I have never been much of a dancer. This is despite my efforts. When I was very little, before I can remember, my mother signed me up for tap dancing classes. There are some cute home videos of me with clicking shoes, prancing around a mirrored room with hardwood floors. This did not last more than a year or two.
I returned from my dancing hiatus in third grade and took up hip hop. I had fun at my classes, though I remember feeling anxious about memorizing the choreography for our recital. We were going to perform Bow Wow’s “Basketball.” I loved the snappy bass and the staccato rhythm, the women like a choir chiming in between verses. A few weeks before showtime, they took our measurements for the sequined belly shirts we would wear on stage.
The news of our costumes, and how much they would reveal, finished me. My fears were not driven by a wish to protect my modesty. Rather, they came from a place of self consciousness. At nine years old, I had already come to understand that my body was not the type to display. It was not like the ones celebrated in magazines or television shows. I was somewhat of a chubby kid and painfully aware of it. I did not tell anyone the truth about my sudden aversion to dance; I simply dropped out of the class.
If I could go back in time I would tell myself to stick it out, to dance my heart out, to wear that belly shirt in pride. I would tell myself that I am beautiful, yes, but more importantly, that I worked too damn hard to let toxic societal norms stop me from getting on that stage. Alas.
Over a decade later, dance has returned to my life in unexpected ways. I had a strong urge to perform with one of the student groups during my junior year of college. I cannot be certain, but perhaps the urge to dance came as a wish to vindicate my third grade self. Luckily, the classical Indian dance team took me in. I had no qualifications to speak of, other than occasionally attending Zumba class. My ability to coordinate movement simultaneously between arms and legs was limited, at best.
I learned at practices in the basement of Ida Noyes Hall that I was terribly stiff and shy about the movements of my body. When I was told to accent certain postures with emotion, or to adopt a certain facial expression, I would break into laughter to hide my nerves. It is scary to move expressively in this world. The women in the group were more patient with me than I deserved, especially given all their years of training.
They gave me a real role in the performance. They trusted that through many hours of practice I would eventually embody the movements and the spirit underlying them. That trust was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I had no choice but to become the potential that they saw in me. Surely, I made a few errors on performance day and remained a novice among experts. But I took up space on that stage, and that was itself an accomplishment.
Here in Amman, I recently started taking contemporary dance classes. The instructor guides the first half of class without any choreography. She encourages us not to dance as dancers. She tells us to dance as the thing that occupies our body. In her class, dance is not so much the aggregate of moves set to music. Rather, it is a channel through which we learn to feel more at home in our bodies. I like this idea. I think my third grade self might have liked this, too.