Ever since I was in senior high school, I wanted to learn how to dance.
I’d done a bit of dancing as a kid, but it was not until I was about eighteen that I got truly bitten by the dancing bug. And while many of the other things I was obsessed with back then have failed to keep my interest, my enthusiasm for dancing has never wavered.
I think that, more than anything, dancing appeals to my sense of artistry. I like creating and/or witnessing things that evoke emotion in myself or others. That, to me, is what art is all about, and I have always interpreted dancing as evoking emotion through body movement. Perhaps it is because the human body fascinates me, but there is something about emotion through body movement that I find particularly evocative.
I wanted to learn how to dance so badly it hurt. But I was scared. Terrified, really. The idea of going to a dance class, being in a room full of dancers, was utterly petrifying. What if they looked down at me? What if they whispered to each other and said unkind things? After all, I looked nothing like any of the dancers in So You Think You Can Dance, or in the videos I had found all over YouTube. They were all small, thin, athletic. I was none of those things.
I tried to face my fear once when I was nineteen. I went to a nearby hip hop dance class, and proceeded to spend an hour and a half learning a very smart, very nice-looking, challenging-but-not-impossible routine. Thinking back on it, I was perhaps not quite as slick as the more experienced dancers were, but I certainly was not completely hopeless at it. There was potential there. Most strikingly, the teacher and the other students were all completely lovely people. The teacher was welcoming, the students said no mean words to me or each other, and they greeted me warmly when I was introduced to them.
Which makes it all the more ridiculous that it was an utterly awful experience. I was so distraught by the end of it that I carelessly backed the car into a wall on my way out.
For the next few years I would frequently be tempted to try again and go to another class, but the memory of my previous dabble would make me immediately stamp out that idea. Even now, as I write about it, I can feel a slight wave of anxiety go through me. But if the people at the class were so nice and the material being learned was challenging but doable (just the level I like any learning material to be), why was it such a bad experience?
It took me a while to work it out, but when I finally did it was as though I had perfected alchemy, it felt that significant. The problem was that, despite all of the kindness I was shown that evening, I did not feel safe. The teacher and other students, for all their loveliness, were not ‘my’ people. They were experienced dancers, cool kids, attractive and popular. I was the ugly fat beginner. As the obvious outsider among them, I couldn’t help but feel scared and anxious.
But despite this bad experience, my desire to dance only got stronger. I spent more time watching music videos with good dance routines, I became addicted with Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. I researched different styles of dance. I even internet window shopped for dance clothes (surely one of the most boring elements of being a dancer).
I also started to dabble a little with dancing in my own environment, trying to learn a couple of the dances from my favourite music videos at home. It was fun enough, but it wasn’t what I was after. I wanted to pursue dance in a more academic way. I wanted to learn about technique and style. I wanted to study it. I wanted to practice it. I wanted teachers and lessons and homework and maybe even an exam or two. But I was too afraid of feeling unsafe to give it a try. Even after I became a fat activist and it stopped being a case of ‘I’ll do it when I’ve lost so much weight’, and I started getting into things that I had been holding off doing before, dancing was still an elusive dream that I wasn’t sure would ever become a reality.
But then, about a year ago, I was talking to some friends about my love for dance and contrasting fear to learn. One friend, a dancer herself, asked me if I had heard of a particular school based in London. I told her I hadn’t, but that I would do a little online investigating. I went to their website, and right there on the first page were the following words:
Not everyone who wants to learn to dance is young, skinny, graceful, cis-female and gives a toss. In fact, most of us aren’t…you want to give it a go but you’re worried you wouldn’t be able to keep up; you’ll get stuck in the kids’ class, or you’ll look like out of place in your oversize t-shirt and those sweatpants that haven’t seen the outside of the flat. … [This school is] about individuals reconnecting with their bodies; sticking two fingers up to society’s prejudices about gender behaviour, beauty, and identity; and gathering our messy, hard to define, WIP-selves in a space where that imperfection is not only tolerated, but celebrated.
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It was as though my exact wishes had been directly answered.
I decided to give one of their classes a try. I was sceptical, of course, and more than a little nervous. After all, this studio was saying all the right things on their website, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I would gel with them. As far as I was concerned, there was every chance that I would still feel unsafe despite everything. But it was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I girded my loins and went.
As it turned out, the school – my school, as I now like to think of it – was perfect for me. The first thing that happened when the class started was that we all sat in a circle and introduced ourselves, told everybody what our preferred pronouns that day were, and if there was anything about our bodies the teacher needed us to be aware of. We then had to stay seated while the teacher explained the studio rules, the most important of which, it was emphasised, being ‘don’t assume’.
I think that was the point where I knew that I knew I had found the right dance school for me. The rule ‘don’t assume’ really stuck, for everything it means. We had to agree that we would not assume anything about anybody, be it their gender, their level of fitness, their ability to move, anything. So as well as not assuming that everybody would be natural dancers, fast learners, graceful, flexible, sprightly, and whatever else, we also could not assume that anybody would NOT be natural dancers, fast learners, graceful, flexible, sprightly, and whatever else. This meant that nobody else that was there was allowed to assume that I, as a fat person, would be a less competent dancer than anybody else. To know so explicitly that we were expected to treat everybody equally, and that our differences would not only be tolerated, but celebrated, was a really important thing.
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I have now been part of the school for eight months, and learning how to dance is every bit as wonderful as I had always hoped it would be. I absolutely love dancing. I love practicing complicated steps, I love working on tricks, I love perfecting my poses and movements, and I love critically analysing and adjusting how I dance so that my body is conveying what I want it to convey, whether that be anger, cheekiness, sexiness, sadness, or joy. In fact, the only thing I don’t love is that my body gets tired before I get bored.
I cannot tell you what it has meant for me, my happiness, and my well-being, to finally be able to start to realise this dream I have held for so long, and to feel truly safe and free to do so. My fortune in finding a safe space to dance is forever clear to me, and it makes me all the more aware of just how important it is for there to be more safe spaces for people, and particularly people who ever feel in any way ‘different’, to pursue their dreams.
Love and Peppermint Cadbury,