It's a loaded topic for me, one that I've been meaning to muse about for some time. Well, tonight's as good a night as any. I just got in from a performance with Zivio, my Balkan folk dance team, at the University of Utah's multicultural night. And I've got a lot to think about.
I love to dance with Zivio. I love the peculiar, challenging rhythms of the music and the synergistic thrill of feeling everyone's feet in perfect time with your own. Step, stomp, cross, lift, touch, cross, grapevine, stomp, hop . . . it's such a tremendous feeling when your body goes on autopilot, and every muscle's like Yeah, we know this one. No sweat, so that while you tap out a dizzying sequence of steps you can be laughing and joking with the dancers around you. I love the display of precision and skill that is Balkan folk dancing. I love that it is inclusive and challenging and distinctive. I feel safe, and happy, and confident when I'm caught up in these dances, even on stage.
But not all dances are the same.
After our final number, the evening was wrapped up by a team of Brazilian drummers. Brazilian drums are incredible. They make statues and furniture try to get up and dance. And as the infectious rhythm worked into the brains of the crowd, they opened up the stage for an impromptu dance party. And this was where I started to panic.
Flashback! I am suddenly fourteen years old again, newly moved from a tiny town in southern Minnesota to the strange, huge metropolis of Salt Lake City. One of the girls in my church, in honor of her sixteenth birthday, throws a dance in the church building. (To this day, I don't know how she got away with that. Using the ward building for a private dance party? It is a thing I have never seen before or since.) Because I am now fourteen, and thus of age to go to dances, and because in this new environment I am expected to 'get out there and make friends' (Note: don't ever tell an introvert to do this), I show up.
It is dark, there is music, there are lots of people. The only person in attendance that I know at all is the birthday girl, who has little to no interest in me. So I hang at the side of the room, unsure of what to do, wishing I had someone to talk to.
Dances are about having fun, right? So I am probably expected to move into the middle of the room and dance in a fun manner. Dancing is supposed to be self-expression or something like that, right? It's a 'just have fun, enjoy yourself' kind of thing, right?
I find a corner of the space and start to dance. The only dancing I've ever done is in the kitchen of my own home, with no training, no mirror, no steps . . . just moving because there is music. So I dance, the only way I know how. Just on my own, to have fun. Because dancing is about having fun.
Soon I am surrounded by other people, girls my own age, dancing just as I am. I feel my spirits lift. Someone is dancing with me! This is fun!
Then they stop. They point, and they laugh. They were never dancing with me . . . they were mimicking me in mockery.
I run away and hide. I have been hiding ever since.
So there I was, watching this Brazilian carnival unfurl on the stage, with my hips and my knees and my feet all itching to dance to that addictive, thrilling beat. But every instinct screamed at me to stay away. Isn't it strange how one night back when you were fourteen years old can stay with you so intensely? How a bunch of adolescent girls, who by now have probably grown up into kind, sensible adult women, can leave such permanent scars in a thoughtless moment of self-indulgent cruelty?
I don't go to dances anymore. Not even the traditional mid-session dance at Lac du Bois, which is the safest, most affirming place that I know. I don't go to singles dances, to university dances. I don't go clubbing. Because I'm afraid that I'll dance, and end up back where I was at age fourteen: as an object of communal derision. Folk dancing is fine. Line dancing is fine. Anything with set steps, with a right way and a wrong way where I have learned the right way, is wonderful. But just dancing, free-form, to move and celebrate and have fun . . . that is not for me. Dancing as a form of self-expression is only acceptable if the self you're expressing is acceptable. Gotta love those lessons you learn in high school.
I danced tonight. A little. I wish I hadn't. I wish I'd walked away and hid in a corner and cried. But if I had, I'd be just as miserable, wishing I could dance and not daring to. Nothing bad happened, but somehow that doesn't matter . . . those girls are still laughing at me for daring to think that I might be as worthy to dance as anybody else.
I wonder who they were, and where they are now. I don't doubt they've forgotten that there ever was such an event as Julie Durr's sixteenth birthday party. And yet here I am, twelve years later, still crippled with self-conscious terror whenever the music starts.
I wish adolescence weren't required to graduate into adulthood. I wish there were a way to test out of it. Or, barring that, I wish that it would just end. Why does it have to linger on, infecting the rest of my life? After all these years, why can I still not just dance? I want to so badly. I'm still so afraid.