Why we provided "Trad Blues" and "Alt Blues" options – and why we've stopped

Stephen Burrows

It isn’t a new idea that the terms “Alt Blues” and “Trad Blues” shouldn’t be used – that we should just call Blues “Blues” and everything else “Fusion”. Most often, it’s presented as an arbitrary rule: “We shouldn’t call that blues because it isn’t. This is blues and doesn’t need a modifier.”

Ultimately, though, that’s a pretty uncompelling argument in the face of other considerations. If there’s a large community of people dancing a dance and calling it a name, it makes sense to acknowledge the existence of that dance and that name: “Alt Blues”.

Once you accept “Alt Blues” as a term, there’s an ambiguity problem. You can easily go to an event expecting one “kind” of blues and not finding it; it’s not a good experience. This is where a term like “Trad Blues” comes in. There’s no mistaking what it means.

Knowing exactly what you’re getting into can be especially relevent if you’re thinking about a larger investment, like attending a workshop / exchange / recess weekend. This is essentially why, when we launched Dancerfly in fall 2014, we provided “Trad Blues”, “Alt Blues”, and “Fusion” among the list of dance styles organizers could choose for their events.

But here’s the thing: the definition of blues dance isn’t arbitrary. This isn’t just an intellectual argument about aesthetic. To paraphrase Damon Stone, blues dance is a touchstone of African-American culture – a Black dance idiom done to Black music rooted in African movement and rhythms and in the struggles and pains of Black Americans.

By using a term like “Alt Blues” to refer to a dance which is not danced to blues music and which is not at all derived from the blues dance form, we ignore and erase a long (and ongoing) tradition. And we do it, frankly, primarily for the pleasure and enjoyment of non-Black dancers, as part of a pattern of appropriation that’s pervaded American culture for a long, long, time.

If we want to correct that, we need to stop using “Alt Blues” and “Trad Blues”, no matter how common they are or how useful people may find them.

So moving forward, we’ve removed “Alt Blues” and “Trad Blues” as options, replacing them with “Blues” alone. Some time in the near future, we will be adding descriptions to the site of each dance style we support, so that attendees and organizers can be sure they’re on the same page about what to expect from an event.

I want to be very clear about one thing: this framing of “Alt / Trad” as a cultural appropriation issue is not new. It’s not new to the world, and it’s not new to us. We were aware of it when we launched Dancerfly, and we chose to weight it lower than it warranted. We try to hold ourselves to a higher standard on issues like this, and to help our clients to do the same, and in this case we made a mistake.

We’d like to thank Jonathan Polin, the organizer who called us out on this subject and caused us to re-examine our policy.

If you’d like to use Dancerfly for a dance event you organize, send us an email at support@dancerfly.com.

Stephen Burrows

Stephen is an experienced Python engineer and server administrator based in Seattle, WA. He has been building and deploying Python/Django-based web applications for eight years.