“That crazed girl improvising her music.
Her poetry, dancing upon the shore,”
I don’t know why I went to the college’s Organic Garden that March evening. I was trying to do my homework but after staring blankly at my computer screen, something drew me there. Trancelike, I walked back to my room from the library and chucked my books onto my unmade bed. Papers floated to the floor but I was gone before they landed. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but I don’t remember anything from the short walk through my idyllic liberal arts college utopia.
I do remember seeing the overgrown dry grass ripple and wave like an ocean before me. With the college behind me, I kicked my sneakers off and my toes sunk into the mud. Winter’s last breath forced goose bumps to travel up my spine but I ignored them and took off my down coat. I breathed in and the scent of imminent spring encouraged me to continue on my walk. Bicentennial Hall, the college’s science building and probably one of Vermont’s biggest buildings, grew smaller as I ambled into the sunset. The sound of passing cars faded.
I was alone. The outside world had disappeared.
My heart beat therapeutically in my ears. My feet were numb, but I didn’t care. I didn’t know the steps, but I started to dance. I pointed my toes as I leapt and with my head back I soared from one puddle to the next. I let my hands flow in the breeze, allowing each finger to add to my spontaneous choreography. I arched backwards until my hair grazed the grass, trying to become what was around me. I pirouetted until I couldn’t see straight and fell to the ground laughing at how absolutely out of my mind I was acting.
A stranger walked by and her dog joined me, tongue lolling out of its mouth, happy to have found a companion to roll in the grass with. Its golden fur matched the color of the setting sun. After sniffing me, it quickly lost interest and ran back to its owner. A student shuffled by, absorbed in his own thoughts, giving no more than a quick smile. I couldn’t believe how crazy I could act and have other people care so little. It was liberating.
Normally I would be extremely self-conscious dancing alone in front of people. Most everyone has had that dream, or at least one similar to it. You know, the one where you are dancing, speaking, or singing in front of a large audience and something goes horribly wrong. The one where you wake up in a cold sweat, heart palpitating and lungs aggressively soliciting for air. The fear of public humiliation frequently follows me to dreamland, turning a good night’s sleep into an anxiety-filled state of unrest that eventually accompanies an untimely dawn. The idea of being in front of a crowd, with all eyes closely stalking my every motion, exposing my innermost self petrifies me to the point of paralysis.
Yet somehow I found myself dancing like a lunatic in that field, not caring what anyone thought.
“Her soul in division from itself
Climbing, falling She knew not where,”
Don’t ask me why I thought enrolling in dance class senior spring of my college career would be a good idea. I’m not a dancer. Not even close. The idea of learning how to dance started off as a joke. In taking an adventure writing class I wanted a real-rugged escapade to write poetic nature-y prose about. I pictured scaling rocky snow-covered peaks, tracking the paw prints of a near-extinct dangerous feline, white-water kayaking, and lying out under an open starry sky while writing notes in my waterproof journal before crawling into my tent. I wanted to push my physical limits and challenge my mental toughness like Ernest Shackleton and Edmund Hillary. I couldn’t decide what mountain to tackle and during a dinner conversation with friends someone facetiously suggested that I learn how to dance. Everyone laughed, but the proposal struck a chord with some part of me. During our creative writing class’s brainstorm session I presented my idea of learning how to dance.
Next thing I knew I was meeting with the head of the college dance department, Christal Brown. I vaguely knew her through her role with MiddCORE, and thought of her as a wildly enthusiastic and encouraging mentor. I blinked and found myself enrolled in dance class two to three times a week.
I have often been described as a bull in a china shop. I drop things, break things, run into things, spill things. My dogs wait beneath my place at the family dinner table because they typically are recipients of food getting lost on the quick journey from the plate to my mouth. My toenail still hasn’t grown back from when I was eight years old and dropped a pickle jar on my toe. My prom date’s toes are still recovering from prom night, the first time I wore high heels. At the first high school party I attended, I accidently tripped over the host’s bong and broke it. Talk about a party foul. My tornado-like ability to bump into anything is remarkable considering I’m a multi-sport athlete. Growing up, my parents, frustrated with the mess that followed me, frequently reminded me to be more careful. For their sake I tried to slow myself down and be more careful but it’s not my fault I’m so uncoordinated.
In athletics my clumsiness often worked out for me. The random limb stretched out at the last second helped me reach a volleyball spiked deep into the court. My strength, explosiveness, and quickness made up for the uncomfortable-looking push down the icy track in skeleton. While some runners look like deer striding gracefully down the track, I looked like a linebacker stomping her way to the locker room at half time. I was relatively fast but I always looked pretty damn awkward.
I tried dance as a child. Tap, ballet, jazz, even Irish Step Dancing. I loved the leotards, the pink, the hair ribbons, the snacks backstage during shows. Though I wasn’t any good, I certainly enjoyed myself. For what I lacked in rhythm I made up in enthusiasm. I won the “biggest smile” award as I did the arm motions from the box I was assigned to stand on in the middle school musical, while my friends pirouetted delicately across the stage. As I grew older and more frequently got assigned to narrator roles, dance faded out of my life. It didn’t come naturally to me, and eventually sports practices took over my time.
The less time I spent on stage, the more I grew afraid of it. I approach public speaking similarly to how I approach a visit to the dentist: full of dread and nauseating anticipation. A necessary inconvenience to my academic life at Middlebury, speeches and presentations are full of sweaty index cards and cotton mouthed “ums” and “likes.” As a natural blusher, any unwanted attention, like a professor calling my name in class or a dropped glass in the dining hall, causes me to turn a dark shade of burgundy. When having the change in color pointed out to me, my cheeks continue to burn an even more severe shade of red, screaming for yet more attention. Dancing publicly only happens in the dark and dingy basements of college parties where I blend with every other brunette wearing a black dress holding a red solo cup.
Only a few hours after enrolling in dance class, I walked across the stage to where all of the other intro dance students were sitting. A muscular man powerfully brushed across the stage, his body painting the picture of elegance. He commanded the room’s attention without saying a word. My sweaty socks left footprints across the black floor. The students chatted animatedly while the instructor continued to dance entranced in his own movements. I sat down with the only people I knew in the class, two freshmen on the volleyball team. For the first time in our relationship, they were the confident ones, and I, their senior captain, was the nerve-ridden rookie.
The music stopped and the instructor, Tre, officially started class. Everyone got up from their chairs and quickly relocated to the stage. My internal dialogue was a ping-ponging of doubts and assuredness.
“I can do this!” shouted the angel on my one shoulder.
“No, I can’t!” shouted the devil on the other.
Because it was too late to escape the class unnoticed, I had no choice but to follow my classmates. I shuffled to the back, hoping that the four rows of students in front of me could hide my humiliation. The music started. My heart pounded on my ribcage and begged me to run out of the bright lights and into the dark anonymous backstage.
Tre sang instructions to the beat of the drums.
“And one, two,” I bent my legs and curled my spine, trying to make my body look fluid.
“Three, four,” I snuck quick glances at the people next to me, to check that I was somewhat in line with what they were doing.
“Five, six, seven, eight,” and my comfort zone had been shattered in the warm up.
Giggles sneaked out from those around me and I was convinced they were laughing at me. I blushed, and briefly considered quitting for the hundredth time. I let myself look around the stage and realized that my chortling teammates, much like me, were struggling to plié. Our butts were too far back, as if we were lifting a heavy weight during a workout. Our backs hunched over, like we were prepared to receive a driven volleyball spike. Our feet didn’t turn outwards like a ballerina’s in the slightest.
A laugh escaped my throat. The rest of the class was a whirlwind of constantly being one step behind Tre. Tre leapt in time to the music; I hopped one fraction of a second later. Tre explained the choreography twice; I was too shy to ask for the much-needed third repetition and blindly stumbled along, adding some of my own filler dance moves when I forgot what came next. Tre rolled across the floor like a gymnast; I plopped down like a puppet whose strings had just been cut.
Unlike in most classes I’ve taken at Middlebury, I laughed a lot and never once checked the clock. Different from volleyball practice, there was no pressure to perform, and no pressure to win. For an hour I wasn’t anxious. For an hour I wasn’t self-conscious. For an hour I was free. There were moments that I felt like a little kid again, leaping, twirling, and stomping across the stage with no inhibitions. I hadn’t felt that good in long time.
“Hiding amid the cargo of a steamship,
Her knee-cap broken, that girl I declare”
I’ll admit it. My life looked perfect from the outside this Fall. It was pretty damn close for a while. I was the co-captain of the volleyball team living in an ideal spot on campus near all my friends, with an adoring boyfriend who would do anything for me. I was getting good grades, never missed a class, and worked a part time job. I was busy, but I like busy. I hid my true self-doubts well behind a façade of perfection.
Then little raindrops started to sprinkle down on me. Before I knew it, I found myself in a torrential downpour.
Every college athlete wants their senior year to be the best of their career. My final volleyball season ended on a low point. I was nominated to be an Academic All-American, but didn’t receive the honor. My last game was a disappointing loss in the quarterfinals to our rivals, where I played in a fog of anxiety and was weighed down by the possibility of my last game. I wasn’t a superstar MVP. I didn’t receive any league post-season awards. There was no fame, no glory.
I was disappointed. It was minimally consoling that we had incredible team chemistry and an overall happy team. The struggle of finding something to do after class during what once was practice time, was something I faced daily. I liked working out, but felt like I no longer had something to train for. I could lift weights, run sprints, and work on my vertical…but for what? I worked out significantly less. I wandered around the gym aimlessly at times, often struggling with exercises I usually breezed through. Who was I without the sport I had played competitively since my freshman year of high school?
One would think that the lack of a workout regimen would give me more time to work on my senior thesis with its pressing due date at the end of the semester. I never procrastinate, but for some reason I could not write my thesis. I sat in the library, staring at a blank computer screen, hoping for genius analysis and artistic rhetoric to magically appear on the screen. It didn’t.
Less than a month before it was due I had accumulated a solid half of the full-length project. Thanksgiving break was coming to a close and I was almost enjoying typing in front of the fireplace at my house before returning to school on Monday. I enjoy typing long assignments in single space, and then double space it to feel that major ego boost when you see how long it is. Unknowingly however, I deleted the majority of my twenty plus pages of writing during the process of spacing, and clicked save.
Later that night, I confidently opened my file, “The Big T” as I called it, to proof before sending it to my advisor. Everything was gone. A blank white screen taunted me, begging for a freak out. I didn’t panic right away. I’m tech-savvy, so I figured I would be able to outsmart Apple and find a copy somewhere in the depths of my folders. But as the minutes passed, I became more and more frantic, fingers pounding on the keyboard, mouse flying across the screen. My eyes were laser beams glaring at the desktop, scouring for a glimpse of hope.
I’m not sure why I thought I might be able to outmaneuver Steve Jobs. My heart was palpating and my eyes welled up with tears. My tonsils suddenly took up my entire throat and I couldn’t swallow. I managed to cry out to my parents, begging them to come help me. My dad called Apple support and was on the phone with them. My mom admonished me to save multiple copies in multiple places. I kept valiantly battling the computer, downloading illegal software to recover old files at the fastest rate I could manage.
I was eventually able to recover most of it. To this day I still consider it a miracle. Instead of working more I just went to bed, my face puffy and raw from crying enough tears to fill Lake Champlain.
I was texting my boyfriend throughout the entire experience, and for someone who wasn’t witnessing the situation live he was being pretty supportive. Stuff between us had been a little bit off over the break. I thought that maybe it was just because my older brother and his fiancé had just announced their engagement at our family Thanksgiving and I was feeling particularly lonely.
We had had some tiffs during the Fall semester because we were having a hard time making time for each other, both of us having extremely busy schedules. We had been dating for almost three years and hanging out had begun to feel somewhat like an obligation. I thought maybe it was just a rough patch.
He was my first serious boyfriend and over time, he became my best friend. We were the perfect couple in a lot of ways, minus a few. He struggled with my inability to be affectionate and I with his sometimes-overbearing need for love. I was too bossy but his jellyfish spine drove me crazy.
Things weren’t going perfectly but I definitely wasn’t expecting him to break up with me. After a back-to-school dinner with my parents at my favorite Chinese restaurant, I opened the text message from him ending our two and a half year relationship.
I wasn’t just stuck in a rainstorm, I was in a typhoon.
No one knows what heartbreak is until it happens to them. I was completely paralyzed. At first I couldn’t cry, my chest heaved, sucking for air that wouldn’t come into my lungs. I felt blindsided. Two and a half years were thrown away via text message. I had always poo-pooed heartbreak. It can’t possibly be that bad. Eat a pint of ice cream, watch some sappy romance movie, and get over it already! For someone who generally doesn’t show feelings, I couldn’t help but wear my broken heart on my sleeve.
I was a mess. I lost around ten pounds that first week due to loss of appetite. I didn’t sleep, and when I did, he showed up in my dreams. Everything made me cry because everything reminded me of him. He was everywhere both literally and figuratively, especially at Middlebury. So much of my college experience was wrapped up in memories of him. My parents had to drive the four-hour trip back to campus with me because I was inconsolable. After being back for only 24 hours and still unable to act anywhere near normal, I went and talked to my Dean. I left the semester early and declared incompletes in my classes. I had never felt so broken and alone in my life
“A beautiful lofty thing, or a thing
Heroically lost, heroically found.”
After dancing through life with someone else for so long, I realized I had completely forgotten how to be alone. The choreographed schedule of my days with him had lost all meaning, and I was stuck improvising on stage alone. I couldn’t wake up from the nightmare of not knowing the next steps.
The first month was hard, there’s no sugar coating it. So was the second month. Who was I without everything I once had? Without the athlete status? Without the jam-packed schedule? Without my former best friend? When you take everything away, what is my essence?
Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. There were good days and bad days, but after a while the good days began to outnumber the bad days. I came into my final semester with the goal of creating my own happiness, and figuring out who I really am.
That’s a pretty big goal, but somehow dance ended up helping me get one step closer. Dancing has proven to be kind of therapy for me. It’s forcing me to confront my emotions, fears and social anxieties head on. Well… I guess Tre had something to do with it as well.
The first time I met him I could not stop thinking about what was coming out of his chin. I generally avoid eye contact when I’m talking to people, and try to find a focal point on their face to make it seem like I’m not being rude. Intense eye contact makes me uncomfortable. When I initially explained to Tre why I wanted to learn how to dance, my eyes were fixated on the black hair sprouting out of his chin. It’s not your typical beard. It kind of reminded me of a Chia Pet.
At first our conversation was brief, mainly centered on logistics, and I felt like I didn’t really get to know him. He seemed nice and interesting and all, but initially his beard was the coolest thing about him.
Then I saw him dance. Before class each day Tre would put on his own music and practice his own choreography.
Every time I was struck by how easily he moved in his jeans. I also couldn’t believe how he managed to keep his beanie on his head and iPhone in his sweatshirt pocket. I wished I could keep watching instead of actually dancing myself. His dancing made me curious to learn more about him so I asked if we could meet one day before class. He willingly agreed.
I arrived at his office a little late. Fortunately, he wasn’t there yet either. Ten minutes after I arrived, Tre came bustling in from the cold with a massive winter scarf, bug-eye sunglasses, and a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. He apologized for being late, explaining that he needed his caffeine fix before the chaos of our intro class.
He dove right into his life story. He was originally a gymnast, which explained the back handsprings he occasionally whipped out in the middle of class. It also explained his extremely muscular arms. I was surprised to learn that he was a math major in college. I didn’t understant how math and dance went together but Tre jumped into a quick explanation.
“Well, I think everybody should dance, everybody should be creative. I think sometimes there’s a misunderstanding about creativity, ya know. That it is easy… or that it is not as intellectual as some other disciplines. But anyone who has gone through dance can tell you that it takes the mind, that it takes the heart, it takes the body, and it takes your imagination in order to kind of get it all and feel it all… So I think that there’s creativity in business, ya know, problem solving. So I think that that’s really what creativity is, just to solve problems.”
Humbly, he then dropped that he danced for both the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company and the Martha Graham Dance Company. Even me, a dance peon, knew that those were no small feat. It’s kind of like the Miami Heat of the dance world. They’re both modern dance companies. Modern dance essentially has no rules; everything is beautiful and interesting in its own way.
Before I left to change my clothes for class I expressed my lifelong fear of imperfection, even in dance, something I had never really done before. Tre reassured me by explaining, “There’s something about dance, that once you’re in it, and once you start moving and get caught up in the world that you’re in… all of the fear kind of leaves you.”
In dance class that day Tre lined all of the students up in a circle around the stage. As a class we clapped and stomped along to the beat of the drums. My heart raced and my cheeks were flushed. One by one Tre called students into the center of the circle to dance. I avoided his eye contact the best I could. I could almost see my heart beating out of my chest. “Don’t pick me, don’t pick me,” I thought, squirming in anxiety.
Of course Tre pointed to me to come into the middle of the circle to dance in front of the entire class. In the past, I wouldn’t have done it. Completely terrified, I grabbed the girl next to me and pulled her into the center with me. With the whole class watching, we danced. My heartbeat matched the beat of the drums. It may have only been five seconds but time stood still. However, it was in a good way instead of the nightmare way. The steps didn’t matter. What I looked like didn’t matter. Embarrassing sweaty footprints followed the path I danced and my face burned a deep red, but I hadn’t felt so alive in a long time.
Laughing uncontrollably we stumbled our way to the perimeter of the circle again, two other students replacing us. I realized that I had found my adventure! My lungs burned as if I had just completed a long hike. The adrenaline flowed through my body like I had just jumped off of a cliff. I bonded with my classmate as if we had just trekked through the wilderness for days. Though it wasn’t the archetypal adventure I originally had in mind, learning to dance had turned into something greater than I could have ever anticipated.
No matter what disaster occurred
She stood in desperate music wound,
Wound, wound, and she made in her triumph
Where the bales and the baskets lay
No common intelligible sound
But sang, ‘O sea-starved, hungry sea”