DANCECRUSH SPOTLIGHT: TRACEY WONG

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If you’ve ever seen Tracey Wong dance in a cypher, the first thing you may notice is her smile. The next thing you see may be a combination: her freedom, her sense of play, her rhythm and flow, or her gaze. She sees you seeing her, and somehow before you know it, you’re in the center of the cypher building off of her energy. Wong the dancer and performer is not that dissimilar from Wong the teacher, the organizer, or the community member. In each space, there’s never pretense — she just wants you in the room. While she has spent the last decade mastering her craft, starting from classes in college, she has also steadily built a genuine community driven by both her love of dance and her devotion to Seattle, where she was born and raised. She’s been part of groups like Chinatown After Hours and The Purple Lemonade, started events like an all-women dance battle and event Queen of the Hill or Seattle’s largest Waacking battle Punk N Funk, and established the group Malicious Vixens.

Performing in NYC, 2016.

Having started at the University of Washington around the same time as Wong, it’s been remarkable to watch her growth from both near and far. I’ve danced alongside her at a modern dance course, taken classes she’s taught, sat front row at street styles battles she’s hosted, and screamed at the top of my lungs cheering her on when she “walked” (aka competed) at a Vogue ball. The most remarkable, it seems, is witnessing the genuine pleasure she feels for the art form. Sticking with dance as a practice and surviving dance as an industry can break even the strongest fondness for the art. Yet Wong has become proficient in the integrity of various dance forms, whether that’s the grounded footwork of House, the witty dramatics of Waacking, or the intelligent sexuality of Vogue Femme — all rooted in her keen musicality.

After a year of mostly watching her endeavors via my phone screen, it feels very rewarding to be able to talk to Wong via Zoom to talk a little bit more about her dance journey over the past decade.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Imana Gunawan: What drew you to exploring dance and to start dancing?

Photo by Andrew Imanaka.

Tracey Wong: I mean, I think I’ve always loved dancing. If I think of like, the root of how I lived life … my mom said that I was always just dancing, singing, and very free in that way. I think the root reason of why I have always danced and still continue to dance is because of the freedom that it gave me and how liberating that practice is … it feels liberating to this day. And I continue diving deeper into it, because I learned more and more about myself, how I think about myself, how I feel, to process emotions.

IG: And how did you come to explore all these different dance styles? I know that you also practice some martial arts as well.

TW: I mean, I’ve always just loved grooving and stuff like that. But when I first took classes, that was when I was in college, and I just took the class at Westlake [Dance Center], it was a hip hop choreography class and it was just so fun. I think what made it really fun was that I was in a big-ass room with people that also loved dancing, and we’re moving to the same music doing the same thing. That felt so good in my soul. After that, I just kept saying yes to a lot of things that felt good in my heart, have it be joining crews or companies and dancing with them and just trying things out being like, okay, let me try out this modern class at [University of Washington], let me try out this jazz class. Just trying out different things and finding love for every single form that I got to experience. After exploring so much, I felt really drawn toward Voguing, specifically Vogue Femme, and Waacking. …. I think what drew me toward waacking specifically was the liberation that you feel when you dance, as the dance form is about liberating yourself in a society that doesn’t accept you for who you are. That’s scared to accept you for the magic that you are. It was created by the Black and Latinx gay community and how during [the 1970s], it was not okay to be gay. But the OGs were like, fuck it, I’m just gonna shine, I’m just gonna be my full self. I’m going to be hella gay, I’m going to be sexy, I’m going to be fierce, I’m going to play around, I’m just going to be free. And I think that the heart behind it all kept me diving deeper into Waacking. With Vogue Femme, I think the reasons are similar — I feel like being an Asian woman, there’s a lot of stigma around even talking about sex with our communities. So being able to embrace my body and really, really embody my confidence and love and groundedness in myself and my sensuality, it feels so empowering for me, and that’s why I continue to Vogue. I do want to say that I haven’t been dancing as much during quarantine though, to be very real, but a big aspect of this is community as well. [For] people to collectively be free, that’s hella powerful. That’s something that I feel like is missing [in quarantine].

IG: For sure, it’s hard to replicate that feeling through a screen.

TW: With Kung Fu, I started a few years ago. And I think a reason for that is my grandpa did Kung Fu previously, specifically Northern Shaolin Kung Fu. I wanted to connect with my ancestors and my roots and to connect with my grandpa more, so I started that. It’s been a lot of uncovering of who I am and my identity. It feels like I’m embracing all of the intersectionalities, be it from Kung Fu or participating in dances from the Black and Latinx communities in America. I love practicing all of the dance forms. And not just like street dances or club dances, but I just love being able to move and feel the form and feel the intention behind it, feel the essence behind it, and the heart behind all of the movements that I participate in, all of the dance cultures I participate in.

IG: So the theme of this year’s DanceCrush awards is “decades,” and honoring people who have been specifically in Seattle for more than a decade. How do you think your artistry has changed over the past decade?

Photo by John Bello.

TW: Oh my god, it has been a decade! Yeah around 2010 was when I took my first dance class. How has [my artistry] changed? I feel like at the root of it all, I still do it for the joy of it. For my why: for the community, the joy and the liberation that I feel. I feel like within these past 10 years, I’ve been able to build my voice more and more within various forms. Being able to build vocabulary to be able to speak the language of the forms, as well as being able to bring my voice into it. I’ve learned also about boundaries. I think at the very beginning, I always said yes to everything. Did this burnout thing? Like, Oh shit, I’m burnt out, but I’m still gonna keep going! And now I’m more of like, What are my values? What do I align with? Do I have capacity? And then to say no, gently, or in the ways that feel good for me, you know? So, boundaries have gotten better for myself and in my dance. And my community has grown. That’s a huge one, my community has grown so much. I think when I first entered the scene, I didn’t know anyone. And now just kind of looking at it, I’m so grateful for dance for being able to have conversations with y’all and to be able to connect with different people and hear their experiences and share my own, have it be verbally or through our own bodies.

IG: I feel like that’s a huge thing too, because just watching you since the UW days, aside from participating in different communities, you’ve also started events or series of classes and all those things. What typically leads you to start things like Queen of the Hill or your Waacking classes, and now you have virtual classes every Saturday. What has been the impetus for you to start these things?

TW: Doing jams or teaching classes, it was because it was really fun for me. I was like, I want to throw a jam, because getting everyone together is so powerful. To be able to be in a room where we’re all screaming at the top of our lungs in celebration — I love that feeling. So I would just throw jams for the fun of it. Of course, it was hella fucking hard. But, boundaries! I think now, when I throw jams or if I specifically teach, I think what draws me the most to it is still community. When I see people give themselves permission to just like, go off and just express themselves so honestly with the music, it gives me permission to as well. I think that’s a big reason why I continue to teach, especially while in quarantine, I still feel that collective vibration that we’re adding to the world. I still feel that sense of community, that sense of collective empowerment. And the sense of community care too, versus like just one person shining. I feel like everyone sees one another, everyone’s witnessing one another. I think that’s hella life changing, to be able to be witnessed, and for you to witness yourself, and for you to give space to witness others. Yeah, and to see everyone’s potential and beauty.

IG: What got you to start teaching Waacking specifically? Because you were mentioning earlier the history of the form and the communities that developed it. What led you to finally feel like you were ready to teach the form and not just be a practitioner?

Waaking winner at the Vancouver Street Dance Festival.

TW: I started teaching in 2016 at The Studios…That was my first regular waacking class. And that happened because there was a post on Facebook…someone was looking for a waacking teacher. And then I commented, and then a whole bunch of people really advocated that I start teaching. And during that time, I had a lot of bravery. I feel like I still do, but during that time in 2016, I had so much bravery that I was like, Fuck it, if folks want me to teach, I’m going to teach. I’m going to be aware that I’m still learning new stuff, but still be confident that I still have things to share and offer. So I think community motivated me to teach. And I also saw it as an opportunity to be able to hold myself even more accountable … to be accountable by [continuing] to learn as best as I can to my abilities. And as I started teaching, I felt like I was finding more of my voice as a teacher than a dancer. And I kept teaching more and more, because it was so fun. After every single class, I think of the process of being able to plan and think, what would be really fun for folks? How do I teach in a way that honors the culture? But how do I also teach in a way that honors the community, ourselves, to be able to find our own voice in it, and to evolve it and grow? So it was always pretty fun to find like that balance with every class.

IG: How do you think living in Seattle and growing up here has shaped you as an artist as you continue to find your voice?

TW: As I continue to find my voice, I’m really thinking about my platforms that I have, and being able to use my voice through dance. But also really just using my voice and my platforms to uplift the values that I believe in, to uplift the communities that I want to see thriving, to bring to light issues that are happening in the community. Really evaluating my privileges and being able to use that for what I believe in. And I noticed that at the beginning, I was hella scared to [do that]. I felt like there’s this division I played between art and like, fucking human rights. And I feel more brave, and less doubtful of myself to speak my truth about how I feel about specific issues and allowing myself to be able to blend my art with what I believe in. Being in Seattle, I find myself speaking up…as I learn more about American history, uncovering more and acknowledging genocide of Indigenous people, the enslavement of Black folks and African Americans, and uncovering more about Latinx and Asian American history. It feels painful, but I feel like a lot of American history is knowing the pain behind it, but being able to be aware of what happened in the past and to be aware of where our privileges are, and to be able to use that to see a world that’s actually equitable. I feel like reflecting on Seattle, thinking about gentrification, thinking about before gentrification, it was genocide. [I’m] just trying to advocate for the communities that have been here for the neighborhoods like the CID [Chinatown-International District], really advocate for the [Central District] that I want to see thriving, the South End [that] I want to see thriving. I feel like I consciously try to use my platform to uplift the communities there. And, yeah, it goes back to me seeing my identity as a queer Asian American woman who grew up in the CID, but also [in the] South End and being able to be like, okay, I’m about my community. So how can I use my platforms to really, really walk that talk, to dance that talk?

IG: How did your group, Malicious Vixens, come to be?

Malicious Allure in 2017.

TW: So how we came to be was we actually used to be a house [a community or chosen family structures within queer and trans underground ballroom culture]. We started off as Malicious Allure. It was Keelan Johnson and I, and we, I don’t even know we just clicked and we met at a ball … at Hillman City Collaboratory, and made it to the finals in Virgin Vogue [category], and we won scholarships to take a trip to Portland to walk one of [the balls] and also [there was] a whacking battle there. After that trip, Keelan and I kept dancing together. And then we were like, “Why don’t we just start something? Let’s call ourselves Malicious Allure.” My ballroom name was Malicious Hi-Chew, and then Keelan’s ballroom name is Android Allure so we combined it and then later on, Keelan was like, hey, okay, so children? And I was like, “I’m ready!” And then we had a huge house filled with a lot of members. Over time, naturally, folks started moving on doing their own thing. And it came down to Grace [Masaoka], Zahra [Masaoka], Alyssa [Oyadomari] and myself as the four of us. And in 2018-ish, we decided to rename ourselves to Malicious Vixens. We went through other names too, we were like trying to figure it out, but Malicious Vixens felt so right for us, it was really powerful. I love our collaboration, how we carry the weight for one another and the group and … in our dance, but like when we cook, everyone chooses a role and everyone is able to delegate … [or when] we do Google Docs together and plan things, have it be like trips, we each have all the weight. 

We chose the name Vixens because there’s a folktale about the fox spirit in Japanese and Chinese culture — in Chinese culture it’s called the Huli Jing and in Japanese culture it’s called the Kitsune. And some folktales say that the more tails you have, the more powerful and wiser the huli jing/kitsune is. With the four of us, we are so powerful collectively with our tails. How it feels when we are all together creating and caring for one another is revitalizing and empowering to each and every one of us. But essentially, we chose the name Malicious Vixens because I feel like a lot of times, folks may box Asian women as timid and submissive and all of these things. So we really like the word malicious because it’s like, don’t fuck with us. And then vixens, because we’re fucking foxy! And taking back the term vixens I think, folks [may] think negatively, but I love it. We see it as being able to pay homage for our cultures as well. And just as a group, I feel like we stand for our sisterhood first and foremost. I feel like we also stand for collective liberation as well. We really hold each other accountable in just making sure we are aligned with our values, also making sure that we’re taking care of ourselves, and we really celebrate and uplift one another. Before quarantine, it’s been amazing to be able to travel with them and to perform with them, have it be in Seattle or elsewhere. It’s always so much fun, because we’re like best friends kicking it. But at the same time, we’re best friends kicking it that love dancing. … Even if we aren’t dancing anymore. As a group, I know that our sisterhood is always going to be forever.

IG: I love that. What would you say is your artistic philosophy?

TW: Oh, dang!

IG: I guess philosophy is such a big word. What are some kind of pillars that you think have shaped the choices that you make artistically? 

Boba love. Photo by Penny Ly.

TW: I think right now what’s coming up for me is dancing with the belief in my power, … understanding my power. Really respecting what I have to say and giving myself permission and space to say it in a way that feels honest for me and to not box myself in. And to understand that I’m so many spectrums — I can dance with fun, with joy, but also to express anger, pain, to be vulnerable. And I think what’s very important for me is dancing with integrity, dancing with presence, and dancing with play, and allowing myself to really just play and fucking around if I want to. Something I’m learning more is that as I dance, it’s such a beautiful connection to my ancestors, and to the ancestors in the dance forms that allowed me to be able to speak.

IG: That’s so beautiful. So what does the future look like for you? Obviously, we’re still in a pandemic, and that is affecting literally everything. But what are some things that you’re hopeful for? Or are there any upcoming projects or just things that you’re working on currently?

TW: The Vixens and I took a break from putting out hella work, but I noticed that we’re starting to create together again and it feels good. We’ve been working on a couple of video projects together. Personally, I’ve been trying to think about how to use my art with my loved ones. I love performing and I love sharing with so many communities. I also love my family a lot and love my best friends, my homies. I noticed that instead of, I don’t know, writing [or] sending up a message of me talking, I’ll also send a dance for them, like a birthday dance or something. But just trying to think of how to use my gifts and to share that beyond just performances. [I’m also] currently teaching “Honey and Sensualitea” — a class on just getting into yourself and into your bodies and giving yourself permission to express yourself and do you and get into sensuality. I teach Waacking every week on Tuesdays and hold quarterly open mics where folks can just share their expressions of however they’re feeling to whatever track through the form of Waacking. [Also] just getting some gigs here and there and performing. That’s what I’m mostly doing right now. And trying to find more space to rest, if I’m not feeling like training, to allow myself to just rest and chill and be able to explore other forms of creativity, have it be like cooking or singing or something like that. What I see in the future that I’m looking forward to? You know, I haven’t really thought about the future that much. But this is great exercise.

IG: I guess you could do something like short-term future, and also long-term like, say the next decade.

TW: Oh dang!

IG: Put some dreams out there, you know!

Daybreak Performance 2016.

TW: Okay, short term. I do know what feels right for me is, this also is kind of vague … there’s a lot of me that wants to dance with a deeper connection to my ancestors. At the same time, I know I’m already connected to them, but there’s this part of me that wants to dive deeper in being able to be more intentional about bringing my ancestors in and being able to feel them even more through my dance. Things that I also see in the future is I want to see a community space that is like a library, like hella different rooms. People can take classes if they want to, but people can also come through to session, there’s going to be rooms for events, if people want to throw balls, I don’t know, but some type of community space that is central where everyone can come get down and dance. Because I know a lot of dance studios have been closed, but I think when it’s time, that’s gonna show up.

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