{That one time} Dance changed my life

0 headerI was chubby. No really, I was. I had just returned from a 6 month stint of living in England with my favorite Aunt. She just so happened to be pregnant at the time, and pregnant people like to eat, as do preteens going through puberty. Long story short, upon my return home, I was chubby. Not that I really noticed that much. I mean I knew that I had gained a little weight but it didn’t really bother me. I guess I just had really good friends and family who overlooked my roley-poley self.

I didn’t think much about how I looked. That is until I found myself in my first ever dance class wearing a form fitting leotard and surrounded by stick thin girls and wall to wall mirrors. How did I end up in a dance class? 13 years old seemed a little late to start a dancing career when the other girls in my class had a good 10 years of experience on me.

Every week I entered my 1 hour musical theater class with renewed determination and vigor to do the best I could. Those first 30 minutes focused on acting and improv exercises. It was pretty obvious to me that I excelled above the other girls. I think it was obvious to them too. It felt good to be better at something than other people. I wasn’t incredible, by any means, but I had more experience and it showed. But in that second half hour that was focused on upbeat, jazzy, musical theater style dancing I shrank to the back of the room behind everyone else and hoped that no one would notice my inability to mimic even the simplest of dance steps. Every week I left my 1 hour musical theater class more frustrated and feeling worse about myself than I had an hour before.

But I kept going back, week after week, and I slowly got better until I was ready for our end of the year recital. I can still remember the power and adrenaline I felt on that stage under the warm lights. I left the stage panting from exertion and excitement. I sat backstage and watched the other girls who were in multiple classes do quick costume changes and rush back on for yet another dance. At that moment there was only one thing I was sure of, I wanted to be back on that stage as much as I could and I would do whatever it took to get there.

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^^Our song that first year was ‘Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend.’ This was after a whole year of dancing.

When it was time to register for classes for the next year, I went a little above and beyond. I signed up for hip-hop, jazz, musical theater, and tap. By the time the end of the year rolled around I would be in as many dances as I could manage. The only problem was by this point I was in 9th grade, which by age put me in the senior dance classes despite my skill level.

My first class at the beginning of the year was hip-hop. I was nervous at having to once again squeeze into a leotard and stare at myself in a room full of mirrors and thin girls. I soon realized that although I had no idea what I was doing, I wasn’t the only one. I spent every free moment I had practicing the steps I learned in class. I chasséd and grand jetéd down hallways, I chaînéd and pirouetted around the living room. Any empty hallway at school was begging me to leap and turn down it. Just because I wasn’t good yet didn’t mean I couldn’t be.

I only lasted for two tap classes. I quit, not so much because I was embarrassed, but more because I felt bad for holding the rest of the class back. While they were tip tap hopping around the room, I was attempting to tell my feet how to shuffle ball change. My feet didn’t really listen to me. But that didn’t stop me from practicing. Even after I quit the class I tried to master that first across the floor combination–toe, scuff, heel, toe, heel, ball change. I’d be sitting at school scuffing and shuffling my feet under my desk. I’m sure people thought I was crazy.

My least favorite part of class was after the warm up and before the routine portion where we did some kind of across the floor combination to work on basic skill. Everyone would line up and take turns doing the combo from one side of the room to the other. Sometimes we were in twos or threes but often enough we would go one at a time. I hated everyone looking at me cross the floor and mess up the steps. I was mortified at the thought that I’d be the only one in class who didn’t understand how to do something. I watched the more experienced girls with envy as they mastered some of the most difficult combinations with ease.

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^^All that dancing really helped my transform my body.

Between dancing 3 hours a week, practicing in the meantime, and my freshman year gym class at school, my body had completely transformed by the end of the year recital. I lost that extra puberty weight that came in part from eating too much Cheez-Whiz and Sprite during my stay in England and developed coordination and flexibility that I’d never had before.

The following year I once again stepped it up a notch. In addition to hiphop, jazz, and musical theater, I joined ballet. Although I learned my lesson from the year before and even though I was old enough to be in senior ballet, I decided to hang out with the middle schoolers in junior ballet to not embarrass myself too much. I even started working at the dance studio selling shoes, answering phones and assistant teaching in 3 year old ballet and tap classes (and by assistant teaching I mean preventing kids from hitting each other and taking them to the bathroom).

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Over the years I continued to get better, although I was never great. Somehow dance became my life even though at first glance my abilities were nothing to write home about. I loved the way it felt to move my body in a way that fit to music and told a story. I could feel the music moving through me and it was beautiful to me, even if it didn’t look that way to anyone else. It was a way for me to let out inner feelings that I didn’t know I had and wasn’t able to articulate with words.

By my senior year of high school I had dropped ballet, added a second hiphop class and started contemporary which proved to be my favorite class yet. Starting my fifth year of dance, my least favorite part of class was still doing across the floor combinations. I never felt good enough and was embarrassed to parade myself in front of the other girls. That is until part way through the year when my contemporary teacher said something I will never forget.

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^^Our contemporary costume, senior recital.

Contemporary was the last class of the evening. There were only about 6 of us in the class and we were all tired from a day full of school and dancing. Our teacher had just finished showing us an across the floor combo but before anyone could start, she encouraged us to give it our all and hold nothing back. She said, “What do you have to lose?”

She knew we were tired but we had all joined that class for a reason and we were there to learn. Why waste a moment of that time giving less than we could? As the other girls began to prance and turn across the floor, a million thoughts ran through my head.

What do I have to lose? I am here in a class to learn and make the most of this experience. Why would I hinder this opportunity by holding back or being afraid of what other girls will think of me? If I don’t give it my all now, then when? And how can I ever hope to get better? This is my time. 

That night I danced like I never had before. I didn’t slow down to get the step right or ease into it, I gave it my all for the whole hour. Suddenly I stopped worrying about how the other girls saw me. I stopped being embarrassed or afraid of messing up. I took full advantage of the opportunity that I had to be in that class at that moment. I didn’t have anything to lose.

I let that be my mantra for the rest of my senior year, not only in dance but in other aspects of my life. It was my last year of high school, my last year at home, I wasn’t about to let a moment pass me by.

It rang through my head like a song when it was time to choreograph my senior solo. In my dance studio, seniors got to have a solo in the end of the year recital but the caveat was that they had to choreograph it themselves. I’ve already mentioned that I was never the best dancer but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from showcasing what I’d learned the past 5 years and giving it my all.

I chose Lazy Eye by the Sliversun Pickups, the first lyrics: “I have been waiting, I have been waiting for this moment all my life”. My dance style was my most recent favorite: contemporary.

With the help of a friend or two, I worked so hard to choreograph a piece that exemplified what I had learned in the past 5 years, how far I had come and that I didn’t plan to stop this momentum anytime soon. I was so so proud of the end result. This was me. This was that same chubby girl who couldn’t figure out a kick ball change. If I could do this, I could do anything.

**Here’s a video of my dance at dress rehearsal. Before you click play, keep in mind what I’ve mentioned before: I am no incredible dancer. I’m not putting this here to show off but to commemorate my time as a dancer and what that meant to me. Don’t watch it to notice all the places that my arms aren’t straight or feet aren’t pointed. Watch it to see a girl who believed she could and so she did.**

 

In my last end of year recital I was in 8 numbers. Eight! 2 jazz, 2 hip hop, musical theater, contemporary, the finale and my solo. I guess I had achieved the goal that I made in that very first recital. I was hardly off stage long enough to change into my next costume. I went from being that girl watching everyone get the adrenaline rush of their lifetime going from dance to dance, to being one of the girls who got to feel that adrenaline all weekend long, all 6 shows.0 rifraf2

What Dance Taught Me

I started my very first dance class as a way to expand my theatrical abilities in hopes of getting into more plays. I finished my dance classes with a love for an art I had never before considered. I learned what it meant to really want something and to work hard to get better at it, without the coercion of anyone else. I learned that I can make my body do what I want it to do if I try hard enough. Most importantly it taught me to not let anything get in the way of what matters most to me. I have nothing to lose, not other’s perception of me, or my pride. The only thing I have to lose is this moment, the one that’s happening right now and the opportunity that it holds. I learned not to let that pass me by because I was too scared or embarrassed.

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I’ve used those lessons from dance in my whole life. I used them when I auditioned at Disney World (and made it!). They came back to me when everyone was trying to convince me not to get married. I pulled them out once again when I was trying to lose the baby weight after having my daughter. But those are different stories for another time.

I don’t consider myself a dancer any more. At one point in my life, it was everything I did but now it’s a memory. And yet, dance helped me discover who I am, not just who I was as a teenager but who I am now. My dance classes gave me the confidence I needed to excel in the rest of my life and I will forever be grateful to my parents for paying for it and for each and every one of my dance teachers for encouraging me and helping me get to that place.

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^^My teacher, Miss Niki

So will I put my daughter in dance?

If it’s something she wants to do I will absolutely encourage her and give her that opportunity and not let her quit when something gets hard. But I’m not one of those moms who needs to relive my glory days. I know there are other extra curricular activities that can have a similar effect on a growing girl. Dance just has a special place in my heart, and it always will.

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Is there an activity that you did that changed your life or made you who you are today?