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Identity – appropriation

I’m descended from slaves on one side and the colonised Irish on the other, with roots and relatives in Barbados, Ireland, North America and Australia. My identity is drawn from the legacy of British empire and the various forms of resistance against it – the clash of cultures and the mosaic patterns that formed in the aftermath. I'm interested in diverse cultural responses to the challenges of being human. We need to pay more attention to responses that will sustain life on this planet, rather than destroying it. 

Dance connects me to my African diaspora music and stories, the present moment, my body, my partner, my community, my sense of curiosity, and a feeling of pure joy. Lindy Hop and Blues also include European influences – often from white colonised peoples such as Scots and Irish. Blues musicians were among the first Americans to mix black and white, publicly defying legal segregation in their stage performances and collaborations... for example, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Jordanaires. The inclusiveness and fertility of jazz, blues and other diaspora cultures continues to this day. Folk music themes of resistance, resilience, love, sex, food, death – are universal.

My understanding of cultural appropriation has changed since I began this blog in 2018 – here’s view from 2020.

To people raised in a world of video channels, recording and sampling, it may seem that all culture should be free for all to borrow, bend and make our own. Unfortunately the history of European colonial domination, theft and abuse complicates respectful cultural exchange. Cultural appropriation treats indigenous and black culture like an la carte, ahistorical, apolitical menu – always available for the ‘plucking and biting’. Cultural appropriation continues a legacy of colonial theft, after sabotaging and scorning those very cultures it steals from.

Cultural appreciation requires acknowledgement of the originators of the culture, their present-day continuity within it, their meaning and intent in a given cultural activity. Cultural appreciation has depth, cultural appropriation is usually shallow.

There was a time when I didn't see people ‘in black and white’, but colonialism has left a historical legacy of injustices that can't be ignored. White Australians introduced me to blues and swing dances, welcoming me warmly into their community. The Afro-American origins of the dance were hinted at by black faces on flyers, but not explicitly explained. Historic photos of black people partying on the flyers, white people at the parties – this would have been confusing if I wasn't so used to being 'the only' black person in my community. My (white) Irish friends had always worshipped black culture – be it reggae, jazz, soul or funk. The political implications were not obvious because Ireland was itself a victim of British colonisation – and so identified with songs of resistance.

However there’s no doubt that black American music and dance of born in defiance of colonial oppression has been devalued, then selectively adapted to suit the dominant (Anglo white) culture. Instead of being an African diaspora dance at one with its musical tradition, much blues culture has become commercial product. Credit and wealth for the innovations of black blues artists goes to Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and other white heroes. Many blues organisations around the world pay zero respect to the black history of the blues. This needs to change, to realise the political power of blues as a force not just for human connection, but for equality.  

In more recent years, some Australian dancers have worked hard to lift the understanding of blues and jazz history in their dance community. Being so far from the USA this happens mostly through reading groups and movies. In the link below, I share the beautiful blues literature that has helped me grow as a dancer and contribute positively to the community. Without this Australian blues dance community, I might never have discovered my own rich African-American dance culture – this makes me a strong advocate for inclusivity. 

In Australia and Europe, the communities where blues and jazz vintage partner dances thrive today are urban, cosmopolitan, of majority European heritage. These are also my people. In my experience, these communities show great respect for the African origins of blues, jazz and other styles. To their credit, these communities explicitly welcome all kinds of diversity – of age, gender, sexual orientation, ability, body type etc. The welcome I’ve received in blues, swing and other dance communities all over Europe is documented in this blog for all to read. I also received a warm welcome and generous hosting from dancers in the Americas.  

I've learned that an inclusive welcome is not enough. Integration of African diaspora history in dance classes is a necessary gesture of reparatory justice, empathy and respect. We don't want black dance culture to be filed away in a museum or or buried under a wall of racialised divisions. It's too precious, this living culture, this language, this bridge over troubled waters. The times of racial tension are when we need it most.

Our is a different context, a different time –  yet these dances still bring people together in creative expression and collective joy, like they always have. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Blues and jazz take what’s bitter, tragic or sad, make it sweet, poignant, funny, joyous. To suffer is human – so let’s make all the lemonade we can.

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Sources and readings
Learn about blues culture and context

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