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For most of 2020, I passed the pandemic alone in my studio apartment. I turned 33, then 34, and my body seemed to grow old without bringing my spirit along with it. My right knee was clearly deteriorating — I couldn’t sit cross-legged at my desk the way I used to — and because I wasn’t wearing makeup, I could track each age spot as it bloomed to the surface. When I pulled my hair back in a tight ponytail, I could see a patch of scalp. But in that same period had my life evolved at all? Had I met anyone? Surprised myself? Stemmed the tide of collective crisis? My mother often urged me to dance, just a little, by myself in the kitchen — “It’s good medicine,” she said, “despojo.”
I’ve never known what “despojo” means, precisely, though it’s a word I use with some frequency to express a physical craving for spiritual catharsis: “Necesitamos despojo, quiero despojarme.” Or, watching a friend gain momentum on the dance floor and begin to enter a self-forgetful trance: “Esoooo! Des-po-jo!” My Spanish-English dictionary has only the verb (to despoil, to shed leaves) and the plural noun (the spoils of war, mortal remains, rubble, waste). Google Translate: dispossession.
It’s strange to discover that a word I associate with rejuvenation technically has more to do with death and disaster. I guess “despojo” comes to me, via Puerto Rican Spanish, in a register already worked through by ritual, by generations of people who’ve had to scavenge something good from the many losses of forced migration. The “despojo” I’ve desired articulates a paradox. In order to repossess the body, it’s necessary to dispossess it; in order to feel alive, it’s necessary to get in touch with what’s already dead. But when I say “despojo,” I don’t always mean to sound so serious. Sometimes I mean that I want very badly to pin somebody to the club wall with my butt.
Even though it’s better, as my mother recommended, to dance alone than not at all, the “despojo” I’d been dreaming of was social. In isolation, I’d felt myself stiffen into a form so familiar it had come to seem inescapable. I wanted my body to influence and be influenced by other bodies — this time not as a vector of disease but as a vector of pure feeling.
This impulse has a history. According to the French historian Philippe de Felicé, “Eras of greatest material and moral distress seem to be those during which people dance most.” A medieval dancing mania swept through Europe following the height of the Black Death, when between 500 and 800 people died every day in Paris and Saint-Denis, and when alternating waves of flood and drought caused widespread famine. In her book “Choreomania,” Kélina Gotman argues that the medieval frenzy was really a mix of phenomena transpiring over centuries — intensified midsummer celebrations, municipal feasts meant to placate the masses, traditional pilgrimages that surged with new enthusiasm. But historical accounts leave little doubt that the boom in public dancing had something to do with the proximity of death. In 1348, two monks traveling through Paris observed a band of people in the street frolicking to the music of drums and bagpipes. When the monks asked the revelers why they were making such a scene, they replied, “We have seen our neighbors die and are seeing them die day after day, but since the mortality has in no way entered our town, we are not without hope that our festive mood will not allow it to come here, and this is the reason for why we are dancing.”
Occasionally, the dancing itself was fatal — there were those who dropped dead from exhaustion, and in Utrecht, 200 people danced on a Mosel bridge until the structure collapsed and many drowned. Folklore with roots in this period, like “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” warns of rhythm’s seductive power. So do later tales like “The Red Shoes,” in which the young girl who wears them must have her feet cut off to halt her cursed dancing. That story frightened me as a child, but it also shaped a lasting preference. When I go out, I find myself reaching for wine-colored suede ankle boots with a Cuban heel, as if to court the ecstasies of enchantment.
I thought of those shoes when New York City’s second pandemic spring began to buzz with fantasies of freedom. Slowly, then quickly, people I knew lined up for the vaccines. By Memorial Day, the subways were crowded and the bars noisy again. We stumbled into the season’s audacious promise exhausted, delirious and seething with desire. I listened to Stevie Wonder’s “Love Light in Flight” on loop, as if the song — we will fly forever and one hour — could restore the time we’d lost together. I followed a dozen D.J.s on Instagram. I texted my most festive friends. I mapped out New York City — birthplace of bugalú, salsa, hustle, vogue, breaking, flexing — and traced possible paths through a series of summer parties. When I opened Uber on my phone, the corporation’s new tagline amplified the siren song: “The world’s opening up again. Where to first?”
Back then, the summer seemed luxuriously long. But our reckless rush to make the most of it told another story. Even before the sudden surge of the Delta variant, we knew whatever freedom we’d chosen to feel would be hyperlocal, most likely temporary and possibly destructive. We were right to think it might be our only chance. At Papi Juice’s Pride party, when Destiny’s Child came on, the incandescent anxiety of our wish to be well made the bridge sound like a spell: I’m doing so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so good/Good, good, good, good, goooood. That very day at the Gotham Jazz Picnic in Central Park, where our feet disappeared in the dust kicked up by our Lindy-hopping, I danced with a widower in white linen who called me by his dead wife’s name. At Coney Island in late July, the celebrated B-boy turned D.J. Tony Touch overstayed his boardwalk set and called out to his remaining audience: “If you’re still here, I want you to act like it. I want to see that.”
We are still here. We are trying to find out what it means to act like it. Bourgeois propriety often seems to prefer a clear distinction between grief and jubilation. In Puerto Rico, 19th-century white criollos condemned the Afro-Indigenous practice of the baquiné, in which children who died very young were dressed in flowers, sometimes lace, and mourned with all-night vigils of drinking, drums and dancing. But what always struck me as most mortifying was not the intensity of that display but the possibility that those of us left living do not love life enough to deserve our survival. I don’t believe in deserving, but I do believe we owe the dead a little dancing.
The first night I went out for real was the Friday before the Puerto Rican Day Parade. My friends and I rode up from Brooklyn to the Bronx Brewery for A Party Called Rosie Perez, to hear DJ Laylo, Sucio Smash and Christian Mártir play together live for the first time since 2019. I don’t like the parade — the corporate sponsorships, the political ring-kissing — but I like how all the city’s Puerto Ricans seem to turn up at once, rowdy and rebellious, for the annual roll call. And I’d been to A Party Called Rosie Perez twice before, so I played along when a woman I didn’t quite recognize — long blond braids, little crystals at her tear ducts — threw her arms around my neck as soon I stepped inside the door. Later, when I passed her on the way to the bathroom, we locked eyes and both laughed: “I’m not your girl, right?” “No — I liked that you faked it though!”
None of us seemed to remember how long to look an unmasked stranger in the face, whether to speak up or simply drift into the orbit of someone else’s rhythm until touch could take over. For me, the tension broke when DJ Laylo dropped the early crossover house hit “Show Me Love” and the off-key strain in the voice of Robin Stone — she had the flu at the studio session — cut through our second-guessing with the desperate power possessed by the sick. Words are so easy to say. …/You’ve got to show me love. It felt good to make our human needs known against the electronic grind, to remember machines could be our creative allies rather than our overseers. It’s been so long since/I touched a wanting hand. The government had failed to protect us and lied about the gravity of our collective condition. Don’t you promise me the world/All that I’ve already heard/This time around for me, baby/Actions speak louder than words. The only language that could reach us now would be the language of bodies assembling in tight quarters to show love, even if we fumbled when we reached for one another.
The really skilled salseros had gathered on one side of the stage, and some of us wandered over to watch, caught between envy and admiration. I could see one woman’s training in her perfect spotting. A lanky dancer in a red bucket hat had incredible improvisational range, looked absolutely natural, even with the hint of show business I could see in the clean angle of his elbows. Andrew Avilá turned out to be a dancer for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s movie “In the Heights,” which premiered the night before — a South Bronx Puerto Rican-Colombian who grew up dancing salsa at home with his mother before he turned professional. In previous generations, his great-grandfather crafted and played the folk guitar called the cuatro, his uncles played congas and almost everybody danced at the Palladium Ballroom during the midcentury mambo craze. Whatever genius he possessed did not begin, and would not end, with him.
I liked him best dancing with a radiant woman in a red crop top, loose black pants and waist beads — she could have followed the turns I saw him spin other partners through, but instead she was eliciting his rhythmic playfulness, tremors traveling between their torsos. At one point — it wasn’t salsa anymore, but merengue — he tapped out the beat on the small of her back, and I saw her toss her head back and laugh with delight. I laughed, too, when I asked her name and it turned out to be just two letters off from my own, as if I’d dreamed myself into her dancing. Later, I asked Corinna Vega to remember that merengue moment. She couldn’t locate it precisely — of course not — but she remembered the feeling: “the beauty of not knowing what happens next, the beauty of messing up and just like, you’re still going.”
Especially now, we’re tormented by the volatile future, the anxiety of adaptation. The uncertainty of the pandemic seems merciless. But dancing activates the pleasure in this roiling field of possibilities, makes it feel as if there will always be another chance to choose. To reset the connection. To find opportunity in error. Getting ready for her first night out in over a year, Corinna had wavered — “like, do I still got it?” Once she was back in the moment, she remembered that dancing is not something you’ve got. It’s something you have to let get you.
Christian Mártir took over the turntables for the last set. Palo crashed in, a ceremonial music, Congolese originally, developed in new directions in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The drums in palo are made from hollowed-out logs. I’d seen — even learned a little — the corresponding dance, which is low to the ground, athletic, forceful, exhausting. Palo summons the dead, pounding the earth until they wake up and enter the living through the feet. At the party, it didn’t seem strictly necessary to know the details of this tradition or its historical trajectory in order to appreciate the primordial power of percussion and the human voice, our original instruments. To hear the persistence of Africa in the Americas.
“When you play that, you have a spiritual intention,” Mártir explained. “It’s almost like people would say it’s disrespectful to play at the club. …” He trailed off, shook his head, began again. “I can get the crowd hyped on whatever record’s on the radio,” he said. But to play something our grandmothers, great-grandmothers might recognize — “that, to me, is beautiful, because you’re connecting all those generations, bringing them into the same space.” He paused. “Nothing’s guaranteed, right?” And I think he meant to say that the music might not have survived but did. We can’t always afford to be precious about preserving the original context — better to get in where we fit in.
In 1975, Cuba’s Orquesta Ritmo Oriental released a relentless charanga whose title makes a bold claim: “Yo bailo de todo.” I dance to everything. I’ve always aspired to that universalism, even though I know the dances of the world are infinite, intricate and often impossible to replicate without a lifetime’s immersion. But between June and August, I committed to the cause — every time the electric slide erupted at a cookout or club, I fell in line, and whenever a hand was extended to me, regardless of my feel for the form, I took up the proposition.
I followed the tangled lines of music around my neighborhood, finding stoops overflowing with hookah smoke and Latin trap, yards with high wooden fences where stringed instruments scored ceremonies I wasn’t meant to see. When I passed teenagers blasting “Gasolina” on skateboards, I dropped to give them five or 10 seconds of Y2K perreo from across the street — “OK! I see what you got!” — and sitting at my desk with the windows open, I let myself get up to dance to Doja Cat when the car idling at the curb sent her new single floating toward me like a bright balloon.
Biking through Prospect Park, I pulled over whenever I heard live drums, this time accompanied by a long wooden flute, and when a few women got up to dance — OK, cumbia — I tried to match their precision and restraint. For at least two minutes, the six of us strangers sustained the percussive line with our clapping and kept the chorus alive — ay, turura — while the flutist popped his knees “Single Ladies”-style to his own melody, and I could see that even the Hawaiian-shirt hipster who had paused at the periphery to watch was making the shapes of the words with his lips.
Nightclubs intimidated me (the scramble for tickets, the epileptic lasers), but still I found myself caught in the seam of nightlife between Bushwick and Ridgewood, where, making an early escape from the crush of Elsewhere just after midnight, I could hear the parties emanating from other rooftops — do you believe in life after love? — sign and symbol of all the lives I’d never live. Sometimes friends canceled last minute, spooked by the virus, and I’d have to brave the club alone. At Nowadays I squirmed into the dense knot of bodies holding down the indoor dance floor, and it felt as if the D.J., spinning hard techno, had us locked in the shuddering chamber of a bomb shelter.
I wanted love but settled, instead, for the brutal thrill of anonymity — a cold can against my back, the sting of a woman’s straight hair across my face. At the Brooklyn Mirage, where the crowd all faced the D.J. in supplication to a distant god, I turned against the tide to watch the rows of ravaged faces revealed by the breaking dawn, and their fingers all made the same sign, as if searching out a thousand secret sweet spots in the sky. I was relieved, almost giddy, to be released into the open panorama of the streets — bits of bright trash floating here and there, an impersonal ballet.
Even when I didn’t find the feeling I was cruising for, I never tired of the sensuous display: a pearl-skinned punk with green finger waves and a septum ring winding her waist with her eyes closed, a pair of dirty blondes in gray tanks and chains jerking along to music so metallic it made my molars hurt to hear it. On an East Harlem sidewalk, I watched a father take his daughter out to work the well-worn groove of “Calle Luna Calle Sol.” The slightest gesture from him was enough to imply the music’s many directions, and his feet never faltered, as if navigating by memory alone the blue cobblestones of the old city the song describes.
Had New Yorkers always been this beautiful, or had isolation turned my sight psychedelic? I was dazzled by all the details I couldn’t catalog. Part of the joy of social dancing, especially out in a broader public beyond the family home, is that we will never be able to identify all the faces that spin by, the hands that nudge our backs to pass. Nor can we name our exact relation to those other bodies. I suppose the usual word is “strangers,” but there’s always the possibility that they turn out not to be — that we visit the same dentist, that our cousins are co-workers or that we take them home and they become beloved. There’s a euphoria to all we will not know but might, the way the whirling out-of-reachness of the world makes it seem more real.
Nevertheless, I lamented all the names I didn’t catch, the interviews I didn’t schedule and, most of all, the gestures that escaped description. There were mornings I woke up empty-headed, trying to remember the twisting wrist I’d found so bewitching hours before. Social dance is improvisational and collective by definition, so unless it has been recorded — and even then, from what angle, for how long? — we must rely on memory to reconstruct the shifting mandala of figures on the floor, the flow of sensations that ripple through, exhaust and energize the body. After all, social dance is not social if it is merely observed; it has not done its work if it does not incite the desire to participate. And participation demands a certain intensity of presence that runs counter to remembering.
The anthropologist, choreographer and performer Katherine Dunham spent her life in service to the movement traditions of the African diaspora, studying anthropology at the University of Chicago, conducting fieldwork in the Caribbean and establishing a celebrated dance school in Midtown Manhattan all before 1950. Even she struggled to write well about dance: “Verbalization is apt to end in sterility, and the aesthetic experience” of actual dancing “eludes explicitness with a tantalizing facility.” But the difficulty of describing social dance, like most difficulty, is also due to lack of practice — and we would all have more practice if social dance enjoyed greater respect.
In Plato’s “Protagoras,” Socrates argues that dancing girls have no place in philosophical gatherings. So-called Western culture has carried on this derisive attitude: In the traditional hierarchy of art forms, social dance doesn’t even rank. It’s entertainment at best, vice and social scourge at worst. This judgment squares, conveniently, with the fact that modern social dance has been developed most richly by girls of all genders, teeny-boppers and the racial underclass. Dunham was well aware of the stigmatized status of social dance and lamented the “injury done to the American Black youth in the omission from school textbooks” of those artistic achievements, “which would have elevated his being and spirit rather than categorically depriving it.” That’s one reason it mattered, for Dunham, to attempt “verbalization,” no matter how clumsy or insufficient.
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- Dive Deeper: See all our stories about the reopening of N.Y.C.
Dunham was a scholar, and much of today’s best writing about social dance remains confined to the academic disciplines of anthropology and performance studies. In the mainstream media, well, there’s always party reporting — often an entry point for young femmes who aspire to more prestigious beats.
The great Jamaica Kincaid got her start by writing then-anonymous “The Talk of the Town” columns for The New Yorker, describing, for example, lunchtime dancing at La Marthinique, a Black discothèque in Midtown with a “dance floor that always seemed freshly sanded” and women who looked as if they styled their hair with “a great deal of Dixie Peach Bergamot.” She reached beyond the constraints of the column to recall her schoolyard at Friday recess in Antigua, where the girls would “grab each other around the waist” and whirl around chanting “tee la la la, congo” until the teacher chastised them as savages. The delight she once took in transgressing respectability politics — “How I did want to be a little savage!” — showed up, reanimated, in resistance to The New Yorker’s house style. She rejected the magazine’s stilted, imperious “we” by putting her own body on the line.
On The New Yorker’s expense account — she documented her charges, once, in the column itself — she toured the city’s many subcultures generally governed by strict unspoken rules of comportment, from a luncheon at the Regency Hotel honoring the legs of the showbiz dancer Cyd Charisse to a party where the “older young white people” in attendance eschewed Talking Heads in favor of “any Motown record from 1965.” All of these scenes — not just the white ones — were in some sense cross-cultural for Kincaid, and the pretext of journalism lubricated her passage through them. But she was also carried by her feel for a wide range of rhythms, rhythms she knew how to follow through new elaborations.
Journalism and social dance have always seemed linked to me — forms of structured improvisation for stepping out into a world full of potentially hostile strangers. My friend Sheila Maldonado took me to see Tony Touch for his birthday boat ride on the East River. She interviewed him 20 years ago for Urban Latino. “We’re not stalkers,” she reasoned. “This is our job.” On the top deck I spotted the celebrated choreographer Danielle Polanco, her hair tied up in a black bandanna, fooling around for her friend’s camera in the light rain. I’d been in love with her loose waist, her multilingual hands, since I saw her in the video for Omarion’s “Touch” a dozen years ago. In that moment, it was tempting to understand the world as a dazzling web of intergenerational synchronicities. As we passed beneath the Manhattan Bridge, I talked with a few dancers who had spent the year in Tony’s weekly Zoom room, cameras on in kitchens with kids running through, mourning one another’s many losses. Then suddenly one of them turned to me, her gaze cool and her communication clear: “Don’t write some [expletive].” I promised I would not.
Throughout the summer, municipal and corporate advertisements have conflated the reopening of nightclubs with the reopening of hearts and minds, as if through sheer wishfulness we might manifest some kind of euphoric restitution for the losses we’ve endured. This “we” is itself wishful, implying we all suffered equally and will celebrate our survival together on some mythic dance floor “Uptown,” where Prince promised “White, Black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’.” Many of the city’s dance floors remain deeply segregated. This isn’t necessarily a lament: There can be pride, pleasure and protection in the self-containment of marginalized communities. But the segregation on display today is also evidence of our society’s stark failure to integrate public space — schools, neighborhoods — or to ameliorate the inequality that often corrupts existing opportunities for joyful encounters across race, class and sexuality, to say nothing of age and ability.
I don’t mean to imply that such spaces have never existed or to underplay my own desire for them. One of the pandemic’s unexpected pleasures has been the dancing in the streets (cue Martha and the Vandellas) that has claimed plazas and parks from Herbert Von King in Brooklyn to Washington Square in Manhattan despite police-enforced curfews. This kind of dancing dramatizes the city’s true diversity, forces simmering tensions over who belongs where into open conflict and enables chance encounters. My mother’s longtime friend José Mateo remembers the streets of his South Bronx childhood as a multicultural welter — “Jews, Irish, Black, Hispanic, you name it, Italian, everything in one block.” All the kids would gather to practice the latest dances beneath a neighbor’s open window where the radio rained down.
But scenes like that are exceptions to the rule. Movies like “Footloose” romanticize and whitewash the very real American history of racist laws limiting public dancing, which have roots in the 18th-century bans on African drums and 19th-century limitations on Indigenous gatherings imposed by the Court of Indian Offenses. Near the turn of the century, the messianic Ghost Dance spread rapidly among the tribes of the West, prophesying the return of the dead and the end of settler dominion. The U.S. military responded with the notorious massacre of Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee. New York’s Cabaret Law — which prohibited dancing in restaurants and bars without a special license — was on the books for nearly a century between 1926 and 2017. Throughout the ’80s, police arrested breakers who held dance battles in the street. Agents of the state still tend to characterize public dancing as “a riot” waiting to happen, but I think the real threat has less to do with disorder and more to do with the potential power of coordinated movement.
For Andrew Avilá, the dancer I met at A Party Called Rosie Perez, one form of movement galvanized the other: Initially paralyzed by pandemic despair, he recovered his desire to dance last summer, when he “marched the whole city” to protest police violence. It was a relief “to scream in the street and sweat” with strangers, to tune in to the pulse that precedes any choreography. Around the same time, D.J.s dropped beats below a viral video of a woman named Johnniqua Charles, popping her hip at a security guard who had her in handcuffs and wouldn’t let her back inside the club to collect her purse. She freestyled, half talking and half rapping through the injustice of her predicament, until she locked into a persuasive rhythm, a hook worth repeating: “You about to lose yo job.” In response to the nationwide protests, a few authorities were in fact placed on administrative leave. But the energy embodied by Charles aimed far beyond modest reforms. Her song-and-dance asserted a fundamental claim to freedom of movement: Even if she was not permitted to move from here to there, she would keep moving, ingeniously, right where she was.
The marketplace is eager to appropriate and subdue this kind of anarchic energy. No one owns tango or twerking, but plenty of well-positioned people have found fame and fortune quoting the dances of the underclass out of context. Jayna Brown, an African American studies scholar at Pratt, has chronicled the history of this dynamic in America’s clubs and cabarets. In her book “Babylon Girls,” she shows how the American vaudevillian Ruth St. Denis, often considered a mother of modern dance, built her reputation by adapting carnivalesque fantasies of Egyptian and Indian movement to the turn-of-the-century stage. Irene Castle, another white dancer who came up through vaudeville, established a lucrative business in the Roaring ’20s translating dances she learned from Harlem chorus girls like Ethel Williams for high-society parties. At midcentury, the Portuguese-born Carmen Miranda was the favored emissary of Afro-Brazilian samba. “With a few exceptions,” Brown writes, Black dancers “had to work behind the scenes.”
It can be hard to admit that we sometimes need to be taught how to treat our own bodies, and the bodies of others, with curiosity, courage and tenderness.
But the visibility afforded by contemporary technology hasn’t really solved the problem of credit and remuneration. In late June, a group of TikTok’s Black dancers — which grew to include Challan Trishann, Erick Louis and Marcus Greggory — called for a creative strike organized around Megan Thee Stallion’s latest single. They were tired of watching the dances they invented go viral via white influencers who usually failed to credit them as choreographers. But with key dancers sitting this round out, copycats struggled to come up with any choreography at all, despite the song’s clear directions: hands on my knees shakin’ ass. The strike made it very clear who was driving innovation on the app. Matthew D. Morrison, a musicologist at N.Y.U., analyzed these digital developments in real time on Twitter: “Yes, of course, people have been watching Black folks dance since they forced us over here as captives on slave ships, to the invention of the TV, etc., but social media provides a wholly different level of access and possibilities than before.” An almost frictionless experience.
The “social” in social media is not the same as the “social” in social dancing. Online, there’s no face-to-face accountability. The real-world encounter once required outsiders and amateurs to risk embarrassment. Even Irene Castle had to let Ethel Williams see her sweat. The dance floor cannot be mastered like a phrase of choreography; improvisation demands something more than imitation.
It can be hard to admit that we sometimes need to be taught how to treat our own bodies, and the bodies of others, with curiosity, courage and tenderness. The conceptual artist Adrian Piper, who was raised among upper-middle-class Black Americans in Washington Heights, had this in mind when she designed “Funk Lessons: A Collaborative Experiment in Cross-Cultural Transfusion.” Between 1982 and 1984, she toured the country teaching large groups how to “GET DOWN AND PARTY. TOGETHER.” Later, she chronicled the experience in her essay “Notes on Funk.” Like Dunham and Kincaid, Piper found that her peers in the avant-garde elite had trouble squaring her formidable intellect — she earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard — with her unwavering commitment to Black popular culture. But her experience as a “go-go girl” and her lifelong study of rhythm and blues was an equally rigorous education.
She began by “demonstrating some basic moves,” and then, with the audience along for the ride, “rehearsing, internalizing, rerehearsing and improvising on them.” Now and then, she introduced bits of musical history and political context. When the collaboration was successful, what she purported to teach her audience “was revealed to be a kind of fundamental sensory ‘knowledge’ that everyone has and can use.” But even when it was less successful, the experience provided a holding environment for the ugly feelings sometimes provoked by social dancing: “annoyance, self-consciousness, embarrassment, resentment, contempt, shame,” all the interpersonal funk we usually try to avoid or scrub clean.
Following Adrian Piper, I began to crave a more structured environment that could mediate the social anxieties at play whenever people gather. Someplace I could go alone, sober, and still expect to dance in a sustained way — ideally, I fantasized, without self-consciousness. “Funk Lessons” were no longer on offer, but at my local coffee shop I saw fliers for 5Rhythms, a practice developed by Gabrielle Roth in the 1960s that seemed like a compromise between Piper’s party and the repressed utopic longings of my New Age childhood.
Teachers trained in the technique, who serve as both D.J.s and guides, usher the group through cycles of self-directed movement structured by the eponymous five rhythms: “flowing,” “staccato,” “chaos,” “lyrical” and “stillness.” I scanned the New York website for an open class and chose Kierra Foster-Ba for the Judith Jamison quote underneath her photograph, remembering how I’d seen Jamison’s white skirt fly in old footage of Alvin Ailey’s “Cry.” In my own adolescent experience of modern dance, I’d never developed my technique enough to do justice to that choreography, but it still emerged sometimes in my dancing, rounding my spine or bending my elbows back like bird’s wings.
The class I attended was held at the Joffrey Ballet School’s studio downtown, and I was surprised by the devotional feeling that came over me when I left my shoes by the door and entered the high-ceilinged room where Foster-Ba was setting up behind the mixer. Many of the people sprawled on the floor in wide-legged folds looked like off-duty ballerinas, but I wasn’t scared — sustained improvisation tends to level the playing field, exhausting the advantages of training. It felt good to sink to the ground and roll around like kittens in a litter. Slowly, as Foster-Ba let the beat build, people began to rise, to adapt their stretching to the shape of the music.
When I got tired of weaving between other dancers in the room, I made my way to the windows, stretched my back out on the ballet barres, circled my head in time with the blades of the box fan and traced the shapes of the buildings I could see outside — tall, sweeping arches I followed with my arms. Then I’d dive back in, trying to manage my irritation at the man clapping loudly and offbeat, past two heads of dark waves twirling too fast to tell apart, drawn, always, toward the woman in the gray dress engaged in a lithe duet with her own reflection, like Rihanna in the video for “Work.” A voice emerged from the heavy bass as if to admonish me: Are you really gonna stand there staring at me/all the way from across the room?
At 5Rhythms there seemed to be a taboo against looking, as if locking eyes could break the spell of freedom. All the flickering, avoidant encounters made me feel a little lonely, as if I were the only one listening to the lyrics, the only one rattled by the confrontation they demanded. Later, when I asked Foster-Ba why the dancers seemed to guard their inner worlds so closely, she paused to think before answering: “I think there’s a lot of suffering around not being able to look and actually enjoy having people look at you. I mean, you’ve seen children on the playground telling strangers: Look at me, look at me, look at what I can do! But then it gets socialized: Who do you think you are?”
In 5Rhythms, the goal is to explore movement from the inside, to surprise yourself, to risk strangeness and reach beyond beauty. For many people, reaching beyond beauty requires giving up the desire to be seen — because what else besides beauty, talent or extraordinary grace could justify the intensity of that wish? It pleased me when Foster-Ba said, “You like to dance, and you look like you know how to lose yourself dancing, too.” I’m sometimes praised for a freedom I don’t feel. But it’s true — I don’t mind being seen as mediocre if being seen makes me available to the other bodies in the room. For a moment, I got caught up in a trio with two ballerinas, building an invisible bower of flowered branches.
Before the pandemic, I was just beginning to learn bomba in Puerto Rico, from Lío Villahermosa, who knows a thing or two about the stakes of the desire to be seen as the first man in living memory to enter the batey in a skirt. The batey, in the style of bomba local to Santurce, is the open space inside the circle where the dancer enters alone to greet the musicians and direct the drum in an improvised duet sustained by the call and response of the crowd. In Villahermosa’s classes, amateurism is no excuse. Everyone must enter the batey from Day 1. Everyone must join the chorus: Si no bailo esta bomba/me voy a morir. If I don’t dance this bomba, I just might die.
Going out so much more than usual sabotaged my sleep schedule and therefore my writing routine. My nerves were live wires, and by the end of July, Delta was hard on our heels. But a desperate hunger had taken hold of my heart, and I couldn’t call off the chase. The mundane disappointments I’d suffered on the summer’s dance floors — misrecognition, failed seduction, finding myself at this party when I should have been at that one — only radicalized my demands. Make me feel like paradise, I sang along with Stevie. Give me what I’m missing. At the end of July, I blew off a deadline for Tony Touch’s afternoon set at Coney Island. Both Sheila and I had lost beloved people and places in the pandemic, and we thought it might make us feel more human to touch the shoreline where she came up, to inhabit a familiar history together.
There was a commotion on the boardwalk by the Cyclone that resolved into patterned swirls of dancing as I approached. Llegó el curanderooo — Tony was playing his summer mix, “Sacude,” and I had arrived just in time for my favorite part, when Tego Calderón announces himself as the healer, the witch doctor. I’ve always been good at finding friends in the crowd, especially someone like Sheila, whose movement, carried low in the body but light in the feet, is so beloved to me. But she wasn’t the only undercover Gen X priestess in a plain tank, loose shorts and off-brand sneakers holding down the center of the floor. I was finally able to recognize the dance, not just the music, as New York house.
I didn’t grow up partying to house — millennial hip-hop, mostly — so I found myself faking the footwork by playing around inside a salsa structure. Something about the syncopation makes it feel like a natural fit. “Well,” Sheila said, “house is salsa.” Why hadn’t anybody told me that before? There were a million Puerto Ricans there, and of course they wanted you to know it — the woman dancing next to me had the flag bedazzled on her fanny pack, and I liked the way the figure-eight of her hips made it wave. But Tony Touch shouted everybody out: Guatemala, London, D.R., Orlando, Canarsie. “The whole world is here,” he said, and it felt true — not because of some encyclopedic internationalism but because the cultures the people there had been involved in creating had traveled so far, to Sweden, Japan, South Korea.
There’s really no way to discipline social dancing, because every prohibition becomes a form through which new freedoms are elaborated.
Then there were younger women, mostly white, who had clearly taken studio classes, and one of them, a regal redhead in baggy jeans, helped block the wind so I could light my joint. Later, I saw her dance with an old head in a smooth, high style I slowly realized must be the hustle. When her arms accented the turns, her wrists swirled slightly — salsa — but there was less twist and shimmy in her torso. The dynamism was all in the languid, traveling turns, as if a gust of glitter had blown through the waltz. I could see why Christian Mártir had described the hustle as “what bridged everything — Latin rhythms with disco.” Now and then someone at the edge of the cipher would cut in, and there would be a trio for a minute, weaving like birds finding the right formation to slice the sky.
Later, when I looked up the hustle at home, I learned it was yet another social dance born among New York Puerto Ricans; I was later told it might have developed as a respectable alternative to a slow grind popular with teenagers — maybe the bump. I’m thirsty for that dance even though I’m enchanted by what emerged in opposition to it. There’s really no way to discipline social dancing, because every prohibition becomes a form through which new freedoms are elaborated. There’s still a hint of parody in the hustle’s elegance, an adolescent sendup of grown-up glamour. And isn’t that the way? The head held high, Spanish style, in bomba, or the straight-backed prancing in cakewalk? Whatever’s abstemious in aristocratic ways of moving gets critiqued through flawless mimicry until it emerges enhanced, almost unrecognizable, suddenly irresistible.
At Coney, dances kept emerging, dying and coming back to life in fragments. For a while Sheila got involved in an extended exchange with a beautiful boy — sharp cheekbones, white Kangol — who clocked and matched her vintage footwork. Maybe he learned it at the studio like the white girls, or maybe his parents had been young at the Paradise Garage — either way, he knew how to address her in that mother tongue. There was a live drum playing off the D.J. the way there was on the boat, and a girl in a yellow leotard danced alone in the semicircle sketched by the rhythm’s range; I wouldn’t quite call it a batey, but what else was it? Even though I was at the edge of the drummer’s sight line, I couldn’t resist throwing out a couple of elementary piquetes — embarrassed, a little, when he caught them and hit me back. He knew the language. Most people understand live drums as traditional, which they are, but the mistake would be to situate tradition in the past, on an evolutionary timeline that sees other musical technologies as more contemporary. It is precisely because the drums have survived so long that they imply futures we cannot imagine.
Across Africa, drums once sent messages from village to village, warning of wars and announcing celebrations, and in the vast diaspora — Cuba, Haiti, Honduras, Brazil — they speak beyond time to summon divinities or the dead. Particular percussive phrases invoke particular possibilities. In Indigenous communities from the Amazon to the Caribbean, the shaman’s maraca opens the channel to the spirit realm. The stretched hide and callused hand, the scraped gourd and dried seeds, call out to the scratched record and the fingers dancing over the mixer’s dials. “Tony Touch,” he’s called, “Tony Toca” — and even when the drum is an 808, and there’s no live accompaniment, you can feel the human skin still in the game. Just as the live drums infused the party with a ceremonial energy, the party infused the inanimate world with dance. The wind caught the flowered sheet I held out for Sheila when she emerged, dripping, from the gray sea, and I began to swing my hips with it: “Janet,” she said. Yes, Janet, but also — Yemaya — Isadora Duncan — Sail — Bride — Shroud.
By early August, I couldn’t summon the same abandon. But even at summer’s apocalyptic end, when I stayed at home to cook a quiet dinner with friends, the dance found a way to surface somehow. My friend Will Glovinsky and I were talking about rugs and chairs and paperweights, about the wish to claim objects from our grandparents — in this case, the photo album his grandfather compiled as a Jewish American G.I. in World War II’s European theater. He hadn’t been on the front lines when the camps were “liberated,” but there were photographs of those places in the album, and the terror was close enough to touch. Will remembers his grandfather beginning to speak — he was old by then, in his 90s, his wife already gone — about a dance that was held for the G.I.s and the women who stumbled out, still thin and bald, from that dystopia. The survivors took to the floor with an enthusiasm he would never forget.
I wonder what kind of dance they were doing. The 1940s, American G.I.s — maybe it was swing, even Lindy. Those dances were international, at least in the cities. Or maybe many of the women came from rural villages and were more fluent in local variations of the polka (originally invented, as the story sometimes goes, by a Bohemian housemaid). I’ve never done the polka per se, but that raucous Old World cadence has carried me — almost always drunk and laughing — through the accordions of Mexican norteño. Most likely the G.I.s and the liberated women negotiated among styles, improvised with whatever shared vocabulary they could find. Or maybe they just slow-danced to the records the G.I.s had on hand. Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole. Now I’m singing along to a speculative music that belongs to someone else’s story.
There’s something a little scandalous about the notion of dancing after Auschwitz. We might wish, for those women, rest and recovery rather than an eroticized encounter with foreign men in uniform. But there has never been a program of rest and recovery that could completely restore the soul from genocidal trauma. Who are we to think we know when those women would have been ready to resume the rituals of social contact, to start seeking out joy? Their bodies had been used as automatons to perform unspeakable labors. Maybe it felt good and right to spend — to waste, in capitalist terms — what little energy they had left on pleasure without profit.
The stubborn intensity of that desire fortifies me now, archived alongside other distant scenes of dancing that have reached me secondhand. I never saw my own grandfather dance, but his rhythm is fundamental to the way I understand my own. And when I think of the afterlife, I think of José Mateo’s days at the Saint, an early members-only megaclub for gay men — how the D.J. “might play a beautiful ballad” between the disco sets “and everyone would pseudo waltz,” gliding across the vast, slippery floor beneath the ceiling’s starry dome. Even José can get lost in this collective dream: He can’t always tell whether certain details he remembers come from the wild comparsas of his early years just north of Santiago de Cuba or the many stories his parents told him about them in the years that followed. Does it matter? Technically, our brains aren’t capable of that distinction; either way, the same circuits play the scenes back.
These years of social distancing have been long, but our dances have survived longer years, greater distances, more punishing prohibitions. I can feel even the dances I’ve never danced pulsing gently, as pure potential, in my ordinary movements. One of Adrian Piper’s earliest performances began this way: “I listened to Aretha’s version of ‘Respect’ until I had it completely memorized and could hear the entire song in my mind at will. Sometimes it ‘turned itself on’ without my willing it.” Going about her business “on line at the bank, at a bus stop and in the public library,” she would tune in to that silent channel and begin to dance. And here we are, watching her from behind these words. But we don’t have to just watch. We can do it too.
Carina del Valle Schorske is a contributing writer for the magazine as well as a translator living in San Juan, P.R., and New York City. Her first book, “The Other Island,” is forthcoming from Riverhead. Maridelis Morales Rosado is a Puerto Rican photographer and photo editor based in New York focusing on how fashion reveals aspects of identity and culture.
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