Why, I Say, White People Can't Dance (And, Yes, It has to Do with Race/Culture/Rhythm, Appreciation, & Respect)
For me, saying white people can't dance has nothing to do with the typical answer that they don't have rhythm. I think the reason for it includes some parts of that, but also something more systemic or structural - race relations and learning cultural contexts.
Dancing is a language (in the way we think of, respond to and through language). Its movements are its words and its grammar is its rhythm. Don't get it twisted; rhythm and grammar are really one in the same. The dictionary defines rhythm as the procedural aspect of a beat or flow. Procedural means the rules and regulations. There are rules and regulations for grammar (i.e. sentences have to have a subject and a verb: She cried.) Again dance is a language—means of expression. It probably is the most articulate form of body language. The analogy I am making here is that the body language we use when talking is also language, but it is what would be comparable to everyday speech. A dance move is comparable to a well-formed speech or lecture. Lastly, a dance performance is comparable to a paper, essay, poem, novel, book, etc.
By all of this, I mean to say that when I say white people can't dance or at least can't dance with black people, I mean that they have not only not picked up a certain set of rules and regulations associated with the body and the overall beat of (black) dance, but also—in many cases— have not picked up the overall flow—philosophy of (black) dance. (To go further understand what I mean by the flow—think of it like overall meaning or point or culture of dance. Refer to the diamond footnote on page 3 for more info.)
I think this phenomenon is linked, in part, to the Puritanical tradition and white culture's fundamental devaluing and mistrust of the knowledge gathered from and experienced through the body. This tradition comes into direct conflict with the African tradition and the traditions of the African Diaspora, where the knowledge from the body is not only valued just as much as the knowledge from the mind, but continually used, acknowledged, and sought after.
This fundamental difference of perspectives regarding the body has led to different philosophies and rules of engagement regarding dance and movement—in other words, black and white people talk differently and that leads to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and even disrespect.
I am aware that this essay grossly—indiscriminately—lumps all white people and all black people together without addressing the variations due to cultural perspectives, attitudes, or expressions. I understand that what I say about black and white people does not apply to all people or groups contained under that distinction. I know there are some white people, who may be black, culturally & phenotypically, as well as there are some blacks that may be white, culturally & phenotypically, as well as know there are innumerable categories that complicate and problematize what I say here. Because of the urgency of this essay and my limitations, I cannot do justice to all those stories. The hope is that everyone will step up to the plate and do justice to her story—for everyone's sake—because the world needs to know you are out there.
Dance in this essay is primarily referring to black American dance—black American culture and procedures (rules of engagement). While I talk about dance generally and my specific experience with dancing at a club, I mean to connect that conversation to American black and white race relations, generally, and my individual experiences (as a black American woman of Belizean and Southern American heritage) with white people, specifically.
This article gears towards showing a connection between the specific and the structural, the private and the political, the everyday and the yesterdays, the present and the History, stories and the metanarratives. It also gears towards giving everyone language in which to talk about dancing and race relations in America. It also gears towards airing out my frustration caused at the club that day—It is my healing (I had the hunch that it would be other people's healing as well). Once again, I apologize if this speaks too loudly for any one group or dance style.
This article is written for all people, but especially white people. By white, I am talking about white Americans and by black, I am referring black Americans. This essay intends not to forget about the white people who respect and value black culture and what it means as well as black people and what they mean.¨
It also does not intend to forget about the white people who not only respect and value all the things said in the paragraph above, but have learned to dance with, (not at), black people through acculturation (i.e. growing up with, not next to, black people), through learning about the history behind our vibration, and/or through somehow intrinsically picking up the rhythm. Thank you. You all, in the words of Jessie Jackson, keep hope alive. KEEP DOING THAT!
Now I want to let you all know why I am even writing this in the first place….
My friend Adaobi (black American woman of Nigerian heritage) texted me, last Thursday (5/10/07) saying that she is tired of doing physics and wanted to go dancing.
[Let's pause right here: the reason or shall I say need for dancing was for a release. So already it has another meaning than just simply dancing's sake or because she was bored (nothing is wrong with that by the way. I'm just making a distinction here). Adaobi wanted to dance for peace of mind. Okay, let's continue]
So, we go to Sister's, which is located in Philadelphia. Although Sister's is generally frequented by white people, Thursday nights were admission plus 8 drink tickets for $10. This coincidentally was the night that the most black people showed up.
We get up stairs to the dance floor area pumped and ready to move—release, heal, let go. Then I began to notice two groups that predominated this party: black people and white people. The dance floor's energy was not a united energy. It was choppy, disconcerted, and actually sort of hostile. Because of this, I watched and analyzed as I danced as well as got angry at the series of things that went on that night—most of that anger was felt towards and because of the white people at this party.
Now, knowing all of these interesting details, I hope I got you hooked on finishing this article. Below is a more detailed description of what happened last Thursday night. It is followed by a possible solution to this persistent problem of black and white people (not) dancing together.
Ethnography of Last Thursday Night at the Club
Description and Background
Walking up stairs to Sister's dance floor, I, cheesing and laughing, hear the booming music. The room was surrounded by mirrors on each wall, a bar was on the right and the DJ booth was diagonally from me. There were disco lights and mainly 70's disco, hip hop, and R&B playing. The sidelines were carpeted with a few stools against the mirrors. I noticed that black and white people predominated the party and actually, there were slightly more black people than white people. Black people were on the perimeter, on the carpet and near the mirror, and white people were in the middle of the dance floor.
Here, I see the weirdest thing I have ever seen at a club: The black people were dancing in the mirror. Now, I don't mean one of two, but about 15 black people in total were dancing in the mirror with themselves—completely disengaged from the dance floor and actually having a ball and cheering looking at themselves move. Behind their back was a dance floor filled with white people. It would be a stretch to say that the white people were dancing. I saw white people making out, falling on the floor, standing talking, and, I think, moving.
Now, like Adaobi and I said that night, I don't mind people having sex or falling on the dance floor, so long as they are doing it to the beat. Let me pause here and make another analogy to dance and language: Dancing to the beat means staying on topic in conversation. When people dance to a song, they are agreeing to engage with its beat—its topic. It is like going to a lecture about Spiderman. You expect everyone to be willing to talk about Spiderman if they entered the lecture hall. So that is what (black) people entering a dance hall expect. It gets annoying to talk to someone if you are focused on a topic and they are off-topic and tangential. It is even more annoying when the person doesn't refuse to stop talking. Replace talking with dancing, topic with beat, and off-topic with off-beat and read the previous sentence again.
The Abaobi and Me connection
Adaobi and I were doing exactly what we came to do. We were vibing. I had more of a hip hop expression while we were dancing (talking) and she had more of an African dance expression, but there would be many times when what we did looked eerily similar and even, we would begin doing the same movements together spontaneously.
We were smiling, jumping, stomping, waving our arms and heads, dipping, wining, and turning (on beat of course). We looked like we were celebrating something (or just really excited about what we were talking about or maybe just really excited to talk to one another). At times when I noticed that I did not look at her enough, (look engaged in conversation with her), I started to look at her and give her encouraging responses when she danced such as "Uh, oh” or "okay now.” (Think of shaking your head in affirmation when talking with someone). I did that to make sure she saw that I saw her and appreciated dancing with her. Sometimes, we would teach each other something. I would start doing a movement and she would do it with a question or hesitation in her step and then look at me for correction or confirmation, then I would do it again, then we would do it together. It took seconds for each of us to learn what each other was teaching because we had such a strong basis of communication before hand.
How Black People Responded to Us
Black people were responding to us as if they were wondering how did we find the energy to dance that way, in a space like this? Because our style was not typical even if it was also based in tradition, black people did not know how to enter our conversation. So instead, they looked at us and smiled. Some tried to do it too, I caught them in my periphery, but when I turned around, they automatically stopped, like they did not want me to see them attempting to learn our styles (language).
We could see black people smiling at us and pointing to other black people to come watch. Because our style was so different, they let us have our space to enjoy our language together, our culture together. They did not come and impose on the space, even though they liked what we did (how we sounded), because we were so into it. They wanted us to enjoy our time together. This was giving credence to the importance of giving people the space to enjoy their individuality.
Other black people created their own space regardless of what we were doing some where else while still giving us our space. We did the same to them. The powerful thing is that we all were moving and expressing ourselves to the same rhythm, the same beat—overall philosophy.
How White People Responded to Us
Adaobi and I did not want to dance in the mirror or the sidelines. We felt the dance floor was as much of our space as it was anyone else's. So we danced on the dance floor amidst the white people. The energy between us was clear. It was clear that we were in deep conversation with one another.
The white people completely seemed to disregard this. At the beginning, a couple of them came in our space range of dancing (our conversation). Bothered, Adaobi and I moved. I assumed, innocently, that they must have not noticed that we were deep in conversation. I also felt bothered because they were unaware that their presence limited us and forced us to find new space. However, I swear that white people kept doing this about 20 times that night. I thought the white people would see the pattern of my annoyance. But that was a hope in shallow well. That is when I noticed this behavior could not be a random act by the white people at this party. It must have been the result of their language, their culture, their misunderstanding and even their disregard of our language and culture. That is when I connected the event to the structural, the behavior to the culture, the symptom to the syndrome.
My awareness heightened and I began to pay attention to what was happening and what was being communicated at the club. Below is the list of all the things white people did that night that let me know that (1) white people and black people speak two different languages (when dancing) and (2) how white people and black people danced together (or next to each other) was representatives of how black people and white people interacted with (or to) one another.
The List of Things of Disrespectful Things White People Did to Adaobi and Me
Because the list is so long, feel free to skip around. Us refers to Adaobi and me. Enjoy, because I certainly did:
A) Say Excuse Me Cuz I Exist!
White people kept dancing or walking through us while we were dancing, without saying excuse me or acknowledging our presence. (The black people walked around us and even if they walked through us, they apologized for doing so and looked us in the eye).
B) I Will Not Tap Dance for You!
I stopped dancing because I got upset at what happened in A. I moved to the mirrors and the side lines staring blankly at the dance floor, the white dance floor. A white girl sitting at the bar tapped Adaobi and me and said that we are really great dancers and have amazing energy together.
I got excited because I felt that finally a white person gets it and acknowledges it. Then she followed up by saying, "Can you do it again. Go do it again. Go, go back on the dance floor.” She said this while simultaneously pushing us on our lower backs and still saying come on dance again. When we didn't move and looked at her like she was crazy, she went back down to sit with her black partner. I said to myself that I am not your puppet, I am not dancing for you. Then I realized once more, white people don't get it. She didn't even get that we left the dance floor because we were so offended by white people.
C) Just Cuz You Know the Words Does Not Mean You Know What I'm Saying or
If Ya Don't Know Wat's Cookin', Ge' Outta Da Kitchen!
We go back on the dance floor because we got so much energy from dancing with each other, we wanted to release one mo' ‘gain. That is when things heated up for me. The white people began to try to mimic our steps—our words. Then with excitement for learning this new word the white people tried to use it with one another. Fine, whatever, so long as they stay away from me with it because once the white people took it, it was no longer mine and I no longer wanted it. This is an example of what I mean:
Seeing this white girl take the step that I was doing, messing it up, and showing it to her friend like she invented it, is like a person taking an artifact because it was "cute” or "cool” that was originally used for blessing a child and putting it on a mantel to show all their friends. It no longer serves it original purpose, it no longer means the same thing in that new context. When a person, who views the artifact as sacred, sees its new use, they may feel gravely offended and even disown that artifact because it was now defiled.
D) I Don't Belong in a Museum or You Can't Box Me In!
A group of three white people started coming close to us, again, without being invited in the space—which happens through eye contact and acknowledgement. They start doing the only black dance movements (words) that they know—yes they knew the words but not the appropriate usage.
They literally started closing Adaobi into a box, which was interesting because it looked like Adaobi was dancing her black dance encased by white people and their stares. I already left that circle when they welcomed themselves in without waiting for our reply.
Adaobi finally broke out of that and found me on the sidelines, again, watching the dance floor. She taps me and says, "I know you were heated. I am really sorry.” We stared at the dance floor again, in disbelief.
E) Doing the Electric Slide: Black People Uniting to Takeover the Dance Floor
(But the White People Almost Foil Us Once More)
This was my favorite part of the night, well at least for a while.
Some of the black girls that were primarily dancing with themselves in the mirror started doing the electric slide—which is a really popular line dancing form for black people (we do it at every family reunion). Adaobi and I see that and we begin to join in, not from where we wanted to begin but from where the girls were currently. Very quickly, all the black people that were on the sidelines or in the mirror began to join. We quickly took over the entire dance floor.
Before this, you wouldn't have known that there were that many black people in the club. So, finally I am happy. Happy that black people stood up, as a unit and demanded that people, who couldn't get with the rhythm, back the fuck up (or people, who couldn't get with the lingo, shut up). Literally, if you didn't know it, you were likely to get pushed or stomped on by someone accidentally and even purposefully.
We finally got a chance to be as black and as loud as we wanted to be. It was very clear that we were saying something. We looked like a disco-army, sharing in one unified understanding or flow. Yes, we were all in one grammar but each of our sentences looked very different from one another. I was spinning my arms as I moved. Some one else was moving their shoulders a lot. Someone else would dip low and long. Some smoother cats would glide. Adaobi had a little African style to her electric slide.
Surprising almost all of the white people did not reenter the dance floor. Well at not least for a while. Then this white girl, who I remember was one of the white people trying to mimic me and Adaobi, tried to come in. Okay, fine, I could understand if she practiced before she came in or at least knew something about the step. Nope. She jumped right in stepping on people and getting in people's way. This is when the problem began.
There were three rows of the electric slide. This black girl was trying to form a fourth row, when the white girl jumped in. Because that white girl kept stepping and falling on her, she quit trying to make the fourth row and went back to standing on the side lines near the mirror. Finally, when the white girl realized that we were moving regardless of her and without the intention of trying to include her (no black person tried to show her what to do), she left the dance floor.
I asked my friend Kathy Huynh what would she have said to that girl. I said that the girl looked like she was appreciating what we were doing. Should I say that white people should not try join in with black people's conversations? How would anyone learn? Then Kathy brilliantly replied, "I would tell her, ‘Thank you for appreciating and wanting to genuinely learn what these black people are doing, but also give them the time and space to appreciate their own culture, for themselves.'” I will leave it at that, because I couldn't have phrased it better.
F) Grrrr!: Overt and Blatant Disrespect
As Adaobi and I are dancing, this white guy does not only bump into me, but stays there pressing the crevice of his back into my shoulder and arm. I was like, "He must not notice I am here.” So I pushed him off of me and said "Hey, watch it.” He looked at me surprised. I thought that meant that he was really didn't know that he was doing that and wanted to apologize, so I stood there waiting for a reply. He says nothing, humps my thigh three times, and pinches my butt. I screamed and said, "Get the fuck off me.” Then amongst me screaming and walking away from him, he runs up and humps Adaobi's butt three times and then runs back to his crowd of white people.
Farewell to Hell
When we left the club and got to the bus stop, I just started kicking and punching this poster on the bus stop of a large white man's face while also screaming. I turned to Adaobi, apologizing for my screaming, thinking she must think I am crazy. She replied with a saddened face, "No, Shayna, don't worry, I understand. Trust me, I understand.”
I kicked and punched to poster, because I felt helpless. I thought that there was nothing I could do to stop what happened at the club—what happens almost every time black and white people dance together—interact. The only thing I could come up with, is writing this article, hoping it would change some (white) person's perspective, hoping that white and black people could interact in a space without being offended by each other, and hoping it would help me heal from my hurt that night. Hoping—it seems like that is the only thing I ever do next to speaking up about my feelings. It hasn't changed much thus far. And to tell you the truth, I'm getting tired of hoping and discussing. I am tired of putting my self out there—(on the dance floor)
Maybe that is the same reason why all those other black people were on the sidelines and in the mirror. They were tired of trying to interact with white people who did not even have the slightest interest in knowing where they were coming from, what they are saying, or respecting and appreciating what they value. It speaks so much for our society today, yesterday, and, sadly and most likely, tomorrow.
(End of Ethnography)
Creating a Solution: Eliminating Racism
Through Learning to Dance
Here is my theory: White people should learn or at least try to learn how to dance black while simultaneously either valuing it as much as they value their dance or at least respecting it as much as they respect their dance. Remember now, I am using dance as a synonym for language and as a synonym for culture. Keep this in mind and it may be easier to replace dance with culture and vice versa in this passage.
The reason that it is critical for white people to learn the dance of black culture is so that white people can be not only aware of black people's perspective, be sensitive to it, and value it as good and valid, but so they can work to eliminate the privilege given to whiteness—meaning those characteristics and people in America that is termed as white. (Having privilege here means having special value. So white in America has special value at the expense of black)
That means dismantling the privilege given to knowledge that is predominantly mind-originated and working for a valuing of knowledge that is holistic meaning knowledge that incorporates the body as well as the mind. That means dismantling the privilege given to aspects of American society that have been structured and conditioned primarily and predominantly by white people—i.e. our school system (colleges and universities too), the standard in which we evaluate performance and intelligence, etc.
This work aids the process of eliminating racism which is having prejudice (ex. white is always better) and the power to enact it (ex. A white person stopping a black person from getting X job because that black person is not white, culturally or phenotypically). Racism is also believing in the inherent superiority of a particular race. The implication of believing in the inherent superiority of a particular race is that all those that do not fall into that category become less than or somehow deficient or down right bad.
Now, what that means is that white (culture or features) have become sacred in American society—hence the statement, "White is always right.” So, for some people, it may seem horrific or like a tragedy to speak of dismantling what they have held so very sacred. Let me specify here. I do not mean that white gets devalued when I say white privilege should be dismantled. No, on the contrary, white people should value their whiteness (whatever that means for people), just not at the expense of another. Shoot, I value my blackness (I know what that means for me. Email me about it if you want to know). I can't stand when white people say, "I hate being white” or "I hate white people” or "I only like black people." NOOOOOO! Don't eliminate privilege by self-hatred, white people. Eliminate privilege through either working to give everyone privilege (value) or conversely, giving no one privilege (value) over another.
One may ask why blacks don't just learn to dance with white people instead of white people learning to dance with blacks. Well, to whoever you are thinking this, what I have to say is that black people have been shucking and jiving with white people for years. It's time for whites to give up some privilege, for peace's sake.
For our survival, black people had to know the white person's rhythm (culture). Look at English Ebonics and "standard" English. To write my papers in college, I had to use and learn the grammar of "standard" English when I usually speak in the English form of Ebonics. I would always tell my professors, why can't I just talk to you or debate with you rather than write a paper? Or why can't I write a poem or do a dance instead of writing an essay? This is not saying that writing is not important, for it is, but why can't I couple it with another form of expression or even another dialect of English? (I believe this has to do with valuing and devaluing. Or "following tradition""meaning following "white is right." People don't like to admit this to themselves.)
This is also represents a battle inside myself to stay sane because I have come to value certain aspects of white culture, but also know that those aspects are rooted in a disregard, disrespect, and a devaluing of black culture, something that I have internalized and made sacred inside myself. So often, this battle, at times, makes me want to throw away or destroy anything that is white inside myself or any symbols of whiteness around me or conversely, throw away or destroy anything that is black inside (outside) myself. Dubois talks about this in his reference to the "double consciousness" of black folks. He says
His [the Negro's] double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,"an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
Since I can't escape white culture in this society, the only way to reconcile this terror inside of me is to help alter white culture to value black culture"to value me. That is what this article intends to do.
So now I am saying white people have to learn to dance with us, if they want to unlearn racism and reconcile its effects. I realize that I have gone as far as I can go with trying to dismantle racism. White people, it is your turn. It can only be finished if you let it be finished.
Furthermore, it is important for white people to know and value the dance of black people's culture (or of any person of color's culture) because white people in this country have been bred to be mono-cultural and bred to devalue other ways of being that are not like theirs. This has the consequence of further obscuring reality"or realities that are strongly felt and lived by others. So, in a sense my particular double consciousness is both a blessing and a curse. However, it does not have to be a curse. It is only a curse because one of the consciousnesses that I have come to value degrades and tries to eliminate the other consciousness that I have strongly internalized as my basic self. It is a blessing to have more than one way of looking at the world. For example, I learned in a neurobiology class that the nervous system has at least six ways to receive the same information: hearing, touch, taste, smell, sight, and proprioceptors. As my professor said, "It helps us get things less wrong as well as adds more depth to what we perceive."
In other words, our body purposely has multiple perspectives that come into conflict with one another in order to get the sharpest notion of what actually is going on. This is reason enough to unlearn racism. Racism prevents people from a depth and sharpness in their perception. Conflicting realties are not inherently bad. People make different ways of seeing bad. Our nervous system seeks different perspectives, knowing that difference can not only be helpful, but also good.
To relate this again to dancing: That is not telling every white person to go find a black person and ask them to teach you their culture. That is ridiculous. What I am saying to white people is, be aware that (black) dancing has a grammar"rules of engagement. Try to find out what they are in a respectful manner that has in mind that not every black person, all or any of the time, is interested in teaching white people their grammar. Keep in mind that there are some things that cannot be spoon-fed and require the arduous task of experience and learning by oneself. Also keep in mind, like my friend Kathy said, give black people the time, space, and respect to appreciate, enjoy, marvel in, get relieved by their own culture, by themselves.
Also, more importantly, keep in mind that black people learn your grammar by spending time with white people and in white and white-originated institutions. That is not saying that white people should flood black communities and black institutions (that has all sort of problems like gentrification, and violating the importance of respecting organizations and spaces for affinity groups).
What it is saying is that something will be lost if you just learned black culture through books, movies, television, music videos on BET and MTV, jazz C.D.'s, other forms of recorded black music, artifacts, and whatnot. Basing one's view of a people solely on any one of these can be problematic on so many levels, especially since the media grossly misrepresents or complete stereotypes of what they choose to portray of black culture.
What I am saying is to also GO TO THE PRIMARY SOURCE"black people. That first means putting a face to all that you love of black culture and loving that face as well"loving meaning valuing. This does not make everything accurate or peaceful, but like I once said, you would be skeptical of someone's ability to speak Spanish if they told you they never met a native-Spanish speaker, never been to a Spanish-speaking country, and solely learned Spanish and what they know about Spanish culture from reading a book.
All and All
If white people begin to work to actively dismantle the privilege given to whiteness and give value to blackness, if this occurs, one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers gettin' down wit their bad selves. If this occurs, I believe white people and black people can finally dance together, well at least figuratively.
That's my story and I am sticking to it. Peaceeeeeee. No, seriously, peace.
¨ I admit some people, even some black people, don't know or haven't thought of what black culture and black people mean in America literally. That is fine because I am willing to bet that those acculturated into black culture know what it means intuitively"in other words, they know it through its feeling or feeling in general. Recognizing what black people mean includes valuing them as human-beings"living, rational, irrational, and moral beings. But what I truly mean is valuing their contributions as a people to not only American society, but also American identity and culture.
 W.E.B. Du Bois (1868"1963). 1903. The Souls of Black Folk: "Of Our Spiritual Strivings." Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.; [Cambridge]: University Press John Wilson and Son, Cambridge, U.S.A.,