I used to dance. A lot. Some of my first memories are of dances and dancing. I started learning to dance when I was a toddler. Ballroom dancing. Ballroom dancing has always been important in my family. I have an aunt and an uncle (siblings) who both competed in ballroom dancing competitions, my aunt did very, very well in it. She taught ballroom dancing. All of my maternal family ballroom danced. The same man, a family friend, who taught my mother to dance when she was a girl, taught me most of the dances. I remember him teaching me to waltz, going around and around and around, him forcing me to look up into his face so that I didn’t look at my feet, and just when I got the knack of it, he’d change it up and we’d reverse waltz until I got the knack of that. I just remembered his big belly, which meant I wouldn’t have been able to see my feet even if I did look down!
As far back as I can remember, I was going to dance halls in the small country towns where my family lived, with my grandparents, with aunts and uncles, great aunts and uncles, various cousins. I can remember sleeping behind the thumping piano, groggily watching the dancers swirl around and around the dance floor as I dozed off. I remember the smell of the Pops that they used to sprinkle on the beautiful wooden floors to make them slippery. I remember the smell of my aunts hair spray and perfume. The tulle petticoats under her ballroom dresses. The t-bar shoes the women in my family wore. My Grandad’s Californian Poppy hair oil.
In rural Queensland, Australia in the 70’s and 80’s, kids learned ballroom dancing in both primary and high schools. I remember that I already knew how, and I had to deal with smelly, sweaty boys who didn’t want to hold my hand. I did my junior debut when I was about 5 or 6. I remember the mint green satin dress I had, and my deb partner was a boy called Duncan Bucknall. Funny how I’ve remembered his name. I remember the posy I carried too.
I was in the Brownies (I actually got chucked out, long story, I’ll tell it some time) and because I was musically inclined, I got to be in all of the little dance recitals we did. I remember playing a robin in them time after time, until something happened to the lead and I was the only girl who fit the costume, so I got to be the fairy princess, in a big pink glittery dress with a wand.
Of course, I got fat at about 11, and the self esteem issues started. But I still loved to dance.
When I got to high school, I loved going to school dances to actually dance. Other kids sat around the walls looking bored, but once the music started, I couldn’t get on the dance floor quick enough. I had a very camp friend named Marcus (who Kurt from Glee reminds me of so very much) that loved to dance with me. When I embraced Goth and Punk styles, I danced to that music. At 15, I started going to nightclubs to dance.
When we moved town to where my Grandparents lived when I was 16, and I had to rebuild all of my friend base, I started going to ballroom dances with my aunt and uncle. I made friends of kids around my own age who went to my school through the dances, and found a few dance partners. I had one in particular I used to dance with a lot, and we did some competitions together as well. I discovered that I was REALLY good at ballroom dancing, and that I could really dance all night without stopping except for supper. I could do complex dances that other people did softened versions of. I was fucking amazing at a REAL Quickstep, with all the hopping, and people always told me how graceful I looked doing a Swing Waltz, or my favourite, the Maxina.
My self esteem struggled, but I was good at it, so that got me through.
I remember at my high school formal, my friend and main dance partner asking me to dance to one of those Jive Bunny songs, which were remixes of Glenn Miller stuff, and the bullies laughing as we walked on to the dance floor, the fat girl and the geek. We started dancing and the whole room stopped, and we took over the dance floor. Everyone just watched with their mouths open as we tore up the dance floor to a Quickstep, never missing a step. A teacher who didn’t know either of us very well outside of class stopped us as we strode defiantly off the dance floor and said “That was amazing! You two… wow… you should do that professionally!!”
I ballroom danced regularly until I was in my mid-20’s, and I loved it.
But then depression kicked in. It robbed me of all enjoyment of most things in my life, and smashed my self esteem into the ground. All of the shit I’d dealt with about my weight and my looks came bubbling to the surface with the depression, and I stopped dancing. I stopped believing I had the right to dance. Instead I believed that people would find my fat body hideous dancing.
Only once since then have I danced. I went to see a friend’s band play at a pub, and I saw this young cowboy guy trying desperately to dance properly with my friend, who was fantastic at shaking her booty, but couldn’t waltz or any other form of ballroom dancing. This guy was about 18, and he was desperately trying to guide her into a proper ballroom dance step, and she just wasn’t comfortable. I tapped her on the shoulder, stepped in to his arms, set my shoulders and we took the first step… and he burst into the biggest smile and said “Wow lady, you know what you’re doing!” We danced until they kicked us out of the pub.
I want to start dancing again. But the problem is that there are so few male partners willing to dance (and yes, I prefer to dance with a male partner, because that’s the way I’ve learnt to dance – I don’t lead at all) and the dance groups in a big city like Brisbane are learner groups. So I end up going and teaching other women to dance. I don’t want to teach. I want to be lost in the waltz, swirling around a dance floor like I did when I was a little girl, being led by Mr Sykes or my Uncle Trev. I want to not have to think, to not have to focus on anything, just to let go and trust my partner to lead me into a beautiful dance.
There is a muscle memory to that. I’ve seen John Travolta in movies and on Oprah of all places, step up to dance with a woman in his arms… and he has it. I see that same pull into a leading stance, the lock up to his chest so his partner is not able to look at her (or his, in the case of William H Macy once) feet and off they go. I remember when he told the story of dancing with Princess Diana and having to pull her out of leading. I’d kill to dance with John Travolta. Or to have danced with Patrick Swayze, he had it too. Hugh Jackman has it. Ewan McGregor has it too. When I see these men dance on screen, my body knows how to fit and remembers the steps and the stances.
I’m putting it out to the universe that I want to dance again. I don’t know how or where or when it will happen, but I’m trusting that I will find my way to do so again somehow. I will not be ashamed of my fat body dancing. I will remember how good I am at it and let that shine through.