How to Keep Dancing When the World Says You Shouldn’t

I dream of dancing. It breaks my heart that I’ve never been very good at it.

Daisy Buchanan
Jan 28 · 10 min read
Photo: Sebastian Dooris/Flickr

“What were you doing? What were you thinking?” she asked.

“Dan… cing?” I pushed wet hair out of my stinging eyes and shook out the cotton skirt of my dress. Even in the dark, I could see that its hem had become stained and sticky, a location-specific blend of ash and off-brand Ribena. I was in the indie room but I had not been executing the approved indie shuffle. Instead, I chose to leap into the air and then hurl myself to the ground every time I heard Damon Albarn’s Tarzan yelp of a “WOOhooooo!”

Though I was soaked in sweat and seven gins in, I immediately felt very cold and very sober. My blood seemed to be separating and my tongue felt too big for my mouth. The sensation was the distinct opposite to what I had been feeling, or rather not feeling, seconds ago, when my body seemed wholly undefined, smooth as soup, its outlines a suggestion, an impressionist painting. I had known seconds of lustrous, profound joy, while listening to pop songs in the basement of a cheap nightclub in York. But Hannah’s frown indicated that it was the wrong kind of joy, or at least that I was expressing it incorrectly. She continued: “Just so you know… those boys are looking at you.”

I followed the line she traced with her index finger. (Incidentally, it was the finger she used for approved pointing as the beat slowed during the first few bars of Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out.”) Two beefy boys — assumed rugby players — with flipped-up collars were staring at me. And not in the way a 20-year-old woman wants to be started at. If either of them expressed a desire to have sex with me, it would be part of an attempt to win a hilarious bet.

I dream of dancing. And it breaks my heart that I have never been very good at it. When I dance, really dance, it’s not a mandatory slouch, step, wiggle, or response to a beat. I can part a room. Half, or slightly less than half, of the people in attendance will see my leaps and rolls and respond as though I am an avant-garde performer, a young Michael Jackson, Baryshnikov interpreting Beyoncé. The rest, the most, will want to know why I can’t hold my liquor (did she get spiked?) or whether there is something very wrong with me. Why has no one ever told me I mustn’t draw attention to myself, I mustn’t embarrass myself? Why has no one taken me aside and made it clear to me that I don’t have the moves or the body and I need to stop?

They have. It didn’t work. At first, there were the Nativities, where I would be cast out of a host of dancing angels like Lucifer. But unlike Lucifer, I was forced to remain on Earth as a shepherd in a borrowed dressing gown — and told: “Perhaps it’s better if you do something where you don’t move around.” I had begged for a ballet lesson. Then I was instantly pronounced “too tall” by a madame who glanced lingeringly and meaningfully at my six-year-old bottom.

I’m still engulfed by flames of shame when I think about an incident that happened at drama club when I was 14. I was the only girl who wasn’t allowed to take part in the Austin Powers dance. In fact, I didn’t know there was an Austin Powers dance until every single one of my friends shimmied onto the stage in feather boas, and hot tears collected in the bridge of my John Lennon glasses.

The trouble was that, spiritually, I was a Theater Kid — even though you needed to be a triple threat to be a real Theater Kid, and I could barely muster half a threat. MGM, Noel Streatfeild, and Andrew Lloyd Webber had stunted my growth, or rather, caused significant mental mutations. When I was a child, I didn’t know the trick to happiness is to try to build a life you don’t want to escape from. Besieged by bullies, I believed song and dance were the ultimate escape, and that if I were to burst into “Memory” in the middle of the playground, someone, somewhere, would say, “That kid’s got talent!” and a chopper would be sent. (I do not need to tell you that this act simply exacerbated the bully problem.) I was obsessed with any film where Hollywood advertised itself, any self-indulgent celebration of mythmaking. Like Kathy Selden, my time would come — I was simply waiting to be discovered, to be seen. Still, despite my best efforts, I remained conspicuously invisible as I entered my third decade.

I stopped spending time with Hannah, stopped having MSN conversations in Smiths lyrics, stopped eating potato waffles and fried eggs sitting on her bed, bathed in the pink glow of chili-shaped fairy lights. I started going dancing with new friends, two boys whose names began with A. The shorter A was compact, sardonic, obsessive, waspishly funny, constantly in unrequited love with a stream of beautiful bug-eyed virgins with milk-pale skin. (He studied archaeology and they were everywhere.) The other A was a giant, 6 foot 7 inches, and moved through the world with an utterly careless, unconscious grace. A successful fencer, his body was in direct and meaningful communication with his brain. Yet he danced like me, with me, and I mistook it for love.

He threw me across dance floors, in Spirograph formations, fast, fast, fast, so fast I couldn’t understand the shapes we were making, only that they were big. He pushed and dragged and held my hand so tightly that for three- to four-minute bursts, I wondered whether he’d killed me and was taking me home to his family to eat. To him, it was never sexual. I know the way boys dance with you when they want to have sex with you. They don’t let you move. The dancing is something that is done to you. Still, it was more than sex to me sometimes. He gave me the space to forget myself and become nothing more than acid sweat and flying limbs. I never saw him dance with his girlfriend that way. He held her close, as though she was infinitely precious, terrifyingly breakable — the way that men who have loved me have danced with me.

The love of my life adores dance. He is — and I hope he will understand this and not be offended by it — not a dancer, any more than I am, but I think he might have a better, fundamentally more artistic understanding of what dance is for. Bob Fosse and Gene Kelly are his problematic faves. He has great respect for vision and effect. I think his need for dance is less primal and grunting than mine.

He was a front man, a singer in several punk bands, and, I assume, capable of every movement that such a description conjures. But the dancing we usually do together is tender, courtly. Sometimes I wonder whether we’re becoming a little shy of each other. We’re out of practice. In my twenties, I was spinning around in rooms full of strangers every Friday and Saturday night. Now, when and where would we go? The music is terrible, other people are terrible, and when you love someone who stills the constant chatter and panic within you, the urge to spin deserts you. And yet.

When we do go out my love is dapper, dressed for cocktails. We gossip, we make each other laugh, but we don’t sweat. The night I saw him do his best dancing was at a fancy dress party. It was terrifying and thrilling to see him become a wild man in a rabbit suit. He was neither reticent nor needy. He seemed to move without inhibition, as though the disguise had given him license to become his truest self.

Before I met him, I danced as though I had been set on fire and I would choose a slow, painful death over a bucket of water. This was what my life had become. I was Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes and I could only survive if I refused to ever stop moving. If I let myself be still for a second I would have to bear the weight of a particular flat, a particular job, an ex-boyfriend, and a boyfriend who never quite was. No part of my life could withstand close scrutiny. Every single element would turn to dust if I held it to the light to look. So I tried to dance into disaster. I danced like I was looking for trouble. In all honesty, you would be surprised at how little trouble a girl with a travel card can get into. The milksop Murakami fan. The letch who ate all my dim sum. The mathematician who claimed he had never heard a Blondie song.

This period coincided with Robyn’s release of “Dancing On My Own.” I was sad and mad, and I was thinking of two very specific people when I sang, “I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her, oh oh ohhhhhhhh.” At the time I conveniently forgot that the “her” being kissed danced the macarena as though she worked at airport security and had been tasked with patting down a leper. The heartbreaker himself had once dragged me outside the Soho arts bar by the elbow and yelled at me for taking drugs because my dancing had been so exuberant that it could only be a side effect of a banned substance. (For the record, this effect was achieved by 300 milliliters of white wine.)

The Robyn song stirred me because of the lush, voluble, self-indulgent tragedy at its center. It is about needing to be seen, an insatiable craving for attention, and yet wanting to be forever immersed in the five-act masked opera that is happening in one’s own head. As I danced to rhythms I invented, beats that could only exist in a world where I was wronged, but everyone else was wrong, I started to heal myself by willfully warping reality. Plenty of people saw me, but no one saw what I needed them to see, or rather, no one was capable of validating me with their vision. I was dancing for CinemaScope while they were looking for a woman who could fit on a phone screen.

For me, the hardest thing about growing up has been making peace with the fact that there are many things I will never be able to communicate with my body. I am a writer, and that is how I tell my stories. I cannot be a dancer too. Some years ago, I helped a dance company write a modern performance piece, and watching trained ballerinas translate my thoughts into movements was deeply humbling. They took what came from my thick, clumsy tongue and gave it grace. In the past, I have tried the classes and wept with frustration over the classes. It’s no good if I have to constantly remember the difference between left and right. I dance to forget.

In the Whit Stillman film Damsels in Distress, the Greta Gerwig character is obsessed with coming up with a new American dance craze. (She succeeds; by the time the credits roll we can see she has created the Sambola.) Incidentally, in Frances Ha, Gerwig plays a character who is devoting her life to dance, with limited success. (In one of the most famous sequences in the film, she tumbles clumsily while running back from an ATM.) Gerwig has experienced her greatest professional success as a writer and director, someone who is in control of the movements of others. While I have no way of knowing anything of her personal relationship with dance or her body, it is tempting to compare her with Bob Fosse, the mediocre dancer, the wannabe Astaire, the superstar auteur. Like millions of young women, I have imagined a kinship with Gerwig, based on nothing but the roles she has played. She seems like someone who knows what it is to be clumsy, to feel afraid, to have every reason to suspect that you’re not going to get what you really want.

As I said, my love holds me close when we dance. He does not fling me from wrist to wrist as though he is Tom Cruise and I am a cocktail shaker. But he still sometimes looks at me as though I am Cyd Charisse and that is enough. He is profoundly kind, but more than that, he has never wanted me to be compact and measured. He lets my heart swell and my limbs flail and he shows me that there is room for me, and every thought and vision. Since we met, I have realized some of my biggest, fullest dreams. This is why I don’t need to go to nightclubs and anesthetize myself with gin and Robyn anymore.

And yet.

Although I still read Ballet Shoes annually, I no longer fantasize about being a prima ballerina. I don’t even dream of ballet lessons anymore. All I want is room to dance. I want to leap and spin and trust that the rest of my life is still enough and certain enough to take it. I want my body to harmonize with my brain, just for a few minutes at a time. I want to be vulnerable and romantic, as blown-out, ragged, and yet undeniable as a peony, leaping and pirouetting, making something truly beautiful while no one watches. If my twenties were defined by dancing on my own, perhaps I can find joy in my thirties by learning how to dance with myself.