Earlier this week, the issue of race came to the forefront again in the lindy hop community over something that to an outsider might seem quite benign: a woman came back from a trip to Africa and posted to her social media feed a selfie. But it resurfaced racial issues and tensions that have long been festering in our community.
Let’s unpack it a bit.
On Monday morning March 12 Russian lindy hopper Ksenia Parkhatskaya posted to her Instagram feed this picture, with the caption “New style. New vibe. New feel. Loving my gorgeous tresse. It took about 4.5h to make and talented hands of Mami :) #senegaltrip #newvibe #tresse #africainme #afrodancestyles #lifeinecoledessables”.
A similar post was made on her Facebook wall around the same time (now removed) with the text: “My new African tresse dictates new style and oh how great I feel in it! Outfit for a swing dance evening in Leuven at Apollo Dream workshop. #tresse #africaineme #senegaltrip.”
The reaction on social media was swift and heated.
On Monday March 12, 9:45am in the “Jive Junction” Facebook group, Gary Chyi posted the following: “Remember that European dancer what did a routine in brownface? She might not have learned that lesson so well.”.
Another poster replied: "What’s being pointed out is that this woman has a pattern of not understanding cultural sensitivities. She is participating in aspects of cultures while centering herself. That makes it hard to see how/if she is giving back to the cultures she is taking from which makes her look like a culture vulture."
This led to a very long and heated debate about Ksenia’s actions and intent. At the time we went to publish, it had 682 comments.
Soon after another lengthy debate ensued on Reddit, that you can follow there.
One commenter: "I agree with the criticism about blackface but this? This is ridiculous. Also it looks like she was teaching a group of african dancers. We don't know the full story. What is the diference between getting your hair braided and dancing lindy hop? It reminds me of the old conversation of white people can't do tap dancing."
At the time of this being published that thread has 235 comments.
Another thread started on the FB page Followlogie, an event where Ksenia is booked to teach at in November.
You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal, a dancer got her hair done in Senegal and posted a pic of it online? Why are people so mad?” The issue is that this isn’t the first time that Ksenia has been called out for wearing representations of Black people that many found offensive.
She has performed in what in the American context can only be called “blackface” a number of times. Here’s her in 2010.[NOTE: The video has now been taken down]
She apparently performed that routine again in 2011. Video of that performance has been taken down.
She also competed in a solo jazz competition wearing the same costume and makeup at Snowball in Sweden in 2011.
Several people have noted that Ksenia was supposed to be a “chimney sweeper.” But the title of the piece is “pickpocket” and to many she appears to be in blackface.
Then in 2013, Ksenia performed to the Nina Simone song “Four Women” with her skin colored bronze in this instance. Notably, the song is about women of color and their struggles to survive, sung by a Black woman known for her civil rights activism.
Ksenia performing it at an event in Russia in 2013. [NOTE: Video has now been taken down.]
And again at ESDC later in 2013.
Some have noted that Ksenia might have innocently chosen the costume and make-up in the first instance, when it was performed in Russia. Several Black dancers and others told Ksenia subsequently that this was an extremely racist caricature and was not acceptable. At which point she apologized and stopped performing that routine.
In 2013, a similar situation occurred where Ksenia first performed her "Four Women" routine in Russia. It was after her ESDC routine that several people again contacted her and expressed anger and dismay about it. Again, Ksenia apologized and did not repeat the performance.
So when Ksenia posted on her social media feeds a picture of herself on Monday, clearly proud of her African tresses she got in Senegal, and used the hashtag #africaineme, this was acutely offensive to African-American dancers and others. For many of them, Ksenia continues to ignore the impact of her actions on Black dancers, while working as a professional dancer who specializes in an African-American dance.
To others, Ksenia is being unfairly singled out and stigmatized for her innocent artistic choices. They argue that as a Russian she should not be expected to understand the nuances of the American racial sensitivities. They note her deep appreciation for the Black roots of lindy hop and respect for Black dancers.
A Note about Blackface
There is a much darker, longer history of white people mimicking Black artistic movement and forms. The larger context of “blackface” and minstrelry in America is too long and complicated for us to delve into on this site. The website Black History defines "blackface” as "a style of theatrical makeup that originated in the United States, and is used to make an actor look like a Black person, but in a very exaggerated way. It is the countenance of an iconic, racist American archetype—that of the 'darky,' as Blacks were often called in the past."
This post is not meant to unpack all of the debates that are happening on the internet on this topic. It’s also not meant to focus on just this one dancer and her actions. Our challenge is bigger than that as a community.
I want to offer some ways forward for people who would like to be sensitive to the concerns of African-Americans in our community, and who want to avoid problematic representations when dancing lindy hop.
1. If a person of color finds something you are doing offensive and hurtful, don't argue, listen to them. Try and understand their perspective and empathize. Apologize and do better next time. A lot of the frustration and anger from Black dancers is that they have communicated their concerns to Ksenia and she didn’t listen to them.
2. Learn about the full history of our dance, and the larger culture it developed within. Andy Reid has an insightful Facebook post about this, where he writes:
3. If you teach swing, share the full history of our dance. Jon Tigert has this challenge:
4. Have conversations in your local community about these issues. Make sure that people of color in your community are included and given a voice.
We'll certainly continue to make mistakes and continue to fight. But let's keep moving forward.
Shout out to Audrey Ho and Meghan Gilmore for providing links and context for this post.
UPDATE: We clarified the timeline of events in the "Background" section of this post, and noted that Ksenia apologized when she was called out about those performances.
UPDATE: Ksenia sent us a video response.