The Movement

“Shout-out Black women, shout-out trans folk, WE SEE YOU.”

The dance floor erupts in jubilee. The DJ proclaims these affirmations from his booth, situated amidst the electric crowd. The stage behind him is alive with Black and Brown and queer and gender non-conforming and women-identified patrons — these identities are physically raised in the space, highlighting the party’s intentional centering of non-White, non-cis, non-heterosexual identities. While not an exclusionary space, it is made very clear that this dance floor is not for or about them, a rare find in our increasingly gentrified landscape.

Hips gyrate and backs release with little vigilance for unwanted gaze; hands, unless invited, are kept within personal bubbles. Pearly white flashes pierce through the dimly lit space. It smells of coconut oil and shea butter and Egyptian musk and melanin-rich delight. The beats slip from Baltimore club to Selena to Afrobeat to House to 1990’s R&B throwbacks and everything in between. This could just be the closest to heaven I may ever get.

On the Facebook event page for this particular edition of ASCENDANCE, the first rule reads: “No sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other regressive bullshit behavior in this space”. While this rule laid the foundation for the gates of Eden, it carries with it a sinister undertone: that without an explicit outlining of rules, the social contract of the modern dance floor may fall somewhere outside these values.

Across multiple public spaces, we, as a society, are struggling to uphold social contracts that validate and protect all communities. The dance floor is not exempt.

Another friend of mine, Ann Glaviano, DJs a bi-monthly dance party called HEATWAVE! at which she spins only tunes recorded between 1957 and 1974. She says the music of this era brings people of all ages and backgrounds together; they can’t help but dance to it. “And they don’t just sing along — they sing with their arms,” she emphasized, throwing her arms up gleefully. “They stop caring what they look like. The whole room starts riding this wave together.”

I stood next to her one night, surrounded by boxes of vinyl records — from this vantage point, I witnessed a unique story unfold. As the crowd sank deeper into their cocktails and their bodies, the dance floor awakened. Spectators evolved into showstoppers with the humble aid of liquid courage. Eyes connected. Shoulders grazed. Bodies brushed in passing, ignited with carnal splendor. With each new record, the dance floor erupted in shrieks of familiar joy, as though this collective nostalgia could trump any fear or worry of the present moment.

DJ Purple Turntable

It is important to note that HEATWAVE! is a consent-enforced dance party. Yes: there are posters and signs describing what consent looks and sounds like –reminding everyone of their collective responsibility for the social atmosphere of the space. Simmering with eroticization, power, and greed, our country is no stranger to the plague of white patriarchal rape culture; its forefathers wrote it into the socio-political fabric. And in the context of the modern day dance floor, all that is precarious about this culture is consolidated and constricted with such depth that it is suffocating. As an act of resistance, these carefully curated spaces strive to make room for liberatory breath.

Across multiple public spaces, we, as a society, are struggling to uphold social contracts that validate and protect all communities. The dance floor is not exempt. These DJs are nightlife activists — they bypass the comfort and pleasure of White, heterosexual, cis-gendered men and have chosen to displace their privilege for the comfort and safety of those moving on the margins.

Dance, in its purest and most distilled form, is the marriage of body and spirit. These days it is the closest I come to prayer. To dance is to find solace in the body and to engage how spirit moves through flesh, with intimate proximity. The process of socialization prescribes labels, manners, should dos, and can’t dos on to the body — dance is my chosen Sharpie with which I cross out, edit, rewrite, and redesign my body for me. I use dance to unlearn and rehumanize.

Fingers in Light

It is with this approach that I advocate for dance education in my current role at Dancing Grounds, a dance non-profit in New Orleans that believes that all bodies should have access to the healing powers of dance. As a teacher, I am all too familiar with the policing of Black and Brown bodies within school walls — from the moment they enter their kindergarten classrooms, students are taught that their bodies are not fully theirs: “Sit down; Stop talking; Walk in a straight line; Don’t touch that.” Trust that in the forty-five minutes of dance instruction they give, dance teachers use every second to offer them tools to reclaim their bodies, their space, and their identities. Through dance, students explore spatial awareness, create responses to current happenings in their world, investigate the multiple manners in which emotions can be carried on the body, and find a breath of agency amidst their otherwise prescriptive daily schedule.

To dance is to find solace in the body and to engage how spirit moves through flesh, with intimate proximity.

I am too often reminded that most of our students will graduate from this dance floor to find a new one awaiting them with less space or time or patience for their exploration. This dance floor will dictate what lyrics they can sing, movements they can perform, and space they can occupy. This dance floor will be teeming with lascivious stares and unwelcome advances and white people screaming the n-word at the top of their lungs because if their favorite rapper can, then they should be able to, too. At what point did they settle for one too many beers and just the right lack of spatial awareness? Since when did “I can’t/ don’t dance” become a social norm instead of the igniting spark for genuine curiosity on the technique and history behind every movement? Rather, this curiosity gets coat checked at the door — traded in for a distant gaze and wonderment.

Source: © Dancing Grounds/Instagram

Artists have the unique role of creating new worlds through which an audience enters, escapes, and, post-performance, often uses this ephemeral world as fodder for comparison to reality (agency within reality not considered to be a prerequisite). Within this context, we hold immense power – we can ‘be the change we want to see in the world.’ Our art is the vehicle through which we offer new perspectives on how the world could and should operate. It is through our artistry that we heal ourselves, each other, and the spaces we dare occupy. It is through this artistry that we reclaim that which has been bastardized and warped. It is through their artistry that DJs have paved and will continue to advance this movement.

But, what is this movement?

It is a call to action. It demands accountability for the ways in which we move through space. It nudges our imagination to think within and around existing structures to create safe spaces for every body in our community. This movement interrogates the body and seeks the upheaval of power and comfort – frankly, if you’re positioned in proximity to power on any socio-political spectrum, this movement is not for or about you, but rather invites you in and asks, “May I have this dance?” It implores you to apply some rigor to your nightlife routine — to think critically about how you move and consume space. This movement calls on us all to abide by a social contract that assumes discomfort as a necessary condition for growth and evolution.

The movement is intersectional.

The movement is messy.

The movement is wading through healing waters.

The movement is here — returning us all to our inner child god.

The movement does not ask permission.

The movement simply asks us to move.

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