You may have heard of the “Seattle Freeze.” It’s a tendency some people say longtime locals have to be cold toward newcomers. And many say the social-distancing measures now necessary because of the coronavirus are making it worse. Out in public, people seem scared to make eye contact with strangers.
A pair of women in one of the city’s neighborhoods recently put on an event designed to warm things up a bit — despite the need to stay at least 6 feet apart from people you don’t live with.
They say there’s still a need to get creative and express yourself, in connection with other people. So, they organized a neighborhood dance party — on the street outside their house. And they took great pains to make it safe.
This event happened before Washington state’s shelter in place rules went into effect. But all bars, restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues had been closed for nearly a week.
The party was on a block in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood, in Northwest Seattle. My friend Anne Phillips came up with the idea and posted about in on Facebook. She’s is a trauma-informed psychotherapist with a deep interest in social justice. She says dancing is just one way you can use movement to calm your nervous system and de-stress in times like these.
And out there on her block, she says it can build connection and solidarity between neighbors. She’s concerned that the isolation that’s encouraged right now is reinforcing racist tendencies against Asians because COVID-19 originated in China. She’s seen articles about a spike in white supremacy, linked to the epidemic. For her, the dance party was one way to counter that.
“So we can say ‘uh uh, nay nay’ and nip that in the bud, because people get stressed and we’re all in this together," she said. "It doesn’t matter where it started. All things start in all places and it’s the planet – human beings and animals being too close together. Let’s address that instead of blaming individual groups of people.”
Phillips and her partner, Carol Brown, love to dance. Brown was in charge of marking up the street outside their house, with little chalk circles spaced 10 feet apart.
“We’re supposed to be 6 feet apart, but I added 4,” she said. They wanted to make it extra safe.
And one of the neighbors brought bamboo poles to lay on the ground, to remind people of the 6-feet rule, when talking.
To be extra safe, they asked people from outside the neighborhood to stay away and do their own dance party if they wanted. And some neighbors said they would just dance along from their porches or balconies, kind of like the group singing events we’ve heard about in Italy.
A little past 7 p.m., the music started and we all took our spots inside the chalk circles. Topping the playlist was the tune Phillips says inspired the whole event: “Dancing in the street" by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
SOCIAL DISTANCING DANCE TUNES
The playlist was a neighborhood collaboration — hashed out on emails and chat boards. It includes a wild variety, everything from a salsa number to tunes by Lizzo, The Police, Thomas Dolby, Gloria Gaynor and Justin Timberlake. It was a great mix, themed around social distancing.
People danced to the music for nearly an hour, some dashing between the chalk circles and chasing each other in what looked like a weird version of musical chairs. But lots of people didn’t dance at all. And as I observed their interactions, it looked like quite a few were forgetting the social-distancing rules as the party progressed. Some were drifting closer together.
Davis Ammann came out with his whole family. He’s been working from home with two daughters, while his wife continues to go out for work as a veterinarian. He didn’t dance at all, but said he still had fun.
“I just love that everyone is out here kind of enjoying themselves within the constraints of social distancing,” he said. “It’s a really unique and fun idea.”
He says these days, when the weather’s nice, you don’t see people following the rules the way they are here. Standing 6 feet apart from another person you're interacting with is difficult to do. It’s not natural, but it’s what we need to do with this invisible enemy.
“Because you can’t really see it. You can see the sun, but you can’t see the virus. And we’ve been inside for a long time!” Ammann said.
EARLY END TO THE EVENING
In the end, Phillips decided to end the party a few songs early. She didn’t get through the entire playlist.
“People were having a good time, but (we’re) also just a little concerned about if people were getting a little too close to each other,” she said.
She said they also wanted to be respectful of kids in the neighborhood by not letting the party drag on past their bedtimes.
FUN WITH CHALK CIRCLES
I checked in with Phillips about a week later, after the governor’s stay-at-home order came down. She says the way things are right now, she wouldn’t try to throw this kind of party again.
But she reached her goal: strengthening community and connections in her neighborhood. Ever since the event, she’s noticed more friendly waving and bigger smiles outside on her block. And she says lots of families continued to play in the chalk circles on the street.
“People were enjoying them for days later, till the rain came. So, there were people taking pictures in them, kids hopping around in them — trying to leap 10 feet to the next circle,” she said. “So, they were enjoyed for various other reasons, after the dance party.
The party playlist is available on Spotify, so anyone can still do this dance party safely at home, over the internet or on their own — and keep it safe, in the spirit of the original event.
Editor's note: This story originally published as part of the KNKX podcast, Transmission, on April 1. Since then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced stricter recommendations for social distancing, including the widespread use of protective masks in public.