When I am in a situation where I have to dance, which happens rarely, I revert to cheesy and irrefutably ugly dance moves like the lawn sprinkler, the disco, or the Cotton-Eye Joe, all while grinning horribly. I don’t even attempt at beauty or grace. I dance sarcastically. I want to show everyone that I have chosen to dance like this.
I long ago realized that looking like you’re having fun in public is for idiots. At parties, I shunned the folks who closed their eyes and waved their hands in the air without a care, like no one was watching them dance like that, so ridiculously, all weird and too close to pantomiming sex. Someone was always watching and being judgmental. For instance I was always watching and being judgmental. I was grim; I was sharp. Insincerity was, I believed, a fixture of intelligent life. "Dance like nobody is watching?" Please. I danced like everyone was watching and judging me. I danced like my ancestors—who I imagined were ancient and stern, generations and generations of Chinese men and women who had survived centuries of hardship—were watching me. This is what I told Emily that night. I shouted it into her ear as I did the Macarena. Emily was the one who had cajoled me into partying at the local joint called The Get-Down Jones.
"What are you doing?" She watched in horror as I began to do that move in which you "grocery shop" and place top-shelf items in your shopping cart. "I dance like this," I shouted, "because my ancestors are watching me!"
The ceiling suddenly caved in with a great crash and asbestos rained down on us all. Partyers screamed and ran towards the walls. Others remained right where they were and continued dancing, because this roof-falling could have easily been part of the disco’s theme that night (Anarchy Is Groovy). I coughed, grabbed Emily’s hand, and headed for the exit, but stopped when I heard my name behind me.
"Deng Cijia, AKA Audrey Deng," bellowed a chorus. I spun around.
There were probably about three-dozen of them there, all silvery and cobwebby. A cool mist hung around them. Some were short, some were a little taller than that; some were thin, some were fat, some had high cheekbones, others had faces without shadows. Many wore eyeglasses. All of them were frowning at me. I looked around. I saw my mother’s eyes in one ghost’s translucent face; my father’s ears there, my grandmother’s way of standing with both feet perfectly parallel, a cousin’s dimples. They all looked so familiar. I even saw a hoary person who looked just like me, if I were born a century earlier. Same chin and everything, same gorgeous ears. We stared at each other until she cracked her knuckles loudly. She wore vaguely modern clothing, but others wore robes to their ankles. Some wore elaborate shoes. Some wore tall hats. Around me were men and women, young, old, all Chinese, all glaring at me in a way I at once recognized and feared.
"Oh my god," I whispered. "Are you my ancestors?"
"You bet your butt we’re your ancestors," roared a man with long arms. He swooped before me, soft silver cheeks trembling. "We’re your ancestors, and we’re angry at you!"
"What are my ancestors doing here?" I turned to the DJ, the closest authority figure.
"Make some noise!" yelled DJ Walter Street. "We’ve got ancestors in the house tonight!" Perspiration returned afresh to his face; DJ Street hadn’t expected the club to spring for holograms at his very first gig. It was a crazy honor. "Lasers!" he screamed. He slid up every notch that could be slid up on the controller board before him.
"Lasers!" chanted the crowd, pumping their fists in time to the thundering beat. "Lasers, lasers, lasers!"
"It’s real." I yelled. "They’re not lasers, I don’t think! Help me!"
A ghostly bald man with a small moustache and round spectacles hobbled forward and yanked my wrist and dragged me to the center of the dance floor with all the ancestors watching. One tall and lean spirit squinted at me. I cowered before the crowd.
"Your dancing," my ancestors collectively hissed, "is terrible."
"My dancing?" I asked. "What do you mean?"
"You heard us!"
"Wait," I said. "Wait, I know you. You’re my great-grandfather. I’ve seen photos of you, like super old photos."
"And I looked amazing!" howled the tall and lean spirit, spraying icy spit.
"I’m confused," I said. I made the "time-out" sign with my hands. "You’re my ancestors. Okay. So why are you here, being so mean to me? I am simply here dancing with my friend Emily. Emily?" But Emily was at the bar, getting a tequila sunrise. She waved, and mouthed, just one moment.
"‘Dancing,’" said the woman closest to me. "The key word here."
"What?" I asked.
"You say you dance like your ancestors are watching," said the woman, breathing heavily. Mist came out of her nostrils in twin streams. "And then you dance so terribly. You dance like an idiot. These moves are not groovy. If you dance like your ancestors are watching," she continued, "you need to dance better."
"Dancing?" I said. "Really? That’s it? You don’t like the way I dance?" I grinned widely and relaxed my shoulders. "Surely you’re overreacting."
Without a word, my ancestors began to mimic me and my dance moves. The mashed potato. The Cotton-Eye Joe. Around me I saw ridicule, unhappiness, and discomfort performed on ghostly limbs. The Macarena was, I suddenly saw, the dance of cowards. Hula dancing was for the fearful. Only the truly depressed could execute the disco.
They stopped. They looked around. No one could make eye contact with each other. After moving like that, how was eye contact possible? I stared at the floor.
"Oh," I sighed.
"Yeah," said my great-grandfather. "That’s what you look like. Like an idiot."
"I dance like this," I said, "because I don’t want to like dishonor you, my ancestors, is what I meant."
A wall of sound erupted from the ancestors, but my great-grandfather raised his hand. "The coward deserves a chance to explain herself," he said to them. He nodded at me. "Go on, coward."
"Listen," I protested. "This isn’t fair. Why didn’t you appear when I peed in a national park? Where were you when I took candy from a baby? How about all those bank robberies, all my dishonorable acts?"
"Here’s the thing," said a woman with large feet. "We couldn’t care less how you choose to amuse yourself or make a living. Do what you like! Rob whomever! We don’t care about what you do with your life. But when you call upon us to account for how you live your life, i.e. your happiness," she said, "and blame us for your feeling of a lack of freedom? That’s when we come down and give our particularly wimpy and resentful descendants a talking-to."
"You say you dance like your ancestors are watching," shouted my great-grandfather, "and we are! And we are so shamed by your performance on the dance floor that we came down here to ask you: why do you dance like this, and blame us?"
"I’ve been dancing like this because I don’t want to make a fool out of myself!" I stomped my foot. Asbestos fell from above. I looked up at the hole in the ceiling. The Get-Down Jones was still fully operational, and many were working the asbestos into their dance moves. I looked down at my sneakers. I shrugged.
"I don’t know," I said quietly. "Part of me thinks I’m better than everyone else for being tongue-in-cheek all the time. It seems moral of me, initially, to be ‘on.’ But really, irony saves me from possible embarrassment. It’s like wearing a fedora: you have to hate yourself and the fedora in order to wear it, and you have to hate yourself for wearing it, for choosing to wear it, for seeing it in a store and putting it on your head. Maybe you wore the fedora as a joke; then you bought it, as a joke; then you wore it once, as a joke. And eventually you wear the fedora everywhere, as some kind of felty wink at the world. Similarly, I dance like this for protective reasons: preemptive humiliation to guard myself against cruel crowds."
"Who’s watching you?" demanded my great-grandfather.
I glanced over each shoulder. No one was watching except Emily, who was still at the bar, waiting for her drink. I gave her a thumbs up. She nodded slowly.
"Not to mention you’ve had difficult lives," I continued, addressing my ancestors. "You’ve lived through difficult times. And here I am, in New York, in good circumstances yet I find myself in adulthood completely unable to feel free. Instead of feeling free I feel a tremendous pressure to make the most of my hard-won freedoms, to use them honorably. Growing up, I chose more and more of my own freedoms: choices that have hurt me, disappointed me, freedoms that made me sad and anxious and angry. I’d stop and think: what a mess I’ve made with my freedom! I gave up at some point. It was too disappointing. I felt like a failure in my inability to choose my freedoms, or rather the unhappy results of my choices. What a mess I’ve made. But in public, in order to maintain the illusion of my expanding my freedom while really capping them, I realized I needed irony, because its promise of distance would allow me to keep my freedoms visually intact but emotionally at bay. I think about how these freedoms of choices in my family have led to my existence, and how unhappy I feel despite all this effort, and how happy I should feel, and then—and then—and then I break into a move like the hokey-pokey."
"What does the hokey-pokey truly express?" asked my great-grandfather.
"It’s just that I care deeply about what my family—my parents, cousins, grandparents—might think about my choices," I said. "After all they’ve done for me, I don’t want to alienate them with who I am. The hokey-pokey is my way of coping."
"Audrey you need to dance," said my great-grandfather, "like your ancestors are watching, and your ancestors want you to truly GET DOWN."
"Like there’s no tomorrow."
"Like it’s the end of the world."
"Yes, like the world will end tonight, or early tomorrow morning."
"Someday you’ll join us, Audrey," said her great-grandfather. "And once you’re here, there’s no way you can dance with your friends like this."
"What do you mean?" I asked. I searched through the fog of my ancestors for Emily, who was leaning against the bar now, bargaining for more grenadine syrup. "What do you mean?" I repeated. I began to cry, despite myself.
"Dancing isn’t allowed when you’re dead," said an ancestor. "Neither are Pop Rocks, or stone fruits. We don’t know why. When you’re dead, you just kind of watch TV all day. We are neither free nor unfree. We don’t really do anything. We don’t have all these cool freedom-to’s, or freedom-from’s, or that many channels. We don’t celebrate holidays or birthdays at all, except when The Nanny is on. Then we get crazy, a little."
"It’s not Emily’s birthday," I said.
At that moment Emily turned to me and winked with her whole long body and mouthed something, something like Lasers! or Later! I’d met Emily during my bank-robbing endeavors, but our shared love of taking candy from babies took our collaboration to the next level. We came to be good friends. We went to parks together and found babies and took their candy. Then, as the sun set, we would sit by the river with our lollipops and sour candies and gummy bears spread out on a bench between us and joke about how dumb and surprised the baby had looked when we took their candy. "He was like dur dur dur where’s my candy?" Emily would say, making a dumb face on her lovely features. "I’m a dumb baby, how would I know?" I’d respond.
I straightened up and wiped the snot off my nose. "You’re right," I said. "I’m wasting my time. I could be enjoying my time with Emily, and not feeling anxious about how I dance and look to others. If I go on like this," I continued, "I will spend my whole life anticipating judgment. I will never be completely or truly happy, generous, or kind."
The ancestors nodded in agreement.
"I used to dance like you," piped up a soft voice. I turned around to see the ghostly woman I first observed, who looked just like me, though I now noted that she was definitely a couple years younger, perhaps in her late teens. She wore a simple button-down under a sweater, plain trousers, and had a dark dot on her left eyebrow like mine. She stepped forward from the thick mist and smiled sadly at me, her living descendant, then looked out into the crowd of moving limbs, loose tongues, unbridled happiness. "I used to dance like you," she repeated. "Unhappily, that is. I was so scared of feeling free, of showing true, fine emotion. I always did what was expected of me or what I thought was expected of me by others, or by the government, which made me so frightened and scared all the time, and then resentful and angry at those closest to me: my family, friends, neighbors. Eventually I was angry with everyone for my feeling unfree, and I was jealous of all those who seemed happy, those able to speak truthfully. I blamed everyone around me for the fact that I lived like this, in constant fear. And so I danced in fear," she said. Tears began to brim around my young ancestor’s eyes. She brought her sleeve up to wipe her face but suddenly stopped, mid-swipe, to stare at DJ Walter Street, who was now screaming, eyes shut, into a microphone, encouraging the crowd to dance on, baby, like the world would end tonight, like the world would end tonight or maybe early tomorrow morning, baby, so let’s dance. The volume turned up to howls of approval. More and more people were joining the dance floor. Meanwhile, Emily was walking slowly back towards us with her orange drink, her liquid sunrise, her sun in a cup, sip.
My ancestor’s face fell. "How I wish," she said, voice trembling, "that I could’ve danced like this."
"We implore you," whispered my great-grandfather, "to dance freely. To dance happily. Living in constant fear or shame is not fun. Living in expectation of judgment is not fun. We are not going to hurt you. In fact, we can’t. In fact, we love you, and we will love you no matter what, in the end."
Louise took my chin. "Please be a little less stupid," she said. "Dance how you want to dance. If you dance like all your ancestors are watching, dance knowing that we want to see you bust a genuine move, even if it’s bad, even if it looks weird, or wrong, or funny. Try it anyway, and see if it makes you happy." They both leaned in, and I felt an otherworldly chill brush across my skin. "You’ll be okay."
I smiled and blew my nose into my shirt. When Emily returned I kissed her on the cheek. My ancestors went back home and I closed my eyes, listened a bit, and finally raised my hands to the night sky above, asbestos imitating stars.