My father drove me to ballet classes for years, at Mrs. Stamps’ Ballet Academy. I stopped right after I started to learn to go up on point, before I got my own toe shoes. This mean that my parents suffered through at least four productions of The Nutcracker. I think part of the reason I quit ballet was that nothing could live up to my first appearance on stage. I got a starring role my first Nutcracker, at age five. I was a palm-fan-waver for the Plum Prince. At age five, when I had just started ballet and was very, very pint-sized, they gave me custom ultra-mini harem pants and a sequined bandeau. I had to walk on stage, bow, and fan the Prince with a big frond. This simple routine, performed by the tiniest harem slave ever, brought down the house.
I know the dance parent I don’t want to be. Tall, blonde, too much work done, she shoulders her way past other grown-up students, and demands that the teacher debrief about her daughter’s performance. “How did she do? Can you please tell her again to stop lip syncing?” The daughter, who is standing right there, looks about eleven, with spiky shoulder blades and a forced, vacant smile.
With this cautionary vision in mind, I have started taking H. to dance class. After H. was born—a while after—I dropped down into a dark space where I couldn’t find my enthusiasm for anything. A regular regime of dance classes saved me. It makes me feel deeply goofy to admit this. But while I want to forever shield H. from all things mean and anorexic, I also want to share dance with her.
My relationship with dance class started again at The Edge Performing Arts Center. The Edge is a crowded set of studios on the fifth floor of a nondescript building in Hollywood. It smells of hair products and sweat and bleach. A bulletin board at the back drips with audition announcements. The teenagers behind the counter wear lots of eyeliner and can barely hear questions over the din of pop music and shouted greetings. The first hip hop class I took there, I sucked. Everyone else seemed so young and their sweatshirts were so perfectly ripped. But somehow, it became very important for me to go back. Every week. To try again.
As with any art, or craft, dance is only part talent, and talent was never really what was missing, for me. It was the ability to get back into the routine once I had missed even the smallest step. This is not a humble brag, because I’m not a dancer. Or rather, I’m in another galaxy from the girls that I watched every week at The Edge in the advanced classes, girls who swallowed the music whole and then perfected the styling. They have both talent and many years of practice channeling that talent. They have put in their ten thousand hours, and I could have stared at them forever. I once performed on the main stage at Pride in San Francisco as a backup dancer for a singer named Joti. But I harbor no illusions about my potential as a dancer.
This was about something in my past, where dance classes had buried a link in my psyche between the moment when I start to feel overwhelmed by the speed of the choreography and an overwhelming urge to give up. Sometime after H. was born, I realized I had to unearth that link. Learning to dance means learning technique—a barrel turn, a double pirouette, yes. But it also means memorizing sequences, and if every time you miss a step, you stop moving, you don’t learn very much. You can’t let a miffed pivot at four-and throw you into a paralyzing wave of despair about your entire existence. Rationally, I may always have known this. But in order to get out of a larger hole, a larger urge to give up on myself, I had to go back to wooden floors and long mirrors and figure this out in my body.
Dance has brought me many wonderful things, like, dance movies with girlfriends, and dancing at the weddings of people I love. Dance is an entire and separate vocabulary, as my friend S. so eloquently wrote about it here. Dance-floor dancing—at a club, at a party—is connection and euphoria and release. When I was a teenager, I thought that no guy would ever really like me—like like me—unless he saw me on the dance floor. I thought it was my best language. So I would start dance classes. And then I would give up—because my double pirouette sucked, because there were so many younger girls better than me, because I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror for that long, because I got paralyzed. Again and again, I started and stopped. This whole mess was connected to a number of misconceptions about boys and sex and mirrors.
I remember Katie’s Dance Studio in El Cerrito where I took classes after I got my driver’s license. I didn’t like the dance teacher at my high school, I thought she didn’t like me. The girls at Katie’s were already professional dancers. They added extra training routines in the weeks leading up to important auditions, like at Marriott’s Great America. I was college-bound, with hours of problem sets every night for my prep school. The girls at Katie’s never seemed to leave. Katie’s daughter was going to be a dancer, no matter what. I remember her as mousy, unnoticeable when still and a liquid beauty when in motion. I wanted to be just like her. I worked very hard to get to the point where Katie would let me take the advanced class. And then, I froze. I stood at the back, every week, and felt ashamed. Katie never pushed me, she never berated me. When we put on a recital, an hour of sequined costumes and jazz hands, I had no solos. I stood at the back for every number. Katie assigned me the task of sashay-ing out on stage between songs to switch the placard, on an easel, at the front of the stage. I took this as a gesture of pity at the time. But looking back, Katie—with her severe ponytails and piercing eyes—strikes me as a calm and patient teacher. She was trying to throw me a line.
When H. was very small, I slowly began to figure out that one of my most important tasks as a mother was not give up on myself in front of her. And on days when the darkness was thick—days when I could barely move my limbs to get out of the car, to enter the house—I longed to dance. Not in a social way. In a way where I could turn myself over to someone else’s physical vocabulary. That release. I had to find it. I had to find the particular count of eight where I had screwed it up. And I had to get over it, I had to do it again. I had to, literally, find a way to keep dancing.
At first, I found a beginning hip hop class that seemed less threatening at The Edge. I told myself it was cheaper than Prozac, and convinced myself and my family that it was important for me to add this class to a tight schedule. Then I found another studio closer to my house. I took some cardio-dance classes. And then I found Joe.
All I know about Joe is that he married his partner on a beach in Malibu, he’s from the midwest, and he first learned to dance on the showroom floor of a Cadillac dealership. His teacher was married to the dealer. She used to move the cars to clear a space for class. Also, Joe is a brilliant dancer. He channels deep emotion and joy in a set of very compact muscles.
Joe’s class moved at the right pace. I was bored with the cardio classes, but in classes that moved too fast, I still shut down. I would screw up and then move to the back, feeling my own frustration like a curtain coming down, a numbness in my limbs. Joe’s routines are eclectic and expressive, from Fosse to Skrillex to underground Michael Jackson remixes. But he also went over basic technique. He was patient with questions.
Joe seemed to intuit that I needed my space. He doesn’t choose favorites. He lets line leaders volunteer. One class, there were a bunch of new people, and while none of the moves struck me as particularly hard, I couldn’t string them together. The curtain started to come down behind my eyes. I convinced myself that I had blown it, that I would never come back, that I was an embarrassment and a joke for dancing at my age, I would never learn anything, and also, I was worthless and stupid. I must have looked frustrated, I don’t think you can run an inner monologue that vicious without some outward sign. But Joe didn’t say anything. So I kept dancing. And then I found it again, the thread. I learned the damn routine. Joe smiled at me, gently, near the end of class, and said, “You just had to get the count, there.” I don’t think he had any idea of the inner drama this represented for me. I hope not. I want to go back without him thinking me psychotic.
Dance class became the anchor for my week. I noticed that if I missed it, the whole week went off, the floor was lower. And the days when it went well—not days when I felt like a fabulous talented dancer, but days when I kept dancing through the frustration, over the darkness—the euphoria lasted for hours and carried into other things.
Joe’s mother visited one week. “Your son’s class means a lot to me,” I told her. “Oh I can tell,” she said, with a hint of Minnesota in her voice. “You’re a wonderful dancer.” I could have cried.
Now, H. has been to a few dance classes. She runs around and does little leaps and makes “pizza feet” first position with her toes. After her first class, primarily what she wanted was a leotard and a tutu and ballet slippers. She was very, very frustrated by my insistence that she not wear the slippers out of the house as shoes. And she wore the tutu to Disneyland. But I think I recognize the look on her face in front of those long mirrors, on those wooden floors, when she beams up at her teacher, the intense wonder of learning that new language.
I want so badly for her to have that vocabulary, that euphoria. I know the pitfalls so well. But I’m also still realizing something: Yes, it may be hard to rival the palm frond tiny harem dance, but better to keep dancing then never to have palm-fronded at all. By which I mean, no one will deliver you your bliss. You have to keep counting and try again. I don’t really want H. to be a professional dancer, it’s such a hard path, but I also don’t imagine that I will get to decide such things. All I can do is take her to class, dance with her in front of the mirror, when she lets me, and try to keep hold of my own thread of joy.