Let's Rename the Jack and Jill Contest (Op-Ed)

  Jack & Jill contest at Fog City Stomp 2016. Credit:  Auey Santos .

Jack & Jill contest at Fog City Stomp 2016. Credit: Auey Santos.

The Jack & Jill contest is a mainstay of the lindy hop dance scene, from local contests to international competitions like the International Lindy Hop Championships. It’s an exciting and dynamic format that many feel is a true test of a lindy hopper’s dancing ability. 

It’s also an archaic term that we should stop using. 

A bit of history first. Harvest Moon Ball winner Jack Carey is credited as the inventor of the Jack and Jill contest in the 1950’s. The innovation he introduced to dance competitions was to randomly pair couples during the contest to make it a true test of partnering ability and improvisation. His intent was to make it easier for anyone to enter a dance contest, since it didn’t require a partner or any preparation at all. 

The Jack & Jill is now a common format in west coast swing, lindy hop, salsa, and hustle competitions worldwide. More lindy hoppers have competed in a Jack & Jill contest than any other kind of competition there is.

 

In recent years, some lindy hoppers have started to question the term. Some scenes have taken to calling them “J&Js” to de-emphasize the gender language. Others use less gender-specific names like “Jess and Jo.” 

The European Swing Dance Championships, a major international lindy hop competition, recently announced on Facebook that they were no longer using the term “Jack & Jill.” They asked the community for suggestions about what this contest should be called.

So what’s all the fuss about? Here’s why we should retire the term “Jack & Jill.”

“Jack & Jill” Doesn’t Describe Our Dance

By using the phrase “Jack & Jill” we spread the message that the “right” way to dance lindy hop is for a male to lead and a female to follow. This doesn’t reflect how the dance is currently done. 

The scene today has a large and growing number of women who lead, men who follow, and people dancing both roles. Increasingly dance classes and workshops are using gender-neutral language to encourage men and women to take on any role they wish. 

It’s also not historically accurate. Videos and photos from the heyday of lindy hop show men following and women leading.

Check out all the women dancing both roles in 1939 at the World Fair in New York City!

 

And of course, how many of us have watched this awesome video of Al Minns and Leon James dancing together?

Of course, the norm from 1920s to the 1950s was for men to lead and women to follow. But these clips show that it wasn’t unheard of, and was even common, to see people taking on the “non-traditional” role.


The Term is A Barrier for People  

Beyond just being inaccurate, the term “Jack & Jill” may discourage people from trying lindy hop. For anyone who believes that people, regardless of gender, should be able to take on whatever role in society they wish, the idea of a “Jack & Jill” contest seems anachronistic and restricting. 

 If you are LGBTQ in particular, you may finding it off-putting to watch a dance contest called a “Jack & Jill” and see mostly men leading and women following. What kind of message would this communicate to a gay or lesbian couple taking their first dance lesson? I think it would be that this dance isn’t for you.

Language Informs Our Choices

To be clear, many Jack & Jills today don’t actually restrict who can enter because of gender. And that's fantastic. But regardless of the rules, if we call a contest a “Jack & Jill” we communicate the message that this is the standard, the template.

Words matter. What we call things communicates our values and norms. If we say a contest is for everyone, but we label it with a man’s name first and then a woman’s name after, then that’s our expectation of what the contest should look like. 

Lindy Hop Is For Everyone

Frankie Manning believed that lindy hop is for everyone. If we believe that, we should remove as many potential barriers to entry as we can, including in the terms we use. 

Fortunately, we have many creative and smart people in our community. I believe we can come up with better terms that capture what we want to express about the Jack & Jill contest, and doesn’t exclude people. There are already some interesting suggestions out there:

What Jack Carey came up with in the 1950s has greatly added to our dance. It’s made competing much more accessible to all levels of dancers. It’s emphasized a lot of what makes swing dancing so awesome. We owe him a debt of thanks for that.

But lindy hop is not a static entity that never changes. It’s a dance that evolves and adapts to the times. We can make informed choices that presents this awesome artform to current and future dancers in the best possible light. That includes the language we use to label things. 

So what do you think? Does it matter to you what we call this contest? Is there a better term you think works better? Let us know in the comments.