I locked the studio door behind me, and leaned against the glass frame.
The mingled, musty smell of old building, rosin, and sweat is synonymous with “dance studio” for dancers across disciplines. Someone once told me that you remember things based on the sense of smell more than any other sense. I don’t know who it was, but I remember they were baking chocolate chip cookies when they told me. Maybe it’s only half true. The tenants who rented the thrift store in the space next door were burning incense again. I breathed in. I was greedy for one more memory.
I walked onto the studio floor. It’s funny how big it looked when I was standing alone and not corralling fifteen second-graders. The mirrors were streaked with handprints, and smudged marker stains in the left corner where I had scribbled the definitions of “eleve” and “releve” in a fit of ballet teacher frustration. I hadn’t realized the marker wasn’t dry erase until I tried to wipe it off with a leg warmer.
I came to pack up the various belongings that had accumulated over my two and a half years as dance instructor. My nanny position had ended when both children entered school full time, and my second income as a dance instructor didn’t cover things like student loans, tuition, and electric bills.
It was time to move on to a new adventure. And time to end the part of my story that opened with the curtains of the Nutcracker in Waco, TX, 1992.
I dropped the empty dance bag by my feet, and stared at myself in the mirror. My body had changed. I didn’t have the skeletal look I adopted after my first semester as a dance performance major. My face was fuller. I was stronger. I wouldn’t be marked as a shoe-in for a Balanchine ballerina, but I also looked like I ate more than a few protein bars between classes. More of my muscle came from chasing the preschoolers I nannied around parks than came from 12 hours of dance a day.
But I couldn’t bring myself to turn the light on. I didn’t want to see the pain on my face in full flourescently-lit glory. There had been too many goodbyes that week, and I was angry that I had to add one more.
The power light on the stereo blinked at me, mocking me as I blinked away tears I wasn’t ready to cry. The auxiliary cord was tangled, like it usually was. I freed enough of it to plug in my phone, and set it to shuffle.
My shoes landed somewhere across the room when I kicked them off, and I danced. I couldn’t tell you what I danced if you held a gun to my head. But somewhere in the middle, I collapsed, sliding against the barres on the back of the wall.
I came to Oklahoma with dreams of pointe shoes and debuts and galas and choreographic epiphanies. And that night I was going to get in my car and drive away. I knew that when I crossed the state line I was ending my chances of ever experiencing the above again.
I didn’t regret my career choice. I love children. I love working children. But I regretted the very first relationship that led to abandoning my dance dreams in the first place. I felt betrayed and bitter. I was angry at myself. How had I let it get this far? How did I allow myself to change like this?
I was defeated.
I rolled over and into the series of warm-up stretches that to this day come as second nature. I knew there was no turning back. But it didn’t stop me from wishing.
My most recent relational failure, one in a string of them, had ended a few days earlier. “You just don’t love dance the way that I do.” had been the prelude to denouncing me for feminism. I stood up and bent in two, resting the top of my head on the dusty floor. I was losing the no-crying battle fast. I jerked my body to standing and slid into the splits, defiant and daring his memory to taunt me. I danced the floor work I had been so uncomfortable with as a wannabe ballerina experiencing modern dance for the first time three years prior.
And I cried.
I was experiencing real, long-term consequences for the first time.
Not the kind of consequences that soap operas are made of. The consequences of allowing myself to be shaped and shifted by relationships and circumstances that I knew in my soul weren’t right for me. I was so eager to be the perfect girlfriend, the image of acquiescence, the cheerleader and support group, The One, that I ignored the voices whispering “Stop. Stand up for yourself. Stand up for your dreams.” Being independent was scary. Is scary. Being alone throughout my twenties was something foreign in a culture where everyone around me was starting families before they were old enough to buy a celebratory bottle of champagne. I said I was okay with it, but at night I scrolled through pictures of engagements and weddings and babies like a woman possessed. What if I was wrong? I made the choice to listen to the fear.
To save myself from the fear, I’d do anything for this man.
Or this man.
Or this man.
But fear isn’t love, and it isn’t self-respect. Sooner or later, giving in to that fear and giving up bigger and bigger pieces of myself had to catch up with me. After one step too many down a road that led me further and further away from my dreams, I couldn’t hear independence calling for me anymore. When I was left alone on the road, she came to me. But I had abandoned her for too long this time. The damage had been done.
Dance, as I had dreamed of my entire life, had to go.
And this was harder than any break up in my life. It was harder than taking off a sparkly engagement ring and canceling my wedding. It was harder than kneeling before the Eucharist alone and saying yes to a faith I had been raised to believe was a harbinger of the antichrist.
The playlist ended, and the only sound in the studio was the low, electrical hum of the speakers in the corner.
I swore I’d never let a dream die without a fight again.