Faylita Hicks | Longreads | April 2020 | 28 minutes (7,041 words)
I was late. Even though the album dropped in 2018, I didn’t know about the track until June of the next year. Which was tragic, because the first time I heard Teyana Taylor’s “WTP (Work This Pussy)” — I went off.
The command hit my speaker and I dropped the washrag I had been using to clean the dishes, into the soapy water. Splashing it all over the frail kitchen counter, I leaned forward over the sink. Gripped its metal edge in instinctive obedience, desire trickling through my body electric. Throwing my head back, I left behind the part of my day that had been filled with judges, sheriffs, the DA. I turned the music up, grinding my pelvis to the tempo, shuddering in spasmodic rhythm to twerk.
I wanted to shake out the fear I had carried since that afternoon’s Criminal Justice Committee meeting with the county officials. Forget all about the Black and Brown bodies that slept in a small metal box less than five miles away from me. Swaying from side to side with my eyes closed, I let guiltless memories of pleasure snap neon through me. Let holographic echoes of my past life — the time before I was an activist and after I was a Christian — fill to the brim the dusty corners of my small and empty Central Texas apartment. Hot, I rode the hum that rolled out from my bluetooth speakers, ignoring the sound of my phone vibrating with updates from the group chat about bail. All I wanted was to make my lower back flinch as I rolled my hips and popped to Teyana’s simple instructions — work this pussy, work this pussy, work this pussy.
But I must’ve been too tired. Too tight in the shoulders to flex and hold the pose. Too thick in the thighs now to dip low and pounce back up with ease. Too heavy with the backhanded comments about criminals and “bad decisions.” Too dizzy from the tight, bone-straight lace front that had made me feel more pretty in a room full of white. Too distracted. Too hurt. Too tired. Like trying to shake molasses off of me, I rotated my hips in place. But nothing moved as easily as it used to. My rhythm was off — and it made me wonder. How long had it been since my back was blown out?
Rachel Nuwer | Longreads | March 2020 | 28 minutes (7,033 words)
It’s a gloomy April afternoon in rural Oklahoma, and I’m sitting on the floor of a fluorescent-lit room at a roadside zoo with Nova, a 12-week-old tiliger. She looks like a tiger cub, but she’s actually a crossbreed, an unnatural combination of a tiger father and a mother born of a tiger and a lion. That unique genetic makeup places a higher price tag on cubs like Nova, and makes it easier, legally speaking, to abuse and exploit them. Endangered species protections don’t apply to artificial breeds such as tiligers. Hybridization, however, has done nothing to quell Nova’s predatory instincts. For the umpteenth time during the past six minutes, she lunges at my face, claws splayed and mouth ajar — only to be halted mid-leap as her handler jerks her harness. Unphased, Nova gets right back to pouncing.
With her dusty blue eyes, sherbet-colored paws, and prominent black stripes, Nova is adorable. But she also weighs 30 pounds and has teeth like a Doberman’s and claws the size of jumbo shrimp. Nova’s handler, a woman with long brown hair who tells me she recently retired from her IT job at a South Dakota bank to live out her dream of working with exotic cats, scolds the rambunctious tiliger in a goo-goo-ga-ga voice: “Nooooo, nooooo, you calms down!” Nova is teething, the handler explains, so she just wants something to chew on. The handler reaches for one of the tatty stuffed animals strewn around the room — a substitute, I guess, for my limbs. In that moment of distraction, Nova lunges. She lands her mark, chomping into the bicep of my producer, Graham Lee Brewer.
“Ooo, she got me!” Lee Brewer grimaces as he attempts to pull away from the determined predator. Nova’s handler has to pry the tiliger’s jaws open to detach her. After the incident, the woman conveniently checks her watch: “OK, you guys, time is up!”
I paid $80 for the pleasure of spending 12 minutes with Nova, but I’m glad the experience, billed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, is over. On our way out, we pass more than a dozen adult tigers yowling and pacing cages the size of small classrooms. Nearby signs solicit donations. You are their only hope. Sponsor a cabin or compound today! In the safety of our car, Lee Brewer rolls up his sleeve, exposing a swollen red welt. “Look at my gnarly tiger bite,” he chuckles. “I tried to play it off but I was like, this fuckin’ hurts!”
It’s not the first time I’ve seen this world up-close; I spent the better part of eight years investigating wildlife trafficking around the world. During my travels, I visited farms in China and Laos where tigers are raised like pigs, examined traditional medicine in Vietnam, ate what I was told was tiger bone “cake,” and tracked some of the world’s last remaining wild tigers in India. Almost everywhere I went, tigers were suffering and their numbers were on the decline because of human behavior. Until recently, though, I had no idea the United States was part of the problem. Read more…
Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell | excerpt from The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & The Gang, and the Meaning of Life | Penguin Random House | October 2019 | 12 minutes (3,277 words)
There are so many topics and themes and recurring jokes in the wonderful world of Peanuts; if it were allowed I would just sit here and write a list of all my favorite cartoons.
But since I don’t have a podcast called My Favorite Peanuts (yet), and since we all have short attention spans, I’m going to write about my two favorite topics, which I believe are intrinsically connected: disappointment and dancing.
Amongst the thousands of life lessons found throughout Peanuts, I believe there is one that stands out amongst the rest: At the end of the day, you can either be disappointed, or you can be dancing, but you cannot be disappointed while you’re dancing. So take your pick.
To begin to explain this, I have to go back and start at the beginning of me and Peanuts. The beginning is often a good place to start.
I was born into a family that was already very into Schulz. I’m sure there are many of these types of families. You’re probably from one, or maybe you will start one, or maybe you wish you were from one. In which case, feel free to join mine! Each of my parents is one of seven children, I am the youngest of four. There are so many cousins, we wouldn’t notice or question your presence at the family reunion.
My maternal grandfather, Dr. Daniel Vaughan, was golfing buddies with Charles Schulz, Sparky to his friends. In 1964 Grandpa Dan co-founded a pro-am charity tournament in San Jose and Sparky did custom drawings for it for the following twenty or so years. I grew up inside a home filled with Schulz sketches addressed to my mother and original cartoons that referenced an ophthalmologist in San Jose, that of course being my grandfather. I already, and quite literally, had someone to look up to.
But that someone, at first, was not Sparky. It was Snoopy. Here we have not only an adorable cartoon dog, but one that dances. I loved dogs and dancing, so, I believe that is what they call “kismet.”
Grandpa Dan gave me my first Snoopy doll when I was probably about six or seven. It was one of those authentic Snoopys. Not those plush things you see at every drugstore across the world these days. This Snoopy was made in San Francisco in 1968 (now that I think about it, it’s incredibly impressive Grandpa Dan hung on to this thing until 1997). I have slept with it in my arms nearly every night since. As a twenty-seven-year-old, I’ve even boarded planes clutching it. It elicits a certain concerned look from the flight attendants and, like Charlie Brown, I’m almost always looking for sympathy.
Snoopy was essentially a god. His style, his moves. I wanted to dance just like him. His hands in the air, his feet, everywhere! He always embraced the music, and usually alone. Who needs a partner when you’ve got two feet? Between Snoopy and my mother, I had two dancing role models to set me up for complete success, at least on the dance floor.
Second to dancing, the thing I loved the most was drawing. When I began to draw, I was extremely concerned with my ability to draw Snoopy and Charlie Brown just like Schulz did. No tracing! I needed to be able to do it myself. Get all the strokes and shapes just right. Schulz, without knowing it, taught me how to draw. I think a lot of his expressions (and well, his whole outlook on life) still exist in my work today.
In an effort to keep me entertained, my parents bought me many Peanuts books for me to copy. The more I copied, the more I read, and the more I read, the more my connection grew. This was more than cool drawings of a beagle around our home. I still loved the dancing bits, but this stuff was hitting little my little soul. Hard.
By age 10, I was in the height of my “copying Snoopy” phase. I believed myself to be a young artist. Fully equipped with self confidence and self doubt, with contradicting thoughts like, “I’m incredibly unique and important,” and “No one really wants me here, maybe I should go home and watch a movie instead?” And then, one day in the 4th grade, something happened. Sammy Wallace told me that I was, in fact, not a real artist because I was copying someone else’s work. Plus, I used an eraser. His sister Carly did not use an eraser, and she was definitely a real artist. I was horrified. I was embarrassed. I was Charlie Brown.
All my fears were confirmed. Clearly, everyone at school thought I was a joke, the laughingstock of all the other 4th grade artists. No one liked me, in fact, everyone hated me.
That was the moment Peanuts started to change for me. I like to think all Peanuts readers have some sort of pivotal memory in their life when the cartoon took on new relevance. Almost too much relevance. I wanted so badly to be liked by everyone, just like Charlie Brown, and somehow nothing was working out for either of us. It seemed it never would. And yet… there was still this hope inside of me, that maybe things would change? Maybe one day, I’d be as cool as my big brother, maybe I’d be the best dancer at the party, or even know how to tell a good joke without messing up the punchline! That push and pull of hope and despair, expectation and disappointment, in a nutshell, is life. And life is a Peanuts cartoon.
This revelation wasn’t exactly funny to me at first, but I did feel very understood by the gang. What started off as an innocent love affair with a group of kids and their beagle, soon became a heavy-duty, serious relationship that would shape my understanding of myself and the world around me. These weren’t jokes, but tales of love, loss and the human condition! Peanuts taught me that despite the little engine of hope inside you convincing you otherwise, you know timing will always be a little off with you and the Little Red-haired girl, Christmas will never be quite as amazing as you expected, and you’ll never be satisfied with what’s in your bowl. So you better take what you can get because, happiness is… fleeting.
Or as Linus would put it, “Good things last eight seconds. Bad things last three weeks.”
There are so many ways you can be disappointed in a Peanuts cartoon. You can be disappointed at home, in love, at school, on vacation, over holiday, during baseball, golf, or any sport under and out of the sun. You can be disappointed in a kate, a book, a play, your classmates, your parents, your friends, and even your dog.
Most importantly, for each of these lil’ folks, if all else fails you can always be disappointed in yourself. Who else is there to blame, Charlie Brown, when you’re the one setting the expectations so high?
Every day they have a list of great expectations of how their day will go, and by age five they are already learning that life is mostly not going to go as planned. Lucy will “probably never get married” and as much as Peppermint Patty studies she will somehow always know less than before. I think Schulz could have written a great self help book titled, “How To Be Disappointed.” In fact if he were coming up today, literary agents would probably be forcing him to do so.
Let’s examine some of my favorite examples of disappointment in Peanuts…
Charlie Brown is the king of disappointment. He’s been disappointed in everything and everyone. His dog has forgotten his name, his kite can’t keep away from the trees, and no matter how much they practice, his baseball team will never win a game.
If the world is not disappointing Charlie Brown, he’s disappointing them. Why can’t he just take his therapist’s advice and “snap out of it” already?
More than anything, Charlie brown is disappointed in love. Will he ever be loved by the Little Red-Haired Girl or will he have to settle for a peanut butter sandwich? Luckily, Charlie has an amazing ability to turn the disappointment in his relationship (or lack thereof) into a complete dissatisfaction with himself. One of the best examples of this being when Charlie is so mad at himself for not talking to the Little Red-Haired Girl, telling himself as he walks away “I hate myself for not having enough nerve to talk to her!” and then after a moment, “Well, that isn’t exactly true… I hate myself for a lot of other reasons too…”
That’s what I love about Peanuts. The disappointment is the joke. When you learn that, you learn to laugh at yourself and that is so important for survival.
It’s not just Charlie who has been let down, time and time again. Lucy is also frequently disappointed. If it isn’t with one of her patients, it’s always with her brother. She cannot get him to ditch that blanket. If only she could’ve had a better brother, one with more personality. In one strip, Linus confronts Lucy, asking, “Why should you care if I have any opinions or personality or character?” Lucy responds, “Because if you don’t have any character, it’s a reflection on me!”
Like Charlie Brown and the Little Red-Haired Girl, Lucy’s love life with Schroeder continues to fall short. Try as she might, she may never convince him to pay more attention to her than to the piano.
Sally, though innocent, is no stranger to disappointment. Her latest field trip was nothing to write home about, literally, and “What’s so much fun about a balloon” anyway? According to Sally, nothing. What a let down.
Along with her brother and Lucy and pretty much the whole cast, love is a disappointment for Sally. Linus, her sweet babboo, still hasn’t asked her out yet. Even when she’s dropped so many hints! And who can forget when she practiced all week for her role in the Christmas play, only to get on stage and recite “HOCKEY STICK!” instead of “hark!”
Sally is not the only one to be let down by the buildup of the holiday. Lucy waits for what seems like forever for Christmas to arrive, counting down the months, the days, the hours, the minutes… only to leave her completely unsatisfied…sigh. Will we ever be happy?
Linus has great resilience for his disappointment in The Great Pumpkin. My favorite example: He starts off writing a letter to express just how disappointed he is that the Great Pumpkin did not show up yet again, noting “If I sound bitter, it’s because I am.” But before he can finish the letter and save some dignity, hope finds its way back in. After writing the Great Pumpkin off for good, Linus adds, “P.S. See you next year.”
That is the thing about disappointment; it cannot exist without expectation. Try as they might, these kids are never going to get rid of expectation. One day, while sitting at the brick wall, Linus shares his worries about his worries, lamenting “I guess it’s wrong always to be worrying about tomorrow. / Maybe we should only think about today.” Charlie responds, “No, that’s giving up…/ I’m still hoping that yesterday will get better.”
Hope lives on… and so must disappointment.
Schroeder’s friends will never understand Beethoven. No one will want to listen to Woodstock’s long winded stories. Peppermint Patty will never be appreciated as the great caddy she knows she is and her gal Friday, Marcie, will probably never stop being disappointed in, well, Peppermint Pattie. “Always an embarrassment, sir.”
So it would appear that, according to Schulz, just about anything can and will let you down.
As dark as all of this was for a pre-teen to come to terms with, there was one thing that stood out in the comic, one sigh of relief from the existential crises of childhood and beyond. While everyone’s life was going horribly downhill (Sally signed up for conversational French, not controversial French like she thought), there is this dog. And there was a lot of frustration with this dog because he is too happy and always dancing.
Lucy, honestly, can’t stand it. On more than one occasion she’s yelled at a dancing Snoopy, “With all the trouble in this world, you have no right to be so happy!” It drives Charlie nuts as well. “What makes you think you’re happy?”
By default, dancing then becomes one of the only pure moments of bliss: The rare time when you cannot worry or take yourself too seriously, you simply cannot be upset! Lucy could shout, “Floods, fire and famine! / Doom, defeat and despair!” but dancing saves you from all life’s downers. “Nothing seems to disturb him!”
Dancing can never be a disappointment. It is the savior of sadness.
It is no surprise that the one who dances the most is a dog. As Lucy says, “It’s easy for him to be so happy… he doesn’t have any worries!” The deep irony is the idea that Snoopy is a ball of pure happiness, unaffected by consciousness. That is wildly untrue. Snoopy has so many disappointments of his own. He wishes he were anything but a dog. Why couldn’t he be an alligator or a snake! Or better yet, a World War I fighter pilot?
I particularly love the contrast between Snoopy’s hopes and dreams, which are way out of the realm of possibility, and someone like Lucy, who wants to be a psychiatrist. She could very well become one but Snoopy will always be a dog.
“Yesterday I was a dog… today I’m a dog… / tomorrow I’ll probably still be a dog…/ *sigh* / there’s so little hope for advancement!”
Even though his aspirations may be futile, they embody the crises of consciousness we all know too well. There is no satisfaction? Even when Snoopy does try to live out his fantasies, he usually comes to the conclusion that he isn’t suited for the role. Can’t be a hunter because of his “weed-claustrophobia.” Can’t be a giraffe because it’s “too hard on the neck.”
As much as he loves to golf and get some quality time in on the typewriter, all these activities often leave him a little discouraged. He may never be satisfied with life or food — “Needs salt!”– but dancing is one guarantee of a good time. With dancing, Snoopy can be himself! He can let it all go! Sure, he still hasn’t gotten his invite to play in the Masters, but it must be in the mail. Anyway, none of this worldly stuff matters while you’re doing the Charleston!
Though the whole gang likes to act as if they are very annoyed by all of Snoopy’s dancing, the fact of the matter is they are quite jealous. They wish they didn’t have to worry about being alive. Or do they?
One day as Snoopy dances around, Charlie comments, “I sure wish I could be that happy all the time.” Lucy replies, “Not me… / it’s too hard to feel sorry for yourself when you’re happy.”
Lucy’s response here might be the most definitive cartoon in defense of my argument. Sure, they could be happy, but they are choosing not to, because it’s much more entertaining to live the emotional rollercoaster of hope and despair. But you do always have the option to dance.
Every once in awhile, they give in to Snoopy’s ways and when they do, they love it. In one strip Schroeder presses a frustrated Lucy, “What in the world do you have to worry about?” Lucy thinks a moment, realizes the answer (nothing), then joins Snoopy dancing with huge smile on her face. And why wouldn’t she love it? Dancing is great! If only they’d let themselves do it more often…
“To dance is to live! / For me, dancing is an emotional outlet… / I feel sorry for people who can’t dance… / If you can’t dance you should at least be able to do a happy hop!”
Snoopy’s words, not mine.
Lucy is usually the one who succumbs to Snoopy’s carefree calypso, “if you can’t lick em, join em!” Though she tries very hard to resist most of the time. One of my favorite dancing cartoons that has really stuck with me has Lucy screaming at Snoopy, “Just because you’re happy today, doesn’t mean you’ll be happy tomorrow!”
Isn’t that the whole reason Snoopy chooses to dance? Who knows what small disaster is on the horizon. Your novel could be rejected, someone might call you “fuzzy face,” or even worse, you could find out there’s a new “No Dogs Allowed” sign at the beach.
What is life but a series of small disasters with a little dancing in between!
They say don’t sweat the small stuff. But for the Peanuts gang, small stuff is all they’ve got and they are sweating. When each day is another question of whether to be disappointed or to dance, the answer is simply which kind of sweat you’re looking for.
Of course there has to be a balance. As much as we’d like to, we can’t always be dancing. And I never meant to suggest there is any problem with being disappointed. It’s good for you. I don’t know who I’d be if I wasn’t always just a little let down. I would probably be a very boring person. Peanuts would be a very boring cartoon. They say comedy is tragedy, plus time. The great comedy (and tragedy) in Peanuts is that every day there is newfound hope, as Linus puts it, they will grow up to be “outrageously happy!” despite all the evidence that points to the contrary. As if total satisfaction were something to be desired. If we were all outrageously happy, I have no idea what we’d talk about. And yet, the idea of happiness… sure sounds nice.
Maybe it’s because I read so much Peanuts as a kid or maybe it’s just who I am, but I find the balancing act between the fountain of hope and the forecast of disappointment to be the essence of life. It seems I wake up every morning cheerfully wondering…
Big or small, I know something will. Charlie knows something will. Linus knows something will. We all know something will. But it’s fun to believe otherwise. It’s fun to believe Lucy won’t pull the football out from under you, even when you know better.
As an adult my hero has shifted from Snoopy to the creator of Snoopy. Through his work, Schulz taught me that in the middle of the mess of day-to-day life, the one thing I (and the Peanuts gang) can rely on for a truly good time, is to dance. Like Lucy, it’s just a matter of whether or not I want to be pulled out of my pity party.
We’ve all got a little Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and ultimately Schulz in us. Sometimes our similarities scare me. When I saw the new Peanuts movie a couple years back, I recognized myself so much in Charlie Brown that I came home in tears. My mother had to put her 25 year old daughter to bed, crying…
And… that very well may be true, but, the next day, we had a glass of wine and ended up dancing all night to The Beach Boys and that was great, so I think that’s what Snoopy would call “par for the course.”
* * *
Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell is a cartoonist, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. Her cartoons have been in The New Yorker, The New York Times and more. She is currently working on her first graphic memoir, Murder Book. Follow her on Instagram @cartoonsbyhilary.
Excerpted from The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & The Gang, and the Meaning of Life, available from Library of America on October 22, 2019.
Brittany Allen | Longreads | August 2019 | 10 minutes (2,730 words)
In 1974 Walter Thompson, a Berklee-trained bandleader, moved to Woodstock and made up a language. A fan of improv, Thompson initially designed forty signs for structuring a live composition. With one gesture, he could single out a group in his orchestra (like “Woodwinds”). With another, he could instruct said group to hold a long note (“Long Tone”), match one another’s phrasing (“Synchronize”), or tell players to dit dit dit out a series of staccato bursts (“Pointillism”). Wham, Blam, thank you ma’am: a new song, on the spot.
Forty years later, directors working with all kinds of performers — actors, dancers, and musicians — still employ Thompson’s conducting shorthand to devise material. The language has a name now: soundpainting, a term I find almost unbearably lovely. At my (blessedly experimental) college I studied soundpainting, stage pictures, lyric essays, many radiant paradoxes that suggested trespass between one mode of making and another. But soundpainting, this word lingers. What a pure reminder that our creative borders are porous by definition. That some of our metaphors ought to be mixed.
Either Martin Mull or Frank Zappa or Elvis Costello or someone else entirely once may have said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and meant this as a cut. But like Thompson, I chafe against the arbitrary border. In this reader’s opinion, there are some excellent books about music. But on the synesthetic end of the exercise, there are also miraculous books suffused with music, there are rhythmic books that dit dit dit a forever impression on your skull. A man in Woodstock believes you can paint with sound. Well, I know for a fact you can dance to pages. Read more…
Kate Branca | Longreads | May 2019 | 22 minutes (5,497 words)
You hear the drums before you see us, a circle of figures facing inward, our arms rigid, our feet pounding the stage in an even, rhythmic, side-stepping march. The circle bobs up and down with our forcefulness. Our costumes are geometric bodysuits, designed not to contour to our human bodies, but to transform them into something more angular, hardened, like a shell. They have V-neck fronts and stiff cap sleeves and straight pant legs that stop suddenly at the shin, transforming our bodies into great Xs of yellow, purple, and black. We wear strips of black tape on our cheeks, like war paint. Our costumes make us look like ancient Aztecs or alien warriors — beings of a past or future time.
When I am wearing that costume and bound to that ring, I am transported back nine years; suddenly I am a 19-year-old performing the choreography of Robert Battle with my college dance company — and also none of those things. It feels like I am nothing, or that we are collectively something else, emptied, but electric, maybe capable of boring a hole in space or time. During a performance, when I catch sight of something mundane among us, like a wisp of hair sprung from Brittany’s bun, or a nervous twitch in Erin’s fingers, my chest blooms with love for the moment: for the startling gift of feeling like I am many people, in many places, traversing many times all at once.
We twist and extend our arms into wide, heavenward Vs and beckon the stage lights with flicks of our hands. We tuck and splay and smack our thighs. Then the pace of the drumming quickens with a RAPAPAPAPAP! and one in our company enters the center of the circle where a spotlight appears. She spins wildly in one direction, then the other, her feet stamping the ground as fast as the mallets hitting the drums. Meanwhile, those of us around her shoot our arms into the air like crops hit by a sudden gust of wind. She rejoins the circle so that only the light remains inside the ring made up of our bodies, and now that it’s there, finally there, we are frenzied by it. Hopping, slamming, jumping, falling, flinging ourselves in patterns around its edges. With a final pound, the drums stop, leaving us standing around the light’s rim with our feet wide, arch to arch with one another, arms by our sides, chests heaving, but open to the sky, our necks craned toward whatever bulb or star gave us this brightness. We lower our chins as the stage fades to black.
Adam Morgan | Longreads | May 2019 | 14 minutes (3,793 words)
Four years ago, when the news broke that a second Harper Lee novel had been discovered fifty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, the literary world was shocked. Some readers were thrilled by the prospect of returning to the world of Scout, Atticus Finch, and Boo Radley. Others were concerned the 88-year-old Lee might have been pressured to publish an unfinished draft. But Casey Cep, an investigative reporter for the New Yorker and the New York Times, drove down to Alabama to get to the bottom of it. And what she found wasn’t a publishing conspiracy, but another lost book Lee had attempted to write for more than a decade, but never finished.
The book was called The Reverend. It would have been a true-crime novel like In Cold Blood (a book Lee helped Truman Capote research, write, and edit, despite his failure to give her any credit). The Reverend would have told the story of Willie Maxwell, a black preacher who murdered five members of his own family in the 1970s in order to collect life insurance money. It would have touched on voodoo, racial politics in post-industrial Alabama, and a courtroom setpiece that rivaled To Kill a Mockingbird for drama. But Harper Lee never finished writing The Reverend, and now, thanks to Casey Cep, we know why.
Cep’s debut, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, is fascinating, addicting, and unbearably suspenseful. Cep actually tells three concentric stories: the crimes of Willie Maxwell, the trials of his lawyer Tom Radney, and Harper Lee’s failed attempt to write about them. When I called Cep from “a Southern phone number” on an unseasonably hot spring afternoon, she initially thought I was one of her sources calling with a “some bombshell thing they want to show me, far too late to help with the book.”
Noun, feminine: An abundance of persons or things; crowd, horde
Noun, biblical: Survivors, the chosen
* * *
When I fell for the video girl in Omarion’s “Touch,” I never thought I’d come to know her name. I loved her for her low-slung baggy jeans and spangled bustier. I loved her for the wave arranged across her forehead, her sly smile, and most of all, of course, for the way she moved. In the video, Omarion spots her with her girls as she’s leaving the club, and soon they involve each other in a pedestrian duet that elaborates the walk home along the lines of a Cuban rumba: frankly sexual, magnetically relational, but rarely, barely touching.
What won my attention was an unusual liberty in her movement — unconfined, it seemed, by a tightly choreographed routine or proper place in the staged urban environment — and a looseness in her waistline I can’t help calling Spanish. In Latin music, lyrics linger less over hips and ass, lavishing attention on la cintura atómica, la cintura sueltecita as the locus of sensual movement, maybe even the primary engine of Latin culture’s successive “explosions.” Marking the waist as specifically Spanish doesn’t check out in a diasporic vocabulary that includes wining, belly dance, even hula. But that’s how I responded to her body — with recognition. I followed the current that ran up and down her torso, briefly electrifying each gesture as if it were a spoken phrase that would resolve into a statement. I wanted to know where the meaning would land.
I didn’t expect to see this dancer again. Maybe I couldn’t see past the way she’d been cast: as a girl who appears, suddenly, in the chaos of the club, then slips back — a moment, an hour, a day later — into the city’s unsyncopated working rhythm. Blink. Touch. This was 2005, before the internet’s full power was at my fingertips, before I could feel confident that “Omarion video girl” would yield a name, a résumé, a world. I didn’t try. For years I’d return to her on YouTube, exhibiting her to friends and lovers, an avatar of erotic freedom, improvisational play, anonymous genius. I wanted her to be noticed beyond the terms the screen had set. And I wanted to be noticed for noticing her.
* * *
Pop culture teaches us that backup dancers are beneath notice. They’re not real artists, and the pleasure we take in them is primitive. They are not suitable emissaries of culture, even if culture wouldn’t be any fun without them. There are no prominent prizes for video girls, no credit roll at the end of the concert naming names. When we pick favorites and mimic their moves, our mothers make sure we know not to aspire. Backup dancing is not aspirational; it’s a no-man’s-land where brown girls are liable to languish, underpaid and overworked. It’s one wrong turn away from sex work. When Cardi B brags, “I don’t dance now / I make money moves,” she’s minimizing the difference between the kind of dancing she used to do on the pole and the kind of dancing done on other stages. Neither one, she seems to say, will pay. These messages have posed a problem for me, because I grew up in a time and place in which every Puerto Rican you’d ever heard of was — or had been — a backup dancer.
The distinction between was and had been didn’t matter that much, because the fact that certain individuals had achieved star status did little to reduce the stigma of salacious amateurism that lingered with them. Especially before Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sonia Sotomayor, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went to Washington, the prototypical Puerto Rican in U.S. consciousness was [Dancing Girl emoji, skin tone tan]. Probably, she still is. Even the nation’s youngest congresswoman is haunted — or rather, refuses to be haunted — by her younger body, bopping across the rooftops of Boston University in 2010. As a dweeby tween, I wasn’t ashamed: I liked being noticed in relation to something “sexy.” But I see now why my mother was. There’s an implied analogy between the backup dancer and Puerto Rico itself, as if the island exists first and foremost for the empire’s entertainment, as if Puerto Ricans can be famous, too, so long as we know our precarious, paradoxical place.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Official policy refers to Puerto Rico as a commonwealth, but it’s really a shadow colony in plain view, hypervisible especially in relation to the colonies most Americans don’t know or name: Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands. The United States government sometimes refers to Puerto Rico as “the shining star of the Caribbean,” a phrase dreamed up for a midcentury publicity campaign designed to attract business investment to the island. But this special status has not protected Puerto Rico — or its diaspora — from myriad forms of colonial extraction. Puerto Rico is both empire’s “shining star” and, in the notorious words of U.S. Senator William B. Bate, “a heterogeneous mass of mongrels,” threatening the nation’s delicate racial and political ecosystem from the shadowy margins. There are too many of us (“mass”), and each one of us already contains too many (“mongrel”). When changes in U.S. economic priorities have displaced Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico itself, we’ve become backup bodies in cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. By the late 20th century, Puerto Ricans made up the largest “immigrant” group in New York City. Life hasn’t been much better stateside, but there is still an important sense in which the Puerto Rican pseudo-citizen moves dique freely in relation to her cousins in the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America. She won’t be deported, exactly. Instead, she’ll spin in a perpetual motion machine.
All of these myths and policies converge on the body of the Puerto Rican backup dancer. The consolation prize for second-class citizenship — really, for lack of sovereignty — has been cultural nationalism. We can shimmy and shake all we like, get loud and proud about how well we do it. But even when the backup dancer gets to be a star, she’s on the blink, appearing and disappearing like the bright spot on the nocturnal satellite map before and after Hurricane Maria.
For years I’d return to her on YouTube, exhibiting her to friends and lovers, an avatar of erotic freedom, improvisational play, anonymous genius. I wanted her to be noticed beyond the terms the screen had set. And I wanted to be noticed for noticing her.
Over the years there are certain stars I’ve come to count on, that seem to have achieved a steady glow: Rita Moreno, for example. Rosie Perez. Jennifer Lopez. Invoking them in sequence, like this, suggests a progressive history, a lineage in which I secretly attempt to situate myself. But the more I read into it, the less it feels like history and the more it feels like a cut-rate carousel. I’m stuck on the constant costume changes these women have hustled through to appear, against the backup dancer’s odds, as names we know. Despite the individuality that stardom confers, they’ve passed through many of the same institutions and come to many of the same professional crossroads. Sometimes they have literally danced in each other’s footsteps or played the same roles. They stand out from and stand in for New York City itself — Nueva York, los niuyores — a few recognizable forms in what the performance scholar Jayna Brown calls “the multijointed body of the female tableaux.” She’s talking about black vaudevillians at the turn of the 20th century, but the image translates: there’s a complex pleasure to getting lost in the crowd. Brown goes on to quote a contemporary of Josephine Baker’s: “She was just a chorus girl, baby, we all was chorus girls.” But it’s hard to hear her tone. Is the chorus girl jaded, disabusing us of the glamour we associate with the star, implying that she can never really rise above her station? Or is taking the star down a peg a way to hold her close, to include her in movement’s “we,” movement’s “all”?
* * *
Growing up, I wanted to be included — even, especially, in the mass of mongrels. I knew Senator Bate didn’t mean to make it seem like so much fun, at least not on the face of it. But by the time we get around to the 1978 Rolling Stones song “Miss You,” Mick Jagger is sure the way to sound American on R & B radio — the way to sound black — is to growl “we’re gonna come around at twelve / with some Puerto Rican girls / that’s just dying to meet you.” I liked singing along — accustomed, like women of all backgrounds, to extracting pleasure and power from pop music’s misogyny. Sometimes I still do.
Maybe I was particularly vulnerable to crude seductions because our family was the opposite of a crowd: me and my mother in California, my grandmother in New York, no siblings, no husbands. Until I left the Bay Area for New York when I was 18, my direct relatives were the only Puerto Ricans I really knew. I was grateful for my Chicanx friends at the private schools we attended on scholarship — we began our political lives together — but culturally speaking they didn’t really know where to place me, and I wasn’t in a position to help them. If Jennifer Lopez implied an urban world teeming with around-the-way girls and spontaneous block parties, I was eager to be implicated.
In Zami, Audre Lorde’s erotic memoir, she articulates her mother’s longing for her natal island of Grenada: “She missed the music you didn’t have to listen to because it was always around.” When my mother danced around the apartment it became populous — with stories of her father’s famous footwork, Motown madness with her college boyfriend, José, the live drums from the New Rican village that seemed to fall in line behind her heels. We’d angle out the closet door with the full-length mirror so she could teach me her teenage moves: the Mashed Potatoes, the Watusi, the Jerk. And then she’d spin out where I couldn’t follow, spurred into a frenzy by the telltale cowbell in “Adoración.” She was multiplied at both ends: by everything that entered her and everything her dancing made me do, the movement she started in the living room. A culture of one. Given our isolation, it would take me years of living in New York to discern which of my mother’s gestures and behaviors were the product of her powerful personality, and which were Puerto Rican cultural commonplaces. It isn’t always easy, or explanatory, to name the difference.
In her self-titled memoir, published in 2011, Rita Moreno remembers moving to Washington Heights and “sitting on the wrought iron grille base beside an open window … while our new radio, shaped like a small cathedral, blared music to me and to any other appreciative Latinos within earshot.” With neighbor girls she “put on costumes and spun through living rooms [and] even ‘entertained’ on the rooftop.” Rosie Perez credits her early dance training to the long summers she spent with her cousin Cookie “in a dilapidated tenement that she kept clean as hell … doing the Hustle in the kitchen while my wet set dried.” I wonder if we’d call it training if we never came to see her dance on TV. Was I training, too, for the pedestrian life I have, in which I’m only famous for my dancing among the friends who follow my Instagram stories? For my gracelessly improvised life as a writer?
‘She was just a chorus girl, baby, we all was chorus girls.’
The New York I live in now is more densely Caribbean than it was when Audre Lorde’s mother suffered the unmusical noise of the north. Despite the city’s constant war on public space, the air at least stays thick, stays wavy. These days the uptown bodegas play bachata, and when I walk by I like to let it inflect the rhythm of my walking — the music I don’t have to listen to because it’s everywhere, the dance I don’t have to do because it’s always in my body. It’s a trope of black diasporic dance to start small, as if walking, as if merely shifting weight, hitching a skirt — the better to dramatize the smooth continuum between everyday life and the high fever of the mess around.
My mother sometimes worries about the way I walk, especially in Washington Heights, where my grandmother lives. She migrated — pregnant with my mother — 15 years after Rita Moreno, in what historian Lorrin Thomas describes as “the postwar boom … that nearly doubled New York City’s Puerto Rican population in two years.” We’ve come to call it “la gran migración,” taking a cue — as we often do — from African American history’s Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North. I still visit my grandmother in the same neighborhood — the same building — where my mother grew up.
And yet it isn’t the same. I was born post-crack and post-Reagan, so our block has always been that kind of hood to me. Now it’s gentrifying. I admit wishing we could keep the ancestral apartment, somehow, so I could live there with rent control. But she doesn’t think I understand the danger. Around here, Latinas are always the ones hit hardest by street violence, she says. I don’t know whether I am, in this case, her daughter or the daughter of my gringo father. So I ask. She thinks the corner boys can tell I’m Latin like them: You can’t do anything about the way you move. In the heat of conflict I feel a pleasurable frisson: the transmission alive in me. I wouldn’t wish that way out of my body, because I wouldn’t wish my body away. It feels safer, somehow, to stay close to my mother even when she says it isn’t.
I know that standing out can pose its own dangers, depending on how and among whom. Cue Zora Neale Hurston: I feel most colored when I am thrown against a stark white background. The image evokes the police precinct’s mugshot as vividly as the museum’s gallery wall. I also know that being singular — or at least, the idea of being singular — has mattered to both my grandmother and my mother because it’s mattered to their survival. Moving — out, away, up from poverty — is often easier alone, dissociated from the trope of the hungry horde. But even loneliness has a lineage, and I find myself feeling for it.
* * *
Rosita Dolores Alverío was not technically an only child; her mother had abandoned her younger child, a boy, when they migrated from Juncos, Puerto Rico in 1936. But in the wake of this desperate choice, Rosita was raised like one, with the intensity of attention I recognize from my mother’s only childhood and my own. Focusing on one child mitigates the economic limitations of working-class life — and of course, raises the stakes for a return on investment. Even by the impossible standards of an immigrant mother, it’s safe to say that Rosita made good as Rita Moreno, the first Puerto Rican to become a bona fide star in the United States. She’s won all four major prizes in American entertainment — the Oscar, the Grammy, the Emmy, and the Tony — and her 1962 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Anita in the musical West Side Story remains the only Oscar ever awarded to a Latina performer.
Over time, this distinction has become a bitter sign of how tightly U.S. culture seeks to control our conditions of appearance. But in her memoir, Rita conveys the animating thrill of matriarchal ambition that first set her spinning onstage as a child dancer. In certain moments, her descriptions of their shared labor sound almost utopic:
A happy home has its own music. The house hummed with Mami’s Singer sewing machine as she worked the foot treadle. This machine was so old; it was not an electric model. All the energy came from Mami, from her foot tapping and rising and falling. It sounded like the roll of a Spanish rrrrr! As if in accompaniment, I danced in time with its pulsing, while Mami was creating headdresses and costumes for me.
I didn’t demonstrate enough talent in ballet class to warrant such a scene, but my mother did make our home into a kind of studio, ready for whatever talent might emerge for cultivation. In the “happy” immigrant home, work and play are closely intertwined by necessity. Work must become play, or play must become work, if play is to survive as a vital practice. Like my grandmother, her sisters, and the majority of Puerto Rican women immigrants to New York City, Rita’s mother first worked as a factory seamstress. At home, she turned these same skills to the fanciful project of imagining new and dramatic ways for her daughter to appear. Rita was the chosen channel for this form of dreaming, but the dream itself was more general: to produce, with the means of production at hand, a range of possible lives and the freedom to move among them.
When the doors of Hollywood opened for Rita Moreno, they didn’t open for all her possibilities. They opened for a Slave Girl, an Indian Princess, a Dusky Maiden. It was one role, really: the temporary romantic interest of the white leading man led astray by her temptations before settling down with a suitable (read: white) wife. Who can blame Rita Moreno, then, for her profound ambivalence about so-called stardom? “Cold feet” kept her from auditioning for the principal role of Maria when West Side Story was on Broadway, and her anxiety persisted even after she secured the supporting role of Anita in the film adaptation. Though Anita animated contemporary anxieties about New York’s “Puerto Rican problem,” the role was also substantial, a rare opportunity she was sure she’d somehow squander: “A shadow followed me like a backup dancer, making me worry that it would only be a matter of time before I would lose everything.”
There she is: the backup dancer, making a cameo here as a sly, flexible metaphor. If Rita’s shadow is the backup dancer, then Rita herself is surely the star. But the metaphor seems to articulate the slippage between the two positions — the backup dancer is the star’s shadow side, the constant reminder of how precarious her visibility really is. She’s on her heels, grabbing hold wherever her body touches ground. Maybe Rita felt shadowed by the roles she’d been forced to play, unable to get out from under the sense of herself as an erotic extra. Or maybe she couldn’t escape the sense that her luck would always come at someone else’s expense: she was keenly aware of replacing another Puerto Rican dancer, Chita Rivera, who’d triumphed as Anita on Broadway. She was convinced she could “never, ever be as good as Chita,” that she’d never deserve the power of her position.
She was multiplied at both ends: by everything that entered her and everything her dancing made me do, the movement she started in the living room. A culture of one.
But if the backup dancer haunts the star, she also keeps her company. “Rita the Cheetah,” as she was known in the press, would never be lonely as Anita: the role activated a rhyme of substitutes, a small crowd of Puerto Rican hopefuls passing in and out of the spotlight. In fact, Rita deliberately “sought out a friend who had played the part of Anita on a coast-to-coast tour,” eager to learn a few steps for her audition. Every dance begins in — as — someone else’s shadow. That’s just how it is. However singular her performance would turn out to be, Rita became Anita in relation to the other women who had been her. A gang of Anitas gave birth to Rita’s Anita, the gang leader.
Ultimately, it is Anita, with her active — if contentious — relationship to group identity who is West Side Story’s brightest star. It is Anita, not Maria, who seems to summon the whole urban world into being with a swirl of her purple skirts and a clap of her hands: “Here,” said the New York Times review, “are the muscle and rhythm that bespeak a collective energy.” When I imagine a world ruled by Anitas, I get a festive feeling, as if I’m climbing the fire escape to the famous rooftop scene. I can almost smell the summer-softened tar, the beer going flat, the perfumed sweat rising as banter becomes music, becomes, suddenly, a dance battle. Maybe there’s a way to wiggle free from our collective confinement without leaving each other behind. Maybe there’s a way to argue over what “America” has made of us in our own language.
From the rooftop, these dreams seem don’t seem so far off. But in her memoir, Rita Moreno asks us to stay with her in closer quarters, to find freedom in a scene where her only company is her own shadow, in a moment that’s not right for shimmying. In one of West Side Story’s most tragic turns, Anita leaves Sharks turf to deliver Maria’s message to Tony, only to be intercepted by the Jets:
When I had to play the attack scene in the candy store, I wept and broke down— right on set. It was that incredible, amazing, magical thing that happens sometimes when you’re acting and you have the opportunity to play a part so close to your heart: You pass through the membrane separating your stage self from your real self. For a time, at least, you are one person.
The “attack scene” has always been understood as an implied gang rape, which heightens the intensity of her language in this passage: why should inhabiting a scene of traumatic violence be “incredible, amazing, magical,” a restorative moment of contact with her “real self”? Trauma is usually narrated using exactly the opposite vocabulary: splitting, sundering, shattering. But for Rita Moreno, to break down is to return to a truth about her experience in the industry that her usual performance of resilience obscures: being singled out for special treatment by Hollywood’s power players had a shadow side.
Rita’s first sexual experience was what she later came to recognize as rape by a man who claimed to want to work as her agent. Immediately after the filming of West Side Story, her long-running, emotionally abusive affair with Marlon Brando would drive her to attempt suicide. Of course, these biographical details do not exactly correspond to the violation implied by the candy shop scene. Rita was never a Puerto Rican gangbanger; her working-class Washington Heights was more like my mother’s than Anita’s. And yet, the projection of these fantasies onto her body — the stereotype of her body as essentially available, disposable, and replaceable — put her in the way of real violence, mostly at the hands of white men. Becoming a star required a dangerous risk: leaving her own turf for the way her turf was rendered in show business. The candy shop wasn’t real to Rita, but the candy shop scene did feel real, with its crowd of white men curtailing her movement with threats and demands. This time, she did not have to hide her fear and anger for the sake of her career; she could dance with them.
There’s a moment in Peter Pan when Peter’s shadow runs away and Wendy intervenes to carefully stitch it to the soles of his feet: a woman’s work. I think of Rita in West Side Story as her own Wendy, mending her relationship with the shadow that would follow her everywhere in the Neverland of American show business. It’s another kind of costura, more painstaking, maybe, than the dreamwork that produced her first costumes. Here, her desire to be “one person” is not the same as a desire to escape alone, to escape intact. Instead, it reflects the difficult knowledge that she is one person only when she can bear to incorporate the parts of herself she’s disavowed.
* * *
In an interview from 1998, Jennifer Lopez refers to Rita Moreno as “the original Fly Girl,” naming her the inadvertent matriarch of the Fly Girls featured on Keenen Wayans’s hip hop driven variety show In Living Color, where Jennifer got her first big break. She shifts the focus from Rita’s moment of semi-stardom as Anita to imagine her in relation to a small collective of dancers, most of whom did not move on to fame and fortune. It’s a complicated gesture, elevating the Fly Girls by saying they have a history while at the same time pluralizing Rita’s individual achievement. She was just a chorus girl, baby. We all was chorus girls. Every genealogy of Puerto Rican performers — including the one I’m moving through in this essay — will be intimate, idiosyncratic, and provisional. But if we’re talking about the Fly Girls, specifically, it’s fair to feel like someone’s missing.
In large part because of the narrative of competition forced upon them as two Puerto Rican stars in generational proximity, Jennifer Lopez has never been very good at publicly acknowledging her debt to Rosie Perez, the In Living Color choreographer who lobbied to make her a Fly Girl in the first place. I think a lot of Latinas who came up with and through hip-hop are just beginning to see what Rosie meant to us — to mend, like Rita with her shadow, the disavowal that has often accompanied our admiration. DJ Laylo, a Bronx Dominicana, put it this way in an interview with Remezcla: “It’s a little bit of a sore spot for me because whenever I’m in predominantly white spaces, I always have people coming up to me saying, ‘Oh my god you sound like Rosie Perez.’ And I know they don’t mean it because they’re paying tribute to all that she is.”
My mother was the first one to introduce me to Rosie — we checked out Do the Right Thing from the library on VHS — but she, too, was plainly unsettled by Rosie’s accent, which she insisted had been exaggerated to make her seem Extra Rican. The theory wasn’t far-fetched; Rita was made to invent an accent she didn’t have for West Side Story. But I wasn’t really listening to my mother’s critiques. I was too mesmerized by the film’s famous opening credits — red lights, then blue — which find Rosie pumping her chest and throwing hooks in front of Brooklyn brownstones to all four minutes of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Whatever she was fighting I felt like I was fighting too, including my own resistance to her performance. Recently I’ve been asking friends how they remember feeling about the scene back in the day. The word “unapologetic” keeps coming up, which makes me wonder what — and who — we’ve grown accustomed to apologizing for. My friend Christina’s take is a little more specific: “She seemed like she wasn’t afraid of men.”
I can almost smell the summer-softened tar, the beer going flat, the perfumed sweat rising as banter becomes music, becomes, suddenly, a dance battle. Maybe there’s a way to wiggle free from our collective confinement without leaving each other behind.
In some ways, history supports Christina’s formative impression. In several interviews, Rosie recounts how she first met Spike Lee at the L.A. nightclub Funky Reggae, where he was hosting a big booty contest to promote School Daze. Rosie wasn’t having it; she’d come to the club to dance: “disgusted…I jumped on the stage — okay, so it was a speaker — and bent over shaking my ass.” It’s a parable of her performance philosophy: the speaker becomes the stage as she insists upon her objection to performance as part of the performance itself. When Spike’s bouncers came through to pull her skinny butt back down, the young director decided he liked that trash-talking Brooklyn Rican. He picked her out from the lineup and gave her an on-screen solo.
It would be a merciless eight-hour shoot that gave Rosie swollen knees and tennis elbow: he solicited the anger she’d once directed at him and worked it to the bone. It’s not an endorsement of his abusive techniques as a director to say that in the final cut her anger seems to exceed its conscription to become the sign and symbol of the borough’s unrest. In a movie that centers on the political struggles between black and white men in the world of work, that cannot imagine a role for anyone else in the battle for representation in the face of racist violence, it is a Puerto Rican woman’s persistent and plotless physical practice that frames the narrative. Who or what is her adversary as she trains for a fight we never see go down onscreen? We can’t call it. The block, the pizza parlor, the movie set itself — the site of struggle is always changing. Rosie is slick with the sweat of staying ready wherever it finds her.
Part of the reason I find myself saying “Rosie” instead of her character’s name, “Tina,” is because the scene unfolds in a liminal space between our world as spectators and the world of the film, where the story has yet to be told. When Do the Right Thing first came out, the conservative critic Stanley Crouch complained in the Village Voice that the scene was “amateurish,” nothing more than a music video. He’s wrong to complain, but right to see it like that. Rosie isn’t really Tina yet, she’s Rosie, recognizable if you know her from Soul Train, and just a Puerto Rican girl dancing if you don’t. Soul Train’s practice of using amateurs to bring the energy of the street to the screen was being developed in new directions by MTV, and Spike Lee was making major contributions to the same culture. He wasn’t the first one to cast Rosie Perez from the club floor; her “realness” had become a hot commodity in the emerging hip-hop economy. Of course, someone like Stanley Crouch was never gonna get Rosie. But his critique magnifies an anxiety about her performance shared by those who thought they did.
Soul Train’s director, Don Cornelius, liked Rosie so much that he had her dance down the line twice on her first night on set. She was out of place — a Puerto Rican in Los Angeles — which made her stand out, trigger a double take. Her light skin and tight little body gave her immediate mainstream market value. But the way she moved and spoke from within that body also seemed to threaten the investment. “Is that your real accent?” Don Cornelius asked the first time he heard her speak, turning an invisible dial down. In her 2015 memoir, Handbook for an Unpredictable Life, Rosie remembers: “Don Cornelius did not want to see how I really danced,” anymore than he wanted to hear how she really spoke.
On Soul Train Rosie was always trying to do the moves she’d learned back in the city: the Pee Wee Herman, the Roger Rabbit. At New York clubs like the Roxy and the Latin Quarter she had her eye on the male dancers “behind Whodini and Big Daddy Kane … all doing James Brown, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, and the fabulous Nicholas Brothers moves, making them their own.” Don’s early objections to Rosie’s dancing took the form of gender management: “Nononono, you’re a girl!” Of course, the (imagined) friction between her conventional femme sexiness and her hip-hop intensity is what gave her performances heat. If her body was disciplined in a satin miniskirt, stockings, and a waist-cinching belt, her face was not: that self-possessed sneer. Louie Carr — “Cutty Mack” — remembers Rosie as “aggressive and sexy and a little street, like a machine gun.” Don Cornelius wanted the rhythm of the weapon without the war.
Don’s struggle for control over Rosie — and here, he’s only an example — reveals the risk inherent in the aesthetics of realness. A musical like West Side Story was exciting, in its time, because it suggested an intimate relationship between the singing and dancing on-screen and the changing demographics of the city itself. Rita Moreno, the only actual factual Puerto Rican with a speaking role, was the linchpin of that seductive suggestion. In the plot, her dancing always starts a debate, a competition, a party. It always demands a reply. The delight we take in her call-and-response virtuosity implicates us in the project of imagining an urban world we can all inhabit. But the industry only let the provocation of Rita Moreno’s performance go so far. It didn’t matter that she mastered the choreography. That she waited her turn for dignified, complicated starring roles that never came. That she wore a white pleated skirt to the March on Washington. The game had rules for a reason: to make sure it never got really real.
But by the time Rosie Perez was born, whatever remained of the American Dream for Puerto Ricans was dead, and she was too black and too busy trying to survive an abusive childhood to play along. Rosie’s New York was post-Civil Rights: the War on Drugs had replaced the War on Poverty, and the collective trauma of ghetto life had already yielded several generations of black-brown collaborations including bugalú, salsa, and the beginnings of hip hop. White institutions were no longer the only gatekeepers crafting and legislating the representation of urban culture. Rosie’s class position and her historical position intersected to make it clear that she wouldn’t, couldn’t, and shouldn’t have to assimilate out of the world that made her.
Don Cornelius, with Soul Train, was a major player in that transformation. Starting in 1971, he opened the door to the creative power of regular-degular city kids, who brought their own bell-bottoms and hustles to set, collectively forming the living, breathing backdrop for some of the most iconic black performances of the ’70s and ’80s. But on Soul Train the backdrop was the real show — not the celebrity guests who mostly lip-synched anyway. The young dancers pulsed behind the permeable membrane of the screen. And on the other side the rest of us joined the party, turning the TV into a magic mirror. A girl who could be your half sister is doing the dance you do in the front yard on Sundays, and she’s making it famous. Next time, it could be your actual half sister. Next time, it could be you. In providing a major cultural platform to kids who rarely received the message come as you are, Don Cornelius modeled the possibility of an equivalent political platform.
In a movie that centers on the political struggles between black and white men in the world of work, that cannot imagine a role for anyone else in the battle for representation in the face of racist violence, it is a Puerto Rican woman’s persistent and plotless physical practice that frames the narrative.
But he also exploited the Soul Train dancers. Rosie remembers: “We didn’t get paid, just a Kentucky Fried Chicken two-piece lunch box — not kidding.” The prestige economy forced the dancers into a frenzy of competition, like “piranhas at feeding time.” Don Cornelius — and the other impresarios who followed in his footsteps — wanted to let in the feel of freedom, but carefully calibrated to align with market protocols and the agenda of their own enrichment. That’s life under racial capitalism, beibi. If he let Rosie move however she wanted to move, she might roll up the next night with her entire hip hop block demanding a living wage. On the other hand, if he didn’t, she might leave. One night, that’s what she did:
I walked back to the head of the line, paused, then strutted down as if I were Naomi Campbell on the runway, continued walking past Don to my seat, grabbed my things, and told him I was out.
It takes a special kind of grace to perform and stop performing in the same seamless gesture. The Soul Train line always pointed beyond the station; Rosie’s secret weapon has been her willingness to leave. In a 2017 interview with Desus and Mero, Rosie states it plainly: “I didn’t wanna be [in show business], so I wasn’t afraid of not getting a job. I was like, fuck this shit, I’m smart, so fuck y’all.” Almost nothing is more threatening to the star system than divestment from it. The star system often functions as an imperial structure of containment, a way to manage the unruly energy of a muchedumbre whose festivities incubate a revolutionary impulse. The Puerto Rican poet Luis Palés Matos warned everybody back in 1937: si … te picara un tambor de danza o guerra / su terrible ponzoña / correrá siempre por tus venas. Translation: if … you’re pricked by the drum of dance or war / that terrible poison / will run forever through your veins. This kind of inheritance doesn’t care who your mother is. This kind of inheritance could go viral.
* * *
Over time I find myself feeling disappointed in Jennifer Lopez, and this might be the moment to ask myself why. It’s a refrain among Puerto Rican women I know to say girls like that are a dime a dozen in my neighborhood. My mother says it, too — that her cousin Carmencita was more beautiful, with her heavy winged eyeliner and languorous way with a pencil skirt. Eyes like black coffee trembling in a cup. I’m not sure if we say so because we’re ashamed that she’s regular — the wrong one to represent our culture’s repressed powers — or if we’re ashamed that we’re regular, too, but without the will to say so what? Jennifer Lopez never claimed to be the most talented girl in the room. In her infamous 1998 interview with Movieline, she said, “I’m not the best … that ever lived, but I know I’m pretty good.” Being humble, for her, has never required being hidden — as we so often assume it must.
But Jennifer’s mediocrity is not the source of my disappointment. I don’t care that she can’t sing, or that she’s just okay at dancing. When I think about the fact that Keenen Wayans refused, at first, to hire her as a Fly Girl — “called her chubby and corny” — I’m grateful to Rosie for fighting for that “big-ass beautiful girl from the Bronx” with the “star smile.” I like the footage from that period, especially a little promotional clip for Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” where Janet introduces her new dancers as “Jennifer, Shawn, and Nicky: three backed-up hoes!” It’s fun to watch Jennifer fire back, “Honey we’re here to wreck shop, what’s your problem?” Taken literally, the idiom suggests the end of buying and selling, the general damage “backed-up hos” intend to do with their dancing.
If these are the moments I love best, then maybe I’m less disappointed in Jennifer Lopez than I am in the nature of stardom itself. She’s achieved what long seemed impossible for a Puerto Rican performer: race-blind roles, multimillion dollar paychecks. But that doesn’t do anything to make me feel like part of an us. Her stardom feels far-off and joyless. When I try focusing on recent interviews with her, my eye always wanders from YouTube’s main screen to the little stack of further possibilities waiting in the wings, and I can’t resist clicking aimlessly. I’m more interested in the algorithm of associations than the record of any single personality.
That’s how I spot her: Omarion’s video girl, in a red crop top, striped shorts, and gold sneakers, dancing with Bruno Mars in the January 2018 video for “Finesse.” It’s a tribute to In Living Color, and Danielle Polanco — this time I can say her name — is the Fly Girl the camera loves best, leaning out from the fire escape with her girls to call down to Bruno and his boys, a Tony-and-Maria moment made plural for our pleasure. The family tree has many branches: later I learn that she danced backup for Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson, and Beyoncé, that she was the dance captain for the Broadway revival of West Side Story. She played Consuela, an even smaller role than Anita — a backup dancer’s backup dancer. Now, the core of her career is teaching boutique classes: “Heels” at Alvin Ailey Extension and Millennium, “Vogue Femme.” Virtuosity is not what determines a dancer’s destiny in the studio as opposed to the spotlight, and I don’t find myself wishing Danielle Polanco were a star just because I could watch her dance all day. Genius has no proper place. Insisting on the absolute distinction between genius and mediocrity drags the party down; it disrupts the circulation of genius itself.
Maybe that’s why Rosie Perez felt weird when she went to the club with her friends from Soul Train and people pointed, stared: “Look, it’s the Soul Train girls!” Just a few years earlier Rosie herself had been the random amateur scouted from the crowd. What had changed, really? The club was still her home haunt, the uncanny valley between amateurism and stardom where her career played out. It’s not hard to imagine all the other Rosies on the dancefloor who’ve remained undiscovered, but still manage to steal the show when the beat drops. Then there’s the rest of us, shoulder to shoulder, an undulating wave of body heat that breaks, now and then, into open conflagration.
Genius has no proper place. Insisting on the absolute distinction between genius and mediocrity drags the party down; it disrupts the circulation of genius itself.
* * *
Three years ago in Brooklyn a new DJ night was born, spinning salsa and reggaetón and trap en español: “A Party Called Rosie Perez.” It’s organized by Christian Martír alongside DJ Suce and DJ Laylo, the same woman who bristled when the wrong people projected a resemblance. It’s gotten hot: when my friend Cassandra went, she spotted Residente from Calle 13. The first time I go, Bobbito Garcia, the legendary hip hop DJ, is at the turntables and I’m dancing with my friend Yohanna while a video projection of Rosie on Soul Train plays on the club wall. Now and then someone bumps the shaky projector and Rosie’s head gets cut off, so she looks like a doomed chicken flapping through her final bravura performance. I can see the bright shadow of her younger body pass over Yohanna’s, Rosie’s rapid pumping playing a polyrhythm over Yohanna’s more relaxed step and slide. Since we’re the party, are we Rosie Perez? Alive and moving inside the space her body’s made? The visual effect allows me to imagine that it’s possible to dance in someone’s footsteps without replacing her. To channel someone’s spirit without making her a ghost.
My reverie is interrupted when a young white boy dancing next to me taps on my shoulder and points to the screen, shouting who is that? In America, I remember, you can immerse yourself in Puerto Rican culture without knowing it. Without ever naming a name. Months later, I think of this moment while reading La raza cómica by the scholar Rubén Ríos Ávila, who offers some counter-questions: What is pleasure worth if it cannot be deciphered? What is the joy of dance good for if we can’t know its point of origin?
I understand the impulse behind the Party as my own: a form of feeling for history. In the absence of something so static or simple as a point of origin, a name is a portal — a way into the crowd as well as a way out of it.
When I leave the club my body’s still buzzing. For a moment I think I see Danielle Polanco, striking a pose on the subway platform. Up close, I see she’s just another cinnamon girl with a high bun and hoops whose skin is dewy from the sweat of a summer night. But I can’t help feeling we’re both backup dancers. Any sudden movement might start a number. We might already be in a number without knowing it, an elaborate social production we didn’t design, roles we didn’t choose, and for which we are probably not being properly compensated. But as backup dancers we’re always ready. Are you?
* * *
Carina de Valle Schorske is a writer and translator living between New York City and San Juan, Puerto Rico. She is currently at work on her first book, a psychogeography of Puerto Rican culture, forthcoming from Riverhead and tentatively titled NO ES NADA: Notes from the Other Island.
Editor: Danielle A. Jackson
Copy editor: Jacob Gross
Fact checker: Ethan Chiel
Steffan Triplett | Longreads | March 2019 | 12 minutes (3,080 words)
The place that held us together was dying. Maybe it wasn’t the place itself, but our perception of it. Amid the sulk of that summer of 2011, we tried to replicate our friendship from years before, and that meant doing things we had always done. So, I picked up my friend Elisabeth from her house, like I always had, and we drove to a meet-up destination, this time, a deli, like we always did. We stood in the parking lot until every member of the group showed up.
Even though I was warned she was coming, my stomach lurched when Sara’s teal truck drove into the parking lot. That lurch turned into anger as she left her truck and I saw the sweatshirt she was wearing, one I had given to her as a gift. I wondered, Did she do this on purpose? It was like seeing a ghost. We piled into two cars.
Sometimes the rattle of a clapper sounds over your bed. Or a ghostly draft lifts the hairs on the back of your neck, cooling your skin; or there’s an upstroke, feather light, along the inside of your forearm. A sudden lurch, maybe just a blink, then a sense of falling upward and it is there. So are you.
If we insist on defining something in terms of what it annuls then how can we grasp the essence of what is lost when it shows itself? And how can we tell if there is anything to be gained by its presence? This is the trouble with insomnia.
When I am up at night the world takes on a different hue. It is quieter and closer and there are textures of the dark I have begun paying attention to. I register the thickening, sense-dulling darkness that hangs velvety as a pall over deep night, and the green-black tincture you get when moisture charges the atmosphere with static. Then there is the gently shifting penumbra that heralds dawn and feels less like the suggestion of light than a fuzziness around the edges of your perception, as if an optician had clamped a diffusing lens over your eyes then quizzed you about the blurred shapes that dance at the peripheries of your vision. In sleeplessness I have come to understand that there is a taxonomy of darkness to uncover, and with it, a nocturnal literacy we can acquire. Read more…