Dancing the Body Politic

As an organizer of an event taking place immediately after 2016 Election Tuesday and all the feelings associated with it, I felt like I should say something about our event this week. These views do not reflect the views of Wednesday Night Hop or its team and are just my personal reflections.

I think we’re so used to dancing out of a sense of joy that we sometimes forget that it arose out of an enslaved and oppressed community who had precious little to dance about. They danced as a common language, they danced to celebrate their humanity, they danced their pain and longing and elation and escapism.  The African-American vernacular dance culture inspired and sustained its communities through two world wars and a literal Depression.  In a nutshell, this dance has seen much worse.

I don’t want to minimize anyone’s pain or discouragement or grieving process. If you need to be home holding your loved ones, or out on the street protesting grave injustice, or just sipping chamomile tea and watching cat videos until the Internet runs out, I understand and support you. But there may be some people who want to dance, who want to see some friends, give and receive hugs, and forget for 3 minutes, or memorialize for 3 minutes. I’ll be there for them with speakers and microphones and probably a little history lesson similar to this post. Self-care is important, even if that care comes in the form of community.

In “Dance Floor Democracy” by Sherrie Tucker, a chapter is devoted to investigating the communities and cultures in the geographic region of the Hollywood Canteen, that famously “integrated” dance floor that sustained a national memory of the G.I. Joe and jitterbugging starlet as an example of American exceptionalism.  She writes:

Route 2
Hollywood to Santa Anita Assembly Center, twenty miles east,
March 27 – October 27, 1942

On the other hand – if you and I were among the revelers at the Hollywood Canteen grand opening, we probably would not know about a starkly different (and perhaps even more startingly similar) articulation of swing music, jitterbugging, military, and notions of American belonging taking place only twenty miles to the east at the Santa Anita Assembly Center. At this (barely) reconverted race track, the Starlight Serenaders, a swing orchestra formed by forcibly removed Japanese American Southern Californians, played for dislocated dancers bidding farewell on eve after eve of further dislocation to more remote and longer term internment camps.

In operation from March 27 to October 27, 1942, Santa Anita was the largest “assembly center” among those that sprang up on fairgrounds and race tracks to temporarily house the ninety thousand Isei and Nisei evacuees slated for the camps. People slept in horse stalls. Over a four-day period in mid-April 1942, 5,204 residents of west Los Angeles, including Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Westwood, joined the nearly 6,715 temporary inhabitnatas who had arrived over the previous two weeks at the Santa Anita Racetrack.

In imagining the Hollywood Canteen as part of an interconnected swing-dancing landscape at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, we might conceive the latter as a tiny community gathering. Nonetheless, according to George Yoshida, the Sayonara Balls held under the stars and in front of the grand stand accommodated up to two thousand dancers at a time, many more than could be served at the Hollywood Canteen (where militaryguests were limited, by fire regulations, to five hundred at a time), or for that matter any but the more extravagant Los Angeles ballrooms (the Hollywood Palladium housed six thousand).

As evacuees were relocated, musicians among them formed new bands in new internment camps. By the time the Hollywood Canteen opened, Nisei teenagers had already jitterbugged to the music of the Jive Bombers at Manzanar, two hundred miles to the north. Santa Anita would cease its operation as an assembly center three weeks after the opening of the Hollywood Canteen, but Nisei musicians and dancers, including former Hollywood residents, continued to produce and participate in swing culture–nine out of the ten permanent camps had swing bands.

While participation in swing dance culture is complicated by Japanese-American youth’s complex relationship with American identity, I think it’s safe to say that dance in part provided a sense of comfort and normalcy in a changing world. And, in fact, may have been a way for those youth to declare their participation, voice, and identity in a nation that rejected their bodies, their voices, and their equal citizenship.

The revolution will have dancing, as they say.

Again, this is not everyone’s cup of tea for dealing with emotions, but if it is, you’ve got precedent for it.  There is a place for you here, if you want it.  As a Japanese-American who grew up knowing the stories of the oppressed who bolstered their humanity and their dignity with the appearance of normalcy, I say: keep going.  As a member of the LGBTQA-etc. community who knows what disappointment felt like in 2008 when their “blue” state decided that my identity and love were insubstantial, but swallowed that setback along with an historic president, I say: keep going. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice (Rev. Theodore Parker).

And for everyone else?  Whether you “won” or “lost” today, practice kindness and empathy. Despite rampant, blatant racism and discrimination, the Savoy Ballroom was integrated, meaning that white patrons were allowed in without argument. And don’t we hope and wish that they extended a bit more understanding and compassion to that community as they did so? If you are in the privileged position of getting the President, Congress, Proposition, or Measure you wanted, now is the time to be sensitive to those who hurt. Be aware of your actions and words when treading amongst communities that suffer disproportionately under new rules.

Keep going, if you can. Keep dancing, if you can.  And leave the light on for others, if you can. I’ll see you tomorrow.

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