She steps forward with her head held high, hand in hand with her dance partner, as they stride across the broad expanse of the Blackpool Dance Festival floor, surrounded by legendary ballroom and Latin dancers across generations of the sport. Her eyes are coated in thick glitter and fake lashes, her costume shimmering in gold. Her name is Arlene Yu, and she is a librarian.
In May, Yu took a week-long vacation from her job at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and travelled to Blackpool, England, to attend the largest ballroom and Latin competition in the world, representing the United States, New York City, and every dancer who started dancing later in life. Our magazine recently sat down with the Over 50 Latin Blackpool finalist, to discuss dancing, her career, and how the two often come together in the most interesting ways.
What was it like being in the Blackpool final, representing the United States?
In 2018, when it first happened, we really wanted it but we didn’t dare believe that it would actually happen. The entire final was kind of a dream, and I think I actually sort of lost focus because I was so out of it, I was so tired from the entire day. This year, we knew there were people in the field who had beaten us at other competitions, and so, we were kind of prepared to not be in the final. But this year, I really felt like I lived every moment, I was fully there for every single round. It was really indescribable to feel like we actually managed to do this, that last year wasn’t a fluke, that we actually are this good. Of course, when I look at the video, it’s not necessarily the feeling I get. [laughs]
Just to hear our names called out, to hear that we’re representing the United States, and to know that there are people at home watching, to know how difficult it can be for a US couple to compete against European couples.
At Blackpool, the floor is almost twice as long, and they will put 24 couples on the floor at a time. The ceiling is so high, and you don’t normally get that in the US. Except for BYU Nationals or USA Dance Nationals, you’re dancing in hotel ballrooms with low ceilings.
At Blackpool, you’re dancing, and there’s Brian Watson watching you dance. The front row is almost all former champions. There’s Melia, there’s Brian, there’s Carmen, and I have to not let that distract me. The music is so different, and you kind of have to throw yourself into this Lawrence Welk-ish atmosphere that you never get in the US at all. It’s just a really amazing feeling.
How did your ballroom dancing career begin?
I picked up ballet as an adult, but I got a pretty severe back injury, and I wasn’t dancing for about six years. I realized I was really bored, and so I started social dancing first, as a way to get back into a form of dance that was less physically demanding. I believed that I would not be competing — I recognize that I’m very competitive, and I’m very type A, so I wanted dancing to be this space that was not like that.
Fairly early on, I was talked into competing by my coach, and I danced Pro-Am, though I could never really afford to do more than a few competitions a year. Then I was approached by an amateur who asked if I was interested in dancing Am-Am. I was like, “Well, I’ve never done that, and it sounds interesting.” Eventually, I realized I did want to take my dancing in that direction.
In what ways does your ballroom world interact with your professional world?
When I first started dancing, both ballet and ballroom, I never wanted to call myself a dancer. I didn’t feel legitimate. There wasn’t a moment when I suddenly felt like I could call myself a dancer, I just realized how much of it I do, how of it is in my life, how much space I make for it, and how I think about it all the time, and that’s when I started claiming it. But it took years, and years, and years, maybe 12 or 15 years of saying, “Oh, well I just take dance class,” or “Oh, well, you know, I just compete sometimes.”
I had always separated dance from my professional life. Every time I talked about, or someone heard about it at work, I felt a bit like an animal in a zoo. They’d start asking questions, and they would get this look on their faces, where I just sort of felt exoticized, made other, made different, in an uncomfortable way. It’s hard enough being a woman of color in the workplace.
I think it wasn’t until I decided to go to library school, that I explicitly wrote in my application that I wanted to work as a dance archivist, that I sort of put it out there that I wanted to work with something I cared deeply about. That’s when I began to integrate the two pieces of my life. It’s been very gratifying — I mean, it’s still a little weird at work because people want me to come in full costume, and I’m like, I’m not getting up four hours early in order to get ready for you! [laughs] At the same time, it really informs my practice. The dancers that I interact with, they understand what I’m saying, and I understand their point of view.
How did you begin your career in archives?
I started training as an archivist when I realized that every job I’d ever held involved the same skill sets, the same things I was always gravitating towards — organization, representation of information, a love of researching.
I had about 15 different careers before this career, because I tried a lot of things on. I worked for affordable housing for New York City for a year, I worked for a record company for a year, I worked for an architecture firm for two years, I worked in investment banking for many many years, but not as an investment banker.
Why do you think collegiate dancers should learn more about archiving?
Dance is such a new subject academically. In some respects, it’s one of the oldest art forms, but as a recognized art form in the US, it’s extremely new. Having archives, having actual papers and raw materials and primary sources that people can research is a part of what makes dance legitimate. If you are a collegiate dancer, you might want to know where it all came from. There are various articles and blog posts circulating out there, and I don’t know if they’re true or not. I haven’t done the research. But I’d like to see more people doing that and engaging with it, and taking a step back from the industry. I think that will help it grow, and be taken more seriously by our wider society.
What advice do you have for collegiate dancers who worry about starting dance later in life?
I mean, it’s not really an interesting question to me, you know, whether you’ll ever be at the same level as Yulia. The real interesting question is how good can you be, what you can achieve as an individual. Everyone has to face the slow deterioration of your body as you get older, and it’s really more interesting to ask, in the face of that, how good can you actually get? It’s a much more fulfilling question. Sometimes you don’t realize what you really want to do until later in life, so just be patient with yourself. Keep doing what you want to do. Have faith that something will happen.
When I started really taking dancing seriously, my mother said to me, “I’m really sorry I didn’t let you take ballet.” But, there’s no guarantee that, if I’d begun dancing as a child, that I’d still be dancing today. I could’ve been severely injured, I could have hated it. I’m dancing now, and that’s all that matters.