My name is Grey, and I have an annoying habit of noticing and remembering things. Lots of things no one deems important. If there is one thing I’ve noticed over the years, it’s to acknowledge the slow grind of progress. Progress is funny. As it is simultaneously too fast and too slow all at the same time, it can be easy to lose track of. And yet, it still goes. Because of my aforementioned ability I sometimes notice trends years before others do.
Let’s start with a story. A few years ago, I achieved my dream of attending BluesSHOUT with all of my teammates. Being one of the more traveled dancers, I knew the national scene and its movements more than most. I wasn’t surprised when my friends found themselves with existential crises about blackness and blues, what makes a blues dancer, should they be in the dance, were they any good, and, most importantly, confused over the state of the scene. Sounds a lot like today, right? This was 3ish years ago. The national scene was having a behind the scenes identity crisis. Whether they really knew it or not. It was the time before folks started reach critical mass with the idea that our community has some major problems. The current non superstars all-stars were in open, finalists weren’t always doing blues, and events with only jazzy blues were rampant.
While I was there, I found myself feeling isolated, awash the sea of white Americans and yet hopeful in a way. I could see the change. The scene was on the verge of a massive overhaul of values, ideas, and participants. The signs were all there, but when I was in a conversation with friends about watching this happen and my anticipation of major change in 2-3 years, I found myself struggling to explain. Could no one see the break between the open category and all stars. How differently they danced? How finals were so drastically different, the winners looking so strange against one another? Could no one else feel the frustration in the room at yet another jazz band and the excitement when there were black musicians? Black and POC dancers were starting to win or at least final in a way they weren’t before. Things were changing. And I was excited to see the wave finally approaching. No one else seemed to understand what I meant.
My team and I went back to Denver, and I wanted to start the conversation in our scene. Many of us were disappointed that we didn’t get picked to perform at shout, some also wanted to be teachers one day, some were disappointed by placements during the event, and I knew that this would be a turning point for them too. A moment of choice – to jump on this wave, or possibly get left behind. We had our talks, people made their choices and on we went. A little later Mile High Blues happened. The event was the same mix I’d seen at SHOUT. Part infuriating, part progress. Even as I cried and rage quit the event at several points, I held onto the things I did see as progress. Advanced dancers attending classes. People being disappointed a band hired for class wasn’t hired for the event. A split between those who LOVED Joe Smith and those who wanted something else. Competitions where flash wasn’t as valued as understanding the dance and so much more.
I look back on that time and I see the time I could see coming. If you think this post is about how there is nothing left to do.. Sit down. Be humble.
It’s not, so get that out ya head right now. It’s about acknowledging how far we have come as a community in the last few years. This year I noticed a few things. Black and POC are being more vocal about our presence. Our mirco community is growing within the scene and it is growing strong. Black musicians are being hired and often are the most popular. Events are feeling less and less white and the ones that integrate real community and black values tend to succeed. Education is being valued and innovation is happening. The scene is changing in some major positive ways. If you told me a few years ago I’d go spend a week in a beach house mansion isolated and feel really at home, or if there would be race discussions at focus, I would have laughed myself sick.
So, keep pushing but feel pride in the progress that has been made. People can feel the work that’s been put in by all the people making little choices to make things even better. Progress can’t always be seen, but it’s happening.