An Excerpt from ‘Defining Eras’ by John Chiang-sheng Kuo

He hadn’t joined the ballroom society out of interest, but had heard the other guys in his dormitory making a fuss over the teacher’s sexy body, her short skirt and high heels and the way her hips swayed like a snake. It didn’t matter if you could dance, the teacher would let you put your arms around her waist, and show you the steps one on one. The guys at university clearly had nothing better to do, as the next day the society’s classroom was heavy with testosterone, twenty or thirty pairs of eyes all fixed on the teacher’s lithe swaying curves.

There wasn’t the one-on-one instruction that had been promised, and the teacher had a male teaching assistant–a master’s student–who was specifically tasked with dealing with these idle young men. As there weren’t enough girls, the teacher paired boys with other boys, so after the first few classes, the guys had all scarpered, along with their ulterior motives.

Each society had to prepare a performance for the school’s anniversary celebration, but the ballroom society was having trouble finding a boy for theirs, which put the whole performance in jeopardy. For some reason, he was the only boy to have answered the phone call from the ballroom teacher. The teacher asked him personally to rejoin the team for the anniversary party performance. Helpless to resist the teacher’s telephone charm offensive, A-lung put on a brave face and agreed to go back to dance practice.

First, the teacher ran through the choreography and paired up the dancers, then she delegated supervision of practices to her TA. Given A-lung’s good posture, the teacher had paired him with one of the veteran dancers of the troupe so she could help him out as a novice, to bring the performance up a notch.

However, A-lung’s partner was angry at not being given a central role in the performance. It was one thing to lose out to one of the other girls in the dance society, but to have to go on stage with a rookie like him… She hadn’t cracked even a sliver of a smile since they’d started practicing together. If A-lung made an error more than once or twice, she shot him an icy look, as if he had two left feet.

Despite his apparent casual attitude to his studies, A-lung was the kind of person who would really try at things once he’d set his mind to them. That was just how he was. He never complained about supporting himself in his studies with a part-time job after having left home, for example.

One day his dance partner stormed off with a shake of her head saying she wasn’t going to practice with him anymore, leaving him red-faced and the TA looking on speechless. A-lung had never been humiliated like that before, and he felt like agreeing to join the society was the dumbest thing he’d ever done.

“Why did you even pick me? I told you before, the only reason I joined the society was…”

Without letting him finish, the teaching assistant handed him a towel and some mineral water, “I drew up the list of names. The professor didn’t have time to get to know everyone, but I’m always watching–I know you can do it.”

“If you think I’m going to keep practicing with that ugly hag, then you’ve got another thing coming. Who does she think she is?”

“Uh-huh, I think we can find a way around that,” the TA said, patting him on the shoulder, “There’s only one way to really wind her up. And that’s for her to see that we don’t need her at all. We’ve just got to outshine all the other dancers on that stage.”

Despite his words, they were both psychologically preparing themselves for defeat. It seemed like an impossible task.

A tango between two male dancers?

A-lung was determined to see it through with the doggedness of the country boy he was, to get revenge on the girl who had looked down her nose at him. He’d never been on stage before, not to receive a prize, make a speech or sing, so it had never occurred to him that he might have potential as a dancer. The TA had revised some of the choreography to make it easier on him, so the frustrations he’d felt in the beginning were replaced by a new confidence burning within him.

So as not to let the cat out of the bag, they avoided other members of the dance society, practicing in an empty classroom late into the night. A-lung took about two weeks to get to grips with the basic steps and the rhythm. In front of the wall of mirrors in the dance studio, A-lung saw as his and the TA’s movements became more and more synchronized. It was surprising to him to see the power and beauty of the tango, and how suited it was for two men to interpret the traditional bouts of passion in a explosive masculine way.

Imagine it as two lions battling it out on the plains! The TA has told him.

The TA had considered simplifying some of the more difficult movements in the original version, like when the male dancer has to catch the female dancer in the air, then drop her to the ground after a turn and lift her through his legs. However, A-lung thought that if they were really going to stun everyone, they should at least give it a try.

“I’m only 55 kg, don’t count on me being able to lift you,” the TA said.

“Come on! What are you scared of?” A-lung said, dusting off his shoulders, although he actually had some doubts about his ability.

As well as rehearsals, they started to go to the gym together for muscle training during the day. For around a month, if he had nothing to do, he’d put in his headphones and silently count out steps, carefully measuring the angle and speed of his movements. After so much extra practice, A-lung was easily able to lift the TA. It wouldn’t be a problem.

Although at first it had been he who had made all the mistakes during rehearsals, now it was his dance partner’s turn to mess up. Although it was a two-person dance, they hadn’t had much physical contact with each other before. The problem was that the TA didn’t seem comfortable with A-lung’s touch.

“I’ll find a way to lose a few kilograms, sorry.” he would always say.

“Bro, the problem is not your weight, it’s that your not adjusting your center of gravity and you’re always shaking. You have to tense all your muscles, like this–“

Somehow the dynamic had shifted and he’d gone from trainee to teacher. A-lung brought the TA around his body towards the wall of mirrors, patting the parts of his body that needed to take the strain: “Here, straighten your hips a bit… and your thighs should be closer together, that way your center of gravity won’t pull you down–“

Their eyes met in the mirror, and A-lung saw something strange in the TA’s eyes.

As they were both men, he knew very well what that expression meant. A loss of self-control at being turned on physically and psychologically without any means to hold back. Although it was just the briefest of moments, he saw the erection through the TA’s trouser leg, and he quickly turned his face away.

“Hey, A-lung, that’s just my–“

Without letting him ramble on with his awkward excuse, his expression turned stony and he pretended not to have seen anything, just saying, “We’ve only got 15 days left, don’t waste it. Let’s run through it again.”

There was no need for an explanation. Of course, he knew what had happened.

He thought the best way of dealing with it was just to not discuss it. For the last week of practice, he avoided talking to the TA when he could, and avoided being alone with him during breaks, going to sit outside by himself. He was just hoping not to make an idiot of himself on stage. He blocked everything else out of his mind, refusing to probe it further. The more he tried to find out how long this had been simmering under the surface with the TA, the more interested in that kind of thing he would seem. Then he’d be the passive partner in the dance, putting up no resistance to the TA’s lead.

Even declaring that he wasn’t that way seemed a little unnecessary, it would only create more issues and give the TA the opportunity to pour the pain, the loneliness and all that other crap out to him.

He’d never considered until now that maybe he really wasn’t cut out for dancing and that the TA had picked him for ulterior motives. He felt violated; like he’d been lied to.

Thinking back on all those nights when they’d practiced alone into the early hours, their tacit understanding, the looks of support and encouragement they’d exchanged, had now lost the purity of the friendship between two men.

As the thunderous applause arose after the curtain call and they got backstage, the TA suddenly hugged him as everyone looked on, shouting excitedly, “We did it!”

He pushed the TA’s body–as soaked with sweat as his own was–away, looking around him from the corners of his eyes and saw someone giggling at the scene with their hand covering their mouth. He didn’t do anything more, except for nodding politely at the TA.

Seeing A-lung make such a deliberate effort to distance himself, the TA looked stunned for a moment, so much so that he forgot to wipe the sweat dripping on his nose. He just stared at A-lung, until after a sustained pause, he came back to himself and extended his hand to A-lung in a brotherly fashion, saying: “Great to work with you, bro.”

A-lung paused without extending his hand in return, instead going for a high five, “Thank you too.”

The tango for two, with its difficult drops and turns, made the whole house rise up with whistles and applause. Only A-lung knew how hard he’d really had to work at all these moves. At the curtain call, hearing the cheers of the audience, he felt conflicted. He didn’t know whether he should continue to act distant or let bygones be bygones.

He made a quick decision as he walked out on stage. He told himself that this was just a performance, and he’d done his best to be professional, but now the performance was over, so any unnecessary attachments should end right here and now, that’s what any dancer worth his salt would say.

When he got back to his dorm, he found a little card in his backpack. He didn’t know when it had been put there.

I fight myself, I fight the world, but I have no way to fight your indifference to me. Take care. Please don’t be angry that I got close to you this way. I hope that many years from now, that when you look back at this performance, it will be a great memory for you.

He scrunched up the card into a ball before his roommate could see what he was reading.

He never went back to the dance society and never saw Tony again on campus. One day in his fourth year, he saw an article in a newspaper.

It was about a viciously-fought mayoral election in another city. At one of the campaign events, they invited drag queen dancers to perform, in an attempt to win more votes on the gay marriage equality issue. The photograph accompanying the article took up more space than the entirety of the article itself. A-lung saw at a glance who the dancer in the photo was.

One week later, news of Tony’s suicide hit the headlines of all the big newspapers, in a far more eye-catching way than the original article had. Tony’s elder sister was interviewed by an online media outlet and footage of her accusing the mayoral candidate of driving her brother to his death–hysterical with grief–was replayed over and over on all the news channels.

“They tricked him into going to perform, and then the papers printed an article saying he was gay, and that big photo of him… How could he be gay? He was doing his masters and his grades were good, and he was on the national ballroom dancing team. It was only because our family isn’t very well off that he occasionally did some freelance performance gigs to help pay his tuition… I don’t know how the mayoral candidate had the heart to do this. Calling him gay just because he helped out with a campaign event performance? He was bullied to his death, all those people pointing and staring at him, that’s a lot of pressure, you know? How was he supposed to live it down after that was published in the paper? What could he say? I want my brother back!”

Tony had never actually said he was gay. He just said that he was fighting himself, fighting the world, but what he couldn’t fight was…

The news program hadn’t even gotten halfway through when A-lung rushed out of the buffet restaurant. He couldn’t bear listening to all the students from their school gossiping away about the news report.

What the hell did they know? He sensed that the TA’s family were lying. If it were only other people pointing and staring, that wouldn’t have been enough to drive Tony to his death. The world is just the mouth of a stranger, after all, it’s the people you care about the most that are most difficult to fight. Given that his family was still denying it over and over again after his death, they must have been hounding him with questions about his sexuality after the news article was printed, and that had driven Tony to commit suicide from the shame!

They were once friends. They could have continued being friends.

When they were spending so much time together–whether or not A-lung was willing to admit it–he had felt something revolutionary with Tony. Thinking back on the dance rehearsals, he realized he had far more memories of Tony than he’d thought he would. And when it came to his death, he seemed to know more of the truth than even Tony’s family did. Late at night he would run like crazy around the campus track field, lap after lap, but he couldn’t rid himself of the feeling of guilt. It wasn’t just his family, the media, or the mayoral candidate who wanted to exploit gay issues for a few more column inches of media exposure that had driven Tony to his death; wasn’t his cold indifference also an accomplice in his death? If they’d still been friends, maybe Tony would have come and poured out his troubles to a friendly ear, or have asked him what he should do. Then he could have told him: “Who gives a fuck what your family thinks? Just move out like I did! Live the life you want to on your own!”

Once, when he jumped through the air on stage, Tony had trusted him completely.

Even when it had become awkward during dance rehearsals later on, they both knew that on stage, they only had to focus on this one thing, and nothing else–no other emotions were important. If he’d only caught Tony as he’d always done when they were practicing, everything would have been fine.

But his grasp slipped.

This is an extract from Defining Eras (《斷代》) by Kuo Chiang-sheng (郭強生), a Taiwanese author born in 1964. He graduated from the Foreign Languages Department of National Taiwan University and read his masters and doctorate at the theater program of New York University. He currently teaches in the Department of Languages and Creative Writing of National Taipei University of Education. He has published two novels, Defining Eras (《斷代》) and 《惑鄉的人》(The man from the strange place), as well as many short stories, essays and plays. You can read a profile of him from earlier this year, here. You can also listen to the series of radio programs he presented up until 2018 here.

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