Photo: Andrew Miller

Proselytizing the Blues, with Annette Kühnle – Part 1

In this wide ranging conversation, Annette Kühnle and I talk about her experience falling in love with dancing, and how that love has grown to include teaching and organizing. I was most impressed with her commitment to understanding the very essence of her dancing. It takes much courage to gaze deeply within yourself.

Greg Austin Hi, how are you doing?

Annette Kühnle I’m doing very well, thank you.

Greg Excellent, excellent, as we begin, I always try to give my guests a chance to tell their origin story, or how they started dancing. So please Annette, tell us how you got into dancing.

Annette That’s a good question. I always danced, in a way, but it took a while until I started taking dance lessons. As a small child, I was known to jump around excitedly in front of the TV whenever any dancing was on, for instance a Ballet performance. I was trying to mimic the dancers, that was my jam.

When I was in primary school, I went to my school friend’s Ballet class and really loved it. I wanted to join, but my parents couldn’t afford the class. Only much later, as a teenager, did I start taking Ballroom classes. There is a weird tradition in Germany, where – at the age of 14, 15 – almost the entire school class would go to take Ballroom dance classes. By “Ballroom” I mean what we call in German, “Standard-Latein”, a collection of different dances – anything from Waltz to highly codified and Europeanized versions of Latin American dances like Cha-Cha and Rumba. So, obviously I wanted to join, but again, my parents wouldn’t allow it. This time not because of the money, but because there were boys involved! My parents are very Christian and they didn’t want me to dance with random dudes at the age of 15. But, this time around I wasn’t taking “no” for an answer anymore. I started to deliver newspapers so I could afford the classes myself. That is when I started dancing within a dance class environment.

Greg So, I must ask, now that you are a professional dancer, are your parents proud of you?

Annette Laughs Well, I think my parents would prefer that I would actually do something with my university diploma, rather than dance, but they have accepted it now. And my sisterkids love the fact that I’m a dance teacher!

Greg How did you begin teaching?

Annette I was dancing Ballroom for many years, even past high school. I kept going because it was the only thing that was around and affordable. Around 2002, the dance school I was involved in began offering Swing classes all of the sudden. It was a new craze at that time. I liked it, but somehow wasn’t convinced in how it was taught, even then, without having any background. Around this time I moved from Stuttgart, where I was born and raised, to Heidelberg, where I am now.

In Heidelberg, I found a tiny little bar that advertised weekly Swing dancing. I thought, “Oh, Swing dancing, I’ve had a lesson or two, I can go to that.” And I went. Luckily for me, there were a bunch of Americans still stationed in Heidelberg from the war-times. So there were U.S. army folks who could actually Swing dance. I was falling in love with the dance very quickly and went to Herräng the same year. So that is how I started Swing dancing.

A couple of years later, at a local social dance, people started asking me to show them some swingout variations that I was doing and I thought, “Well, in that case, I need to figure out how I do them, I don’t know!” And then more people gathered and said, “Hey, can you just make this into a proper class? Maybe next week?” That is when I started. I went home and I fell in love with teaching that same night, because I loved figuring out how to actually break down things that I’m doing naturally, and then trying to come up with ideas on how to transfer that knowledge onto other people. So I taught that class, people liked it, and soon I was teaching weekly.

Greg When I first arrived in Europe, I heard about you and what you were doing through your website, annettedances.com. On your site, you curate a calendar of all the Blues dance events that happen in Europe, something I found very helpful as someone new to the scene. How did your website come to be and what is it like to curate a Blues calendar?

Annette The Blues calendar came to life through a little calendar I had for myself, sitting in an email draft for many years. I had started organizing Blues and Swing events, and tried to gather all of the events that were going on regionally, nationally and then eventually internationally. I simply didn’t want to run my workshops and festivals close to other events’ dates. At some point, people began to understand that I always knew which events were going on, and when, so they began asking me to send them my list. Soon, things were getting out of hand and I started realizing that I needed to put the calendar somewhere official. I was also teaching internationally at this point, and since I had no desire of being present on social media, or had any other online presence aside from my email account, I decided to build a website after all. Which coincided with me magically having a place to put the calendar!

In order to curate my event list, I bi-weekly go through some of the other great online event calendars, for example, bluescal.com and swingplanit.com, and sort them for Blues events happening in Europe. I also get a lot of emails from people sending me links to events that aren’t on the calendar yet. Before something goes on my calendar, I usually go to the event website and check if it’s actually a dance event that features Blues prominently. While I personally like to dance to a wide array of mostly African-American music, the calendar is meant for those who explicitly want to dance to Blues music.

Greg So it seems like a lot of these developments in your life have been because people asked you to do something professionally, that which you were already doing personally?

Annette That is true.

Greg Having observed all of these dance events over the years, a decade or so, how have events changed?

Annette Oh, they have changed a lot! One thing that comes to mind straight away, because it’s the most current thing that I’m observing, is that I’m having a feeling that event organizers these days have been asked to be responsible for a whole lot more than they previously were.

For instance, previously it was a good sign if things were well organized and you had a website that would tell you where to go. In recent years, there have been questions regarding printed booklets, or even an app, if the event is big. Essentially micro-managing every tiny aspect of an experience.

When I started organizing, my co-organizers and I were going out of the ordinary, by providing information about accommodation near the venue on the website. It was something that I didn’t find for many events at that time. Nowadays, I would say that having only accommodation information is below standards. People expect much more.

There is also the societal or social responsibility. I would argue that organizers nowadays are expected to have a code of conduct for the event. And a Safer Spaces person or five. There is a whole lot of responsibility that I can now see sitting on the shoulders of organizers that was definitely not there beforehand.

Greg Do you feel encouraged for the dance scene in Europe because of these changes?

Annette I can see both the good side and the potentially problematic side, of these developments. I can see how just bringing awareness to certain topics will get people talking. For instance, say, 10 years ago, you are running an event and there’s always that one attendee that you’re not quite comfortable with as an organizer, maybe because they’re constantly doing dangerous dance maneuvers with beginners. Just the fact that people have started talking about these topics today may help you find courage and the right words to talk to that person.

So on the one hand, I think it can be helpful for organizers to get the tools to address certain things, to get a community boost of confidence for addressing shitty or dangerous behavior, so to speak. On the other side, I can see how people might shy away from organizing because of the assumed or actual extra workload. Wondering how they might manage all the expectations that people have towards them as the organizers of the event: Are they responsible in case someone approaches someone else will ill intent? If an attendee feels overwhelmed or sick? Can they take themselves out of that? Is that even possible any more? Will people come after them and destroy their reputation? In my personal opinion we are asking too much of organizers nowadays. We’re essentially asking them to micro-manage and regulate certain things that I don’t think should be their concern. After all, we are still people coming together, and in my personal opinion, the gut feeling goes a long way.

This may be an unpopular stance, but I don’t think that the presence of designated Safer Space people will necessarily make an event safer. I do think that people paying attention to one another and talking to each other goes a much longer way. I even think there’s a possibility that too much guiding and perceived protection may lead to people letting their natural “gut feeling guards” down at dance events. Basically thinking that nothing is going to happen to them there with all the Safer Spaces talk and Code of Conducts posted around. I think dance spaces would be better off reflecting the real world, where one might have to assert oneself and for instance deal with the presence of a creepy drunk person at a bus stop instead of going to a designated person to have them do that for them. I believe that asserting oneself in minor situations, such as someone coming too close for one’s personal comfort zone in a dance, is a good life skill to learn. I trust most people to make gut feeling based choices for themselves and I would like the dance scene to take more steps to empower those who may struggle recognizing and acting upon their gut feelings.

Greg I couldn’t agree more that learning how to recognize and act upon your gut feelings is an incredibly important thing, both on and off the dance floor. This brings up something else that many people I have talked to feel is, in many ways, a gut reaction. I am, of course, referring to what people think of Fusion. What is your personal definition of Fusion?

Annette Well, the very neutral definition of fusion for me would be, a combination of, or a joining of two things that may or may not be related to one another.

In terms of applied to dancing, I would probably see it as fusing two dances, or two ways of dancing. For instance, if I’m a Lindy-hopper, and someone else is a Salsa dancer and we try to figure out on the dance floor how to make it work, either to Salsa music or to Swing, or to something else entirely. We may have different backgrounds, different techniques, different things that we have learned over the years, and we are trying to join forces, so to say.

Greg And specifically to Blues dances, what does Fusion mean?

Annette In terms of dancing at Blues dances events, one might have come across the term “Fusion” and it might be quite different from what I just said. What I’ve so far encountered being described as “Fusion” is music that isn’t necessarily Blues and doesn’t necessarily have to have any kind of connection to Blues. And it can be vast in terms of variety. Anything from Electronica to Dub Step to lyrical Hip Hop.

That’s what I have seen being called “Fusion.” I’ve also seen dance events with Blues in the title that feature little, or no Blues music. I would prefer these events to be called “Party music” or “Fusion” or something else, as long as it is not Blues. Cause I like my Blues to be Blues.

And this is not just a personal preference. I think if we’re calling something Blues and then we play music with no Blues connection whatsoever, it’s disrespectful towards the African-American community whose ancestors came up with this amazing, powerful and influential genre of music over a century ago under the most dire circumstances.

Greg So being someone who’s actively been a part of a growing and changing dance art form, in the end, you like your Blues to be Blues, gotcha.

Greg I want to flip over to the other side of the coin now. As you look forward, is there somebody out there today, someone teaching or organizing in the social dancing world, that you’re excited about? Who deserves some attention?

Annette Yes. There are many people, but one person that comes to mind straight away is –

To be continued in Part 2

The Editor here. I couldn’t resist the cliffhanger ending, but there was simply too much good interview to try and cram it into a single, large post. Annette continues with her insightful views into the dance world in Part 2 of the interview, coming soon. In the meantime, you can learn more about her and contact her through her website, annettedances.com.

The continuation of the conversation can be found in Part 2.