Jean Kwok: Dancing My Way to Grace

Dancing with joy, even if imperfect, was a kind of grace.

Posted Jun 24, 2014

Contributed by Jean Kwok, author of Mambo in Chinatown.

When I confided to an acquaintance that I’m quite clumsy, her face turned cold. “Oh,” she said, “You must break things. I hadn’t realized you were a breaker.” The condemnation in her eyes reminded me of all the times I’d been in trouble as a child. Our family had been quite wealthy in China but we lost everything over the course of the Communist Revolution and our immigration to the United States. At five years old, I found myself living in an unheated, roach-infested apartment in the slums of Brooklyn and after school each day, my father would bring me to the sweatshop in Chinatown to help work as best I could.

Despite the rats that crept alongside our mattresses every night, my old-fashioned mother kept her dignity and her standards, especially regarding how her daughter (I) should behave. Anything that might have helped me learn any degree of athleticism was considered unladylike and therefore forbidden: skipping, running, turning cartwheels. Furthermore, there was no time or money for any type of extracurricular activities that might have nourished coordination, like ballet or swimming. My friends at school giggled over their dance recitals and new tutus while I listened with envy and admiration. And finally, worst of all, I was a dreamy, impractical child, a disastrous combination of cluelessness and curiosity.

 I melted the plastic handle of one of my mother’s cherished pots while boiling water because I forgot to keep an eye on the flames. I secretly took apart my father’s radio to see how it worked – I was planning to put it back together, really – and was caught on our worn vinyl floor, surrounded by tiny screws and parts. Glasses and bowls slipped out of my hands as if they had been greased. My family would call me repeatedly to sweep the floor, only to find me staring out the window, dreaming of other lives and worlds. As a Chinese daughter, I was an unmitigated disaster.

 Gym at school wasn’t much better. After I learned English, my talent for school kicked in and my classmates started calling me the “Queen of the Brains.” I still remember my gym teacher yelling at me to climb the rope hanging from the ceiling while I stared at him as if he were insane. I was nearsighted yet nothing could get me to wear my huge purple glasses because I thought they made my round face even rounder. Despite my ill-fitting clothing and frizzy hair, I still had a bit of vanity left. The result was that any ball headed in my direction was a blur at best, and I’d do my best to avoid it.

I was accepted to Harvard after high school, where I realized I wanted to become a writer. Although I was working up to four jobs to support myself, I found time for the dance lessons I had long desired and understood that dance too was something else I loved. At the beginning, I was truly the worst student in every dance class. One dance teacher had to stifle a giggle in her sleeve after seeing my legs tangle themselves up. But I still loved it and I wanted it: I dreamed of finding grace – of becoming fierce, strong, in control of my body. And so I persevered.

After graduation, I moved back to New York City and started searching for a day job that would allow me to write at night. I spotted an ad in the paper that read, “Wanted: Professional Ballroom Dancer, Will Train.” I was terrified to apply but in the end, I did. I arrived at the initial interview in an oversized red dress, patched-up black pumps and a clashing red scarf wrapped around my badly cut hair. Somehow, the studio asked me back for the audition, although they told me I had to lose the scarf. After the audition, I was allowed to join a three-week training class, which was actually an elimination class. Every day, some of the applicants would disappear. Although no one asked me to leave, I agonized after every session if I should quit or not. I could see that the other women were better trained, more coordinated, prettier, friendlier and none of them were clumsy in the slightest.

I stayed out of stubbornness and desire. I knew there was no chance they would give me the job. And yet, somehow they did. After Fred Astaire East Side Studio in New York City hired me, my real training as a dancer began. My legs untangled themselves. I became aware of my center, my feet, my arms and head. I taught rumba, mambo and tango, and danced in competitions in shows. I won Top Professional Female in national competition before leaving to go to Columbia for an MFA in Fiction to pursue my writing dreams.

But despite my ability to dance, I’m still clumsy. The other professional dancers always teased me in a kind way about how I had no idea how to put on makeup. Indeed, my eyeliner was always crooked and my nails were a disgrace. As a bestselling author today, I ask for no water when I appear on television because I’m likely to spill it on my interviewer. If someone throws a ball at me, I duck. I have crashed into more people and inanimate objects on my bicycle than I can count. No sane person would ever allow me to drive a car. And I am still problematic enough in the kitchen that when I asked my kids if they wanted me to make pancakes for them as a treat, they cried, “Oh no, not your pancakes!”

Over the years, I’ve learned more about what grace is. Grace, to me, is another word for kindness to others and to yourself. Perhaps grace is about not trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Perhaps grace is finding your own unique strengths and developing those as best you can. Grace is doing what you love and loving what you do. So in that sense, I suppose I can say that I have found grace.

If you’d like to see a recent video of me dancing, click here. And yes, I hit my handsome and forgiving partner on the head many times during rehearsals!

Jean Kwok immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. In between her degrees from Harvard and Columbia, she worked for three years as a professional ballroom dancer. Her debut novel Girl in Translation was a NYT bestseller. Her second novel Mambo in Chinatown is about a young woman torn between her family duties in Chinatown and her escape into the world of ballroom dancing. Learn more about Jean at