It is time for part two of a historical narrative of Fusion partner dancing. If you haven’t read my previous post on the “Blues” scenes and their outgrowth from the Lindy Hop scenes, I recommend reading it first because it is relevant!
A quick review of where we left off: the first “Blues” scenes grew out of the Lindy Hop scenes that were getting popular across the U.S.; these Lindy Hop scenes were a white culture revival of the historical black vernacular dance of the 30s and 40s. Some of these “Blues” scenes sought to become connected to Blues music, Blues dance movements, and Blues aesthetic. Other “Blues” scenes were really more spaces where people were dancing to “slower” (relative to Lindy Hop) music in whatever movement aesthetic came most naturally to them and their dance scene.
Now the big question: where did Fusion come into all of this?
A Family Tree…
First, I thought I would start us off with a handy-dandy picture. There are really two series of events which were the catalysts for Fusion dancing as we know it today: the Fusion Exchanges and alt-Blues Recesses. However, as seen by this diagram below (which I spent far too long playing around with), these events were influenced by all different kinds of dances, styles, and communities.
The diversity of dance style, technique, philosophy, and perspective shown in the diagram above speaks to why it is often so difficult to describe what “Fusion” dancing actually is. However, if you ask people about what is “Fusion” dancing, there are two answers that you will hear most often:
- Fusion dancing is the “fusing” or combining of two or more specific dance styles. For instance, “Tango-Blues” or “Salsa-spiced swing” or “Contact-improv/Hip-hop/Ballroom”.
- Fusion dancing is partner dancing to a wide variety of music using your own intuitive and/or trained movement styling and partnered connection. Aimee likes to call it “Dance-Agnostic” partner dancing.
These two perspectives on Fusion dancing descend directly from the differing approaches and philosophy of the Fusion Exchange and the Blues Recess.
High In Demand – the Fusion Exchange…
The very first Fusion Exchange happened in Houston in 2008. I am not positive if the term “fusion” dancing was coined by the exchange or not, but almost without a doubt, the Fusion Exchange was the event that spread the term across the country. The event was a weekend event started by some dancers who wanted to inspire creativity and innovation in the partner dance world, and also to create a space where dance ideas and communication could cross-pollinate between communities.
Andrew Sutton and Anna Whitmire at Houston Fusion Exchange, 2008
I only attended the last Fusion Exchange held here in Denver in 2014, but I heard stories about them every year since I began dancing in the Blues dance community. Everybody raved about them. And rightly so! The events were professional, well-run, high-quality, top caliber events that also had amazing music and were filled with more amazing dances than one could count. In three years, the event went from 150 attendees to 500 attendees!
…Together, we set our imagination in motion.”
– Fusion Exchange Mission Statement
What was amazing about the Fusion Exchange was that because it was so popular and so amazing, the event brought out high-caliber dancers from multiple styles of dances. Watching so many different talented dancers dance and communicate with each other to all sorts of music from electronica to modern-classical to funk and soul was both inspiring and invigorating. In many ways, these events helped spur many partner dancers around the country to take up lessons in their local scenes in multiple different styles. To try that Tango class they had always heard about. To go to a Blues dance for the first time.
In essence, the Fusion Exchange inspired a whole generation of dancers to learn and take up the challenge of mastering multiple styles of dance and provided a space and avenue for dancers to experiment and play with other people who had similar imaginations.
Sadly, as mentioned above, the last Fusion Exchange was held in Denver in 2014. However, the events’ legacy lives on in the minds of many people who organize and dance at fusion events (both weekly and weekend events) across the country. In Denver, Hot Night is a perfect example of a weekly event which was inspired by the Fusion Exchanges. Mission Fusion Extravaganza (MFX, which happened just last weekend) and the DJ Experiment in Philadelphia are two other examples of national weekend events which are in some way descendants of the Fusion Exchange. And there are plenty more than that!
Fusion is when you step onto the dance floor and the music inspires you to pull from all the dance styles you’ve ever learned.” – José Gamero
Another thing that lives on in Fusion dancing is the value our communities have on diversity of dance forms and approaches to partner dancing. Many people may remember recall (or continue to recall on a daily basis) the stereotype of Lindy Hoppers considering their dance to be the bestest most awesome dance on the planet — a stereotype which, I confess, I also perpetuated in my dancing youth. On the contrary, at the Fusion Exchange, there was a true respect and acknowledgement given to every style of partner dance, which is one of the reasons why there are so many different opinions about what Fusion dancing is or is not. If you are interested, the Fusion Exchange’s website is still up and running and has some great quotes from different people about what Fusion dancing was to them individually. The quotes above were taken from their website.
It also has some little blurbs about all of the events they ran over the years. You can also search for Fusion Exchange on youtube and find some great showcases of masterful dancers dancing to lots of different kinds of music. It is definitely worth taking a look!
A Different Imagination – alt-Blues Recess
Ah, Recess? How does one begin to describe the magical surreal adventure of a Recess dance weekend?
Needless to say, while Recess is also a huge influence on Fusion dancing today, it is a completely different kind of event than the Fusion Exchange, or even most other weekend partner dance events. It is like some combination of a mini-Burning man, mixed with partner dancing, mixed with anarchy, and skill shares and… Well, most of the time its like camping in the woods with a bunch of your friends and dancing all weekend, though it is much more than that… A short video from Aspen 2014 might speak more about it than I can do in words. Y’all who were there, remember trying to push the bus out of that ditch?
Footage from Aspen Recess 2014, from the Recess website.
Unlike other weekend partner dance events, the alt-Blues Recesses were and are unique in that (in my opinion):
- Whereas most dance events are created for the participant, at a Recess, participants co-create the experience of Recess events. From setting up and decorating the dance space, to offering skill shares, to helping cook and clean in the make-shift kitchen, as a participant, you can expect to be helping to organize and make the event happen.
- Recess events are spaces where dancers can dance any traditional lead/follow role, regardless of gender. They are also spaces which encourage and are supportive of exploring gender identity as a whole.
- Recess events, for whatever reason, are often simply magical (in both the light and dark sense of the word).
The fact that Recesses are magical is what makes it difficult to describe them. However, the Recess website itself has some good testimonials and other descriptions which do a pretty good job!
We call it Alt (short for Alternative) because that’s what we are, that’s the music we prefer, that’s the experience we strive to create—something outside of the ordinary.” – Recess website
The very first Recess event happened in our own backyard: Carbondale/Aspen, CO in 2008. To understand where these events came from, its important to reflect on their original title: “alt-Blues Recess” or “Alternative Blues Recess.” I’ll have to sit down and interview the organizers at some point, but here is my sense from previous conversations about what sparked the creation of these events.
First, most dance events are fairly expensive to attend. The events are often in cities which require high rental costs for good dance floors. There are also costs incurred for bands, instructors, the time and energy to organize the event for participants, etc. As a participant, your ticket pays mostly for that. But as a participant, one also has to worry about paying for lodging, paying for a plane ticket, paying for transportation during the event. All these costs add up and can sometimes make it prohibitive for individuals without a significant amount of money to attend. This was especially true of the Fusion Exchange in its last few years because it was such a popular event. The events were worth every dollar, but not everyone had enough dollars to attend.
In one respect, the Recess events were a response to the question, “Is it possible to have an amazing dance event that doesn’t cost so much?” Most Recesses are held in locations that are off-grid, in the woods, and don’t charge the expensive ballroom floor dollars to rent. The decorations and accommodations are mostly the responsibility of the community. Many items are reused, re-purposed, dumpstered, recycled, etc. Using creativity and ingenuity, the collective helps make the event amazing, impermanent, ethereal and magical. Especially in the early years, this was all done to cut down on the overhead costs of holding a mainstream event in the middle of the city. This in turn cut the cost for participants. Because of their commitment to making Recess events affordable, the Recess events also offer need-blind scholarships for individuals to attend and always have a sliding scale payment system. All of this contributes to the backwoods, homegrown feel of the events.
At a Recess, we are challenging, encouraging, and empowering social dancers to step outside their traditional roles on the dance floor.”
– Recess website
Secondly, many events had (and still have) strong cultural norms which require individuals of certain body types to either lead or follow. Specifically, in most communities, the people who are perceived as male-bodied lead and the people who are perceived as female-bodied people follow. If there is a single greatest impact that Recess events have made on our partner dance communities (Fusion in particular) it has been to challenge the assumption that we must conform to these norms. While many people still to choose partnership roles that conform to the societal norms for male-presenting and female-presenting people, at least in Denver, if a man wants to follow or a woman wants to lead, there is far less social stigma presented to these individuals than even two years ago.
Like the Fusion Exchange inspired a generation of dancers to explore other dance styles and forms, the Recess events inspired a generation of dancers to explore both dance roles and eventually offered a space for people to explore fluidly switching dance roles (lead and follow) within a dance.
Justin Riley and Ruby Red switch dancing at SF Fusion Exchange 2012
Lastly, Recess events were responding to a dissatisfaction with a sort of cool kids elitism that was still present even in the Blues community. Recall that the Blues scene descends from the Lindy Hop scene. The elitism that exists in the Blues scene is a manifestation of a similar phenomena in the Lindy Hop scenes across the country: namely, the social capital from winning competitions and being “good” leads to a tight-knit circle of individuals who appear inapproachable by beginning and intermediate dancers. Diving into why such phenomena continue to persist is outside the scope of this post, but is definitely interesting topic.
In any case, Recess events attempt to mitigate this placing of individuals on pedestals (even if it still happens) by creating opportunities at the event for skill shares. Any attendee at a Recess has the opportunity to share and offer up the skills and talents that they have to the community through short workshops or classes at the event. This built community at Recess events in a way that few other events are able to do. It truly highlights the diversity of skills in the community, especially when the dance instructor you thought was so amazing is in class with you struggling to figure out how to juggle, circular breath, or play a new instrument. The anti-elitist sentiment also translated into a value of individual creativity and empowerment regardless of skill level or dance technique. In many Fusion communities this continues to be a strong community value.
These departures or “alternatives” to Blues are some of the way that Recess culturally departed from the Blues dance scenes. But Recess departed from Blues scenes musically as well. The Recess events are a space where a lot of experimentation with partner dancing to dubstep and electronica music began and which definitely persists in our scenes to this day.
Recess events continue to be spaces of cultural exploration and development. One of the values of Recess is to create “…A society we all deserve.” Through the continued work and innovation, the Recess events continue to inspire and engage Fusion dancers with magical dances, challenges, and cultural inquiries.
Local “Blues” Dance – the Meeting Ground
On the national level, the Fusion Exchange and Recess were the main events where ideas, philosophy, and culture of Fusion dance was shared explored and woven together. And they were not isolated either: there were plenty of people who went to both events frequently.
But how about the local level? And why is Fusion so much more connected to Blues scenes than other partner dance scenes (like Tango or Lindy Hop)?
Throughout this post, I have been using “Blues” liberally without specifying too much what I mean. But if you were paying attention to the dance scene family tree I posted at the beginning of this piece, you should have noticed that there are two different instances of Blues.
Remember: our “Blues” dance scenes are a mix of people who have actually spent time learning about Blues Idiom dances (dances which are connected to afrovernacular dance, Blues aesthetic, etc.) and people who were dancing to Blues music in whatever way felt good to them (and was often very notably different from afrovernacular dance movement). While not everyone who found Blues came directly from the white-cultural Lindy Hop revival, a significant part of our Blues community comes from that perspective originally.
Because of this lack of cohesion around Blues dancing, our “Blues” scenes became known as a space where people could “improvise” and not feel judged for how they were dancing. Indeed, Blues scenes have long had a reputation of being more welcoming spaces than Lindy Hop scenes to beginners, dancers of different styles, etc. The result of this reputation is that “Blues” scenes became local gathering places for dancers from multiple walks of life.
The Fusion Exchange was the place where people went once a year to explore and play with mixing and matching dance styles to different styles of music. In many ways, “Blues” scenes were the local venue where this kind of exploration was also welcome. The Recess kids, the Tangueros, the Westies, even a Lindy Hopper or two, you see all sorts of people at “Blues” dances. Next time you go to Tuesday Blues, look around and see all the different kinds of people who choose to attend. It’s pretty amazing. This phenomena is also why so many Blues dances have a “Fusion” or “alt” set at the end of the night.
It has only been in the last few years that there has been a national acknowledgement that hosting a “Blues” dance where Blues dancing (by which I mean Blues Idiom dance forms) is not really the focus of the dance is truly a disservice to the art form. Simply put, if you go to a Salsa dance or a Tango dance or almost any other specific evening of dancing, you expect to find the majority of dancers at that event dancing within a context and aesthetic given by the culture of the dance. Thus, if we are truly passionate about Blues dancing, shouldn’t we have similar expectations for our community?
This kind of reflection is what has been the impetus for the beginning of separate Fusion dance events like Hot Night, the Dancing Root, and other “alt-Blues” or “Indigo” events nationally which are specifically devoted to dances and music that is not just Blues.
For us, at the Dancing Root, we recognize that what we are doing is different from Blues, in music, culture, values, and aesthetic, even if we align and overlap with the Blues scene in multiple ways. And while we are not a Blues (or even “alt-blues”) dance, we understand and honor our relationship with the Blues community through our participation, engagement, and love of music and dance.
Hey all, if you have questions or comments, please submit them! I would love to hear your responses. As I said when I first started this blog, I hope this to be a conversation starter, a space for community dialogue, receptacle of memories, and an opportunity to reflect on who we are as a community and as a dance scene. So send me your thoughts!