Maya Mahony just graduated college with an English/creative writing major and now works at a nonprofit that runs homeless shelters in the Bay Area. When she's not writing or reading, she loves playing guitar, exploring nature, and dancing in the living room. She was inspired to write this piece by the essays of Rebecca Solnit.
I wanted to dance, but I didn’t want to be the kind of girl who dances. The dance girls at my middle school walked in a certain way, one hand hovering over their stomachs. They looked in mirrors constantly, complained that they were fat, and bragged about the boys they had kissed at spin-the-bottle games. I had enough trouble feeling pretty without the constant pressure of dance-class mirrors and body-shaming.
In high school, the dance team were cheerleaders. They wore sexy outfits and cheered on the macho guys on the football team. I wanted no part of that; I ran cross country and track. But I wanted to dance. There was something very deep-down about moving my body to music, something joyful and liberating that I yearned for. I didn’t know if I would ever find a time and place to dance in a way that felt free. I didn’t like high school dances: I didn’t want random boys grinding on me and I hated the thudding misogynist music.
In the living room at home, when I got cross and teary with frustration at math homework, my twin sister would call an emergency dance party. We would clear the living room carpet of our textbooks and notebooks, put on our music, and dance around. This became my go-to cheer up strategy. It was slipping back into my own body, interpreting sound as movement, sparking out joy through my fingertips, inhabiting myself.
As a very young girl I had dreamed of being a ballerina, but my illusions about ballet were fading fast. One of my high school friends left after sophomore year to study ballet at the Royal Academy of Monaco. Before she left we all went to see her perform as Clara in the Nutcracker. She was incandescent. She floated. And how wonderful that she was pursuing her dream!
But a year later she was back from Monaco, skinny, lonely, her ankle broken. She told us they had refused to feed her enough. They had pushed her physically and emotionally to the breaking point. It wasn’t just feet, confined to the tortuous pointe-shoes; it was legs, torso, hunger; it was the body as instrument for dance and nothing more. Body as performance for someone else’s gaze and never for personal pleasure. They had stripped ballet of its joy for her. Or had the joy never been there at all? Was ballet, from the start, a twisting of the female body to appeal to the male gaze? The little leotards, the painful shoes, the false ease that made the strenuous appear simple… so much senseless suffering. Ballet stopped looking beautiful to me. All I could see were the too-thin torsos, ribs visible, the feet contorted into the pointe-shoes, the preposterous tutus jutting into the harsh stage lights.
I had almost given up on dance by the time I was getting ready to go to college. But my ninety-year-old next-door neighbor encouraged me: “Dance while you’re young,” she told me, showing me beautiful old black and white photographs of herself, dancing, at my age. She looked so poised, so joyful. I sat there in her hot upstairs room, with the sunlight slanting in through the skylight, and I realized that if I ever wanted to dance, now was the time. Soon my limbs would be stiff and my bones brittle. I couldn’t avoid this thing I loved, just because it was imperfect.
When I got to college, I started dancing and couldn’t stop. I took at least one, sometimes two, dance classes every academic quarter. I learned salsa, swing, merengue, lindy-hop, polka, bachata, tango. I chose to learn the follow’s part and felt guilty about conforming to traditional gender roles. There were some unpleasant moments. Some sweaty older men with bad breath, cranking me around in dictatorial circles or holding me too close. But mostly there was joy. I loved the present-ness of following; I didn’t have to be anxious about what I would do next, instead just reacting in the moment.
I salsa-danced with the boy I had a crush on, both of us glowing with joy. I didn’t feel objectified or grossed-out like I felt dancing with the older men. I was gazed at, but I was also gazing. I was touched and I was choosing to touch. Hours and giddy hours.
But the exhilarating proximity of dance was also a drawback. I avoided frat parties because I was scared of rape. Every weekend it seemed I would get another “Campus Safety” email about a young woman raped or sexually assaulted at a frat party. I also hated the alcohol abuse and the machismo of the hosting frat brothers. In my freshman dorm, I listened to the boys in the next room over brag to each other about their conquests at various parties, how many shots they could take, how many girls they had hooked up with.
“But don’t you love dancing?” my roommate asked me. “Why don’t you want to go out?”
One night, when I came back to my room after hiding, lonely, in the library, my dormmates told me that my roommate had been ‘transported.’ This was a blithe word that meant she was rushed to the hospital to get her stomach pumped for alcohol poisoning. They told me this in a very routine manner; students in the dorm got black-out drunk at parties all the time, vomited in the shower, urinated in the laundry room; a ‘transport’ wasn’t a big deal. My roommate ended up fine, thankfully, but I couldn’t help think: frat-party dancing couldn’t be very inherently joyful, if it required getting black-out drunk to enjoy it.
My sophomore year I moved into a vegetarian social-justice co-op. We had dance parties all the time, and they were very different, and they were very wonderful. My roommates played live music, we all danced exuberantly, in various stages of nudity, with glitter everywhere, and I had never before felt so comfortable and so free in my own body, alongside all these other bodies that were all different shapes and colors and sexualities.
The co-op dance party, with its joyful celebration of all different sexualities, ethnicities, and bodies, was a dance of resistance to mainstream American college culture, where frat parties are heteronormative, white-dominated, and spread an abusive idea of a man as someone who gets young women drunk in order to have sex with them. At the co-op, we belted out lyrics and danced on the tables and nobody was ‘transported’ to the hospital; this was a kind of joy that was intoxicating in its own right.
The more dance classes I took, the more I learned about the wider world. I took exhilarating classes of African-diasporic dances from Nigeria, Brazil, Cuba, and the Caribbean. My teacher, the wonderful Amara Tabor-Smith, drew from movements used to celebrate the pantheon of deities known as the Orisha. She taught us how many contemporary dance movements draw not only from Western practices like ballet, but from African-diasporic movements. She spoke about decolonizing our bodies, about not being afraid to shake and fall and flail. In her class, I learned to respect nonwhite ways of dancing, to move boldly, to take up space.
I also got the chance to try voguing, when a champion voguer from the House of Mizrahi visited our class. Black and Latino gay men invented competitive voguing in Harlem in the 1980s and it’s still going strong today. Voguing is fierce, flamboyant, and feminine, a pocket of pride in a homophobic world.
In class, the visiting voguer taught us that Vogue Fem has five components: duckwalk, catwalk, hands, floorwork, and spin-dips. They all required incredible physical control, musicality, and confidence. I performed pitifully, partly from being physically incapable of the difficult stunts, partly from being unconfident in performing sexiness. My shins ached for weeks afterward. The teacher danced for us at the end of the lesson. They made vogueing look so easy. They whirled and spin-dipped, duckwalked and cat-walked, fierce and graceful, their long hair flinging. It was mesmerizing.
Dances of resistance seemed to crop up wherever I looked. When I was preparing to study abroad in Cape Town, my junior year, I took a course in South African history. I learned that during apartheid, colonizers in South Africa coerced African men into working in deplorable conditions in mines. The African men stomped their heavy gumboots in patterns of sound to communicate within the dark confines of the mines. The stomping later spread outside the mines as “gumboot dancing,” a dance of resistance to colonial oppression.
My quarter in Cape Town was difficult; I spent most of the time being terribly homesick and horrified about racial and economic inequality. But there were also moments of intense joy, and one was the day all of us students went to an outdoor concert of the pop duo Mafikizolo at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. The lawn was full of South African families on their picnic blankets, but as soon as the singing started, everybody leapt to their feet, dancing. I had never seen anything like it in the United States. A huge lawn full of people of all ages, children and young adults and old women, dancing and dancing, shaking our bodies in the sunlight with Table Mountain in the background. When the singers looked in our direction we all screamed with joy.
Now that college is behind me, and the world seems full of illness and smoke, and I cannot go to dance classes, or parties, or concerts, I have to learn how to keep dancing on my own. How to resist despair. I remember one of my favorite dance classes: an improvisational contemporary class that focused on the experience of dancing, rather than the performance of it. “Follow the song of your breath,” my teacher, Aleta Hayes, was fond of saying. Also: “How will you dance in your life?”
We danced to music, and sometimes to silence, focusing on our breath, our fluidity, our gaze, our intention. It is difficult to articulate the depth of gladness and peace I felt in those hours of improvisational dancing. I try to recreate them now. I close my bedroom curtains. I clear off the carpet. I dance.
I move through air like it is water, something to be moved, something within which to dwell. I have all this joy residing in me, I am awash in it, I am full right to the brim. I stretch like a lizard into my new skin. I inhabit my body, I fill every finger and toe of it. I can move air, I can move music. I am moved, I am cradled in space, I am held, I am holding joy so deep it aches and weighs my arms down.
The sunlight slopes through the curtains. I feel the light wriggle through my hair. A rush of movement and then the quiet space of stillness. I crouch and leap. I spin. I breathe and breathe. “End,” I whisper, and hold this position, reveling in stillness, in the peace of being. “Begin,” I say, and begin again.