About d-a-n-c-e, and my stubbornness

I ran. From the waiting room onto the back stage of Mount Baker Theater. My performance will be in three…two…one…

I was on the mat. Staring at the ceiling and listening closely to the music for the signal to sit up and move. I had done this many times now. One… two… three… turn… five… six… seven… split…

That winter, the message of my lyrical expression performance was decolonizing beauty standard. Being on the mat means being tied to social expectations on girls and women – beautiful, smart, perfect, and obedient. I left the stage without the mat on my hands, knowing that not only in dance but in real life, I am more than just what others think I am capable of.

But the story of giving up my mat started long before that night at Mount Baker Theater.

The summer before, I spent much time thinking about the one thing that if I wouldn’t try, I would soon regret, and that was dancing – to move with music and be on a team assisting each other in performance and in life. As spontaneous as I had always been, I signed up for dance lessons at a local dance company.

However, the challenge became real on my very first day. As I followed Google Maps to dance campus, I realized that it was located on a highway, and the only way to get there was by personal vehicle. There was no bus, and walking was too dangerous. Excitement was replaced with disappointment, and for the first time I doubted I was meant to be there. The second day was not better as I took a different route. This route was more accessible, but it was a 5-mile walking distance. The winter was dark and cold. I was a college student with nothing but tiredness from school and the desire to do something I had always dreamt of, and it seemed that nothing was working out well. My heart shrunk. Should I really have given up?

My third attempt turned out well because I finally got to dance class on time. I saw the brightness of that place with little kids in ballet costumes running around, and without even knowing anyone there, I felt belonged. I was ready to do stretches and do whatever it took to dance. But that was just the beginning. Dancing turned out to demand more than what I had – I could be flexible, but I couldn’t spin across the room without falling halfway. I could well memorize things, but I failed to turn or leap when needed to. Other students seem to be in their comfort zone. Me? I was close to my danger zone.

I was persistent, though. As an independent individual who has done most things by myself, I had to learn to be more comfortable in asking for help, and I received overwhelming care. Friends were willing to give me rides to dance, and while I still had nights walking home (in tears, honestly), there were parents at dance who would drop me off either at the bus stop or at my house.

With dancing, I asked my teacher to take videos of us in class, and every weekday between my commitments at school, I would rewind those videos and did those same movements countless of times – until my body was sore but my heart felt satisfied. For the first time, I didn’t aim for perfection – unlike how I always worked hard for 100% on exams or compliments. I learned to be brave.

I was brave to walk for more than an hour at night to and from dance class. I was brave to throw myself in a new community with people who had danced for their lifetime. I was brave to try endless dance movements until I got them right, taking bruises as accomplishments rather than evidence of imperfection. Time flew. Eventually I could get my costume and be on-stage – for rehearsal and for performance nights.

I ran, from the stage to outside of the Theater. My roommate would pick me up soon. I looked up at the tower, the symbol of Bellingham, and for once I wished to do it all over again. To experience the mix of joy, disappointment, and satisfaction. Of loneliness for knowing no one there. A sense of loved and of belonged for receiving helps from whoever knew my story. The mat was dropped. I wasn’t beautiful when walking and crying on the side of the road. I wasn’t smart because it took me countless attempts to do a dance move that took others five minute. I was neither perfect nor obedient. I broke the rules and I played the game my way.

“It is rare to see young people nowadays to work so hard for their dreams, and by seeing what you have gone through to dance, I believe you can do so much more in the future,” as my dance teacher said at the end of our time together.

Published by Thi Le


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