I have been dancing my whole life.
Although I don’t remember my early childhood, there are photos of me dancing as a little girl, stashed away in some dusty albums on a bookshelf. There’s one of me looking fierce and expansive as I pretend to be the spider who scared little Miss Muffett, and another picture of me looking shocked and dismayed as I portrayed Miss Muffett myself. Moving along, there are photos of me playing a mouse in the Pied Piper at the tender age of five or six, and pictures of me in a pink leotard with a little fringe portraying a poodle in a production of a now-forgotten title.
My mom used to put records on the record player and dance around our living room, and the minute we got our own tiny plastic record player, I began to do the same thing by myself. My sister and I would leap around the room with reckless abandon to an old album of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcraker Suite. We would put our arms out wide and whirl around, then fall down dizzy and laughing.
I spent years dancing ballet, which requires discipline and precision. I had a wonderful teacher who instilled an appreciation of the craft in me. I loved being able to shape the movements of my body. I enjoyed the physical expression of dance. When I became a teenager, I graduated to “toe shoes,” which are the boxy pink confections that you see professional ballerinas wear that give their feet an ethereal look.
Eventually, however, my teacher moved on, and the company that replaced her made it clear that I either had to commit to ballet, and perhaps lose my growing hips, or quit. I chose to quit because, even at the tender age of 15, I understood that the weight requirement was messed up. I was 5’ 7” and weighed 125 pounds, which is very slender. I hung up my toe shoes with a modicum of regret and never looked back.
However, I did not lose my love of dancing.
I dabbled in different kinds of dance in college. I went to what we called the “Disco” several times a week to shake my booty to various sorts of music. I took workshops in African dance, ballroom dance, folk dance.
When I graduated from college and moved to New Orleans, my then-boyfriend introduced me to Cajun dance. It was fast, syncopated and interactive, traditional with a modern, jazzy twist. I fell in love with the dance and the man and spent a lot of years doing and teaching Cajun dance. I was teaching dance when I was pregnant with my son and teaching it some more the year after he was born, my husband and I taking turns with him in a pack on our backs.
Dancing opportunities in our town were slender, however, and when the two of us split up, I stopped dancing for a time.
Then a friend introduced me to belly dance.
Belly dance kicked my butt. The isolation of hip and shoulder, of rib cage and buttocks, required a different kind of precision than ballet. It combined some of the gooeyness of Cajun dancing with the precision of ballet. I lost myself in mastering the art form, and while I still have yet to do so, I’ve had a wonderful time learning. Now I’ve added flamenco dance to the mix, and I am learning an entirely different set of movements, which allow me to embody different feelings. For one dance, our instructor suggested we visualize the best chocolate cake we had ever eaten, and imagine that we are recalling how much we loved it and how delicious it tasted. For another dance, she told us to feel fierce and powerful. Each turn of the wrist, flick of the head, jut of the hip has a different meaning fueled by a different emotion.
Dance allows me to express my feelings without words. It allows me to feel mastery over my body, which means a lot to someone like me. As a person who survived osteomyelitis, meningitis and sepsis as a child, I often felt as if I had no control over my body, and even as if my body had betrayed me. I spent a lot of time off my feet, on bed rest, being still, not moving, struggling just to survive. So being able to show joy through the shimmy of my hips or power through a high kick or love through the turn of my head carries the history of my illness, survival and triumph through those actions. Dancing brings wonder to my life.
People often say, “Oh, I don’t know how to dance,” and I find that to be a little sad. I want to make one thing clear: I never said I was a GOOD dancer. I enjoy dancing. When I try a new kind of dance, my body gets all tangled up. I have to make new connections between my mind and my body. My head says to go one way while my body tries another. And even when I know how to do a dance, I mess up. A lot. This idea that a person can’t dance because they “don’t know how” or they “aren’t perfect” seems like such a loss. Dancing is an expression of the body to music. Of course if we go to a professional dance performance or watch one on television, we might expect that the performers would be precise and approach perfection. But outside of that, dancing is the body’s expression of emotion as it moves to a tune. The next time you hear music, look around and see if you spot a small child. If you do, chances are good that he or she will be bobbing up and down and flailing their arms, shaking their small bootys to the music. They don’t care what they look like. They aren’t following a prescribed set of rules. They are simply expressing their joy at being alive, being here, right now, moving to the music.
No matter how you move, I hope that you find your music, and I hope you dance to it.