A Dance of Joy, Distress, and Tenderness: An Introduction to Our Fourth Issue

Nov 16, 2021

Published in Introduction | Issue 4

By Alexandra Hidalgo, editor-in-chief

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During the summer of 2020, back when we were not sure when—or even if—COVID-19 vaccines would be available, my husband Nate and I decided to join his family on our yearly trip to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Because about 20 of us would be together in one house, it was the riskiest thing we’d done since the pandemic began. We felt it was worth it, however, because it protected us and our young sons, William and Santiago, from the less immediate yet just as pernicious risk of relentless isolation we had been living in. Getting to swim and craft whimsical shell patterns on the sand was revitalizing, but the revelatory moments this time around were the mundane interactions between a large family living in one space. I was enthralled by the five crisscrossing conversations that emerged over our paella dinner and by the inconsequential secrets two of us shared as we did the dishes afterwards. I couldn’t stop smiling as eight of us piled on the couch, trying to select a film that would satisfy the six-year-old and the film connoisseurs in the room (E.T. was the undisputed champion that summer).

We were so taken with being together without fearing we might infect each other that we extended our stay for a week. With each hug and conversation, I could feel the layers of sorrow I hadn’t known I was carrying evaporate. Toward the end of the trip I walked into the kitchen while Billie Holiday was playing, and I suddenly—you could say involuntarily—started to dance. I swayed slightly at first, hoping no one would notice, but it felt so good that I put embarrassment aside and twirled around with abandon. Nate joined me for two songs, but mostly it was just me alone, reacting to the music. Having grown up in Venezuela, a culture that unabashedly worships dancing, I never could fill my dancing quota in the US with the weddings and New Year’s parties we attended, and that summer evening, my decades-long unfulfilled need finally took over my body.

Mother beginning to dance while son is playing.

Alexandra Hidalgo getting ready to dance while her son Santiago plays. Photo by Nathaniel Bowler.

When the trip ended, we all reluctantly drove back to our homes spread across the US, where our old solitude awaited. I tried to figure out how to keep all the rigid sorrow I’d managed to dismantle at the beach from growing back. I couldn’t recreate our unguarded human closeness beyond what I shared with Nate and our boys back in Michigan, but I needed some way to flex my emotional muscles on a regular basis to keep my heart open and nimble. One night after dinner, I started playing Shakira and shaking my Venezuelan hips to the sultry voice that has been my go-to happiness soundtrack since college. I soon began a nightly 30-minute practice of embodying my roots’ exuberance in our kitchen. Carlos Vives, Celia Cruz, Chino y Nacho, Daddy Yankee. I contorted my body and moved my feet to their fast, contagious rhythms, singing about longing and infatuation, about literal and metaphorical carnal delight while my youngest son ran around me, half mystified, half thrilled by the ritual. 

I had a way to express joy now, but as the pandemic had made starkly clear, there is a broad spectrum of difficult emotions we experience on a regular basis that needs to be processed just as regularly. I wasn’t sure how to do it with my newly acquired dancing superpowers, until I started watching Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. In Austin Winsberg’s dramedy series, Zoey (Jane Levy) develops the ability to hear people’s feelings as song and dance numbers they unknowingly perform for her. While some of the songs involve dozens of dancers in dazzling locations, the most evocative for me are the solos and duets inside living rooms and bathrooms—and yes, kitchens. Zoey’s family, friends, and coworkers turn to Nina Simone, Cindy Lauper, Nikki Minaj, Ariana Grande, and Smokey Robinson to express everything from anger to tenderness, from depression to exhilaration. I started mixing up my routine, dancing to Latinx music one night and to Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist the next, feeling the stress and sadness leave my body with the sweat and occasional tears that result from the practice. 

As we were preparing the issue you’re about to read, I was not surprised that two of the articles we feature discuss dancing as a way to resist and to associate, to express passion and exacerbation. COVID-19 has shown us that our bodies need to be close to other bodies, even when that closeness makes us vulnerable. Our bodies need to move, to emote, to connect to some communal rhythm and melody in order to think, create, thrive. The push toward embodied scholarship is not new, and we at constellations have consistently strived to bring to life the messy, subjective physicality of our authors and the humans they write about. Like the journal itself and like every one of my dancing sessions, it has been an imperfect, at times fluid attempt at growth and expression. We invite you to play music that reverberates inside you and walk into the theoretical and creative dance floor we’ve built for you over the last year.

At one of our editorial meetings at some point during the pandemic’s bewilderingly elastic time, then-managing editor Ana Milena Ribero suggested publishing reviews could be a way to analyze books we see as relevant to cultural rhetorics. I liked the idea of us moving to rhythms we had yet to explore and seeing what we learned from them. She valiantly agreed to be our book review editor, and as you can see from our inaugural reviews, Ana and our reviewers have created a space in which we can expand our understanding of cultural rhetorics by analyzing the work of scholars who push at the boundaries of what our nascent field can do. 

Woman dancing while her son continues to play in front of the fireplace of their home..

Alexandra Hidalgo tries to get her son Santiago to dance. Photo by Nathaniel Bowler.

Another result of our editorial meeting discussions in the past year is our three-part “Conversations” series about cultural rhetorics scholarship, methodologies, and pedagogies. There is a thrill in watching a group of dancers perform a choreography someone has carefully developed, but our editorial board is more like a dance floor full of wedding guests who traveled from around the country to celebrate something together. We each bring our own styles and training to the dance floor, and that is, I think, what gives our collective work its edge. If there is a thread that binds the dialogue that emerges during our editorial meetings, it is how to guide our prospective authors as they engage in the disorienting task of writing scholarship that fits within an emerging field. While scholars wanting to write about classical rhetoric and first-year writing have a robust and established history of publications to draw from, cultural rhetorics scholarship is relatively sparse. The newness of the field makes it flexible and brimming with possibilities for innovation, but it can also seem daunting to new authors trying to figure out whether their work fits within it. 

We cannot (nor would we ever want to) provide a definitive answer for what cultural rhetorics is across the board, but we decided that, as editors, we could help our authors by expressing our personal understanding of cultural rhetorics, since it is that ever-evolving notion that shapes our publication decisions. Our aim with this “Conversations” series is to simulate the actual conversations we have at our triweekly editorial meetings as we address questions and conundrums brought up by submissions and by new developments in the field and the world around us. We cannot invite you into those meetings, but we wanted to provide an example of the kinds of philosophical and ethical give-and-takes our editors engage in as we try to create a space to publish scholarship in this burgeoning field.

One thing I learned early on in my dancing forays as a young girl back in Caracas is that you have the right to refuse the person who asks you to dance. With scholarship, however, you can’t choose who cites you and to what tunes they perform their understanding of your ideas. In October, we learned that in the introduction to their College English special issue, Ellen Cushman, Damián Baca, and Romeo García had questioned some of constellations’ editorial practices. After consulting with our editorial team, I responded to their claims in an article included in this issue. As the journal continues to evolve, we will continue to take this experience into account and do our best to turn it into a source of generative evolution for our journal and ourselves. 

A close-up of a woman in the midst of dancing with her hair swings around her while her is smiling in the background.

Flying hair, smiles, and light reflected in a mirror. Photo by Nathaniel Bowler.

Like the luscious dance numbers featuring a myriad of performers in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, this issue was the result of countless hours of effort and creativity from our editorial team. Managing editors Sonia C. Arellano, Lauren Brentnell, Candace Epps-Robertson, Brandon Erby, Jo Hsu, Catheryn Jennings, Daisy Levy, Alexis McGee, and Kimberly Wieser consistently share their brilliant ideas with authors and each other as they help develop the scholarship you’re about to read. Book review editor Ana Milena Ribero and pedagogy blog editor Andrea Riley Mukavetz bring their unique and expansive perspectives to our conversations. Former assistant editor Tina Puntasecca and current assistant editor Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill provide the indispensable glue that binds our journal’s multitudinous elements together, doing so with grace and patience—even as the pandemic complicates our lives in inutterable ways. Our social media managers Mitch Carr and C. Rose Widmann help us find our voice in those mercurial yet vital digital spaces for intellectual conversations today, and our copy-editor Iliana Cosme-Brooks patiently labors over the language, images, and complex coding layout that brings our journal to you. As always, we thank Kate Birdsall, director of The Cube—the Michigan State University publishing nexus that funds our journal—for battling ever-encroaching cost cuts to keep our publication afloat. We hope you enjoy the rich recital we have all put together for you. 

In our opening article, “Dancing with the Devil Revisited,Marlene Galván lyrically blends her personal connection to a story told and retold on the border between Texas and Mexicowhere she was born and grew upwith scholarship and poetry inspired by the same tale to examine how communities use storytelling to impart morality and cultural identity from generation to generation. The tale, which Galván’s own mother tells her she witnessed, features variations on a young woman who disobeys her family by going out, then accepting a handsome stranger’s invitation to dance. Her rebellion results in her death when the stranger turns out to be the devil. As Galván analyzes various scholarly and artistic investigations of the story’s multifaceted origins and staying power, she unearths its sermonizing attempt to muzzle women’s sexuality in the name of family values and duty to our community. Galván closes the article with her own poem that tenderly explores how dancing with the devil can in fact be an act of love and creation, managing the laborious balancing act of celebrating her cultural heritage while questioning the strictures it places on women. 

For “Constellating with our Foremothers: Stories of Mothers Making Space in Rhetoric and Composition,” Ruth Osorio interweaves her experiences birthing and raising children as a graduate student and faculty member with those of three fellow mother scholars who mentored her over the yearsJane Donawerth, Shirley Logan, and Malea Powell. Drawing from her interviews with Donawerth, Logan, and Powell, Osorio not only theorizes the arduous balancing act of raising children and supporting fellow mothers while in academia, but she examines the role mothers play in shaping our understanding of what storytelling means and the power it holds to transform our lives and communities. From having to fight for maternity leave in a university that did not have such a policy in place to grading papers in the school pick-up line to organizing babysitting co-ops, Osorio uses her interviewees’ emotive stories of love and resilience to craft a multilayered account of motherhood’s intersections with academia. The article celebrates how mothers help each other navigate challenges that universities are not set up to acknowledge, let alone tackle. While calling for institutional change, Osorio reminds us of the community building and ingenuity legacies the mothers around us have built for new mothers to draw from as they too support their children and each other.  

Woman and boy dancing together in front of the fireplace in their home.

Santiago Hidalgo-Bowler decides to bring his own choreography to his mother’s dancing. Photo by Nathaniel Bowler.

“Digital Writing and Cultural Rhetorics Pedagogies” features pedagogical innovations that seven graduate students—Kimberly Williams, T. Allen Thomas, Alexander Slotkin, Ivette Rodrigues, Claudia Mitchell, Nicole Green, and Laken Brooks—developed and implemented in Laura Gonzales’ graduate seminar at the University of Florida. The article draws from existing scholarship and the authors’ own classroom experiences to explore generative connections between cultural and digital rhetorics, arguing that even though there have been ideological rifts between the two fields, they are intricately linked, and there is a wealth of possibilities in interlacing them as we design assignments. The article exemplifies that potential by sharing and analyzing the inventive and multifaceted assignments Williams et al. generated. The classroom activities include creating blackout poetry to engage in multilayered and collaborative meaning-making, drawing different aspects of our identities on see-through paper and combining the images to reveal our hybridity, writing and translating key concepts from readings on index cards to analyze the act of translation, and using collage and drawing to create countermonuments as an act of protest that honors silenced voices. Whether readers adapt these assignments or use the creativity and insight behind them to engender assignments of their own, this article is a refreshing and vivid example of what cultural and digital rhetorics can accomplish when they come together.

Felicita Arzu Carmichael opens “Wanaragua: An Embodied Performance of Resistance, Recognition and Resilience Among The Garinagu of Belize” with childhood memories of her mother waking her up on Christmas morning to drive down to Dangriga so they could watch Wanaragua dancers perform. From this intimate personal connection, she unspools an analysis of Wanaragua as an Afro-Caribbean performance of resistance passed down from the slaves who originated the tradition to the contemporary dancers continuing the practice today. Performed primarily by men (some women and children have joined in lately), Wanaragua features dancers in colorful outfits adorned with shells, feathers, and mirrors who wear a cloth mask painted to represent a white man’s face. When Wanaragua originated, the mask not only allowed the dancers to impersonate the men who held them captive but provided them with rare and prized (if only temporary) anonymity. As Arzu Carmichael argues, today the dance is a multifaceted play on resistance to the legacy of slavery and colonialism, as well as a joyful celebration of community and familial ties in Belize, a rich, ever-evolving tradition she brings to life for readers in her discerning analysis. 

In “A Response to Cushman, Baca, and García’s College English Introduction,” I make an argument for scholars to take into account the flesh-and-blood human beings behind the ideas we cite and discuss in our research. While ideological differences are valid and untangling them can spark intellectual growth at individual and disciplinary levels, I ask that when we express those differences, we keep in mind that the thinkers whose work we’re criticizing have put abundant labor and effort into their scholarship, and that certain ways of questioning that scholarship can undermine that person’s wellbeing. Moreover, when we wound someone, we enter a debilitating cycle in which we not only hurt that person but those who love them. This piece, in short, is a call for kindness and generosity in our engagement with each other’s work—not so we stop disagreeing with each other, but so we do it in a constructive manner that leads to conversations that move us and our disciplines forward.

A close-up of a woman in the midst of dancing with her hair and necklace swinging as she moves.

A necklace takes a short, musical flight. Photo by Nathaniel Bowler.

Kimberly Wieser moderated “Constellating Stories and Counterstories: Cultural Rhetorics Scholarship Principles,” the opening conversation of our three-piece series. In it, Catheryn Jennings, Ana Milena Ribero, and I explore the value of storytelling and sharing our personal experiences as we do the kind of research that brings marginalized and desperately needed voices to the forefront. I moderated our second piece, “Ethically Working Within Communities: Cultural Rhetorics Methodologies Principles,” in which Sonia C. Arellano, Lauren Brentnell, Jo Hsu, and Alexis McGee, analyze the affordances of doing cultural rhetorics research within communities and how crucial it is to build sustained relationships with the human beings we feature in our research. Ana Milena Ribero moderated our final conversation in the series, “Community, Voice, Identity: The Principles of Cultural Rhetorics Pedagogies,” in which Brandon M. Erby, Andrea Riley Mukavetz, and Kimberly Wieser emphasize the value of assigning texts and designing pedagogical strategies around the stories and knowledge-making practices of diverse populations who have been traditionally stifled in mainstream education. As constellations and cultural rhetorics evolve, so will these ideas, but we hope they will spark a sense of possibility and excitement for those wanting to try the hard, yet infinitely rewarding work of engaging in cultural rhetorics in their research and pedagogical practices. 

Our issue’s closing conversation, “Storytelling and Relationality: Faculty Experiences During the Texas Winter Storm,” moderated by Sonia C. Arellano and Kimberly Wieser, features Christina V. Cedillo, Jo Hsu, Ashanka Kumari, and Aja Martinez as they discuss their experiences during the 2021 storm in Texas. The conversation explores their own hardships during the storm, as well as the responsibility they felt toward their students. While some of their institutions wanted them to act as if nothing had happened, Cedillo, Hsu, Kumari, and Martinez were painfully aware that the populations most vulnerable to the storm’s effects were those already marginalized due to race, class, sexuality, and disability. Not only did our conversation authors have to find ways to support their students, they also had to be creative in how they assessed the work students submitted under these extraordinarily difficult circumstances that caused extensive blackouts in communities already devastated by the pandemic. Having captured their accounts mere weeks after the storm took place, this piece is an immediate and unvarnished record of calamitous events as they unfold and the faculty and students who rose to the challenge of responding to them. 

In “‘Theory With No Practice Ain’t Shit’: A Review of Aja Y. Martinez’s Counterstory: The Rhetoric and Writing of Critical Race Theory,” Christine Garcia takes us into her transformative experience reading the book as if it were one of those choose-your-own-adventure stories that allow children to dream up their futures, except that it was a text for adults and set in academia. As Garcia, a single mother like Martinez, sees herself reflected in the book’s personal journey of theorizing love and activist resistance, she creates a map for readers to do the same as they chart their own reading paths. 

For “Send My Love to the Family: A Review of Glasby, Gradin, and Ryerson’s Storytelling in Queer Appalachia: Imagining and Writing the Unspeakable Other,” Vee Lawson draws from their experience as a queer person growing up in rural areas to make a case for the value of the edited collection’s nuanced and diverse stories about Appalachaian queerness. They suggest a plurality of possibilities these chapters open up in classrooms and fresh avenues of thought they can inspire across multiple fields.

Woman holding the arms of a boy while they dance together in front of the fireplace of their home.

Santiago Hidalgo-Bowler enjoying a shot of joy from Carlos Vives. Photo by Nathaniel Bowler.

I am not sure this introduction will convince anyone to try the exquisite alchemy of dancing in their kitchens (though it would be marvelous if it did). I hope, though, that it will work as a reminder that as much as we scholars tend to live through the reach and dynamism of our minds, we can gain a wealth of happiness, sanity, and inspiration if we let our bodies join the conversation. Rhythmically moving to Daddy Yankee and Nina Simone may not be the way you want to let your body share its ineffable insight with you, but whatever your body’s preferred mode of communication is, I hope you regularly listen to it. As this pandemic (hopefully) begins to wane, we’ll need to heal ourselves and each other. I, for one, will be doing that work while twisting my body to melodies, ebullient and heartbreaking, as I find a way forward for myself and those around me. I hope you will join me and the constellations editorial team in whatever way moves you.

About the Author

Alexandra Hidalgo is an award-winning Venezuelan filmmaker, writer, theorist, memoirist, and editor whose documentaries have been official selections for film festivals in 15 countries and been screened at universities around the United States. Her videos and writing have been featured on The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, NPR, The Criterion Collection, and Women and Hollywood. She has a PhD in English from Purdue University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University and is associate professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures and co-director of the Doc Lab at Michigan State University. Her video book Cámara Retórica: A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology for Rhetoric and Composition received the 2018 Computers and Composition Distinguished Book Award. Her academic video essays have been published in Enculturation, Kairos, Present Tense, and Peitho, among others. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the digital publication agnès films: supporting women and feminist filmmakers and of the peer-reviewed journal constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space.

Production Credits

Copyeditors: Nathaniel Bowler and Iliana Cosme-Brooks Editorial Assistant: Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill Social Media Manager: C. Widmann