On Becoming

by Crystal Song

“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” the famous contemporary dancer Martha Graham said. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Placing my hand on the small of my back, I watch the spine slide into better alignment. In the mirror, shoulder muscles rearrange themselves, arms spread like wings, curled fists unfurl in greeting. Palms touch and fingers fold together. Practice.

Here — on the studio floor with its familiarly sticky spots; holding my partner’s hand, caught between our imperfect reflections on each mirrored wall as we move through our routines — it’s easy to forget everything else. When I’m dancing, and especially when the dancing is good, I can almost sell myself on this story: that the rest of the world falls away when we take someone’s outstretched hand. That there is magic in the act that transcends all else. This is what brings me back to practice every day, hour after hour. Like Graham, I know what it is to never feel satisfaction, always striving: for more seamless movement, sharper hits, a better placement, respect and recognition.

When I joined the Columbia ballroom team five years ago as a freshman, I thought I was only looking to dance. I became a follow, and I loved it. I bought my first dress and learned how to put on fake lashes. I danced with a girl, for the first time, at a dorm bachata party. I competed in Smooth with another Chinese American woman. I almost burst out laughing when, as the head of our home competition in 2017, I was informed by our disgruntled chair of judges that this year, she would allow us to engage in whatever “gender garbage” we wanted.

And I’m always asking myself what it means to be a queer woman of color in this community, one that preserves the sanctity of the white, heteronormative partnership even as it offers so many rich and subversive alternatives to it. I’m thinking about how I make myself complicit in that preservation. In a sense, as I invest more time and money and energy into my dancing, I am doing everything right. In a sea of similar faces, my presence as a femme, Asian American follow doesn’t make waves. It’s hard to admit to myself that I’m being rewarded for performing correctly. That time and money and energy I spend is already so all-consuming, and in the ceaseless pursuit of excellence, I can forget that there is anything other than the dancing itself. To remember takes effort, and it’s uncomfortable. Some—even most—of the time, in the studio or on the floor, I don’t.

I can’t help but feel lucky: it just so happened that ballroom worked for me, and I’m still here. I know so many people who left the community for reasons I can strongly relate to, and so many more who never felt welcome in the first place. But I love this thing that we do. I think the best way to love something is to work to see it grow.

Dance, like any creative endeavor, is never politically neutral. When we enter the ballroom community, we bring how we have learned to speak, walk, dress, feel, act towards others — our unique ways of being in the world. And as in any creative endeavor, we’re never left unchanged by our participation. Dance disorients us: our posture, our body-sense, the multiplicity of ways in which we think and move. Like a good partnership, in which lead and follow act and react in turns, we’re engaged in an ongoing, transformative dialogue with the dancing itself. And partner dance is always about the partners, the people. It’s the people — like my own partner, whose fire and musicality have redefined Asian American masculinity in my mind; the queer women who embrace their partnerships not as a last resort, but a powerful statement; the newcomers and veterans alike who dedicate countless hours to mentorship and recruitment efforts, who cherish their own experiences in the collegiate ballroom community and hope to pay them forward — who make me believe that ballroom can always be better.

That sense of collectivity is essential to any way forward. Away from a ballroom dancing that would prefer we shrug and say that this just is how it is: judges who maintain their esteemed status despite well-known histories of harassment, organizers who discriminate against same-sex couples, abusive partners and predatory teammates, costly barriers to access for low-income students, the almost complete absence of non-Asian people of color on many teams.

I’ve often heard it said that ballroom just is a step behind the rest of the world, and I’ve never understood why we’re willing to believe that. Partner dance by nature compels us forward, pushes us to imagine otherwise. Dancing with someone else necessitates a level of trust and vulnerability that we’re hard-pressed to find elsewhere in our deeply impersonal lives. I’m interested in the us that Graham sees on the march. I’m invested in the queerness of the divine dissatisfaction.

What if we were as dissatisfied with the state of ballroom at large as we are with our own dancing? If we love this thing, shouldn’t we share it with as many people as possible, and work together to dismantle exclusionary practices? And on the other side of that coin: what if we were as excited about the possibilities of everything partner dancing has to offer as we are about our own competitive progress? Dancesport was never intended to be queer, or a space marked by the successes of non-white dancers — so, clearly, we’re already getting somewhere.

What we do matters — has real-world resonance. When we engage in same-sex or reverse-role dancing, we practice new ways of relating to others. When, as instructors and mentors, we adopt language that is flexible and inclusive — rather than pigeonholing anyone into a particular role — we model a new way of doing partner dance, one that allows for a more expansive and nuanced understanding of what it is to lead and to follow as equals.

And when we ask difficult questions about what it means to participate in something that can be deeply exclusive — yet, simultaneously, something in which so many of us find love and acceptance — we get better at navigating a complicated world, where black-and-white judgments are often so much less interesting or productive than getting with the gray. We could begin to imagine a better ballroom dancing, one that isn’t threatened by creativity or change. We could start talking together about who we recruit and retain (or don’t), how we teach and talk about dance, why we sometimes defend practices that make ballroom seem inaccessible and antiquated to outsiders. We could nurture a community that values our history and our progress, our solidarities and our differences.

Right now, I’m fascinated by practice itself: the idea that we come to the studio every day and learn and learn again what it is to have a body, how to move with each other, always, as my mentor says, becoming the dancer. If being a dancer is something that must be learned — if we are always in that state of becoming — there are so many directions we might pursue. We could do ballroom the way it has always been done, or we could look at it the same way we scrutinize ourselves in the mirror: with diligence and love and gratitude, and an eye towards all that can be improved. Our community — like our dancing, and ourselves — always a work in progress.

Crystal Song has been a member of the collegiate ballroom community for five years. In 2018 she graduated from Columbia, where she served as a long-time board member and (thankfully) one-time chair of the Big Apple Dancesport Challenge. She will be starting a PhD project on partner dancing this fall, and is always looking for folks to interview or collaborate with — feel free to reach out on Facebook if you’re interested! When not at the studio, she is usually looking for tattoo ideas on Pinterest, drinking boba, or thinking about Detective Pikachu.

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