A Project for Better Journalism chapter

Boogie Fever Dancin’ Feet

The smoke and light of 24 million people drifts up to my empty balcony. I lose myself in the electric haze of the city skyline. Tonight, it’s not enough just to stop and stare. My inhibitions and sense of time fade into the chorus of voices in the hot summer breeze.

I kick off my sandals and let the dirt on the balcony collect on calloused feet, weaving in and out of imaginary partners with imperfect chaînés and piqués that teeter over the edge of the railing. Tingling fingertips reach toward a sky just out of reach, as they carry an anxious passe higher, higher, higher. I like to think a développé was made for moments like this – when you get a glimpse of how big the world is, and all you want to do is reach inside of yourself and stretch forever toward an impartial sky.

When I am airborne or shattered or struggling to understand, I turn to contemporary dance. I take my tilts and relevés to the precipice of balance and excess, teach the body to push its own limits without ever completely falling apart. It is my only antidote to the violent chorus of a thousand emotions that beg to be felt and fixed and emptied out all at once.

No two contemporary dancers look the same. When I move, you’re likely to catch a stubborn eye gaze or torso turned up a touch too high. They’re habits born out of the religiosity, the “hearts toward heaven” and outstretched praise arms, passed down within the tiny church-basement ballet studio where I first learned to dance. We showcased our hard-earned technique buried beneath ankle-length gowns meant to guard our modesty from the world. But the stiff uniforms we hid behind didn’t just shield us from the bitter ballet world, but also from the pain and scrutiny we needed to grow. And so now I chase the freedom and intensity once deemed too dangerous for me to handle, trying to tap into something raw and broken, with disloyal eyes that still crave a simple stairway to God.

In place of the pure, unrestrained lightness of some prima dancers, I move with a grounded sense of necessity and determination, an occasional stiff jaw, a closeness to the floor. My school performances are never just art or entertainment but evangelism, a chance to connect with an uncertain audience often brand-new to dance. I have only succeeded if I have moved beyond the self-expression that keeps me sane, left them with peace or anger or hope or happiness or that intangible sense that they are understood. It will remain my dream and passion to bring a love of dance to Episcopal High School, to a small, diverse group now only six years old. As I enter my senior year with an entirely new dance faculty, a team of people who want to be here, and access to universal dance equipment that puts us all on the same page, I can see the outlines of my dreams coming to life.

I land an attitude turn on a buckling knee and lean back over the dew-speckled railing. I can remember more moments of failure, of locked studio doors and sprained ankles and rejected proposals, than I could possibly count. But I have also had no ordinary teachers to turn to. In the moments of isolation, of physical limitations and inescapable inadequacy, I have turned to the artistry of “firebirds” like Misty Copeland and “heretics” like Martha Graham. It is not our job, they have taught us, to decide whether our movements are worthwhile. It is only our job to “leave the channel open,” as Graham once wrote, to express with pure and individual energy “the hidden language of the soul.”