When I was out drinking and dancing during my university days, I would always feel put out when men would try to dance with me. I knew it was just a means to an end for them. But for me dancing was the whole reason I was out. It felt wonderful to bust a move on my own. It was less fun trying to bust a move with a drunk idiot trying to feel me up while asking if I was actually eighteen. Perhaps it was because my body got so much medical attention that dancing alone and being free to move around at my own will was so important to me.
A few weeks ago at a concert a friend took a recording of me dancing to one of my favourite songs. The footage shows my little body doing my signature move: jumping up and down to the music and swaying haphazardly. I dance like the cartoon character Tina Belcher from Bob’s Burgers. The few seconds of footage was enough to remind me how happy dancing to music I love, makes me.
I have always loved to dance. When I was 10, my sisters and cousins would pretend to be famous dancers being interviewed. My cousin had a tape player with a microphone. I would make up elaborate backstories to accompany my imaginary ballet success.
When I was in grade 5, my teacher Mrs Richards was worried about me. I know that now. I was sad and withdrawn. I had no friends. I would sit at my table in the classroom and stare blankly at the blackboard, folding my arms on the table and resting my head on top. Sometimes I would fall asleep. I would be woken by the loud thwack of the wooden metre ruler being slapped on the table in front of my head. The teacher would put the ruler down and say to me sarcastically, ‘sorry to wake you.’
Mrs Richards called me to her desk at the end of one of these falling-asleep-in-class days. She handed me a letter with my parents’ names hand-written on the envelope in cursive. ‘Please hand that straight to your parents’ she said. My heart started thrumming with fear. I took the letter home but did not give it to my parents. I took it home and hid it in the space between my bed and the bedroom wall. I just wanted to disappear and this letter would not help.
The letter was half a page long. It informed my parents that I was showing signs of concerning behaviour. It told them about my sleeping in class and lack of social interaction.
We lived on a dairy farm an hour’s drive away from the nearest town and my parents’ time was taken up with the hard work they did in addition to raising five children. When my teacher rang my mother to follow up about the letter she must have advised my mother that I needed to have something to look forward to, something to distract me and keep me occupied outside of my immediate environment. I should have been given a musical instrument. I could have been really good at guitar or the clarinet by age 16. You don’t need a perfectly straight spine to play a musical instrument.
Instead my parents enrolled me, my younger sister Romy and our little brother in jazz ballet. It was held in the multi-purpose room every Wednesday after school. The teacher was beautiful: tall and lithe with dark curly hair always pulled back in an amazing messy bun. We called her Lorna.
Lorna was in her early twenties. While we were waiting for our costumes to arrive we wore our bathing suits. My brother wore his football shorts and a t-shirt.
The day the practice uniforms arrived was very exciting. I loved the black leotard and the jazz ballet shoes: soft tan-coloured lace ups. I would sit on the worn carpet of my underfunded rural school and try and internalise every single thing the teacher would teach us. There were only eight of us in the class. In northern Victoria netball and football were far more popular.
I was taught how to extend my arm outward and hold it in the position for a determined pause of movement. This is called an extension. We were taught how to fan kick, which is when you keep your body in place while one leg starts inward and kicks all the way around to its original position. I don’t think I was very good but it didn’t matter. It was just fun. We learned how to jazz walk by keeping our posture low and dragging our feet slightly across the floor, in a modified version of a real-life walk.
There was a recital planned for October and every lesson was preparing us for this one evening. It was a thing that I had to miss. I had appointments at The Royal Children’s Hospital, which was a four hour drive away. Missing the recital was just one of the things I missed out on as a kid. Although I was sad, I accepted it because there was no other choice. Missing the recital was not the worst thing that happened in my young life. So my brother and sister went to the recital without me. We never saw Lorna the jazz ballet teacher again after that night. My sister told me that at the recital, Lorna had said that they were all a waste of time.
I was small and passionate and I thought that was all you had to be in order to be a great dancer. I was wrong. You had to be a certain type of small: perfectly proportioned with a beautiful spine and exquisite silhouette. I was a skinny little girl with a deformed back and tiny rounded shoulders. My silhouette was unique. But I didn’t figure this out until Romy and I were enrolled in proper ballet classes at the town hall in Pyramid Hill. Though my sister is six years younger than me, we were still put in the same class and were prepared to undertake the same dance exam at the end of the term.
The ballet classes were more serious and required more concentration and practice. I loved practicing the main positions in ballet and even tried the very difficult fifth position, which requires years of practice in order to fully execute perfectly. In order to accomplish fifth position you need to have your feet positioned as front-toe-to-back-heel, and back-toe-to-front-heel. I learnt how to gracefully go from sitting on the floor with my legs crossed, to standing up, without placing my hands on the ground as leverage or balance.
The morning of the exam I was not feeling well. I was a bit shaky and light headed. But I was adamant to complete the ballet exam. My mother already had to rearrange so much so that my sister and I could go into town and do the exam on a Saturday morning. While we ate breakfast my siblings and I watched our copy of Strictly Ballroom that we had taped off the television.
The exam was exactly like any great dance film in which the hero has to audition in front of four stern-looking dance academy judges. You stand in the centre of a giant dance hall and when you nodded that you were ready music starts to play. I had my hair up in a tight bun, my black leotard on and bare feet. I had memorised every movement and knew all my cues. I really wanted to do well. It didn’t occurred to me that my little sister might do better. As I was older and had better discipline, it seemed to stand to reason.
A few weeks later we received our certificates in the mail. They were classic computer print-outs with a fancy border. I held mine in my hands and read it over and over. I took it in to the toilet so I could react alone without my sisters and my mother watching. Romy had received a pass with honours. I had received a pass. No honours for me. I also received a short sentence of criticism that referenced my ‘lack of good posture and rounded shoulders’. I have acute scoliosis so this was no surprise. But it was the first time I’d seen my deformity written out as something that I could simply work on.
In ballet class up until that time, I never felt deformed. I was just thrilled to be moving my body to music. Dancing took me out of my head for the duration of the class. It made me happy.
After getting the certificate I stood in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, taking off all of my clothes except my knickers. I stared at my reflection. For the first time I saw my body the way those dance assessors saw it: as an anomaly, unbecoming of a true accomplished ballet dancer. I stood to the side and took in the slope of my right shoulder blade. It was a rather pronounced little hump, like how I imagined Gollum looked when Dad read to us from The Hobbit. Gollum was skinny and weird and he lived where nobody could see him. He hid away in the dark heart of a mountain and ate raw fish. Bodies like mine belong underground and out of the sight of onlookers and judges, I thought. I would stare hatefully at my reflection a few more times throughout my early teen years, leading up to my spinal surgery, and afterwards.
There is more than blood and bone to me. There is more than what you can see. I grow up and my body gets cut open and stitched together. My spine gets iron rods clamped on either side of it and tiny screws are turned, straightening the S shape that is my spine. The surgeons stop my spine from continuing to bend to the point where it would puncture my lungs and render me in a wheelchair. But they do not make my spine perfectly straight. When I am 12 years old I ask what it would take to make that happen. My doctor tells me they could do it, but that it would kill me.
I am 24 and living with my first boyfriend. I have finally lost my virginity to someone who thinks I am beautiful and sexy. I am starting to feel the effects of my anti-depressants after being numb for months. Coming out of the fog, I remember things that I once loved. When I read in a street press about beginner erotic dance classes in Collingwood, I am excited. The dance classes are held every Tuesday evening for eight weeks. Every week you learn a move and then at the end you have an entire routine; a fun and sexy routine. I love this idea. I know my super-human metal spine is not very bendy, but I am determined to do my best and enjoy it, too.
I buy myself a dance lesson outfit: pink singlet and grey tracksuit pants with the waistband rolled up twice as they’re a bit long in the leg. I feel like the adorably dorky best friend in a dance movie, the one everyone underestimates and then comes to show her true, bright, talented colours. I felt that the dance classes were the perfect way to celebrate my newfound mental health and sexual identity. I was in my first sexual relationship and I wanted to know that my sexuality was not completely tied up in my relationship with a man. It was important to know that I could feel sexy for myself, that I wasn’t reliant on the perceptions of others.
The classes are held in a dance studio room that has no window in a building across from the Nando’s on Smith Street. The air is hot and my seven fellow students and I stand in front of a wall of mirrors waiting for the class to begin. The teacher is friendly and enthusiastic. I love her from the beginning. She puts our concerns at ease and emphasises that this is for fun. We all take turns introducing ourselves. There is a 54-year-old woman who claims to be an actress, a young woman about my age who is studying holistic medicine, and a woman who has recently had a baby and is looking for something to get her out of the house.
The first song we learn a move to is I Don’t Wanna Love You by Betty Davis. The teacher shows us how to make a figure eight with a swivel of our hips. Even though I am unable to make my hips move separately from my spine, I still have fun and manage to do the move as best I can. There’s a lot of giggling and good cheer. I start to think that after the eight weeks is over I’d like to enrol in the next level of classes that ends with a performance. That could be fun. I swish and sway my narrow bony hips with enthusiastic concentration.
The two-hour lesson is over in what seems like moments. I am sweaty and incredibly happy. I thank the teacher and she grins at me. ‘Don’t worry about your body and what it can’t do’, she tells me. ‘Just focus on what it can and work from there.’ I nod and go to grab my bag. The woman in her 50s who is an actress comes up to me as I’m leaving. I had noticed her brazen stares in my direction throughout the lesson. She is a small woman with tanned skin and short hair. I feel like she must have a house by the beach to be so sun-kissed. ‘Can I ask you a question?’ She asks me with no other introduction, without a hello or sorry to bother you. I should tell her I am in a hurry and don’t have the time, but I’m curious enough to allow her to ask me what it is she wants to know.
She is rather close to my face when she speaks. I have to lean back a little.
‘Do you have a structural problem?’
I stare at her and feel the familiar flight or fight paradox: heart beat quickening, my head feels hot. I feel the overwhelming urge to walk away without saying anything (I shouldn’t have to tell her anything. We are not friends). I should have answered with something pithy and seeped in Marxist feminism: under the capitalist patriarchy all women suffer from problems to do with the social and economical structures that enslave us all.
‘What do you mean?’ I say.
‘I have scoliosis.’ I say. I bite back a spiteful retort that references her leathery skin due to too much sun exposure. It astounds me how entitled she felt to my back story, that it didn’t occur to her that after a dance lesson I may have wanted to talk about anything other than why my body looks the way it does. I didn’t want to see myself through the eyes of a person like that.
So I come back again the next week, not letting her stop me from continuing the dance lessons. I learn how to do a body roll. It is pretty difficult to do a body roll when your spine is fused in place with stainless steel metal rods on either side. It hinders the fluid motion I am so obsessed with watching in music videos. But still, I practice and I learn.
It is in the movement of my limbs that I find my brain’s creative functions strengthen. When dancing alone in my bedroom to some of my favourite music, I get ideas for writing and poems. I can structure paragraphs and string poetic stanzas as I jump and bounce around. Music is a huge influence in my writing practice and process.
It is a Friday night and I am home alone. On the bed is my housemate’s cat, Merlin. He sits with one paw hanging over the end of the bed. I am playing loud music and dancing exuberantly while the cat watches with poised disapproval. I am dancing to experimental pop group Xui Xui. Their music makes you feel an incredible melancholy while at the same time making you want to dance.
It is music that seems made with me in mind.
Jessica Knight is a freelance writer and zine maker based in Melbourne. This year she has been chosen to participate in the Besen Family Artist Program through the Malthouse Theatre. It aims to assist writers to develop their writing into main stage productions. Follow Jess on twitter @TheMess19. She blogs at Gremlinface82.wordpress.com