After Election Day, Trump loyalists threatened assaults on vote-counting centers in Arizona and Philadelphia. In response, others took to the streets to demand every vote be counted, not in protest but in joy and dance. Days later, when news spread that Joe Biden had clinched victory, his supporters erupted in spontaneous public celebrations with dancing and music in cities across the country.
These dance celebrations — the most recent and visible manifestation of years of in-the-trenches organizing, registration and activism — are not a new feature in American life and politics. They are part of a centuries-long history of marginalized groups using street dance as a revolutionary and celebratory tactic. From the church bells and street gatherings of the 18th century to the can-can-dancing drag queens outside the West Village’s Stonewall Inn in 1969, street dance has been an icon of resistance to oppression by marginalized people.
At various moments throughout U.S. history, those disenfranchised from the corridors of power have taken to the streets, using movement and noise as emblems of resistance. The streets in turn have become a battleground in which contests between enclosure and access, control and freedom and assent and dissent have played out. Conversely, in all eras of this republic, forces of authority have sought to control, contain and silence public expression: In the First Great Awakening of the 18th century, the Calvinist theologians Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather excoriated the unrestrained singing and bodily expression of evangelical worshipers. Yet in the summer of 1740, the street preacher James Davenport led an uprising in New London, Conn., in which public dance and song were explicitly revolutionary. As the historian David C. Harlan writes, “Davenport would scream at the top of his lungs and sometimes throw off his clothes, his followers would sing and dance along behind him.”
And in the 1840s, the Utopian religious sect of the Shakers were mocked or persecuted for their conviction that the combination of celibacy, singing and shared dancing might provide a path to the sacred: “For introducing the dance into their worship, the Shakers … were charged with indulgence in the wildest orgies; with fiddling, telling fortunes, playing cards, drunkenness, and most often, dancing naked,” wrote the historian Edward D. Andrews. “But they held steadfastly to the doctrine that dancing was the highest expression of joy and thankfulness.”
Beginning in the 1890s, social reformers who tried to uplift the working poor sought at the same time to control the “noise” of immigrant street vendors’ cries. The New York City health commissioner’s 1908 General Order 47 cited all manner of prohibited noises but was primarily prosecuted against immigrant “vendors, musicians, and shouters.”
This practice continued into the 20th century. In the 1910s, suffragists were beaten and imprisoned when they slipped away from police, like the dancers on the second and third nights of Stonewall, to pop up again and chain themselves to the railings of Buckingham Palace and the White House, before being dragged away to face imprisonment and force-feeding. Civil rights protesters’ bodies “occupied” physical space, anti-Vietnam Yippies linked arms in the imported Japanese washoi dance at the Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago’s Grant Park in 1968, and disco, “a music of liberation for gay white men in the early 1970s … placed the bodies of its audience on display,” as Gillian Frank writes.
In the 1970s, hip-hop’s interventions into and fleet occupations of public space sparked restrictions on the purchase of DD batteries for oversized boomboxes or spray-cans of acrylic paint: the corrugated-cardboard dance platforms of B-boys break-dancing contested control of sidewalks just as did the visual noise of subway graffiti, whose eradication later became a signature issue for New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in the 1990s. In 2011, during Occupy Wall Street street parties, the NYPD physically assaulted dancers, brutalizing bodies to reclaim control of public space. Hip-hop and Indigenous dance have shared the streets at Black Lives Matter protests since 2013.
Of course, there is also a particular resonance today, in the era of covid-19, to the body as a site for physical expression of celebration. On one side, viral campaign videos capture John Lewis and Michelle Obama dancing, while on the other, they tout President Trump’s “miraculous” covid-19 recovery in his spasmodic jerking to “YMCA.” After Biden’s projected win, Ashkia Randy Trujillo in Albuquerque jumped out of his car in a line of stopped traffic, horns blaring, and spontaneously broke into a powwow-style Men’s Dance. Public noise — in the visual medium of dance no less than the sounding medium of song — is thus a weapon. As Fela Kuti of Nigeria said about music, a “weapon of the future”: a mutable, portable, temporally fluid expression of resistance to constraint, of dancing a new world into being.
It is an astonishing and fitting historical irony that, precisely because the Trump administration’s chaotic response to the coronavirus largely prohibited dance gatherings in private settings, safer behavior mandated that the parties celebrating his downfall should happen in public. The immediacy, size and sheer joy of these celebrations should be so evident, enticing and indeed viral: Bodies moving in space evoke physical reactions not only from participants, but also from viewers, literally eliciting physical responses in the viewers’ muscles. Dance is intoxicating and viral — bodies in motion set other bodies into motion: in the street, in the corridors of power and even in the most sequestered sanctums.
We are seeing the last days of an administration that used tear gas and police batons to clear citizens’ bodies from the space of D.C.’s Lafayette Square to enable a Bible-waving photo op, but which finds itself confronted by massive chanting and dancing crowds who line the streets outside a White House that now resembles an impromptu fortress.
Americans are dancing a renewed nation into existence, as marginalized and silenced people have long done. On those unexpectedly balmy and joyous nights in November 2020, dancing together became, once again, a profound political action as well as a profound physical catharsis.