drivin to school this mornin
belted down in our blues 
we pass a gas station on queen lane 
& there is a man in a spotted cowhide jacket
wearin gold gazelles on his eyes
he is dancin with a woman
next to the pump 
it is a slow drag 
to a song only in their minds
could be pendergrass or billy paul
somethin straight outta 
philly’s black bottom

it’s 7:45am
& they are swayin 
next to a parked van 
door open on the driver’s side 
as if he saw her 
walkin down the street 
after all that time 
& pulled in to the station
to fill her up again

social dance has been like peanut butter & jelly to me. i grew up dancing to the radio in my great-grandmother’s living room in the town of ambler, pennsylvania, a toddler whirling & twirling to the delight of my aunts, uncles & cousins. my mother’s living room in north wales was anchored by a record player where i indulged in the fine art vinyl of the ohio players, earth wind & fire & chaka khan. the carpeted floor was where we tried out the moves we saw in videos on mtv videos or urban x-pressions. yeah, i grew up in the age of the music video & it fed my desire to dance

in junior high, me & four other black girls decided to compete in the school talent show with a dance routine. actually, i was lucky to be included because i was a flight risk when it came to choreography. but i got real serious about practicing with the group after school & on my own at home & i wasn’t the weakest link anymore when the big night arrived. we danced to the song “we got our own thang” by heavy d & the boyz & replicated a lot of the moves that they did in the video. we wore hammer pants, patent leather shoes with ribbons &/or steel tips & matching red, black & green t-shirts. you couldn’t tell us nothin—the routine was tight & flawlessly executed. we didn’t win the talent show though—two white boy rappers with dry ice who called themselves “pepsi” took first place. even so, that year was the beginning of my public dance journey, when what i learned & practiced in the living room finally found an audience besides the folk, my little sisters, pets & dolls. to dance in private or public is always an event for me, as if i’m part of my own music video. don’t tell nobody, but sometimes, when i’m in the house alone, i imagine i’m janet jackson in the “pleasure principle” video, in skin-tight black denim jeans with knee pads & tina turner hair (but black), leaping off chairs & boxes in an industrial loft. or i’m sidney & sharane battling kid & play in the middle of the dance floor during the movie house party. or i’m turbo, dancing with a broom in breakin’, when i’m sweeping the kitchen floor. The solo dancer having a private moment in the kitchen or on the pole is as much an American dream as the whole neighborhood dancing in the street.
i ended up taking a few dance classes as a teen, but they never gave me the same feeling as a house party where you could get your slow drag on or grind in the corner or you & your friends could bust out a choreographed routine in your new or new-to-you gear. or the feeling of sneaking out to go to a party or getting home late from a party no one knew you were at. in college, i took an african dance class with math professor camille mckayle & started incorporating the moves i was learning into my party forays on campus. years later, my poet-brotha douglas kearney hipped me to the ki-kongo phrase "lu-fuki" and the belief that it is an ancestor of the black english word "funky.” lu-fuki has been said to describe a stank body odor or the pungency created by an activity like dancing or sex; it is the nexus of redolence and rhythm. doug described it as the feeling of cooling sweat rolling down your body after a spirited dance. i now think of it as the funk you earn from moving your body in celebration & joy—a very human, earthy, real output of the body. it’s the dew of the dance, the joyful rain of your body after the soulwork of dancing (alexa, play “let it fall” by lady alma & the rainmakers). oh how i needed to feel that rain in predominantly white spaces like college where black women’s bodies were rare & undesirable. how i needed that house music in the living room of the black cultural center on campus (a sanctuary with beige carpet & a wood-paneled tv where we watched the million man march & the oj trial) to wear me out, to wring the worry & wisdom from my body.
when i first started developing the re-emancipation of social dance with raja two years ago, i took a dance class with instructor aaron boyd at center in the park, a community space for seniors in my germantown neighborhood. i was invited by dancer lisa kraus who is a regular in the class. aaron and the class participants welcomed me warmly like a niece to the cookout. while i was there, i learned some classic social dance steps alongside women ages 55+. we tried a new dance called “the appletree,” a companion to erykah badu’s song of the same name. it was some of the most fun i’ve had in years. walking home from the class, reminiscing over the cool dance antics of my great aunts sookie and tab, i realized how much i missed having spaces like that, where folks of different generations could dance together & simultaneously admire the memory & innovation in their respective movements. the re-emancipation of social dance is inspired by & in search of that experience. 
last fall, i was at a writers conference in mississippi where the author alice walker took part in a lunchtime keynote conversation in a hotel ballroom. at the end of the conversation, al green’s song “love & happiness” (which walker had lovingly mentioned during the conversation) came on & alice & the moderator ebony lumumba started dancing on stage. the rest of us in the ballroom were moved to enthusiastically follow suit. soon a few hundred people in the ballroom, mostly black women writers, scholars & educators who came to celebrate the legacy of phillis wheatley (one of the first black and enslaved people in the United States to publish a book of poems) were doing the electric slide in a kind of salute to another literary muva, alice walker. as i danced alongside black women from around the country for the duration of green’s song, i felt that feeling that being able to speak the language of social dance gives you—the sense that you can go anywhere & connect, that what your aunts & uncles taught you in the living room was worth something & was, in fact, priceless & the key to everything.
i once heard someone say that, of all artists, dancers are closest to heaven. but this ecstatic gift isn’t only relegated to those who have been deemed “dancer.” i believe the distance between us & our own sense of heaven is through our bodies. to claim & respect that distance & to live actively in it, is a form of freedom i want to practice everyday.
- yolanda wisher, june 2024

  • The Re-Emancipation of Social Dance has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. 
  • The Re-Emancipation of Social Dance is being produced by Intercultural Journeys.