Spotify’s Throwback Thursday playlist was Pride-themed last week. This post is not about how many of the songs on the playlist I had sung (4), choreographed (2), or danced to (7), but even setting the memory of my star* turn as Alexi Darling in the 2009 Vassar College production of “Rent” aside, I associate many of these with very moments in my life: My dear friend and former manager at the dancewear store, a person who does not lose her chill, flying into a blind rage any time “Love Shack” came on the radio. Doing step-claps to “Work Bitch” to warm up before my community theatre “A Chorus Line” in Virginia in 2013. And the boys in my fourth grade class, dressed in T-shirts cut as muscle tanks, dancing on the stage in our multi-purpose room to “Macho Man.” Wait, what?
For a couple years in elementary school we put on productions where each class did a little lip sync and dance to a song from the same decade. In third grade we did the ’60s in tie-dyed shirts and I think my mom did my hair in a bouffant a la Brigitte Bardot. My class did “Pretty Woman” with “choreography” that amounted to all the girls in the class chasing the handsome boy that all of us had a crush on anyway. I have a distinct memory of there being some kind of dance-off audition between him and the boy that all of us thought was gross, who obviously lost, and I won’t swear we didn’t lobby for that outcome. The teachers did Nancy Sinatra in cowboy boots. It would have made for quite the 2017 exposé.
The next year we did the ’70s, hence “Macho Man.” Have you listened to “Macho Man” recently? I mean, really listened? (Also, did you know that the Village People released a Christmas single a hundred years ago in December 2019 that hit the Billboard Top 20? The answer to both of those questions is, presumably, no.) It’s like a minute and a half of “Macho, macho man” and a minute and a half of variants on the phrase “BODY! Don’t you want to feel my BODY?” It is not, by any measure, a song you should trot a bunch of nine-year-olds out to, no matter how much fun they have flexing their chicken arms in front of a bunch of shrieking moms. (Is this my weirdest childhood memory? Is it weirder than when I won a contest for knowing the most about penguins and got to spend an afternoon yelling penguin facts at unsuspecting strangers at the children’s museum?)
Of course, none of us had any idea that the boys were flexing to a gay disco anthem.
Amid our current moment I find myself borne intensely back into memories that I feel compelled to question. Like — did literally nobody notice that they had a bunch of children dancing to blatantly sexual lyrics? (Where were the Mormons? I once got tattled on for taking part in a game of “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” because in Provo they thought that was witchcraft.) Like — what does it indicate that I have a deep personal connection with so many songs considered to be LGBTQ anthems when I’m not part of that community? And for all of those connections to be from happy times that I treasure? There’s something a little off about having only joyful memories of music whose creators have a lot of memories that are less than joyful. The other day a friend shared some thought piece along the lines of “Straight people, check yourself before you go to Pride because you think it’s a fun party.” Relevant? Relevant.
I got a little weepy reading Ben Brantley in the Times the other day on memorable performances. I’m lucky to have seen a lot of really, really stellar live entertainment in my life: “Hamilton” in previews on Broadway (a fact I will continue to mention in every other conversation until I die), Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett with a tuba, Tiler Peck doing “Other Dances” at SPAC, John Cameron Mitchell reprising Hedwig in a knee brace, and some people would probably like me to add Ben Platt as Evan Hansen but that show was awful and I will die on that hill. Anyway, all that and still what I remember most vibrantly is being a fourteen-year-old freshman at the performing arts high school in the fall of 2003, watching the senior boys dance Ailey’s “Sinnerman” from “Revelations.” It was the first time I’d seen modern dance and I felt like I’d exited my body. They were good; I’m sure I’ve seen better since. It doesn’t matter.
Then I thought about my own favorite experiences as a performer and again, in spite of everything — the New York choreographers, the crowd-pleasing musicals with crowd-pleasing numbers, the classic ballets — I came back to the year the head of the RAD program at my ballet school set an African dance piece for our annual recital finale. I was probably twelve or thirteen and was better than mediocre (not by much) at ballet, tap, and jazz, and I fucking loved it. We all did. The boys got to draw makeup “muscles” on their chests and we wore whatever zebra/glitter unitard monstrosity the costume catalogue had on offer that year, shellacking feathers into our buns with AquaNet in fruitless hope that they’d stay put while we flung our heads back.
Our teacher was a Black woman from South Africa who had the perfect mix of fearsome authority and the desire to make us all share in her pure love for dance. You got good in Miss Carole’s ballet, tap, and jazz classes, but you also tapped into joy in a way that most dance teachers aren’t capable of cultivating. Every year we started preparing for the June recital in January, and she told us once that she liked to start choreographing during the layovers on her long trip home for Christmas, from Las Vegas to South Africa, marking out dances in the corner of the airport. Her son studied with us and he always seemed a little embarrassed about the whole dance thing. I can only imagine him cringing next to the gate agent while his mother did a jazz routine with her headphones on.
In college I was a member of Vassar’s dance company. A friend and fellow dancer who left modern and ballet for hip hop and street dance after we graduated recently posted on Instagram about how shocking it was to look back and realize that even at our progressive institution, the dance program was built entirely around historically white forms of dance. (J. Bouey unpacks this big statement briefly here.)
That was a real red pill moment for me (NB: I watched “The Matrix” for the first time like six weeks ago and boy howdy, was THAT good timing!). Much of what else I’ve confronted recently I had already read about in the New Yorker or whatever, got outraged about briefly, and forgot, as most high horse-sitting liberals tend to. This was an incontrovertible truth about a world I lived in for some fourteen years that I never thought to observe. What’s worse: You knew about injustice already and forgot, or you never noticed it in the first place?
As a child, you have no idea that you’re dancing to a gay disco anthem. You don’t think about how it is that your Black South African dance teacher ended up in Las Vegas teaching English-style ballet at a school in an overwhelmingly white suburb. As a young adult, even as I was writing history papers about Black choreographers, it didn’t occur to me to ask why I’d almost exclusively been taught traditionally white forms of dance, or why I hadn’t sought out African dance classes after learning how much I enjoyed the form. I’m 31 and learning more from a month of Instagram memes than I did in years of traditional education.
Anyway, weird time. As much as I’d rather not bear witness to mass death as a consequence of institutional racism, sclerotic bureaucracy, and bad luck (how many bat-borne zoonotic diseases DON’T land on a jetsetter at the seafood market?), I realize that it’s a privilege to live through this moment. And I mean “live” literally, not figuratively. It feels good to unwind the anxiety spiral into a productive line of inquiry. I never wanted to live through a dystopian novel, but I always wanted to live through history. It’s a privilege to watch the world change in real time and to change along with it.
(Also, “Macho Man” is a bop.)
*Reader, I was not the star.