Friday, February 10, 2006

Bodies in Motion

I took a hip hop class a couple of nights ago. It wasn't at all what I expected - actually, I was a little disappointed. The first most frustrating thing was that I couldn't execute some of the moves. The second most frustrating thing was that I couldn't keep up with the pace of the instruction. And then in addition, I didn't like the choreography (probably because of those first two issues), and I didn't like the way the class was taught (almost no warm-up at all, and no cool-down). (And it didn't help that I was the largest person in the class. Nowhere does weight and body image become a bigger issue than in a dance class, let me tell you.)

I had been really looking forward to the class for a few weeks. I thought that hip hop would be easy to pick up because I do have a lot of dance experience, and I am a fairly good dancer. I expected that it would be challenging, but I didn't think it would be impossible. So I was pretty downhearted by the end of much so, in fact, that I stayed for the next dance class in the hopes that I could end my evening with a good dancing experience.

The next class was ballet.

Now, ballet and I have had a long, complicated relationship. I studied at a pretty competitive studio when I was a kid, and I had the dreams everyone has of being a dancer. But after a year on pointe, I had to quit because of problems with my feet that were preventing me from dancing the way I needed to be able to do - and also ruining my feet, to boot. Before I quit, I had been a decent ballet student (not on pointe, though, obviously), and I had been one of the best jazz students. But once I could not continue on pointe, the studio lost interest in me. I was not invited to join Ballet Workshop, the elite choreography and performance group, even though they did very little pointe work. I was never asked to lead the warm-up exercise in the jazz class, even though I had been studying longer than the others. I began to doubt myself, and I began to lose my motivation so that my work suffered. Finally, I quit in tears.

Quitting felt a bit like breaking up with a lover - I missed it, but it was just too painful for me to be in dance classes of any kind. I even avoided going to dance performances; if I couldn't dance, I didn't want to watch anyone else dance, either.

It wasn't until years later, in college, that I came back to dance. I stayed far away from ballet. I started with modern, and moved on to Celtic and West African dance. After a semester of study, during which I was dancing so much I was probably in the best shape of my life, I was invited to join the West African Drumming and Dance performance troupe. After my experience with the ballet studio, this was enormously liberating. It was simultaneously an affirmation and an avenue for me to do what I loved to do. But it's hard for a white girl to do much in this area, and after college, I could not find the same kind of dance community. When I did finally find a place where I could study West African dance, it turned out that the dances were Senegalese, and I found these very difficult (the dances I had learned previously came from Ghana, and were much easier for me to learn).

I also tried Near Eastern dance, or "belly dancing." It was a better fit for my body type than was ballet, which is created not for "real" bodies but for starved bodies twisted in unnatural ways. And I found the music and the movements of both Near Eastern and West African dance to be, simply, much more fun than either ballet or jazz had ever been.

Then, I injured my back, and for several years I was unable to do any dancing at all.

So it is only now that I am coming back to dance.

In the ballet class the other night, I was shocked at how quickly my body remembered what it was supposed to do, even after all the years away. It couldn't do it as well as I wanted, and it didn't look the way I wanted it to. But I found that I could do what was asked of me, I could keep up with the class, and I could even be graceful.

It felt safe.

It felt like coming home.

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