dancing close to home

By Emma Tome


My mom lives alone, about a thirty minute drive away, in the condo complex where my two sisters and I grew up. There’s a sprawling rosemary bush out front, planted the Easter after I turned two, kept neatly shorn where it meets the sidewalk. When our phone calls started filling with concerns –about her computer’s anti-virus software update, changing the smoke alarm battery, the new electricity bill –I asked my mom if she might start keeping a list, so I could come spend a Sunday afternoon each month helping check everything off. A promise I have kept, mostly.

On a recent visit, I idly asked her if I seemed taller. This was a silly question, given that I’m now in my thirties. Why did I feel such illusory largeness inside my childhood home? Why did I test our conversation with a question about my body?

Of course, here, perhaps more than anywhere else, my senses are shaped by the imprint of memory. Sometimes, home feels like a place where I need to give account, be measured. If these visits are a check on how credible my performance of adulthood might be, I usually fail by one measure or another: when I collapse on the couch, when I stuff myself too full, when I give in to bickering. But these acts make a ridiculous rubric. I want to learn to love this nearness, and all the things that it reveals.

Emma’s hands lifted in front of their chest
Photos courtesy of Emma Tome, gestures by Randee Paufve. [ID: Emma’s hands lifted in front of their chest. They wear a white button down top.]

My older and younger sisters now both live on the east coast, and the last several months are the first time I’ve been the only one of us close to home. My mom is from Maryland, my stepmom is from Kansas, and my dad is from Okinawa, Japan. I grew up in Novato, sheltered by my parents’ choices to leave their childhood homes –steeped in the suggestion that the place where you grow up is not where you become who you are meant to be.

I suspect that my parents attach some prestige to my sisters being far away, even if (or perhaps because) it means shelving some fears about their own mortality. Fears I try to empathize with even as I gingerly plumb the possibility of caring for them as they age: who will tend to me when my body starts to fail?

In Fog Beast’s The Big Reveal(2019) –a lush, playfully dystopian dance theater reimagination of the corporate conference vernacular, a tech company (with the motto “SYN-ER-GY: SYNERGY!”) reveals their latest innovation: The Wailana (performed by Wailana Simcock), an immortal android in the Companion Series, outfitted with ambiguous ethnicity, fluent in over one hundred languages, and programmed for perfect empathy. A more-than-human solution for all-too-human alienation.

Seeing that show was a gift of coincidence. I passed by the Asian Art Museum every day on my way home from work, and one Thursday I remembered that it was probably open late. Something felt fated when I arrived –just in time for the opening ritual, incantations echoing in the atrium, naming our ancestors and their places, knitting together eternal questions about human history, migration, and belonging.

I had recently moved back from a year in Colorado, tacking between heartbreaks and jobs. In that evening, so much of my inner searching was gently reflected, stilled. In Waliana Simcock’s talk about gender, language, and land. In dance and music giving form to the exquisite contradictions our bodies endure in modern work. It all suggested that there existed some forgiving, tender network undulating through this Bay Area home-place and beyond, a place I knew, but had not always felt known to.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve lingered here as someone who feels they have something to prove. Have I come back because it’s easy? Because it’s hard? Sometimes home feels like a place where, despite my best efforts, I will always be a child. But if I remember the gifts of childhood –boundless play and curiosity, a way of teaching those tutored in disillusionment to see differently –this helps me weather those feelings of fraudulence, vulnerability, and those sometimes bigger emotions than a body can manage. I remember that growing up is not finding a way to outrun failure, but finding a home in one’s body.

Emma’s hands lifted in front of their chest.
Photos courtesy of Emma Tome, gestures by Randee Paufve. [ID: Emma’s hands lifted in front of their chest. They wear a white button down top.]

In The Happiest Season (2020) a closeted lesbian (Harper, played by Mackenzie Davis) brings her girlfriend (Abby, Kristen Stewart) home for Christmas, but insists on keeping their relationship a secret. (Harper treats Abby horribly; their secret gets out; Abby stays with her in the end). The film didn’t garner much critical praise, and earned especially literal criticism from viewers yearning for the promised feel-good queer holiday classic. I wondered if the screenplay –conceived by Clea DuVall, based on her own life’s events –was suggesting that to be queer is to be intrinsically disinterested in things being easy. Or perhaps the movie was quietly encouraging viewers to finally break up with whatever version of Harper had been lingering in their own lives.

I wish that my own “coming out” didn’t so much resemble Harper’s. At 22, I kissed my first to-be girlfriend one summer night, sitting on the sidewalk in front of my mom’s house, in front of that sprawling rosemary bush. I was staying with my mom as she was recovering from surgery (which didn’t stop her from coming out to check up on us). No sooner was I back inside than I was peppered with questions, admonitions, warnings. I don’t know why I tried to be honest with her then, when I could barely be so with myself.

Whatever process I had was circumspect, held in that container of relationship but never presented as an absolute fact. Later that summer, I moved to Okinawa, not far from where my father grew up. I never introduced my visiting girlfriend as such to anyone apart from my close friends, and eventually some trusted co-workers. I unquestioningly assumed that to make home here, to find closeness with my relatives, meant that it was essential to obscure this one vital truth.

Yet this young queerness found quiet shelter in Okinawa, too. My first “butch” haircut was a signal hidden in plain sight among all the high school girls I taught who had the same one. My work wardrobe slowly filled with colorful men’s kariyushi shirts. I grew devoted to Gu Ju Ryu karate, joined my neighborhood triathlon team. Movement was my way of finding home as I learned Japanese. I smiled when one of my obasan joked over how much more sense it would make if I were a man (or at least that’s what I thought she said).

After moving back home, moving away, moving back again, seeing The Big Reveal marked a new kind of homecoming. It left me with an urgent desire to express beyond language in the way I saw those dancers could. My younger sister told me about Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, and I called the next day to see if I could enroll in Robin Nasatir’s Introduction to Modern series, though it had already begun the week prior. After the first class, I was enraptured, almost to the point of fear. How would I steward this newfound love? Would my body cooperate? Was it too late to commit to this thing I couldn’t yet fully name, but that I now felt so lucidly I was always supposed to?

Emma's hands come together over their sternum.
Photos courtesy of Emma Tome, gestures by Randee Paufve. [ID: Emma’s hands come together over their sternum. Left palm on top of right hand. They wear a white button down top.]

Not long after I started coming to classes at Shawl-Anderson, Frank Shawl, co-founder of the studio with his partner Victor Anderson, passed away. Though I had never met him, I went to his overflowing memorial, wanting to witness his spiritual imprint. Robin urged me to leave a video message in the booth set up for remembrances. I rambled on over how grateful I felt to him and Victor, for being partners in a time when it was so hard to be so, and for making that house into a dancing home for so many.

“I have arrived, I am home.” This is a meditation offered in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition, an invitation to return to the home we can always access: our bodies and breath. I think this is a dancer’s practice, too, with one crucial amendment: if the still body does not offer home, the moving body might make it so.

Early on in the pandemic, alongside so many of us, I lurched into dancing at home. At first, it was fun –I sent my family jokey dance videos, organized my grad school classmates for a home Zoom rendition of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece, following the instructions the company gave in the New York Times. I opened an instagram account so I could take live Cunningham classes (but never actually did).

Fearful, flailing through important decisions, I soon fell into a depression. It felt like my inner world mirrored the mounting crises so apparent during that first pandemic summer, like I’d flung my body down an unending cavern, the last of some potential energy draining away. I lost any will to dance, found computer choreography impossible to follow, never felt still enough in my own skin to surrender to movement. The sense memory of bodies dancing together in space felt totally lost. Something I wouldn’t touch, even if I could. Marching, masked, through downtown Oakland, was the last time I would move with so many others for months and months.

Trying to ease back into my body, I joined Suzanne Beahrs’ three-week online improvisational “playshop” in the early weeks of 2021. We tried Steve Paxton’s “small dance,” standing in one place, noting all the minute protections the body offers to keep itself upright. William Forsythe’s room writing, tracing the architecture of a space with our limbs. Something started opening again in me, wayfinding in the textures and geometry of home. Once, I lost track of time on a walk and called in from the Rockridge BART parking lot, the din of passing traffic above a stochastic score.

Suzanne said that many of her improvisations are inspired by teaching small children, and lent me a book, which I used to make a movement class for my housemate’s young daughter and her homeschool kindergarten classmates while we sheltered in place. We made sculpture gardens out of our bodies, learned some movement language–heavy, light; soft, hard; slow, fast –and tested out the terms. They talked readily about safety, death, the stories they saw in each other. They grew taller.

After getting to know people who have been dancing for much longer, I recognize the gift of beginning when I did. To be sure, it takes me a while to figure out new choreography, and then to stop pantomiming. Enthusiasm is no substitute for skill, as much as I wish it were. But this late start spared me the expectation of dancing as a little girl. I am lucky to experience this practice as a chiefly liberatory one.

Close up of Emma’s palms facing up, relaxed fingers, flexed wrists.
Photos courtesy of Emma Tome, gestures by Randee Paufve. [ID: Close up of Emma’s relaxed hands with palms facing up, wrists flexed. They wear a crisp white button down top. Forearms are exposed.]

What marks the end of a beginning? I worry some at the risk of announcing my love of this practice here, pinning it to language, stirring this seed too soon. All the unknown futures in which it flourishes and falters will shelter together here on the page. I suppose I chose to write, to accept this invitation, because I believe that everyone’s most ordinary stories are worth telling.

I wanted to write to someone who finds themselves coming into this practice for the first time, or after a long time, feeling like it’s too late: there is a home waiting here. Perhaps I am also writing a missive to some future self, worn-down: you can begin again (you can always be beginning). Perhaps above all I am writing to everyone who sustains this practice –past, present, future: thank you.

As shelter-in-place began to ease, I leapt at the chance to dance in Shaunna Vella’s first in-person class at Shawl-Anderson, on May 4, 2021. It all felt tentative, reverent. We wondered at how safe we were, giddy to move together in the newly unfamiliar Studio 1. Shaunna’s class was the last I’d taken before Shawl closed, and returning to it the first of many bittersweet symmetries that would unspool in this re-emergent time.

Now, I rattle my bike up to Shawl-Anderson most days, relieved to find a practice rhythm, to find joy in dancing again. Yet I notice the ways that joy can both quiet and expose awaiting pain.

How do I skillfully steward the pleasure that movement provides? How can I let it be a path into wisdom, rather than a way to paper over discomfort?

I ask this in part because my gratitude for dancing again is laced with grief –over not seeing the staff who welcomed me so fully at the Center anymore, over what I know, and don’t know, about how this institution has weathered the pandemic, and the longstanding issues that it threw into sharp relief.

In December 2020, Piper Thomasson wrote an open letter, “White Supremacy Culture at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center.”In it, she describes a harmful pattern of unfulfilled promises, opaque decision-making, and the nascent equity practice that she helmed before her Equity Practice Advisor role was not reinstated. It is a generous and beautiful message, encouraging the Shawl-Anderson community to hold our space accountable to its radically inclusive vision.

I believe this is possible because I’ve already sensed it. Not long after I started dancing, I came to a Queer Partnering workshop taught by Andrew Merrell and Rogelio Lopez during the first Queering Dance Festival. I was partnered with Deneka Siu, who kindly guided me through the sweet phrases, more advanced choreography than I had ever tried. We shared weight, giggles, delighted in our rare masc-masc Asian coupling. We could feel our matter; we could feel our mattering.

Owing so much of what I know of dance to the teachers and staff at Shawl-Anderson, I hold the message Piper shared with a heavy, angry, hopeful heart. Shawl-Anderson has given me so much. I want to witness and contribute to its healing and growth, too.

I hear some dance makers say that they approach their work as a research practice; a way to work through human puzzles at the most elemental level. I encountered this same notion when I studied Go Ju Ryu karate in Okinawa. My sensei Kazuhiro Hokama would work on the characteristic hard/soft movements, startling the dojo’s visitors with how much power could move through his small frame. “Kenkyuu, kenkyuu,” he would smile (I’m doing research). He always told me to relax –this was how to move with the most power.

As we return to in person dancing, I savor the ways we can turn toward each other in shared space. After her warmup, Dana Lawton breaks for hellos and hugs. Nol Simonse offers “modern dance moments”: paired tactile feedback to refine alignment. At the end of class, Shaunna Vella invites us into a circle to exchange quiet eye contact with one another. Rogelio Lopez thanks each of us with a small bow, tells us to “Let our family, friends and pets know that he’s here at the Center, every Monday night.” There is a tacit message in all of this: I want you to be at home here.

Every dance teacher at least grazes against this subtext of our coming together to move, the unnamable ways we are nourished by it and one another, but Randee Paufve openly encodes it in ritual. At the end of her Sunday morning class, we assemble in a circle where Randee leads us in a locating practice from Babette Lightner: “Here I am, as I am, in the world, as it is, supported by the planet, floating in time, awake to my state of being. Whoosh!”

When I’m overcome, when I can’t skillfully hold what’s happening in me, or in the world, movement reminds me there is home awaiting. It helps me touch that sublime recognition: no self. Held by the path offered in simple instructions, in complex choreographies, I can submit to collective wisdom. Dance is a practice in the queer art of coming home.

This art is not only finding home in one’s body, but recognizing the delicate sprawling network of life that sustains that possibility of finding home at all. Every expression of our bodies is a dependent arising, a gift uncovered.

The Big Reveal ends by gesturing at the fear that the tools we create could draw us further away from what it means to be human –or worse, that we’ve already unwittingly become instruments of our own alienation. The company’s CEO (Patricia West) and Product Manager (Melecio Estrella) sing: “I just wanna infect you, crawl into your brain … We don’t know where this will go, scatter all the seeds we sow, feed you and you’ll grow.”

What grows is up to each of us, and all of us. Dance is a precious prefigurative space; where we can let our most radical wishes flourish, play with possibility, tend the fragile roots of healing and change. Within it, we can arrive –we can be home.

This article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of In Dance.

Emma Tome lives in Oakland, California and dances most days.