About cultural apropiation

Out of all of the posts I have written on this blog, this one is probably the one that has taken the most time to write. I really hope you find it interesting and you read it until the end.

During the last two or three years I have read quite a lot about the concept of cultural appropriation. This topic has appeared in Lindy Hop and Blues Dancing scene, as well as in the Pop music world. We have the case of Rosalía and her presumed appropriation of the symbols and the music of the gypsies: Flamenco.

As a Lindy teacher, I started to ask myself my own questions. I don´t want to be spreading this art form in a inadequate way, nor acting or saying things that could be offensive to people from the African-American community. Recently I saw that a show performed by a famous teacher dressed up as a black person, and also a representation of Frankie Manning as a “cabezudo” in a Spanish town, have been intensely criticised. Are these critics proportional? Am I doing my best to prevent these situations happening again? First of all I looked on the internet. What does cultural appropriation mean?

Cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society

Rosalía mixes flamenco elements with rap music and current trends. Her fans believe she does it from a deep knowledge of gypsy culture. This isn´t just a modern topic, at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Spanish poet García Lorca became one of the most popular performers and ambassadors for gypsy culture. However, he was not gypsy. Lorca compared gypsies with African Americans: two races without privileges that suffered a lot in the past and they are still in some ways marginalised. It is not possible to compare the particular circumstances around gypsies in Spain with African Americans, but it helped me to emphasise better with the situation in the United States, because in Spain we don´t have the same racial situation.

 

Federico García Lorca in New York City

I tried to read as much as I could about the situation in the African American community over the last two centuries. Jazz, Blues and Swing appeared at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. At that time, the African Americans were coming from a period where they were literally considered to be not much more than animals and were enslaved by the white people in the South of the USA. Even during the 30s and 40s, decades after slavery abolition, being black meant you were banned from many places, including restaurants, theatres and hotels. They even had to sit at the back of the bus and use separate toilets from white people, and of course, opportunities were much more limited than those of white citizens. African Americans were second or third class. Segregation was ensured with the Jim Crow laws until the mid 60s and practically until the 70s. Even today, you can still notice that African Americans still don’t have the same opportunities. The level of social exclusion, poverty and crime rates are higher than white people‘s and police brutality against black people in the United States is frequently in the news. As a human being, I feel deeply ashamed.

Regarding Jazz and Swing music, since the end of the 19th Century, lots of African American dancers and musicians dressed up as primitive people or animals for shows that were created for the entertainment of white people. These were the Minstrel Shows and black people were used to make fun of the black stereotype, a minority that was fighting to recover their rights after centuries of slavery. The Cakewalk dance became trendy around the 1910 and during the slavery there were competitions between the plantations. The slaves danced imitating the white people´s movements. The prize for the winners was a cake for the owner. If the slaves were lucky they might even receive a piece of the cake. On the other hand, shows with white people with their faces painted black (blackface) and imitating pejoratively African American people were really common, even in films during the first part of the 20th Century.

Later on, during the 20s and 30s, African American dancers and musicians used to act in clubs for white people. They normally could not enter as a viewer. For instance, the famous Apollo, situated in the heart of Harlem, the New York neighbourhood where 95% of the people were African American, didn’t allow black people in until 1937, and the Cotton Club, also in Harlem, only allowed them to sit in the balcony. The best seats were reserved for white people. During the Second World War the Savoy Ballroom had to close, because black people were accused of transmitting diseases to white people. It is paradoxical that the USA sent their soldiers to fight against the fascism in Europe whilst they were not fighting against the racism and supremacism that they had at home. The situation was by far worse in the South of the USA. Duke Ellington, the most incredible and talented Jazz and Swing creator, had to sleep with his band on trains and buses, because he was not welcome in the hotels where he was playing due to the colour of his skin. Later on in the 50s, Rock’n’Roll  music became popular thanks to white artists like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Bill Halley, who became millionaires thanks to their music, while the real creators of this style, like Chuck Berry, Louis Jordan, Little Richard or Big Mama Thornton, who were all black, were not recognised or equally paid for their work.

 

As a dancer and a Lindy Hop teacher, sometimes I ask myself if I am repeating the same pattern. Am I ignoring the origins of this dance? Currently some famous dancers try to adapt Lindy Hop and Blues Dancing to their personal background of other dances. Is that acceptable from the cultural view point? Where is the limit? What defines Lindy Hop? It is a really complex topic, maybe it´s just easier to completely ignore it, as has happened to me many times.

I have frequently wondered why I dance this, why I like it and what it makes me feel… of course, since I have discovered more about the origin of Lindy Hop and the context it has evolved from, everything makes more sense. I will try to explain it: for me and for my personal motivation, it has been important to know about its history. Everybody kind of knows that lots of the moves we do come from children imitating everyday situations. There they dance to celebrate the joys of life. Whereas, in the plantations in the South of the United States, this dance was the only thing that helped slaves deal with the situation they were forced to be in. It was also a way to communicate with each other, because usually they were separated from the people from their tribe. By being able to express themselves with the music and dance, they were able to show joy and jubilation, but also sadness and frustration.

By the 1910 things had started to change for the country when 500,00+ of African Americans started to migrate to the northern states in hopes of a better life and to escape the oppressive Jim Crow Laws that blanketed the south and many parts of the country. During the 1920s, there was a huge migration that took black people from the South to the North. Rent rose a lot in big cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, especially for black tenants, because white landlords didn’t want to rent their properties to them. Therefore to afford the high prices, some people would have “Rent Parties”. A Rent Party was a private event, normally in a small flat where they danced Blues and the guests donated money towards the rent. At the time Blues Dancing was a mix of moves like grind, mooche and mess around. The Rent Parties evoked the spirit of the meetings that the slaves had at the plantations; a place to meet and have fun, but also to escape the hardships of life. In comparison, the current Blues festivals are held in big ballrooms and attract hundreds of dancers. Sometimes they cost over 200 euros to attend, a price that the majority of African Americans cannot even afford. This comparison makes me sad and although I love to go to these types of festivals, I don´t really know if I am doing the right thing by supporting something so far removed from the original spirit, that is only affordable to the most privileged.

So many times I have thought about why there are hardly any African American teachers in the Swing and Blues Dancing scenes. Is it because they are not interested in this type of dance, or have they forgotten about it, or changed to another dance? The last summer I spent two weeks in Herráng, the most important Lindy Hop event in the world. There I met a few African American teachers and I talked to them about this and other doubts. I really wanted to know their opinion.

In general, all of them said that Lindy Hop was a dance that evolved at a time when the music was changing. It is the dance of their grandparents, but this dance, as an art form has been alive and has evolved into the dances of Hip Hop. As an example we can see how the Charleston changed from the 20s to the Charleston that we dance in Lindy Hop, and afterwards to the Rock’n’Roll moves and then to Hip Hop moves. Maybe they are not the same dance anymore, but inside, the impetus and the reason why they were created are the same. All African American dances have an inclusive spirit and have their roots in Africa, in the way that you dance what you feel, what the music transmits to you and offering others what you can offer. They are danced from the heart, in the same way Jazz is played from the heart. Music has more sense if you try to imagine how the person who wrote it was feeling, or when you ask yourself about the reasons why that song was created. Now I understand why I am so passionate about Lindy Hop and Blues Dancing… I really connect with the music and depending on how I feel, I move in one way or another. I can be sad, I can be happy, I can celebrate something, or remember someone or miss a person who has passed away. There are songs I can feel the connection with and others I can´t. That is why I only try to dance the songs I feel inspired by.

Back to my question about the lack of interest in Lindy Hop by African Americans nowadays. In Herräng I discovered that lots of young people from the black community are now totally disconnected from Jazz and Swing, some even think that Lindy Hop is a white dance, to be danced at white couple´s weddings and in TV commercials. This situation has been slow cooking for decades by the media when they have extoled white over African Americans. We have the example of Elvis Presley, who a lot of people consider the King of Rock’n’Roll, or Benny Goodman, who was extoled as the King of Swing.

I also asked them about their opinion on Lindy Hop events like Herräng. For these African American teachers, in general, the most important thing is to recognise and appreciate. Recognising Lindy Hop, Blues and Hip Hop origins, pointing out the creators, not trying to change the dance, the spirit, the essence of adapting to our taste.

Recently, I’ve been talking with Odysseus Bailer. He is an African American Lindy hopper and blues dancer, Instructor, Cultural Lecturer and DJ based in New York City. He has been, along with other African Americans in the dance scene, helping me understand the history and social context of African American Culture, segregation, blues & jazz music and blues & swing dancing. One of the many topics Odysseus and I touched on was the appearance of the Lindy Hop/Swing Era. An era that was full of joy and jubilee. A world where people were the same and skin color didn’t matter, just as long as you can dance. Frankie Manning, the Ambassador of the Lindy Hop and the individual who created the first ever Airstep in the dance carried this attitude. An attitude that we champion and carry with us to this day all over the world. But I have learned though my conversations with Odysseus and other African Americans in the swing and blues scene, that “nothing in society matters, and the only thing that matters was how good of a dancer you were” was not widely shared or felt by other African American dancers in the past and now. Norma Miller, before she passed away, was one of these dancers that was very vocal about including and talking about the social injustice her fellow lindy hoppers and African Americans had to endure during segregation. You can feel that frustration and anger in some parts of her biography. She loved dancing, she loved what she was doing, but at the same time she knew that being black was not at all the same as being white.

Regarding teaching Lindy Hop and Blues. Odysseus would love to see, and strongly encourage, lindy hop and blues instructors to find a balance of teaching the dance from a technical standpoint and from an African American cultural perspective. To teach the dance from how the individual instructor connects to the dance and the music. To teach this African American cultural art form from the heart and not the head. For Odysseus, imitating the dancers from the Savoy doesn’t capture the essence and spirit of the dance, and it doesn’t capture the essence and spirit of the African American culture to which the music and dance originated. To be clear he does not want instructors around the world to try and dance like African Americans because that would be cultural appropriation. He expressed how he really wants instructors to take the time to do the work to understand African American Culture and what they had to deal with in American History. To understand what makes the music and dance so appealing, accepting and inclusive to people from all backgrounds. Preserving lindy hop is more than trying to be a carbon copy of how dancers moved in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. To quote Odysseus “Blues and Jazz music, and Blues & Swing dancing is a living, breathing, ever evolving creative art form”. This is why Odysseus, and many other dancers in the Lindy Hop scene, have been really pushing for more African American and PoC (Person of Color) teaching, DJing, Lecturing at dance events around the world. He believes by taking a class from an African American they can provide a wider understanding of the relationship between the music and the dance and the culture connects it to their feelings and body language.”

 

The author in Zaraswing Festival. picture by Sara Pista

After this trip through the eyes of African American teachers and all I have read and seen in documentaries, I feel more motivated than ever to keep on dancing Lindy Hop and Blues. I understand that in some way, Lindy Hop, Blues Dancing and Hip Hop are tags that describe something deeper, a way of moving and feeling music that those who don´t belong to the African American culture probably won´t fully grasp. However, beyond the moves and rhythms, these dances have connected me to a community which has suffered a brutal oppression during centuries. The African American community has been able to canalize all this suffering by creating an amazing art form with music and dance. I believe that any topic related with such an oppressed culture has to be treated with huge respect, love and recognition. Lindy Hop and Blues Dancing accompany me in all good and bad things in my life, because I dance this music from my heart.

This has been my personal experience and I wanted to share it with everybody.

 

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