Best of 2019: The last time I danced

Dance consumed my life for 25 years. But over a year ago, I performed for the last time

Published December 24, 2019 6:00PM (EST)

Dancers (Getty Images)
Dancers (Getty Images)

This life story was originally published on Salon on April 27, 2019.

As I stood in the wing of the world-famous, historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, warming up my ankles and trying to ease the thumping of my electrified heartbeat, it struck me that after more than 20 years of performing — and this was my third time on the Apollo stage — I still experienced an intense, thrilling rush of pre-performance anxiety. It was a day shy of New Year’s Eve and the sixth day of Kwanzaa, known as Kuumba (creativity). I felt the entirety of the legacy of the magical theater and the groundbreaking artists and entertainers who had graced its legendary stage before me. Six other dancers and I were opening the show with a dance created almost 10 years earlier, in honor of the inauguration of America’s first black president. That dance had taken on new meaning for me, one year into Donald Trump’s presidency.

When the music began, I waited two counts of eight, took one final deep breath and glided onto the stage for my first entrance. I’m not sure if I was aware at that moment that this would be my final performance as a professional dancer. But I remember, with my mom in the audience — I always danced better knowing she was there watching — that I performed with passion, with gratitude and, for the first time, with a sense of total liberation in my movement and in my body, just as it was.

Becoming a professional dancer meant fulfilling a dream I had worked for since early childhood. Dance consumed my life for 25 years. I started training at age three in a studio in Boston around the corner from my home, and it took me at least 10 years to get any good. Around that time, I also began to hear that while I was talented, my body would not be welcomed in the “real dance world.”

“Just lose a little weight here,” a dance director would say while digging their fingers into the fullness of my hips.

“It’s really just your thighs that are the problem.”

“I need you to come down in your weight.”

“We’re concerned that you’re not going to be able to fit into the costume.”

“You will not be taken seriously looking like this.”

This unrelenting scrutiny of my body and my passion for dance have always coexisted. Throughout the years, colleagues, teachers, professors, directors, and choreographers found innovative ways — never subtle and always public — to tell me why my curvy, thick frame was far from ideal for the career I had chosen.

What do you do when the thing you love most doesn’t love you back? If dance loathed my body so vocally, it often felt like it loathed me, too. How do you even begin to disentangle the rejection of your body from your being?

For many years, though, I believed I could push through the criticism and break the prescribed mold of what a dancer should look like. I even felt it was my duty to do so, because I did not believe in that myth. I wasn’t a ballerina, though I was a concert dancer, and the idea that dancers had to be exclusively tall and thin always felt like an antiquated concept of gatekeeping that was built around western ideals of beauty.

It was my mom who taught me early on to love my body; that the “tree trunk legs” we inherited were part of our family lore, stemming back to my Great Grandmother, after whom I was named, and who on her first day in the United States — after fleeing Eastern Europe for political reasons — and speaking not a word of English, attended a demonstration to protest the wrongful conviction of two radicals. As the daughter of activists, educators and union organizers, I was reminded, especially when the scrutiny of my body become unbearable, that our tree trunk legs allowed us to stand strong and grounded against injustice.

My parents were also intentional from the beginning about putting me in dance spaces that were accessible and multiracial. I wasn’t enrolled at Boston Ballet, Boston’s premier ballet school. I attended a local studio, Uptown Dance Center. I performed for several years in a production called “Urban Nutcracker,” which reimagined the traditional ballet with a diverse cast and dance styles. I attended a public performing arts high school as a dance major, where the dance education centered on pioneers like Arthur Mitchell, Carmen de Lavallade, Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey, all of whom transformed and diversified the dance world. For me, dance became more than just a passion and an outlet for expression — it became a lens through which I examined history and inequality.

When it came time to audition for college dance programs, I knew I had to be thoughtful about where I applied because of my body. The top conservatories were out. I instead opted for state schools and liberal arts colleges that I thought might be more accepting of my frame. While I did get into some amazing programs and ultimately had a wonderful experience as a dance major, the disparagement around my body only intensified in college.

Several weeks into my first semester, my dance professor set up meetings with students to discuss their participation and progress in his class. This professor embodied the tough love stereotype of dance teachers, and walked a fine line between being critical and straight up nasty. But I was used to that teaching method; besides, I Iiked him and his class. Once inside his small office, he confirmed that I was excelling. Many of my classmates had come from ballet backgrounds or competition dance schools and this was their first exposure to traditional modern dance, a technique that I had been immersed in for four years in high school. So I was confident in the fundamentals. But our conversation did not stay positive for long. He segued within minutes to the roadblock of my body, suggesting that after three hours of dance class every morning I should spend some time in the gym. “Dance class is not enough for some of us,” he cautioned me.

In college, every diet I had ever heard of (and some I hadn’t) was suggested to me under the guise of “health.” The “Special K diet,” where you eat only Special K products — which, of course, is definitely not a ploy by the brand to sell cereal in bulk — was especially popular among the dancers; another was the rumor that you could survive solely off of popcorn and red wine. Suggestions like these were offered to me unsolicited, as if I wasn’t already dancing between three and nine hours every day, at least five days a week; because my thighs resembled ice cream cones as opposed to dainty champagne flutes, that must mean I wasn’t healthy or in shape. I know that when I left the studio, my body was allowed to be invisible in ways many others' are not. Back then, however, the lines between the dance world and the rest of my life were barely discernible, if they existed at all.

In my senior year, I auditioned for a prominent dance company in Colorado and was admitted to its second company — it’s like an internship or fellowship — where a dancer typically proves their work ethic and skills for a year. But I was fortunate to perform with the main company often, until eventually I was promoted to apprentice, which allowed me to work with them exclusively.

But the “real dance world” proved to be much worse than anything I had endured before. When I think back to that time in Colorado, dancing professionally with one of the foremost modern dance companies in the country, more than anything I remember how my body was degraded. When it came to the critiques, the facade of health was abandoned; in general, it felt like unhealthy eating habits or outright disordered eating were even celebrated. A dancer’s discipline — to be able to skip lunch, or eat nothing but a grapefruit — was considered admirable, even brag-worthy. Dancers also wore the skimpiest dance clothes I had ever seen to class, sometimes sporting only undergarments or swimwear. In a room surrounded by mirrors, it seemed that every curve and indentation of their protruding bones were hypervisible, as was the softness of my body. When I came down with the flu and missed several crucial days of the season, the rehearsal director beamed at my return, marveling loudly, “You look skinnier!” This was the highest compliment.

One of the most humiliating moments for me — a memory that is permanently cemented into my consciousness — happened while preparing for our annual holiday show. A company employee sat in the center of the room handing out costumes for the different roles. When I asked for mine — for a role that I had been told I was in the running for — she declared, an entire packed room listening in, that the dance director thought I was too big to fit into the costume. It was so brazen, so unprofessional, I felt like her intention was to finally break me down. I was stunned, trying to ignore the stares of pity from my colleagues.

When I met with the dance director to express my horror at my public shaming, I remember asserting to her, through tears — my hands resting on my tree trunk thighs — that “I don’t see what you see when I look in the mirror.” She was not moved.

The issue of costume fitting had already been established as a defining theme for me at that company. Before one of my first major performances, the costume I was meant to wear turned out to be unbelievably skimpy — designed to cover private areas and nothing else. Again I was cast tentatively, pending how I would look in the costume. I fit into it fine and even felt confident in how I looked in it. I still wasn’t thin, but my body was toned and strong like any other professional dancer’s. (I was dancing around eight hours a day, between five and six days a week at this point.) I modeled the costume first for the company veteran who often ran rehearsals, and then he summoned the official rehearsal director, who then called the company director over to offer a third round of approval, all of whose permission I apparently needed to secure before I was allowed to appear on stage. And I was supposed to be grateful to them for even giving me a shot. After all, I had been to auditions before where directors wouldn’t even allow me to dance, dismissing me immediately and suggesting I lose weight if I hoped to ever be considered.

When I moved to New York City to attend graduate school, I joined a new dance company. Things did improve, in no small part because I suffered an even greater trauma than the trauma of daring to dance in the wrong body and had, as a byproduct of the healing process, lost some weight. It didn’t register to me then that the weight loss is why I was initially so welcomed into the new company. I actually believed that I had finally found a dance home that accepted me. I remember feeling swindled once I returned to my normal, healthy weight and so did the familiar critiques. After more than 15 years of hearing I was all wrong for the stage, I began to finally reach my limit.

The moments of public shame I endured in order to dance began to feel as frequent as the moments of joy. I started to question the hour and a half train rides I took several nights a week to get to rehearsals, as feelings of anger, frustration and stress began to crowd out any enjoyment.

“What makes thick thighs less beautiful? What makes fuller arms less graceful cutting through space?” I wanted to scream at my dance director, who would scan my body up and down with such deep-seated disappointment. In some ways, I am still searching for those answers.

I may not have known then that the December night at the Apollo would be my final performance, but I did know that this dance company would be my last. I knew I could not bring myself to suffer through any more auditions or one more scrutinizing gaze as some stranger assessed my body’s worth according to its relative thinness. Somewhere along the way I lost the desire to fight; or perhaps, every squeeze of my thighs and hips and triceps without my consent, a palpable reminder of the weight I carried, had chipped it away over the years, little by little.

By refusing to conform to the dance world's body standards, sometimes I feel like I put myself in another cage. How far could I have gone if I had listened to what every teacher and choreographer had warned me about since I was 12? That’s something I have to live with for the rest of my life. To this day, I still can’t figure out if I feel more free when my body is not constantly policed or when I’m dancing. It pains me to know that I was forced to choose between the two.

Days ago I uncovered my performance bag from deep underneath my bed. It still held dancer essentials: an extra pair of false eyelashes and heavy stage makeup, skin-toned undergarments, a pair of black shorts, a leotard, and my ballet slippers. I rubbed my fingers over the canvas of the light brown shoe, soft and familiar. I discarded everything else, but those I kept, just in case.

These days I confine my dancing to the kitchen, where I’ll sometimes do an expedited ballet barre while I’m heating lunch in the microwave or test out a pirouette on my way to the fridge. I haven’t been able to bring myself to take a formal dance class again. Not yet; I'm still in mourning. But what level is right for a former professional dancer whose foot calluses are almost completely faded, who is witnessing the slow evaporation of her flexibility like ice cubes in a glass on a hot day?

I’m still trying to figure out who I am if I am not a dancer. The hardest thing for me to grapple with is the fact that there are friends and coworkers who’ve come into my life in the last year and who know nothing about my former life, what had felt like my entire identity.

Writing has been able to fill the self-expression void for me, but my body still craves movement. On the rare occasions when I do go out dancing with friends, I’ll sometimes get that feeling — that swell in my chest and fluttering in my abdomen when the tempo of the music and my internal rhythm collide — that sense of liberation and catharsis that I’ve only ever experienced in motion.

One day, soon, I hope to find the strength to return to the studio. I want to feel again the smoothness of the marley floor beneath my bare feet. When I take my place and look at myself in the mirror, and see my tree trunk legs reflecting back at me, I will be reminded only of my resilience and power.

By Rachel Leah

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