My friend Kerry and I were inarguably the biggest in the dance class. I’m not talking about a touch of extra thigh jiggle or actual hips. I mean that we were Brontosauruses in a group of lithe, beautiful, graceful gazelles; we were the lumbering harpies in a flock of stick-legged birds all symmetrical limbs and sinewy necks that held their small heads adorned with silky hair wrapped expertly into buns and coiled braids. We were twelve. The onslaught of puberty was just making itself seen and felt on our bodies—doughy middles, persistent breasts, skin in a state of angry rebellion. Neither of us were athletic in any real sense of the world, nor did we spend much time doing anything physical that didn’t involve stretching to get the family sized bag of chips down from the top shelf of the cupboard.
“So, you know most of the girls in the class are, um, a bit younger,” said Debbie in her best, thinnest attempt to be tactful. Debbie owned the dance studio where I dragged Kerry. Melanine, another friend of ours, had taken dance lessons from her for years at another studio before Debbie split off to start her own. She was probably in her late-twenties with thick black hair and eyes a shade of coffee.
We had come to her open house to find out about what classes were available. Debbie taught tap, ballet, jazz, and some trendy new thing called “modern,” which in 1989 was on the cusp of becoming “vogueing” thanks to Madonna. Jazz seemed like the right fit for us, nothing that involved leaps (but it would as we would later find out) or moves too complicated for our untrained bodies, just, you know, dancey and cool and badass, like the performers in Janet Jackson’s videos. How hard could it be? Some spirit fingers, a few kicks, and maybe a roll of the old hips. We were quick learners, I told her, and super eager and we were both in band so we had a sense of rhythm. Truly. This was my pitch to a woman who had spent her life as a professional dancer and who could tell just by looking at us that we belonged at the mall, not at the barre. On the flip side, Debbie ran a dance business, not a non-profit charity for girls who secretly wanted to see themselves spinning and twirling away on THE STAGE. Our moves would never be anything to brag about, but our money was as good as anyone else’s. “Okay,” she said with a little shrug and slid two registration forms over to us across her desk.
Truthfully Kerry was just a good sport, willing to indulge her friend in this weird fixation on dance. Dance in the 1980s was to young girls what soccer and karate is to young girls today. Movies like Flashdance, Footloose, Fame, and Breakin’ One and Breaking Two: Electric Boogaloo (superior of the Breakin franchise hands down) helped make the whole dance scene incredibly trendy and glamorous. I was enraptured as any other seven-year-old weaned on a consumer diet of ballerina Barbie and leg warmers.
And the funny thing was that I could have easily asked my parents for dance lessons when I was six or seven, but I didn’t. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think there was a part of me afraid they would say “no” for whatever reason and I would have to accept life as an unsequined ordinary. Instead of stalking my dreams no matter how unrealistic, I lived vicariously through Melanie. When I went over to play at her house I begged her to put on her tap shoes and practice her moves in the kitchen or teach me ballet positions. Then I would go home and stomp around in my wooden clogs (highly fashionable and wildly impractical) in my kitchen mimicking what I had seen until my mother would chase me out, begging me to do something quieter and less disruptive like light firecrackers in the backyard.
Despite being human glaciers in that class, Kerry and I held our own. Not only that, but we did everything the wee girls did with twice as much gusto and three times the swagger. We discovered our bodies could bend in some startling ways. I learned what a “split walk” was and that it was as painful and impossible as it sounded. We mastered a complicated routine for our recital performed to Michael Jackson’s “Bad” that did involve leaping (poorly) and we rocked our recital costumes: shiny spandex halter tops and shorts that came in assorted neon colors like nuclear reactor orange and embolism bursting pink ringed and shot through with black sequins. SEQUINS. My wanna-be-dancer heart was so full.
When I look back at my time “in dance,” as I like to phrase it–which lasted for two years before Broadway did come knocking to cast me in a revival of West Side Story, KIDDING, I held out for RENT—I am amazed at how uninhibited and unselfconscious I was. I didn’t care that the other girls likely thought we were sweet, but misguided morons; I didn’t care about the looks we got from the moms in the waiting room as we poured out of class in our sweaty gym clothes, not the designer dance-wear all the other girls had; I didn’t even wonder from time to time if Debbie felt guilty cashing our checks; and I didn’t care what my other friends or family thought of putting myself in the center ring of what could possibly be a circus of humiliation.
I only knew I was gloriously, stupidly happy. I didn’t have to be the best. I didn’t even have to be good, I just had to follow the thing that lit a spark in my soul and let go of the rest–then, now, and always.