Recently I had a brief conversation with a prominent Balboa teacher who also dances Lindy Hop, in which the person claimed that “Lindy Hop has become all about pageantry.” When I asked what that meant, exactly, they explained by saying that 10 years ago, if you asked a beginner or intermediate dancer what their goals were, they were likely to say something along the lines of, “To have great social dances with people of all levels” or “To be able to follow anything that’s led on me.” Whereas today, that same beginner or intermediate dancer is more likely to say that their goals are “To join a dance team/troupe,” or “To do a performance,” or “To win in a competition.” Furthermore, this teacher claimed that even social dancing is now often about dancing “for those three people watching” rather than for one’s partner.
I must say that on the whole, I agree with this assessment. Dancers’ goals seem to have shifted over the past decade in a way that reflects a shift in values or emphasis in the scene. I believe the evolution of dance events away from exchanges and towards competition/workshop weekends is further evidence of the trend. It’s exceedingly rare these days to attend a dance weekend in which there is not a single competition or performance. “Pageantry,” or the desire to show off and been seen, has definitely wormed its way into the heart of the contemporary Lindy Hop scene.
Of course, Lindy Hop has always celebrated performance and competition. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers produced many amazing performances for both live audiences and movies, which is why we benefit from the chance to see them dance on film in “Hellzapoppin,” for example. The Harvest Moon Ball and competitions at the Savoy, like the one for which Frankie invented the first air step, prove that one-ups-manship and a competitive spirit have been part of Lindy Hop from the get-go. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Savoy would have still been packed with dancers every night of the week even if there had never been any performances or dance competitions.
Thinking over this change in the scene, I’ve come to believe that much of it is a reflection of a larger societal shift in how we interact with and perceive one another thanks to the ubiquity of social media. Everyone knows that the self we pretend to be on Facebook is the best, most attractive, fun-loving, accomplished self we can be. In fact, many see our societal obsession with Facebook as evidence of a general trend towards narcissism. My hypothesis is that Lindy Hop has become sucked into this trend, as well. As one of my friends put it when I suggested this idea to her, “Yeah. If you aren’t Youtube-able, no one really cares about your dancing. Because who are you?”
These days, Youtube footage from any major competition will often be available for public consumption before the event is even over. This means that when you enter a major competition, you know in advance that whatever you put on the floor will probably be seen not only by the judges and the audience gathered there, but likely will be posted online and seen by Lindy Hoppers halfway across the world. Of course, there are great benefits to this. I get to enjoy watching dancers from Korea, for example, do amazing things that otherwise–unless I flew to freaking Korea–I’d never get to see.
But I’d argue that the “benefit” of insta-Youtube is much more about the sense of self-satisfaction that one gets from knowing that one’s hard work and performance will be propagated so widely. Every time one performs or competes and there’s a camera present, which there virtually always is, it raises the specter of self-aggrandizement and ratchets up the pressure to do something that’s really worth watching. If you lay something down that’s amazing, again and again, the possibility for you to “be somebody” in the scene is accelerated massively by the exposure that you receive through posts of your performance to Youtube, which are then shared on Facebook or highlighted in dancers’ personal blogs, etc.
Furthermore, the immortal nature of anything posted to the internet increases the pressure for anything that you do in front of a camera to be your best possible performance. Many of us know the humility that comes from seeing a video of yourself dancing many years ago when it’s clear how far you’ve come since then. And while the video evidence of that progress is rewarding in its own way, I’m sure many of us would prefer everyone to forget that we ever danced so poorly. Or at least for that video evidence to quietly disappear from Youtube.
I believe our contemporary 21st-century tendency to want to curate our most attractive online selves, combined with the wide reach that Youtube and social media provide and the ubiquity and immediacy with which video is shared, all combine to create a massive pressure-cooker that encourages people to devote increasingly more time to preparing to be seen dancing. Hence we practice and develop a choreography with a team for 6 months out of the year, or finish one performance at one event and shortly thereafter feel we must start over immediately and develop a new one, because everyone will now have already seen the old one, even if we only actually performed it once.
The tendency to identify ourselves with the online self that we craft and curate for social media and the internet is so strong. We share every mundane second of our lives online, posting status updates and Instagrams and Vines about everything we do. Ultimately, I believe it’s robbing us of the freedom to just be in the world without reflecting on how we will look or how others will perceive us. To be concerned about what others think is simply human, for sure. But if we allow that concern to grow too large, we wind up living our lives constantly preoccupied with how we look, instead of fully living into and appreciating the moment. When we continue to allow Youtube to dominate our dance scene, to force dance events to take up social dancing time with competitions and performances, we start to lose the opportunity to just focus on the music, our partner, and the creative joy of sharing a dance with another person.