To anyone else, this is what they would call her, but she does not think of herself this way. She is not a dancer. She is just a person with a body, a body that writes words on the air, words and sentences and full manuscripts in a language she cannot decode but that she knows in her guts. And others know it too, because when they read it something rips and flaps open inside them, and they think, Yes. I understand. Anyone could write this language, because we all have bodies. The only difference between herself and others is they prefer her penmanship over their own.
So she does not call herself a dancer. But she lives among them, watches them in their natural habitat of sprung floors slickened by sweat. At certain angles in the light she can see the wet prints of buttocks, backs, and calves. After class the whole place stinks of armpits and feet, the air muggy with panted breaths. She can tell how hard the class worked that day when the next dancers enter and their faces scrunch with repulsion, mouth and nose pulling backwards as if trying to escape the stench.
There are other things on the floor too. The perimeter fills with balled up socks, cast off sweaters, plastic water bottles with initials Sharpied onto their caps. Clumps of hair tumbleweed along. There is a thin arch of purple nail polish from a rond de jambe à terre, performed by a student who didn’t think twice about polishing right before class. At least once per week someone will lay down for abdominal crunches only to come eye-to-eye with a Band-Aid that has slipped off someone’s blister, its cotton center now yellow-brown and damp. Something about used Band-Aids gets her nausea reflex going, and she has to turn away while the others ewww and grossss and whose is it behind her. Nobody ever confesses. She certainly didn’t that one time it was hers.
The dancers stare at themselves in the wall-to-wall mirrors, scrutinizing their postures, their turnouts, their stomachs and arms and butts and necks and whether or not their shorts give them a muffin top. Dancers know their reflections better than anyone, but that doesn’t mean they like what they see, and the constant reminder to tuck and lift and turn and press just means even more things to be wrong with you.
She doesn’t like to look at herself. It’s uncomfortable, like the silence between two people on a first date that they both know is going nowhere. She’s on a date with herself when she looks in that mirror, and she doesn’t know what to say. It’s especially uncomfortable in that lag time when everyone’s standing in the center of the room, waiting for the instructor to find a good song in three-four time. Avoiding her own eye contact she fixes on the reflection of her feet, and since she’s so focused on herself, she irrationally feels that everyone else must be focused on her too. So she fidgets—rolls her ankles, pops on and off her relevé, turns over the knuckles of her toes so they dig into the floor. This brings her even more unwanted attention, but she can’t help it. In fact, the more spot-lit she feels, the more theatrics her nervous system puts her through. An ouroboros of anxious habit.
Dancers have ugly feet. They’re enthralling in their mystique and their power but visually they are disgusting. Corns and bunions. Bruise-purpled toenails. Torn off blisters with the thick slab of skin now lost somewhere in the studio. Soles and heels blackened with dirt that the students finagle into the bathroom sink to wash. There is a bragging contest for most battle-battered feet. The dancers compare sores, try to one-up each other, laugh dismissively about the sprains they’ve performed on. This bothers her. She understands the reality of injury, but there’s no need for all the showmanship about it.
She likes that it’s not all pretty, though—dancing. Do not be mistaken; she could dance pretty if she wanted to, but closed boxes make her claustrophobic. When she moves, she angles and twists herself into shapes that look the way rusted door hinges feel. She shrugs off the French verbiage for descriptors that can only be conveyed in grunts and whoops and sighs. She imagines herself as a panther: elegant and dark with a quietly contained wildness, slipping through shadows until ferociously she pounces, claws shining, jaws wide.
But even more than this, she believes in movement as communication. One stage she does not fear looking less like a dancer and more like a person. Before we had language, we had only bodies. Our gestures and symbols—the defeat of lowered head, the joy of outstretched arms—we feel their meaning before we think them. We read the words without sounding them out. Such cues we recognize intuitively—in the person who makes us feel threatened and we don’t know why, in the friend who seems sad despite his cheery banter. Dance summons that. We feel the meaning without knowing what the meaning is, and that is all we need. All she needs.
And so she dances. But she is not a dancer. She is just a person with a body, writing words on the air, and we just happen to like her penmanship.