By Dana Gornall
I came to dance out of necessity.
At around age five, I would wake up fairly regularly in the middle of the night screaming in pain from leg cramps. My bewildered mother took me to the doctor (of course), who sent me to another doctor who recommended surgery to cut the muscles in my legs. They were tighter than they were supposed to be, and this seemed to be a quick and easy “fix.”
Instead she followed another doctor’s suggestion and signed me up for dance.
I quickly fell head over heels in love—the smell of the leather ballet shoes, the feel of the tights snuggly clinging to my legs and feet, the pressure of the wooden floors bowing and lifting beneath me. I loved the way my body felt when it moved and bent in the various poses and positions: plié, posé, relevé, grand jeté.
Yet it was the in-between times—waiting for class to start, changing before and after class, sitting quietly while the teacher figured out a routine in her head—where I felt not quite so comfortable in my own skin. It didn’t happen suddenly or all at once like a lightening bolt, but rather gradually, in the same way a blossom opens—millimeter by millimeter right under your nose until it is just there, changed.
It’s a right of passage, really (especially for young girls), to compare themselves to another.
The way our hair doesn’t quite catch the sunlight like hers, or that the flesh of our thighs rub either too closely or too much, or that our knees are too knobby and pointy. She is taller than me and I am so slight, she is more petite than me, making me feel gargantuan. The comparisons are endless and unforgiving until facing yourself, you see only a distorted and ugly self reflected back.
The comparing didn’t stop there. Whether she was smarter, funnier, stronger, happier, friendlier, cleaner, more playful, more religious, more dedicated—the list went on. I always missed the mark. I got good grades, but not the best. I got a part in the play, but not the lead. I got the guy, but not the one I really wanted. It was always second, or third or fourth—never enough.
Fighting to be more than ordinary was an inner struggle, born out of those in-between times of not being quite comfortable in my own skin. It is in these moments in the dark when all of the demons came out to play. They tell me the things that I have done wrong, the things I have said that weren’t right. They whisper in my ear that I make bad choices, stay up too late, sleep too long, forget the things I should remember. They poke fun of the missteps I take, for bumping into the wrong people, for not knowing the things I should know and for turning left when I should have turned right.
It’s these darkened parts of me that I tuck away, so that no one will see.
Or at least I try to make sure that no one sees. The parts that are worn and rusted, peeling away showing the ugliness underneath—the less than pretty parts of me. It’s the doubts and the fears and the voices that jar me out of dreams in the middle of the night—just as those muscles clenched and pulled at my growing bones so many years ago.
In the early morning hours, when the moon still hangs high in the sky and a quiet hush fills my ears with a buzzing sound, I remember the way I felt so long ago when I let myself move and dance. Those moments when no one else mattered and the only thing I felt was the music and how it reverberated through my skin and poured into my muscles and out of my body. Where I was truly comfortable in my own skin and there was no need to be enough (because there was no real me anymore).
It no longer mattered what shape my thighs took or whether my knees were too knobby or round. I didn’t need to be funny or smart or friendly. I could be lost in sensation and I could let all of the parts of me show—the ugly ones and the pretty ones.
The dawn breaks, I put my demons to rest (for now) and my feet feel the wooden floor beneath me as I make my way down the hall in search of the coffeemaker. Remnants of a dream still lingers in the corners of my mind and out of the hush in my ears I swear I can still hear music.
For now, though, I will tuck away all of the pieces that are less than pretty.