I took Paul, Theresa and Monica to a dance competition this weekend. It was sort of inspired by a project we’ve been working on, which we’ve lazily been calling the Home Project. It’s why we visited Albuquerque last summer, and why we’re visiting Cody, WY and Great Barrington, MA this summer. It’s what we’re working on in Miami this fall.
I look back with such deep unhappiness on my competitive dance career. As part of the home project we’ve been visiting each other’s homes, etc., and although they can never attend one of my own competitions, the spirit lives on today, in a perhaps more obsessive and neurotic way.
After more than a decade away from the mesmerizing, intense, unforgiving world of competition dance, I found a few new things to think about:
-Competition dance has no shame. At all. For better and worse.
-It’s militaristic, effective, and unbelievably professional.
-It’s a ton of fun, mostly.
I found myself staring across an unbridgeable divide; the old emotions and aesthetic tendencies cohabiting with newer, more philosophical aesthetics about time and space. I wondered how my time training with Julyen Hamilton affects all those muscle memories of pelvic thrusts and high kicks.
I wondered how I could be so naive to think that moving into the contemporary performance world would be easy or simple.
Because muscle memories are not just muscle memories; I have pretended for years that my training in competition dance was nothing more than physical training and a tendency towards glitter and heavy makeup. But the fact is that after ten years away, I still speak the language of competition dance. I know and feel the emotions of a certain contraction in the rib cage or a sassy head flip. That movement vocabulary is deeply part of how I move and think and feel. For better and worse.
At my first dance competition, we danced to Enya’s Sail Away. I was eight. I wore a purple leotard with attached skirt, cut-out shoulders and mock turtleneck. We bedazzled the dress and the little leather thongs with yellow-gold rhinestones. (Was it really Enya?) It was choreographed by the kindest dance teacher I ever had. And when awards were announced, it turned out our piece was disqualified–it was six seconds too long. I cried for a really, really long time, and the thing that made me stop was my mom telling me that I couldn’t compete anymore if this was the kind of reaction I was going to have.
I never cried at a competition again. We upgraded from cheap off-gold plastic rhinestones to Swarovski. We brought in choreographers from the coasts. Every year brought a new complicated hairstyle, a type of shoe that flattered our feet, a trick picked up from Nationals.
I wonder about all these highly-trained kids and what happens to them after they graduate high school. Most will not go on to dance careers; it’s possible most won’t even dance in college. The reason I made it through from studio dance to postmodern dance is murky even to me. I felt incredibly frustrated and worthless in college as a dancer, and afterward. When I went to Macalester, I learned that competition dance was not a thing to be proud of, or to even mention your involvement with. The jazz classes were incredibly square and unsexy, there were no tap classes, and “lyrical” was no longer a category of dance. I never hid it, exactly, but also didn’t talk about it a ton. As time went on, I mostly found joy in the confusion and shock people felt when they realized I come from “the studio world”. (I feel like I keep writing the same essay about feeling unloved as a dancer and getting nowhere. I still feel unloved and I don’t think the essay adds much to the collective discourse.)
The complete lack of a bridge from the studio world to the academic/performance world may have been the key–I was forced to find what I wanted from a dance program and build it myself, not given a clear path to continue following mindlessly. That kind of training was invaluable for the professional world when most of what you do is build it yourself. As a competition dancer, you learn a few things: 1) You must follow the rules, all the time. Point your toes. Smile. Never complain about your costume. Never go outside in your costume. Learn the choreography. Place dance above all other pursuits. Work hard. If you’re not good enough, it’s probably because you’re not working hard enough. It values strength, flexibility, dynamic movement. It doesn’t value gray spaces, interstitial movements, or subtlety. It’s much easier to get 70 kids age 5-18 to look fucking awesome if they are focused on big, blaring moves and if they keep the transition movements to a minimum. Everything is on hyperspeed, high energy, maximum intensity. Just like being a teenager. I’m glad I went. It showed me how professional kids can be. Competition dancers are 12 years old and don’t always understand what they’re doing or why, but they know how to time a kick so it peaks on the downbeat and not a split second sooner. The amount of production expertise wielded by these studios is immense and impressive, more so than I ever realized when I was a mere pawn. You have to get the buy-in of the whole family, to rearrange their schedules and priorities so that a barrette is never missing, a kid is never injured. I have had many moments of being told I’m not good enough and yet I persevere. I wish often that I would quit. It’s Brokebackish in its awkwardness. I have less confidence in my dance ability now than I ever have but when I actually dance, I feel great. I don’t know if I look great, and inside myself, that’s all I will ever want from dance. The ability to look as great as I feel.
But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face. The moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid.The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
I believe (both because I must and because I’ve seen it) that the older a dancer gets, the better they are. The high kicks may fade but the power grows. I still don’t take class but I do dance at home. I don’t know how to mend the gulf that is my former self and my current self, though I’ve been trying for ten years. Each attempt seems to take me farther away. There it is again–that ghost ship. But this is one area in which I think I am doing better. I don’t take classes the way I used to and I don’t really want to. What does it mean to me to be a dancer? I’m not sure except I always call myself that and can’t seem to escape it. Perhaps it means I should take classes again to mend what has become a rift. Perhaps it means I keep doing what I want. I don’t know.