In my post Fierceness and Bite, I wrote about my desire to write a letter to young dancers — a letter that would glow with guidance from my experiences as a dancer. I was struggling to piece the letter together, and I found myself hovering around the edges of what I truly wanted to say.
So I reworked everything that I thought I was going to write about. My letter turned into an essay about a misfit girl who changed my life in a Wednesday night jazz class over a decade ago. It’s impossible to comprehend the impact we have on other people’s lives — even the people we only interact with in a twinkling few moments — and I hope that by revisiting this story from my childhood, we can slowly learn to be a little more authentic and free.
This essay was originally a guest blog on “Dear Dancer,” but that website appears to be down. I will upload the link to my post once it is working again — until then, here it is:
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In one hour of dance class, I learned everything I needed to know about insecurity and self-esteem.
I was fourteen years old, and my after-school routine involved rushing from my locker to my mom’s blue minivan, scarfing down a cheese sandwich as she drove me to my dance studio, and arriving to the studio in a frantic haze – leg warmers and pink slippers tumbling out of my bag as I ran to the dressing room to change.
Dancing to the beat of your own drummer is more difficult than it sounds when you’re in a room of mirrors that cling to each wall like ivy, standing next to dozens of willowy and exquisite dancers. Sometimes I flew across the floor with elegant limbs, engrossed in a rush of freedom. On other days, my foot wouldn’t point the way I wanted it to, my leg wouldn’t kick as high as my teachers thought it should, and tiny hot tears would spring to my eyes.
My Wednesday night jazz class was a reprieve. Unlike in my high-pressure dance company, some of the students in my jazz class were otherwise-normal high school girls who just took a few dance classes for fun.
One classmate of mine stuck out in particular, a girl who I had never seen in other dance classes before. She was dreadfully skinny, and she wore the giant kind of glasses that made her eye sockets look like they were plastered in microscopes. She had mousy colored hair like mine, held back from her forehead with a scratchy headband that poofed it all into a frizzball. Her shoulders were hunched slightly towards her ears, and I imagined that the girls at her high school were unfriendly towards her.
One evening, our jazz teacher announced that we were going to be quiet and lie down, and she was going to play a song on the stereo three times. Our next dance would be choreographed to this song, so as a group we were supposed to listen to the meaning of the song and evoke its message before we even learned the steps.
Our teacher turned the main lights off, leaving the golden can lights to cast artsy beams on our faces. The first time the song played, we all lied silently on the floor, absorbed in embryonic bubbles of sound. The second time the song played, several of us rolled to a seated position, sitting quietly as the music lulled across the room.
The third time the song played, the mousy girl stood up in her corner of the room while everyone else remained seated. Without pride or fanfare, without rushing to the middle of the room to compel everyone’s attention, she started dancing on her own.
She wasn’t a good dancer in any technical sense of the word. Her limbs moved spastically, out of sync with the music we were all hearing. Her arms jerked above her head mechanically, like she was swimming through jelly, and her legs shuffled together like one awkward appendage. But she didn’t care. As the song played on, she kept going – so uninhibited in her movements, so deeply unafraid of the pre-professional ballerinas watching her.
I heard snickers from my fellow dancers, but it hardly seemed to occur to her that we were there at all. We kept sitting, and she kept dancing. A giant smile spread across her face as she twirled under the can lights. She spun in one last flourishing circle as the song came to a close, beaming wildly as if she was the grand finale of a worldwide show, a rock star, the artistic idol of every young woman on the planet. I loved that girl in this moment – so imperfect and alive, so fearless, so vulnerable, so unlike my own rattled and insecure fourteen year old self.
When was the last time you danced so unabashedly? When was the last time you lay bare your soul in front of people who could rip you to shreds?
So many of us never dare to come out of hiding and see what we are capable of. We are talented, but we are terrified. We have tremendous potential, a life force that trickles through our limbs and begs for release, stories that bubble up from within, but we sit on the sidelines and snicker. We keep our lighthidden and settle for blasé mediocrity.
When are you going to let that light shine?
You are talented. Right now, today, exactly where you are.
Your body is perfect. Your life brings wonder to the world.
You are brave. You are twirling alone in a darkened room with a smile across your face while the other girls stare, perplexed, wondering why you don’t care about perfection, not yet realizing that they are jealous of your shamelessness.
You are forging ahead, lifting your chin a little higher, facing every aspect of life on your own vibrant terms. You are rising above the chatter, letting the critics stare in awe.
You are breaking through. You are shining. You are enough.
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Peace & Twinkle Toes,