Thursday, September 12, 2013

Tap Dancing Drummers and Other Female Percussionists (Part II)

So cinema of the thirties and forties provides us with collective memory of these women performers, but also with a presumption of them as dancers, as visual performers -- but not as percussionists. Fast forward seventy years: Most cinema viewing now takes place in online venues like YouTube. On YouTube, much as in Vaudeville, users not only produce the content, they also determine marketing strategies -- for example, whether and how to try to make a video go "viral." In July 2013, Coalition Drum Shop in Wisconsin posted YouTube video of a white-haired woman sitting at one of the store’s drum kits performing “Wipe Out,” complete with drumstick twirls. The video, which the drum shop had given the unabashedly ageist title “Grandma Drummer,” quickly went viral, garnering millions of views and extensive media coverage.

“Grandma” was soon identified as Mary Hvizda, a local woman who had been stopping into the drum shop periodically to play the kits. Hvizda, it turns out, is a former professional rock drummer -- but not a grandmother. “It’s different,” Hvizda mused, when asked about her new moniker by a local TV station. “I can’t get used to being called Grandma.” At sixty-three, Hvizda is the same age Karen Carpenter would be if she were alive today, and she is six years younger than 1960’s Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker. Dottie Dodgion might be surprised to see how things have turned out -- there is a "gimmick for selling an old lady" drummer after all: viral video. Although the public has become accustomed to watching video of older men drumming, the image of an older woman playing rock drums still strikes us as novelty.

Since I began this post with "Tap Dancing Drummers," and we've now brought it around to online media: What comes up these days when you Google "tap dancing drummer?" Several of the top hits are for Los Angeles band "He's My Brother, She's My Sister." The band includes a female percussionist, Lauren Brown, who both plays drums and tap dances -- with the performative focus on percussion rather than dance. Her performance may initially read as novelty, and the uncommon visual of a woman dancing on a bass drum no doubt contributes to the band's popularity. But when you listen to the music, the tap integrates musically with the rest of the band. Sometimes you don't notice it at all. In other words, unlike most of the swing-era Hollywood tap dance movies, the tap percussion is primarily there to be heard.

Of course, most percussionists aren’t stars of viral videos or successful indie rock bands. There are many more percussionists performing in the “real world.” But in addition to helping make “stars,” online video has given female percussionists in general more exposure -- not only as individual performers, but as critical mass that inevitably gains the attention of corporate sponsors. The pros and cons of that being what they are, it is at least an indicator of and a contributor to the visibility of female drummers as a subset of drummers, rather than as individual novelty acts.

So female percussionists are, one hopes, increasingly heard as well as seen, and social media may help accelerate this phenomenon. But as any user of YouTube or Facebook knows, bias does not evaporate online. As do women in any traditionally-male field, female percussionists still struggle to be taken seriously. Despite the mainstream familiarity of drummers like Meg White of The White Stripes, young women still lack role models, which contributes to self-doubt as to whether they can ever be “as good as the guys.” And female drummers are subject to public perceptions that a conflict exists between drumming and femininity -- a perception which they themselves may share. In a 2004 article for The Guardian on drummer and author Helene Stapinski, Clare Longrigg wrote:

To most of us, it is baffling that a woman would want to play drums in the first place. The image of a drummer is of a geeky bloke in shorts with arms like a weightlifter. Nobody pays attention to drummers - except other drummers. “A girly girl would not want to play the drums," Stapinski concedes.

Meanwhile, teen female drummers engage in online discussions about their struggles for acceptance as percussionists and challenges to their gender image. The discussions provide a window into the perpetuation of stereotypes to which the teens are subjected. But they also function as support networks, which hopefully help the young women recognize that their choice of musical instrument isn’t really all that baffling.

Speaking of teens -- whatever happened to that awkward teen with the mallets? Though I’ve performed percussion-influenced live visuals in festivals and clubs for many years, I haven’t performed drums or sonic percussion publicly since college (except for this). But in the past few years, I’ve gotten back into playing recreationally. People now seem to be even more surprised than they were back then to learn that I play. Perhaps I’ve become more of a girly girl over the years? Perhaps in my middle age I’ve become so genteel that I no longer resemble the stereotypical drummer? I wonder how people would react if I instead claimed to tap dance...

It may be many years before playing a particular musical instrument -- or taking up a particular type of dance --- is understood as simply an artistic interest, not a gender trait. For percussionists, it’s probably going to take a lot of women and a lot of paradiddles. But let's look forward to the day when no percussionist feels the need to explain whether she is a girly girl -- and no percussionist feels the need to explain whether she is a grandma.

Back to Part I....

Amy Alexander is a media, computing, and audiovisual performance artist and Associate Professor of Visual Arts at UC San Diego. She has also made films, worked on TV shows, written software, worked as a Unix systems administrator, managed record stores, and a few other things middle age entitles her to forget. Besides percussion, she’s played violin, guitar, bass, piano, and tuba. She has never tap danced.


  1. Great article - and loved the clips! Lots of resonances with women clog dancing, which also slipped under the radar as virtuosic percussion (do talk to Dr Caroline Radcliffe in the UK about this). And thoughts about commercial reception of drummers reminds me of situation with male vs female electronic artists.

  2. Thanks Sarah! I found a video of your & Dr Radcliffe's "Revolution" clog dance composition. Great work! (It's here if people want to check it out.)

  3. Ah, another Indie band that uses tap dance for percussion:
    Tilly and the Wall.
    Could be the beginnings of a trend!