Dancing Towards An Inclusive Worthing

B.L. (Jan 2020, before lockdown)

I’ve cycled in the belting rain to catch an interview with someone I’ve often seen dance, but never spoken with. I last saw the Worthing Lindyhoppers give up a gorgeously sharp and stylish performance at the South Farm Road Traders‘ 2019 Christmas street party. I can hardly type that without feeling like I made it up. Hundreds of people crammed festival-style close together, eating street food, buying craft goods, being entertained and drinking beer. Shouting and laughing in each other’s faces. God God, I’m sure there were probably even a few coughs happening, it being December.

December 2019.

Lindyhop Amanda, here from Hove since 2019, tells me: Worthing reminds me of home – I’m from Blackpool. I missed the hospitality and the friendliness and I re-found it here.

Themes by now very familiar to this blog come up: a great place to raise kids, good schools, swapping a small flat for an entire house, getting a garden, being able to live close to greenspaces and beach, less congestion and hassle, laid-back friendly vibe. Plus, there’s loads to do and so much family stuff – the summer of circus was amazing. Family festival days here are free and a round on the bouncy castle was £2 – in Hove it was £10 even to get in to the park! I wasn’t into all those Hove mummy and baby groups – they were so expensive. Things need to be accessible. This is what makes a community – it’s inclusive. I like it that Worthing’s not so ‘exclusive’, there’s a really nice ethos here. Even the businesses that are doing well and making money are community-minded. All that’s missing here is quality indoor things for the kids within walking distance – like a big indoor soft play.

And apparently we do well compared to uber-posh Hove on another score:-

I’ve worked in drugs and alcohol and there’s really nothing much going on here: in Hove there was nos, syringes, all sorts. Here we have this amazing park, the kids go everywhere on scooters, it’s all safer and less congested.

From what she sees, incomers are more positive about Worthing than the old-timers, who do sometimes throw wet blankets onto all this joy – when the elections came, I thought – oh, that’s a bit disappointing.

Yes. WoBy remembers feeling energised by the street buzz on election night: uplifted to see so many folk out queuing to vote, convinced that a wave of positive change was coming. Our neighbourhood felt full of engagement and community connection. Then massive deflation when results came in, with the realisation of just how many of my smiling neighbours must have voted Tory. OWs (original Worthingites) are very friendly when you pass the time of day while out dog walking. Some of them are probably a lot less friendly when you start to talk about migration, or public spending, or colony and empire. But Worthing demographics are rapidly changing – as the upcoming census will remind us.

Young families make up a large chunk of the positive changes happening. Amanda tells me that she did pre-relocation research on a lot of online parent fora. Shoreham has a lot of people moaning about potholes and dog poo. Worthing has a lot of positivity – and also some substantial responses, with people reaching out to offer advice and help. Worthing Mums and Dads is brilliant – very helpful.

For over 10 years, Amanda has run Brighton Lindyhoppers with Graham, and, since arriving here, Worthing Lindyhoppers on her own. How did that all start?

I was living in London, hated it. Someone said, ‘stop moaning and go do a course’. I loved the music so went to do Lindyhop. But I wasn’t a dance lover. I never even did ‘drunk dancing’!

Amanda reckons that she has no natural ability for dance and even had two left feet, but that Lindyhop is so easy that anybody at all can learn it. From the way she talks about it, Lindyhop sounds like something you might pick up as a fun hobby or way to socialise, rather than because you’re already a dancer and looking for something new to try. For the next 30 minutes, we talk about Lindyhop as fun, as therapy, as excercise, as sociability, as self-expression, as builder of community.

As longtime jivers (that’s another post), the WoBy house has come across Charlston and related moves, but to be honest, all I knew about Lindyhop was my old Saturday-afternoon black and white movie favourite, the Hellzapoppin film – sometimes said to be the first media expression of the Lindyhop form. Here’s a – slightly weird, yeah – ‘de-oldified’ or colourised version of that iconic clip:-

Yup, you can be sure that Worthing Lindyhoppers aren’t going to be expecting you to do those kind of advanced moves. But they do respect the tradition.

We teach in the tradition of Frankie Manning.

Ooh, yes, heard of him. Here he is, with his son Chazz Young, doing the ‘Lindyhoppers’ anthem’, the Shim Sham.

Lindyhop is all about free expression and getting into the music. When you look at absolute beginners and very advanced dancers, they look very similar. It’s inclusive.

In that spirit of inclusivity, which clearly means a lot to Amanda, When Frankie [Manning] was dragged out of retirement to teach Lindyhop, he said he’d only do it if there were no exams, no dance studios etc. This is why we teach in pubs – you’re not in a studio with lots of big mirrors, people don’t come in and change their shoes. Any flat slippy shoes – like worn-out plimsolls – will do. And we try to do free stuff all the time, like free lessons, summer try-out events. We don’t want money to be a barrier. We also encourage dancing with people between different levels. Everyone can dance with anyone.

WoBy has to push a bit at this claim of inclusivity. Lindyhop sounds like affordable fun, yes, but what about questions of sex, gender, race? (You know I can’t let that go. We’re in the business here of paying attention to all that stuff).

Yeah, there is a ‘lead’ and a ‘follower’, but people do tend to switch. After even just one class, you’d be able to lead or follow to one song. We teach everyone both lead and follower, and you pick. At the beginning of every class we teach all the footwork and break it right down. It’s a free and fluid dance: you learn 4 steps, learn the rules – and then break them. It can appeal to anyone who doesn’t like traditional partner dance or prefers free expression. And Lindyhop isn’t about being a ‘sexy dance’ or offering a ‘pull place’: it’s all about the dance and the music. The scene encourages a non-binarised attitude. Anyone can ask anyone to dance (and we also have a code of conduct and a right to refuse). Male followers and female leads are encouraged and accepted. We’re trying to break down the idea that men lead and women follow. Programmes like ‘Strictly’ don’t help.

Amanda and I resist the temptation right there to do a ‘deplorable things about Strictly’ talk. (This delicious PhD thesis from Craig Owen talks us through some of the gendered and hetero stuckness within the UK ballroom dance scene). WoBy can point queer dancers (ha! that’s plenty of queers, then), to Brighton’s longstanding medal-winning ballroom scene, via Cheek2Cheek. (Yes, they’re in Brighton and yes, this is a Worthing blog, but we can all get on the train every now and then and go mingle).

Lindyhop promises inclusivity with regards to social class, money, sex and gender, then. But what about race?

Take another look at the Hellzapoppin video above. Black folks doing dance for the media consumption of white audiences. A very familiar story. Who hasn’t marvelled at the Moonwalk? Who’s had a go themselves?

Now look at the video below. White folks wanting to learn the dance. Lines and lines of them, following behind Chazz Young. There’s hundreds of videos like this on YouTube.

Is there a problem with this at all? Is this different from white people doing the Nae Nae, which is usually clearly understood as a form of cultural appropriation?

White folks have long since turned towards a Blackness that they otherwise repudiate, for pleasurable consumption – or, often, in order to put on a bit of cool or street-cred. Christopher Sturdy’s post about ‘This is America’ lays out some of the issues here. For a longer read, Wesley Morris’ NY Times article tracing some of the histories of Black music and the marketing, taming and stealing of that music, ranges over plenty of moments we need to know about. These run from minstrelsy and blackface, across through the story of Elvis and on to recent history, with country radio’s refusals to play Lil Nas X ‘Old Town Road’ and Billboard’s exclusion of that song from its country genre charts. (When Black and queer threads show up blended into a country music style, you’ve got some really interesting cultural work going on, as Morris points out, and as this essay by Bruce Britt also notes).

Amanda is thoughtful and immediately knows just what I’m talking about.

We always teach the history of the dance, the Afro-American origins. Lindyhop has become, I guess, a bit of a white middle-class sort of dance, but we’ve got forums and discussions where we’re talking about all this.

That’s great to hear. WoBy follows the ongoing discussions in another dance community about name shifts and – most importantly – practice changes as that particular dance form matures from an appropriated / inappropriate ‘belly dance’ into ‘tribal fusion’ and, most lately and with great thoughtfulness and unpicking, ‘transnational fusion’. Donna Mejia’s open letter to her dance community is a landmark essay and points some paths forward for dancers and lovers of dance.

Donna Mejia’s Jan 2020 points for reflection and action are worth repeating here:

So, what does it mean to truly embrace global citizenship and be a family? Moving beyond lip service to inclusivity, joining this family in earnest would require an acknowledgment and meaningful engagement with our:

  • Interconnectivity: beyond the interplay of nation states, 58.8% of humanity is presently connected to the Internet. The epoch of our tipping point has been reached.
  • Intersectionality: the ways in which our identities overlap, complicate and compound the negotiation of social exchanges
  • Interdependence: we need each other to exist and survive
  • Stewardship: responsible caretaking of the environment and eco-spheres we inhabit (individually and collectively)
  • Inclusiveness: we treat all with the values we wish to be treated with
  • Fostering of open exchange: celebrating and learning about each other does not negate our own culture, but the power differential in our interchanges would need to be examined carefully to avoid distortions and exploitations
  • Embracing of multi-dimensionalism and complexity: we do not require reflections of sameness to feel comfortable because we have internalized a locus for our own self-worth. The benefits of difference become legible to us. We no longer fear the unknown and unexpected.

(Taken from https://donnainthedance.com/2020/01/10/transnational-fusion-dance-an-open-letter-to-my-dance-community/)

(Sidenote: if you’ve not yet engaged with discussions around cultural appropriation and you need to dig in a bit to what it is – Lauren Jackson’s 2019 book ‘White Negroes’ talks about the “transfer of black aesthetics to white bodies”. If you’re not sure why Lil Nas claiming country music as part of his own repertoire is ‘turnabout’ and is different from white country club types doing a choral version of the Nae-Nae, the shortest answer is: relative power/privilege. Read Cianna Bisant‘s piece for more. A young white student on her blog Honestly Hannah does a helpful, painful and honest self-reflexive breakdown piece about how this stuff works and shows us the kind of self-education we white folks need to be doing.

It’s really great to hear that the Lindyhop community is engaged in this work, mindful to be sure they engage in cultural appreciation, not appropriation, respectful of roots and literate in their tradition. I leave Amanda determined that I’ll pop in soon to one of the classes and give this a go.

Toodle-oo, Amanda. We could not have imagined what was coming next.

A.L (March 2021, after lockdown)

Lockdown was hard on dancers. The Woby Home has a decent speaker and a Nanoleaf setup, but no amount of music, lights and beer ever got us near to the atmosphere of the Cellar Arts Club on a Saturday night. We signed up back in May for an online zoom party, which was great, with DJ Pix-alot giving us tunes and Poi Passion / Amaruq providing LED performance displays, but most of us on the party were sitting on our sofas – watching rather than dancing.

God knows I own plenty of leggings and there’s an ocean of 5 rhythms playlists on Spotify, but doing expressive dance at one end of the living room while the rest of the family sit at the breakfast bar scrolling phones (and occasionally looking across sardonically at me) was no match for being in the proper space.

I caught up this week with the Lindyhoppers. They’re raring to go again and have suffered from the lockdown dance drought, although they too have been kitchen dancing all year and organising at-home events.

Keep an eye on their pages, cause you know that as soon as it’s possible, they will be out and dancing, teaching, moving. This year, if safety allows, WoBy expects (hopes) to see mass outbreaks of dancing all summer long and beyond, as we reclaim one of humans’ most fundamental impulses.

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