Disclaimer: The events illustrated in the following memoir have been dramatized.
I was always obsessed with fairies. So petite, dainty, and magical. They wore garments of colorful tulle and sparkles. They had beautiful long lashes, pink cheeks, and mauve lips. Small, little slippers adorned their feet. Their waists were cinched. Their legs were long. Their arms were thin.
They looked like ballerinas with their cinched waists, long legs, and thin arms. I guess if I couldn’t be a fairy, I could be a ballerina.
So when I put on this ballet costume for the first time, I felt like a fairy. The costume was made of a velvety fabric of pink, orange, and yellow swirls. The straps were made of bright pink sequins that reflected off the lights in the theater in which I performed. The glare of the sequins would dance on the floor as I did. My tutu was made of stiff, purple tulle that stuck out a foot past my waist. I had bands with fabric that draped against my arms like my very own wings. My ballet shoes were perfectly pink and laced with a bow.
I ran around my house in this costume, pretending to be a fairy. I leaped, jumped, turned, and sashayed throughout the halls of my home. I bounced on couches and chairs and beds with the hopes that maybe I’d be able to fly. My hair was pulled back in a tight bun like a proper ballerina but it felt like it was down and being blown back by the wind because I felt so free.
This costume made me feel special. I too was petite, dainty, and magical. Like a fairy. Like a ballerina.
My mum told me to take it off. She had to pack it away to take to the theater before my performance. I refused. I couldn’t bear to have this part from my body.
We weren’t expecting anything when we opened the email. And yet, they sent the email out to everyone.
They let all the dancers take the class. We had a guest choreographer come in one Saturday morning and teach a class at the studio. It was an optional class, but I knew I had to take it. She was a choreographer that specialized in character dancing--my personal favorite. Character dance was a mix of dancing and acting. Character routines were often put to showtunes or catchy songs from movies. I loved it because it added a whole other level of emotion to an already emotional art form. It was where I could express what I was feeling, without judgement.
While all students were welcome to take the class, the choreographer would only be choosing a few, select group of teenage dancers to participate in the guest routine she would be teaching us. I was nine. Definitely not a teenager.
But, my mum opened the email on her phone a few hours after the Saturday morning class the guest choreographer taught.
And my name appeared on the list.
A list that consisted only of older dancers that I looked up to and wanted to be. They were amazing dancers. I could not compare. But, I was chosen to be in this dance.
It was the first time I felt like dance was what I was meant to do. The past few years I had practiced the art form, I mostly did it for fun. Dance acted as a form of exercise as well as a place for me to be social as the shy child I was.
But this. This was a sign from the universe. It had to be. I was meant to be a dancer. A performer. This was my calling, my purpose on this earth.
As a nine year old, I realized all of this in a single moment.
My mind started racing. I could see myself on a Broadway stage, singing, acting, and dancing. I saw my name in lights in the middle of Time Square. A red carpet was rolled out in front of me, just aching for me to walk on it. Cameras flashed. Fans screamed my name. This was my future. I could see it. I could feel it.
I came home from dance class the next day to see my mother practically fuming at the kitchen table. My dad was sitting next to her his hands clasped and resting on the surface. I didn’t approach them, but I hid behind the corner.
She told him how people were saying I didn’t deserve to be in this dance. I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t skinny enough.
She said a teammate of mine’s mother went to the owners of the dance studio and complained. The owners said it wasn’t their dance. They were still going to let me be in it even though I technically wasn’t allowed because of my age. Or I guess the problem really was how I looked. Her daughter was prettier and skinnier and better. Her daughter was blonde and white with big blue eyes. She should’ve gotten it over me.
The dance was supposed to be a happy and elegant one. We used props adorned with feathers and fluff and wore pink velvet leotards and gold heels. I didn’t feel like a fairy in this costume. The mesh on the inside of the leotard was itchy and the light prop I used weighed a hundred pounds in my hands.
I walked onto the stage with my fellow dancers. The lights were too bright. I couldn’t see anything. As the music began to play, it didn’t sound like its typical melody. It sounded sad now. The stage didn’t make me feel like a Broadway star anymore. I just felt guilty.
Changing in the dressing rooms never got easier. At this point, I don’t even know how many dance competitions I’ve been to. Maybe 30? 40? Maybe even more. But, bringing my giant suitcase filled with costumes into the ballrooms-turned-dressing-rooms always felt like a walk of shame.
This giant suitcase was more than just a suitcase. It turned into a functioning clothing rack. Every competition, I set it up, tugging on the collapsible poles and then hanging my costumes on them. But before I could complete these steps, I first had to choose where I would set up shop. I always chose a spot against a wall. Having a wall was key to having the least amount of people see me.
Changing was a race with the surrounding people’s heads and how fast they turned in my direction. I started by pulling off my shirt and covering myself with my costume, then quickly tugging it over my head, adjusting it over my body, then I shimmied out of my leggings and put my tights on instead, then I zipped up my costume and--
I was done.
And this whole time, my eyes remained scanning my surroundings, making sure everyone was distracted and most definitely not looking at me.
I knew from a young age that I looked different from everyone else. My body was always something I’ve been hyper aware of. I mean, I couldn’t help it, I stood out in the crowd. If the crowd was young girls at a dance competition. I wasn’t like them. I didn’t have a completely flat stomach or thin limbs. I didn’t wear crop tops to dance class. I wore loose t-shirts, trying to prevent my body from being on show.
I couldn’t stand the thought of people looking at me. Staring at me. Dissecting every part of my appearance. The mere thought of someone’s eyes passing over me sent shivers down my spine. And yet, I had developed a passion for a sport in which my talent was judged by how I looked.
My mum’s Facebook page is like a digital scrapbook. Each post is like a page in a hardbound book kept in the attic of someone’s childhood home. Scrolling back through all the posts is like flipping the dusty pages open when spring cleaning comes around and one finds the scrapbook hidden in an unassuming cardboard box.
She scrolled back fairly far one day. She called me over to watch a video of one of my old dances.
This dance was my first ever solo (a dance one does by themselves). When I found out I was offered to compete as a soloist, I knew I had to take it. This was another step towards accomplishing my dream. Broadway was in the distance now, just on the horizon. Peaking through the clouds, just enough for me to see.
I sat down with my mum at the kitchen table. She angled her iPhone so I could see the screen as well. The video started, and I immediately wanted it to stop.
That’s not what I remembered looking like in my head.
I had on a two-piece costume. The top was a sparkly crop top with hot pink polkadots. My shorts were black with a pink heart on the back. Eight-year-old Seren was confident in this costume, performing her first solo dance. It felt like my Broadway debut.
I thought I looked good. But after watching only a few seconds of that video, I realized if that had been my Broadway debut, the show would've closed the next day. Posters would be taken down on the sides of the theatre. The lights on the marquee would go out.
My dancing was sloppy. Each movement looked unfinished, like my arm was supposed to extend a little bit more and maybe that kick was supposed to go a little higher. My jumps looked tiring, like I couldn’t get off the floor. I fell out of my pirouettes, stumbling throughout their finish. My hair whipped around my face and was caught in my red lipstick for half of the routine.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
My stomach jiggled. My thighs shook. You could see all my lumps and bumps and rolls and--
I had to avert my eyes.
I could not watch anymore.
I let my eyes go out of focus for the rest of the video.
Oh god, the amount of people that watched me. Watched my thighs. Watched my stomach.
Did they want to wash their eyes out afterwards? Because I wanted to.
I wanted to run to the sink and splash water in my eyes until I was blind. I think life would be better if I was blind so I could ignore what I looked like for the rest of time.
Once the video was over, I sulked off to my room. The image of myself was burned in my eyes. I couldn’t unsee it. It was like seeing something I wasn’t supposed to. Like opening up a bathroom stall to find someone else already in there. And, my cheeks would heat up and I’d immediately close the door and mutter a soft sorry! because they must be so embarrassed. I’m so embarrassed.
No one should’ve seen that. I wish I hadn’t. I wished I could erase that from my mind and remain ignorant thinking that I was a good dancer. That I was meant to dance. That I was built to dance.
But, the video showed me that I clearly was not meant for the life I was trying to live.
I didn’t eat dinner that night. I couldn’t. Not after seeing what I looked like.
Dance was all about bodies. I looked to my teachers’ and fellow dancers’ bodies to learn. By looking, we gained skill and expertise. But this looking went the other way too. Our teachers looked right back at us. Analyzing the very angle of our hands or pointedness of our feet. They inspected every movement we made. From single steps to large jumps and pirouettes. The teachers would grab my limbs and twist and turn them to place them into the correct position.
Their hands would rest on my waist.
Palms pressed against my stomach.
Suck in. Shoulders down. Chin up.
They would shift my body from side to side until I was perfectly center.
When their hands came off my stomach, I would finally feel relaxed. Every time, a sense of relief washed over me.
But, I always knew they’d be watching. Watching my body.
Because, that’s what dance was about. I had fallen in love with a sport that highlighted the parts of myself which I was most insecure. Maybe that’s why as I got older I felt so suddenly overwhelmed with the thought of going to class and performing at competitions. Maybe that’s why I, despite how much I loved the art, gave it up.
When I quit, I thought it was because I got busy. I was going into junior year of high school. Dance was not in my future, but the ACT was. And AP tests. I had to focus on school if I wanted to go to the best journalism school in the country. After all, I was a better writer than dancer. I needed to focus on that.
It wasn’t until after I stopped dancing that I realized I quit because everytime I had to go to class my breaths became short and my head started to pound and I felt so out-of-control that I didn’t know what to do next.
It’s still hard for me to admit I gave up one of my greatest passions because I couldn’t stand to look at myself anymore.
I found my old tap shoes at the back of my closet. They smelled like sweat and were scraped up at the toes, but I enjoyed the feeling of holding them in my hands. If I was Voldemort, one of my horcruxes would be these tap shoes. They contained a part of my soul. They were so important to me at one point in my life, and now they’ve been hidden away, never to be used again.
I slipped the shoes on to see if they felt the same as they did a few years ago. I was Harry Potter stabbing the basilisk fang into Tom Riddle’s diary.
Memories came back to me as if someone hit the rewind button on the remote that controlled my mind. My limbs started to move. Old dance routines came back. The floor was carpet. My shoes didn’t make a sound. But I could hear them. I could hear the metal against the old dance studio floor. I could smell the musty scent of sweat in the room. I could hear mine and my teammates panting breaths. I could feel the old costumes that were now in the trash against my skin. I could hear my tap teacher’s laugh.
I took the shoes off.
My mum came in and saw them sitting on my bed. You should dance when you get to Emerson, she said. Or maybe join a theater club or something. You always loved that stuff.
She threw the tap shoes in my suitcase. Just in case.
She left the room. I took them out and stuffed them back into my closet.
I followed @bodyposipanda on Instagram on a whim. When I hit the follow button, I didn’t realize what following her would come to mean to me.
It was only a few days after I followed her that she posted a video of herself dancing in her bedroom in a sports bra and underwear.
She jammed out to a Little Mix song. Her bright pink and purple hair whipped around her. Her stomach jiggled. Her thighs shook. You could see all her lumps and bumps and rolls and--
I couldn’t stop watching.
She was smiling.
Her white teeth were barred. Her eyes sparkled. She laughed.
I was smiling. My cheeks began to hurt.
She didn’t have thin limbs or a flat stomach, but she was dancing and she didn’t care what she looked like. Or what people thought. She did it because it made her happy.
I used to dance because it made me happy. Maybe I could be as confident as her one day to do it again.
My roommate was at dinner, or something, or I don’t really know where. It doesn’t matter. But I was alone.
One of my best friends introduced me to this song called Denim Jacket by an artist named Sammy Rae. She played it for me in her dorm room one day and it immediately became my new anthem.
I came back to my dorm from her room after I had finished my homework. I changed out of my clothes and slipped into my pajamas--a t-shirt I’ve had for too many years and was way too big on me and a pair of old black sweatpants.
I queued up Denim Jacket on my Spotify. And when it came on, I danced. I danced like no one was watching, and no one was. But I danced.
I was flailing my arms around and mouthing the lyrics and jumping around my room like a madman. But I had to dance. I couldn’t not dance to this song.
After it finished the first time, I put the song on repeat.
And I danced, and danced, and danced. Alone in my dorm room until I couldn’t breathe.
I was back in my childhood home in my pink, orange, and yellow costume with the purple tutu. My hair wasn’t in a tight bun. It was down and whipping around my face as I danced. I felt so free.
My friend and I are seeing Sammy Rae this weekend. And I’m going to dance to Denim Jacket. And I don’t care who watches.