Knock, knock. She tapped the flat wooden bottom of the point shoe against the table. “They’re hard.” A half-friend, half-bully Jane was showing me her dance shoes as she got ready for ballet class. She went to the ballet center across the street from daycare. A young child of about nine years old, I was in awe as she got to experience the world outside of the daycare walls that contained us during the day. “But how do you stand?” I turned my head and looked at my own feet to try and understand the physics of this type of dance. She put on her ballet flats instead and whirled and twirled down the hall. Showing us jettés, pirouettes, relevés, words I never knew existed. But I did know, it was beautiful.
Jane would go to the world of dance and bring back exercises for my short chubby 10 year old self. I had quit gymnastics a few years earlier, but hadn’t been able to quit the Oreos. I was the heaviest child of the girls group at daycare; everyone else was athletic or naturally slim. On rainy days, they subjected me to these exercises instead of our typical laps around the playground. 3 sets of 15 situps, 3 sets of 10 squats, and another 4 sets of situps but this time in reverse. I took the exercises in stride finding delight at gaining strength and hoping it would get me in the good graces of the other girls. As a child, I was a bit jealous, but mainly sad that I wasn’t on the other side of the “exercise game”. I missed gymnastics and always thought ballet was exciting to watch (I still remember seeing myself in a tutu in a home video) and fun, but I never had the time or the true logistics at home to really take up dance as an option.
Fast forward, 2 years. I was attending a musical camp in Florida in my hopes of becoming a triple threat and a teen actor in New York. My day was filled from dawn until dusk with singing, dancing, and practicing monologues. I would flop onto the bed exhausted, but I couldn’t bare to close my eyes and have the days end. It was there I fell in love with Rent The Musical and truly understanding how to make the most out of the 525, 600 minutes we are blessed with each year.
When I came home, my body still ached to dance. I watched Rent incessantly and practiced my jazz hands and squares in the mirror. My mother finally caved and we went to sign me up for the nearest classes. Which happened to be at the dance school close to my former daycare. Which happened to be the school Jane went to. I froze. Outside of just the exercise game, she and the group had found other ways to torment me while also maintaining some odd semblance of friendship. I had come home physically wounded some of the time, but emotionally wounded almost all of the time. What would I face coming into her world?
I shook my head and straightened my back. We were adults…..adolescents….we were past the sins of daycare, no? The next week, I squeezed my chubby body into tights and a leotard and dared to enter the world I had longed for.
I was never the best at ballet. My muscles hadn’t been trained over the years, and my pudgy stomach always threw off my core strength in class. But I loved its form. During Disney musicals before my favorite song would come on, I moved the couches and leapt from the stairs to twirl around the living room, practicing arabesques and drawing masterpieces in the air with my arms. I cherished every position. The simple nature of first, toes pointed out and stomach tight. The awkwardness of the unappreciated third. The quintessential beauty of fifth paired with an extended arm out front and turned head. As I leaped across the floor pointing my toes and elongating my legs, I imagined myself strong and long, owning the stage under a roar of applause.
At its most powerful, dance has been a reclamation of my body, an expression of my wildest dreams, and my freedom. It has charted its own course through my life history as it has also done through the history of cultures molding to incorporate influences and changing times.
There was a time when I didn’t dance. Although brief, it was incredibly impactful. I rejected salsa and bachata for months because they reminded me of a partner lost and of a happiness I felt I did not deserve. I could not dance it or listen to the music without feeling a sad, heavy weight that glued my feet to the floor.
I withdrew from twerking or any real dancing in the club because it was another representation of my self-defined liberation turned destructive and I could no longer trust men to not disrespect me because of the way I danced. I had lost my faith in men and myself and blamed dance for all of it.
A few months later, I stumbled upon zouk and kizomba by accident. What caught my eye was the beauty of the way they used their bodies – the flowing, lyrical movements of Brazilian zouk and the focus on hip movement in kizomba — and subtlety of the leads. I could combine what I missed from ballet and modern through zouk and what I missed from dancing in the club through kizomba. In this, my hips were celebrated from a perspective of technique and style and not seen as an invitation.
Kizomba was at once challenging yet dynamic. The close positioning and reliance on my partner taught me to trust again and the social norms of the social dance world gave me some comfort in knowing the focus was on dance. Hands would remain where they should and any break from this was highly frowned upon and advocated against. I had to pay deeper attention to the energy of my body, its tendencies and movements, and my own mental rebellion as I struggled to understand leads and the essence of being a good follow. It became a game of balancing control and style, with a healthy amount of experimentation. In front of the mirror, I rolled my hips in sync to the deep bass of a kizomba beat, letting the music guide me like a captain navigating the waves of an open sea. Like the young child that moved the couches out of the way for her interpretive dance sets, I eagerly practiced my body rolls and tried to mimic the routines instructors performed across the world at festivals.
In the same way that stepping into that ballet class so many years ago had given me the courage to reclaim my confidence and body image from a childhood bully, learning kizomba and zouk taught me to reclaim the sensuality and strength that my body held. A beauty and power that I was learning to control. As a follow, social dance illuminates a timeless adage. You cannot control all of the things that happen to you in life, but you can always control how you react.