Collegiate Ballroom and Asian American (Be)longing

Crystal Song

A group of nine collegiate ballroom dancers, eight of them Asian American and one of them Black, gathered for a group picture at a competition.
The finalists of the Adult Novice Ballroom event at the 2023 national championships.  Photo Credit: Crystal Song.

The night before the 2023 U.S. National Amateur DanceSport Championships began, we were making bingo cards over steaming bowls of pho. For the next few days, we kept our eyes peeled for what we’d deemed the most likely (and comical) random events that could occur during a ballroom competition. While some squares denoted physical feats (“quintuple pirouette”) or a dash of schadenfreude (“lost shoe on floor”), others underscored the uneven terrain of U.S. dancesport’s racial landscape—one that we, as Asian American dancers, had no choice but to warily navigate (and mine for our own entertainment).

Thousands of dancers vie for titles at this event every year, hosted by the National Dance Council of America and the ballroom program at Brigham Young University. Such institutions have long ensured that hetero- and cis-normative presentation, as well as white (but heavily spray-tanned) skin, remain practically—though not universally—prerequisites for success at the national level. So our bingo cards also included “MC struggles with name,” in solidarity with the Jingjies and Yimengs among us, as well as “racist formation team,” which we got to scratch off when a troupe of synchronized white dancers took the floor to a mash-up of vaguely Oriental instrumentation and “Kung Fu Fighting.” (It ended with the boys in horse stance yelling “Hi-yah!” while the girls knelt in prayer, chopsticks crossed through their high buns.)

I come from and write about a community of dancers for whom belonging in the world of competitive ballroom—in which such performances win national titles without anyone blinking an eye—remains a fraught and elusive endeavor. We enter this world sideways, as part of independent college teams or amateur organizations rather than card-carrying, profit-generating members of a massive American industry. Most of us had no exposure to ballroom beyond Dancing with the Stars before starting as college students—much too late, according to many a professional, to amount to anything beyond the marginal collegiate circuit.

The dancers I know, however, not only train for and win national titles, but also coach local teams, organize competitions, and coordinate community events and resources. In 2019, when the NDCA announced that it would finally lift its ban on same-gender partnerships only to quietly roll back this rule change for the national championships,[1] it was a small but vocal cadre of these dancers who rallied to see the rule change reinstated. Day to day, we strive to make an expensive dance form more accessible: offering free instruction to each other in the same studios where lessons cost upwards of $100 an hour, lending costumes and creating each other’s elaborate updos for competitions. “It’s the generosity,” as my friend Rachel puts it, that sustains this space. For her, this kind of care is “so different than what I’m used to” as a second-generation Asian American at a prestigious university—especially “studying business, which tries to explain the world, and…it would have a very hard time explaining something like this.”

I don’t mean to paint this corner of ballroom in a purely utopian light, however—not least because some do not see its growing presence as a positive. (Another dancer recalled an industry acquaintance seeing a collegiate competition and remarking, in a less than complimentary tone, “It looks like the Asian Open in here…”) Asian American dancers contend with significant limitations as well as allowances as their competitive trajectories chart across the collegiate, amateur, and professional divisions. And the experiences I share here illuminate but one facet of Asian American partner dance cultures, a vein left largely untapped within scholarly and popular discourse until the recent tragedy in Monterey Park. The collegiate sphere offers an especially rich site to explore the multiple meanings and apparent mass appeal of ballroom for Asian American practitioners.

Notably, the “collegiate” label itself underscores the undeniable privilege from which many of these dancers benefit—and, as the community’s demographics make clear, some Asian Americans have been able to achieve competitive success (though beyond collegiate, this might entail seeking white partners or going blonde—presumably in attempts to, if not pass, blend in a bit better within an overwhelmingly white industry). Institutional hurdles for Black and Latinx dancers, in contrast, continue to exert considerable force. Such tensions speak to the contingent terms of racial belonging in and beyond dancesport; Asian Americans—particularly of the college-educated, high-achieving variety—are often propped up as a foil to other minorities, sold as the image of assimilatory success, yet remain subject, as the pandemic has shown, to violence and exclusion.

With all this, I keep asking myself: what else does dancing make available? What other possibilities emerge, through daily practice of this partnered dance form—in ways that challenge and reorganize the white heteronormative dyad—for how we might theorize and embody racial belonging? While it’d be easy to assume that Asian American dancers are driven by the desire to assimilate, our experiences map a much more varied and textured set of relations to the dancesport status quo. Many of us—as competitors, teachers, and organizers—are actively invested in sustaining a space that values reciprocity and openness over profit and elitism. We hope to deauthorize and divest from the industry’s dictates even while, as dancers striving for competitive success, we cannot refuse to relate to them altogether.

Such contradictions are aptly held in the bingo square we scratched off with perhaps the most satisfaction that week: seeing our friends make a national final. And such aspirations keep me invested in asking to whom and how we might belong—less to any nation or within any world defined by whiteness than to each other, in ways equally vexing, transformative, and vital.

About the Author

Crystal Song is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation research on Asian American ballroom dance cultures examines how model minorityness is articulated and negotiated through embodied practice. Her work has been published in Conversations Across the Field of Dance Studies and is forthcoming in TDR: The Drama Review.

[1] The NDCA website includes an account of this rule change and subsequent reversal.