Poetic Interlude: Shadow Brand

large rectangular shadow stretches into a road

Mercedes monolith
Rises from the dusty heap of civil society
Shrouds the cracked public sphere

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Filed under Contemporary, Power, Wordplay

The International Appeal of a Hyper-Local Dance

A gentleman in his eighties hands off his walker, embracing his partner as they shuffle to a jaunty tune. Couples of all ages emanate from the inter-generational pair, filling the hall with waves of subtle movement. It’s 11:00 p.m., midway through the 6-piece band’s second set. At least five more hours of dancing await those with the stamina to carry on.

Men sport straw hats and knickerbockers while ladies with elaborate hairstyles keep rhythm in reproduction vintage shoes. Russian, French, and whiffs of hand sanitizer float by on an endorphin-powered breeze. A speakeasy appears in a waiting room and people snap bootlegger selfies before a mugshot backdrop. Parents take turns tending to children so each enjoys the dance floor. The drummer swigs from a green bottle as the MC introduces the next song. Hand-carved art deco borders frame the stage. Invocations of the storied past consist entirely of names: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Django Reinhardt, Benny Goodman. Nostalgia has been reborn.

Welcome to California Balboa Classic.

Modern Revival

California Balboa Classic (Cal Bal), a weekend of workshops, social dances, and contests drawing dancers from around the world, puts the typical conference to shame. Because attendees must engage their bodies to absorb the knowledge presented, exhaustion is physically exhilarating rather than mentally draining. Not only does Cal Bal know how to keep their attendees awake, its instructors are in such high demand that there is often a waiting list to register.

Founded in 2013 by Laura Keat, Cal Bal took up the mantle laid down by Balboa Rendezvous, an event that for ten years gathered new generations of dancers “where it all began”–the Balboa Pavilion in Newport Beach. Though Cal Bal has moved the festivities inland, dancers continue to flock to Southern California in mid-January for the chance to be close to balboa’s historic roots.

How does a partner dance originating on Balboa Island in the 1920’s attract a modern international following that rivals that of the Rose Parade?

Balboa is a social dance that originated on the Balboa Peninsula in the 1920’s and 30’s as teenagers interpreted popular jazz and swing music in crowded dance halls. In its “pure” form, balboa can be danced to extremely fast music in as small a space as two people holding each other close can occupy.

Over the years, balboa evolved to incorporate more exuberant movements from various styles of swing dancing. Modern balboa dancers delight in combining vintage and innovative stylings. Jodi Daynard, a dancer visiting from Boston, said balboa appeals to her for many reasons, but that “the creativity is the part I kind of live for.”

Global Appeal

Now in its fifth year, Cal Bal has become the premier event among dancers who want to enhance their knowledge of this vintage social dance. Hosted at the Pasadena Masonic Temple and nearby hotels, the event attracts people from almost as many countries as the Rose Parade does just a few weeks before. “This is bal heaven!” declared one dancer from the Bay Area.

Our neighbors to the north aren’t the only ones who travel to the City of Roses specifically for Cal Bal. People from Seattle, Denver, New York, Honolulu–not to mention Australia, Korea, Japan, and Germany–all gather in Pasadena to share their affinity for the vintage Southern California pastime. For one couple from the Netherlands, Cal Bal served as the capstone of their week-long trip to Los Angeles, a tour that included The Huntington Library and The Getty Center. 

How did a partner dance originating on Balboa Island in the 1920’s attract such an international following? The key could be the authenticity that the locale provides.

Stephan Wuthe, a Berlin DJ and jazz historian, was attending Cal Bal for the second time. “It’s the real thing here,” he said. Most modern balboa dancers can trace their knowledge to Cal Bal instructor Sylvia Sykes, who learned from the original dancers in the 80’s and 90’s and introduced the dance worldwide. Stephan noted that European instructors teach similar material to that featured at Cal Bal, but it’s important for him to attend an event in “the area where the dance was created.”

Lifelong Learning, International Community

Cal Bal’s world-class instructors are also a major draw. For three days, attendees spend hours mastering new techniques. “You can’t fake bal,” said Cal Bal instructor Augie Freeman. “You have to have a base knowledge to dance with somebody.” Often, friends enroll in different workshop levels so they can share what they learn afterwards.

Instructors and participants alike are diligent students, constantly seeking ways to elevate their dancing. This commitment to excellence is rivaled only by a commitment to fun. By Sunday morning, class sizes are noticeably smaller; many people stay out dancing and socializing until 4:00 a.m.

One of the notable things about balboa’s modern resurgence is the cross-cultural community that has arisen around it. “You can dance with anybody,” said Stephan. “For those three minutes, we are a beautiful couple.”


2017 California Balboa Classic takes place January 6-8 in Pasadena, CA

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Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Nostalgia

Watching Mel Brooks in 2016

On November 9, I sent myself an email. The world breaks, again and again, read the subject line. Maya Angelou supplied the body of the message with her poem “Still I Rise.” I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

Yesterday I wrote myself a note: “The culture comes into consciousness and is repeatedly repressed. Constant vigilance!”

The dangerous myth of progress is that it’s cumulative and linear. But progress isn’t set-it-and-forget-it. Progress toward social justice, toward a world in which everyone has access to basic resources and can exercise their human rights, requires constant maintenance. People in power are loath to cede any of it, never more so when their positions have become reified to the point that they believe any questioning of who occupies positions of power is an encroachment upon their occupation of said positions. One group’s gain is another’s loss in the zero-sum paradigm that governs our society.

Backlash is never not a possibility. People are never not at risk.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with my family to an enjoy a diversion: Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part I. We chuckled a few times, but it was not as funny as I remembered. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that we’re living in the aftermath of November 8.

Somehow, the sequence where a caveman assaults a cavewoman with a stone club, thereby enacting the first marriage, did not inspire laughter, nor did bearing witness to a monarch’s serial sexual assault of his ladies in waiting. Watching an enslaved black man repeatedly argue for his life, never mind his freedom, was distinctly uncomfortable. The abuse of power was rampant, and played for laughs.

The movie, which came out in 1981, had a particular temporal relationship to tragedy. A perceived–discursive, at least–distance from assault on marginalized bodies. Times were relatively good; collective suffering was a distant memory. There was space to skewer that which had plagued previous generations.

Today, we’ve come too close to these realities, too near the precipice of the possibility that our material circumstances are about to get worse, our rights may be called into question, our environment–and by extension, humanity’s future–may be laid waste in sacrifice to the altar of extraction capitalism.

The discomfort that came from watching History of the World, Part I made me think of Brook’s other comedies that wouldn’t play as well today, chiefly To Be or Not to Be and The Producers. Both rely heavily on lampooning Hitler for their comedy. “Springtime for Hitler” was a hilarious showstopper in 1968–and again in the late 1990’s. But today, in a country where we can no longer agree that Nazis are bad, that premise becomes less humorous and more tone-deaf. Sinister, even.

“Never again,” we keep declaring. Except it’s already happened.

When I was a teenager, I thought there was nothing left to fight for. Then the U.S. declared war in Iraq. The more years that pass, the more intractable achieving social justice seems to become. There is always something to fight for. And that means that sometimes, laughter has to wait.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Historical, Power, Racism, Television and Movies

A Mass Market of Individuals

Shhh, I’m not really here.

Yesterday I listened to the latest episode of Note to Self, which investigated a tech startup called “AltSchool.” Founded by a former Google executive, AltSchool is “disrupting” elementary school by catering to each student’s educational profile and learning styles, tracked and measured using surveillance technology. Preliminary results seem promising, with highly engaged children partly directing their own learning, all with the help of their handy tablets loaded with personalized curricula.

The episode touches on many implications of this controversial model, and I’d be interested in an entire series on this enticing and alarming incubator. For one thing, the consumers (perhaps more aptly, beta-testers) are children, an ethical grey area the show doesn’t get into. Host Manoush Zomorodi and NPR education reporter Anya Kamanetz do highlight the fact that these beta-testers are not representative of the demographic realities of their communities, and question the business model of an educational institution that has to answer to shareholders. For his part, founder Max Ventilla argues that children should be allowed a period of no-holds-barred wonderment, and questions the idea that the world is a terrible place that kids need to be prepared for.

What stopped me in my tracks was the whole idea of personalized education.

When every child’s every unique preference and need is catered to so consistently, how do they learn to be part of a group? To compromise their unique needs with those of others? What happens to social norms in such a population? Do we rebuild them from a ground made of disparate special snowflakes, creating social norms from a cacophony of difference? I can see that working, I suppose. After all, that is what many coalitions attempt.

This can get into the dicey area of identity politics. The concerns of marginalized people who aren’t served by the status quo are important to take seriously. I admit that it can be easier for me to conform to existing social norms than it is for some people. Society and its norms should be questioned and challenged if society is to become egalitarian. That’s not what I’m trying to get at here. I’m not saying social norms shouldn’t change to reflect the lived realities of the many types of people who make up a civil society. I’m simply wondering how children will learn social norms in the first place if they’re not taught to forgo their personal preferences in favor of the needs of the larger group. Without that guiding principle, we’d risk social chaos.

But maybe my alarm is off-base, and what really troubles me is that so many “solutions” to social problems are increasingly coming at things from an individual perspective. That and the fact that the organizations piloting these solutions are venture capital-backed tech startups that exist to turn a profit. (I do so wish they’d stop meddling.)

Pernicious individualization strikes me as a dangerous marketing ploy, as a symptom of a consumer culture so invested in getting people to think of themselves as special that they’ll buy anything to prove it, including a personalized education. This is a tech start-up after all. The same type of company that got us to go for a car service that exploits workers and dinner boxes that produce mountains of waste. It’s personal convenience at the expense of the public good. We’re allowing ourselves to get distracted from our collective consciousness of the structural problems that create symptoms like ineffectual schools.

As the individualization trend grows and consumerism takes over what were once public services (e.g., education) what becomes of our society? I maintain that a certain measure of conformity is critical to living and working with other people. And that systematic change, not micro-disruptions, are crucial to positive social transformation.

So enough with the money-grubbing disruption, the expensive band-aids that bill themselves as cost-effective lifestyle enhancements. Let’s instead identify our common needs and mold our institutions into something that serves them.

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Technology

Hiatus 2016

Due to more pressing concerns, I will be unable to keep up with this blog for a few months.

I expect to return to what had become a (roughly) semi-monthly publication schedule in January, if not sooner.

Until then, be well and read widely.

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October 10, 2016 · 5:20 PM