Tiny Dancer

There was a fantasy that would enact itself, constantly and clandestinely, in the back of my head at the age of 11 or so. Instead of setting foot in the girls’ locker room, to the accompaniment of brash pubescent voices and taunts—or the vast green field, which lay between crowds of stone-eyed middle schoolers and homeroom, that I would bound across as quickly as possible, eyes downcast and books clutched to my chest to avoid sudden assaults—what might happen if my mother left my father? What might happen if the line was drawn in the sand and we got to live as we wished, eating whatever crap we wanted, watching the shows that gave us pleasure, staying up late and waking up to the scent of pancakes and bacon and the loud thud of music pumped into the walls like a transfusion of endless summer?

What might happen if we moved somewhere else, maybe into an apartment of our own or with my grandparents (temporarily, of course)? What would be possible if I could start over in a place where nobody knew my checkered past? Without Dad, what could happen?

I had memorized the entire hypothetical scenario. At my old school, upon breaking the news that this day would be my last: my best friends would cast misty-eyed glances upon me, the teachers would be somber, and even the bullies would scuffle their feet in reproachful silence. They would have lost something appreciated only too late. No matter. They’d be sorry, but I wouldn’t give their sympathies a second thought; I’d be bounding giddily into my new life.

For some reason, the details of my imagined home eluded me. I never quite worked them out in my head, even as I sat in the hot stuffy room upstairs and watched reruns of Punky Brewster while, downstairs, plates clattered and a volley of caustic insults was thrown back and forth between my parents. Maybe I received the occasional uninspired flash of a bedroom with painted walls and four-poster beds (or a wheelbarrow, like Punky’s), with a door I could actually close. A door I could lock. In a house rather than an apartment building with thin stucco walls, so that we were in such uncomfortably close proximity with neighbors whom we’d pass each day, ignoring as if we didn’t know they slept and dreamt and fucked just inches from our heads.

Home felt circumstantial. Home could be anywhere and I would be content, as long as there were long stretches of quiet punctuated by floral bursts of laughter. As long as people felt safe, and happy, and their bodies could fully relax into their beds at night, I would be OK.

No, the details of home hardly seemed significant compared to the details of my new persona—always attached to a specific uniform: a flowing long duster sweater, tight black jeans with frayed ankles, a cropped white blouse with bell sleeves over a pushup bra, and large gold hoop earrings. I imagined myself, shorn of glasses and reservations, wearing clothes you’d only see on the cast of Beverly Hills 90210. I didn’t consider that my parents shopped at Kmart and Goodwill because we couldn’t afford the latest fashions or designer labels. For me, money was immaterial. I connected the privilege of “standing out” with one’s attire to the privilege of individuality, which I would never be accorded as one of a small handful of brown immigrant children in my neighborhood. Nameless, faceless, invisible, melting into the inhospitable brick walls of middle school.

If I had the right clothes, I thought—no, I knew—I would finally be accepted. Not just that, but the superficial layer of my shy, awkward, bumbling schoolgirl self would simply peel away, like a snakeskin, to reveal glistening flesh and confidence. Raised as I was on a steady diet of MTV and Bollywood, I fantasized about leading a choreographed sequence of hip-hop dance moves among a sea of pretty girls and boys on the quad—occasionally adjusting out-of-sync arms and legs and receiving a warm apologetic smile in return. I would be the one correcting and molding and influencing, not the one constantly made to feel at fault for my rhythmless body and mouth bereft of witty comebacks.

I would do the thing I’d always wanted to do: dance. Even though I was born with two left feet and a tendency toward conjectural movements, not the bold and definite sort that are required of people who wish to use their bodies as vehicles for love, beauty, big ideas.

I was born, also, with a penchant for the language of the mind. I trafficked in Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, armfuls of books from the school library, earnest poetry on construction paper festooning the walls on Parent/Teacher night—and as much as I loved and took refuge in words, they didn’t feel sufficient. Others didn’t seem to want them, so I only admitted to my devotion to reading and writing under rare circumstances—often, accompanied by silent apologies. What I really wanted was the language of the body: gleaming muscles and manic, twitching arms and legs.

The distant edges of my being wanted something more than what I’d received. I’d only ever known this awkward body, this infuriating family, this spirit that was so proficient at turning itself inside out that it could disappear altogether. I wanted to move. I wanted to dance. I wanted to choose where I lived, how I expressed myself, how I presented myself, how I might be received. I wanted agency over the days of my life.

My wish never came true. My mother never left my father. School became more bearable, and as my mother began working more frequently outside of the home, I eventually graduated from shopping at Kmart and Goodwill to Express and sometimes the highly coveted Contempo Casuals. The kids became less obtrusive as I got older, or they just got more consumed by adolescent insecurities, which erode the attention and demand self-centeredness.

It would be many years before I could relinquish the fantasies of who I might be if my circumstances were different, and simply accept my lopsided fortune—to be this broken, excruciatingly sensitive thing, flesh exposed to the elements, spirit open to the soothing whispers of watchful deities.

Any movement is adaptable, but the same is true for people. We all have access to dance.

I’m Nirmala Nataraj, a New York–based writer, editor, book midwife, theater artist, and mythmaker.

As someone who has woven in and out of a number of different word realms—nonprofit communications, advertising, theatre, publishing, and community arts, to name a few—I know that liberation is possible through the stories we choose to tell. As a first-generation South Asian American, I myself exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, art forms, and languages—and it is this multiplicity of narratives that informs my personal and professional approach.

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