Musings on Asian America, Ballroom Dance, and Dance Scholarship

Arlene Yu

To be invited to write this, to have my identity/ies determine what is said to or asked of me, is nothing new. Permit me, then, to address a personal request with a personal answer.[1]

As I read the news of gun violence and death at the Star Ballroom in Monterey Park in January 2023, my heart sank. A community of Asian American elders—a demographic I’ve either already entered or am fast approaching, depending on whom you ask—had been attacked. That the gunman was also Asian made me brace myself for the inevitable, comments from non-Asian acquaintances expressing relief that it wasn’t yet another instance of anti-Asian violence by non-Asians: a fact more comforting to them than to me. Since the murders had taken place in a ballroom studio, I could also expect well-meaning expressions of sympathy from non-Asian, non-ballroom dancing acquaintances who would assume I was a part of that community, or at least identified with it.

But the Monterey Park ballrooms, Star and Lai Lai, where the gunman was disarmed, are literally a continent away from me, and the Asian American social dancing community has always felt like a separate world from the ballroom I know. 

I don’t theorize or write about ballroom; I dance it to experience the kinesthetic joy of a transient experiment with another person, exploring a physical, emotional, and aural connection, reaching constantly for the serendipitous nirvana of simultaneously being at one with the music, with another human being—and so, with myself. A cycle of call and response that leads to another call, and so on.

I started ballroom dancing to grapple with the aftermath of 9/11 and post-traumatic stress disorder, and ballroom’s ever-elusive possibility of connection drew me in. Competing in a Pro-Am partnership gave me goals and fed my Type A, competitive nature, satisfying me as I ever so slowly mastered a technique that was worlds away from the ballet I’d studied desultorily as an adult. Ballroom’s demands, that I derive my movement from rooting my feet and spine into the ground, and that I suspend my singular responses to the music and trust another human, were life lessons I consciously pursued.

Possibly elderly Asian American woman dancing ballroom: the author competing in 2016 with her partner, Khuong Pham. Photo courtesy: Yang Chen.

The Pro-Am scene could be exploitative and disturbing. In New York, white male professionals—newer immigrants, frequent victims of labor exploitation—were often hired to dance socially or compete with (I assumed) wealthier Asian American women. These women reminded me of my mother’s generation, socializing together and speaking Filipino or Chinese with each other. I was fluent in neither language and didn’t move in those social circles, but because of my face, I was identified (or marked) as a potential customer. I felt the continual need to blow that assumption up: to, in effect, deny my Asianness. I didn’t have the money it takes to pay for hours and hours of a professional’s time each week to prepare for competition, and I didn’t want to pay someone to party with me. I was too young to belong to the Asian American social dancing scene in New York, and at the same time, too old to feel at home among the growing community of collegiate Asian American competitive ballroom dancers.

Eventually, I found amateur partners and drifted away from Pro-Am. I also fully claimed my identity as a dancer and integrated it into my professional life, as a public librarian and archivist, seeking ways to bring dance’s joy and meaning to as many people as possible with the traces it leaves behind. The work of Yutian Wong, Rosemary Candelario, SanSan Kwan, and other scholars of Asian American dance articulated for me the inchoate contradictions and omissions of my identity as an Asian American dancer, always assumed to be negotiating a divide between the two (perennially) opposing “American” and “Asian” cultures (as if only those of us with racially marked bodies do so, and as if myriad Asian cultures are a monolithic entity that never evolves).

Asian American dance scholarship didn’t, however, address the dismay I felt seeing dance competitions sneeringly dissected at a conference, and learning that younger scholars are discouraged from making ballroom their chosen field of study. Competitions are too flashy, I suppose, too nakedly interested in pleasing the crowd, and too close to athletics, a dirty word for dance in the academy and, whose historical struggle for recognition in the U.S. involved disassociating it from physical fitness.

Ballroom dance has its own problems in the academy, I guess from its association with fusty lessons of comportment and “proper” social behavior, as well as its uncomfortable appropriation of Latin American forms and still stubborn general adherence to male-female gender norms. So those of us who pursue both ballroom and competition dance are assumed to be victims of a mass opiate, too taken in by a meaningless pursuit of glamour or beauty. We must be too stupid or too blinkered to understand the meaning of what we do.

This is an impoverished framework through which to view a dance form that is pursued socially and competitively around the world, and a framework that fails to encompass how and why ballroom is so flexible in its appeal. Is ballroom problematic? Of course, as many, many forms of cultural expressions can be claimed to be problematic in some aspect. But ballroom’s out there, with myriad branches, that have been reduced in casual conversations to a single word. And it shouldn’t take a massacre for dance scholarship to embrace it.

About the Author

Arlene Yu is Director, Knowledge and Legacy at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. She has presented on the history of dance cataloging (Society of American Archivists) and Asian American dance in the archives (Dance Studies Association), and contributed a chapter to Asian American Librarians and Library Services: Activism, Collaborations, and Strategies. Arlene served on the board of the Society of Dance History Scholars from 2013-2016, and has an MSILS from Pratt Institute and an AB in Social Studies from Harvard University. Arlene is a two-time Blackpool finalist, and five-time U.S. national champion in the International Latin style of ballroom.

[1]  With thanks to MiRi Park for her always incisive opinions and support, and to Crystal Song for our lively discussions around ballroom and the academy.