A Brief History of My Dancing
Stephanie Harper, September 22, 2023
The first time I asked a boy to dance I wasn’t more than 3 or 4 years old. We were at the wedding of a colleague and friend of my father’s. I don’t remember much. I think there was an ice sculpture, which was something I had never seen before. I believe it was a swan but I might just picture all ice sculptures as swans. Early memories are fuzzy around the edges.
What I do remember is asking another little boy, a little older, 5 or 6, to dance with me. I had never seen a dance floor before and everyone else was doing it in pairs, so this seemed like the natural thing to do.
He said no.
I can’t remember exactly how I felt, embarrassed perhaps. Rejected. But I returned to our assigned table and cried. I remember my dad doing his best to comfort me. A few moments later, the little boy returned with a napkin full of those pastel dinner mints that seem to appear magically at every wedding. A peace offering. I took them and sniffled as he said, “I’m sorry.” Our dads’ eyes met in a mutual expression of second-hand embarrassment and awkwardness that seemed to say, “ah, kids.” That was the end of that memory.
I danced often when I was small. I was in constant motion, spinning and twirling, singing. No music required, I made my own. I vibrated. And I was always a princess or mermaid or a fairy, some symbol of absolute feminine beauty and perceived freedom. I never cared who saw me or what I looked like. The joy was in the movement and nothing else mattered
Once, when I was probably fourteen or fifteen, I danced with a man at charity event for a living facility for those with HIV/AIDS. I was on a church servant tour and this was our service project for the day. We helped with a 5k that was happening, handed out water bottles. Then, afterward, there was a sort of party out on the lawn with music and refreshments. He approached me and asked me to dance, and I said yes.
He was joyous. I felt safe and happy.
I didn’t know that the purple bruise-like mark on his neck was a Kaposi Sarcoma. That I was dancing with, even touching, someone closer to death than I had ever before.
A staff member eventually pulled him away and had him take a rest. I don’t know if that was for his benefit or for mine.
The first time I danced with someone I really wanted to, I was sixteen and he was my best friend. I hadn’t realized yet that he was my first true high school love, but he was my guy and promised me at least one dance. He was quite popular with the other girls at the choir banquet and I was not at the top of the list. When he finally found me, it was the last song and they ended it early so we could clean up and get out of the rental space on time.
This was a metaphor for our relationship. Never quite right, and eventually so wrong it became toxic. That night, I cried on the front steps of the porch that led into the building until it was time to leave, surprised and not surprised he couldn’t make just a little time for me.
That same year I danced with someone I didn’t want to. It was a relative’s wedding in a beautiful garden setting. The man, probably in his early thirties, who looked like a long-haired Quentin Tarantino, offered to teach me how to salsa. I didn’t really want to, but it was a wedding, and he was a friend of the bride and my whole family was there, so I went along with it anyway.
His touch did not make me feel safe. It felt electric in a way that it shouldn’t have. I didn’t like how low his hands were on the small of my back, or how he tried to lace his chapped fingers with mine unnecessarily for the style of dance we were doing.
When he told me that even though I was only 16, it wouldn’t be illegal for us to go to his car in the state of Colorado, I quietly said “no thank you” and excused myself from the dance floor. I found where the men in my family had circled up to hold court in the garden. I didn’t leave them for the rest of the night.
I’ve always loved to dance. This surprises people, I think, because I’m also tall and fat, with big feet and small hands. I’m very uncoordinated and have abysmal fine motor skills. I’m shy and awkward about my size and my body in general.
In my early twenties, alcohol become a part of the equation, and I danced a lot more in public. Mostly at weddings or when I’d gone out to bars with friends. Always in a circle of girls, sometimes with no shoes.
I am not the kind of girl that men approach at the bar for dancing. This meant that I was also often the one sitting at the table or standing at a high top, keeping watch over handbags and half-finished cocktails. I’d bob up and down in rhythm to the beat while I watched my friends groove with strangers and hoped that they were nice men. Sometimes, I would talk my friends out of going home with them at the end of the night. Sometimes, I would play the big, fat bitch to get a not-so-nice or particularly persistent man to leave us alone. These nights were always a mixed bag in terms of the fun factor.
The first time I danced with a stranger at a bar I was very, very drunk. I was sitting in a corner trying to drink some water and hoping that the room would stop spinning. This man approached me and grabbed me without a word and I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I could barely stand. It felt as though I was practically being dragged onto the dance floor.
I let him spin me around and I kept spinning out and away from him because every time we got close, he forced his tongue down my throat. My friends thought I was smiling and having fun. Maybe I was smiling at the oddity of the experience. I don’t remember. But I don’t remember “fun.” All I remember is the feel of his shoulders in his leather jacket.
I threw up a lot when I got home.
One of my closest friends is a professional dancer. I’ve seen her dance countless times in countless settings, from liturgical worship to musical theater to just for fun, and each time she is a marvel to behold.
I know she’d disagree with me. She hurt her hamstring and she’s had two beautiful babies and the subtle ways that bodies change over time has made her feel self-conscious. You’d never know it watching her. There is something so magical about the way she moves her body, the way she can express what feels like the entire range of human emotion in the elegant lines she creates with an arm or leg. And, her face is dynamic. Always. I wish I could capture an ounce of her light and put it in a bottle so she could she it the way I do.
The next time I danced with a stranger was St Patrick’s day. My friends and I were in a crowded pub style bar, everyone dressed in green, so packed in there was barely room to breathe. You could barely move, let alone dance, but people were trying anyway.
It was too much already when he came up behind me and started grinding against me. He grabbed my wrist way too tight and held my arm in the air. He was keeping me there. He didn’t want to let me move away. It hurt when I finally broke free of his grip. My wrist bruised the next day.
My sister is also a marvel when she dances. She is not a professional and she has no formal training. But she is a highly successful and intense lawyer who, when she gets on a dance floor, transforms into pure joy. She will dance anytime, anywhere. She will dance when she is the only one dancing.
At a cousin’s wedding, where the dancers were sparse anyway, she and her boyfriend at the time literally never left the dance floor. I danced with them some, moseyed in and out. I brought her glasses of water while she kept going, drenched in sweat, as though she were competing in some sort of charity dance-a-thon. I kept telling her she needed to take a break. She yelled over the music “I promise to stop the first time they play a song I don’t know.”
She knew every single one.
The last time I danced was on a cruise ship in January of this year. It had been a long time. I’m even heavier now, and I’m sick. I have some kind of autoimmune neurological disease (or diseases) that started with a permanent headache years ago. Now, it seems to affect every part of my body. My arms and legs ache constantly and it’s getting harder and harder for me to walk any kind of distance. We still don’t fully understand what’s happening and the “what if’s” are something I try not to dwell on.
In a tacky cruise ship lounge with a live band playing a mix of classic rock, my sister enticed my teenage cousins onto the floor (no easy feat as we know how awkward and self-conscious adolescence makes us). I watched for a while, downed my gin and tonic and said “fuck it” and joined them. I lasted for about a song and a half before my legs started screaming and I knew that if I didn’t leave the dance floor at that moment I would end up on the ground.
Still, for a song and a half I danced with my family and I felt that familiar freedom. That beautiful release and letting go. I may not ever dance again. At least not really let loose. This thought breaks my heart.
Every dance is not a good dance. And every dancer is not a good partner. But for a song and a half on a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, I remembered that we can free ourselves and our bodies, sometimes, just for a moment. We can glimpse what it might be like to be unencumbered by every other thought in our heads. We can transcend.
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