I'M NOT SORRY FOR NOT BEING FABULOUS.
Loving one's body, with acceptance & appreciation, is inherently an act of subversion. A significant chunk of the world's economy is devoted to saying the body in its current state is either inadequate or excessive in some way. The level of radicalism only increases for the female bodied among us.
So, it hardly seems fair for me to claim such a nirvanic state of oneness in my skin. This isn't an essay about how I've become completely in love with my body. Its external curves and planes and rolls; nor its internal organs and muscles and bones. That'd be great, but it would be a lie.
Instead I'll tell you a story of how I came to be unapologetic for my body.
In one of my favorite photos of me as a kid, I’m four-years-old at a dance recital. I’ve got a tiger-print leotard on over pale blue tights. My hair is twisted into a high bun, my arms outstretched and my chin is up like the queen I know I am. And I’m prancing down the length of the gymnasium, feeling my fantasy and completely un-self-conscious in the way only young children can be. Like Jenna Maroney and her muffin top, I couldn’t care less about the way my belly rounds out, I’m just there to dance
A few years later, my family moved to suburban Arizona and as good middle class parents who support their children’s aspirations and self-esteem, my parents enrolled me in dance classes.
I started beginners/intermediate tap and ballet twice a week and began to notice a few differences between my community class back in California and the world of Campbell’s Dance Studio.
First, the high-strung blond girls with late 80s crimped hair generally get into the front row. Second, some girls take dance very seriously - they are not here just to feel their fantasies and prance down the length of the gymnasium. Three, toe shoes are on par with the Barbie Dream House for ultimate status symbol and I am unlikely to ever get either.
Fourth and finally, my belly, completely inconsequential just a few years earlier is now a major source of embarrassment. Despite my mom’s best efforts to build up my self-esteem and good body image, I became painfully aware of being the only chubby kid in the class.
For our final recital, we wore matching costumes designed for maximum future humiliation. Mine was white spandex with teal ruffles, which did nothing to help me feel better about being fat, but at least I’m in the back row on all the videos.
After that recital, I quit dance class. Instead, I played tee-ball and flag football and discovered sarcasm. For a long time, dance remained something I did joyfully at bar mitzvahs, then in 18 and over clubs, then at weddings.
At a gut-level, I knew I didn’t look “right” for ballet, or tap or modern. Those dancers had long, lean bodies. And since in addition to a lifelong belly, I’ve had a lifetime of being bossy, swing and salsa and ballroom where I’d be led by a partner didn’t appeal to me either. Figuring I wouldn’t fit in, I didn’t take another dance class. It was all very Careless Whisper, never gonna dance again.
Fast forward to 2006. I had just finished grad school and moved to suburban New Jersey. About a week into my new job, my co-worker Shannel invited me to her West African dance class.
I had just moved to town, and had no friends so I said sure. And so for the first time in almost 20 years, I found myself in a dance studio. Feeling awkward and extremely uncoordinated, I found myself once again lingering in the back of the classroom.
While I have no idea what dance we did that night, I came home with my feet throbbing, dripping in sweat, bewildered by the drumming, unsure how I’d ever learn to move my arms and legs in different rhythms...and completely in love. I had found my dance home.
I discovered that in West African dance, having heft in your body is an asset, not a reason to cower in the back row. Whenever we did the step for women of the village carrying buckets of water on their heads, our teacher, Yewande, encouraged us to shake our beautiful African booties.
My favorite step praises the woman with saggy breasts. The dancer squats progressively lower in front of the drummers and mimes flipping said breasts over her shoulders to show off how many children she’s nursed (or how quickly she may have developed in the 9th grade).
Week after week, I went to that class. I planned my life around that class. I became addicted to the experience of being entirely in my body, of this physical exertion that also created something beautiful. As a person who’s spent her life teetering on the knife blade between plus-size and, whatever you want to consider straight-size, West African dance class was the first place to make me feel like an athlete.
Even more, that class validated me as a dancer. Not always a great dancer. Our lead drummer Ozzie would tell you of my stubborn determination to be a half-step ahead of the beat on the dance floor, just as I often am in the rest of my life.
No matter. Because of that class, every time I get out on a dance floor, I put my chin up and feel my fantasy like the queen I know I am. Unapologetic.
About the photo:
Staging this photo shoot at a dance studio made perfect sense since rediscovering dance classes had a significant impact on me feeling completely at home in my body. There are few places more democratic in this world than a dance floor and I hope to embrace this spirit any time I dance.