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date: 29 February 2020

Dancing like a Man: Competition and Gender in the New Orleans Second Line

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers competition in second lining, an African American vernacular dance form that has accompanied brass band processions through New Orleans’s city streets since the late nineteenth century. It takes formal second line dance competitions as an entry point to examine the often tacit gendered biases that frame second lining’s social practice and reception. Women competitors surmise that, in order to win, they must “dance like a man.” And yet, such gendered discourses cannot fully account for the tactics employed by young women today. Featuring an ethnographic account of the First Annual Big Easy Footwork Competition, the author suggests two feminist frameworks for understanding female footwork artists’ dancing: the influence of double-dutch jump rope, and a theoretical framework that Imani Kai Johnson (2014) calls “badass femininity.” With each step, female footwork artists move within and beyond a gendered terrain in which dancing well means dancing like a man.

Keywords: African American, dance, New Orleans, second line, footwork, badass femininity, jump rope, double-dutch, gender

On March 29, 2014, the First Annual Big Easy Footwork Competition debuted at the Tremé Center, a community venue located in Tremé, New Orleans. Tremé represents one of the oldest African American neighborhoods, and serves as an important locus for the city’s black cultural traditions. The Center regularly hosts summer camps, after-school clubs, fundraisers, concerts, and more, but on this mild March afternoon, its cavernous hall was set up for a dance competition. Several rows of folding chairs faced the four-foot-high stage, ready to hold an audience of hundreds. The floor area directly in front of the stage had been cordoned off with orange traffic cones and caution tape, designating a dancing space for contestants. Three judges sat behind a folding table, positioned to the side of the taped-off area, and on the stage, a rotating roster of six local brass bands stood and played their instruments (trombones, trumpets, tubas, bass, and snare drums). Each contestant vied for a trophy (Figure 26.1) and a $250 cash prize by competing against other dancers in three age divisions: children under twelve, youth between thirteen and seventeen, and adults over eighteen. Even though the event was open to all dancers, most of the contestants were male; one girl entered the children’s division, and one young woman entered the youth division. However, no female dancer claimed the top prize in any age bracket. As I will argue, the gendered dynamics of this particular competition mirrored the often unspoken gendered dynamics that influence footwork performances in social contexts.

The competitors displayed their best versions of second line dancing, also called second lining. Second lining is an African diaspora vernacular dance form that has accompanied brass band parades through New Orleans’s city streets since the late nineteenth century. Individually executed yet collectively experienced, second lining carries paraders through the urban landscape in time with the syncopated rhythms of brass band music. Although second lining cannot be strictly reduced to footwork, which is the art of (p. 574) executing intricate rhythmic patterns with the feet, many practitioners consider it a cornerstone of second lining’s aesthetic form. For this reason, the contest was called a “footwork competition” and not a “second lining competition.” Even though many dancers dedicate themselves to perfecting their footwork, on the whole, second liners are usually less concerned with which steps the dancer displays than with the way in which those steps are performed, and, at the heart of it, why the dancer is second lining in the first place. Second liners dance for many reasons: to experience joy, get some exercise, mourn the dead, and/or to achieve fame as footwork artists. Therefore, even though second lining can be described as a specific, coherent, and legible dance form that is historically rooted and aesthetically sophisticated, what it is matters less to dancers than what it does.1 Second liners’ function-over-form priorities crystallize in a commonly held definition of second lining as “do-watcha-wanna.”2 Perhaps unsurprisingly, second lining’s subjective and affective performance criteria lead to difficulties and disagreements when judges quantitatively score contests such as the Big Easy Footwork Competition. This annual event moves second lining from its grassroots, outdoor social context to an indoor competitive arena and, in so doing, it creates a venue in which second liners systematically evaluate each other’s formal performances. By dancing, scoring, and debating the judges’ (p. 575) decisions, those present stake their claims on second lining’s aesthetic and political priorities, including its relationship to gendered social scripts.

Dancing like a ManCompetition and Gender in the New Orleans Second Line

Figure 26.1. This trophy was awarded to Rodrick “Scubble” Davis, the 2014 First Annual Big Easy Footwork champion in the eighteen years and older division.

Photo by Michael J. Mastrogiovanni.

In this chapter, I take formal second line dance competitions as an entry point to examine the gendered biases that frame second lining’s practice and reception. Competitions serve as an excellent venue in which to examine gendered discourses that surround the form because competitions provide a rare opportunity for these discourses to be made explicit. In social contexts, ideological attachments between gender and movement usually go unsaid, and are even sometimes denied. Given second liners’ concern with the why of second lining, far beyond the what, such dismissals of gendered differences in formal aesthetics are understandable. The motivations for and benefits of second lining as a social practice are arguably available to all who are physically able to join a parade, regardless of gender or sexual identity. However, within competition contexts, the what becomes paramount as dancers’ performances are ranked and rewarded by judges, audience members, and fellow competitors. As a result, dance competitions reveal that form contains and communicates meanings, even when popular discourses eschew the particulars of form as unimportant. Competitions make (more) explicit what female footwork artists already know: that criteria for excellent second lining are often coded as masculine. If they wish to compete, women must adhere to such codes. According to one female footwork artist, “If you dance like a man, like a boy, they going to know who you is.”3

I argue that gendered discourses about second lining, which align excellent dancing with masculinity, cannot fully account for the dance tactics employed by some young women dancers today. Their performances open up new gendered terrain for evaluating second lining beyond a masculine/feminine binary, and footwork competitions provide an important frontier for charting this new terrain. I begin with an overview of the second line parading tradition, highlighting the gendered histories of competitive dance and music performances therein. With this context in mind, I offer an ethnographic account of the First Annual Big Easy Footwork Competition, which includes my first-person observations of the event and interviews with contestants, observers, and the event’s producer. In the final sections, I suggest two feminist frameworks for understanding female footwork artists’ dancing: first, the influence of double-dutch jump rope on second lining footwork and, second, a theoretical framework that dance scholar Imani Kai Johnson (2014) calls “badass femininity.” I conclude that, with each step, female footwork artists move within and beyond a gendered terrain in which dancing well means dancing like a man.

From Street to Stage: Second Line Footwork

Contests such as the Big Easy Footwork Competition spring from the vernacular second line tradition, which originated on New Orleans’s streets more than one hundred years (p. 576) ago and still thrives today. On most Sundays in New Orleans, these processions gather thousands of people to dance behind a brass band, winding through poor and working-class African American neighborhoods for hours, making several preplanned stops along a predetermined route. Each parade is organized, financed, and led by a different group, known as a social aid and pleasure club (SAPC). The hosting SAPC and brass band form the first or main line, and the trumpet’s blare invites all within earshot to form a second line around them, giving the event its name. SAPCs grow out of a long-standing tradition of black benevolent and mutual aid societies that provided economic security and social networks for marginalized residents. For more than one hundred years, these organizations have employed black brass bands for members’ funerals and for social functions, such as anniversary parades.4 Today, each SAPC’s anniversary parade is known as its second line.

The second line begins at 1:00 p.m. sharp (noon during the winter months’ daylight savings time), when the brass band strikes up to accompany members of the hosting SAPC as they “come out the door.” One by one, each woman, man, or child dramatically steps through the door of someone’s house or a neighborhood establishment, such as a barroom or barber shop, revealing herself or himself to the awaiting public. All members dress in brightly colored, matching suits and wave feathered fans above their heads. Since membership numbers can range from two to one hundred (with ages in about the same range), this can take a little or a long time. A spirit of competitive one-upmanship is on full display during this portion of the ritual. Club members playfully challenge each other to up the ante during their individual entrances, and the entire show tacitly competes with all other clubs who will come out the door that season. People in the crowd momentarily play the roles of spectator and judge, vocally assessing the SAPC’s chosen color scheme, apparel selections, and dance ability. After all club members have come out the door, they lead the crowd through the streets as a dancing collective.

As a verb, “second lining” refers to all participatory parade activity, such as walking, strutting, and chanting; but the term also names a distinct dance form showcased during the parade. Like many living vernacular expressions, second lining is not a static form. It absorbs influences from related street parading practices in the city and from each generation’s popular culture. Therefore, second lining includes a range of bodily expressions under its umbrella. As long as you are (usually) moving on the beat and (generally) moving forward with the crowd, then, according to most second liners, you are second lining.5 However, within this capacious, do-watcha-wanna definition, certain dancers carve out a space for artful expressions created according to specific aesthetics. In the words of one veteran second liner, “some people be doing what they do. And then they have some people that have footwork and it becomes an art. . . . If you’re into the second line like that, you know what you’re looking at.”6 Those who are into second lining “like that” create a spirit of competition during each parade that pushes their fellow footwork artists to new levels of energy, creativity, and showmanship.

Although a spirit of competition drives second liners’ improvised dancing during weekly parades, dancers’ informal attempts to earn respect are not formally adjudicated. As in most social dance scenarios, second liners’ performances are regulated by complex (p. 577) and often implicit criteria. When second liners see something they like, they reward each other with voiced appreciation and demands for more: “Footwork! Feetwork! Cut up! Roll with it! Show me what you’re working with!” Occasionally, two dancers face off in an impromptu battle as encircled onlookers shout their encouragements and judgments.

Second liners’ competitive spirit drives performances in formally adjudicated contests. The 2014 event at the Tremé Center was dubbed the “First” Annual Big Easy Footwork Competition, but it was not the first second line dance competition in history. These kinds of contests have been produced in New Orleans for decades, and, of interest to my subject here, reflect second lining’s performative attachments to masculinity.7 In her study of masculinity and social dance, Maxine Leeds Craig (2014) notes that competition often characterizes dance forms that are popular among young men, such as b-boy battles. Dance competitions establish a pattern for homosocial interaction that fits within patriarchal norms, wherein men attempt to “dominate opponents through displays of daring, inventiveness, and physical technique” (Craig 2014, 8–9).8 Even when second line dancing is removed from a competition context, and even when performed by women, displays of daring physicality, such as gymnastic feats, athletic stunts, and aggressive gestures, are frequently perceived as performances of masculinity. Such perceptions are made evident when female dancers are congratulated for “dancing like a dude.”

“Dancing like a Dude”: A Genealogy

Gendered divisions within second lining today have been formed by a long history of aesthetic and social influences. One root can be found in the African and Afro-Caribbean dances performed in New Orleans during the nineteenth century, such as the “Congo dance,” in which men advanced and retreated in relation to a woman while leaping and spinning in the air. Women barely moved their feet, making slow, sustained, undulating movements with the torso and hips, sometimes while waving a handkerchief (Evans 2011, 92–93).9 Much like those who recorded their observations of the nineteenth-century Congo dance, today’s second liners often see athletic movements and elaborate footwork as qualities of dancing like a man, while women are frequently perceived as keeping their feet on the ground while showcasing hip and torso undulations. In contrast to these widespread perceptions, both men and women demonstrate energetic footwork, and some women can do it in heels. In a recent conversation with a woman who belongs to several SAPCs, I learned that she finds it easier to do footwork in heels, despite the increased risk of spraining an ankle, because she likes to dance on the balls of her feet. Her high-heeled footwork presents a feminine form of second lining that disrupts a binary between masculine dancing as physically daring and feminine dancing as slow and grounded.

If the Congo dance suggests that histories of second lining’s masculinist imperatives are located at the level of the body, then the sociocultural contexts of brass band parades (p. 578) provide further insight. As Sherrie Tucker (2004) writes, the long history of military bands in New Orleans, composed of musicians of all races and ethnicities, solidified associations of brass bands with men and masculine performance. When second line parades first began to crisscross New Orleans in the late nineteenth century, they acted as performances of particular forms of black masculinity. The processions were organized by male-led fraternal organizations, which maintained the post–Civil War black social ideals of racial uplift (Blassingame 1973; Jacobs 1988). These ideals were embodied in the statuesque posture required of militia marches and Masonic rituals of the time, both of which influenced benevolent societies’ processions.

Judged competitions have contributed to slightly different constructions of masculinity within New Orleans’s Afro-Creole brass band traditions. Brass band battles known as bucking contests first gained popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Bechet 1960). As jazz historian Thomas Brothers (2006) surmises, brass band musicians, who were and still are overwhelmingly male, performed heterosexual masculinity through musical dominance over other men. Still today, the jazz bandstand is recognized as “a battleground of male competition, an altar of sacrifice and initiation” (Guillory 1998, 201). Turn-of-the-century bands staked out their battlegrounds on the sidewalks during bucking contests, competing for recognition and for gigs. Musicians who played their horns louder and longer were not only awarded more work, but also performed a brand of masculinity aligned with working-class ideals of physical strength. At the same time, their abilities to invent on the spot performed a flexible and responsive masculinity that tempered brute strength with agility (Brothers 2006).10

If women were present during turn-of-the-century processions and bucking contests, they never participated as musicians, uniformed marchers, or as the deceased, whose life was honored by a funeral with music.11 Women have belonged to mutual aid societies from their inception, but did not begin to join the main line until the mid- to late twentieth century. In the first half of the twentieth century, women joined brass band processions by politely marching with church groups or riding ceremonially in vehicles. Since the mid-1970s, women have begun to dance in parades as SAPC members and to lead funeral processions as grand marshals.12 Today, a roughly equal number of women and men appear inside and outside the ropes during each second line season. However, numbers alone do not necessarily signal gender equality. Due in part to the historical development of a tradition that, until relatively recently, has been dominated by male musicians, marchers, and club members, second liners’ movement choices earn approval when they are read as masculine.

Even though women dancers are aware of the masculinist frameworks in which their performances are often evaluated, these frameworks are not always explicitly acknowledged. Practitioners frequently refer to do-watcha-wanna definitions of the form that, on the surface, seem to value all movements equally. Thus, when vying for recognition and respect, female dancers must navigate through a tacit yet palpable assumption that to dance well means to dance like a man. When they take their deft footwork onto competition stages, they maneuver within and beyond second lining’s implicitly gendered (p. 579) discourses. Ultimately, young women’s competitive performances reveal that these discourses fail to account for full scope of their footwork.

The First Annual Big Easy Footwork Competition

When I arrived at the Tremé Center at 5:30 p.m., the children’s division had just wrapped up. I learned that a young girl, who appeared to be about nine or ten years old, had tied a boy for the trophy. As I later found out, the girl’s name is Nyesha Borsey, and she was the inspiration for the entire event.13 According to the Competition’s founder and producer, Leander “Shack” Brown, he first thought about producing a footwork contest when he saw Borsey dancing at a second line parade. “I thought, ‘She is dancing with her soul. People around the world need to see this.’ So I thought, ‘I’m going to create a competition so that people around the world can see it and she can get rewarded for it.’ ”14 Brown began producing the Competitions in order to give young dancers like Borsey an opportunity to receive material rewards, in addition to the admiration and compliments they receive on the street. He has big plans for the event’s future: “Eventually I want that competition to go around the world.” He envisions creating a performance group composed of outstanding contestants to appear on televised award shows and stages nationwide.15

That vision began to take shape with the First Annual Big Easy Footwork Competition in 2014. Around 6:30 p.m., Brown invited contestants in the youth division to the stage. Just two contestants came forward: a young male member of the Uptown Swingers SAPC, who identified himself by wearing a shirt embroidered with the club’s name and logo, and Terrylynn Dorsey, who came ready to dance in her Air Jordan sneakers and matching T-shirt (Figure 26.2). Dorsey is widely recognized within the second line community as one of the most talented young footwork artists on the streets today. Her friend Rodrick “Scubble” Davis, an accomplished dancer who won the adult division of the Competition that year, describes her as someone who will “go down in history as one of the best female dancers you ever had in New Orleans.”16 Therefore, I was not surprised to see her enter the competition.

Several months after the event, I interviewed Dorsey and her cousin Terrinika Smith. Dorsey explained that she is aware of her status as a well-respected footwork artist. “When I’m in the streets,” she said, “they be like, ‘Shorty got footwork! She know how to dance.’ ” She started dancing at age seven when her mother, who parades with the Single Ladies Social and Pleasure Club, started taking her to second lines on Sundays. Dorsey’s mother was her first dance coach, but in recent years, her cousin has assumed that responsibility. “Terrinika always be telling me, ‘Uh uh! Don’t be doing that! You can’t be doing the same thing over! You got to do some new moves!’ ” Smith confirms: “Exactly. Shock them every time.”17 (p. 580)

Dancing like a ManCompetition and Gender in the New Orleans Second Line

Figure 26.2. Terrylynn Dorsey dances against her sole competitor in the youth division of the 2014 First Annual Big Easy Footwork Competition.

Photo by Michael J. Mastrogiovanni.

As Dorsey and her lone male competitor stood in front of the stage and waited for their round to begin, they gazed up at Leander Brown. He informed the contestants of two rules: “You have to roll,” which is second liners’ parlance for dancing continuously, “for at least thirty minutes. And no obscene gestures.” The Young Fellas Brass Band began to play, and the two contestants started to dance behind the caution tape. I could not take my eyes off Dorsey. She always appears in total control of her body and completely in sync with the music. Furthermore, she has mastered the grounded-yet-lifted second line posture, so that her torso lifts up while her legs drive down into the earth, the top half of her body riding smoothly on top of fiercely working legs and feet. Dorsey dances with rhythmic sophistication, displays a wide variety of moves, and changes the dynamics of her movements, offsetting athletic drops and stylish spins with moments of subdued grooving. I watched as she performed a basic scissor-like footwork step while facing the band, as if giving her feet time to converse with the beat. Soon, she began to punctuate her steady heel-to-toe step with high-knee hopping, alternating from foot to foot, a move reminiscent of double-dutch jump rope. Next, she began bouncing on her left foot while lifting her right thigh to hip height. She bent her (p. 581) right knee at a ninety-degree angle and swung her lower leg back and forth in time with the music. With both feet back on the ground, Dorsey smoothed out the aerial bouncing of her footwork by gliding backward across the floor in a staccato, syncopated version of the moonwalk. In this moment, Brown picked up the microphone again, prompting the dancers to “knock,” a term commonly used among second liners to refer to no-holds-barred dancing. He chanted in time with the beat, “Now go! Knock it off! Knock! Knock! Knock!” Upon hearing his encouraging demands, Dorsey threw her head back and laughed, letting the weight of her head carry her body into a tight circular pathway. All the while, her feet never missed a beat.

When reflecting on that moment, Dorsey recalled, “I was in my own zone. It’s how I be at the second line, that’s how I was up there at that thing. I was in my own little world.” Second lining delivers her to a zone where nothing matters except her feet and the beat. When the tuba begins to thump, Dorsey said, “I ain’t worried about nothing. The beat just in my head.”18 Since she was in her “own little zone,” Dorsey possibly did not hear the shouting around her. While she and her competitor danced fervently, a woman in a pink tracksuit hovered over the caution tape and encouraged Dorsey, shouting, “Work it! Get it! Come on!” Brown spoke into the microphone: “Don’t coach, please sit down.” She ignored his request, and instead treated the caution tape like the rope that divides the main line from the second line during parades, leaning over it to demand more hype from the contestants.

Once the thirty-minute period ended, the band took a break and the contestants retired while the judges deliberated. After a short while, the judges delivered their verdict to Brown, who related the results to the crowd. Dorsey lost to her male competitor. She reacted to this news with shock and disbelief. “When they announced the trophy, I thought, ‘There’s no way! There’s no way! Ain’t no way I lost against him!’”19 Dorsey was not alone in her reaction. I was also surprised by the verdict, and became curious about the judges’ criteria for evaluation. Certainly both dancers had followed Brown’s two requirements. What more did they need to do in order to win? I recognized one of the three judges as a teacher at a local dance studio that I regularly attended, so I introduced myself and asked about her experience as a judge. She explained that she is from Tremé, and has taught dance in New Orleans for fifty years. Doing things like this, she said, is a way to give back. In terms of criteria, she was looking for each dancer’s number of turns, kicks, drops, and stunts, but admitted that the judging was very subjective. The three judges were not given a list of items for scoring.

I had assumed that this judge was preselected due to her profession as a dance teacher, but in fact, Brown explained to me that he selected the judges “randomly” right before the first contest began (and before I arrived). He announced to the crowd, “If I tap you on the shoulder, then you’re a judge.” At the second competition in 2015, he went a step further, recruiting a friend who is blind to do the shoulder tapping. Brown’s rationale for choosing judges this way is to avoid accusations of unfair adjudication, for if he selected judges in advance, then their evaluations might be clouded by the inevitable biases and allegiances that form in a tightly knit community. This approach to judging both honors and wrestles with second lining’s ethos as a grassroots practice. By refusing to codify (p. 582) criteria or identify expert judges, Brown’s competitions mirror the communal creation of aesthetic values within second lining’s organic social structure. Yet at the same time, by allowing three individuals’ subjective conclusions to determine clear winners and losers, the competition’s outcomes fall prey to hotly debated differences in taste.

After speaking with the judge, I headed outside to get some air and overheard the lady in the pink tracksuit complaining to a small group crowded around her. The judges were not second liners, she said. They could not do footwork themselves and did not know what to look for. The disgruntled patron was particularly bothered by the fact that one judge was a dance teacher whose knowledge of ballet did not qualify her to assess excellent second lining.20 One reason, she argued, for disagreeing with the judges’ verdict was that the winning dancer waved his arms too much, which distracted from his footwork, and belied his experience in a related, but distinct, dance practice: parading with a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. In fact, this is the main reason that Dorsey (2014) felt he should have lost: “Ain’t no way I lost against him! Because he was Indian dancing.”

The debates that occurred during the Competition demonstrate that, although second liners often eschew questions of “right” and “wrong” ways to second line in favor of a do-watcha-wanna approach, practitioners simultaneously hold firm ideas about which bodily repertoires fall within and outside second lining’s aesthetic. These boundaries were negotiated as those present at the Competition harnessed dance technique as a relational language for communicating.21 The movements performed by contestants served as a protocol for the judges and audience members to read dancing bodies (albeit to read them differently); for dancers to fashion their subjectivities as members of the second line community, and to insert other subjectivities, such as one’s involvement in Mardi Gras Indian culture or as a seasoned jump roper; and for everyone involved to insert themselves into a history of footwork developed on New Orleans’s streets. Dance became the language of group inclusion and exclusion, complicating allegiances formed by neighborhood, culture, and class, and making more explicit the subtle inclusions and exclusions that are regularly performed during weekly second lines.

One of the exclusions demonstrated during the competition was the exclusion of feminine movement and female dancers from the upper rungs of second lining’s hierarchies. It is true that one young women and one girl competed in the Competition, and that a girl provided the inspiration for the Competition’s existence. However, as is the case in second lining at large, the presence of female dancers does not necessarily signal gender equality, for the dancing displayed by female footwork artists needs to be read as masculine to be competitive.

Dorsey’s cousin, Terrinika Smith, reached this conclusion through personal experience. In 2010, she entered a footwork competition, “Second Line Till Ya Drop,” at Tipitina’s, a music venue in uptown New Orleans. She recalled the final round, when all but two dancers had been eliminated.

It got down to me and [Gerald] Platenburg with Nine Times [SAPC], and I knew that when he got on the stage he was going to tear me up! But . . . they [the judges] said, “We’re going to give you the trophy and give him the money.” I was like, (p. 583) “Give me the trophy give him the money?!” I didn’t understand that. And it was like, “Because you a girl.” With the men, it don’t go like that. We paid five dollars to get in the competition. . . . They didn’t have no girls in the competition but me. So they said because they didn’t have no girls they’d give me the trophy. Platenburg did give me $25, shout out to Platenburg. But I really felt like that was wrong. That’s why I feel like . . . they’d rather [have] a man than a woman in the second line world.22

Smith’s story provides a relatively low-stakes but clear example of the fact that discursive ideologies have material effects. Since, in the “second line world,” performing movements coded as masculine are more valued, Smith was denied a cash prize, even though the judges symbolically rewarded her willingness to transgress gendered norms and compete as the lone female dancer.

Smith’s reflection raises the question of what it means to second line like a man. Some say that it means “going hard,” focusing on the feet, and doing daredevil tricks. If a second liner is too “soft,” emphasizing her hips more than her feet, and refraining from gymnastic stunts, then she might be seen as dancing, as Smith puts it, “like a female.” Don Robertson, a retired member of the Young Men Olympian, Jr., Benevolent Association, voiced this point of view. Robertson earned a reputation as a respected second line dancer in the 1980s, and earned cash by performing and teaching second line dancing throughout the city and beyond until the first decade of the 2000s. When he expressed admiration for Terrylynn Dorsey’s dancing, he said, “They got some girls, they second line like dudes!” I asked him what it means to second line like a dude.

dr: They coming hard, they moving, they’re not shaking like a lady, they’re dancing. They straight up going hard. They skipping, they hopping, they jumping. Matter of fact, they got one, she’s a Lady Buckjumper [a member of the Lady Buckjumper Social Aid and Pleasure Club]. If you watch her, she shake. You see what I’m saying?

rc: Kind of like the shoulders and hips, side-to-side a little bit?

dr: Yeah. . . . And when you watch that little girl [referring to Dorsey], she don’t do that. You understand? So she dancing like a guy. She coming with it. I can tell you the difference [between the ways that men and women second line], but when you watch those two people, you can see the difference. Some people will say, “Oh, there’s no difference!” Yes there is! There is a difference.23

Leander Brown agrees. When reflecting on men and women second liners, he observed, “Men are usually more energetic. You know, that’s why when you see a young lady doing it and she’s really good at it, it’s really noticeable. Because you don’t have a lot of women that are even, that doesn’t have the confidence to go out and say, ‘You know what? I could do it!’ ”24 He has noticed that confident dancers develop a unique style, which works like their embodied signatures to stake their claims to second lining’s aesthetic history.25

According to Robertson and Brown, perceptible differences exist between second lining “like a female” and “like a dude,” and the differences are not regarded equally. (p. 584) Taken together, these men’s reflections align masculine dancing with affective characteristics such as aggression, athleticism, energy, confidence, and originality. Formally, dancing like a dude can be identified when one privileges footwork over movements in the hips and torso. At the same time, second liners must be able to invent unique movements on the spot, which requires a keen ear for tracking the band’s rhythms. Thus, successful second line performances embody a kind of masculinity similar to that performed by musicians during turn-of-the-century bucking contests: a flexible and responsiveness that tempers brute strength with agility. Female footwork artists who become recognized as excellent second liners seem to be noteworthy precisely because they disrupt gendered expectations. Their bodies, gendered as female, do not match their dancing, gendered as male.

Women such as Terrylynn Dorsey and Terrinika Smith, who are interested in gaining respect as good dancers, are acutely aware of the points of view voiced by Robertson and Brown. They have utilized various strategies to navigate gendered expectations of their dancing, both reaffirming and contesting those expectations in the process. For example, when Dorsey chose to move from the second line into the first line and debut, or “come out,” with a social aid and pleasure club, she chose an all-male group, the Single Men. When I asked her why, she responded, “The men make you dance,” an opinion that she shares with Smith, who added,

Nowadays the women’s second line groups, there be too much competition with “Who’s doing this,” and they don’t really be second lining because they got to pop and dance and all that. Even though second line is dance however you make it . . . but men making sure your footwork . . . they make you get into it, rather than women.26

According to Dorsey and Smith, female clubs compete with each other in the non-dancing aspects of the parade’s spectacle, such as suits, floats, and decorations. Smith explained, “In second line world, it’s really a competition. They’ll talk about you if your shoes too small your pants done ripped, your shoes don’t match your shirt.”27 While the sartorial elements are very important to each parade’s overall success, clothes do not interest Dorsey and Smith nearly as much as the dancing. For example, the first year that Dorsey paraded with the Single Men SAPC, she eschewed the club’s uniform leather dress shoes in favor of her Air Jordan sneakers so that her apparel would not hamper her dancing. Notably, in 2016, the Single Men’s ranks included two women: Dorsey and the high-heeled dancer discussed earlier. Each woman displayed admirable footwork in her own style, Dorsey in Converse sneakers and her fellow first liner in chunky heels. Seen side by side, these two “single men” challenged simplistic conflations of footwork mastery and masculinity.

In Dorsey’s and Smith’s experiences, women’s clubs do not challenge each other to perfect their footwork. Instead, as Smith said, they often “pop,” a term used to describe a hip-hop dance characterized by percussive movements of the hips and buttocks. (p. 585) Although popping, also called twerking, has become an international phenomenon, the dance holds particular associations in New Orleans. A local variety of rap music and dance, known as Bounce, features popping by female-identified, including transgender, performers.28 Popping’s emphasis on dexterous pelvic movements leads it to be coded as feminine.29 As Smith sees it, popping falls outside second lining’s aesthetic boundaries. Dorsey seems to share her cousin’s assessments, choosing to join a men’s club so that her fellow first liners (men and women alike) would push her to perfect the rhythmic movements of her feet more than her pelvis.

Although Robertson, Brown, Smith, and Dorsey all speak explicitly about gender differences in second lining’s practice and reception, such discrepancies are not always so openly acknowledged among practitioners. Robertson admitted, “Some people will say, ‘Oh, there’s no difference!’ ” For example, Linda Porter, cofounder and president of the Original Lady Buckjumpers SAPC, rejects the notion that men dance more energetically and skillfully than women. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” she said. If people hold that opinion, then, according to Porter, “They don’t know about that Lady Buckjumpers! Ask anybody. We getting it on, we bring everything, we going to sweat. Bust pants, lose shoes [laughs]. That’s me, I done did all that.”30 The Lady Buckjumpers, founded in 1984, has long been well respected for its members’ dancing prowess. Along with dancers like Dorsey and Smith, members of the Lady Buckjumpers are often presented as proof of second lining’s gender neutrality. However, as the saying goes, the exception proves the rule, or, as Leander Brown put it, “when you see a young lady [second lining] and she’s really good at it, it’s really noticeable.”

Given that most second liners value what second lining does for them and their communities far more than the particulars of aesthetics, it makes sense that conversations about how one dances, such as dancing in feminine or masculine ways, are often dismissed as irrelevant. The widely held definition of second lining as do-watcha-wanna values the why over the what, and the reasons why female second liners dance are significant. Girls’ and women’s growing involvement in second line culture has served as an important vehicle for developing leadership, forming communities, expressing self, celebrating families and neighborhoods, and accessing joyful, even spiritual, experiences through dancing. At the same time, evaluations of the form, such as those that occur during dance competitions, reveal persistent gendered hierarchies that structure women’s dancing experiences, even if those hierarchies are dismissed in do-watcha-wanna discourse. Competitions acknowledge that, despite do-watcha-wanna values, there are criteria for superior second lining, and those criteria are coded as masculine. In other words, the dance form contains and communicates value systems and hierarchies that are not widely acknowledged in verbal discourse, but that become more apparent in competition contexts. Nevertheless, these gendered hierarchies cannot fully account for the dance tactics employed by some young women dancers today. Their performances open up new gendered terrain for evaluating second lining beyond a masculine/feminine binary, and footwork competitions provide an important frontier for charting this new terrain.

(p. 586) Alternative Genealogies and “Badass Femininity”

In search of alternative genealogies for the dancing performed by female footwork artists, I look to two areas to suggest possibilities: double-dutch jump rope and b-girling.

The footwork and rhythmic chanting featured in African American girls’ games, such as double-dutch jump rope, represent an important influence on the aesthetic properties of African American social dances like second lining. As ethnomusicologist Kyra D. Gaunt (2006) illustrates, African American girls embody the ideals of black music-making (for instance, syncopation, polyrhythm, and call-and-response) in the games they play. Gaunt illuminates how girls use games to transmit embodied musical knowledges, arguing that their contributions to hip-hop often go unrecognized because their efforts are gendered as play. The same analysis could be applied to second line dancing, especially in the case of double-dutch. Present-day second lining can be seen as indebted, at least in part, to double-dutch jump rope. Considering this possibility opens up a space for the unique contributions of girls and women that have gone unaccredited.

One piece of embodied evidence for double-dutch’s influence on second line footwork can be found in a video recording of a second line parade captured in 1975 by photographer Jules Cahn, entitled, “Sister Eustis Funeral.”31 The opening frames show a group dancing outside Ruth’s Cozy Corner, a landmark bar in the Tremé neighborhood. The musicians play near the building’s brick wall while an intergenerational group of African American dancers fans out around the band, grooving on the sidewalk, stoops, and in the street. On the far left-hand side of the screen, two young girls face each other and hop quickly from one foot to the other, dancing in a way that looks like double-dutch without the ropes. The taller girl, who seems to be about ten or eleven years old, quickly discards that movement in favor of crisscrossing her feet, jumping them wide apart, and hopping down to a squat. Throughout, her body is constantly rebounding off the ground. The film is silent, but I can almost hear the music’s pulse in her steady bounce.

This footage was captured at the dawn of what music historian Mick Burns (2006) has called the “brass band renaissance.” During the 1970s and 1980s, musicians and dancers reinvented second lining’s sound and movement to incorporate elements of rhythm and blues, funk, and hip-hop. Second liners’ forward-moving steps became more levitated and the art of footwork took prominence within the form. These aesthetic shifts continue to wield tremendous influence on second liners’ contemporary practices, and we can see the beginnings of their developments in Cahn’s footage. Out of everyone dancing in the 1975 scene, the young girls’ jump-rope-style movements most closely resemble the footwork exhibited by the majority of dancers, regardless of sex or gender identity, parading on the streets today. All around these girls, people dance in a way that is more consistent with the footwork exhibited in footage of second lines during the 1960s and early 1970s: they keep their feet closer to the ground and rock a soulful step-touch. These girls alone appear to be at the vanguard of a new form of footwork.

(p. 587) I therefore tentatively propose that African American girls’ games contributed to the aesthetic developments of second lining that emerged during the late twentieth century and remain popular today. Beyond teaching girls the musical knowledge needed to improvise dance moves in time with a live brass band, double-dutch also trains them to move in ways that are useful when second lining. The game requires a precise attention to rhythmic footwork: if the jumper gets off beat, the rope will hit her body and she will stop the game. It also teaches jumpers to negotiate gravity in ways that are crucial to second lining embodiment, lifting the torso up from the pelvis so that the feet can work furiously underneath. Finally, the stunts and tricks employed by daredevil jumpers closely resemble second liners’ acrobatic feats, such as dropping to the ground and tuck jumping with both knees folded into the chest. When double-dutching, girls “straight up go hard,” and have been doing so for decades. The notion that girls’ creative labor influences the practice of second lining deserves serious attention, and detailing the links between double-dutch and footwork provides one place for future research.

The second area to which I look to chart an alternative genealogy of second lining can be found in Imani Kai Johnson’s concept of “badass femininity.” Johnson (2014, 20) coined this term to describe the performances of b-girls, or female-identified persons who break dance, and she defines badass femininity as “a performance that eschews notions of appropriateness, respectability, and passivity demanded of ladylike behavior in favor of confrontational” and “aggressive . . . expressions of a woman’s strength.” Such non-normative femininities are “born out of the margins of society” and, as such, speak back to the histories of enslavement, genocide, forced labor (sexual and otherwise), and colonial exploitation that has long “disallowed black women from claiming their subjectivities, and distorted the ways that gender was read on them” (2014, 20). Badass femininities are accessed and enter the public sphere through “the permissive space of performance” (2014, 20), such as b-boy/b-girl battles and second line footwork competitions.

Terrylynn Dorsey’s and Terrinika Smith’s experiences as competitive footwork artists illuminate how danced movement never occurs outside social conventions or political norms. This point has been made repeatedly by scholars of social and vernacular dance who analyze the ways in which dancers obey and break movement codes attached to gender, race, and class (Desmond 1997; Fraser Delgado and Muñoz 1997; García 2013; Goldman 2010; Savigliano 2003). As Maxine Leeds Craig (2014, 168) asserts, “vernacular dance performance has the capacity to naturalize racial and gender boundaries or to transgress them.” However, the concept of badass femininity suggests that dancers not only decide whether to obey or break existing movement codes when they improvise in social and competitive settings, but also can sometimes create a space beyond familiar behavioral scripts and cause spectators to consider new ways of behaving, for example, black and/or female (Johnson 2014, 15–16). By reframing Dorsey’s and Smith’s dancing as performances of badass femininity, versus dancing like a dude, then we can begin to delink the ideological entanglements between second lining prowess and black masculinity. Such entanglements extend well beyond the realm of second lining to encompass a wide array of African American cultural expressions in which race, gender, and sexuality are written onto and by the dancing body. (p. 588)

Dancing like a ManCompetition and Gender in the New Orleans Second Line

Figure 26.3. Another view of Terrylynn Dorsey and her lone competitor at the 2014 First Annual Big Easy Footwork Competition.

Photo by Michael J. Mastrogiovanni.

“Ain’t No Way I Lost against Him!”

After Terrylynn Dorsey and her male challenger had been dancing for thirty continuous minutes, Leander Brown motioned to Young Fellas Brass Band that it was time to conclude. The musicians improvised an ending to their song, and the two sweaty, heavy-breathing dancers took a seat on the lip of the stage and began gulping water from plastic bottles. Dorsey felt convinced that she had out-danced her opponent. She had not only knocked, rolled, and gone hard for thirty straight minutes, but had done so with periodic shifts in her dynamics that demonstrated her ability to respond to, and even precipitate, the musicians’ changes in tempo, syncopation, and instrument emphasis. It was evident that, to borrow Dorsey’s phrase, the beat was in her head. She displayed an expansive repertoire of unrepeated moves, heeding her cousin/coach’s advice to “shock them every time.” She dramatically changed levels, dropping to the ground and leaping above it at choice moments. She responded to the music with her feet, hardly ever recruiting her pelvis, torso, or shoulders, which left no doubt about her mastery of second lining’s prized footwork. She heard the crowd’s applause and left the battle confident in the judges’ reception of her performance. Overall, her performance in the 2014 Big Easy Footwork Competition (Figure 26.3) demonstrated why admirers such as (p. 589) Rodrick Davis describe her as “the closest thing you’re going to see [as far as] male footwork [performed by] a female.”32

However, I would like to suggest that Dorsey’s footwork, as she performed it at the Competition and at every dance event, does more than confirm a simplistic association between successful dancing and successful performances of masculinity. Like her cousin Terrinika Smith, the veteran Linda Porter, the young Nyesha Borsey, and other female dancers who dedicate themselves to footwork, Dorsey opens up new terrain on the gendered landscape of second line aesthetics. On this terrain, second lining cannot be contained within a masculine/feminine binary, and therefore, these women’s performances must be read as more than successful appropriations of second-line masculinity.

I reach this conclusion in part because Dorsey’s dancing at the Competition was not a successful performance of masculinity, for her male opponent took home the trophy and the cash. Even though Dorsey is widely considered as a dancer that will “go down in history,” 33 her performance still was not sufficient to claim first place. Did the judges reach this decision because they viewed Dorsey’s performance through a masculinist frame in which superior second lining has always been and still is executed most successfully by male dancers? Or was it because they simply did not like her style, because one or more of the judges held personal relationships with the male competitor, or something else? Regardless of the particular reasons for the outcome of this competition, it suggests that, even when a woman dances like a dude, she cannot always attain the same rewards as a dude.

If one views Dorsey’s dancing through a feminist versus a masculinist lens, one might detect the importance of women’s and girls’ labor in her movements. During the Big Easy Footwork Competition, Dorsey improvised a step that I have seen her execute many times: she punctuated her steady heel-to-toe step with high-knee hopping, alternating from foot to foot, a move reminiscent of double-dutch jump rope. Knowing that Dorsey is a seasoned double-dutch jumper, I am not surprised that this move forms a staple of her footwork repertoire. However, when considered in context with the young dancers at Sister Eustis’s 1975 funeral, Dorsey’s jump-rope-style step appears to be more than an idiosyncratic expression. It raises the possibility of a long-standing yet unstated influence of girls’ games on second line embodiment. When footwork shifted from a grounded strut to an elevated bounce in the 1970s, young black women and girls who jumped rope were uniquely poised to integrate, and perhaps even introduce, this way of moving into second line dancing. Delineating the precise connections requires further research, but merely opening up the possibility for this influence troubles associations between aesthetic excellence and masculine performance. With each double-dutch-style hop, Dorsey performs an embodied critique of the assumption that she dances like a dude, and charts new terrain in the gendered discourses of second line embodiment.

Dance competitions present an important frontier for young women second liners to chart this terrain because these events present a unique site in which the community elevates form over function. Second liners’ do-watcha-wanna approach to second lining prioritizes the why over the what, and, as such, the details of how one dances (p. 590) are often dismissed as less important than the social, cultural, and personal benefits gained through participating in the ritual. At the same time, second liners’ bodily techniques contain and communicate meanings and histories that might go unsaid, or remain contested, in verbal discourse (Browning 1995; Hamera 2007). During dance competitions, second liners turn their focus to evaluating, debating, and interpreting technique, or the what of second lining. As a result, the discursive frameworks surrounding second liners’ performances become more explicit. Terrylynn Dorsey was painfully reminded of this when she lost the 2014 competition, and reacted with disbelief: “Ain’t no way I lost to him!”34

However, dance competitions provide an arena in which preexisting frameworks are confirmed and contested. When Dorsey and other young women go hard with their footwork, and challenge men to out-dance them, they issue embodied critiques of second lining’s masculinist frameworks—critiques that could be called performances of badass femininity. These young women eschew not only passive ladylike behavior, but also the sexualized bodily display of popping, in favor of confrontational and aggressive expressions of a woman’s strength (Johnson 2014, 20). Whether pounding out rhythmic steps in Air Jordan sneakers or high-heeled shoes, women second liners use their feet to speak back to histories of enslavement and exploitation that have distorted the ways in which gender is read on them. The legacies of second lining’s gendered history means that passive behavior, polite marching, and hip-rolling dances such as popping are widely read as feminine ways to second line, while footwork, aerial stunts, and confrontations with other dancers are read as masculine. Today, female footwork artists move beyond this history, charting new territory in which they claim subjectivities that cannot be contained by a masculine/feminine binary. As expressions of badass femininity, their dancing rewrites the criteria for mastery as something far more complicated than dancing like a man.


Thank you to Imani Kai Johnson for reading an earlier draft of this chapter and providing invaluable feedback.


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(1.) Second liners’ concerns with form and approach are shared by practitioners of many African diaspora dance and music forms. See Gottschild (2003, 280); and DeFrantz (2004, 76).

(2.) This phrase comes from the title of popular song by the renowned Rebirth Brass Band (1995). For an extended discussion on “do-watcha-wanna” in relation to second lining’s formal aesthetics, see Carrico (2016).

(3.) Terrinika Smith, interview with the author, August 8, 2014.

(4.) For more on black benevolent societies in New Orleans, see Walker (1937); Jacobs (1988, 22 n. 1, 32); and Malone (1996, 167–168). For more on the history of New Orleans brass bands, see Kmen (1966); Sakakeeny (2013); and White (2001).

(5.) During my interviews with dedicated second liners, I showed each person a montage of video clips that I filmed at various second line parades, which I selected to exhibit a wide range of bodily expressions. Interviewees consistently affirmed that any kind of dancing displayed in those videos could be labeled as “second lining,” even if the dancers were offbeat and were not demonstrating a recognizable form of second lining’s basic footwork. When asked why they would label this dancing as second lining, interviewees responded that second lining includes any form of dancing done to brass band music at a parade. For example, when asked this question, Rodrick Davis replied, “Yeah! Yeah, they grooving to the music, yes indeed.” I asked, “But it’s not footwork?” He confirmed, “No, it’s not footwork. It’s second lining. It’s a big difference. Second lining is dancing and grooving. Footwork is—exactly what it’s called, footwork.” Davis, interview with the author, January 16, 2014.

(6.) Terry Gable, interview with the author, January 2, 2014.

(7.) Wellington Ratcliff, Jr., recalls such competitions occurring at clubs in the 1980s. Raticliff, interview with the author and Daniella Santoro, March 26, 2014.

(8.) According to Sharon R. Bird’s sociological study, competitiveness constitutes one of three elements of patriarchal masculinity, along with emotional detachment and the objectification of women. She writes, “In male homosocial groups, a man risks loss of status and self-esteem unless he competes” (1996, 128).

(9.) John W. Blassingame gives very similar descriptions of two dances performed at slave balls and at Congo Square, called the “carabine” and the “pile chactas” (1973, 3).

(10.) Furthermore, musicians commonly identify brass instruments themselves as more appropriate for male musicians, unlike the piano, which is widely considered more feminine. Jazz scholars have pointed out that, in filmic and literary representations of jazz, the trumpet is often likened to a phallus. See Doubleday (2008); Gabbard (1992).

(11.) The involvement of women in early second line parades is an excellent area for further research. Brothers writes that women’s involvement in early jazz culture was mostly limited to churches, brothels, and private homes, for any women who danced in public streets would be considered deviant (2006). Monique Guillory (1998) adds that women’s sexual deviance lies at the heart of jazz’s emergence, for Storyville brothels served as an important locus of the music’s turn-of-the-century developments. As Sherrie Tucker’s (2004) meticulous research demonstrates, women contributed to the development of jazz outside of brothels in ways that have been historically devalued: hosting lawn parties, singing and playing in church choirs, working as music teachers, and as vocalists and dancers in nightclubs. Kyle DeCoste’s (2015) excellent master’s thesis illuminates the work of female brass bands in contemporary New Orleans. Beyond these sources, the question of processions performed by women’s societies, and attended by female second liners, at the turn of the century remains under-researched, to the best of my knowledge.

(12.) On women’s involvement in US fraternal organizations, see Beito (2000, 2–3). Tamara Jackson recalls a time when women only rode in cars during second line parades. Jackson, interview with the author, April 21, 2014. Linda Porter remembers that, when she cofounded the Lady Buckjumpers SAPC in 1984, there were very few autonomous female clubs in existence. Porter, interview with the author, August 12, 2014. Their memories match an interview that appears in Alan Lomax’s 1990 documentary film, Jazz Parades. When interviewing an unnamed woman about second lines in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lomax asked, “What do the women come for?” The female interviewee replies, “A lot of reasons. The way they look, way they smile, way they dance, way they talk, way they shake. . . .” This exchange indicates that, at the time, women were rarely performing inside the ropes and more often attending to observe the male club members’ parades. For example, it was not until 1975 that a female grand marshal, Ellyna Tatum, led a jazz funeral (Tucker 2004, 78).

(13.) Although Borsey tied for the title of children’s division champion in 2014, she won the title single-handedly in 2015 (“Shack Brown and Nyesha Borsey” 2015, n.p.).

(14.) Leander Brown, interview with the author, December 16, 2015.

(15.) Brown’s decision to produce an annual dance competition fits within his broad array of activities in various civic engagement and youth development initiatives. He coaches football teams and marching bands, holds a weekly engagement giving motivational speeches to incarcerated youth, produces festivals for stand-up comedians, and mounts various other projects. As a child, he attended Jerome Smith’s Tambourine and Fan Club, an influential youth program that trained many of today’s active musicians and social aid and pleasure club leaders in the techniques and philosophies of New Orleans’s black cultural traditions. In many ways, Brown extends the impacts and spirit of Jerome Smith’s influence to a new generation of youth. For more on the Tambourine and Fan Club, see Pierre (2007).

(16.) Davis, interview with the author, January 16, 2014.

(17.) Terrylynn Dorsey and Terrinika Smith, interview with the author, August 8, 2014.

(18.) Dorsey, interview with the author, August 8, 2014.

(19.) Dorsey, interview with the author, August 8, 2014.

(20.) In fact, Brown explained to me that this judge brought an informed eye to her role, not merely because she was a dance teacher, but because she was raised in a family that has been heavily involved in the second line culture for generations. Brown, interview with the author, December 16, 2015. Dorsey recalled that one of the judges was a member of the Sidewalk Steppers Social Aid and Pleasure Club and masks as a Mardi Gras Indian. Dorsey, interview with the author, August 8, 2014.

(21.) Judith Hamera (2007) defines dance technique in this way.

(22.) Smith, interview with the author, August 8, 2014.

(23.) Don Robertson, interview with the author, April 10, 2014.

(24.) Brown, interview with the author, December 16, 2015.

(25.) On the function of embodied signatures in African American vernacular dance, see Kraut (2016).

(26.) Dorsey and Smith, interview with the author, August 8, 2014.

(27.) Dorsey and Smith, interview with the author, August 8, 2014.

(28.) Big Freedia, a transgender, or self-identified “sissy,” Bounce artist who has soared to international fame, remarks that Bounce, also called popping or twerking, “has extraordinary power. Moving it [the groin area] at lightning speed is more than sexual; it’s also deeply intimate and transformative. For us sissies, who lived under such constant oppression—the violence, poverty, and homophobia—Bounce is our way to transmute that pain into joy” (Newman 2015, n.p.).

(29.) For an analysis of the ideological connections between blackness, femininity, and hip-rolling dances in the African diaspora, see Jones (2016).

(30.) Porter, interview with the author, August 12, 2014.

(32.) Davis, interview with the author, January 16, 2014.

(33.) Davis, interview with the author, January 16, 2014.

(34.) Dorsey, interview with the author, August 8, 2014.