I was the girl who, at age six wearing my Russian peasant bright orange tutu, lost her balance and knocked over the whole line of little girls wearing identical costumes. We were on stage at some rented theater in New York city, and all the parents were horrified. My own parents cringed and put their heads in their palms, but thankfully, they still took me out for ice cream afterwards.
“You’re a klutz,” I was told my whole childhood, a way to explain the bruises on my arms and legs, hip or backside. But walking into furniture wasn’t the only explanation. I lived with a family and in a culture that, at the time, didn’t abhor the hitting of children. My cousin punched me in the arm. My father kicked my butt. My grandmother slapped me. This was the way it was, and so, over time, I became less aware of where my body ended and the edges of tables began. I also fell a lot, out of tune with how to walk without fear.
At the same time, like most of us, I loved to dance, especially in the big living room with “Maria” from West Side Story blaring. I loved to sing, loudly and out of tune. I loved to fling myself through space, landing and twirling, bowing and rising again. Left to my own devices, I didn’t hurt myself either, and although no one who saw me would say I was graceful, I think I just might been.
As an adult, coming back to dance has been awkward. Yes, I have practiced free-form rock’n’roll dancing in front of mirrors, wanting so much not to look completely stupid, or I just did that hip to hip back-and-forthing while tapping a toe, pretending I was too cool to all-out dance when the band played loud music.
When I met Ken and we started our relationship, he asked me to do two things with him: go camping regularly and, each week, go to folkdancing, one of his life loves. I was scared at first, not so much about the camping either. But going each Friday night to international folkdancing, learning how to do yemenite or grapevine steps, to stamp my foot at the end of an intense Bulgarian dance, or to leap high in the hambo, a Swedish couple dance that took me weeks to learn (and is, as most folkdancers will tell you, a kind of gateway drug into Scandanavian dancing), I worked out my inhibitions.
In an empty physics classroom at the University of Kansas, my friend Ravi spent several hours teaching me a Romanian dance of great energy that combined fast footwork, leaps in a line with others, and amazing speed. It look a while, but eventually I got it, and for years afterwards, I would request that we dance Floricica Oltenesca.
I also found that when I went to hear a band, I no longer cared so much if I looked like an idiot. I opened up my body and threw myself into the dance at parties as well as through some contact improvisational classes I took over the years. I was even part of a performing clogging group until, clogging at seven month’s pregnant, I could tell my jumping around so much was freaking out the audiences.
Now I dance at will although not nearly enough. The other day, when I went to teach my yoga class at a new yoga center where students are as of yet scarce, I practiced alone, and then, seized by the beauty of the bamboo vast floor, I jumped up and started dancing alone, as if no one was watching. Of course, this is exactly when someone showed up, thinking it was another day than it was. I stopped dancing and explained the schedule to her, and although I was a little embarrassed, I told myself to give that up.
Besides, I’ve come to believe there’s beauty in moving with abandon, even for that six-year-old in her bright orange tutu.