On Cultural Appropriation and the Lindy Hop, Part I

Updated: Apr 22, 2019



Cultural appropriation is a hot topic currently sweeping the internet.

There are questions regarding whether Lindy Hop has been appropriated from the African-Americans who first created the dance. As dancers, do we profit from Lindy Hop without permission from African-Americans? Or worse, do we profit from Lindy Hop, while implicitly condoning the oppression of African-Americans by being silent?

Let’s start by talking about what it is. Cultural appropriation is when someone steals something that is culturally significant, such as a style of art, or a dance, or a piece of clothing. Making money is usually one of the biggest motivations to take something.

Large in the popular Australian media was the case of the Ugg boot. A Californian company decided it would trademark a traditional Australian footwear made of sheepskin, and tell all the Australian companies to stop making them. Fortunately the court realised the cultural significance of the Ugg Boot and told the American company to go stick it. Unfortunately, that company still holds trademarks around the world for Ugg boots and continues to sell them. As a cultural item the Ugg boot should not be able to be trademarked, let alone by a corporation that has nothing to do with Australia!

For a long time so-called indigenous art has been imported and sold in Australia. These fake items are usually cheap products that cash in on people wanting to have something that is recognisably Australian, and Aboriginal art makes Australia unique in the world. When the market is flooded by cheap imitations however, the profits are taken away from true Aboriginal artists, who still suffer from the history of colonial oppression. The spiritual and cultural meaning inherent with the art is diluted, and worst of all, it takes away power from Aboriginal’s to self-determine their own art and their own cultural directions. And for a people who have lacked self-determination for so long, this is yet another blow.

Recently it’s come to light that the iconic didjeridu has been used in the New Age healing and health industry. “Didge Therapy” is where the practitioner blows a didjeridu over a person's body. This is supposed to provide relief for a range of joint and muscular problems, as well as promoting healing. This appropriation has benefitted the believers of New Age, but at the cost of taking profits away from the Aboriginal people. In the end, the Aboriginal people are the ones who pay the cost.

Quoting the very funny Angelina Hurley, “Seriously! On hearing about this practice, many of my mob have suggested a preferred area of the human body where such “therapists” might concentrate on shoving their didjeridus.”

THE GOOD AND THE BAD TYPES OF APPROPRIATION

So far I’ve described ‘cultural exploitation’ where a bigger culture exploits a smaller one. But there's more than one type of cultural exploitation, and the way forward is to create a more beneficial form of exchange between two cultures.

First up comes the bad types:

1) Cultural exploitation: where a dominant culture uses elements of a minority culture without adequate acknowledgement, permission, compensation or reciprocity.

2) Cultural dominance: where a dominant culture forces itself on people in a minority culture.

Then we have the good types.

3) Cultural exchange: where two cultures with roughly equal levels of power exchange various elements of their culture, from their art, technologies, clothing, and ideas.

4) Transculturation: where lots of cultures work together to create a meta-culture, such as the idea of a global village or transnational capitalism. (Taken from Rogers, 2006)

The ideal goal to aim for is a cultural exchange, where there is a mutual respect between two cultures. Transculturation ... well, it’s a big word, and a lofty goal, so we can leave that one to the academics!

A true cultural exchange can be good for everyone. Throughout history whenever there has been a melting pot of lots of cultures in one place, there has been a strong growth of ideas and art.


Science took huge leaps forward during the Hellenistic period. In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great conquered the known world and brought the Greek culture with him. This resulted in a huge fusion of Ancient World cultures from Near East, Middle East, and Southwest Asia, culminating in an explosion of science, mathematics, architecture, art and literature, the like of which wasn’t seen until 1500 years later during the Renaissance.

Do you like Assam Laksa? This was a dish created in the cultural richness of Malaysia and Singapore. People from China married into the Malay culture, called themselves Nyonyas, and created a whole new cuisine made of Chinese ingredients and Malaysian cooking techniques. The Indian and European cultures also inhabited Singapore, which is why you can find such a diverse and colourful array of food and other cultural practices there.

So as well as encouraging creativity, an exchange of cultural ideas can foster understanding and relationships between cultures, teach people a new and different perspective, and it can particularly benefit people in poor countries who can profit from their cultural practices through tourism or by selling their art.

All this sounds pretty awesome, and it would be a wonderful thought that by sharing the Lindy Hop, African-Americans would find understanding from other cultures, reap profits from their creativity, and create opportunities to rise up out of poverty and prejudice. The goal for Lindy Hop then should be to work towards having a true cultural exchange.

But there’s a problem.

African-Americans are subject to prejudice and oppression. A cultural exchange is supposed to be between two cultures of equal power, but the African-American culture is not in a position of equality with the dominant Western culture in American.

If we love the Lindy Hop, then we love the people. And if we love the people, we must be concerned if they are being oppressed. The Lindy Hop community can reach out to show that what we do, we do out of respect. This means letting their voices be heard as equals and as the original owners of the dance.

In Part II, I’ll explore how we can do. Click here to see Part II.

Swingtopia Dance

Angelina Hurley, “Indigenous cultural appropriation: what not to do.” (2017) https://theconversation.com/indigenous-cultural-appropriation-what-not-to-do-86679

R.A. Rogers, “From cultural exchange to transculturation: A review and reconceptualization of cultural appropriation.” (2006). Communication Theory, 16, 474–503.

#LindyHop #culturalappropriation #AfricanAmerican