Little Miss Sunshine

I called my sister last week from a writing workshop.

What are you writing about?,” she asked, making conversation.

I replied, “Oh….dancing.  And, the beauty pageant from high school.”  There was a heavy sigh in my voice.

With a touch of exasperation in her voice, she responded “It’s time for you to let that go you know…

Yah, I know.

And I do.  But, whenever I think about it, it still stings.

tiaraEven though there wasn’t a pageant that year, my small town was asked to send a representative to the state Junior Miss competition.  Somehow, through the uncertain network of small town decision-making, the ladies called me.  I was the chosen one to represent our community.

Maybe it was a fulfillment of a childhood fantasy or the insistence of my mother or the honor of being chosen by the local powers, whatever the reason, I agreed.

As is possible in a smaller community, I was deeply involved in high school.  I had leadership positions in school clubs and was a dance assistant as a part-time job.  I was active in church and drama and even had a brief stint as a cheerleader for the wrestling team.   My country upbringing—where I was a big fish in a small pond—had not prepared me for what lay ahead.

During our meet and greet luncheon, one of the girls turned to me and asked, “What’s your talent?”  She was modestly dressed in a fashionable skirt that showed off her long legs without revealing too much.

I’ll be dancing.”  What I meant was that I had borrowed a park bench and long overcoat and I had taken a piece of poster board that I made into a giant “book” entitled, “How to Dance.”   My loosely choreographed number would hit its peak when I ripped off the overcoat to reveal new-found dancing skills.  I had a basic plan, but it was ameteur at best. “And you?” I responded.

I’ve recorded myself singing an aria and I’ll be dancing ballet on-pointe,” she smiled kindly, her perfectly smooth hair framing her lightly freckled face.  “A piece that I’ve choreographed myself.”  She was outrageously perfect.

The week of activities, rehearsals, and interviews was filled with similar interactions.  With every conversation, my sense of inadequacy grew.  I didn’t have the right clothes or aLittle Miss Sunshinen outgoing temperament.  I wasn’t up on current events or for that matter, pop culture.  I had only been to one foreign country.  I was hippy and full among a gaggle of skinny girls.

“At least I will have the grades,” I told myself. “I must be in the running with that.”  But no, somewhere along the line I realized that even my above-and-beyond GPA wasn’t going to be in the running.

The night of the pageant came. I did my awkward dance.  I stood on stage in my on-sale dress, the same one I wore to prom.  I did my best to hold my ground. I tried to blend in with the perfect girls. But, by the end of the show, I was done.

You did SUCH a good job, Mary.  We are so proud of you,” my parents gathered around me as I gathered up my things.

In the silence of my teenage mind, I retorted “Then you are a fool.”  But, I smiled and responded, “Thanks. Can we just go home?

Absolutely.  Let’s go home!”   We made our way out to the parking lot and crawled into the minivan, covered with the dust of our dirt road.

A few weeks ago, my niece was in her first dance recital.  At three years old, it is evident that she is following her inner drummer—a strong-willed kid who doesn’t like to be told what to do.  She didn’t want to wear the costume, didn’t want to let go of her tattered Bear, and didn’t want to dance on cue.  As her family, we already knew that.

As the number started, it become evident to the entire audience.

She stood with her feet planted.  Not one single tap sounded off her feet.  Instead, she looked around and began to fiddle with the strap of her fish costume.

She didn’t shoulder shimmy or shuffle or shake. The girls beside her were moving around the stage but she stayed put.  Slowly, she slide her little arm from under the strap, letting one arm free from the itchy sequins.

Oh, sweet baby, no….” my mom whispered under her breath, trying to mentally will her granddaughter into staying clothed.  “Please keep it on.

The audience giggled a bit as she began to fiddle with the other side.

Before she committed to disrobing, the number ended and the girls lined up to form a choo-choo train and push my darling niece off the stage.

I hope I didn’t scar her, “ my sister whispered across the line of family.

Nah,” I whispered back, thinking of my strong niece, “she’ll be okay.”

Owning It on the Dance Floor

I do not have a dancers body–nothing about me is long, lean, slender, or angular. I am all curves, round and full. But, there is a vein of dance in my heart. I will not hesitate to open and close down the dance floor at a wedding. When listening to music, I envision dance moves in my head–things that my body can’t do but my imagination can. Admittedly, I even like dance movies, even the ones that reek of cheese.

I’ve taken a lot of dance classes in my lifetime. Enough that I can instinctually feel the rhythm of music: “1 eee and a 2 eee and a 3 eee and a 4 eee” or “one n’ TWO, three n’ FOUR.” Taking dance classes as an adult can be a challenge. I’m not a complete beginner. But, I’m not destined for Broadway either.

When I moved to DC, I looked up the adult classes at the nearby studios. Dance is a form of exercise that doesn’t involve a feat of willpower and I desperately needed the natural happy of endorphins. I tried a handful of classes including Zumba, Hip-Hop, and Casino Salsa (the Cuban version of square dancing! Yah, I didn’t know that either.)

On a whim, I mustered my courage and walked into a class labeled: African Tribal Dance. Not long after the warm-up was finished, I was hooked. I’ve been a regular the entire time I’ve been in DC.

The West African dances we are taught involve dramatic movement to the music of livedance-place-97 drummers, performed by men and women wrapped in bold prints. At times, grandmothers modify the steps while maintaining the fire of the movement and the younger women hoot and holler as a sign of respect. Bodies of all shapes and sizes move across the floor in small groups according to experience.  There is swaying and hopping and flailing arms in big sweeping motions. Some of the movements communicate worship and gratitude, others speak to crops and childrearing and animals. All of it requires me to step outside of the intellectual life of graduate school and into the world of rhythmic music and form and steps. For at least a hour, I am out of my head and fully present to my body.

Gratefully, there are no mirrors in the classroom. For, as much as I love the class, I find myself very self-consciousness.

On a practical level, my body simply does not move with ease in some of the ways that are required. Many times, watching the more experienced dancers, I have placed my hands on some region, say my lower back, and tried to think through, feel, and build a simple sense of muscle memory for what it is like for those muscles to move according to the step.

In another way, my self-awareness is an insecurity of role. Am I an intruder into an ethnic art-form? Am I the awkward white girl whose movements revert to Western dance postures when a more soulful stance is required? Am I the outsider in a community of people who clearly know each other well?

Nothing has happened externally to cause these questions to be raised. I’ve been met with graciousness and professionalism throughout my time at the studio. Rather, it’s an internal insecurity, a questioning of my place.

And really, the same questions resonate in many areas of my life:  Am I a poser in the academic world? Am I the legit as a student who stammers to communicate my thoughts in a classroom full of articulate peers? Am I an outsider to the East Coast culture where I often feel a bit unusual?

Having been through a significant transition in recent years, I am rebuilding my sense of self, at times fumbling and confused, experimenting a bit. I am finding that I’m a bit more mysterious to myself than I realized.

But, you know what?!?!

I do know that I love to groove to African Tribal rhythms!  So, awkward or not, I am gonna own that!

size_550x415_DanceAfrica 2010. Photo by Enoch Chan (29)

Photos were found online associated with Dance Place:

© Enoch Chan