Episode Seven: Behind the Scenes of ‘It’s Just Dancing’ with Camila Santos

Teresa Douglas  00:10

Welcome to LatinX Audio Lit Mag. I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. This week’s episode we’re getting a behind the scenes peek at ‘It’s Just Dancing’ by Camila Santos. Camila Santos is a Brazilian writer living in New York since 2004. She was named a Center for Fiction Emerging writer fellow in 2020. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in Newtown Literary, Columbia Journal, Minola Review and the New York Times. Her work in Portuguese can be found in Ruido Manifesto and is forthcoming and Colet├ónea de Poesia – Mulherio das Letras, Estados Unidos. She is currently working on her first novel, and a collection of short stories. Welcome Camila.

Camila Santos  00:59

Thank you so much for having me, Teresa. I’m so excited about this podcast.

Teresa Douglas  01:04

I’m really excited for you to be here. And as one Latin x person to another we have to start with the most important question, hard hitting question in this entire podcast. And that is what is your favorite comfort food?

Camila Santos  01:23

Um, I have so many. I love this Brazilian desert called Brigadeiro. It’s basically like a chocolate dulce de leche. I think that’s the closest I can describe it. It’s basically condensed milk, cocoa powder, butter, and then you stir it in the stovetop, and it’s the first thing every Brazilian learns how to cook. I think like every eight year old child knows how to make this thing.

Teresa Douglas  01:53

Well, you had me a chocolate dulce de leche. I mean, come on. It’s so good. Well, I didn’t realize it was gonna make people hungry on this podcast but there you go. It’s important. We talk about sharing stories. Often we share them when we share food. And so it’s it’s nice to let our listeners hear if we were sitting at your kitchen table, and you needed to serve some comfort food. That’s what you would serve us. 

Camila Santos  02:21

Yes, definitely. 

Teresa Douglas  02:24

We should probably actually talk about writing because that’s why I asked you here. Food is very important though. So before we get into your piece, and some of the reasons I loved it and asking you some questions about it. Let’s give the listeners just a little bit about you. How long have you been writing?

Camila Santos  02:44

Um, since my 20s I I wrote some really horrible love poems as a teenager–

Teresa Douglas  02:53

 Everybody does! 

Camila Santos  02:54

I’m not sure if that counts. I do wish I had them though. But they they’re lost. Yeah, so since my 20s.

Teresa Douglas  03:06

That’s fun. And so is fiction your first love or do you write other things? You sent us fiction but do you dabble in other other forms?

Camila Santos  03:18

Yeah, I mean fiction is my first and true love. And I have written some other things. I’ve written some book reviews and personal essays. Most recently, this is very exciting for me. I have gone back to poetry but in Portugues. 

Teresa Douglas  03:37

Wow. 

Camila Santos  03:38

Yeah, so I’m starting to write in Portuguese again and it came out as poetry so it’s really great.

Teresa Douglas  03:45

Yeah, is Portuguese a first language for you? 

Camila Santos  03:50

Yes, it is. 

Teresa Douglas  03:53

I asked because I had this ambition–I came to Spanish fluency more as an adult–and I had this idea that I would write in Spanish and that hasn’t happened as well yet because it’s not my it’s not one of my first languages. I’m impressed by anybody who can write in a language that is not their own because I fail so miserably at doing that although maybe if I try 13 year old love poems, I might be okay.

Camila Santos  04:25

You can use Spanish in your writing in English as well. Right?

Teresa Douglas  04:29

Yeah, I mean that that’s easier for me because I I grew up around it.  I love, love the sound of of reading other people’s work when they have that fluent brain in more than one language. Well, I’m going to get over my jealousy right now. We will talk a little bit about your piece ‘It’s Just Dancing.’ I will tell our listeners that I love that the title is actually part of the conversation. So we’re dropped in the middle of the protagonist who’s trying to persuade her boyfriend, her lover, that he needs to tell this little white lie for her, just for the time that her family is there. And you’re dropped in the middle of this. And, one of the things I loved about this story was that you get so much of the wider world in it. Even though it’s this intimate conversation with these two people, you can see that there’s the protagonist who’s trying to protect her family from themselves and their assumptions. That what she’s doing is, is this terrible thing. But there’s also the idea that she wants to present her own life and her independence in this really good light. So how did how did you come up with a story? Did it just show up in your brain one day? Did you sit down and plan it out? how did how did that begin?

Camila Santos  06:01

Yeah, um, well, first of all, thank you. I’m really glad that you enjoyed the story. The idea that sparked it, it was actually a lived experience. About 10 years ago, I was out with some friends. And we decided to go out dancing, and we ended up in one of these dollar dance halls. But this was down in the south in the Florida Alabama border. And it took me a while to realize that the dances were paid, because we were all like, dancing in our own little group. And so what really struck me was that it, it was just like any other club or you know, place like dance hall, I don’t know how to call it. But when I did realize, like, what was going on, I did realize that there were a lot more men than women there. And then I went to the bathroom, and I started chatting with some of the women who worked at the club, the dancers and then they just told me a little bit about what it was like to work there. They were coming from Atlanta in a van, that the club would provide, and then they would spend the weekend there. And then they go back home with like, $2,000 for dancing the entire weekend. Yes. So I was like, Whoa, okay, maybe I should work here!

Teresa Douglas  07:39

Yeah. How do we get in on this? 

Camila Santos  07:41

Yeah exactly I was like, wow. And they, you know, I couldn’t they couldn’t really talk for a long time. Because like, if they’re talking to me, they’re not dancing, right? So it was a pretty brief conversation. But I just never really forgot it. And then, fast forward a few more years, I came across this article about dollar dance clubs in New York City. They’re also called Baile bars. And there are a lot of them in the neighbourhood in the borough that I live in New York, I live in Queens. And so when I was reading the article, I was like, oh, I’ve, I think I’ve been to a place like this. And then I also happened to be working on a project in which I was writing monologues that were based on interviews with Brazilian women living in Queens. And one of these women that I was interviewing, she kept coming back to the theme of dancing, like dancing was really important to her. And she also, in addition to talking a lot about dancing, she also had this really deep sense of obligation to her family back in Brazil. So what sparked it was I just remember imagining, like, what if, because I had just read the article, you know, so that, that memory of having been to that dollar dance club was very fresh for me. So I remember imagining, like, what if this woman that I’m talking to like, What if she worked for one of these, one of these places and was very ashamed about it, and had a very conservative family with these preconceived ideas of what’s proper and what’s not proper? And, like, how far would she go to preserve this image of herself to them? So all of that was the initial spark and then once I started writing it, it kind of came to me pretty quickly, which is not something that happens very often with my writing. And then I think I, I wrote maybe two drafts and showed it to a friend who’s a playwright. And she helped me clean it up a bit and that was it.

Teresa Douglas  10:01

Yeah, and it’s it’s a lovely story because I had heard of the dollar dance type things, but mostly because of old music, where someone said they paid for every dance or whatever. And I had no idea that that still happened at all.

Camila Santos  10:18

Yeah, it’s actually something that in the beginning of last century, they were called taxi dancers. And here in New York, there were these these big halls with with taxi dancers. And they were immigrant women, too, who were of Eastern European descent. And then, I mean, I didn’t do a lot of research into this, but I do know that then it just kind of stopped. And then it resurfaced in the Latin community. In the Latinx community.

Teresa Douglas  10:50

Fascinating. And I love that you’re talking about something that not too many. I mean, maybe everybody but me knows this, I shouldn’t be arrogant. So if the rest of you knew about this, you were very more educated than I am. You’re amazing. But for me, and anybody else, it’s nice to have heard a little bit more about, about something that sounds inherently female, and perhaps also more people who are immigrants. And so therefore, maybe isn’t talked about a ton. It’s just a lived experience, doing something just to earn some money. Yeah, I mean, we all have to eat. You worked in a lot of nice detail about the idea of what you have to deal with, sometimes these folks that might get drunk, or do a little bit more than dance. And you leave it on such a lovely, sort of heart squeezing moment where she wants to get her cosmetology degree, and have a salon, so she has plans and ambitions. It isn’t just dancing, it’s a hope and a dream. It’s a path to something else. So it’s lovely. And I guess the question I have then just hearing, especially with the context, and the research that you did, is there a specific impression that you want the reader to come away with, or some knowledge you want them to have? After they listen to you read the piece?

Camila Santos  12:27

Yeah, I’m really, really interested in writing about these, like in-between spaces that characters might occupy. So with this particular piece, with this particular character, it’s in her job. So she’s dancing for money, but she’s not stripping. She’s giving this illusion that she’s available, but she’s not too available, because, in fact, she’s not available at all. And I think that a lot of my characters, they find themselves and in between, you know, these spaces, so in between their native Portuguese, and their newly acquired English language, they’re longing to go to Brazil, but they can’t, or they won’t go back. And for this particular character, she’s still a little stuck in fulfilling her family’s expectations, even though she also has a very strong vision for herself for her future self, right? She ends with that vision. And I think that’s what I’d like people to think about when they hear the piece. It’s the tension between her own vision for herself, what she thinks are her family’s expectations and how she’s navigating that.

Teresa Douglas  13:52

And how she hasn’t quite, she has that feeling of where she wants to go. But she hasn’t quite given up on those expectations, either. She knows what they are and she values them to some extent. Because she’s feeling that tension. It’s just a beautifully played out piece for that. 

Camila Santos  14:13

Thank you.

Teresa Douglas  14:15

Well, I do know that you have some things that have been out and are forthcoming. if folks want to just keep an eye on that and read some more of your work, do you have any social media or website or handles that folks can go to so that they can see when you publish more things?

Camila Santos  14:35

Yes, my Instagram is @Camilawrites. So that’s my first name and then writes as in writing and my website is Camila m Santos dot com.

Teresa Douglas  14:49

That’s very nice. Listeners. I will put that in the show notes with a little link so that it makes it very easy for you to go there. Well, thank you very much, Camilla for coming on the show today and giving us a little more about ‘It’s Just Dancing.’

Camila Santos  15:03

Thank you. It’s been such a pleasure speaking to you, Theresa.

Teresa Douglas  15:07

Likewise

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