Category Archives: Historical

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

Reconsidering the Percolator

This article was originally published in Issue 42 of Coffee Lovers Magazine, which is where you should read it because they have things like layout and pictures over there.

Reconsidering the Percolator

in defense of a misunderstood relic

Something’s missing in contemporary conversations about coffee. The one elision in Issue 41’s roundup of preparation methods was mention of the percolator, that much maligned icon of midcentury domesticity. To be fair, it’s easy to forget. Difficult to classify, percolation lies somewhere between immersion and drip methods. For people under the age of 40, “to percolate” is likely more familiar as a metaphorical phrase than a culinary process. To modern sensibilities, the percolator is at best shorthand for 1950’s homemaking; at worst slandered as an inferior method that commits unforgivable crimes against coffee. There is a third way.

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Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Nostalgia

Hold Your Applause

This is a recent column from Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, an ongoing Q&A series about the strange inner workings of U.S. culture. The column is published each month in my newsletter.

Quandary

How do people know how long to clap/applaud at social events?
~Baylee

Anthropological Explanation

Baylee’s question sent me to JSTOR, bastion of academic articles. Unsurprisingly, music journals had a lot to say on this subject, most of it of the hand-wringing variety. (As in, “why, oh, why can’t our stupid audiences clap the way we professional performers think they should?”) But let’s step away from that cacophonous minefield–I’ve collected a few choice gems in the “Miscellany” section at the end–and talk about crowds, social norms, and communication. This discussion focuses on a U.S. cultural context, because that’s what I have the most experience with.

There are different schools of thought about what drives group behavior, some that allow for more individual agency and rationality than others. My attempt to answer this question will employ a mish-mash and I probably won’t provide an adequate literature review to trace their lineage. I’ll be talking about applause in terms of the social situation of a performance, but we can apply a similar analysis to sporting events, speeches, or any situation that involves a person or people set apart from the people whose role in the interaction is primarily observational.

Applause is a form of communication both between audience and performer and among audience members. It can encapsulate several meanings, often at once:

1. Indicating that the performance is over.
2. Demonstrating support of what just concluded.
3. Demonstrating support of the person or people who performed.
4. Indicating a positive emotional or intellectual reaction to the performance.
5. Demonstrating adherence to social expectations of polite behavior.

Let’s unpack that last one. We have been conditioned to behave in certain ways depending on what context we find ourselves in. These are social norms. People who become members of an audience have joined in a ritual that triggers a set of behaviors, one of which is clapping at the conclusion of the performance. In addition, by becoming a member of the audience, people suspend certain individual behaviors in the service of greater group cohesion. Regardless of whether an individual enjoyed a given performance or not, that individuals is likely aware that society expects them to applaud when it is over. To not engage in the group act of applause would be making a strong statement against said performance. Unless an individual has reason to make their negative reaction to the performance publicly known, they are probably going to contribute a few halfhearted claps to the group’s applause at the “proper” moment.

Now that we’ve established the social expectations that generate the group response of applause in the first place, let’s move on to tackle Baylee’s question of how individuals within the group know when to stop clapping. It seems to happen spontaneously, but as we’ve seen from how applause begins, its cessation may also be partly automatic. This question turns on the idea of knowledge, which is a tricky thing to deal with anthropologically. As my professor Anne Lorimer reminded us time and again, “culture is in practice, not just in people’s heads.” So let’s see if we can find what audience members might be thinking in what they are doing when they stop applauding.

“Nowhere has controversy about mental processes been more salient than in theories of crowd behavior.”
Richard A. Berk, ‘A Gaming Approach to Crowd Behavior,” American Sociological Review Vol. 39, No. 3 (June 1974) pp.355-373

In 2013, Royal Society Open Science published research findings that suggested applause spreads among an audience “like a disease,” with people relying on audial cues to drive their individual clap contributions. Other sociological research also takes this “contagion” view of crowd behavior, treating groups of people like mindless herds who merely follow the unidentifiable will of the collective. Of course it’s more subtle and people deserve much more credit. As I outlined above, the meanings of applause and the contexts in which it’s generated depends on people’s awareness–even if they aren’t specifically thinking about it every second–of what behaviors are acceptable and expected of them at any given moment.

As we applaud, we are attuned to the clapping of others in the audience. After a while, someone in the audience will stop clapping. Maybe their hands hurt. Maybe they disliked the performance and were only communicating politeness. Whatever the reason, that one person or handful of people who stop(s) triggers a chain reaction: we become aware, at least subconsciously, that the noise and/or movement around us has reduced, and because we have resigned our individual selves at least in part to the collective personhood of the audience, we conform to the social expectation that we slow our claps, and as a critical mass of people lessen their applause and finally stop, leaving only the stragglers to betray their non-conformity.

[Detour into the Dept. of Speculation]

The duration of applause, especially when you’re contributing to it, can feel instinctual. You stop clapping when everyone else does. Sure, it ebbs a little at the end and there may be a few stray claps, but on the whole audiences tend to synchronize their cessation. How does this happen? Are we telepathic? Sort of. It could be that, like other social norms, we have internalized experiences of the average duration of applause from past performances and are imperfectly replicating those subconscious memories. In a study on the rhetorical forces that influence audience response after political speeches, John Heritage and David Greatbatch noted that “performance factors are found to influence the likelihood of audience response strongly.” This again points to the social norms both governing and encoded within audible forms of communication. The duration of applause might be correlated with the duration of a performance, the fervor with which it was delivered, or the affiliation between audience members and the performer(s).

So it’s not that we necessarily “know” when to stop, or that there are strict parameters that govern the duration of applause, but rather that we collectively decide in the moment how much applause is warranted based on our prior experiential and cultural knowledge of how vigorously and long we’ve applauded at similar events that evoked similar emotional responses. There’s much more nuance and theoretical underpinnings to all this, but I’ve already rambled on long enough without adequately citing sources.

A final thought before we have a chuckle at the moral outrage of early 20th century musicologists: 

It would be interesting to compare the applauding practices of a group of children with that of a group of adults to see whether the children audiences contain more outlying clappers–kids who continue clapping long after the majority has stopped, or those who stop much sooner, or those who choose not to clap at all. Since children are by their very nature not yet fully socialized, I’d bet that there’s much greater variation among the individuals within the audience and between difference audiences.

Miscellany

I can’t not share some of my more amusing findings from these music journal articles. The ones that problematize applause set up a power struggle between the audience and performer/conductor. In the musicologist authors’ estimations, audiences are comprised of uneducated sheeple who should be either domesticated or skinned alive. Behold:

In 1897, a disgruntled patron of the arts wrote the editor of The Musical Times to complain of his fellow audience members’ uncouth propensity to clap before the conclusion of a piece. It seems that the music was too often “marred by a din of applause” before the proper moment. (The editor replied that “the protest of our correspondent is much to be commended.” Snobs gotta stick together.) Western society seems to have gotten the message: rarely do I hear people clap before the end of a classical piece of music–we all must have our eyes glued to the conductor, waiting for them to lower their arms and signal that the music has, indeed, concluded.

“Audiences capable of genuine discrimination are very rare, and in any discussion of them the question of applause has to be faced.” Thomas Russell, The Musical Times Vol. 82, No. 1176 (Feb., 1941), pp. 54-5

There’s an article from a 1925 issue of The Musical Times entitled “The Tyranny of the Audience.” Hear that, people? WE HAVE THE POWER!!!

You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes you. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.

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Filed under Check This Out!, Contemporary, Historical, Sweeping Generalizations, Why Can't I Eat My Dog?

Artful Bodies: “The Michelangelo of Taxidermy”

NPR’s All Things Considered aired a story earlier today about four centenarian hyenas who reside in the Chicago Field Museum. The hyenas were revealed to be the work of the notorious Carl Akley, described by Field Museum exhibit developer Sarah Crawford as “pretty much the Michelangelo of taxidermy.”

This phrase filled me with a particular type of glee, the same glee I often felt while researching my theses on human-animal relationships (first in North Dakota, then at Lincoln Park’s Farm-in-the-Zoo). In addition to awkward interviews and tentative field-work, I read some epiphanic books and articles about zoos, language, museums, abattoirs, systems of classification, Theodore Roosevelt, and taxidermy. All of these things are related.

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Filed under Animals, Contemporary, Historical