The last time I danced was in February. Not this year’s February, but last year’s. It’s too many months with no contact. Now I’m walking into a hotel for one of my favorite pre-pandemic pastimes. I’m greeted by a bright welcoming face behind the check in desk. I can see her smile and she can see mine. There’s still a wall of plexiglass between us from when it was needed for protection, but seeing another human this close without masks hiding half of our faces feels incredibly intimate. I accept my room keys and head to the elevator. My finger hovers over the button, pausing in mental preparation to notice I’m about to touch a public surface and I need to have sanitizer ready to scour my skins as soon as I get to my hotel room. I let out a full exhale and remind myself that while I’ll likely still sanitize frequently, it’s no longer a mandatory survival habit.
The room is small, and I think about how there will soon be five of us here. Two in each bed and one on the floor; breathing the same recycled air for all of the hours we aren’t in the ballroom downstairs. Dancers have done this for years; cramming too many people into each room to save money since the festival tickets, private lessons, and travel costs are expensive. But this time is different. Most of us haven’t shared a room with someone outside of our household for a long time, and we’ll need to readjust to this closeness, trying to get back to how things used to be. How things were in the dance world before being in a close embrace with a stranger could be deadly. Before we feared our own friends and family members getting near us.
My roommates won’t be here for another hour or two, but I can’t wait for them. I’m too excited to get downstairs and catch the first workshop. Brazilian Zouk: Back to the Basics starts at 8pm and my stomach flutters with a mix of anticipation and doubt. Before the pandemic I had been dancing and training in Zouk for five years. I wouldn’t have been as interested in a Basics workshop back then, but after this long of not being able to enjoy this partner dance, I’m worried I’ll forget everything I knew before. The countless hours and dollars spent on technique training, practice, and teams. Can muscle memory last this long?
As I get closer to the ballroom I see the display tables lining the hallway. Vibrant festival banners, flyers and tee shirts, leggings and body suits, and glittering shoes are a sight for sore eyes. Then I see my friend that I met years ago at another festival. “Ah - hi!” we both squeal and run toward each other. There’s a brief pause before we close in on less than six feet of separation, but then we break through it and lunge at each other in excitement. “Oh it’s been so long!” She says as we rock in a joyful embrace.
“Yes, I’m nervous I won’t be able to do this anymore; that I’ve forgotten everything,” I say, stepping back with a furrowed brow and pouting mouth.
“Same! I was so sad I didn’t know if we’d ever have these festivals again. It’s been torture to be without the dance fam for this long.”
“I know, it’s been so awful and also devastating who we’ve lost,” I look down, thinking of the two instructors and a few other Zouk community members who didn’t make it through the pandemic.
My friend brings me into a comforting hug, and I notice how it feels so foreign after the time apart from others, but it’s also a welcome home, this closeness. “They’re here in spirit with us,” she wipes a tear from her eye. She had taken lessons with one of the instructors who passed and the memory of the wisdom and energy that person brought to the scene is heartbreaking in this moment of recognizing their absence.
“Are you catching this basics workshop?” I nod toward the ballroom, just as we hear warmup music starting and a mic check from the instructor.
“Yes, let’s do this,” she links her arm in mine and we head to the end of the hall.
We find a set of empty chairs along the wall and settle in to change our shoes, pulling our Taygras out of their bags. She’s wearing a magenta leopard print bodysuit and I’m wearing galaxy-patterned leggings with a tee shirt from a 2018 festival. We jump onto the dance floor and join the crowd in the warm up movements. I see a few other friends, including one of my roommates on the other side of the dance floor. We wave excitedly then refocus on the instructor leading us through slow head movement to warm up our necks and prevent injury.
After the workshop a group of us heads to a restaurant down the block for a late dinner. For most of us, this is the first time we’ve eaten indoors with friends in a long time, and it’s almost magical. Our voices fill the otherwise-empty restaurant with exclamations about how good it feels to dance again, but also how nervous we are for the social. What if we’ve forgotten how to lead or follow, all the technique we had practiced for years? What if we get hurt? Is it really safe to get as close as Zouk dancing requires?
That last question hangs in the air in a moment of stillness. The medical experts throughout the country (and world) have declared that it is safe, the virus has been contained and we can feel free to live lives that involve normal contact, as long as someone isn’t showing symptoms of illness. But after nearly two years of fear of being near other people, it’s a hard concept to fully accept.
We clear the table and head back to the hotel. My roommate and I grab extra keys for the others staying in our room and head up to our floor. We each grab a side of one of the beds and lie back for a moment, taking in the reality of where we are and how long we’ve missed this.
“Well,” I turn to her, “do you know what you’re wearing tonight?”
“No, I definitely need your help with that!” She jumps up and unzips her suitcase. “I brought six different outfits for the socials since I just couldn’t decide. Also, what if styles have changed or something since the last festival I went to and we’re supposed to wear something different now?” Her shoulders tense toward her ears in worry.
“I’m pretty sure the Zouk scene didn’t become extra fancy or different while we were all isolating. That would be pretty unfair. I think we should go for what makes us feel good right now, so we can focus more on the dance than what we’re wearing.”
“True,” she starts pulling outfits out and holding them up in the mirror. “How do you like this one?” She has a purple and white zebra-striped romper held up to her.
“Love it! What shoes would you wear with that one?”
“Maybe these?” She pulls out a pair of nude three-inch heel ballroom shoes covered in rhinestones.
“Hot, but don’t forget this is Zouk and you’re rusty… would those be dangerous?”
“Ugh, you’re so right. I should find something shorter for this first night so I don’t fall on my ass doing turns or rotisserie.”
“Ha, yep, I think I’ll be going more casual tonight and sticking with flats to avoid just that.”
By 11pm the rest of the roommates have arrived and we’ve been catching up, getting ready, and sharing our mix of excitement and nervousness about the social. We talk about the workshops happening the following day and how it’s been so long since we’ve been on dancers’ schedules. We’re not sure we can make it to the end of the social at 4am, and then especially to the 11am combre workshop after that.
“I feel like I’ve learned to sleep a lot more during the pandemic, so if y’all find me snoozing on the side of the dance floor please pick me up and bring me back here,” one roommate asked with a wink.
“Yes, me too! I feel like making it to 2am is ambitious enough for me for this first night. I’m guessing we’ll also be super sore tomorrow too. Watch those necks, ladies!”
The roommates nod in agreement and one touches her neck just thinking about circular head movement and how rusty we all are with it.
At midnight we make our way down to the ballroom and are met with the distant familiarity of dance social humidity. The mix of sweat and joy in the room creates a thick air being sliced through with the beats and lights from the DJ booth. We take it all in and start looking for partners.
“Oh I love this song, let’s go!” One of the ladies from our room is a lead, so she pulls another roommate onto the floor.
I scan the room and then find a friend from our apprentice team years ago. We briefly catch up on how we’ve been holding up and then rush to the middle of the dance floor to start out the night’s dances. The right side of my face touches the left side of his as our torsos and hips connect. Our arms and hands find their positions and we start with a shared inhale in the embrace. Our heartbeats find each other, then connect with the song. Our collective weight shifts one way, then the other, then into the basic step. The music guides us as our movements grow and we create shapes in time with the beat and lyrics. This is what has been missing. The distance between me and other people for so long made me unsure I could get back to Zouk, but I’m here, with the other dancers and we’re reconnecting. We’re finding our way back to each other and I never want to lose this again.