Black People Don’t…White People Don’t…And, Why Can’t I Learn To Dance?

24 Jan

You’ve heard it all before.  The generalizations.  The stereotypes.  White men can’t jump.   Black people don’t swim.  White people have no rhythm–they can’t dance.  Black people don’t do yoga.  No wonder we have our minds made up already on what someone is about based on race.

And where does it come from?  I’m sure it’s not like you remember your parents sitting you down, and saying, “Look, son, there’s some things you should know about black people.  They don’t know how to swim.  They don’t like camping, or “living green,”  and when they go to restaurants, they don’t tip.”  Or in reverse, “Look, my daughter, when you’re at the school dance, try not to make fun of the white people, because you see, they just weren’t born with rhythm, and well, they  can’t dance.  Also, the girls your age are starting to mimic their mothers, with  Starbucks orders of skinny pumpkin spice lattes and vanilla frapuccinos.  And, if you want to connect with white people through sports, try frisbee and soccer.

I imagine the way we get these stereotypes and generalizations into our unconscious minds, isn’t unlike how we “learn” the systems of more serious forms of institutionalized racism.  We do learn from things we hear our family and friends say.  We learn from what we are taught and see at school.  We learn a lot from how the media–television, news, movies, magazines portray white people and people of color.

You know this already, but sometimes it’s good to stop and think about it, because it does seep into our unconscious, and causes us to make judgements and assumptions about others in our own minds within minutes upon meeting them.  And, I can’t speak for black people, but I know it makes white people say the dumbest things sometimes, like asking a black person if they like the latest Kanye release, before knowing whether they even listen to hip-hop, or in a conversation about cooking, telling a black person how much you like cooking collard greens–stuff like that.

Yet, I know I’ve had black people, and people of color say similiar things to me based on my being white.  I’ve had black people tell me they were surprised about my taste in music–soul, hip-hop, r&b and old school funk.  I’ve had black people ask me if I could dance, and then ask again, “really, can you, are you sure?”  “Really, you like to dance?”

I love to dance.  I’ve loved to dance ever since I was seven or eight.  I danced in my living room to my Jackson 5 albums, and to my parents’ Supremes and Fifth Dimension records.  In high school, my best friend Cathy–an Italian girl who could really dance, practiced our moves in her bedroom mirror, including dances like the freak, and the spank, to the sounds of Cameo, Heatwave, and Chic.

I’ve been told many times by black people that I’m a good dancer, that I dance with soul, again sometimes it’s with a big hint of surprise, and sometimes, I can tell, delight, in their voices.  That’s why I get really bummed out (if that’s not a white phrase…;), when I try to learn a dance that has steps to it, that has choreography.  Whenever I do, all of a sudden I develop some sort of dance dyslexia.  My brain can’t compute.  I can’t move how I’m supposed to move.  My limbs are stiff.  I can’t follow the patterns of steps and arm movements.  I dance like a white person.  The stereotype of the stiff, uptight white person who can’t dance.

I was reminded of this recently, because I am trying to keep up with a winter exercise routine.  It’s so darn cold outside during this New England winter, I can’t do my regular three-mile walks I normally fit in twice a week.  Then, I remembered my dream of becoming the world’s oldest hip-hop dancer, and I made my way over to YouTube to find some dance videos to get myself started.   I landed upon a post from, a do-it-yourself learning site that has videos on everything from guitar lessons to drawing lessons, to even breastfeeding how-to clips.

I clicked on Beginner Hip-Hop Dance Combination #1, led by the congenial, calm Mahalo dance instructor, Brice Johnson.  At eight minutes of some pretty basic steps, I surprised myself by being able to following along, so then I clicked on How To Dougie, just for fun.  I thought I pretty much already knew how, but here’s where the trouble began.  As soon as I figured out that I was ignoring that I was looking at Brice as if in a mirror and then had to use the opposite legs and arms that he was using, I could no longer follow along.  Again, my brain froze.  I wished Brice would just turn around, so I could follow him, but alas, he did not, and my Dougie turned to mush.

Still, determined, I clicked on How To Do An Arm Wave.  I thought by starting to learn the basic moves in an isolated manner, I could then put them all together and move on to the more choreographed combinations.  Brice broke it down.  I held my arm out, palm facing down.  I curled my fingers half way, then bent my wrist, then locked my elbow out, and raised my shoulder, just as Brice instructed.  But, when he eased into the transition of putting it all together in one fluid motion, my wave looked more like a hula dancer than the b-girl move I was hoping for.  When I told my daughters about my intentions to learn hip-hop and demoed my arm wave for them, all they could do was laugh at me.

Perhaps, my not being able to learn choreographed dance moves does not tie in with the stereotype of white people being seen as non-dancers.  I can after all, dance.  It’s just that my moves are freestyle, and stuck in the way our bodies moved in the 1970’s and 80’s.  But, I’m determined to keep on trying, and if I get brave enough will post some videos of my progress.

Before I go back to my lessons, I wanted to leave you with the work of two people who have made some strides, in the form of parody, on breaking down white and black stereotypes.

First, check out  Christian Lander, creator of the website, and author of the book with the same name, Stuff White People Like, and the follow-up book, Whiter Shades of Pale.  Lander says his books “…take a scientific approach to highlight and explain stuff white people like.  They are pretty predictable.”

Then, remember those stereotypes I started out with in the beginning of this post that you may have heard or thought about black people?  Well, some of them come directly from creator, filmmaker, Angela Tucker, of the website, Black Folk Don’t.  Ms. Tucker and her team have created several seasons worth of web videos that parody and dispel many of the common myths and stereoptypes on what black people do or don’t do, like tip, go to therapy, or, go camping.

If there is anything we can learn from Ms. Tucker, Mr. Lander, and even, hopefully, me, it’s that you can’t judge whether someone is a camper, a latte drinker, or a hip-hop dancer by the color of their skin.

Here’s a link to the wonderful camping video by Black Folk Don’t.  Watch it, and then comment below on the things you do or don’t do that surprises others outside of your race:

SOURCES:, Christian Lander interview, February 5, 2009

 Brice Johnson

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