It was late August in New York and the summer was evaporating faster than the rainwater from the deluge that pummeled the city the evening before. The air was thick and miserable with humidity. Midtown smelled of Souvlaki vendors, Chanel №19, and Kools cigarettes. As a UPS driver was taking a phone call and fanning himself on the back of his truck between deliveries, a white woman was walking her dog and not picking up its shit, and I was headed to a dance class—my first in years.
My friend Derrick and I had decided a few weeks prior that we would take the class, a vogue class.
I’ve always guarded and protected my love for dance like a secret. I don’t look like a dancer. I imagine that most people see me as an ordinary fat person. But they’d be wrong. When I was in high school I taught hip-hop dance. I was known throughout the school for my style, flair, and talent for choreography.
I wanted to be the first fat backup dancer for Janet Jackson, and in my mind I was good enough. I taught dance at my high school until my second year of college. My life at home was chaos. I was moving from group home to foster home to independent living program, but dancing was my safe space. My friends and I would stay after school late into the evening, sometimes past 8 p.m., just dancing. Dancing for a show, dancing for exercise, dancing for liberation, dancing for nothing at all. When I’d put on those sweats, tie up my hair, and turn up the music, I was truly free.
In college, I tried to join SOUL, one of the school’s more electric dance teams. But during my audition I became insecure. All of the dancers around me were thin, beautiful, agile, and far more competitive than I was used to. I didn’t make the team and my pride was in ruins.
Seven years later and I had not danced at all. I didn’t have the means to attend any dance classes, and there were very few hip-hop spaces available in Baltimore. For the nearly four years that I’d lived in New York City it was always a dream to take an official dance class. In my tiny high school in Baltimore I was a big deal, but I always wanted to compete in New York, to learn from masters like Luam, Bobby Newberry, and Jonte.
On the morning of our class I was nervous. So much had changed. I could still feel the fire for dance in my chest, but was I still any good? I’d gained so much weight, around eighty pounds, and outside of running around the city I wasn’t very active. I was in such a state that I had no clue what to wear. I threw on some black stretchy pants, completely forgetting they had a hole in one of the pockets. The tank top that I threw on after my shower had a hole in the lower back, but I thought because I was wearing a baggy sweatshirt it would be no problem.
We arrived a bit late. The dancers were on the floor doing their stretches, mostly white girls in yoga pants, sprawled out and ready to appropriate. The class was being taught by a vogue legend. Her beauty and talent are known throughout the world and I was so excited to see her in action. She stood in the front of the class in a pink bra and black leggings. Her almond skin was already glistening with sweat, her hair hiked up into a perfect bun. Her limbs were so long that each time she stretched she swept the floor. I dropped my bags in the corner and got right into it.
I stretched my legs as wide as they could go. I noticed right away that I was one of two fat people in the class. It felt like Fat Island. The other resident of this island appeared to be a twenty-something Latinx man. He wore navy blue jogging shorts with a matching shirt and headband. He meant business. As we stretched from side to side, legs spread eagle on the floor, I felt an unfamiliar restriction in my limbs. I couldn’t bend my body the way I could seven years before. Struggling, I became insecure about the wall of mirrors that we faced. As she yelled out, “One more time” I noticed people glaring at me. I figured that the stretches were an attempt to shake loose this very tightness I was feeling in my limbs, so I kept trying.
After the stretches the beats began. We started with floor performance. There are five elements of vogue performance. The Duck Walk is a small hopping motion in a squat position. The Cat Walk is an overly flamboyant and rhythmic version of a runway walk; it features a lot of hand motions that accentuate the performer’s femininity. Hand performance is a rapid, intricate series of hand movements. The best hand performance is blindingly quick and clever. Spins and dips are thought to be the most difficult elements. Also known as death drops, to the chagrin of many in the gay community, these gravity defying moves encompass spinning in a controlled and balanced fashion into a back breaking dip, and laying the body’s weight on to one leg. But for me, floor performance was always the most difficult element. Floor performance is a kind of floor acrobatics, which requires a lot of control and a ton of technique. Because of my weight, this was always the most difficult element to master. When I was younger my strengths were my cat walk, duck walk, and hand performance. Molding my body into the sensual pretzel shapes of floor performance was nearly impossible back then. When she called out for floor performance I knew this would not be my day.
From the start she moved far too quickly for me to keep up. I found, as my legs swung low in the air with as much grace as a punctured trash bag, that my body had betrayed me over the years. Each count she called out, each five, six, seven and spin, had us rolling on our knees across the floor, and with every stretch of my legs the hole in my pocket grew bigger and bigger. Each twist and turn revealed the gaping hole in the back of my tank top. When I was trying to stick the moves I was also busy adjusting my clothes, which like my body, had sought to destroy me, making me nearly immobile with insecurity.
As I slowly learned the steps I stared daggers at my fat, lonely island neighbor. Although his forehead was leaking sweat, he was catching each step of the choreography. This was my worst nightmare. I moved apishly behind the rest of the class, half of them staring at me in pity, the other half forcibly avoiding my gaze. Within the first fifteen minutes I was out of breath, dehydrated, and behind. My knees were battered and bruised. What had happened to me? How could I have fallen so far? I used to dominate every dancer around me with a deceptive ease. Each isolation, each body thrust, commanded everyone’s attention. Now I couldn’t even keep up.
When I thought it couldn’t get any more humiliating, she broke us into groups. Group one contained all of the newbies in the class. Group two encompassed all of the veterans. Of course I was in group one. I felt terrible for my group. Everyone could see that I would be the weak link. As the teacher stood, limber and effortlessly beautiful, she counted down and asked us to perform the fifteen seconds of choreography we’d just learned. My group was small, maybe seven people compared to other group’s fourteen. I thought she would at least give us a few seconds to catch our collective breaths, I was incorrect.
She yelled, “Five, six, seven, and…” Everyone in my group nailed the choreography, slicing through the air with precision. Everyone except for me. I flung myself through the air like a sack of vegetables. The rips in my clothes shone like beacons of poverty and failure. Why the fuck did I wear these things? I thought to myself. Was I trying to sabotage my big return to the dance floor? Before I could even think she called for us to do the choreography again. This time, my body was slower, barely functional. She stopped the music and walked over to me. I was mortified, angered, and murderous. She said, with the voice and softness you’d expect from an understanding elementary school teacher, helping the class’s slow kid, “You gotta believe in yourself, honey. Try it again.” I flailed my way through about five seconds, and pretended to be lost on the direction of the kicks.
Finally she gave us a break, calling group two to the floor. With all the direction of studied, professional dancers, they mastered the moves. No one was off-beat, no one was even a step behind. After this she added additional choreography. This time she applied high kicks, spins, and dips. My body laughed as I attempted each one of these moves. I couldn’t even lift my foot a third of the way. Each time I spun my sweatshirt lifted. When it came to do the duck walk into a dip, I gave up, but not before she targeted me again.
This time, less soft, less helpful. She stopped the music and everyone turned and looked at me. She tried to walk me through the dip, but my legs were in pain. She told me to lay flat on my foot, and finally, at my lowest point, I told her that I could not. She replied, “You won’t or you can’t?” As I looked up at her, leaking, betrayed, I told her that my body wouldn’t allow it and she walked back to the front of the room.
As she instructed for the both groups to return to the floor I ran out of the room in a cloud of shame. I grabbed a cup of water and before I knew it the cup was mostly tears.
I’d never felt so low in my life. The hallway also had mirrors and every time I caught a glimpse of my stomach, my thighs, my necks, and my crying eyes, I cried even more. Eventually I ran downstairs to the lobby and waited for the class to be over.
I assumed that my friend Derrick, who saw me struggling, who knew of my anxiety and apprehension around returning to the dance floor, would come running behind me, offering me sisterly support. No such luck. For the next seventy-five minutes I sat alone downstairs. I was too scared to return to the room to get my backpack and my phone, so I just sat there.
The lobby was a mess. It was around 3 p.m. and the lobby was filled with older Asian and Latinx women escorting white children to their classes. Little white girls wearing their pink ballet tutus. Teenage white boys lacing up their tap shoes. This was a part of their routine, the fabric of their everyday lives, like it was once a part of mine.
Soon the lobby got so loud that I spilled onto the street. It was peaceful there. A Black man with myriads of facial tattoos stood beside me smoking a Newport. I wanted to move but the terrible smell reminded me of home, of the consistent second-hand smoke that I was forced to inhale in my mother’s house. It was a cold comfort.
I felt odd, waiting for the clock to run out. These days it feels strange to people watch, with no phone in your hand as a barrier. To just stand there and look. Outside of the dance studio there was a leather, honey brown couch sitting on the curb. An Asian delivery man, straddling a black bike with plastic bags on the front kept driving past and looking at the couch. On his third pass in eight minutes he finally pulled over. He parked his bike and began fondling the couch, circling it. He looked back at me and shouted, “Yours? Yours?” to which I responded with a stiff “Nope.” He smiled, boarded his bike, and drove off with what I assumed to be the intention of returning for it later.
Three Black men stood a few doors down, circled around a black Cadillac with the hood propped open. Two of the men were dressed in what appeared to be their Sunday best. One man was wearing a cream linen suit with black suede shoes, while the other sported a white button up shirt, black slacks, and black and green alligator shoes. The third man wore a pair of navy blue overalls and was covered in black grease. The two well-dressed men were talking loudly about Ronald Isley and how he was a far more appealing vocalist than Charlie Murphy, to which the greasy man rebutted, “You’s a goddamned, motherfucking liar and the truth ain’t in ya.” Then the men began yelling and falling further into the debate. The smirks and smiles on their faces let me know that this was all in kindness, all in jest.
I thought about these men, over the hill in so many ways, long past their prime. I thought about all of the possible dreams that they’d lost, that they’d allowed to die. I had failed the day and maybe that was okay. Maybe I would never dance with Janet Jackson. Maybe I too had surpassed my dancing prime. Dance had given me so many things over the years: community, confidence, discipline and passion. Perhaps this was enough.
An elderly white woman who slowly made her way down the block toward me, moved her purse to the other side and aggressively avoided eye contact. As she got in front of me I screamed, “AHHHH!!” Startled, she buckled, tightened her grip on her purse, and did a glacial speed walk down the street.
A few seconds after the lady turned a corner and exited my view, the class let out. Derrick came out of the door holding my gargantuan, green backpack. He didn’t ask me what had happened, why I’d left, or if I was alright. He simply asked, “You want to go get something to eat?” To which I listlessly replied, “Absolutely.”
Rumpus original art by Leesa Travis.