Muted jazz music bleeds from the walls of the dance studio. My sister and I stand outside and watch, through the glass windows, the varying figures of the dancing pairs: men of assorted heights in jeans and colored button-downs, women in heels and dresses and skirts of subtle hues of green and blue and black. Some of the couples, the more experienced ones, move like waves on a breezy spring day, undulating as a unit across the wooden floor. Other couples sputter like the animatronic creatures at Chuck E. Cheese. In the whole room, there is only one moving mouth. It belongs to a woman who appears to be the instructor, standing to the side, watching the dancers and counting the beats of the music for them.
Meanwhile, my sister, Amanda, and I shiver in the dark, November air. The awning above our heads shelters us from the icy drizzle. We bounce our knees to keep our legs warm and curse at ourselves for wearing only thin tights with our dresses.
“We can go inside once the class is over,” Amanda tells me.
Each dancer bows to his or her partner, and they make their way to the sides of the floor. Some of them gather their things from the cubbies on the wall and make their way out.
Our co-worker, Bri, joins us momentarily while we wait for the class to finish filing out of the one-room studio.
“Have you ever been swing dancing before?” she asks me.
“No, this is my first time.”
A lot of people from work come here every Saturday night in a big group. Bri is a regular, and Amanda has been swing dancing here once before. Amanda’s glowing reviews were what encouraged me to come give it a try in the first place.
“It’s so much fun!” she told me after she came home that night. “I didn’t want to go at first, but once I started, it was fun. You should come too!”
“Is it hard to pick up?” I had asked her, remembering my struggles in other dance classes.
“No. They do a thirty-minute lesson before the dance starts, and they teach you the basic steps.”
So here we are, waiting to get inside for the thirty-minute lesson. The last of the dancers trickle out, and Bri, Amanda, and I trickle in with a couple of others who have joined us.
A lady with short, curly hair so red she looks like a clown from behind greets us warmly as we enter. She points to a sign-up sheet and has us sign in before taking our five-dollar admission fees. She slips the money into a black leather envelope she keeps on her white fold-up desk.
We take the floor, girls on one side, boys on the other. I stand across from the mirror and avert my eyes from my slouching figure. Part of me is excited for the dancing to begin, and part of me is nervous, recalling memories from past dance classes and auditions. To my right, Bri, a semi-professional dancer, studies herself in the mirror and adjusts her stance.
In high school, at my first theatre audition that featured a dance call, I make eye contact with myself in the massive mirror and quickly look away. I’ve been through plenty of theatre auditions before, but never any where I had to dance. I have little dance experience aside from the ballet classes I took in my early elementary years, but I like singing, and I like acting, so I decide to brave the dance call and audition for the musical anyway. My cheeks flush and my heart pounds as I glance around the room and wonder if I decided wrong. Kids my age are scattered across the plastic grey floor in various stages of warm up. Some of them are sprawled forward on the floor, fingers to toes and noses to knees. Some of them are down in their splits. There’s a group of boys in the corner laughing and goofing off. The boys are lucky—there are fewer of them, so there’s less competition for roles. They’re pretty much all guaranteed a part. It isn’t so easy for the girls. The girls are silent. Deadly. They watch themselves in the mirror and try to correct their postures. They watch the other girls and try to one-up each other. Watching myself feels unnatural, and watching the others is intimidating, so I find a spot in the back corner of the room and sit down to stretch. My splayed, reaching fingers barely pass my knees.
The other girls are dressed in a rainbow of leotards and athletic wear and tan leather jazz shoes. I’m wearing leggings, a dress shirt, and black ballet slippers I bought at Payless an hour ago, plus a sign on my head in large, red, flashing neon letters that screams, “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING HERE.” A boy in a plain white T-shirt and baggy red basketball shorts comes up and sits down next to me.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” I say back. “My name’s Christina.”
“I’m Peter. Is this your first show here?”
“Yeah, and I’m a little nervous. I’ve never done a dance audition before. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
But Peter drops into the splits and proves that he’s lying.
The show’s choreographer bounces into the room, her golden curls springing with every step she takes. In a sweet, bubbly tone, she tells us her name and what we’re going to do.
“I’m going to quickly teach you guys a short combo, and I just want to see how well you pick it up and what you can do with it.”
She speeds through a quick tutorial of “Honestly Sincere” from Bye Bye Birdie, the show we’re auditioning for, and I pick up none of it. When the time comes to actually perform the combo, I have to watch the steps of the girl in front of me as I stumble at light speed across the feet-scented floor. I feel like an imposter, someone who shouldn’t be at this audition, and even though I score a (non-dancing) lead role in the show, I’m left with this feeling the entire rehearsal process. I promise myself I’ll sign up for dance classes.
Back in the swing dance studio, more people trickle in, and at 7:30 sharp, the instructor has us spread into a circle and partner up. I recognize my partner as one of the dancers from the class I watched earlier outside the studio. I smile and say hello, and he nods sheepishly from under his tan baseball cap, stuffing his white and red hands into the pockets of his light-colored blue jeans.
The instructor teaches us a fundamental step, the rock step, and then shows us a couple turns and puts it all into a short combo for us to practice. With a background in musical theatre, I pick it up pretty quickly. My partner, however, isn’t so lucky.
The circle of guys rotates while the girls stay put, so I get a new partner. My second partner introduces himself as Nathan. We do the routine again while the instructor leads us through it.
“Step. Step. Rock step. Kick. Kick. Kick. Rock step. Hand up, push her through. Rock step. Step. Step. Step and turn…”
The music stops, and Nathan raises his hand.
“As a question-slash-general comment, just remember: if you’re the girl, don’t try to lead. Let the guy lead. Follow. Let me do my job.”
He laughs from the back of his throat, and the teacher nods in agreement. That wasn’t a question at all.
“Just so you know,” Nathan whispers. “That wasn’t directed at you or anything. It was just a general statement.”
Alright, Nathan. Sure.
The class ends, the lights dim, and the music and dancing start. Most of the girls gravitate to the sides of the room, pulled to the wall like magnets. The boys scout the gallery of potential partners and take their picks. Some put careful consideration into their decision while others just take the hand of the first girl they find.
I dance most of the dances, but limited partner availability forces me to sit a few out. A couple of the girls venture out on to the floor and pick their own partners, but I’m not so bold. I sit back and let a partner find me, or I wait the dance out and watch the swirling couples from the sidelines. I almost like the latter better.
I’m struck by how little politics are involved in the selection of partners. A few couples stay together the whole night. Most people, though, pick a new partner every song. One guy, a tall, slender man in his mid-twenties, who I later learn is a Marine named Brett, has a pattern: he just alternates between a set of twins the whole night.
“Same face, different girl,” my sister jokes.
Nathan, who I’m told is a ballerino, dances with every girl twice, and then he starts only picking experienced dancers, like Bri. Nathan takes my hand for the second song of the night. His steps are fast and furious. He moves in double-time, and I can barely keep up with his fancy footwork. I apologize half a dozen times during the first thirty seconds of the song for bumping in to him or turning the wrong way in the midst of steps I don’t know yet.
“No need to apologize,” he tells me with a condescending smile. I know otherwise. I’ve seen that smile before.
Somehow, someway, possibly because the choreographer might have been tipsy the day of callbacks, I find myself cast as a featured dancer in a community theatre production of Annie and having no idea what I’m doing. I’ve taken a few dance classes since my Bye Bye Birdie audition, which were obviously enough to help me fake my way through the dance portion of the Annie audition, but not enough to help me pick up the complex steps in rehearsals.
“Stop, stop, stop!” the choreographer cries. The music stops. She walks on to the stage. “Christina, you’re turning the wrong way. Try it again.”
The music resumes. I don’t really know what the choreographer is talking about, but I try my best to do the dance correctly. The music stops in the same place as before.
“No, Christina. Watch me.” She does the dance, and I watch her movements carefully.
“Now you try it,” she says. I do what I think I saw the choreographer do, but apparently that isn’t it.
“Ugh. No. Here.” The choreographer guides my body, pushing my shoulders the right way at the turn. “Try it again,” she says.
The music starts back up, and I do the step again. I must have turned the wrong way, though, because I hear the choreographer groan from the front row. She sits down in the red theater seats and watches the remainder of the song, her eyes narrowed on me the whole time.
“Let’s do this,” she says, climbing up on to the stage. She rechoreographs the last part of the piece, from the turn on.
“There,” she says after watching it. “That’s better and easier for us.” A soft, condescending smile stretches across her face. I blink down at my feet and wish I hadn’t been cast as a dancer.
After my first dance audition and my experience as a dancer in Annie, I took as many dance classes as I could, drinking in all the information offered to me, and, naturally, my dancing improved. In every class I took, though, no matter how well I did, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a fake—that no matter how hard I worked, I was still out of place among all those other dancers who had been dancing since they came out of the womb.
I loved the acting and singing aspects of musical theatre, and so I decided to major in it, hoping my dancing would continue to improve with time and effort. My first semester, I enrolled in a beginning ballet class.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, I woke up at 8 a.m. to dress myself in soft pink tights, a stretchy black leotard, and a black skirt, wrap my hair up in a tight bun, and walk to class by 8:30 where I would don a pair of pink leather ballet slippers and line up at the barre.
I felt like I had been thrown in a full-immersion language class. Every morning, at the barre, my teacher would shout a steady stream of French vocabulary at me, and I had to watch her long, muscular feet to understand what she wanted me to do.
“Tendu,” she said. She pointed her toe forward, so I did too.
“Plié,” she said, bending her knees and sinking down towards the ground. I did the same.
“Rond de jambe.” Her toe traced a semi-circular pattern on the floor, so I made mine follow suit.
I did well in the class and learned a lot, but every Tuesday and Thursday morning felt like a performance where I had taken center stage when I wasn’t supposed to, and I was just waiting nervously for someone to call my bluff. Whenever my teacher would shout corrections at someone, I instinctively assumed she was talking about me. Whenever she shouted compliments, I presumed she meant them for someone else, even if she used my name.
“Very nice, Christina,” she cried. “Beautiful tendu.”
I searched frantically around the room for the face of the student she was praising.
“No, Greyson,” she called. “Shoulders back. Straighten up.”
I straightened my shoulders, just in case she was secretly talking to me.
I was a musical theatre major for a semester before I realized that performing was not what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t like the competitive nature of professional performing or the feeling that my worth as a person was wrapped up in my talents and abilities. After I transferred out of the school I was studying theatre at, I moved back home to Virginia and signed up for an adult jazz class at a local dance studio just for fun.
Walking into the class was nothing like walking in to any audition or dance class I had ever been in before. At seventeen and nineteen, my sister and I were the youngest two students in the room. The next youngest was in her thirties. None of them wanted dancing careers, none of them were hoping to become famous, and none of them were judging any of the others. They were all there to have fun. After taking so many classes with serious performers who wanted to dance for their bread and butter someday, the relaxed atmosphere of this class was almost freeing.
The ladies in my class, ranging from ages thirty-something to seventy-something, made it easy to unlearn the bashfulness I normally felt in dance classes. They laughed at themselves when they made mistakes, encouraged each other when someone was struggling, and didn’t spend the class fixing their stances in the mirror because they didn’t care how they looked. They just wanted to dance. I had gotten used to entering a dance studio, realizing I was the least experienced in the bunch, finding my way to the back corner, and hiding from the judgmental glances of the girls who could do flawless fouettés and saut du basques and triple time steps. These women didn’t judge each other. They didn’t care if they looked silly. They came to have a good time and learn something new.
“The doctor says I have to have surgery on my foot,” Anita, a marathon runner and one of the seventy-year-olds, announced casually before class one day.
“Oh no,” we all gasped. “When?”
“The doctor wanted to do it sometime next month,” Anita said. “But I told him he would have to wait until after June. I have my dance career to work on.”
Our June recital finally rolled around. In the high school classroom that served as our makeshift greenroom, we lined up near the door, waiting for our turn to go onstage. The beginning ballet class full of smiling six- and seven-year-olds waved at us from their spot on the carpet beside the door and wished us good luck.
“Oh, I’m so nervous,” Doris, the sixty-something-year-old with purple hair, cried. “My grandkids are in the audience. I don’t want to mess up.”
“Even if you do, they’ll just be excited to see you dance,” another woman assured her.
“I’ve been practicing my smile in the mirror,” a third student told us. “Even if I forget my steps, I’m just going to keep smiling, no matter what happens. That’s what’s important.”
Standing there, listening to these thirty-, forty-, fifty-, sixty-, and seventy-year-old women in their flashy, gold-sequined costumes, I realized that I didn’t have to worry about how weird I looked or whether or not I had the sloppiest form in the class. For them, dance wasn’t about any of those things. Dance was about letting loose, having fun, and learning something new. As a volunteer stagehand held open the door to let us head on to the stage, I decided to give their method a go.
I talk to some of my partners while we swing dance, and I always ask them how long they’ve been swing dancing. There’s a variety of answers.
“This is my third week.”
You’ll pick it up fast, they all promise me. They never make me feel bad about my lack of experience or that I occasionally bump into them when I turn the wrong way. With the one exception, their smiles are genuine and encouraging.
I stand now to the side of the room, leaning against the grey wall of the studio. A group of my co-workers is standing in the corner, laughing and joking and trying to pull one of the shy teenage boys on to the floor to ask a girl to dance. A few girls stand against the opposite wall, sipping from colored plastic water bottles. There’s no hesitation from any of the guys (except the shy one) to get out and ask the girls to dance, and there’s no hesitation on the girls’ part to accept them. For a moment, repressed memories of old dance classes, auditions, and performances start to resurface in my mind, but a new partner takes my hand and whisks me on to the floor. I don’t know the steps, but I laugh it off. We twirl around, trying to avoid collisions with other spinning couples on the floor. Nobody cares. Everyone is out to have a good time, and no one’s made to feel like they don’t belong.