World Dance Party bridges the gaps between ethnic groups and generations in Seattle's (some say America's) most diverse neighborhood. Now can it get the rest of the world dancing?
“This party will increase your faith in humanity,” Vu Le promised. It was hard to imagine any party could do that, especially in the depths of the last election season. But damned if he wasn’t right.
A little back story: Vu is the executive director of Seattle’s Vietnamese Friendship Association; he seems to take the "Friendship" part of its mission, and the needs of other immigrant communities, as much to heart as the “Vietnamese” part. The party in question was the seventh installment of a singular event called World Dance Party, which he and other volunteers pull together thrice each year down here in 98118, Southeast Seattle, the zip code that, apocryphally or not, is now firmly established in myth and the minds of its proud residents as the most ethnically diverse in the United States.
The idea is simple. Set up a sound system and invite dance troupes and instructors from various cultural quarters to give 20-minute lessons in their native dances. Offer cheap drinks and a potluck buffet so dancers can keep their strength up. (Everyone's a participant at this party, and no one pays admission.) And let the dancing begin — terpsichorean international speed-dating, a high-stepping congress of nations.
The dancing had already begun when I arrived at that night's dance hall, the Filipino Community Center on MLK Way, early in the evening of a chilly November Friday (the early is so old folks and kids can join in). Three teenaged girls in matching tights and Ts were doing some slick synchronized hip hop moves (at least it wasn’t synth pop) while a couple hundred people watched, gnoshed, and socialized. I joined the queue at the buffet tables, piled with the usual potluck chips, dips, salads, casseroles, and desserts, plus a delicacy labeled “Sephardic salmon.” I got a plastic cup of wine; everyone else seemed to be drinking soda.
The music soon grew more exotic and the dancing more participatory. Drums talked from the speakers, and an ebony fireplug of a man wearing an elegant embroidered kaftan and kufi busted some blindingly fast steps. His name was Magnus, I learned, he was from Sierra Leone, he'd walked on at the first WDP, and he could turn a Methodist meeting into a dance party.
The sessions followed in giddy succession. Salsa. Cambodian folk dance, a stately ring twining around the hall. The Central Area Senior Center Sliders, a well-honed line-dance group who’ve also been stalwarts since the first World Dance Party. An ebullient Latina who convinced even my two left feet that meringue is easy. A belly dancer who got even the boys and old folks rolling their abs. A Chinese folk dance troupe, wearing matching white-collared pink shirts, some of whose members would be called matronly if they weren’t so trim and spry, got everyone out on the floor — not for Chinese but for mitteleuropean (the program said Romanian) folk dances. First a rollicking polka and then — stomp-stomp, slap your shoe — the Austrian schuhplattler. And you thought Southeast Seattle was just Asian/African/Latino/Yankee/Orthodox Jewish.
Sure enough, there was one young guy in the crowd who, though he hadn’t worn lederhosen, sported the tooled leather pouch to go with it, plus a feathered Tyrolean trilby he’d painted in jewel-like colors. He danced the schuhplattler and he danced to everything else. Everyone — white, black, and all shades between, little kids, grannies, couples, hipsters, immigrants of almost every stripe (I did not see any hijabs) — danced to everything, without fear or favor. Especially the Chinese Romanian folkdancers, who plunged exuberantly into the salsa, hip hop, and bellydancing.
I saw one Seattle housing official and one city council member — Mike O’Brien — at World Dance, with their children. They were dancing too, not taking the public pulse or working the room. “I bring my kids here so they can see what a great dancer their father is,” O’Brien explained, sipping from a Corona.
Vu Le and the other WDP organizers were shaking it up like everyone else. One of them couldn’t stop her happy feet long enough to talk, but I managed to buttonhole Vu. He explained that World Dance Party grew out of an “Aging Your Way” gathering hosted by Senior Services, a nonprofit that operates senior centers here and throughout the city. The attendees were seeking ways to bridge racial, linguistic, and generational divisions, which according to a sociological rule of thumb grow deeper as communities grow more heterogenous.
“What kind of community would you like to grow old in?” a convener asked, and a light bulb went off in Vu Le’s head. As he recalls, he said (no kidding), “When I get old, I want to live in a place that has multicultural dance parties.” Others helped pick up the idea — Teresa Dang and Tagoipah Mathno are WDP's cochairs — and the rest is history. Or dancing.
Magnus returned and led more dances, by example and command rather than instruction. One by one he summoned people — women and men, including the fellow in the Tyrolean hat — from the circle the formed around him. The two would crouch down wrestler-style, with arms thrust out to the sides, and stamp around locked in a staring face-off. Was it a warrior dance, a vehicle to show your strength and fearlessness? It certainly looked that way when a burly Zimbabwean fellow in a jaunty fedora faced off against Magnus. They grinned and shook hands afterward: "Thank you, brother!" I couldn’t help dreaming: In a neighborhood where young men shoot each other with depressing regularity over stupid slights and grudges, this would be a great way to resolve differences.
World Dance Party’s founders know they’re onto something, and they’d love to give it away. They’ve created a toolkit — a plug-and-play package of plans and paperwork for any community anywhere who’d like to host its own dance party. “We would love to have WDP spread all over the world,” says Vu Le. Next stop is Seattle's South Park neighborhood, which will host the next World Dance Party. The WDP folks are talking about throwing a party at May's Folklife Festival. If they win the Nobel Peace Prize someday, you heard it here first.
My one fear is that some multinational feel-good marketer will co-opt the idea. Imagine the Coca Cola World Dance Party®: “I’d like to teach the world to dance….”
You can help keep the commercial out of community. Skip the Coke, and start dancing now.