Learning To Love the Little Dancer I’d Hidden Within Myself

Photo: Getty Images/AleksandarNakic
I always wanted to dance like the girls in music videos. To move like Britney, Christina, Jessica, or Mandy was absolutely the goal of many a tween of the early aughts—to shake my hips, outline my body with my hands, feel sexy and empowered and fun. The only problem was I was terrible. A chubby tall girl with what I can only assume were old robot parts for hips, 14-year-old me certainly had the energy to be a pop star dancer, but didn’t exactly have the moves.

This was a problem. My dreams at that point were simple, really: to be an acclaimed and esteemed performer. A real multi-hyphenate type. That’s what made a girl stand out. Since I was little, singing, writing, and acting were my everythings. I performed in local plays and musicals, took voice lessons, sang the national anthem at sporting events. I wrote scripts and articles and magazines. I even tried to take dance classes, but that ended with me feeling humiliated.

I was just so bad at dancing.

I loved to express myself with my whole entire body: moving, hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, speaking, or singing made me happiest in the world. I was so connected to myself and the world around me, I often found it overwhelming, in the most exhilarating sense. I remember being about 5 and looking up at the sky as our car zipped along a back road in Vermont, watching the trillions of stars and planets that existed above, devastated by the realization that I would not be able to do everything, go everywhere, or truly understand—let alone visit—the depths of all that they contained. I decided at a young age if I couldn’t experience every physical thing, I would at least try and experience every feeling. And performing really helped me do that.

I loved to express myself with my whole entire body: moving, hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, speaking, or singing made me happiest in the world.

The problem being… nobody likes a performer. At least, not in my family. The idea of someone not going into nursing, law enforcement, or some other public-facing service was seen as incredibly selfish and self-serving. Besides, they said, it was too hard to actually find success in those sorts of endeavors, career-wise. My dreams were constantly maligned, mocked, and admonished. I needed to focus on getting “a real job.” I was so smart, why waste it on playing dress up?

It also didn’t help that I was fat. The world, I learned at the tender age of 8 when my anorexic mother put me on Weight Watchers, does not like fat on a female person unless she is a small baby child. My size was constantly remarked on by adults in positions of power at the plays or musicals I was in. Costumers, parent aides—one time, the extremely overweight, middle-aged male director of the middle school musical told me that I was a tremendous talent; if only I lost some weight, I could maybe become a great character actress. As a wannabe budding ingénue, this felt like a fate worse than death.

It’s funny how easily we can shed ourselves and not even see it. For me it happened slowly, with choices: the academically rigorous school versus the performing arts magnet, choosing a particular lane of academic study, focusing on financial stability from a career in like, say, marketing or something.

For years I denied who I was in all facets: singer, actor, writer, performer. Because that’s what made me palatable to my family and the world around me. But it was never enough to pretend I was quiet, steady, measured, and meek. In 2012, I allowed a drip from the faucet, and took a chance on writing professionally. An actual career blossomed, in spite of my insecurities, and much to my family’s amazement. Maybe it wasn’t selfish to tap into the core parts of who you are and put them into the world, I thought. Maybe it’s not about leaning away, but towards every single last part of you, warts and all, and giving into that.

But it didn’t magically solve everything or gift me with the ability to like myself. It did make the pull of such a reconciliation of all parts of myself all the more urgent. But I panicked at the revelation: that I would have to really face the me that had been pushed down and minimized, slowly stripped away; that I would need to embrace her wholeheartedly, despite the messaging I’d received for years. I fretted over being unlikable, unlovable, too much: all the things I’d been made to feel for my whole life.

What do you mean I have to accept all parts of who I am? I’d always been told so many parts of me were bad—what do you mean I’m now supposed to feel they are good and an asset to my life?

It’s funny how, when you’ve been consistently gaslit throughout your entire life, your response to your own thoughts and feelings is to gaslight yourself some more. My sense of self had become non-existent without the input of others telling me what I thought, meant, and felt. What do you mean I have to accept all parts of who I am? I’d always been told so many parts of me were bad—what do you mean I’m now supposed to feel they are good and an asset to my life? If I’d been doing any sort of dancing in my life up until that point, it was the Attempted Normalcy Waltz.

There’s one single, solitary upside to a pandemic, and it's that it’s the perfect time for me to face myself. I’ve got nothing but time and no one else to see. I’ve got real space to feel my feelings and assess my emotions and exist solely for myself.

The first feeling I felt sure of was a desire to move. I could feel that I was bursting at the seams, itching to allow my inner child out. She wanted to stretch and twist and use her body, but not simply by running or walking, and not through workout regimens or gym-rat repetitions. Those were, frankly, triggering. I am regularly flooded with memories of my early childhood, being forced after middle school to go to the gym for an hour, where all my thinner, more attractive classmates were putting in real work, and I felt judged and disgusting as I flopped around on my own little circuit before coming home to a Weight Watchers dinner. The gym and working out has always made me feel like an inherent failure in need of fixing, flawed in a way that was fully of my own making.

Scrolling through Instagram Stories in early April 2020, I came upon a video of an acquaintance of mine doing a dance class via Zoom with her friends. In it, she tagged a man named Ryan Heffington. At first, I thought nothing of it—but then I saw him again, in her Stories and another person’s. So I clicked over—a class happened at that moment to be in progress.

Ryan Heffington is a choreographer and one-time owner of The Sweat Spot dance studio in Los Angeles. He works regularly with musicians and artists to create performances that are truly joyful, unique, and eclectic in their at-times inelegant and highly organic style. When the pandemic hit, to help keep himself and his studio and teachers afloat, he began to host by-donation classes regularly on his Instagram account. At this point he was a few weeks in—a remix of a Florence and the Machine song played as Ryan bounced about, shouting moves like “happy hippie!” and “chicken wing!” in between affirmations of your own abilities.

My body could not help itself. The joy Ryan was able to cultivate with seemingly silly, improvisational nonsense movements (and ace playlist curation) made me feel alive, unencumbered by thought, happy. As the class wound down, I cried a little, while Ryan spoke earnestly about self-love and care, his bald head gleaming and his bushy mustache turning upwards into a smile, reminding us all to be a little bit kinder to ourselves and one another.

In the scant 30 minutes I experienced of Ryan’s class, I accessed something in myself that I’d long, long repressed: my intense desire to perform and be silly while doing it. I became an instant evangelist, encouraging friends and family members to take the class with me over FaceTime. I began doing the class two, three times a week.

Pretty soon it was daily, and a few weeks after that, I’d created my own playlist to dance around my apartment to, in case the Ryan workout wasn’t enough (which it increasingly was not). Pretty soon, I was dancing for anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes every single day. At one point, I bought dance shoes, because dancing barefoot or only in socks had wreaked havoc on my feet. I smiled and laughed, and thought about how foolish it all felt, and did it anyway. I never once stopped to wonder what people would think if they saw me.

And what they saw would certainly be something. A 5’11” woman of 197 pounds in a sports bra and leggings throwing herself around, giggling and jiggling, sweating and—for once—not overthinking.

Being alone, in my body, faced with the voices and demons of my past, could’ve excoriated my sense of self and exacerbated my indoctrinated hatred for the person that I am.

I see my body reflected in the glass encasing the art above the bar in my apartment—a posted that says “When life gives you gin, make gin and tonics” and a furrowed portrait of Mad Men’s Don Draper—and I think about how nobody died, least of all me, from exposing my belly between my sports bra and leggings. I feel myself becoming Dua Lipa, Jessie Ware, Lizzo, Carly Rae Jepsen, and sometimes even Beyoncé (but don’t tell Beyoncé) in my own music video, singing along as I move the ever-changing parts of my body that respond to beat and meter.

Maybe I will never be the multi-hyphenate of my dreams (never say never). I am not a dancer like Britney, Christina, Jessica, or Mandy. I never was and never will be. But the way I dance is so much better, because it moves me, in more ways than one. Being alone with my thoughts in a pandemic could have killed me—my bipolar 2 and C-PTSD are every day struggles for me—but it didn’t. Being alone, in my body, faced with the voices and demons of my past, could’ve excoriated my sense of self and exacerbated my indoctrinated hatred for the person that I am.

Instead, I stare at my stomach in the reflection of Don Draper’s face. The image is framed above the table I spend a large portion of time in front of, hung in such a way that the Jon Hamm character is often staring back at me as I take in the newness of my unclothed mid-section. His is a look of quiet judgement. Mine is one of joy and fascination.

I notice the curve on either side of my stomach that wasn’t there before. The Mad Man stares back, unmoved and unimpressed. I swing my hips to the left and the right, watching the gathered fat in my middle jiggle just a little. I smile. I spin and do a quick grapevine. Suddenly, I am bouncing around my living room, hands up in the air, now down near the floor. Now we’re grooving! I am not Lizzo or Carly or Beyoncé: I am that little girl I’ve always been, just with a more adult body, and I am killing it on my own personal dance floor. With pure glee and quickening breath; with each spin or jut of the hip, I am noticing myself in the semi-reflections of art framed around the room—this version of myself that has always been there just waiting for me to let her out. Waiting for me to love her, waiting for me to let her be.

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