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My grandad was a tall, handsome black man. When I say black, I mean black. His skin was a delicious chocolate brown, and his forehead shone brightly when he exercised. I grew up on a healthy diet of stories and negro spirituals which told me in his own kind and loving way of the kind of racist bullshit he dealt with living in a white society.
I am a swing dancer. When I dance, I feel my grandad’s presence. We dance to old jazz and big band tunes, the kind of music my mother sung to me as a child. Blues dancing is a kind of swing dance which is slow, steady, and deeply rhythmical.
James Baldwin was another inspirational black man. He lived during the Civil Rights movement in the USA, and wrote stories, novels and essays about the racist bullshit he and his family dealt with living in a white society. Don’t worry, I had never heard of him either, until my mother, shocked that I had never encountered one of her heroes, bought me a copy of her favourite novel of his. From the first sentence, I was sold.
The reason that these three facts are related – James Baldwin’s activism, swing dancing, and my grandfather – is the concept of appropriation versus appreciation. Let me tell you why.
Swing dancing was started by blacks in America as a way of taking the piss out of fancy white people in their fancy ballrooms doing fancy dances. In the same way that jazz developed out of a Negro confidence in messing with music, so to was swing dancing a form of unregulated self-expression. Well, the story as I understand it goes a little like this – black people swing danced at social events that they ran for themselves, lindy hopping their way through their usually impoverished existences, and then once upon a time some white folks realised that that kind of dancing was really cool and decided to join in. Swing dancing became almost a bridge for social change – suddenly, blacks and whites were able to enjoy dancing as equals, and then racism basically ended through the power of love and dance and music! YAY!
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Except, of course, not really. The Savoy ballroom in Harlem, NYC, was seen as the home of lindy-hop. It was one of the only ballrooms where blacks and whites could dance together as equals. Yet a few metres down the road, a ballroom called “The Cotton Club” would not admit black patrons, only black musicians. In fact, celebrated dancer Norma Miller described how Harlem was virtually “taken over by white folks” in the evenings who wanted to see the Black show.
When the Second World War came in the 1940s, artists like Glen Miller pushed more risqué artists like Duke Ellington and Count Basie out of the picture, by creating a more organised, less violent sound. If you compare the hot jazz of a song like Duke Ellington’s “Old Man Blues” with the dulcet orchestral tones of Glen Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”, you can understand why the latter is what inspired the US government’s u-turn on its regulation of swing music (which was once thought of as dirty). And of course, once you have a white guy in the charts regurgitating what black folks had been doing for eons in a white fashion, it becomes cool. Just look to Elvis Presley and Eminem for further examples of this.
So how does this little history lesson relate to swing dancing, my grandad and James Baldwin? There is always an argument in my mind about whether or not the genius of those black Harlem jazz musicians would have ever been remembered independently of white appreciation. Similarly, would swing dancing have ever undergone its current revival if it wasn’t for white folks celebrating it again? In my (albeit limited) dancing experience, in the entire (albeit limited) Scottish and Northern English dancing scenes, I have met – wait for it – three other coloured people. The vast majority of swing dancers I meet are middle class white folks. Which is fine – except that is not what swing dancing historically has been about. And there seems to be very little discussion about this.
So after reading some of the James Baldwin book my mother bought me, I went to a blues class. During the post-class social, our teacher played some delicious slow, nitty gritty blues music, with wailing harmonica and delicious twanging guitar. As I danced, I found myself nearly in tears on my partner’s shoulder. I think the memory of the humiliation faced daily by the characters in Baldwin’s books, and the humiliation of intelligent yet drastically undervalued men like my grandfather is epitomized by that music. That music, that dance, was a mournful, grief-stricken expression of the pain of being black in America in the 1920s and 30s. And then, looking around the room and having my gaze met by loving, wonderful, white faces profoundly upset me, because that story is so rarely shared and celebrated.
It’s not because these people are white that I feel disturbed – far from it. Swing dancing is amazing – I’m so proud of its heritage and its culture, and I want as many people to swing dance as possible, because I believe it makes the world a genuinely better place. However, there seems to be a tragic lack of discussion on the actual origins of swing dancing, and the kind of culture we are appreciating – or appropriating. I think that needs to change.