Talking with Latasha Barnes
Latasha “Tasha” Barnes has been teaching swing and lindy hop for three years and other urban dances for over twelve years. Starting lindy hop over twenty years ago (even longer if you count her four year-old swing outs), Tasha has been an active member of the dance community in all of its forms. A couple weeks ago she took time from teaching classes and letting loose at the New Orleans Swing Dance Festival to sit down for a few questions. Here, we’ll dive into what made her take her first rock step all the way to how she experiences dancing today.
About how long have you been swing dancing?
In total, I’d say about 35 years. I’ve been dancing since I was three. I used to not count dancing from my childhood but I truly recognize how much its contributed to the way I dance today. But professionally, about twelve or thirteen years.
What prompted you to learn swing dancing specifically?
It was a culmination of things. It came about after I had reconnected with movement as a form of recovery. I happened to have a friend who was interested in learning more about the dances of the style of music he was playing. So, he was eager to show me all he knew about swing dancing. Then we found an intersection with the urban dance community in D.C. and the swing dance community and we wanted to share some of those things. Especially with lindy hop being an African American social dance. We wanted to make sure that was being represented at our particular festival, Soul Society, and to show the influences of jazz in the urban dances we do today. From that crossover, they invited us to come out a couple of times and it was through that that made me want to stick around.
I understand you have some family members who were into the original lindy hop scene a while ago?
Yeah, unbeknownst to me. My great grandmother was a lindy hopper. At least, it appears that way from the photos we’ve found of her when she was younger in her “heyday”, as she liked to say. She loved listening to jazz music and would swing me out. She’d throw me and say, “Run, jump, and squat.” I didn’t know she was swinging me out, of course, because I was four years old. But she’d pick me up in the air and swing me around and do all kinds of crazy things to the music. So I developed a joy for it subconsciously. And when I first started swing dancing I thought it felt very familiar, the swing out in particular. So it was very cool to make that connection when I realized that she was doing this dance way back then. And doing it now definitely makes me feel a lot more connected to her. So it’s emotional and humbling all at the same time.
What other forms of dancing have you gotten into?
One of my favorite styles of dance is house. That’s been a main thread for me. From my thought processes about it, I’ve developed different approaches to the way that I swing out or the way I enjoy jazz dancing. I study waacking, which is a funk style. It’s a very emotive dance. It started in the gay clubs of LA during the 70s, around the same time of popping and locking. But it’s a very soulful and engaging dance. Hip hop is where I started. I grew up doing social hip hop dances. But I love Cuban-style salsa. Also, a lot of Afro-Cuban folklore dances. I’m starting to take up tap, which is fun. But I started with popping and locking so I still have some of the vocabulary from that, and dancehall as well. I don’t teach those dances but I like to share them from time to time at parties and socials and such. I try to stay as rooted in the African American social dances as I can.
How would you say lindy hop has helped you in other genres of dancing, or vice versa?
It’s definitely been reaffirming in that dance is what I’ve been put on this earth to do and share and study. It’s reinforced my love for quality movement that’s truly inspired by the music. This goes for all dance styles, but it’s so easy to get lost in the music and just do things as opposed to really responding to it. Not to over-intellectualize it, but it’s given me a renewed connectedness to the roots of jazz and the music that’s derived from it. So lindy hop has definitely reinvigorated my appreciation for all the other dance styles that I do.
Favorite band/artist to dance to? Swing or otherwise?
Well, it’s a progressive thing. My focus is always changing. I was recently introduced to Chelsea Reed and the Fairweather Five. Ah, they’re so good. And, of course, the Preservation Hall All-Stars blew my mind yesterday. And now, having experienced them live, I’d really love to see a battle of the bands between Harlem Renaissance Orchestra and the Preservation Hall All-Stars. But, there needs to be another descriptor for how hard they [Preservation Hall All-Stars] swing, because it was amazing to be a part of that atmosphere. But Chelsea Reed, Preservation Hall All-Stars, and Harlem Renaissance Orchestra. So I guess I don’t have a single favorite. But I also love Charles Turner and Gordon Webster. They’re phenomenal.
If you were stuck on an island with one iconic lindy hopper, who would you want it to be?
There’s so many for so many different reasons. Off the cuff, my response would be Sylvia Sykes because she’s so interesting. Whenever I have a conversation with her it’s always enlightening and hilarious at the same time. And working on things with her is always game-changing. I guess it’s because of the perspective she brings from having directly learned from so many of the originals, which is refreshing but also contextual. So she never presents anything without giving the history. She just has that relevant knowledge that’s so fun to absorb. But being stuck on an island with Ms. Norma [Miller] would be hysterical. Also Al Minns, just because of how creative he allowed himself to be. I’d love to pick his brain about what he was thinking about when he was filming certain things and what his influence was. But there’s so many. Even thinking about my friendships with dancers who are considered iconic today. Like Frida Segerdahl, a swedish dancer. If I were stuck on an island with her we’d just geek out over so many things.
“This dance is based on improvisation, so perfection is a weird thing to strive for. Communication and a shared experience, I’m all for that. But, perfection, not so much.”
How does teaching bring a different perspective to swing and social dancing?
I’m definitely of the school that your teaching should inform your dancing, and vice versa. I have a very symbiotic relationship with what I’m teaching and how I’m dancing, because what I teach is derived from what I’m dancing or practicing. Also, I really enjoy the feedback I get from teaching. Not the praise, but the feedback. Actually learning, while teaching, how to better execute something so it’s received in its entirety. Not just as a move, but either in the musical or historical context. But teaching shines a greater light on that so it makes it easier to identify my shortcomings so that I can be better at executing things so they can be better understood and perpetuated. I’ve also enjoyed teaching with different partners, as of late, because it’s taught me a lot about how I move and avoiding doing classroom dancing, as opposed to what I’d actually do if I were dancing. Sometimes we have a tendency to temper things and make them look exactly a certain way. And that’s not true to what we’re doing when we’re dancing and expressing ourselves. This dance is based on improvisation, so perfection is a weird thing to strive for. Communication and a shared experience, I’m all for that. But, perfection, not so much.
Do you have any big projects you’re working on at the moment?
Yeah, collectively. The dancers of color, as we refer to ourselves, have a group called Black, Brown and Beige. We’re working on putting pieces together to share and to continue to highlight the representation of African Americans and dancers of color. Not to cast a shadow or anything, but to be more present and more active collectively. So seeing the development of that has been pretty fun. But I’ve also been working with the Frankie Manning Foundation. And I’ve been wanting to work toward helping with some of the youth programs. The largest thing I’m working on right now is my grad school program at NYU Gallatin. It’s an individualized study school. So I created a master’s program focused mainly around ethnochoreology. It’s dance anthropology, ethnography, and musicology all kind of rolled into one.
Ian Monroe is a contributing writer for Crescent City Swing, community member, and friend.
Photos by Jessica Keener Photography.