How to Dance in Tight Places

Artwork by Candace La

by Crystal Song

I still think about this, and maybe, if you were there, you’ll remember. Union Station, Sunday night at the end of another DCDI, a delayed bus that won’t get us back to New York until long after midnight. Shuffling into line with the other disgruntled passengers, we sit on our suitcases, too exhausted to do much more than complain. All but James, who — despite having competed in every single newcomer event that weekend — still has the energy to coax Anna into dancing on the empty parking spot, trying out the new hustle moves he’d picked up at the pre-comp social. The rest of us exchange looks, then duck under the stanchions to join them.

On the bus that night, my teammates asleep around me, I find a video that Jonathan had surreptitiously taken on my phone. “Uptown Funk” barely audible in the background, I reach for Sally’s hands and invite her to dance; by the time the camera returns to us, she’s leading me instead. Sam and Patrick dance their chacha routine — “Silver champs, right there,” Jonathan crows, making them smile — while Maija leads Norman in the hustle. Others are just grooving, separate but together, laughing harder with every shoulder shimmy.

Ballroom is rarely thought of as an improvisational practice. We choreograph routines and run them again and again; we strive for the satisfaction of a seamless catch, a sharp hit, a perfectly synchronized transfer of weight. And when the studio is closing at the end of the day, we hug — this was one of the first things I learned about ballroom people, that before saying goodbye you have to hug like you haven’t seen each other in a year and won’t for another — and say, see you…like, tomorrow. And laugh a little, knowing how silly it must seem that we can never just say goodbye. When I lived in New York, I took this for granted, that we would always be back the next day. During my first few months of grad school, the hugging was what I missed the most.

It’s strange to be writing, when we’re only at the beginning of this. Stranger to imagine what’s to come, to prepare for it, or take in the damage that’s already been done. Berkeley and New York, the two cities I call home, are now under orders to shelter in place. So far, no one I know — including, by some miracle, the part of my family that lives in Wuhan — has tested positive. By the time you read this, maybe, that will no longer be true. The COVID-19 pandemic is a brutal bitch-slap to the incompetency of the current administration, a wake-up call for every way in which we were unprepared for a public health crisis of this magnitude. It reminds us that we need to be thinking about health writ large: the health of our infrastructure, our education system, our labor protections, our underfunded arts and humanities — in other words, all the things that sustain us. 

Staying at home right now is a privilege, when so many undervalued and underpaid workers — whose jobs are, paradoxically, deemed essential — are facing greater risks, going out every day. And when so many of our friends — dancers, creatives, freelancers — have been abruptly cut off from their sources of income. It’s strange to be writing, and it feels so indulgent. But one of my historian friends says that it’s important for us to claim our space in collective memory — so the historians of the future, trying to “read past the noise of the Trump administration,” can find us there.

So while my cities are emptying out and shutting down, I’m thinking, and maybe you are too, about everything social distancing has taken from us. There are so many things we can do while we’re stuck at home, and so many things we can’t. God, I miss hugs. I miss taking someone’s hand to get into frame. The way we can turn a bus delay into an impromptu dance party: switching up roles, learning new moves, celebrating our wins, and making the most of our losses.

It’s what I love most about ballroom people — how we’ve learned to pivot at a moment’s notice, to floorcraft our way through life. Because we don’t just choreograph routines and stick to them. We take them apart and put them back together in new configurations. We dance in mirrored studios and chandeliered ballrooms, but we also dance in bus stops and subway stations, basements and boba shops; our bedrooms and rooftops, this week.

For all we perfect and refine those routines, we also know, by necessity, how to improvise. Dance is a practice with world-making power. It enables us to transform our surroundings, to make room where there wasn’t before. It’s a survival skill, a creative negotiation within constraints, and a constant flirtation with failure. The dance scholar Danielle Goldman writes about improvisation as a practice of freedom, a way of navigating the “tight places” delineated by race, class, sexuality, time, skill, and circumstance. Even within the most formalist of partner dance styles, we find and make room for play: hold a hit for an extra beat, groove hard to a song we love; we let our spines get a little looser, and we laugh at our shared mistakes. 

The political potential of improvisation, Goldman argues, comes from navigating tight places even as the walls close in. Every time we dance, it’s different; every new song or partner is a chance for something new to happen. They give rise to moments she calls “exquisite” — they reveal how “bravery, and choice, and surprise, and trust” can erupt from within the confines. These are the moments I want to write about: the ones where the boundless energy of a newcomer brings us to our feet, where we smile at our partners while sharing a dance we know is electric without needing to say a word.

Things are changing so quickly; just last week, my brilliant friend Natalia had to remind us that missing one competition season is not the end of the world. “Taking care of each other is, simply put, what our community does,” she wrote. “Let’s continue doing so.” And care doesn’t require that we know each other well — how many times, she said, have we hosted dancers from other cities and welcomed them to our home competitions? We know how to care, and we do it every day; Liquid Lead practitioners Trevor Copp and Jeff Fox define partner dancing as “the fine art of taking care of each other.” Because success is never guaranteed, care becomes all the more critical. “You and your partner look at each other in your costumes, ready to go,” my friend Billy once said, “and you think, how lucky I am to be about to do this beautiful, amazing act with you. Let’s do everything we can, and show these people what dance means.” And as we go out on to the floor, “it’s like, holy shit, and then, but I can do this, and then, I’m glad I’m doing this with you.”

How can we thrive — or at least survive — in isolation, especially when our practice relies so much on intimate proximity? In one sense, we can, and we already are. But I also want to problematize the idea that we must unfailingly demonstrate resilience to any and all conditions. I’m not saying, by any means, that we should not be social distancing. Rather, I’m thinking about how this moment invites us to envision the much-needed transformation of our institutions — to reckon with the failures of empathy and imagination that have led us to this place. Academics have argued — with important implications for the many collegiate members of our community — that we should do a bad job of shifting to online instruction. The more we prove ourselves able to adapt and persist under suboptimal conditions, this line of thought goes, the more we will be asked to sacrifice during future crises at the hands of those who benefit from disaster capitalism. If improvisation is a survival skill, what does it mean for us, as dancers, to perform our ability to persist?

But I don’t think that’s all dance does. It shows us how to survive, but it also illuminates the ways in which the world could be better. We may not all be experts in medicine or policymaking, but we have some sense of what we owe to one another. We know in our bodies what society is coming to recognize: that as we face an uncertain future — which, if neoliberalism and climate change have anything to say about it, will only get worse within our lifetimes — we have to think collectively, relationally, lovingly. Partner dance tells us that we do nothing alone in this world. Every movement is an exchange of energy, a shared undertaking. And it tells us that life is about more than just being alive. We need pleasure and touch and music and friends with whom we can make mistakes. We need hugs. We need the safe spaces of our studios and our partners’ arms and the bars and boba shops we go to together after a long, hard day.

I write a lot about how our practice is never separable from the other ways in which we move through the world. And right now, I’m thinking about how to take up everything we’ve learned from one another: how to make shit up on the fly, to feel the music and get into the groove. It’s impossible to see what comes next, but in writing this, I’ve almost convinced myself that we’re ready for it. Like, holy shit, and then, but I can do this, and then, I’m glad I’m doing this with you.


Crystal Song is a PhD student in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. She has been a member of the collegiate ballroom community for the past five years, and is always looking for folks who are willing to share their experiences in interview form or collaborate on longer-term projects; shoot her an email at crystal_song@berkeley.edu if you’re interested! Currently sheltering in place with her cat and wishing you all very, very well.

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