taken.  Yes, it’s okay to disagree with someone you admire.  But implying that anyone who’s defending Nathan against her critiques is doing so because they like or admire him–rather than because her thoughts about his post are potentially wrong or mistaken–precisely dodges the call for public debate and disagreement that she claims to support.

I’m a proud feminist.  I’m a strong advocate for gender equality in Lindy Hop.  And I’m very invested in promoting the voices of individuals in our community–especially high-profile individuals–who are also advocates for gender equality in Lindy Hop.  While in general I greatly appreciate the contributions that Sam makes to discussions about gender and dance, in this particular case I believe that a) her criticisms are for the most part not substantive, b) she is mistaken in characterizing Nathan as part of the problem, and c) she misses an important opportunity to celebrate a perspective that places followers–who are overwhelmingly women–at the core of the learning partnership.

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6 Responses to Gender Drama in the Lindy Blogosphere

  1. dancewithgina says:

    It was just brought to my attention that comments weren’t enabled on the post. It should be fixed now–comment away.
    Also please note that Nathan has written an updated version of his post: http://www.jazzasmovement.com/followers-first.html

  2. I really miss Southern Belle and everything it stood for – it was more than just a follower-focused weekend, it was also, a chance, to come together with other followers, mostly women, who I didn’t always get to meet at dances, and share in our sisterhood of awesomeness. For my specific involvement, I was invited to DJ as part of an all-female DJ lineup (which I couldn’t do that year, but did DJ the following year – I can’t remember if it was all-female the year I DJ’d, but probably mostly female) – this invitation blew my socks off and continues to stick in my head as other events (especially larger events) continue to hire mostly male DJs. I’d love to say that we don’t need events like Southern Belle for gender equality or to give women a voice, but maybe we do…or maybe we just need to have more discussions in the community about these issues, like we are having, so that we can continue to spread the word and potentially effectuate change.

    So thank you for running Southern Belle as long as you did, along with thanks to the other organizers. I’m also sure there were other reasons considered in the decision to end Southern Belle’s run other than its relevance, but I did want to let you know that the event was appreciated for much more than the relevance indicated here.

  3. I also disagreed with Nathan’s general gist, which you summarize as “The followers’ learning is (logically) prior.” I suppose you can look at it that way**, but how do I know what a straight lead forward even feels like as a newbie? It’s so easy to forget that follows are just as lost and confused as leads. It can be equally argued that the lead’s learning is logically prior. In fact, that is how I learned what things were supposed to feel like–by dancing with more experienced leads.

    There other two problems I see with this followers first approach (or a “leads first” approach, for that matter):
    1. It’s too easy to become dependent on your partner doing things correctly.
    2. The person dancing the “prior” role has strong potential to feel pressured into perfection, to feel responsible for her partner’s learning.

    Both of these are not so great for the learning environment. And how can you keep them from happening when you emphasize the learning of one role happening before the other? Under this model, if the follows fails to learn, this prevents the other side from learning to lead.

    Nonetheless, having more experienced dancers in class is always a plus, regardless of their roles. Why not have more mixed-levels classes? That’s what we do on the social dance floor, anyways. And research shows that one of the most efficient ways to learn is by practicing as close to the “real thing” as possible.

    Only in partner dance have I experienced such strong segregation of levels (as opposed to in my other dance classes, yoga, and most recently boxing). I feel like we miss out on the benefits of mixed-level classes. In his original essay (can’t find the reference now), Nathan mentions that technique is only one of many things to teach in lindy hop. Different people are good at different things, and we can all help each other.

    **I also think teachers might have success teaching this way, since women tend to have greater body awareness/dance experience than men in our culture. Teaching the women so you can help the men might just be picking the lowest hanging fruit. But again, it’s not necessarily logical outside of the cultural context.

    • All that said, if the gist of the post had been “followers’ learning needs are just as important as leads’, and we should teach them equally!” then I would have been ALL about this post.

    • * says:

      Rebecca,

      I had a similar reaction to yours, and the problematic nature prioritizing either following or leading as essential (and responsible) for learning.

      What makes me sad/torn about reading these posts is that it seems so incredibly obvious that we should teach following skills as much as leading skills in our classes. But, I suppose the message needs to be shared.

      Gina,

      Thank you for your perspective, and your hard work in the Lindy community. Your points definitely give a depth to Nathan’s article that I did not read. While I still disagree with the basic premise–very much in the way Rebecca does–I think this post does a great job turning the focus back on the question of his actual thesis.

      Aba

  4. Pingback: Is there a “wrong” way to dance Lindy Hop? (Or: The Youtubification of the Lindy Hop, Part Deux) | Dance with Gina

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