When I first learned to express myself, it was through dance. I’d already learned to speak English, by this point, but I hadn’t learned to communicate — I was the kind of kid who certainly didn’t say anything at all, if it wasn’t nice to say. So learning dance was a new language, one that was all my own.
I spent a solid five years spending five days a week dancing, dropping my study when I went off to college. But I never dropped the interest. My classes, at the brand new, 10-student Western New York Ballet, focused on ballet, both classical and contemporary. By those standards, I was passable at best, occasionally placing in local competitions if I had a good day and an unusually low amount of anxiety. I had naturally good feet and extension, but my control never caught up. My thin, lithe arms failed to fit the right angles. My body never listened the way I wanted it to. For me, the real benefits came in classes, where discipline and artistry were the gods, the church basement floors and portable barres were the alters, and the prayers came in the form of the blood, sweat and tears poured into getting it better, getting it right, getting it as close to perfect as mere mortals could possibly come.
This was all around 10 years ago, and 10 years later, my former teacher is taking students to perform at Lincoln Center in front of international stars. She is one of my favorite people in the world, and I am proud to call her a close a friend, knowing she’s the kind of person who would never give up on her dream, just might die without her dream.
For awhile, I thought dance was my dream. My bedroom walls were covered in posters and calendars and magazine pictures of the ballerinas I idolized. For awhile, I thought I could still make a go at a performing career, even though I’d never make it into a ballet company barely pulling off a clean triple pirouette. I thought I could cover it up with singing and acting skills and make a shot for Broadway. But by that point, I knew how many proteges were out there, I knew how cutthroat the industry could be to half-bred talents like me, and most everyone told me I was smart and would do well in college.
Nowadays, dancing alone feels equal parts freeing and awkward. It’s tough for me to feel the strain in my muscles, to know my tendons would rather snap than stretch. My legs don’t listen like they used to; instead of rising seemingly effortlessly to my ears, they stop short, barely reaching 90 degrees, it seems. But at the same time, everything in me is so much more aware, spatially and internally. Every inch of a stretch feels magnificent until it doesn’t, then it feels like hard work well done. My feet roll through every position, much to the thrill of every bone, my eyes follow my hands the way they were trained to.
The rules are so ingrained it feels like living in a memory, revisiting a skin I shed years ago as I step and fumble to see if I can still fit. But one part feels as amazing as it ever did, the part where my mind shuts off and my heart short-circuts to tell my limbs what to do. That’s the part where dancing is your insides turned out. That’s the part that kept me coming back day after day, class after class, no matter how much I failed before. Just chasing that moment of stillness inside, movement outside, silent thoughts and physical energy igniting every cell. Even now, dancing alone, when there are only so many steps I remember correctly and there’s a million positions I’m probably destroying, I can feel the tension and release, the suspension and fall, the freeze and frenzy in every step illuminating and expressing the very feelings I don’t have anyone around to share with. No one can take that from me, no matter how many years it’s been since I called myself a dancer. It’s a small comfort when I see professional dancers, young or seasoned, classical or contemporary. I know just what their feeling as they hit all the right moments and I am full of envy for what they get to feel, when all I get is my words and my bedroom and faulty, flailing ponche.
It would be nice to take a class, maybe someday. I wonder if I would look silly, my now-curvy body in a leotard and pink tights. I don’t know how much of the steps I could recreate. But I do know I’d feel something.
(The video above is from “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 9, which aired last summer. I remember watching it live, alone in my central Pennsylvania apartment, and crying a little. I chose to attach it because I don’t think you should choreograph to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” unless you can induce chills, which choreographer Stacey Tookey most definitely does, and also because I very much enjoy Witney, the blonde female in the video. She’s a ballroom dancer by trade — and you can see it in her hands and arms sometimes, the way they don’t turn slightly more out or in the way a ballerina’s would — yet she pulls of this contemporary with so much beauty, grace and pain that I think she understands exactly what you need to pull off performing to a song of this magnitude.)