I took dance for eight years growing up, though you wouldn’t know that by watching me now. I’ve lost whatever rhythm I learned — or, more likely, I never picked any up to begin with.
My poor teacher. I took lessons over in South Portland with Betsy Dunphy: first, as an ankle-biter, learning “creative movement” in a large, sunny church rec room, bare feet on sun-warmed wooden floorboards; then in the pastel Sunday School room, when I started tap; and, finally, modern and tap lessons in the Knights of Columbus building on Broadway, when Betsy moved the studio there.
Nearly all the time I’ve spent in any place of worship was spent dancing. I remember practicing an entrance, we students counting in our heads, trying to come in on the right beat — a seemingly impossible task for little kids, especially for curious, ADHD me, who was busy staring up at the choir robes.
I distinctly remember feeling other for the first time in that church’s coat room while pondering the symbols of Catholic belief. I believed in God then, as much as I believed in fairies or the Easter Bunny. I believed in God when it was convenient, when I wanted something so bad and couldn’t figure out how to get it, or when I was scared and didn’t know what to do.
At those moments, I’d pray, because that’s what I had seen little children do in movies when they wanted something very badly. Usually they’d pray at bedtime, in their little nightgowns, hunched over tiny cots with creaky metal bedframes. But I never had the patience to wait for what I wanted, so I didn’t wait for nightfall to ask the Almighty to deliver. Besides, I suspected that if I knelt over my bed like one of the twerps in Family Circus and one of my parents saw me, they’d laugh. And I hated being laughed at.
Although I thought God existed — being young enough to hope that was the case, just because, man, wouldn’t that be cool? — I never really believed. I knew we, as a family, didn’t believe in God. We didn’t go to church or temple, and I knew we never would. The only times I’d been in a religious building while actual religion was taking place had been for my great-grandmother’s funeral and some cousin’s wedding. So staring up at those choir robes was a very disorentiening experience for me. It prompted me to wonder about the people who’d wear them — people who did believe in God, who believed in God so much that they’d wear these silly robes and sing! In front of people!
I always loved to perform. Being in front of an audience didn’t scare me (though singing in front of one would have). At the end of every season we’d have a dance recital, and each class would perform a piece. Standing as still and quiet as possible in the wings, watching the older girls dance, wearing our leotards with our hairsprayed hair — or, as we got older, dresses and blush that we’d applied ourselves, without any help from our mothers — there would be nerves buzzing all around. I never felt all that nervous, though. Betsy would always tell us: “No matter what, even if you mess up, just keep going and smiling. If you pretend like you didn’t mess up, no one will notice it.”
Dance class was one of the first times I was pushed to better myself against my will. Betsy liked to tell the story of my first day, how I’d hated her because she made us stretch beforehand and I loathed having to touch my toes. “You’re breaking my legs!” I told her.
As I got a bit older, I liked the lessons more. I made little friends and enjoyed the music and the silk scarves and the silly props. But I never liked to practice. I never liked having stuff I was supposed to do, and I still don’t do that stuff. In time, dance became just another thing I wasn’t all that good at, but in some ways it was worse than the others because it involved my body and, worst of all, it involved my body around other girls my age. I quit in 7th grade. It was the right choice at the time, though sometimes I regret it, because, like I said, I’m a terrible fucking dancer now.
But the smiling advice stuck with me. It’s incredible how much you can get away with if you act like you know what you’re doing. Or, more precisely, it’s incredible that most people won’t notice you’ve screwed up unless you point it out. Confidence surely is the key.