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Meet the star of viral video of voters dancing for joy: ‘They can’t break us down’

By Stephanie Farr, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Published: November 1, 2020, 2:35pm

PHILADELPHIA — As a kid growing up in Southwest Philly, Klinton Cooper remembers his grandmother was always dancing, no matter what she was doing.

“When she was cooking, going food shopping, whatever,” he said. “Not enough to make a fool of herself, but enough to let the rhythm get into her.”

It was from his grandmother, who died in 2015, that Cooper, 31, learned to love dancing. And though she was not around to see video of him dancing in line with other Philly voters go viral on social media this weekend, he knows he and his grandmother danced for the same reason.

“As Black people, we dance out of joyness. We always go through a lot of things, but with music and joy and sticking together, we dance through it,” he said. “Don’t let nobody take your joy and don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do this.”

Cooper was one of hundreds of people who showed up to vote early Saturday at Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia. He came dressed in a black “F- 2020” T-shirt he bought from a friend after his uncle died of COVID-19 in September.

As voters who came to try and beat long lines on Election Day waited for more than two hours to cast their ballot, they were treated to musical entertainment as part of “Joy to the Polls,” a nonpartisan project designed to support and motivate voters waiting in line.

About a dozen members of the Resistance Revival Chorus, a group of women and nonbinary vocalists based in New York City, performed protest songs on site. ArinMaya Lawrence, a 38-year-old singer/songwriter who recently moved from New York City to Philadelphia, was among them.

“It was wonderful being part of the energy that was sustaining people in the process of getting out to the polls,” Lawrence said. “But it should not be a two-and-a-half hour wait. That is absolutely a form of voter suppression. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to be a part of it and keep people’s energy and spirits up while they endured.”

When the chorus wrapped up its performance, a DJ took over and began playing classic line-dancing songs like the “Cha Cha Slide,” “The Wobble,” and “The Electric Slide.”

“He played all of the slides,” Lawrence said. “As a Black woman, line dancing is one of our traditions. This is what we do at barbeques and all of the parties. Everyone was going crazy. It was just beautiful.”

Cooper didn’t want to get out of the long line just to do “The Wobble,” but he was halfway up the ramp leading into the school with plenty of room around him when the “Cha Cha Slide” came on.

“And the rest is history,” he said.

Cooper led the other voters in line through the dance and even “put a little spice” on his moves while members of the Resistance Revival Chorus, dressed all in white, danced in step below.

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“What I did was dance for joy. They’re going to try ways to break us down but that video shows that they can’t break us down,” Cooper said. “And that’s what our ancestors did — they danced and they smiled even though they couldn’t even vote. They went through a lot to be where we are today.”

A 37-second video of the dance put up on the chorus’ Twitter page had more than 7 million views as of Tuesday afternoon. Celebrities from Wanda Sykes (“We know winning this jawn is crucial”) to Ava DuVernay (“I love us so much. We rise. Always.”) retweeted the video.

“It’s awesome to have it amplified by these large voices,” Lawrence said. “It carries the fervor and energy needed in this election.”

For Cooper, who thought maybe just a few people in Philly would see the video, the response has been overwhelming. To see everyone from New York Times senior art critic Jerry Saltz to professional wrestling commenter Jim Ross retweet it has been very positive, he said.

“When I saw Wanda Sykes I was shocked. Wow Wanda! I love Wanda. She’s a very beautiful woman and very funny,” Cooper said. “Even Josh Gad — he plays Chuck in The Angry Birds Movie — when I saw him tweet it I was just like ‘OK, I’ll take that, Josh! I always liked your movies.'”

The moment, Cooper said, was a joyful one in a year of intense pain as he’s watched videos of police killing Black people, most recently in West Philadelphia on Monday, when Walter Wallace Jr. was shot to death by officers in front of his mother — just two days after and less than five miles away from where the viral video of Cooper was taken.

“This is what we’ve been dealing with for centuries and we fight every day,” he said. “But the thing about our joy is that it makes us what we are.”