Stories that Teach: “Dance Dance Revolution” by Ben Jahn—Discussed by Brandon Williams

February 16, 2024

When we think of teachable stories, we often reach deep into the rucksack of the literary past, pulling out classroom-tested stories that have worked their way into the canon. While there is obviously a ton to learn from these pieces, contemporary short story writers are also completing strong work built upon teachable literary foundations, while also finding fascinating ways to advance the form. In this space, we’ll highlight some of these more modern stories and explore a bit of what they have to teach us as we continue to do our part to push literature forward.


In “Dance Dance Revolution” by Ben Jahn, from Tin House Online’s “Flash Fiction Fridays” series, we meet two parents who are deeply affected by a mass shooting that occurs while they’re watching their own children’s ballet recital. The next year, again at the dance recital, they discuss the shooting (I almost put here something like, “and are still fixated on it” or “are unable to move on” and then I paused and evaluated how absolutely awful it is that these are moments we simply have to live through and past, because of their ubiquity in this American reality. Sorry if that’s somehow too political. I am advocating nothing but the realization of my own inability to even recognize grief anymore, and am allowing myself, for a moment, to grieve that loss), and agree that they’d prefer not to be in that space. During the next year, as their children are practicing for the recital, the two parents go to one of their homes and play a game of Dance Dance Revolution, which we learned at the beginning of the story was a particular obsession of the shooter’s.

The Basics

This story is written in first person present tense, although we’re given a few intentional false starts with this point of view: the opening scene is written in first plural (“We think of our kids”), and the second scene presents as a distant third. Even the third scene begins seemingly in third person, exploring the reactions of one specific ballet mom who will become the driving force of the single choice in the story, until we finally meet our first person narrator a few paragraphs into the scene. Such obfuscation (or perhaps more carefully phrased, such intentional haziness of camera focus) happens throughout the piece: We understand our setting via the places we’re at, principally the lobby and the house where our story ends, but our only hint of geographical setting comes from the line “the area’s progressive left,” which gives more of a feeling of place than a dot on a map; we know nothing about our main character except that he has a son, Nick, in ballet; the decision the characters make to get together and play the titular game happens off-screen. Even time itself moves somewhat hazily: The only marker we have for the years passing is the ballet (“the next year, her daughter is Clara, and Nick is Fritz”), and nothing seems to have changed in that timespan; the characters are consumed by the exact same situation in all three years that we’re shown; and during the conversation that holds the middle of this story we are given a present moment and two separate backstories plus a paragraph that exists in something like always-time (“Every year they shuffle on”)—there is a sense almost that every moment is like this moment, another moment where a shooting has happened and could happen again.

What this creates, then, in combination with the brevity of the piece, is a story almost entirely reliant on the idea at its heart: the terror of parents trying to come to terms with a reality that has shifted completely underneath them. Everything else exists in support of that concern.

The Story and the Reader

This is one of my favorite examples of flash fiction, because it’s managing to do so much with those necessarily few words: We get the introductory idea of the shooting in section one, we get a relatively full picture of the ballet that is our main setting, we get multiple children and parents mentioned and we even see multiple years, there’s a fully in-scene conversation that presents both information and some complicated questions, we’re allowed to both feel empathy for and also refuse to absolve the responsibility of the shooter’s parents, and the game that gets our title finally comes back as our main characters try to do the thing so impossible that the story itself never actually tries to accomplish it: attempting to understand, if only somatically, the shooter.

As I’ve discussed, one of the ways the story manages to cover so much ground is by covering only the pieces relevant to that central idea, and letting everything else slide away. Because of that choice, the reader has a larger load to carry in this story than in some others. We are responsible for putting pieces together in multiple places, and the markers we do get (of character, of time, of place) are incredibly quick, a splash of detail then back to the main concern. Our characters are suspended in their moment so entirely, focused upon this singular thing and uninterested in telling us about anything else, that we as readers are left to visualize and create almost every essential detail of the piece. Of course this is true for every story—characters are static on the page, encased in inked letters and words, until we free them in imagination. I tell my students that writing is a conversation between writer and reader, that both sides are essential for any story to function. Of course the story can’t exist unless we create it in our minds—that’s the whole point of literature. A reader needs a writer to design the world that the writer needs the reader to conjure.

But here, that alchemy is done without a ton of input from the author: There is no conflict for the characters to overcome, no real decision to be made, no transformation to witness. There is certainly no character to dive into, no complications of personhood to unearth. The thing that has happened has already happened, and it’s not going to change—we live in this world now. Because of that, there is no room for, and no interest in, describing the things story normally spends paragraphs creating for the reader. Even something like where exactly we are in time is left to the reader to define for themselves. Let me show you an example.

There is a line in the introduction: “And one of the kids said to him, ‘I don’t want to be here.'” This line is a standalone paragraph, and it transitions us from a paragraph about the shooter playing Dance Dance Revolution to a paragraph about parents thinking of their children. Because of that, the line could refer to the scene directly above it or the scene at the heart of the story—it could easily be about either moment, the game or the shooting, and intentionally exists in that liminal space. Or maybe it couldn’t be about either moment exactly—it certainly has more heft if it’s about the shooting, and on a logical level it would make more sense to be from the shooting moment, since how else would these characters know about it unless it was reported—but it’s structurally paired to the game and has emotional weight in either choice. It can be both, or it can be either, and the story gets the incredible benefit of the emotional power from both while trusting the reader to make the connections and physical meanings for themselves.

The Shooting is Everything

The game Dance Dance Revolution is our bookend to this world, and it has multiple values to the story. Of course the idea of the game does plenty of work on a metaphorical level (at its simplest, it’s bringing with it ideas of childhood and innocence, which are then harshly dashed by the story itself), but the game also takes up the entirety of time and focus in our opening paragraph. Rather than the killing, rather than news reportage or introspection or some consideration of the things going wrong in the killer’s life or mind or any of those other options we see utilized so often, rather than any of that we are given one singular obsession. Thinking of literary strategy, we know that these kind of details, related in something like scene, serve to humanize characters, but we’re not exactly trying to humanize or understand this guy at this point in the story, if we ever do. Instead, for at least this opening scene, the game becomes a stand-in for the shooting; it’s the place where he is excising his demons, the place where he is unloading himself, “dancing to keep his mind off his mind.”

We never see the shooter any more closely than we do in this scene. For the rest of the story, he exists as his action, omnipresent without existing. And after that opening, the game disappears as well, returning only for a quick cameo in our final two moments. But while we’re considering the game, it gets all of our attention, and it becomes a proxy for the act that is the whole reason this story exists.

Much of the rest of the story is focused on the ballet company composed of our two main characters’ children. Here as well, the shooting exists in our awareness at all times (it’s pretty much the only thing we talk or think about), but there are also moments where the ballet functions as a proxy for the shooting just as the game did: early in the story, before we’re even sure whether the massacre happened at the ballet or not, we’re treated to a moment where The Nutcracker’s villainous mice surround a toy soldier “quivering at center stage, wooden rifle aimed at the audience.” These parents, getting alerts on their phone about a mass shooting of schoolchildren, are looking at schoolchildren pointing guns at them.

And even our final full scene, where the parents are playing Dance Dance Revolution together, gets the same treatment of becoming something like the omnipresent shooting: while they’re playing, our narrator thinks that the trick to the game is “to let it enter and disperse its energy,” which we’ve learned earlier in the story is how the killer’s Bushmaster rifle was designed. Everywhere, everything, in the story and in these people’s lives, has become about this moment.

In conclusion

I love a story that trusts me through its complications, and this story has plenty of them: It has many of the hallmarks of a longer short story—multiple scenes/set pieces, a plot that unfolds over three years, backstory and flashbacks—while using POV and camera focus to move us incredibly quickly and to keep our attention on a single central concern within all the swirling ideas. It builds a rich, immersive reality even while relying on the reader to supply for themselves much of that richness.

But none of that is what this story is about. As I was reading, I kept thinking about all the other massacres, all the other shootings (as I was writing this essay, my mom called to ask if I was watching the news about the Kansas City Chiefs parade shooting) that have taken place since this piece was released in 2019. Yet none of these characters are thinking about any shooting other than this shooting—indeed, it took me multiple readings to be certain that the massacre hadn’t happened at a previous ballet recital, so fixated were these parents upon it even years later. There is only one that captures their attention, and it has captured them so entirely that there is no room in their minds, in this story, for absolutely anything else. And that single-mindedness is what creates the story: the characters, the setting, the ballet, even the plot to a large extent are all second to the overreaching concept that propels this piece. Define that concept as you will: existential human terror or struggling to come to terms with what the world is now or the fear of parents or attempts to understand true evil or, well, any or all of the above.

Nothing else matters, and in this piece nothing else can matter. Because goddammit, this is “something no one should ever have to feel.”

by Brandon Williams


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