Sunday, September 18, 2011

23: Dance

I was born to move.

Or so I thought when I was young enough not to be inhibited, when I'd use any excuse to twirl and hop around my nanny's large living room or the upstairs hall at home. Music was optional. I just wanted to move, and I didn't care how I looked.

And then I started going to ballet class, and attended a primary school that was known at that time for sweeping most of the prizes up to national level in performing arts contests, and that was the end of dancing for joy. I still enjoyed dance (except in ballet class, but then again, not a lot of dancing happened at ballet class) but it began to take on a different purpose: looking good, getting the best part in the number with the best costumes, beating Those Other Schools. Even with these at first unfamiliar pressures, I still enjoyed being in rehearsal way more than sitting in class so it was nice to get a valid pass out of institutionalised boredom for a good hour or two each day during the run-up to competitions.

It's interesting that in school, the teachers would nod approvingly at me and say to each other, "Of course she's better than the others, she's a ballerina." Like any good Chinese girl, I'd be embarrassed and run to the back of the line because unlike the teachers, I knew the truth -- at least the truth according to my ballet teacher. One evening a week, I would turn up at the ballet studio and be snarled at for a solid hour for any/all of the following: having fat buttocks and thighs, not turning out enough, having my hair pop out of the classic bun we had to wear, sloppy movement, floppy arms and neck. If only my school teachers could see me now, I'd sometimes think.

Years later, in an undergraduate creative writing unit, over several tutorials we worked to create and develop characters. One such tutorial was devoted to villains and our lecturer told us to go over the top at first; we could dial back the evil later when the story was drafted and we could see how the characters interacted with each other. I didn't have to imagine at all; simply described That Woman's voice, her looming appearance from the perspective of a six-year-old, her repertoire of insults. (Note to all parents, teachers and others whose life brings them in contact with Small People: do not ever compare them or selected parts of their bodies and facial features to round pastries eaten to commemorate the eighth lunar month, to animals renowned for their slovenliness, to unattractive cartoon characters, to anything at all. At worst, they will grow up with damaged body image that takes years to correct. At best, they will become writers and... good luck.) The passage of nearly a decade since I'd last seen her hadn't dimmed the unpleasant memory of her presence in my life. The lecturer commented on how well I'd been able to convincingly evoke fearsomeness in a completely natural, believable human being. Imagine that, I thought.

I sucked it up for seven years in that ballet class under that teacher, until the combined pressures of puberty, fatigue from being expected to bring my best to school, tuition and every single extracurricular, and That Woman's abuse got the better of me. I'd been skipping at least one ballet class every month since the beginning of the year and my mother told me off sharply for wasting my parents' money. I knew she was right, although her aim might have been to guilt me into perfect attendance rather than getting me to quit. But quit I did, after another few months of fighting with my parents. ("We don't want you to think it's OK to quit anything you like whenever you want." "I'm not 'quitting anything', I just want to leave my ballet class." "What if next you say you don't want to have piano lessons anymore? Or tennis?" "I won't." [I was equally sure of both for opposite reasons: I loved piano enough to want to stay with the practice and exam route. Tennis was my parents' idea and I'd tried several times to edge out of the twice-weekly three-hour lessons to no avail, so I knew it wasn't even worth trying anymore.]) At first I tried to negotiate with them: maybe we could find a different teacher in a different school? A different class time, too, so that they wouldn't have to jump through flaming logistical hoops trying to get me out of school in time to zip across PJ to arrive in class on time, with my mother working against the clock and the moving car to coax my stubborn hair into a teacher-sanctioned bun. None of those approaches worked. So I left the class, and I still remember the first of those evenings when I didn't have anywhere to be: the relief of being able to eat a whole dinner at leisure, and the rapturous thought of never having to stand there in silence and have That Woman yell at me again.

But I don't want this entry to be all about how I lost my joy in dance because the good news is: I got it back. Throughout high school, I seized any chance I could get to join occasional dance/musical performances. I even made a friend in Form 2 who'd been under the same ballet teacher and whose experience corroborated mine, down to the same stock criticisms -- despite my friend being a good bit taller, slimmer and better turned out than me. I started to realise then that maybe the bulk of the problem with That Woman was in her head, not in any part of me. In my early 20s, enrolled in a tertiary dance programme in Australia, I had ballet and contemporary teachers who were able to show me that the faults I'd beaten myself up for all those years were simply the way my body was made. I might very well have been born to dance... just not to be a professional ballerina.

For years, I remained in that mindset of needing dance to be for something. If I danced Latin, it was to be for the sake of joining competitions, otherwise why bother? Tap was fun, but I couldn't hear myself and the perfectionist in me couldn't cope with knowing if I was making mistakes or not. The only performance and choreography I did for years was for church productions which, at least with the KL church in question, were even heavier on appearance and perfection than That Woman.

I arrived back in Sydney in January 2008, already burnt out but not knowing it, and one of the first things I observed about my new university was: dance studios. Well, of course I'd known they were there, seeing that I thought I was a dance therapy student after all. But I didn't know they were available to dance and DMT students for free, so long as we booked ahead and didn't clash with paying renters or other therapists seeing clients.

I started to use the studio for an hour each week. I'd bring my own CDs and pop the padlock attached to the sagging latch on the aging DMT supplies cupboard so that I could borrow the CD player. Sometimes I'd bring my tap shoes, happy to have a floor I needn't worry about scuffing. Other times I'd let my bare feet trace the old sprung boards, feeling the texture and history beneath them. Sometimes I'd crank up Salvador and put on my Latin stilettos. Sometimes I wouldn't move at all: I'd just play music and lie on the floor, slowly having the rhythm and colour seep back into a soul depleted through all those years of aiming for and beyond expectations. A few things became clear in those solitary studio times:

I will never be a professional dancer.

I am perfectly happy with that admission.

Dance has the capacity to give me so much more than the cash it could have paid me if I had been built to go pro.

I can't put it in a box and expect it to behave the way I want it, when I want it. I can't do that with any form of creativity. If art is true, there comes a point when it leaps out of the artist's hands and surpasses all limits self-imposed and external. But like a shy nocturnal animal, it is highly unlikely to show its true self if all we want to do with it is put it in a cage with no stimulation and thrice-daily meals.

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