…we shouldn’t have left you/without a dope beat to step to”
So Timbaland opens “Try Again,” Aaliyah’s lead single for the soundtrack of 2000 film Romeo Must Die, in which she stars with martial arts movie star Jet Li.
The video features copious amounts of reflective & backlit surfaces, romantic wall-walking, and Corey Yuen’s martial arts stylings weaving between and within intricate, understated dance choreography. It also includes some lovely wining by the late great diva.
I admittedly haven’t seen the film (at least not in its entirety), but I’ve always enjoyed its existence and this video as part of a long history of intersections between Black and Asian creativity, one that, while certainly riddled with racism and appropriation, has also, at times, been blessed with innovation and collaboration.
In college, I joined and helped run a dance company where I reinterpreted the video of “Try Again” for a stage number. As one of the Asian members of the group, and someone who had spent many years learning Chinese folk dance, I tried to incorporate martial arts and Chinese folk dance elements into Monternez Rezell’s choreography. It was a lot of fun.
The group was founded by black students and featured “dances of the African diaspora,” namely, African, Latin, jazz, dancehall, and hip hop. On a campus that, at the time, still had closed support groups for students of color, it was a space where issues of social justice and politics of difference found articulation and mediation through collective participation in the arts. It was no utopia of black, brown, yellow and white. As expected of any space where people get together to work on a thing, there was drama as hell…but, I’ve learned in retrospect and also through the friendships I’ve kept that there is a particular bond that gets forged when you inhabit space and rhythm together, experience one another’s bodies and beings through movement, vision, and storytelling.
Dance was something I was surprised to let go of when I started grad school. It felt like there was no time to be managed and no avenue leading to spaces I had grown to find familiar (i.e. not mostly white or straight). I was in the Midwest, where the shift in the way I was received in public space taught me, for the first time experientially, the significance of identifying as Asian American. There were so few of us, so many came from refugee rather than immigrant backgrounds, my department was mostly international Asians, and people stared and talked to me like I was alien (“you speak English real good” etc.). I joined up and even co-ran, for a semester, the Asian grad students group. The summer after my first year, some friends from there took me to–not polka, which is all I got when I chanced to ask some long-time locals about the dance scene, but–salsa night. There was salsa and bachata, merengue and reggaeton, black and brown bodies alive and on beat. It was a glorious time.
Then I went on to more school in New England, where the experience can pretty much be summed up by the following description in Kurahashi Yumiko’s “Partei” (1960), which appears in English in This Kind of Woman (1982), an anthology of works by Japanese women writers translated and edited by Yuriko Tanaka and Elizabeth Hansen:
“…for the time being I had no hope, and I was doing nothing more than scratching at a frozen sky in the midst of starless darkness, trying to leave some streaks of light there. I could not believe for a minute that these streaks would lead to the possibility of revolution. I believed only that the organization that limited my freedom also gave me freedom I could not have attained myself.” (12-13)
The first few years, I roomed with a childhood friend from the Chinese folk dance ensemble I’d been in. I went to a few of the martial arts classes she took up to stay connected to the movement vocabulary we’d both grown up with. I attended one social gathering on campus where my attempts to dance (on the dance floor) were met with wide-eyed disbelief and respectable frowns. (There might have been Zumba later, long after I’d started this blog. Lol.)
I guess this is all to say my long hiatus from this space has been filled with many processes that mostly involve recovering and retrieving myself from the fictional ruins of postwar and contemporary modernity (to be only a bit dramatic). And, well, dance is one strain of that narrative that has tended to give me life rather than destroy me.
As with many things that fell by the wayside, I feel inclined to pick up here where I left off. At the same time, there is a lot to talk about otherwise. I’ll probably be making more use of this post space and putting the essays on the backburner for as dissertating allows. To borrow from the lyrics in “Try Again,” I’ll just do my thang and see how it goes.