Dancing to a New Beat: Gender Performance and New Orleans Bounce

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Music and dance permeate the cultural and subcultural realms of society. They blend together myriad cultural cues and signifiers that together work to create a sort-of performative expression; and, when dance and music work to define a culture away from the psyches of the everyday, it’s more than mere expression – it’s exclamation.

Down in the Big Easy, a city known for being a Petri dish for burgeoning music, a new music phenomenon has emerged. New Orleans bounce music is hard to place on a continuum of genres; but, its accompanying dance is immediately recognizable – hunched over in almost-perfect perpendicular fashion, while gyrating rapidly and repetitiously.

The “Sissy Bounce” has permeated the South, particularly the gay cultures of cities such as New Orleans, Atlanta and Houston; and, the subgenre represents much more than music. Some have called bounce music a hybridization of numerable New Orleans cultures; in particular, a culture of performance that has long played host to “gender-bending” and cross-dressing.

Some of the subgenres biggest artists stand unabashedly gay in a genre that’s never held the most amicable opinions about homosexuality. The popularity of “Sissy Bounce” is resonant in urban gay nightclubs throughout the South. The borderline discordant cacophonies of “Sissy Bounce”, bearing a particular resemblance to Jamaican dance hall, may be only truly consumed and appreciated within the subtexts of Southern gay and New Orleans cultures.

But in New Orleans, bounce music is more than “gay culture”, the swift, pounding rap music, along with its unconstructed and hypersexualized dance moves, has found itself in the most unsuspecting of places, such as the east New Orleans sports bar, Sports Vue, documented in the 2010 The New York Times Magazine feature “Sissy Bounce, New Orleans’s Gender-Bending Rap (new window)”. Times writer Jonathan Dee traveled with gay bounce artists Katey Red and Big Freedia throughout New Orleans and the country, attempting to encapsulate the culture and the experience of the “Sissy Bounce” in a single 3,000-word article.

When the music drops at Sports Vue, however, the women, and only the women, crowd around Big Freedia and start “popping”. Dee describes this characteristic bounce scene: “The women did not dance with, or for, one another – they dance for Freedia, and they did so in the most sexualized way imaginable, usually with their backs to her, bent over sharply at the waist and bouncing their hips up and down as fast as humanly possible, if not slightly faster.”

Men line against the wall spectating idly, playing second fiddle to Big Freedia and her crowd of women. To clarify, Big Freedia is where our accustomed gender binaries fail. Dee describes Freedia in a digestible fashion: “Freedia, who is about 6 foot 2 and very powerful-looking and dresses in a fashionable but recognizably masculine style, is genetically a man; but neither she nor anyone who knows her uses masculine pronouns to refer to her.”

The above dynamic described by Dee fits perfectly in the realms of numerable gay cultures and subcultures; but, Freedia’s unabashed performativity lives in the mainstream in New Orleans. The throng of women dancing around Freedia is equally performative. A sort-of performance that ostensibly works to subvert gender norms and hierarchies through dance; albeit, similar to other ostensible examples of gender performativity, the “Sissy Bounce” reappropriates the very genres and scenes that work to exemplify masculine hierarchies.

Dee, Jonathan. “Sissy Bounce, New Orleans’s Gender-Bending Rap, NYTimes, “The New York Times Magazine”. 22 July 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/magazine/25bounce-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1