As I walked into the ballroom of the DoubleTree Hotel in Somerset, NJ, I thought to myself, Is this all there is? Surely this dimly lit room, with its tacky maroon-and-cream geometric-print carpeting and a paltry expanse of parquet flooring for a stage could not have been the competition sphere that my classmates had talked up for months. Surely these three disinterested-looking middle-aged men and women sitting in front of that parquet floor could not be the judges who would hand down the final word on how well we executed the routines we had spent scores of hours practicing. Surely all these mothers shellacking their squirming toddlers with hairspray needed to get a grip.
It was a Saturday evening in late January 2005, and my Aunt Alice and Uncle Joe had driven me to the hotel in the midst of a blizzard that dumped about 18 inches of snow in the area. The five-mile drive had taken us an hour. Later that night, the governor would declare a state emergency and ban all vehicles from the road. But even in a state of emergency, a dance competition must go on—or so I had thought before I arrived and saw how underwhelming the scene of my very first dance competition was.
In the ballroom I found my classmates, a gaggle of girls who were already sporting the black velour spaghetti strap leotards and black skirts with crinolines of different primary colors for our upcoming can-can dance. I was whisked into a “dressing room” — really just a conference room teeming with half-dressed little girls getting their pink tights yanked on — where I wiggled into my own yellow-crinolined costume and touched up my black liquid eyeliner. Even if I was unimpressed, I was still going to give this my best shot.
Soon I was on that parquet stage, which didn’t seem quite so paltry as my company jetéd across it and the performance adrenaline kicked in. A shitty sound system blared Jacques Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld,” and we kicked in time with the frenetic music. By the end of the dance, as I held a heel stretch in front of one of the judges and smiled like a maniac, I had forgotten all about the absurdity of going ahead with a recreational event in the midst of a dangerous storm. I had forgotten about how amateurish the judges had seemed. Applause and the wolf-whistles of my classmates’ mothers filled my ears as my company scampered off the stage, and I felt, for the first time in a long time, elated—if only for a few moments before I blinked the stars from my eyes.
That first dance competition proved to be an accurate introduction to the whole enterprise. I knew dance competitions were bizarre from the get-go, and that initial feeling of disillusionment kept me from being whole-heartedly rah-rah about the trophies, the sequined costumes, the false eyelashes, and the dazzling choreography, even as I bowed to applause myself. I suppose I was a dance competition skeptic because I entered the game late: I was a member of a competitive company between my sophomore and senior years of high school, from ages 15 to 18—that is, during the height of my teenaged ennui. I only joined because of geography—when I moved from Long Island to central New Jersey at age 15, I left behind the old recital-centric dance studio where I had studied ballet, tap, and jazz since kindergarten and enrolled in the dance studio in my new Jersey town, which just happened to have a competitive company that I was invited to audition for. I wasn’t a particularly prodigious dancer, but I had long legs, comically pliable hip flexors, and “good feet”: high arches and a winged turnout that looked divine when sheathed in the satin of a Grishko 2007 pointe shoe. I was in.
From the start, the competitive dance world, which revolves around tacky hotel ballrooms, Day-Glo costumes, and camcorder-wielding mothers, seemed to me rather “Little Miss Sunshine.” It’s a beauty pageant-like arena, with pre-teens sporting spray tans, toddlers wearing red lipstick, and parents living vicariously through their showboating children. If you’ve ever watched the television show Dance Moms, you’ve gotten a taste of this underworld—in fact, it’s possible my company even competed against Abby Lee’s girls at one point.
I say that I was a skeptic and not a cynic because, while I often doubted the glittering façade of the dance competition, I didn’t shun it. While I was transfixed by the tragicomedy of some of my truly hapless opponents being preened and praised, I too allowed shimmery white highlighter to be applied along my cheekbones and reveled in the satisfaction of my teachers when my group won first-place trophies. And while I thought it was rather odd that so much attention was paid to costumes and makeup and hair—those features had to be uniform, as though we were not 15 separate girls of different heights, weights, and races, but 15 versions of the same girl—I nevertheless clipped in a fake hairpiece so that my baby-fine hair would match the volume of the other girls’ ponytails, slapped on false eyelashes and “natural” blush, and switched out my thick-framed glasses in favor of contacts that irritated my eyes.
Although I was cognizant of how oddball dance competitions were as I participated in them, it wasn’t until later that I realized why I went along with it all. Looking back now, I see that I depended on dance so much because it was a respite from real life. I loved my dance classes as a girl not just because I liked shaking my booty to Janet Jackson, but because learning and practicing routines for recitals required precision, concentration, and literal concrete steps, and all of that put my little anxious mind at ease. When I was at dance class, I couldn’t worry about (the objectively minor, but for me overwhelming) stressors of my (sheltered, suburban) childhood: math tests, little girl gossip, and separation anxiety. I simply didn’t have the headspace for such worries when I was drilling all of those pirouettes and chaînés and five-six-seven-eights into my muscle memory.
As I grew older and my worries became far more consequential, I needed the distraction of dance classes even more keenly. When I was 12 years old, my mom—she who had always driven me to dance classes and done my hair and makeup for recitals, she who was a constant presence at home (she didn’t work) and at school (she was PTA president), she who rubbed my back every night to help me fall asleep—was diagnosed with advanced-stage lung cancer. She died within four months of her diagnosis.
I can recall going to my jazz and tap class the last week Mom was alive, when she was in a private room at Long Island Jewish, barely herself anymore, and deflecting my teacher’s questions about how my mom was faring because I quite literally wanted to lose myself to dance. After Mom was gone, I became more involved at the studio, taking more classes and student-teaching classes for the under-five set — keeping my mind off my grief and on learning how to piqué en arabesque in my new pointe shoes.
Dad made it home early from work to drive me back and forth to the studio until he, too, fell ill with prostate cancer that became more and more aggressive after Mom died. Even at his sickest, he made it to every one of my recitals and sat up close, snapping pictures—I was very much a Daddy’s girl. He gave me bouquets after the recitals, and I saved the baby’s breath so I could keep the dried flowers in a tiny vase my room, like Mom had taught me. Exactly two years and two weeks after Mom died, Dad died, too.
With both of my parents gone, my life was cleaved in two. My brother recently said he feels that he has lived two very different lives. I know exactly what he means—there is life with our parents and life without them, life as a son or daughter and life as an “orphan,” a label I’ve never liked because it negates my parents’ lasting hold over me. In those months and years after our parents’ deaths, I tried to stitch together the broken halves by pretending that I was strong, that I was fine. I kept up my perfectionist approach to academics, kept a smile on my face, buried my grief in a box that rattled against my ribcage, and kept busy — knowing that as long as I did so, I wouldn’t have to open the box.
Dance was part of keeping busy. It was after Dad’s death that my older brother and I made that move from Long Island to New Jersey so we could live with Dad’s sister, our Aunt Alice. She knew I needed to keep dancing, and she researched to find the best dance studio in town, which is how I ended up joining the competitive company. While I was skeptical about the competitions themselves, I relished the sense of continuity and structure that I got from dance classes at the new studio—dance was one of few constants in those years of flux after my parents were both gone. I could still rely on dance class to be a time when my mind could not wander towards pain and grief and anxiety, even more so now that I was rehearsing for competitions, where precision was key.
In addition to being a distraction from my grief and anxiety, my new studio introduced me to a style of dance that finally allowed me to release some of my pent-up emotions. Lyrical dance—that fluid, expressive fusion of ballet and modern and jazz—highly values the demonstration of feeling, and for that I valued it. My favorite dances to watch and perform were the ones choreographed to songs overflowing with emotion, like Jewel’s “Foolish Games,” Damien Rice’s “Blower’s Daughter,” R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” We dancers were to bring those emotions—heartbreak, grief, nostalgia—to life through our movements.
We practiced jazz dances with clean lines, executed in lockstep, punctuated with ring jumps and extended turning sequences. I recall one rehearsal in which our tap teacher made us practice the opening step of a routine some thirty times in a row until it was sharp enough to immediately grab the judges’ attention. I might have rolled my eyes along with the other girls and complained about our tap teacher’s spells of drill-sergeant strictness, but I never truly minded the pressure to be flawless—refining those steps in preparation for competition made me feel as though I could at least control one thing in my life.
My company first performed our “Everybody Hurts” dance—which was actually set to The Corrs’ cover of the R.E.M. song—a year after my first competition, at another DoubleTree Hotel, this one in Cherry Hill. We started the dance standing in a clump towards the back of the ballroom floor with our heads bowed, backs to one another, shoulders touching. Before the music started, there was this electric feeling between our bodies — as if we 15 girls were breathing as one, and we had a lump in our throats that needed to be not swallowed down but danced out. As the acoustic guitar opening pumped through the speakers, we started peeling off one by one from our buzzing cluster, symbolizing our unmooring, or the sensation of being alone in a crowd—feelings I knew well in those years after my parents were gone. The early part of the choreography was all despondency writ large trough dance steps: the line “Don’t let yourself go / ‘Cause everybody cries” was rendered through a deep backbend that lowered all the way to the floor, where we then rolled to our knees and covered our faces with our hands, circling our heads around and splaying our voluminous fake ponytails across our backs. These motions, too, felt natural, necessary, like I was working that lump out of my throat.
By the end of the dance, as Andrea Corr crooned “No, you’re not alone” and the violin took over, we were all skipping and reaching out for one another’s hands, weaving through the blur of one another’s smiles, becoming whole again. That expression didn’t come naturally, but I danced it anyway. By the end of the performance I felt grateful for the choreography and for my fellow dancers, who breathed along with me through the fall and the rise.
Looking back on “Everybody Hurts,” I understand that lyrical made dance provided not just the distraction from real life I wanted, but also the channel I needed for my sorrow. It’s been eight years since I last bowed on a dance competition stage, and while I still dance recreationally now, I’ve settled on ballet as my genre of choice when I take adult classes—these classes combine the exactitude I still crave as diversion from a muddled mind with an emphasis on musicality and grace that never quite came across at competitions, where showing off and sharpness were most rewarded. I no longer feel the need to dance lyrical, because in recent years my grief has shifted and become less consuming, less immediate. I’ve also found different outlets—like writing—that help me express my longing for my parents. But I am still grateful that I found lyrical dance as a teen, even if it meant wading through the insular and peculiar world of dance competitions to get there. Lyrical dance helped me express my emotions, which I felt but could not voice, through my own body.
Kristen Martin is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. She is a candidate for an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter @kwistent.