Author Archives: Zack

About Zack

The Jazz Monkey

6 Starting Points to Make Aerials Safer

Hey Monkeys!

I haven’t posted in a while, mainly because I’ve been super busy with tons of exciting new projects…

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Exhibit A.

…Aw, who am I kidding? I’m just a lazy fuck. Not unlike your bratty cousin whose novel is “already practically written in my mind”, I got a shit ton of those “almost complete” articles on the back burner, just waiting to be mercilessly unleashed upon the unsuspecting masses of my tens of followers.

Here’s one of them.

Today, kids, we’re going to talk about staying safe while airborne. Specifically while practicing aerials and tricks in dancing of course.

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The only help I could provide here would be color matching pointers. Get your shit together, Chad.

First of all, I love tricks and aerials. I think they’re an inherent part of Lindy Hop and swing dancing in general, dating back to the very origins of the dance, and anyone who doesn’t think so can go f… Err, do whatever it is that people do instead of appreciating the historical value of aerials. It’s fine to not like them, or think they’re stupid, just don’t give me that “authenticity” bullshit.

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The subtleties of connection, ladies and gentlemen.

So this is definitely not some sort of manifesto to scare people into letting go of their dreams of flight, which has been a worthwhile – albeit often misguided since the days of Icarus – human pursuit for millennia. Rather, think of it as an exploration into finding ways to not get your shit wrecked. On the other hand, this is of course by no means an exhaustive list or a miracle aerials potion, and if you’re any kind of serious about aerials, you should get *way* more information, talk to your instructors, and get extensive training before even thinking of letting them wings spread.

I repeat: this is a comedy article, not some sort of DIY aerial training. If anything, and if the average article on here is any indication, it will make you dumber. You have been warned.

#6 – Know Thyself

When starting aerials or tricks, you should assess your general state. First of all, how in shape are you? For both the thrower and the throwee, physical shape is important, and if you can’t, for example, muster five push ups without feeling strained, maybe take a few steps before trying something that will actually break you. The deceptive thing about tricks and aerials is that pros make them look effortless – it’s literally their job to do so. But there are hundreds of hours of work behind that – you can’t just pick up diesel gas and make a space rocket out of it.

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Don’t take Kerbal Space Program’s word for it.

And before someone feels the need to lecture me on fat shaming: this has little to do with your actual body weight. Some skinny people have absolutely shitty stamina or strength, can’t jump for their life or can’t lift a stapler – and vice versa. It’s about honestly assessing your ability to actually do the required actions without hurting yourself or your partner. And if you find yourself falling short of your ambitions, consider training laterally – going to the gym, jogging, bulking up a bit – while tackling more modest tricks in the meantime.

Self-evaluation is not only a task you should do when starting out, but every time you do aerials, and I mean that quite literally. Every practice should begin and end with a checklist assessing your physical and mental shape at that very moment. How’s that shoulder feeling from yesterday’s practice? Is your mental space cluttered by your shitty roommate letting a raccoon in the house last week?

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“His name is Rocket, you asshole, and he likes Oreos.”

How do you feel about your partner and your coaches today? How is your attention span, do you feel secure with today’s program?

If anything is off, acknowledge it, talk about it, and incorporate these realities in your rehearsal because, whether you recognize it or not, they WILL influence your performance. I’ve seen the Superhero syndrome, where someone thinks they’re above something bad happening, lead to needless injuries countless times.

#5 – The Three Ps: Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Warm the fuck up, idiot!

I’m the first one to have been guilty by omission on this issue many, many times, and I paid for it. Many studies suggest that not every warm up is good though, so get your ass informed – over-stretching, for example, can actually increase the risk of injuries by putting unnecessary strain on your muscles. Stretching is best reserved for after rehearsal – another too often skipped step. For preparing your body for the maximum amount of abuse, it’s generally better to do a full body mini work out; you never know what body part your meatbag will choose to fall on should shit hit the fan.

Speaking of which, a motto you should live by when acrobating (I decided that this is a word now) is “everything that can go wrong, will”, so the first thing you should prepare yourself for is screwing up. Sounds stupid, but falling training is one of the most overlooked aspects of aerialzing (also a word), and goes a long way towards preventing injuries. Think of the many ways a particular trick could go wrong, and then mimic that situation in a controlled environment, using falling techniques and training your body to react fast and avoid injuries.

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In short, become the ninja of fucking up.

There is a serious plethora of extremely qualified instructors out there. I was lucky enough to train extensively with Yuval Hod and Natalie Gomes, veritable beast-people when it comes to aerials, but there are many, many others. Trust me, learning aerials by yourself is not only a shitty and often painful process, it is also downright dangerous. So preparation also involves homework and finding coaches that suit your style. As in dancing, some coaches will suit you more or less – keep looking!

Finally, make sure you have access to the proper equipment. For more complex or dangerous tricks, going to a bona fide gym equipped with harnesses and mats is ideal. Make sure to have enough space to do the trick and remove anything that could hurt you or your partner or get caught in your foreskin or something. Jewelry, belts, or piercings are usually important, if surprising, sources of injuries. Speaking of which…

#4 – The Risk is not Always Where it Seems

Aerials can sometimes be difficult to assess – the most dangerous aerials are often not those that *look* risky. There are many ways to evaluate where a trick falls in the danger zone.

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Also called the Archer Scale.

As a general rule, anything where all the partners have their feet towards the floor at all times can be considered pretty safe on the spectrum. Add a kick to that, such as the kicking A-Frame or Jump for Joy, and that’s already harder – you run the risk of not getting your feet back under your butt in time.

Partner contact is another big factor to consider. Anything that involves letting go of your partner is significantly more dangerous than when you have constant contact. A clarification though: just because your partner is touching you the whole time doesn’t mean they can *support* you the whole time. You gain Danger Zone points, for example, if at any moment during the aerial your partner can’t actually physically help you by supporting your weight.

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Unless your partner is Doctor Strange and he can levitate you. Then you only have to worry about the Dark Dimension.

Rotation on any axis is the next important risk multiplier to look for. Even if your feet are always facing down but you rotate on a vertical axis, this can be more dangerous on the landing, your body not always knowing where it is. As far as flips are concerned, front flips are actually a measure riskier than back flips: any trick where your feet see the floor before your eyes is bad fucking news.

Tricks and aerials can be modified not only to mitigate the overall risk factor, but also as stepping stones to achieving the aerial – in other words, much like a Denny’s Grand Slam after a night at the pub, if you’re going for a difficult trick, consider breaking it down into easier chunks. Maybe don’t throw that pancake high up, or keep contact with your partner on the Over the Shoulder.

It should go without saying, but *never* confuse risk and difficulty. Even “easy” aerials have an inherent risk level that’s significantly higher than, say, an underarm pass; almost all experienced dancers have hurt themselves not while trying crazy shit, but doing simple aerials such as the Frog – they let their guard down for that important split second when the Universe decided to go “Haha OK now check this shit out!”

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The Universe is such a prick.

#3 – Be Kings and Queens of Empathy

I cannot stress enough the fact that I used to be a huge asshole.

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“Used to?”

Well. A bigger asshole, then. Thanks a lot, you judgmental, nameless stock model.

What I discovered over the years, however, is that practicing empathy is by far the most pleasant road to travel for all parties involved. For example, if your partner is scared of something, instead of screaming at them that they’re giant wusses, ask why. Maybe they fear that they’ll slip up, maybe they don’t feel that good that day – coming back to #6, if their head is not 100% in the game, they will fuck up and it’s better to breathe in and take a moment to address the issue.

There is a very toxic culture in some dance teams insinuating that if you’re the last to pass an aerial, you are somewhat of a subhuman, and that should God forbid the apocalypse strikes, you should be the first to have bits chopped off for immediate consumption. Of course, we all are addicted to success, and being the first couple to do a complex trick feels great, but in the end it doesn’t mean squat. What’s even more important is that everyone gets through the door after rehearsal with all their limbs securely fastened in the right place. That post-beer practice won’t drink itself.

If you run into a wall during your progress, and barring any other factor such as preparedness and condition, address the problem surgically. First of all, are you or your partner not doing the required action because you’re scared? Scared of what? Would anything help (spotters, mats, slowing it down)? Is there a short term or medium term solution? Are you simply not able to do it due to physical limitations? Can you get coached on how to do it better or more efficiently?

In the end, and I’m addressing mostly coaches but couples as well, nailing an aerial can greatly enhance your performance, but a shitty one can tank it faster than Speedy Gonzales on a cocaine binge. I can guarantee that 100% of your audience would much rather appreciate a great swingout than gasp in apprehension at a crappy Around the Back.

#2 – Always Be Spottin’

Spotting is a little bit of my battle horse because good spotters can make the difference between a very, very shitty life-altering injury and the required pat on the back telling the spotter they did a good job. Spotting should be considered, bar none, the most serious aspect of training in aerials. As the last line of defense against most types of injuries, they are too often seen as an afterthought, like a shriveled cherry on top of the proverbial shit sundae. Aside from a very few, very secure aerials, I never try a new thing, or an old thing with a new partner, without spotters.

Spotters should start hands on and should remain so until the spottees feel comfortable enough to go the next level.

What is the next level, you’ll ask?

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Shut up. I’m not done yet.

Spotters should start hands on because they need to get acquainted with how the trick unfolds on a physical level. So a good rough sketch would be to have one or more spotter follow through physically with the flyer, and have another spotter or two to smooth out the landing or exit. At the first stage, all these spotters should get their hands on the flyer as soon as possible.

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Don’t… Don’t make it gross.

The second stage of spotting would be to execute the trick assist-free, but with spotters closely following every movement. And I say closely following every movement (one to three inches away from the flyer at all times, ready to react). Standing with your arms crossed ten feet away shouting “I got you” does not count as spotting, in much the same way that looking at a McDonald’s ad doesn’t equate to eating a burger.

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Thank God.

The last stage of spotting is spotting strictly the landing or exit. When spotting at any stage in general but landings in particular, and I can’t stress that enough, stay clear of the feet and legs! Baby giraffes may be able to land on their fucking heads and walk afterwards, but humans are giant wusses when it comes to our brain pots. Concentrate on securing the head, and spotting the arms, shoulders, back and abdomen.

If you are not comfortable with a spotter, and for whatever reason you don’t trust them at least as fully as you trust your partner, call it off. It’s simply not worth it, not only because you might be right, but also because it takes you out of the head space necessary to accomplish the trick to the best of your capacities. Same goes if you’re coaching. Never tell yourself “Eh it’s going to be fine who could be that fucking dumb and uncoordinated as to fuck up this spot?”

That guy. That guy could be that fucking dumb and uncoordinated. Instead, offer some spotting cues.

Ideally, you should never try something new without spotters until both you and your coaches are comfortable with it – and if your coaches suspiciously often go “nah, no spotter, you’re fine”, get the fuck out of Dodge before your teeth end up on the business end of a shoe. Approach going spotter-free as you would protection-free sex: a very careful, measured, sober, enlightened decision agreed upon by everyone involved.

Followed by lots of sweating and swears.

#1 – Acknowledge Your Inner Dumbass

Bitch slap your Inner Dumbass when it comes to trying out aerials.

Look, I ain’t gonna lie. I’ve been doing aerials for more than 15 years and, over those years, I’ve seen what I consider in retrospect pretty fucked up endangering behavior, and have partaken in more than I care to admit – up to and including:

– People trying to impress newbies by throwing drunken pancakes in a hotel room at 3am;
– Trying new aerials on wet grass in the park;
– Launching people in a pool from what was clearly a hazardous, slippery floor;
– Learning acrobatics the day of a competition.

You don’t have to be Neil DeGrasse Tyson to understand why these are all pretty terrible ideas even from a very objective scientific standpoint. It’s not whimsical, it’s not hilarious, it doesn’t show your motivation, it’s not “having balls”… It’s just fucking dangerous and stupid.

The exuberance of our Inner Dumbass varies, especially if you happen to be an Actual Dumbass…

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“Hold my beer! I can *totally* somersault over ‘Babe Magnet’ here.”

…but trust me, it’s in there. Lurking in the shadow. Just waiting for that perfect opportunity. Maybe you’re getting super enthusiastic about a trick. Maybe your partner is really pushing you to do something. Maybe it’s 2am and you have an uncontrollable urge to learn the K-Flip right now in the hotel lobby. Your Inner Dumbass, like a low-budget horror flick villain, will assault you at your most vulnerable, and before you know it you’ll end up with your asshole firmly lodged in your trachea.

And that’s no way to fucking live.

*Thanks to my partners in crime Natalia Rueda and Lunou Samson-Poirot, as well as Montreal’s own Annie Trudeau, Didier Jean-François and Jonathan Caron for their contributions to this column.

 

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A rape survivor’s testimony


Disclaimer: I am posting this here because this person whishes to remain FULLY anonymous and I hope you will respect that fact.
The most gut-wrenching part of that account, however, was not even the account itself, but what she told me after:

“I refused to ask for help, because I felt it was too much to ask for.”

Too. Fucking. Goddamn. Much. To ask for. Does this hit close enough to home for you? Do you still think this is something that occurs outside of your beautiful fucking meadow of rainbows and unicorns? Does this make you realize we have what we could call “sort of a problem” on our hands?It certainly did for me.

Let me be clear in saying that I consider the CSC to be as safe as any other event. Which makes this all the more concerning.

I would like to say something that has happened to me a few years ago. It has bothered me since – mainly because I don’t remember it. Details will follow.

I just turned XX (Zack’s note: age removed) that year (2012) and I attended CSC (Canadian Swing Championships) for the second time that year. As some of you know, there is a party room that happens after the band finishes. There is also a shisha/hookah lounge that happens in the same time. I’m a smoker so people knew that I frequent the lounge pretty often.

Before heading over to the shisha lounge, I went to the party room to get some drinks (I haven’t started drinking yet – I remember) and placed them on the bar while I waited for the bartender to finish with my order. While I was waiting, someone asked me to dance – so I went to dance a couple of songs. After dancing, I picked up my drinks and brought them to the shisha lounge. I drank one cup of gin and tonic. This is an extremely light drink for me because I have very high tolerance to alcohol – I knew my limits.

After smoking some shisha for a short time – I felt a little light headed, so I went outside on the patio nearby to have a proper cigarette. I don’t remember if someone came with me or not, because my last recollection is of me walking to this patio and lighting up my cigarette.

The next thing I know, I’m waking up in a forest – naked. I was lucky because my clothes were scattered around me in pieces. I put on my dress and ran inside to my room at the hotel. Luckily, I didn’t have a hangover or felt sick in any aspect – but I knew something happened to me because I was bleeding vaginally, bruises on my forearms and the back of my shoulders. I was using an IUD, so I knew if I was raped – I wouldn’t be pregnant.

Regardless, I went home the next day – went straight to the doctor and demanded a full rape kit. The doctor also ordered a pregnancy test, semen sample (to see if it matches anyone in the system) and an STI test for the coming weeks.

I learned that I was not pregnant, but I was raped and I thankfully did not contract any STI’s. To this day, I do not know who it was. It could have been someone from the shisha lounge, hotel staff, or even a passerby.Weirdly, I am glad that I do not know who it was. If I knew, I wouldn’t be coming to the swing dance scene. Since then, I haven’t been drinking at events – but only with people that I fully trust, and I pour my own drinks and I never leave it out of sight.

Now that you all have read this – know this: when you drink, pour your own and never leave it out of your sight or out of your hands. If you have left a drink for more than 5 minutes – don’t drink it.

I honestly don’t know what to expect from any of you on this page – but drug rape also happens in the swing dance scene.


About Safe Spaces in the Dance Community

Warning: this post addresses issues with sexual assaults in the dance scene.

Fellow Monkeys,

It is with trembling hands that I’m writing this, almost a week after those events first transpired. To me, Zack Richard, the Jazz Monkey has simply been a persona through which I could do one of the things I like most, entertain people and maybe even make them smile. I have never fancied myself or this blog as advocates of social change. I favor fart jokes over pompous political declarations at any time of the day.

But today is not a day to smile. Let this entry be an exception to the rule. Even though everything has been said about this situation, I feel it’s important to add my voice, even if only as a record that I wasn’t silent. I am sorry if this post seems a little all over the place. I had to stop, rewrite and come back to it several times. I am also sorry if it seems like I’m referring to my own feelings excessively – writing this has also been a way for me to start coming to terms with this whole situation. I in no way want to appear egocentric or make it about myself. I am extremely conscious that whatever I’m feeling is in no way comparable to what those women have gone through and let me be clear when I say we should give absolute preseance to them.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read Sarah Sullivan’s testimony about a prominent Lindy Hop teacher making inappropriate sexual advances on her. I first want to applaud her courage to come forward with this information, as well as the other women who testified of abuse at the hands of the same predator. If you can stomach it, you can also watch Allie’s testimony about her experience, which is one of the most gut-wrenching accounts I’ve ever watched – especially since I knew Allie, a young Montreal dancer full of life, talent and promise at the time of the events and it hit very close, uncomfortably close, to home. In my book, you’re all heroes, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, because they’re full of shit and deserve a rightful kick to the nuts. The sheer amount of guts it took to publicly acknoweldge the situation puts a whole season of Game of Thrones to shame.

Let’s get something out of the way right now: I wholeheartedly believe and support these women’s claims without reservation. There is no question as to whether or not these actions constituted “sexual assault” – they most definitely did. Let it also be known that the perpetrator in question has recognized quickly that he had posed these actions. It is with dismay and horror that many of us who knew the man, partied with him, drank with him, held long heart to heart conversations with him, hugged him, admired him, received advice from him, saw this whole situation unfold. But let’s not blind ourselves with his reputation, his charisma or his artistry, or our love for him. Let’s have some semblance of responsbility – even if it’s too little too late – and see the facts like they are: he has repeatedly and systematically used predatory methods to initiate inappropriate and sometimes criminal sexual contact with these persons. Yes, our souls are shattered and in a million pieces. We will pick them up for a while. Little by little. But the important thing is to examine this, support these women in their brave path to recovery, and create a safer environment for all, one where women of all ages but especially younger and more vulnerable can freely express these traumas. These should never have stayed shameful secrets. We have a lot of soul-searching to make, a lot of guilt to wade through – I know I have – , a lot of work to be done, but let’s remember that this is ultimately exactly one person’s fault, and it’s not any of us.

It’s a hard and shitty conversation to have, but it’s an important one; one we will be proud of having. A tragically necessary one. Every time this kind of behaviour comes to light, we seem to collectively think “oh, so that was the abnormal one, we are safe now”. No we are not, not as long as the atmosphere in the community is not one of 100% support against this kind of predatory actions.

It has been difficult for me to think about solutions for a few days – even though it has practically been constantly on my mind, I’ve mostly been in a state of shock and paralysis. I did draw up a code of conduct for my school Swing ConneXion (heavily inspired by the Mobtown Ballroom’s code of conduct), that serves as a starting point to have a unified code of conduct for the three big swing dance schools in Montreal. There is still a lot of work to be done on it, but it’s a start. I plan on doing everything I personally can to get this information out, to let people know that I as a person, dancer, director, instructor and admitted party-lover will not stand for this kind of behaviour, and neither will any of Swing ConneXion’s representatives, including guest teachers here in Montreal. I pledge to be every bit as ferocious and unwavering in that resolve as if my own 11-year old daughter would be implicated – she might after all very well be some day part of this community, and I want her to enjoy a safe environment. This safe environment includes not having a goddamn sexual predator in our midst, and I’m appalled that some events or organizers don’t see that more clearly.

As Michael Seguin pointed out in a very powerful post, this is a male problem, and male instructors need to particularly and unequivocally speak out and examine their behaviours and discourse. We are probably, like it or not, in the most dangerous and influential position of authority. We traditionally have enjoyed a superior status – something that the Jazz Monkey has addressed before. The instructors’ cult and particularly the male instructors’ cult is an obvious problem that everyone needs to examine with a closer look and reflect upon. We must reflect on ourselves and our behaviors as well. I’ve asked myself a lot of hard questions and also asked questions to people I might have offended or hurt and, although it’s a hard and sometimes humiliating thing to do, I encourage everyone to do the same and clear house. It’s the beginning of a dialog, a better understanding of each other.

Being a good dancer does not equate being a good person – I myself, for example, will admit that I sometimes pick my nose with an unhealthy and abnormal amount of glee. It is not out of some misplaced sentiment of patriarchy that I say that male dancers, and particularly male dance instructors, are one place to start – we must take our responsibility seriously in saying unequivocally: this is fucked up. We also need to give the example, and call out this kind of behaviour with all the conviction and power we can muster. No more heads in the fucking sand. Enough lives have been ruined.

Another angle to prevent this kind of behaviour is to spread the word as much as possible and educate men and women – especially the newcomers in the scene – about what they can do in these situations. It’s mainly why I’ve been so vocal, almost to the point of obession, on the issue. It is far from my intention to say that these events are in any way, shape or form the women’s faults, but more people need to know that there are figures of authority they can turn to if things turn to shit. More people need to know that they will be heard and taken care of. It will give them confidence to speak out if they know that a system is in place to address their concern, that this behavior is widely unacceptable. Talking about it and affirming our strong opinions as individuals will serve to both discourage eventual predatory behaviour and give courage to eventual and past targeted persons to speak up about the abuse. I know we don’t want to “scare beginners away”, but Jesus Christ, guys. These things are happening. We can choose to ignore them or face them head on. There is not really a middle ground here.

I would also like to point out something that has, quite shockingly to me, not been brought up as much: we have many strong, beautiful female role models in the dance scene. I’m thinking of course of the survivors in this situation (Sarah, Brenda, Allison, Heidi, Clara, at the time I’m writing this) but also of truly admirable, powerful women such as Annie Trudeau, whom I see as one of the best persons I know and towards whom I will always feel true, deep and unmitigated love and admiration; Hilary Alexander; Carla Heiney; Virginie Jensen… Hell, I’m sorry dudes, I love you to pieces, but to be frank the sheer power and moral fortitude of our partners is an example we should all strive to imitate. They are examples to follow and listen to more often. Maybe, just maybe, we should consider, as a community, making more space for their voice because they have, in the end, way more to bring to the table than us concerning empowerment and getting respect as women in a (so far, let’s hope we can change that) male-centric world.

We also have to let go of archaic policies such as “never refuse a dance” or “you have to go with anything your partner does on the floor”. No you fucking don’t. You don’t have an obligation to be guilted into being made uncomfortable. And I extend a big fuck you with a cherry on top to those who think otherwise.

It’s also been the norm in the past few years to start de-genderizing the roles in the dance, stepping away from saying “men-women” and towards the more gender-neutral “lead-follow”. It is a small and indirect step towards gender equality, which is a rampant problem in both our society and scene.

I know some cynical individuals who have said “well we can’t stop all these things from happening”. This is a coward’s response and akin to saying if you can’t save everyone from a sinking ship, you should just fold your arms and watch.

I say, maybe we can’t, but we can try. And by shooting for this, I’m 100% sure we will make our community a better, safer place. From all this ugliness, let something beautiful grow.

A lot of us profoundly need to believe this at the moment.


Le témoignage de Sarah Sullivan (traduction)

Avec le consentement de Sarah, j’ai pris la liberté de traduire ce texte que je considère très important.

Il est important de préciser que depuis ce texte, plusieurs autres témoignages impliquant l’instructeur en question ont été mis de l’avant, et que la personne en question a reconnu avoir posé ces gestes.

* * * * * * *

Ce qui suit inclut la description d’une agressions sexuelle. Considérez cela avant de continuer, spécialement si vous êtes membre de ma famille ou un ami ne voulant pas lire à propos de ce qui s’est passé. J’ai élaboré sur les détails car je veux qu’il y ait aussi peu de spéculation que possible.

Mon nom est Sarah Sullivan et je danse depuis environ 11 ans. J’écris à la communauté de Lindy Hop après des années de réflexion, d’hésitation et de confusion à propos d’une expérience que j’ai eue avec Steven Mitchell – un enseignant beaucoup plus âgé que moi – alors que j’étais adolescente. Ce qui suit a été difficile à écrire, et peut être difficile à lire.

J’ai grandi dans la communauté de Lindy Hop, et j’en fais encore partie aujourd’hui (je fais partie des organisateurs qui dirigent le Mobtown Ballroom à Baltimore). Le Lindy Hop m’a fourni des opportunités et des relations extraordinaires, pour lesquelles je suis profondément reconnaissante. Mes expériences avec Steven m’ont causé beaucoup de douleur et de confusion par contre, et au fil du temps j’ai décidé qu’il était important que la communauté de Lindy Hop sache ce qu’il s’est passé.

Mon père a commencé à danser quand j’avais 12 ans, et j’ai commencé à y aller avec lui quand j’avais 15 ans. J’ai été nounou pour plusieurs enseignants internationaux, ce qui m’a permis de voyager à Beantown, Swing Out New Hampshire, Snowball et d’autres événements. Mon père connaissait beaucoup de gens dans la scène et j’étais une enfant plutôt mature, avec beaucoup d’indépendance à un jeune âge.

J’ai rencontré Steven lorsque j’avais 16 ans à un atelier qu’il enseignait à San Diego, et nous nous sommes vus à plusieurs événements au fil des années suivantes. Nous sommes devenus amis. J’étais impressionnée par l’attention et l’approbation d’une célébrité. Je trouvais un peu bizarre qu’un homme de son âge se lie d’amitié avec une ado de 16 ans (assez bizarre pour que j’omette d’en parler à mes parents), mais je voulais être vue comme une adulte – j’ai ignoré mon instinct. Éventuellement, on commença à parler au téléphone et clavarder en ligne entre les événements.

Nos interactions ont été inappropriées dès le début, même si je ne le réalisais pas à l’époque. Certaines de nos conversations ont été sauvegardées sur l’ordinateur familial, et je les ai lues quelques années après avoir arrêté de parler à Steven. Durant ces conversations qui se sont déroulées lorsque j’avais 17 ans, Steven blaguait à propos de nous ayant des relations sexuelles, disait que nous devions êtres discrets à propos de notre relation parce que “personne ne comprendrait”, et tentait de me culpabiliser lorsque je ne répondais pas assez rapidement. Durant une conversation il a demandé si j’étais vierge. Quand j’ai répondu oui, il m’a demandé pourquoi. Il m’a dit que nous avions besoin d’un “mot de passe” durant les événements pour que nous puissions nous rencontrer seuls sans que personne ne le sache. Il me disait que j’étais différente des autres, qu’il ne faisait habituellement pas confiance aux gens, qu’à moi, il pouvait parler – bref, des paroles qui étaient des tentatives pour me faire sentir spéciale, et qui me poussaient à garder nos interactions cachées des adultes qui auraient pu intervenir. J’étais excitée qu’il m’ait “choisie” et qu’il me traite comme une adulte.

La toute première fois que j’ai été en état d’ébriété était avec Steven quand j’avais 17 ans, à la même époque que nous tenions ces conversations instantanées. J’étais nounou à Beantown juste avant mon année sénior au secondaire. Steven et ses amis organisaient une fête séparée de l’événement. Comme tout adulte normal, les autres ne voulaient pas que je boive de l’alcool – et auraient probablement préféré que je ne sois pas présente du tout. Steven m’a donné de l’alcool et a rempli une canette de Coca Cola pour que je puisse la boire discrètement à l’extérieur.

L’année suivante à Beantown, j’avais 18 ans. Nous buvions et Steven voulait aller marcher et passer du temps seul à seul. Nous sommes allés au pavillon, un bâtiment que Beantown utilise pour les soul parties et les cours. Il n’était pas utilisé ce soir-là et est plutôt isolé des autres. Nous sommes allés au deuxième étage là où il y avait un divan, et avons continué à boire et parler. Je ne me souviens pas clairement de tout ce qui s’est passé, et c’est plutôt humiliant de me rappeler comment nous nous sommes embrassés. Il y a eu beaucoup de contact par-dessus les pantalons et sous le chandail. Je ne me souviens pas s’il y eu des attouchements sous le pantalon. J’étais saoûle et terrifiée, même si je ne me le serais jamais admis à moi-même.

À un certain moment, Steven était sur moi et je sentais que la situation évoluait rapidement. Ma vulnérabilité (il était beaucoup plus physiquement imposant que moi), ainsi que la réalisation que nous étions isolés de tout le monde, ont causé chez moi une panique. J’ai commencé à m’agiter et à le repousser jusqu’à ce qu’il se retire. Je me suis excusée profusément. J’étais embarrassée, effrayée et confuse.

Le souvenir le plus dérangeant provient de ce qui s’est passé par la suite. Alors que nous marchions vers les dortoirs, il a empoigné mon entre-jambes. Sans la lâcher, il m’a dit qu’il ne savait pas ce qui m’était arrivé qui avait tant “foutu la merde” dans ma tête. Il m’a dit que j’avais quelque chose qui ne tournait pas rond, et m’a dit que j’avais été la première à lui toucher l’entre-jambes et que c’était moi qui avais “commencé”. En tant qu’adolescente (et spécialement en tant qu’adolescent sexuellement inexpérimentée) devant une figure d’autorité, j’ai reçu le message que j’étais “brisée” parce que je n’avais pas voulu engager de relation sexuelle avec lui. Il y avait quelque chose d’anormal avec moi parce que j’ai fait confiance à mon instinct et mes mécanismes de préservation. À travers cette expérience j’ai appris que mes instincts, mes limites et mes désirs étaient anormaux. Évidemment je ne m’en suis pas rendu compte tout de suite, mais j’ai absorbé ce message pour plusieurs années, spécialement en ce qui concernait Steven.

Quelques mosi plus tard, nous avons eu une interaction similaire à Swing Out New Hampshire. Je croyais toujours que nous étions amis, et je me sentais spéciale d’être le focus de son attention. Steven me fournissait de l’alcool en cachette, et me disait qu’il voulait me rencontrer seul à seul dans un des bâtiments du camp. Nous ne devions pas y aller ensemble parce que les gens “allaient commencer à potiner”. C’est difficile pour moi d’en parler, car j’imagine que certaines personnes vont se demander pourquoi j’y suis allée. Moi-même, je me le demande. Je l’admirais beaucoup, et je voulais être aussi spéciale et mature qu’il semblait me considérer.

J’avais eu cours dans ce bâtiment plus tôt dans la journée mais à ce moment, c’était totalement noir. C’était un auditorium avec une scène et un grand plancher de danse et Steven m’a fait sursauter quand je suis entrée. L’histoire est similaire à celle de Beantown – je ne vais pas élaborer sur les détails. Nous étions sur la scène, les choses se sont bousculées, je ne sais pas combien de temps ç’a duré. Il s’est retrouvé sur moi, j’ai réalisé que j’étais vulnérable et en état d’ébriété. J’ai paniqué, je l’ai repoussé.

Après l’incident à SONH, je savais que je ne voulais plus d’autres interactions physiques avec Steven, mais je ne pouvais pas comprendre que ce qui était arrivé était anormal. Je ne voulais pas m’admettre que j’étais traumatisée, parce que je voulais penser que j’étais assez mature pour ne pas laisser une telle chose arriver. Je croyais que nous étions amis, et je l’admirais en tant que professeur de Lindy Hop. Nous sommes restés en contact, mais j’évitais les situations où nous serions seuls.

Steven et moi avons été seuls à seulement quelques occasions par la suite. J’étais nounou à Snowball (Suède) pour quelques années, et je demeurais souvent avec les professeurs après l’événement. Steven demeurait parfois dans la même maison. J’évitais d’être seule avec lui malgré ses tentatives. Une nuit, je dormais sur le plancher du bureau familial car Steven dormait dans la chambre d’invité. Au milieu de la nuit je me suis réveillé pour voir Steven debout, au-dessus de moi, dans le noir – il était entré alors que je dormais. J’étais à peine éveillée et prise au dépourvu, je me suis mise à trembler mais n’ai rien fait ou dit. Il s’est couché à mes côtés et a commencé à me parler émotionnellement de ses problèmes de vie. Je suis restée silencieuse et immobile jusqu’à ce qu’il quitte. C’était le point de non-retour, où j’ai réalisé que ce genre de comportement était anormal. Des hommes adultes et en santé ne se confient pas à des adolescentes, et ne s’infiltrent certainement pas dans leurs chambres alors qu’elles dorment.

J’étais toujours incapable de digérer ou articuler ce qui s’était produit, mais je n’ai pas été seule avec Steven par la suite. Il a essayé de me contacter et de planifier des trucs avec moi, ce que j’ai poliment refusé, jusqu’à ce que je sois si inconfortable que j’en ai parlé à quelques professeurs dont je gardais les enfants. Je n’ai partagé aucun détail sexuel, mais j’ai admis qu’il me rendait inconfortable, qu’il m’avait fourni de l’alcool alors que je n’étais pas en âge d’en consommer, et qu’il était fâché que je ne veuille pas passer du temps avec lui. Leur dégoût et leur colère ont confirmé que mon inconfort était justifié. Même si je refusais toujours de me voir comme la victime dans cette situation, j’ai cessé toute communication avec lui, et il n’a pas essayé de me contacter par la suite.

Je suis allée en thérapie au collège, et j’ai commencé à accepter ce qui s’était produit. Je n’ai rien dit publiquement à l’époque pour toutes les raisons classiques: je croyais que c’était ma faute, que je faisais une tempête dans un verre d’eau, que les autres allaient me blâmer, que j’allais être excommuniée pour avoir parlé de quelqu’un que tant de personnes adoraient, que mes parents, les autres professeurs ou les organisateurs allaient être blâmés. Je refusais de me voir en victime. La possibilité que cela pouvait arriver à d’autres a été une source constante de culpabilité pendant des années. Je suis finalement à un endroit dans ma vie où je peux voir que rien là-dedans n’est ma faute et je ne veux pas garder ce secret plus longtemps.

Je ne parle pas pour ruiner la vie de Steven, mais je veux que la communauté soit au courant de ce qu’il a fait. J’enseigne à des enfants maintenant, et je les amène à des événements où Steven juge et enseigne. Au Ballroom, des adolescentes et des jeunes femmes me respectent et méritent de voir un exemple de la façon de réagir quand quelqu’un leur cause du tort. Je l’ai vu à plusieurs événements au fil des années et me suis toujours tue devant des amis qui étaient en pâmoison devant lui. Je garde ça en moi depuis presque une décennie, et ça doit sortir. Je me suis demandé si c’était arrivé à d’autres, avec Steven ou n’importe qui, et la culpabilité m’a grugée pendant longtemps. Je ne veux plus me sentir comme une complice de Steven en gardant ses actions un secret.

J’ai longtemps hésité à utiliser le terme “agression sexuelle” parce que ça peut vouloir dire n’importe quoi, d’une tape sur les fesses non consentie à un viol brutal (je ne minimise pas la sévérité de contacts physiques sans consentement, je souligne simplement la signification large du terme “agression sexuelle”). Soyons clairs: Steven ne m’a pas violée, et nous n’avons pas eu de relation sexuelle. Il n’a jamais été physiquement violent. Je ne veux pas que mes propos donnent une idée exagérée de ce qui s’est passé, ou vous faire croire en quelque chose de faux, parce que la vérité est suffisante. Il y a eu des attouchements de nature sexuelle de son côté alors que je n’étais ni assez sobre ni assez mature pour y consentir. Il m’a manipulée et a abusé de son autorité en tant que mentor et adulte. En mettant des mots sur cette expérience je suis forcée de définir le poids de ce qui m’est arrivé, et je ne veux pas que vous pensiez qu’il a fait pire que ce qui s’est produit. Je veux aussi vous assurer que je suis 100% sûre de ce qui s’est produit, et qu’il n’y a pas de place à l’interprétation.

Je ne peux vous dire quoi faire avec cette information, mais je peux vous dire ce que je retire de l’expérience. J’aime la communauté de Lindy Hop et je ne vais pas la quitter. Il est important de reconnaître que ces choses arrivent dans notre scène, et que la culture de notre communauté y contribue. En tant que scène, nous idolâtrons les professeurs et les bons danseurs, et mettons plus de valeur dans ce qu’ils disent que dans notre volonté de parler quand quelque chose ne va pas. Nous mêlons souvent avoir de l’autorité en danse et avoir de l’autorité dans la vie, ce qui nous mène à privilégier certaines voix et pas d’autres. En tant que jeune personne, je pensais que j’allais perdre ma place dans la communauté si je parlais de Steven. Même si je crois que personne d’autre que Steven n’est responsable de ce qui m’est arrivé, je crois qu’un ton différent dans la communauté de Lindy Hop aurait pu me protéger de toutes ces années de silence.

J’essaie d’utiliser cette expérience pour informer mes pensées et mes actions dans ma propre position d’autorité (au Ballroom, ainsi qu’en tant que danseuse qui a été dans la scène depuis longtemps). Au Ballroom, nous nous efforçons constamment de créer un environnement sécuritaire sans en enlever le plaisir, l’atmosphère adulte ou faire de la “sécurité” un thème de nos événements (et je suis prête à l’expliquer aux intéressés). Je crois profondément que la culture des événements peut être construite intentionnellement de cette façon, et c’est la responsabilité de tous – des organisateurs aux professeurs à chaque danseur individuellement. Je mets plus de valeur en ma capacité à parler quand quelque chose est anormal qu’en ma position dans la communauté, et je ne traite pas les professeurs ou les bons danseurs comme étant automatiquement meilleurs que les autres en toute autre chose que la danse. Je fais de mon mieux pour cultiver cette attitude au Ballroom et chez les danseurs qui ont du respect pour moi, pas uniquement parce que je crois que c’est la bonne chose à faire, mais aussi parce que je pense que c’est carrément dangereux de faire autrement.

Dire tout ça publiquement fait partie de ma démarche. Le risque, même si je crois qu’il est grand, n’est pas aussi grand pour moi que pour beaucoup d’autres, et je crois que c’est ma responsabilité. Je n’encourage pas la chasse aux sorcières; j’espère simplement créer un environnement où d’autres pourront parler lorsqu’ils sont témoins de comportements anormaux, spécialement des gens pour qui la position dans la scène n’est pas aussi sécure que la mienne. J’espère aussi que tout le monde prendra un moment pour réfléchir à comment ils se comportent dans la scène, et reconsidérer les comportements qui encouragent la vénération absolue de certains danseurs ou poussent les jeunes au silence. Je choisis consciemment de ne pas écrire cela anonymement, car je veux que tout le monde sache que c’était moi et que je veux prendre pleine responsabilité pour ce que je dis. Je veux que les jeunes sachent que malgré ce qui m’est arrivé, je suis toujours là. Je veux que ceux qui seraient enclins de mettre en doute ce qui m’est arrivé sachent que je maintiens tout ce que je dis, et je veux rendre la tâche aussi difficile que possible à ceux qui voudraient garder mon témoignage dans l’ombre ou les ignorer.

Je sais pertinemment que cela aura un profond effet sur Steven et tout ceux qui l’admirent. C’est avec une grande circonspection et après des années de considération que j’en parle, et je n’en parle pas à la légère. La vérité est que j’étais une jeune membre de la communauté de Lindy Hop, Steven m’a donné de l’alcool, a tenu avec moi des conversations hautement inappropriées (en ligne et de vive voix), et m’a encouragé à garder notre “amitié” un secret. En tant que professeur invité à des événements il a initié des contacts sexuels avec moi en dépit d’une énorme différence d’âge. Il a utilisé sa position d’autorité dans la scène pour prendre avantage d’une adolescente inexpérimentée et en état d’ébriété qui était en admiration devant lui. Je crois que la scène de Lindy Hop a besoin de parler de la façon avec laquelle on perçoit les professeurs et de la façon avec laquelle on prend soin de nos membres plus jeunes, mais, dans son cas, le temps de la conversation est passé. On lui a fait confiance en lui donnant une position d’autorité et il en a abusé, et c’est le temps d’arrêter de garder ce secret.

J’imagine que certains d’entre vous voudront me contacter avec vos pensées et opinions à propos de ce que j’ai écrit. Sentez-vous libres de m’écrire à sarahsullivan760@gmail.com. Je vous prie de ne pas être personnellement offensés si je prends du temps à vous répondre, ou si je ne réponds pas du tout.


#ImprovRespect – A Short Story

“A little late to the party on this one, but I had started it way back in September and told myself I might as well finish it.” – the Jazz Monkey

* * * * * * * * *

I flicked my cigarette to the ground and was starting to head back inside (I didn’t really  flick it and carefully slid it in the ashtray pole, but come on: flicking it is way cooler, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) when a voice from behind caught my attention.

“Hey!”

I swivelled around and noticed the man sitting on the bench. Funny. He wasn’t there before.

He wasn’t sitting as much as slouching, shoulders askew, his dishevelled hair partly hiding his features, cloaked in a dirty grey overcoat. When he looked up his eyes pierced my soul like some kind of giant, soul-piercing needle.

Yeah we’re… We’re off to a slow start on the metaphors today.

“Have a seat,” he said, creepily patting the bench with his hand, a dirty hockey coach wanting to help me tie my skates. I was half expecting him to utter “Yer a wizard, Harry”, and then having to awkwardly explain that wasn’t my name. Like, at all.

“So, um,” I stuttered, “what’s your name?”

He snickered.

“Like you’d remember.”

He was right.

“You can call me Hobo,” he finally said with a smirk.

“Okay…

– So what did you think about the competitions tonight?”

I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Truth is, I didn’t think much about the competitions, actually. I enjoyed some, was bored by some, and some made me feel profoundly indifferent about the whole thing.

That’s what I was about to say when a lady of a certain age – she was either really old or awfully banged up – turned the corner. In an almost sorriest state than the Hobo, she was literally dressed in a plastic bag and was completely missing a left foot, in much the same way a normal person is not. She stumbled towards us, visibly intoxicated and reeking of a distinctively nasty brand of Mexican beverage. Mentally I branded her Tequila Witch.

“Bullshit,” Tequila Witch vociferated. “It’s aaaaaaaall bullshit and that was all bullshit. And it’s gonna go on being bullshit.”

She let out a loud, odoriferous burp which temporarily made my eyes water, before going on.

“Here,” she said, “have a swig of this.”

She handed me a beat up flask which was definitely worthy of suspicion. It was smeared with grease and another sticky substance that I deduced was semen, but was too afraid to have confirmation to ask the question. I’m a dumb – and weak – man, so I took a sip.

It felt like at last all the dormant volcanoes on Earth spewed out Satan’s slow-brewing Taco Bell diarrhea in my throat after several painful decades of crippling constipation. The lamppost across the street started to alarmingly look like Jack Skellington from A Nightmare Before Christmas.

It’s not even September, I thought. This is weird.

Jack pointed at me mockingly and started snickering.

Fuck off, Jack.

“Lindy Hop is in a sorry state I tell you that,” she went on. “There is no respect for the dance anymore, strictly competitions are just people cranking out routines in an 8×8 format. Everything is becoming showcases.

— But wait a minute,” I said, “weren’t the dancers of old always doing this? The Harvest Moon Ball reels look full of obviously choreographed stuff!

— You absolute shitstain on humanity’s otherwise pristine lacy panties,” the Hobo cut, “one has nothing to do with the other. The Moon Ball wasn’t advertised as an actual ‘social dance competition’ first of all – something which most Strictlys nowadays are. Second of all, there were no other divisions, like Classic or Showcase today, to show off your choreographed shit. Third of all, fuck you. Fourth of all, they did improvise – you just don’t see much of it on the newsreels. Because, well, newsreels.

— Aren’t Jack and Jills supposed to be all about improv?” I said. “That’s where improv should be!”

Tequila Witch smacked me in the back of the head and brought her flask to my lips, sending some more of Lucifer’s liquefied feces down my ferociously un-agreeing belly. My stomach growled in protest and I unmistakably heard it shout “What the fuck are you doing!” while my sphincter was screaming out “Hold the line! Hold the line!” If it was possible to actually be arrested for severe vital organ assault, I would have gone to jail. Jack across the street was shaking as if he was having a really intense fit of laughter. Fuck off, Jack.

“You make me sick like a twelve year-old quesadilla,” the Witch said. “If your brain exploded it wouldn’t even be enough to blow your nose.

— You’re a few French fries short of a happy meal, boy, the Hobo added.

— A couple of screws away from a hardware store.

— The mail is coming back with a ‘Return to Sender’ stamp, if y’know what I mean.

— Several crayons shy of a Crayola box.

— Just a half-dozen feathers short of a duck.

— The phone’s ringin’ but no one’s home, is what we’re saying.

— Alright, alright, Jesus…” I said, my jimmies ever so slightly rustled. Jack was now bellowing a hysterical laugh. No, really, Jack, feel free to fuck off at any time of your convenience.

“Jack & Jills perform a function, ” Tequila Witch explained, handing me her flask for what felt like a definitely unhealthy number of times, “which is basically to see how can you MacGyver your sorry ass out of a situation where you don’t know either your partner or the music. Strictlys are about connection with a specific partner, and you basically throw that baby out the window once you rely exclusively on sequences.”

Even as a known ungiver of fucks, I was hesitant to voice my opinion, but did anyway, because I’m a dumbass:

“I feel like whatever one does is pretty groovy. Some things are not really possible either if you’re relying exclusively on improv.

— You don’t understand.”

The voice was hoarse, deep and drawn, as if a member of the equine persuasion was trying to spell “antidisestablismentarianism” underwater. Out of the shadows materialized a tall and imposing figure. Clean cut but awfully dressed, the man looked like a successful businessman who fell on hard days. His patched up suit gave the impression of sticking together by fear of its wearer alone. We’ll call him Patch.

Before I could answer the question my mind was asking – “where the fuck am I again”, more specifically – , Patch went on:

“You’re all focusing on the wrong thing. You’re doing the equivalent of trying to fuck a fly – it’s an impressive feat indeed, but you only indicate by it that you have the tiniest dick in human history and, in the end, the best possible outcome is that you’ll have successfully fucked a fly.”

The Hobo, the Witch and myself looked at each other, puzzled, while Jack was busy attempting to flick a very enthusiastic bat away. Every time he tried, the bat would somehow squeeze through his fingers. Patch sat down on the bench.

It was a really big bench.

“You don’t seem to understand where the real problem is coming from, is what I’m saying. The problem is not to fuck the fly or not, the problem is… Why the hell are you trying to fuck a fly in the first place?”

I lit another cigarette, because fuck it (not the fly, I would not recommend that), this was quite entirely the opposite of a “let’s do yoga, eat fruits and take care of ourselves” moment.

“The problem doesn’t lie with the dancers themselves,” Patch went on. “Scolding competitors about doing this or that is the equivalent of telling your fat fuck failure of a son to not eat all the cheesecake. You know he’s gonna do it anyway because hey, cheesecake! Can I have one of those?”

Patch held his hand out to me. My first thought was “I don’t have any cheesecake.” Bewildered, I thought better of it and shook his sweaty palm, before realizing he wanted a cigarette.

“Thanks,” he said after I handed him one, “I’m trying to quit but my kids won’t let me.”

He flicked open a ridiculously oversized golden lighter and started puffing away.

“So are you trying to say that couples who choreograph their Strictlys are not disrespectful, steaming piles of shit?” the Hobo said.

“The thing I’m trying to say, “Patch answered, “is that first of all, that’s not for us to judge. We can voice our opinion of course, but what gets me is the fucking arrogance. Who the fuck are you to say this? Caucasian middle class dudes and dudettes with hipster shirts, Starbucks-drinking, suhi-eating, Doctor Who-watching motherfuckers who overpronounce Italian meal names at the Olive Garden, trying to lecture people about the spirit of Lindy Hop? Respect for the dance… Give me a fucking break.

— I like Doctor Who,” I said, obviously without thinking.

“Shut the fuck up,” the other three said in unison.

I don’t even like Doctor Who that much actually. Apparently Jack didn’t either because he was scowling at me intently. I mean the show’s okay but feels really uneven at times, especially if you watch it from its very beginnings in the 60s. I can without a doubt say I like *some* episodes of Doctor Who – maybe even *quite a few*, I mean all the Weeping Angels episodes are awesome and Daleks are basically a staple of pop culture now – , but the best Doctor was definitely David Tennant and we’re never going back to that and you’re going to have to explain yourself a lot if you’re not of the same opinion.

Patch went on:

“The one mistake you’re making is to treat this whole situation as a vacuum. Like all those tiny choreographing fairies were created from thin air and unicorn’s breath. Most people don’t understand that these competitors are a product of their environment – specifically, they’re YOUR goddamn fucking product. YOU are the audience cheering for spectacular 8×8 routines in Strictly; some of you…”

He looked at me sharply.

“…ARE the judges who place these couples high. Or are the organizers who lack the proper amount of balls to specify to both the judges and the competitors that it should be an improv only competition. They literally are US. Judges don’t want to misplace a good couple who was cheered on by the crowd, organizers don’t want to tone down the spectacular aspect of the competitions, and audiences, well… You know. Panem et circenses and all that shit. Competitors are doing what they’re fucking expected to do. Because if you’re inviting some random fucker to a fight and tell them to bring whatever they want, they won’t bring a fork – they’ll go for the goddamn rocket launcher. We live in a top shelf society.”

Patch paused, before the paragraph would get too long. Jack was now listening calmly in the distance. How could he hear that, seriously, with all the bats fluttering around his head?

“WE are the ones who made choreo so reliable. So complain about it all you want but it’s like blaming McDonald’s for selling delicious product: no one admits outright to loving it, but we all enjoy those perfect fries once in a while like a fucking normal human being. The only thing that will revert that is: stop going to fucking McDonald’s, what’s wrong with you? Stuff’s bad for you, man.”

Taking a deep breath, the man went on:

“To blast solely the competitors for this is complete bullshit – if there’s any blame to be addressed, which is a very different and much more crucial question, it should be laying on every one of us, as a global scene. Maybe WE forgot what’s important and blurred the lines. Or maybe we shouldn’t be so quick in trying to obliterate a whole aspect of the dance. Maybe the whole format needs rethinking. But one thing is for sure, if I give a dog a treat every time he shits on the carpet, he’ll keep doing it. You can trust me on that.”

The Hobo opened his mouth, but ultimately fell short of anything to say. The Witch took a swig of her flask, and I just sat there in stunned silence. Not necessarily because of what he said – he actually very well articulated what I wanted to ultimately express – but because Jack the Lamppost was making increasingly lascivious movements towards me.

Patch got up.

“Well I’m going to the strip club. You coming?

— Sure,” Tequila Witch replied, hopping herself up on her one good foot.

“Why not,” the Hobo said, readjusting what was left of his collar.

My head was spinning like crazy.

“I’m good,” I faltered, “I… I need to sit for a little while.

— Suit yourself.”

They left and soon disappeared around a corner. Across the street Lamp Skellington was now laughing his ass off freely.

Fuck off, Jack.

“Sir?”

I lifted my head, looking into the face of a very serious security guard.

“Are you okay, sir?

— Uh yeah, I was having a cigarette with friends but they, uh, they literally just left actually. Sorry, were my friends being loud? Is it late? It feels like it’s really late.

— Sir you’ve been alone and whispering to that whiskey bottle for a solid hour and a half in what was described by some hotel guests as a ‘disturbingly libidinous manner’.”

I looked at my closed fist and, sure enough, there it was. Almost empty, too. My stomach felt like Moses was trying to part it; my head was periodically exploding with the force of a thousand suns.

“Oh,” I let out feebly. The interjection stumbled to the pavement miserably, never making its way to the guard’s ears.

“Let me escort you to your room, sir. Do you have your key?”

I checked my pocket.

“Yeah, sure. I mean I think it’s my key.”

He got me up with great difficulty, and we crossed the sliding doors.

“Thanks.”

The guard helped me on the elevator. After a few seconds of stunned confusion, I remembered my floor and pushed the button.

As the lift was going up, I thought about all this, and Patch was right: we all had a responsibility in this and should voice our concerns, not as omnipotent outsiders hovering smugly over the common mortal, but as members of a scene healthily concerned with where the dance was going. If we’re gonna hold competitors accountable, we better hold ourselves accountable as well. And the fact that the dialogue was open was, overall, a nice thing, whatever we as a scene decided to act on.

We are all part of the problem.

Good thing is, we are also all part of the solution.

Despite everything though, something that night was bothering me even more than this.

I turned to the guard:

“You know…” I blurted out. “You should really do something about that lamppost.”


Super Nario

I know it’s been a while since I’ve updated, there are many articles in the queue, and I’m working on a new site which, while very different from this one, I hope you’ll be as excited about as I am.

In the meantime, have a look at fellow blogger and dancer extraordinaire Nick Williams dressed as Super Nario, ready to save the day.

This was brought to you by Kate Hedin and the Jazz Monkey.


The Business of Lindy Hop (written for Frankie 100)

So this one is a little different. It’s got none of the copious profanities and funny meme images that a lot of you have come to know and love, but at least you can share it with your grandmother without her coming face to face with an image of a desk covered in dildos.

For those who follow at home, you will also notice a few differences in the text itself – the views expressed here are mine solely and not the Frankie Foundation’s, etc…

Some time ago, I had the privilege to be asked to write an article for the Frankie 100 Commemorative Book (that you can buy here, I highly recommend it). It is with great pleasure that I participated in this once in a lifetime opportunity – especially since I can add “PUBLISHED AUTHOR, BOOYAH!” to my bragging rights. But mostly, it was an honor to contribute, in a very small way, to an homage to, in my opinion, the greatest Lindy Hopper who ever stepped foot on the dance floor, and, first of all, a patient, humble and generous human being.

The Business Of Lindy Hop

by Zack Richard (Canada), with contributions from Simon Selmon (England), Scott Cupit (Australia), Sing Lim (Singapore), Didier Jean-François, (Canada), Natalie Gomes (USA) and Silvia Palazzollo (Italy)

To talk about the business of Lindy Hop is a daunting task because, at its core, this beautiful dance is all about emotion. Monetizing emotion is something that doesn’t sit quite right with a lot of people – how many times has a business-oriented Lindy Hopper heard variations of the sentence “you’re doing it for the money – you’re not a real Lindy Hopper!”

As an umpteenth generation Lindy Hopper, I didn’t get to spend as much time with Frankie Manning as I wished – and on the few occasions where I was given the opportunity to do so, my often crippling shyness was no match for neither his charisma or the sea of people always surrounding him. What I always interpreted as sheer cowardice was also, now that I think back on it, a pass off the board – to employ a very Canadian analogy – to the greatness of the man. Like many of us, the hours I spent watching Frankie Manning on screen vastly outnumber the times I’ve seen him live – but whether I was watching his steps in slow motion, stretching the technology of VCR to its limits, or taking one of his classes, what always struck me was his total embodiment of the Lindy Hop spirit. His pervasive influence is so vast that I, like most of us, simply refer to him as “Frankie”, whether we actually met him or not, and we do it with a true, profound and sincere love in our hearts.

To me it’s rather ironic that many of today’s dancers would decry the practice of instilling business into Lindy Hop while at the same time championing Frankie’s legacy – himself a seasoned pro dancer who travelled around the world to dance and got paid for it, both in the forties and in more recent years. While not dismissing those who share this dichotomic opinion, we have to ask ourselves if that doesn’t say more about their own biased view of the world instead of the actual reality.

It’s a popular view in the collective imagination that businesses are inherently evil – whether you’re watching Spiderman, Supersize Me or Avatar, the discourse is mostly that if businesses could kidnap orphaned children, harvest their organs and sell them for a profit, they would do so without a moment of hesitation and laugh on their way to the bank while sharing the disturbing videos on YouTube.

Additionally, Lindy Hop is the dance of freedom par excellence. Born out of jazz – one of the first truly American art forms – Lindy Hop is the story of a people overcoming incredibly stacked odds to create something beautiful and lasting. In the world of dancing, Lindy Hop is more Mahatma Gandhi than John D. Rockefeller. By its nature, it’s quintessentially opposed to the way a lot of people think about “business”.

In this context, how could we talk about the “Business of Lindy Hop” with a straight face?

A Means To A Higher End

Sticking “business” and “Lindy Hop” in the same sentence is a hot-button issue for many dance afficionados, but to really reconcile the idea of Lindy Hop as an art form with the concept of business, we have to keep in mind that, for the vast majority of business people in the world of Lindy Hop, it’s truly not about the money: the business is a tool to wield with great care and responsibility.

It’s a means to a higher end.

That end, of course, is to insure the survival of this beautiful art form, to make the world discover and fall in love with the rhythm, the joy, the ecstasy of Lindy Hop.

If you take a second to talk openly with any Lindy Hop business owner, any professional dance teacher, there is one thread that will, under a million facets, come back: their pure love of the dance, their desire to share it, and their borderline lunatic disregard of anything else. As Simon Selmon, founder of the London Swing Dance Society, puts it:

“Very early on when I started dancing for a living people offered me advice telling me there is more money in modern jive or in franchising the Lindy, etc, etc…Don’t get me wrong I want to make as much money as the next person – who doesn’t – but I couldn’t sell short what I believed in. I like many teachers around the world didn’t go into dancing for the money but because we found something we loved, that ignited a spark in our lives and wanted to share that with others.”

More from Scott Cupit, owner and founder of Swing Patrol in Australia:

“I had a well paid job. I worked in banking with a great group of people and the bank had just paid for my degree. I was on an executive trainee programme and all was well. Can you imagine the day I phoned my father telling him I was leaving all this to teach swing dancing? I remember that phone call to this day…It was sort of awkward!”

This is not the profile of people looking forward to rolling in their studio parking lot with their second Mercedes, hiring flower girls to spread endangered tulips’ petals on their path to class.

Despite his early reserves, Frankie soon embraced that notion of sharing fully and generously. Lindy Hop is infectious in nature – jazz is ingrained in our collective brain, and Lindy Hop is an almost natural response to it. A vast number of people literally turn their lives upside down when they discover Lindy Hop – moving to different cities, travelling abroad, switching jobs to accommodate their dance schedule – , and embrace the happiness it brings them. Isn’t an equally natural response also to want to share it with others (sometimes to the point of being, pardon my French, friggin’ annoying to non-dancing friends) ?

Of course it is, imaginary interlocutor. Of course it is.

A business is just one of the many tools that enable us to do just that: sharing this extraordinary passion.

The Business Model

Frankie was no stranger to dabbling in business: after serving his country in the most kick-ass way possible as a soldier on the Pacific front during World War II, he kept his dance troupe, the Congaroos, going for many years before getting a steady job in the postal service.

A business is, of course, not the only way to keep Lindy Hop an alive dance form: one could go for a non-profit collective, for example (although we’re tempted to round that up with businesses, since most work largely as businesses funded partly or entirely by government grants), or give classes for free in a Methodist church basement. Many small-town scenes are run entirely by volunteers, and no one is questioning their passion and love for the dance.

So what is so interesting about a Lindy Hop business model? First of all, having someone do it as an actual job ensures continuity: we’ve all witnessed entire scenes whither and die because volunteers started losing interest or simply ran out of time to devote to it. One or several persons making it their top priority in life actually enhances the quality of the dance and the activities surrounding it, especially in our highly connected world where people can easily make themselves aware of what Lindy Hop truly looks like. As with anything else, a well-run business will keep top specialists interested who would, otherwise, soon move on to other ventures. This is true of local schools and national events alike: if we didn’t have top quality events around the world, we couldn’t have so many dedicated teachers, so much exchange and inspiration – one of the very pillars of the spirit of Lindy Hop.

If we take it one step further, a properly built business ensures perennity. Dance school owners with half a brain will not put all their money on one horse, so to speak, but instead make sure that the business survives as an entity of its own regardless of the people in it. One could whine endlessly about teachers who have, to put it politely, a shaking grasp of Lindy Hop technique, but if the true spirit of the dance lives on, if the ever-so-celebrated mission statement of the business is to celebrate and share said spirit, it really is a win-win. Not every dancer at the Savoy was Frankie Manning. And no teacher alive, dead, or still to be born will ever come close to Frankie Manning. But we have to be as indulgent with them as Frankie was, in countless ways, with us. We don’t have to love their dancing, but we can love their spirit. We can still try. We can still push on and carry on his legacy, each in our own small way.

Sustainability and Competition

A popular mistake people make when analyzing the business of Lindy Hop – because that’s, I’m sure, a national pastime in many countries – is blaming a lack of sustainability on an overpopulation of teachers (or events). While in a sense that’s true, it’s a crucial fallacy to equate dancing with, for example, selling toilet paper. Of course, five stores specialized in toilet paper in one small town will soon destroy each other – the product is physical and finite (anyone who, to their sheer terror, prematurely got at the end of a roll in an airplane bathroom after a particularly vicious battle with an end of terminal burrito knows what we’re talking about).

The first and foremost nuance when we speak about Lindy Hop in terms of economics lies in the community. The business is quite literally a consequence of the community – it’s a social dance after all. The quality of the community, of the teachers, of the people in it, is a crucial aspect of a good product. As Didier Jean-François, owner of the Swinging Air Force in Montreal, says:

It’s a simple virtuous cycle based in competition and human behavior… Word of mouth is the best publicity, students who learn dance tend to show up at dances and join a local or even international community and as they do they spread the word about teachers they like and successful dancers get asked “where did you learn”. Similarly the most successful teachers get paid and stay motivated to stay in the dance. They have the economic freedom to do so.”

As stated in the spiritually-driven but still actual documentary Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner, “build it and they will come”… A solid and honest business will foster a solid community, with the joy of Lindy Hop and the spirit that Frankie held dear at its core.

Dishonest and divisive competition is more a result of bad people than of the existence of businesses themselves. Once the Dark Side gets a hold of teachers or organizers, things can get ugly, but they get ugly regardless of their status as business persons or volunteers. We’ve all heard terrible stories about scene wars, but they had little to do with the nature of businesses and a lot to do with miscommunication, disagreements and tempers.

In other words, if you get into an argument with a chemist, you won’t assume that the chemistry is at fault here, but, correctly, that the chemist is a prick.

Will some schools fail because of competition? Yes. Will some events be cancelled? Sure. Will some teachers slowly fade out of the scene and go back to the 9-to-5? Guaranteed. But the main cause of it will be, let’s be brutally honest, plain dumb luck.

Sure, some businesses that survive do have incredibly savvy and sexy people running it. People who made all the right decisions, and are basically dance tycoons… But more often than not – and I say this as a person who’s ran swing dance businesses for more than a decade – it’s all about luck first. Then it’s all the rest: talent, hard work, personality, vision, all the buzzwords you will hear those businesspersons blurt out when asked why they’ve become successful. Sometimes, they just forget how lucky they were – socially, financially, or circumstantially. But of all the things they’ll ramble about, they’ll rarely mention how competition was scarce and that was a key to their success. You may actually hear things like “there was absolutely no Lindy Hop here when I began so it was hard to start up”.

Competition can, to the contrary, be the kindle that will light the fire of innovation, of pushing the boundaries forward – is there no greater example of that in the Lindy world than Frankie and Frieda’s invention of the first air step, which they prepared for the very purpose of entering a battle against Frankie’s idol Shorty George? Would we have all those spectacular steps and ideas if the spirit of one-upmanship was not, at the very least, a small part of what constitutes the Lindy Hop, this typical American child, always hungry for its own betterment?

As Natalie Gomes from New Orleans puts it:

“[Frankie] was an innovator and always pushed the envelope. When everyone was dancing straight, he started dancing low. He made up the first aerial. He set a trend.

I aspired to all that. One of his best compliment to my partner and I was “you guys took it to a whole other level” referring to our performances.”

As Frankie did, let competition in all its forms inspire us and inflate the sails of our ships.

The Business as a Communal Entity

If you’re looking to start out as business owners, here’s an invaluable perspective to always keep in mind: businesses, under different guises, can be the most solid cornerstones of local scenes.

Because they usually have both the means and the incentive, they’re usually the most efficient at recruiting new dancers – the blood of any scene.

Because they want those people to keep dancing, they will also hold quality local events and dances.

Because they want their clients to stay happy and content, they will go to great lengths to listen to them and try to balance between what they need as dancers and what they want as customers, an aspect with which a volunteer teacher could easily become disgruntled – “this is the way I teach, and I do it for nothing, so just don’t dance if you don’t want to do it my way”.

Because they want their customers to keep coming back, they will offer not only a nice and respectful environment, but also strive to learn, innovate, and bring in as many positive influences as they can. An intelligent business knows that the source of the product matters little, as long as the client keeps coming back to their store to buy it – that’s why you’re not forced to buy the crappy off-brand peanut butter at your local grocery store.

Many think that businesses, by nature, can’t possibly work together towards creating a truly great scene – and many fragmented scenes all over the world seem to confirm this idea. But this train of thought is a simple causal fallacy, an easy go-to mind-trap: just because there are fusses and disses in a dance scene, and businesses are present in the scene, doesn’t mean that businesses are the inherent cause of the feuds. As a matter of fact, a two-second look at most broken scenes will quickly pinpoint the cause of most disputes: people and egos.

When you run a business, your ego has to take a step to the side – it’s not the most important thing in life anymore. Your business is what puts food on the table. It’s an incredibly challenging task to constantly come back to what’s best for your business, hence, what’s best for the dancers, hence, what’s best for the community as a whole. Do you want to spend time and effort on constantly fighting to keep students under a protective shell? Would you rather have 50 students of your own, or share a pool of 500 students with other schools? Do you want to keep your students longer because they don’t feel like they have to hide if they go to a competitor’s dance night? These are all important questions to ask when it comes to truly using the power of business towards community building.

There are plenty of dance scenes with multiple businesses that work very well together, attending each other’s dances, partnering up with each other for events and special occasions, even sharing teachers from time to time. One needs to look no further than Montreal for a great example of how businesses can work in harmony towards building a great community. All it takes sometimes is a little bit more “I don’t like you, you don’t like me, but let’s do this” attitude, as taught in the timeless motion picture classic Lethal Weapon.

Does it take time and effort? Absolutely. Is it a total pain from time to time? You bet.

But in the collaborative spirit of Lindy Hop, it’s really the only thing that truly makes sense.

Business models… and model businesses

While researching this article (i.e. eating Lay’s chips and swapping emails with people), the more I exchanged with Lindy Hop business owners from around the world, the more I realized a crucial truth: had it not been for Frankie and the way he touched people from all ways of life, the Lindy Hop business probably would not have been as profoundly infused with the spirit of the dance as it is today. Despite his undeniable talent, what made our Ambassador of Lindy Hop so genuinely and instantaneously embraceable was his profound humanity – a role model in the purest form of the word, he was never shy or embarrassed by his gift. Unpretentious as Frankie was, he still was incredibly generous of it, despite the fact that he probably never planned he would spend his later years teaching a decades-old dance. He admirably went with the flow and became our most immediately recognizable icon.

He became Frankie.

He infused us with the passion of dancing that is at the source of so many Lindy Hop businesses around the globe. As Sing Yuen Lim from Jitterbugs Swingapore puts it:

“The business motto is “To Inspire our students to be the best they can be through sharing our love for dance.”  Just as Frankie inspired me to be humble, to be inclusive, to be creative, i hope that the studio can teach positive values to all the students. […] I trained as a lawyer and i worked as a copywriter. But when i decided to open a swing business it was because it was something I loved!  Lindy hop changed and saved my life.  I had not understood before what it was to do something I loved, as opposed to something I was told to do.  Lindy Hop brought me so much joy, friends and travel – I want to share it with as many people as possible.”

Among the many factors that would metamorphose a dilettante into an entrepreneur, the silver thread is always a strong, almost unstoppable desire to create – and share. Much like certain unfortunate internet memes, the passion of business, once it’s taken hold, never goes away. And, as Lindy Hop can become a beautiful piece of art in the right hands, so can a Lindy Hop business.

The initial spark is certainly similar, and that’s why we can say that, as Frankie was a model for all of us, good Lindy Hop businesses are a model not only for other businesses, competitors and teachers, but for students as well.

Most good business owners strive to make their business inspiring, because they first were inspired – they know how that feels, and they know that’s gold. I don’t believe a business is inherently good or evil – it all depends on who is behind it, and how they can promote the values and benefits of Lindy Hop in a healthy way. We are lucky in the sense that we’re not selling atomic rifles powered by the tears of kittens here. Dancing is an easy commodity to keep on the good side: it’s got social, physical and psychological benefits that far outweigh most hobbies on the market. It’s a visceral need going back thousands of years in the past when some dude or dudette with an unkempt beard started beating two bones together. It can give you the spark necessary to turn your life around.

More often than not, we can directly trace that spark back to Frankie Manning. It was certainly the case for Silvia Palazzolo from Italy, one of the most prolific event organizers in Europe:

“I didn’t organize swing events before meeting Frankie. When I first had him in Italy, I was totally ignorant and had no clue about what was going on. I didn’t know anything about Lindy Hop, I was pretty ignorant about the music and when he spoke I hardly understood the names of the people he mentioned and that now are so important in my life. But at the end of the lecture he gave, for which I was the translator in public, he talked to me and he said to me that I had to keep doing that. “this? this what?” “Bringing joy in people’s lives, organizing events”. From that moment on, he kind of took me under his wing and tried to patiently explain me what I needed to know. I did many mistakes at which sometimes he laughed too, but he was totally responsible of me starting to organize swing events on a larger scale. Before meeting him, I had no idea I could have those skills.”

Yes, we must be wary of the “ballroom studio model” that hires undertrained and underpaid staff who painfully review fifteen years old instructional videos and then regurgitate washed-out, dumbed down material to the students. To that we say: whatever their level, keep your teachers and yourself well informed and inspired to strive for betterment. Turn to Frankie and his constant need to create and top himself.

Yes, we will always hear about – or take an enthusiastic part in – various feuds in the dance scene, whether local or international. Take the time to understand the different stances; be forgiving with others but also with yourself; be as patient as Frankie was with us, and remember that however differently we do our swingout, we all share the same family tree.

And finally, whether your own Lindy Hop business works or not, remember that Frankie spent the better part of 50 years working in a post office – more years working the same, non-dancing job than most of you have walked the Earth. Nothing you do for a living is beneath or above who you are as a person, and you are not more of a failure for it – or more of a success, for that matter. Remember Frankie’s humility, and remember his pride. Regardless of your means of employment, really, you can always look back at what he stood for and ask yourself: what would Frankie do?

I can’t guarantee you, and he wouldn’t himself, that it would always be the exact right thing, but I can tell you it’s always going to be a darn fine starting point.

Zack Richard has been a full-time dancer, business owner and international teacher for the better part of twelve years. He’s currently heading the Swing ConneXion Studios in Montreal, Canada.