Red Bank, 1998
I am four. I am four and I am dancing. I am four, and I am dancing, and I am ecstatic. I am at a jazz festival in my hometown, and a band whose name I cannot pronounce is in the middle of a wild improv session. I am at the front of the stage, twirling in the short crabgrass, flinging my tiny limbs wide, swaying to the beat. I fall – I turn it into a roll, look over my shoulder at the audience and shimmy as I push myself back up. Skip, leap to the left and point my toes behind me, I am a sensation. I close my eyes, swivel my head around, pivot on my toes, twist, turn. This is no ballet, this is no choreographed recital dance. I am in no sequined costume, but I am a star. The music builds to a crescendo (I spin like a crazed top), and then ends with a crash of cymbals (I am posed, chin high, arms wide, basking in applause). “Would you look at this,” growls the bearded, bespectacled lead vocalist into the mic (I crane my head to look straight at him). “We’ve got a regular Martha Graham up here! Give it up for the pipsqueak, everybody!” This is the proudest moment of my life.
My orthopedist prescribed dance classes at age two, to strengthen the muscles of my bent and twisted back and legs. He also prescribed leg braces to be worn twelve hours a day. I would put on the braces when I got home from dance lessons, and wear them all night until I left for school the next morning. They were blue fiberglass, with a foam layer inside, and four Velcro straps each (two over my thighs, two over my shins). They locked my legs as straight as they would go, and all evening I would totter from room to room with a stiff-legged gait. I got very good at volleying from wall to table to door frame, touching balance points as I navigated my home. Mostly I would sit and read. I don’t think I will ever forget how it felt to take the braces off in the morning – the absolutely delicious feeling of bending my knees after twelve hours of extension. I would sit in bed, knees pulled to my chest, grinning like a fool. I wore those braces every night, even when I had friends over, even when I was sick. I wanted so badly for my legs to be straight. My mother had bought me a coffee-table book of Martha Graham, and I liked to try to copy her poses in the mirror. I was never even close. Not even on the simple ones. If I focused just on my face, I could sometimes capture her expressions – a crooked brow, parted lips, my young face trying to look urbane and knowing. I could mimic her hands, flexed or soft, fingers curled or pointed or sharply bent. Anything else, though, was out of my reach. Maybe when I’m grown up, I thought. Maybe then I can dance like her. Maybe then I can be graceful.
I have to wear my new brace for 22 hours every day, this time for scoliosis. My mom chews her lip. “She’ll have to wear it at school?” I say I don’t mind, that I’ll pretend that the brace is stays, like Felicity from the American Girl books. I can take it off for the two hours of dance class, right? The doctor says, of course. He says I have to wear the brace until my growth plates close, probably until I am sixteen. My mother chews her lip again. “That’s not so long,” I say. “It’s just my whole life, over again.” No one laughs. “I want to stand straight,” I say, “I don’t mind another brace.” No one answers me. In the car home, I keep trying. “Eight years isn’t that many!” I say, “And think of how beautiful I’ll be when it comes off! You’re not supposed to be beautiful until you’re sweet-sixteen, anyway.” I am not beautiful. I know this deep in my bones, gut-certain. I am bent and twisted, skinny, knobby, thin-haired and large-nosed. Graceful is not something I can access, but maybe when I am grown-up. Maybe when I am sweet-sixteen.
I am fighting out of anesthesia and choking out half-formed words past chapped lips. My mother cannot hear me, so she leans closer. I have to repeat myself (twice, five times, a dozen times, desperate whispers) before she can make out my question. “Are my legs straight?” She cannot see them. They are buried beneath bandages and splints and piles of blankets – but she nods, she says yes, she promises me my legs are straight. She promises me that when I walk again (which will not happen for some three months) that I will be graceful. She promises what she does not yet know, so that I will stop fighting and go back to sleep. Her bottom lip is chewed to pieces. My mother does not pray, but I think she may have, then.
I am sixteen and my friends are in stitches. I’m dancing like a dad at a wedding, elbows welded to sides, torso swiveling deliberately off-beat. White-man lip-bite, leaned a bit back, knees bent for optimal groove. When they start to catch their breath, I switch. “Your aunt who’s had too many margaritas!” I shout, and start a vaguely deranged salsa with far too much shoulder and interspersed with inappropriate eyebrow waggles. A minute later, I’m the great-grandma who thinks every song is a polka, fists on hips, stomping in a determined, arrhythmic box step. When the song finally switches away from ABBA, I flop back down into our diner booth to raucous applause. The scars are pale pink, the braces a distant memory. I am as graceful as I am ever going to be, sweet sixteen. A lot of time and money was spent to get me to walk as shittily as I do, I joke. About twice a month, one of our slightly senile instructors asks me if I’m injured when I’m walking across campus, and I cheerfully shout back that “Nope, Commander, I’m just crooked!” I laugh first, loudly, harshly, so that everyone else knows it’s okay. I dance, often, absurd on purpose, which takes it’s own kind of skill, really. You have to know your body very well in order to make it funny on your own terms. You have to use your body very precisely, to make sure all the laughter is with and not at you. Sometimes it might be at, still, but if you let yourself think it you are lost. At sweet-sixteen, I discard grace, shouting sour-grapes and cultivating a personality of jokes and pratfalls and general bro-ness. I wear my clothes loose and my hair short and I always wear pants, even in the middle of summer. I don’t talk about my years of back and leg braces, I don’t talk about the surgeries. I quit dance class because I’m too pigeontoed to go en pointe. I take up martial arts, instead, where grace is an afterthought. Here, I fall because someone hit me, not because my own limbs gave out. Here, there is black-and-blue proof that my body is mine to control – weaponized, hardened. I train until I vomit. I break ribs and finger bones, I dislocate my shoulder more times than I can count. I spit blood in the evenings and knead out muscle knots in the mornings. It’s my body, I think, I will break it if I want to. I will mock it if I want to. I know what I am, and I know what I will never be. I will shout this from the rooftops and the hills. I will laugh with blood on my teeth so the rest of the world is too scared to laugh at all.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Get up. Put one foot in front of the other; or if not in front, then a diagonal sort of step will suffice. Satisfice. And Breathe. Spit out the blood and brush your teeth, pull the tape off your fingers, Breathe shallow until your ribs heal and you can Breathe deep. Sleep deep. Love, lose, scab over and heal. Trip. Fall. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Get up.
I have no delusions of grace. My gait has been described in many ways, from an orthopedists’ clinical “distinctive,” to my mother’s kind “unique,” to the much less kind “fucking gimp” shouted from a car window on Thayer. My girlfriend says my walk is cute, how I pitch slightly forward, how my toes turn in. I say thank you like it’s something I have any control over. I know, cognitively, that most people do not notice anything beyond a vague clumsiness – but I know when I make heads turn it is because I have just tripped over nothing, I know that lingering stares mean that people are wondering whether I am hurt, not whether I am available. I dance every day, I dance in line for salad at Jo’s, I dance to Spotify playlists when I’m supposed to be studying, I drink too many vodka-cokes and dance to and from and at stupid college parties. Sometimes I dance to be funny, but sometimes I have other reasons, or no reason at all. I am beautiful, now, to certain people, in certain situations. I do not Love My Body ™ unconditionally, in the way that Buzzfeed and Dove advertisements say that I should, but nor do I hate it. I have dreamed of grace, I have striven for it, I have pushed it away and spat upon it. Now I let it come when it will, which is rarely, but is sometimes. I find I cannot bring myself to mind this ebb and flow, this halting, tripping, gorgeous dance.
Featured image courtesy of the author.