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How to turn the knob
Did you know about me and dancing?
Early in the spring that my marriage was ending, our friend Katie told me about a thing called Dance Church. Katie was, is, a friend to both me and Brandon — a server at Delancey off-and-on since late 2009; “Kate-illy” in the words of baby June — and she knows that I love to dance. Here is a fact that says everything about me: when I was eleven years old, I won the dance marathon at Joey Fleischaker’s bar mitzvah. It often surprises people to learn about my love for dancing; I’m told I seem too introverted to gyrate in public? But Katie had seen me at the restaurant after service, late nights when we’d turn up the stereo to make the cleaning less onerous. So she suggested I try Dance Church, an exercise-class-slash-dance-party that took place every Sunday morning at a dance studio across town.
It was early 2016, and the timing of her suggestion was incidental. I don’t think we’d told her, or much of anyone, that our marriage was unraveling. But for me, the timing was not random. That spring I was trying a lot of new things: non-monogamy; dating a woman; asking for what I wanted and believing I could have it. Dance Church was an easy yes. They cover the mirrors, Katie said, and the lights are dim. The music is Drake and Tove Lo and Justin Bieber and Beyoncé, turned up very loud, and there’s no “front” of the room. The teacher, a trained dancer, stands in the middle and leads the assembled attendees loosely through some movements for roughly 75 minutes. It’s like going to a club, except it’s daylight outside and no one is trying to touch your ass, or take you home, or even really look at you.
I went. I did it nearly every Sunday that year, and the next, and the next. I bounced and swayed and I did embarrassing things with my arms, I mimed like I was inside a bubble, I flailed and I sweat and I humped the floor. Some Sundays, the room would be so full and so hot that you’d have to be careful not to slip on a smear of someone else’s sweat. It was disgusting, the closest I’d ever been to so many people’s bodies at one time, and at the end of each class, I couldn’t wait for the next.
Before long, I brought Brandon with me, because he also loves to dance. Then I brought my mom. It is a real spiritual awakening to watch your mother wag her hips to Flume’s “Say It” (Clean Bandit Remix) between a lithe and hairless man in a gold mesh tank top and a heavily tattooed person in a t-shirt reading THANK GOD FOR ABORTION.
There is always a point about fifteen minutes into class when I think I’m going to die of exertion, but then a nice tingle rises up in my chest and ripples out through the skin of my arms, and for the remaining hour I alternate between forgetting I have a body at all, thrusting various parts of that body in various directions, and tearing up with gladness that this place, this thing, exists, and that I have shown up for it. I couldn’t have articulated it before, though I think I’ve known it since the bar mitzvah dance marathon: dancing in a crowd of people gives me access to a quality of aliveness that I can otherwise find only by scattershot means. Something opens, and it’s my body that turns the knob.
In her essay “Wild America,” Melissa Febos writes about discovering a similar state within herself as a child — or not a state, I should say, but more like “a deep well at my center, a kind of umbilical cord” linking her to something large and wild. She writes:
[The] channel was not always open, and what opened it was not always predictable: often songs and poems, a shaft of late-afternoon light, an unexpected pool of memory. . . . It was often possible to open the channel by will, an option I found both terrifying and irresistible. I would read or think or feel myself into a brimming state — not joy or sorrow, but some apex of their intersection, the raw matter from which each was made — then lie with my back to the ground, body vibrating, heart thudding, mind foaming, thrilled and afraid that I might combust, might simply die of feeling too much.
I danced through my separation, through beginning to date Ash, through the finalizing of my divorce. Brandon came less often, now that he had June on Sundays. But my mother still went most weekends, and Ash began to join us. Meanwhile, Dance Church got bigger, outgrowing the smaller of the studio’s two rooms and adding classes on other days of the week in other venues and cities.
Then the pandemic happened, and the last thing it seemed we’d ever do again was dance indoors with 100+ strangers — except they found a way, miracle of miracles, to move classes online. At first the classes were live, so on Sunday mornings at 9:58am, we’d be rushing to dig out the HDMI cable and hook up my laptop to the TV. We danced in the living room with the rug shoved to one side, through Internet outages and assorted tech glitches, crying in disbelief that this was how it was now, the only way we could dance “with” other people for the foreseeable future. It was as joyful as it was nightmarish. They made on-demand classes to supplement the live ones, and we took them sometimes, but not often. We didn’t dance much. It was like that, being in lockdown — we got tired of everything, even what had once made us feel good.
That said, there was a period in late 2021 when Ash and I devoted a couple of months to learningthe choreography from the video for Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” because the apocalypse was/is nigh, why not, YOLO.
(For the record, I did not attempt the backwards roll at 1:27. I will never be Robyn. In truth, my style of dance has always been more controlled exorcism than choreography. I don’t really want to learn steps or combinations; I don’t want to think that hard. I don’t actually want to think.)
What I’m saying is, during the pandemic I danced sometimes, not a lot. Not like before. I went to class in-person a couple of times when it first started up again, but it felt dangerous still, even with vaccination required for entry. I wore an N-95 mask, surreal and wrong-seeming dance garb. The channel remained shut. I did say yes, though, when I was invited, along with a group of other longtime regulars, to be a video ad for Dance Church’s online platform. The theme was Midnight Disco, and they dressed us accordingly, and then we danced on a stage while cameras circled us like sharks. Can you find me? Waldo (👋) is wearing a white lace-up crop-top with a magenta sports bra underneath.
Two Sundays ago, Ash and I went back to class. Ash suggested it. It had been many months. I was iffy, and even more so after Ames gave us a rough time the night before. In the car on the way to class, I told Ash that I didn’t want to talk to anyone, that I wanted to put on blinderslike a carriage horse, go in and dance, and leave immediately. But when the first song came on, when the bass kicked in, I changed my mind. I was ready. At some point I looked around the room, mid-dance, and the thought hit me: Holy shit, we’ve all survived it — a statement both true and untrue, surely, because the pandemic is not over. But we’ve decided to dance together anyway.
“Dancing is a big deal in the midst of institutional collapse,” Ross Gay said last fall in an interview in The Nation. He was talking with the brilliant Sara B. Franklin about his latest book Inciting Joy, which is about the potential for sorrow, when shared and acknowledged, to give rise to joy — and for that joy to be “an ember for or precursor to wild and unpredictable and transgressive and unboundaried solidarity.”
I was—and am—curious about how we might survive the collapse we’re in the midst of. We’re really going to need to know how to study the practices we already have that have built into them—maybe are actually borne of—structures of care. Like dancing. . . . Being in proximity with each other’s bodies and listening and paying attention and getting our different rhythms in the same space set up together. Or pickup basketball. Built into these things there are all these sorts of ways that no one can have everything, and that you cannot do it by yourself.
There’s a part of Dance Church, about three-quarters of the way through each class, when when everybody lies down on the floor and closes their eyes for the duration of a song. It’s an opportunity to be still, to catch your breath. This is your daydream, the teacher says. The song is usually a slower, reflective type, and while it plays, the teacher steps carefully among us, fanning us with a t-shirt. It feels strangely nurturing and intimate, like being put down for a nap in preschool. (I am a creep, though, and usually lie there with my eyes open. I like to stare at the massive chandeliers on the ceiling until their lights sort of burn out my vision, until my eyes water, until I am mesmerized. I find it very relaxing.) If I am lucky, the song that plays is something like Bon Iver’s “8 (circle),” which they haven’t played in years, but I still remember the morning when they did. It feels to me like a song designed to make a person feel. Maybe it is the actual sound of Justin Vernon’s channel opening? I might also describe it as music for depressive people to have sex to. Do you know it?
What the heck, I’ll just embed it:
I would be useless if I listened to a song like that all the time. Likewise, I cannot, and would not want to, live permanently in the feeling I have when I’m dancing. It is not a state that permits long-term visitors. But I don’t think the point is to live there for good. I think the point is to find the knob, whatever form it takes, and to figure out how to turn it — and to put yourself occasionally, if you’re willing, in a crowd of people who can help.
Despite the name, Dance Church has nothing to do with religion. See: https://go.dancechurch.com/
I wrote a whole book about it, in fact: The Fixed Stars.
What I was going for: https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0316/0503/1052/articles/17759881_1370439129683216_2711213927039093588_n_533x.jpg?v=1587400141
My mom stayed with Ames while we went to class. Thank you, Mom.
Please, read the whole interview: https://www.thenation.com/article/society/ross-gay-inciting-joy/