Appreciation versus Appropriation
Lately the topic of cultural appropriation has come up more and more frequently. I think it is a good thing that people are talking about this but with the complicated history of race in the United States a lot of people have a lot of strong feelings and misunderstandings about the difference between these two. I want to start of by stating what follows is obviously my opinion. I can no more speak for all Black people, or even all Black Blues dancers than you can speak for every person of your race. This is a subject where reasonable people can disagree, I believe that we can disagree without being disagreeable…and the final thing to think on, a person can say or do a racist thing and still believe in the equality of different races. It does not in and of itself indicate racism it just reveals a prejudice or bias that is most likely learned from the media and environment of which we were brought up in. I am no different.
I’m going to start with my general belief on the difference between Appreciation and Appropriation — Appreciation is becoming one with a thing and finding your own voice to express yourself from within it. Appropriation is when you take the “words” and change them or their meaning to fit what you want to say. One is letting the thing change you and the other is changing the thing to suit you.
Appropriation in blues dance can take many forms but some of the ones I see most frequently, denying the connection of the dance to blues music, denying, covering up, or otherwise nullifying the artistic efforts of the Black dancers and musicians who created the forms, or laying claim to the name “blues dance” while at the same time trying to somehow distance yourself from the endeavors of the Black people who gave that word meaning in an artistic sense.
==Blues Idiom Dance and those who seek association==
Since Lindy Hoppers in the mid 90’s became infatuated with the idea of dancing to slower groovier music at house parties and late night dances, the term blues has been applied to a myriad of things — in those early days it was a descriptor of the mood that the dancers wished to evoke, the music and movements chosen were “bluesy.” As more and more Lindy Hoppers fascination with the idea of blues grew some of the earliest cities dancers had regular forays into blues bars where honest to god blues music was playing, some even had older blacks who showed up and danced at their favorite venues or followed their favorite bands/musicians, and this inspired a small group of dancers to look into the history of dancing to blues music.
The gained knowledge became the uniting force and those dancers became the anchoring presence as they started teaching, first locally, and then traveling, that was needed to create a new scene, apart from Lindy Hop community. As more people came to the house party scene with little to no knowledge of the roots of the activity they were engaging in, and with little care for the direction that the scene was going, started referring to their dancing as blues dancing. A schism started to form — there were those who saw themselves as blues dancers based on their feeling that they were dancing in a bluesy way to bluesy music, and those who saw themselves as blues dancers because they did blues idiom dance to Blues music.
Much in the way that Salsa went through a period of On 1/On 2 and Lindy Hop Savoy/Hollywood, the blues idiom/bluesy divide spurred numerous debates with frequently no resolution being reached, in the micro or the macro. Time showed though that the blues idiom dancers would win out, due in a large part to their effort to educate both on the dance and the history across the country and ability to share the sources of knowledge by which any one, regardless of location, was able to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural lineage and see what the connections between the music and the dances were. Many of these blues idiom dancers moved beyond the small house parties, creating regular dances and regional and national dance events.
It was during this time period that “fusion” started to gain prominence among the house party crowds. Since the heart of their dancing was taking Lindy Hop and adapting the skills and moves they learned from that dance to non-Swing music the idea of more purposefully adding additional dances and ideas or moves taken from other dances they themselves had not mastered became a driving and defining force. Fusion as a name without the historical associations of Blues made perfect sense…however there was a number of people unwilling to let go of the easy marketability of the name Blues, and there were those who still disagreed that the dance they created was not ever Blues. These dancers frequently tried to include Blues in the name of their own fusion dancing, Blues fusion, Blues-Swing fusion, Blues-Tango fusion, etc. though when challenged frequently could not point to a specific defining contribution of any identifiable blues idiom dance that served as a foundation for their own dancing.
The matters got even murkier when some dancers decided that they wanted to distinguish themselves from the growing fusion community which started to really embrace the idea of study and skill gaining in multiple dances to better allow for the creation of unique individual dances whose rules were negotiated on the fly to a very diverse set of music. This splinter group wanted to dance to slow, emotionally evocative music, with a strong back beat, which was far and away contemporary music outside of the enormous Blues music genre. Many wrongly identify both their dancing and the music as blues, sometimes calling it “Contemporary Blues,” “Modern Blues,” or “Alt-Blues,” or more tragically — simply blues with Blues Idiom dance as “Trad Blues.”
This is extremely troubling for a couple of different reasons, first because it confuses the issue. The “Alt/Con/Mod” music has no direct ties to Blues though numerous of their dancers have grown to believe that Alt-Blues is a genre of music and that contemporary and modern blues is an entirely different thing than the music played by the likes of Chris Thomas King, Keb Mo, and Robert Cray. Secondly, the aesthetic is very much different from Blues, and that the idea of weight shifts and body articulation are often cited as the primary influencing elements, which of course are shared by dozens of different dances and genres of dance, hardly unique in its existence, nor done in a fashion representative of Blues Idiom dance.
The final thing that I personally find so troubling are statements about “updating” or “redefining” Blues, completely dismissing or dissociating the hundred plus year history of creativity and innovation that African-Americans put into this art form, primarily as a means of coping with the gross inequalities and violations of humanity they as individuals and as an ethnicity had to face. “That dance is dead, and what we do now is different” is a phrase I’ve heard exactly and in numerous other forms, completely unaware of the fact that African-Americans across this country still do these dances outside of White spaces.
The use of Blues to refer to unassociated music and to describe an unrelated dance with no ties to founding culture is as clear an example of cultural appropriation as you can find. Using a name so completely central to the Black experience and among the strongest roots of all Black artistic creations, without any caring for its troubled origination and removing every aspect of cultural touchstone or denying it was ever a part of it is a denial of the struggles and pain which Blues represents and perverts the coping mechanism it was used as to deal with the oppression and subjugation, and ironically as a means of expressing lack of self-determination and recognition as a people of worth.
Please do not mistake this missive as being any sort of statement that non-Blacks do not have the ability to “have the blues” or to be able to learn, enjoy, and become a part of the Blues Idiom dance community. Please instead, understand this is asking that you invest some time and energy into discovering exactly what Blues Idiom dance is and how you CAN be a part of it. The difference between appropriation and appreciation is simple to navigate if you think of it as appreciation means you come to a thing wanting to learn, be a part of, and to give back as an active participant, and appropriation means you come to sample, take, and alter to suit your personal needs.
June 9, 2015 at 10:30 am
I think this is a really great blog and loved reading it. I have a question, though. How do you think the cultural appropriation/appreciation concept applies to the musicians? Especially blues musicians?
June 12, 2015 at 5:19 pm
I believe the same general things apply to music as it does to dance. If you are going to lay claim to playing blues music or being a blues musician you should understand what that means. You should know what the songs you sing/play are about. You should know what style of blues it is and when you make changes do so in an informed fashion.
June 9, 2015 at 1:46 pm
I was permanently turned off to “blues dancing” many years ago, and the best I could explain it was to point vaguely to a lack of “authenticity”–and a lack of actual blues music. You’ve helped me understand my own distaste for what I saw in those “early” days and at the same time reassured me that the maturity the “blues dancing” scene seems to have gained is in fact a real and solid thing. Thanks!
June 9, 2015 at 2:27 pm
June 11, 2015 at 12:34 am
Great post, I think I first appreciate and then appropriate in that order. I do come here from a Lindy Hop background, and I love slowing down and dancing between the notes as Damon describes so well in the Blues Idiom blog post. Thanks!
June 12, 2015 at 5:27 pm
Generally speaking I think we may not mean the same things by appropriation. Appropriation is bad — it is a pejorative.
Finding yourself within an art form, learning the how, why, where, and when, places you solidly as part of that tradition, even if you came from outside of it. And once you are inside, the changes you make to your own personal style are informed, and you can choose to stay within or depart from with intent. This is precisely what those inventors and innovators of the form born to the culture do. Appropriation is specifically when someone from outside makes those changes, departing from the form, and claim that it is still the form or that the older form is no longer as deserving of the name but yours is. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13688799890174)
June 12, 2015 at 11:33 am
I am continually surprised by how Americans happily link the engagement in art and expression of art with race/ethnicity (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dcr8dm9Prkk). Which means the efforts by Damon to keep things as objective as possible and to engage all people are commendable.
After reading this post and pondering it, I think the message can be paraphrased as:
1) if you are well informed, then by all means talk about the dance, why you dance it, how it compares to other dances and it’s history.
2) if you are not, then by all means dance it, but pass no judgment, do not pontificate and leave it at that.
That’s probably good advice for ALL dancers.
June 12, 2015 at 7:36 pm
Well, the US has a long and very troubled history regarding race, one which despite the Civil War, the 14th and then 15th Amendments to our Constitution, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Blacks are still systemically oppressed, their intellectual efforts regularly stifled, pilfered, marginalized, and/or out right denied. It isn’t a case of happily linking engagement of art with race and ethnicity, it is because art is a cultural expression and therefor by its vary nature linked to race/ethnicity through the history of the world. Art is an expression of the culture that created it, and because Blacks are not accepted fully into White American culture as equals, their efforts are most frequently not representative of said culture.
Your last two points about being well informed and helping to inform others or not being well informed then listening to those who are and trying to become more well informed is definitely a smart course of action…and generally seen as a sign of intelligence and rationality in other walks of life.