Dancing Through New York in a Summer of Joy and Grief

In the case of Andrew Avilá, the dancer I met at A Party Called Rosie Perez, one form of movement inspired the other: dancing. The pandemic despair that had initially paralysed him had been overcome by the summer when he “marched the whole city” in protest of police brutality.

We all felt a sense of relief as we joined together to “scream in the street and sweat” before we started any choreography. D.J.s dropped beats below a viral video of a woman named Johnniqua Charles, who was being held in handcuffs by a security guard who wouldn’t let her back into the club to retrieve her purse.

“You’re about to lose your job,” she crooned in a convincing rhythm, a hook worthy of repeating: “You’re about to lose your job.” Several officials were placed on administrative leave as a result of the nationwide demonstrations. Charles, on the other hand, had a ferocity that went far beyond simple reforms. Even if she was not allowed to move from here to there, she would keep moving, ingeniously, right where she was in her song and dance.

The market is eager to subdue this kind of anarchic energy and take control of it. Many well-off people have made money by misrepresenting popular dances like twerking and the tango for their own gain.

There is a history of this dynamic in America’s clubs and cabarets that Jayna Brown has documented. Ruth St. Denis, an American vaudeville performer who has been dubbed the “mother of modern dance,” built her reputation by adapting Egyptian and Indian dance fantasies to the turn of the century stage in her book “Babylon Girls.

” With her success in the 1920s, Irene Castle, another white dancer who grew up performing in vaudeville, made money by translating Harlem chorus girl Ethel Williams’s dances for high-society parties. Carmen, a Portuguese-born Afro-Brazilian samba emissary of the mid-20th century, was a popular choice. According to Brown, Black dancers had to work “behind the scenes” except for a few exceptions.

As hard as it may be to admit, we may need to be taught how to treat our bodies with curiosity, courage, and tenderness from time to time.

However, the problem of credit and remuneration has not been solved by modern technology’s increased visibility. Challan Trishann, Erick Louis, and Marcus Greggory were among the TikTok dancers who organised a creative strike in support of Megan Thee Stallion’s most recent single in late June. When they saw the dances they created go viral on white social media influencers, they were fed up.

The song’s clear instructions for the dance, hands on my knees shakin’ ass, were difficult to follow because the song’s star dancers were absent. The strike made it clear who was in charge of the app’s innovation. “Yes, of course, people have been watching Black folks dance since they forced us over here as slaves on slave ships, to the invention of the TV, etc., but social media provides a wholly different level of access and possibilities than before,” said N.Y.U. musicologist Matthew D. Morrison on Twitter. Almost no effort was required.

The “social” in social media is not the same as the “social” in social dancing. Face-to-face accountability is absent when working online. Outsiders and amateurs were once required to risk embarrassment in order to participate in the real-world encounter. Even Irene Castle had to allow Ethel Williams to see her sweating. It is impossible to master the dance floor by simply copying a piece of choreography.

Admitting that we sometimes require instruction in treating our own and other people’s bodies with curiosity, courage, and tenderness can be difficult. An upper-middle-class Black American upbringing inspired conceptual artist Adrian Piper to create “Funk Lessons: A Collaborative Experiment In Cross-Cultural Transfusion.” “GET DOWN AND PARTY. TOGETHER.” was her catchphrase when she toured the country from 1982 to 1984. In her essay “Notes on Funk,” she reflected on the event.

After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard, Piper found that many of her fellow avant-garde artists struggled to reconcile her intellectual prowess with her unwavering commitment to Black popular culture. However, her lifelong study of rhythm and blues and her experience as a “go-go girl” provided her with an equally rigorous education.

She began by “demonstrating some basic moves” and then “rehearsing, internalising, rerehearsing and improvising on them” with the audience as her assistants and observers. She sprinkled in tidbits of musical and political context here and there.

Her audience was able to learn from “a kind of fundamental sensory ‘knowledge’ that everyone has and can use” as a result of the successful collaboration. The experience provided a safe haven for unpleasant emotions that can arise from social dancing, such as “annoyance, self-consciousness” and “embarrassment,” as well as “contempt” and “shame,” all of which we usually try to avoid or scrub clean.