03 November 2010
6 i wanna dance with somebody
i made my dance debut at the age of five. midway into the can-can in a recital so long that my parents only ever refer to it as "that nightmare where our butts went numb," my pink sequined strap broke. through the remainder of the show, a significant portion of my left nipple was visible, indiscreetly bobbing up over my costume's blue satin and yellow fringe. (dear sick people, do not attempt to find it above. it is not visible here.)
this is a perfect snapshot of my relationship with the art of dance. it always pans out sexier and more scandalous than i intend.
i didn't dance with anyone, much less a boy, until a blind date in 1996. the famous time that partner set me up with her church crush to determine whether she liked him more than her date. we went into the evening with the perfect plan wherein we would trade off for several dances so partner could evaluate the candidates independently and arrive at a decision.
as happens in all perfect plans, we rendezvoused at mcdonald's.
these were shiny times. in the photograph that partner's mother insisted on taking, we stand against a brick wall like delinquents in a line-up. the glow of the golden arches refracts off the oil on my face and my brown leather bomber jacket, brown velour dress and brown patent shoes to create an unflattering spotlight effect. my mouth is curled into the smirk of a democrat who knows she is on a date with a teenaged republican and about to ride in a car festooned with a sticker in support of bob dole.
as the shutter clicked, she said, perfect, ladies.
at the dance we engaged in that intricate ballet particular to school-sponsored events set in gymnasiums and cafeterias. the kind where you remain always at stretched-out arm's length lest groins or breasts touch. chaste moves undermined by the fact that we were executing them to boyz ii men's "i'll make love to you."
this experience put me off school dances altogether and i avoided public dancing entirely until the summer of 1998 when, during a cornell summer college program-sponsored dance at willard straight hall, a boy whom i'm 73% sure wasn't in our program and who may or may not have been wearing glasses asked if i wanted to dance with him.
it had been one of those perfect days. i'd bought a plant in town that morning then laid out on one of cornell's grassy hills all afternoon. i returned home with a sunburn so bad that my roommate slathered yogurt on my thighs and wrapped them in tissue paper left over from a gift bag. because it was the kind of summer where that made medicinal sense.
that night, once i had showered and was rid of the dairy, we'd danced around the dorm like loons, playing madonna at such a volume that the hall minder warned us that ladies shouldn't be so loud. that was why, when this boy asked me to dance, i said yes. because before we had even gotten there, we had decided we were not ladies.
i don't remember much about him because even though we danced pretty much the whole rest of the night, i never once faced him. instead, i faced outward- partly out of embarrassment, mostly because my thighs were on fire- with an expression that suggested i was merely scanning the crowd with cool nonchalance while someone engaged me in dancing of which i was unaware.
what i do remember is the feel of denim on denim. gratitude that i wasn't wearing a dress. and the dawning realization that what we were doing wasn't what i thought dancing would be like.
i'd watched entirely too many judy garland musicals and thanks to repeated viewings of meet me in st. louis, i thought real dancing at real parties involved an elaborate pre-choreographed performance of "skip to my lou."
this pre-dated my exposure to hip-hop videography, so i did not yet have the vocabulary to identify what we were doing as "grinding." which, i see now, was a small mercy. because grinding is a terribly nasty word and a terribly awkward thing to be doing when you are a seventeen year old southern baptist girl with boy hair and in tapered leg jeans dancing, for the first time ever outside of figuring skating in socked feet, with someone you do not know.
i did, however, know enough to be completely mortified. it seemed terribly intimate, what we were doing. especially given that we had not yet held hands.
there are no words for how naive i was then. and how incredibly uncomfortable i was with the area i inhabited, the space i took up. i did not know what to do with my body. the breasts i hunched over to hide. the nipples that, thanks to overenthusiastic cooling systems, were always erect. the curve of the hips i did not yet know how to use.
i never ever ever ever knew what to do with my arms.
after dancing with denim boy, i still didn't but i nonetheless returned from cornell with an inflated false faith in my own abilities. my father always preached the virtues of "la adventura." i had, finally, had one. i thought everything would be different.
and i had danced. therefore, i thought i now knew how.
so that october, when one of partner's old boyfriends asked me to homecoming, i leaned over the square of desks in the right front corner of mrs. mcabee's homeroom and solemnly told him to "be prepared." i fancied that this sounded sexy. in truth, it made it seem that dancing with me would be an ordeal requiring many hours of practice and prayer.
as in all rites of passage, we were kids playing adults. and, as nearly always happens at such times, our failure was spectacular.
he wore a buttercream button-up through which his hollywood 27 theater grand opening commemorative t-shirt could be clearly seen underneath. i wore black patent pumps and a red silk shantung dress that my mother had made and which inexplicably ballooned out between the shoulder blades, as if in anticipation of the sudden need to accommodate a backpack inside.
in the photographs of this moment- a moment so special that my parents ran to the kroger 1-hour photo that very night to have them all produced as 8x10s- we look sanguine and just the slightest bit shellshocked.
this was my first real date. ever.
accordingly, we ate dinner at waffle house. because i had walked away from a cosmo article with the firm belief that lettuce was the food men most liked to watch women eat, i ordered a salad.
and then, at the dance itself, i busted out my moves.
i stood shimmying before this dear boy (whom i love to pieces to this very day). in the lenses of his glasses, i could see the lights bouncing off all my shiny surfaces. when his eyebrows shot up, i imagined he was bewitched by my twinkling allure. when he took a step back, i assumed he was overwhelmed by my refined beauty. then he looked deep into my eyes- presumably intoxicated by my charms- and he said, "caroline, your hips are being too provocative."
it is hard to know how to be a girl. it's probably equally difficult to be a boy, but i don't know anything about that. what i know is that it is hard to be a girl. to cross your legs at the ankles always and keep your knees closed. your body says too much. it gives you away, before you are ready. there my hips were being all provocative and i barely even had a grasp on what that word meant. we'd only just learned it in advanced placement english the week before.
i was suddenly aware that i had done something wrong, though i did not know what. i had only been dancing.
it was a matter made all the more perplexing when, before choir class the following tuesday, this boy passed me a note written in purple ink putting forth the assertion that we needed to date. immediately. exclusively. because i was perfect.
dear boys, never tell us we are perfect. we none of us are. we none of us can live up to that. we try, for you, and it breaks our hearts.
it is hard to be a girl because it takes a really, really long time to get over the notion that there is a certain way we girls must be. that we must all want babies and be married. that we must either want to stay home or be eager to leave it. this idea that we must always be good. that there are things that make us bad. that there are things good girls do not do and that no man will love you if you do them.
i do not know where this comes from. i do not know why it lasts. i know it is nonsense and yet i still know women who struggle with it. and i know i do as well.
i envy young oline there. her nipple bobbing indiscreetly above her costume's blue satin and yellow fringe. i remember no embarrassment in that moment. i remember dancing and that is all.
it takes a really, really long time to realize this is neither a question of good or bad, but that it is simply life. and that life is far better when you've made peace with where you are. where you've been. all your imperfections. all your possibilities. and the very, very great need for provocative hips.
we danced together again. at prom later that year, the boy with the purple ink and i. three weeks before, on march 18th, we had sat together under the air vent in barnes and noble. on the worst hair day of my life we had held hands as he told me he was gay and i had laughed. at prom, his shoes were too slick. they made a crunching noise when he stepped. my stilleto had gotten stuck in a street grate and my dress hem had torn. we performed "the tennessee waltz" on a dance floor that was entirely too small so that, doing our box steps, we circulated like horses on a carousel mistakenly shifted into high gear.
we were not perfect. we never have been. we needn't ever be. we dance and enjoy the adventure, though we do not know what to do with our arms.