Don’t Let It Bury You
How my relationship with dance helps me navigate my body, trauma, and mental health.
I know the sound of my mother’s voice better than I know anything else. As a child, I didn’t like the way the soft and smooth of it could explode into a growl in sudden seconds, shouting and overheating the house, sending my small anxious heart darting through my body, displaced. I never liked how it fractioned my breathing and slowed my movements into a drag. But I liked that it always prepared me for trouble, at least. I like that it helped me get ready.
So, one Saturday, when I was nine years old, I followed that voice downstairs and found it in the kitchen, bursting out of my mother’s mouth and screaming at the maid, Irene, who had worked with us for four years.
“Pack your things and leave this house right now!”
I stood pressed against the door—body like a whisper, barely there, hidden in all the noise and the smoke. From what I could tell, Irene had been rude to my mother. Their eyes remained on each other so stubbornly I was afraid they would never separate. Then Irene’s nose started flaring, her fists bunched up at her sides, and I knew she was trying not to cry or trying not to punch my mother. I had seen that look before when no one else was there. I was so afraid for her. Then my mother’s jaw moved like she was chewing all her own teeth.
“You bastard!” my mother yelled. She pulled Irene outside by her shirt and I followed them. “Don’t let me warn you again. You know me, you know that if I deal with you the way I want to, you will never forget it in your life!” My mother meant it, so I stood still, trying not to fan her anger into a small hellfire. It was better to remain unseen by angry eyes.
They searched Irene’s bags, which is what they do whenever a member of staff leaves our house. It’s just to make sure. Her two black suitcases and one Ghana-Must-Go were splayed open on the concrete blocks. My mother was sitting on a white chair, her blue boubou spilling over its arms. Two security men dressed in all black were on standby and the second maid was picking clothes out of the suitcase for my mother to see, one by one.
You see, Irene hadn’t expected to leave, so she had no time to hide anything—and Irene was a thief. So that’s how they found my mother’s gele, my mother’s gold bracelet, my father’s dollars, my brother’s shoes and at the bottom of the suitcase, some clothes I had secretly given her, others I had no idea she had taken. When they got to one of the pieces I secretly gave her, Irene pointed to me, with her eyes still on my mother and said, “She gave me all these ones.” It didn’t take me long to make up my mind to say no, it was not me, what exactly is she talking about, I don’t know what she is talking about. I already felt my blood congeal as I prepared to betray her there; but it was because I wanted her to look at me, even if in anger.
“You liar,” my mother said in disgust, and I let my head fall, anticipating the heat from a slap. But my mother wasn’t talking to me, she was talking to Irene, directing the rage at her.
“Mummy, but—,” Irene replied, before my mother cut her off. The word jarred me, because it only occurred to me then that Irene calling my mother Mummy—a choice she was never coerced into—made it easy for everyone to assume she saw me as a little sister and saw my younger brothers as her own. Why would anyone squint at her or wonder what else she had tried to take from me? How would they ever find out? She knew that all the eyes in the house would have to be around and awake and alert at the same time to truly see her. It was hardly possible.
“I will believe my children one hundred times over before I ever consider believing a liar, a thief,” my mother told her. “God forbid that I ever believe you over my children.”
There is a saying that you must never allow a child to become comfortable with lying, because liars—if they are not stopped and straightened in time—will surely become thieves. So if you catch a thief red-handed, it only makes sense not to believe a word they say, because one must take that first step to get to the second.
Every item Irene stole was taken back from her, and then she left. She left and the day went on as normal until the night.
I was asleep, alone, in my room and it was midnight, dark except for a dull light beating against the other side of my yellow curtain. I woke up, rose from my bed and walked to my window, shifting the curtain to let the light from the moon touch my shoulder. I closed my eyes and breathed, feeling a draft of cool air from the air conditioner above. The urge to dance started slowly: a sway and a twirl, then my feet became light, moving by themselves, spinning my head, shifting my arms up in a surrender until I fell to the floor, breathless. I began to cry—not because of the carpet burn on my knees and elbow, but because of what had happened. Irene had been there, in our house with us before that night; and after what happened that morning, she wouldn’t be there anymore. I was crying because grief had woken and shaken me, had twirled me around without asking for permission. It had caught me unawares, lured me and pushed me to the ground.
Before she was asked to leave, Irene molested me every day for two years in our home, where life was supposed to be safest, and made me keep it a secret. They found everything that she took, but of course, they didn’t find the one thing I wish they had. Nobody found my body, stolen. She didn’t look back at me when she was leaving for that reason; she just faced the gate, bag in hand, shame at her back, which made me feel sorry for her and annoyed at myself. I felt trapped, confused, unsure of how to reclaim what had been taken from me, how to retrieve the thing nobody could see—my now intangible, invisible body.
That night, I learned that when you dance, when you shift the weight of your body from one foot to another, when you shake to the sound of the night breeze and to the thrum of your own grief, when you continue the private practice of movement, you will be reminded of the fortunate (or unfortunate) fact that your body is real. Your body, even after betraying you, will carry you. Sometimes mercifully, sometimes mercilessly. But it will carry you. And sometimes, dance is the gift in all that rubble. Dance is the gift in all that mess. Dance is the conjuring.
Over a decade later, I sat on a therapist’s couch for the first time. One of the things she told me was to stop believing that there are two responses to stress. There are three, she said: fight, flight, or play dead. “When terrorists go to a crowded space, the victims most likely to stay alive aren’t the ones who cry or fight or beg, ironically. It’s the ones who get kicked, punched, stabbed and lie there—still and unresponsive.”
I got it. When someone thinks you’re already dead, they know that they can’t kill you again, so they leave you alone. That’s a great way to survive traumatic situations, she said, but that’s no way to live a life. “You have been playing dead all your life,” she told me. “It’s the right thing for your brain to do for as long as the trauma keeps occurring, but when it’s over, you have to get up and start remembering how to live.”
Therapists, I realized, do not know everything. If they did, then she would’ve known that there’s a difference between playing dead and dying. I know, because I’ve done both. The former suggests that you are wearing another reality you can strip off when you’re ready. That you can just take it off and go back to your regular life. Playing dead is what I was doing when I was still a devout Christian in university, refusing to move my body in a way that would remind me that it was alive and desiring, or worse still, remind other people that I was alive and desirous. But dying is different. Dying is all of depression’s many hands pressed against your throat at the same time. It is the only reality, is the flesh and blood and bone and sinew of you, is entirely overwhelming and correct. Dying is what I was doing even as I sat in front of her.
There was a time when I had no words for God, when I could not pray at all, because I was too angry and heavy inside. So instead, every morning, I woke up before 5 a.m., before the sun, to dance. Even if I forget everything, just from those years, I will always know how to express anger with my body, how to bend to gratitude, how to cry and grieve without my face, how to show joy with my back and hands, how to express my own inner peace. I know how to talk to God from inside the flesh I was encouraged to deny. God knows my body and all the ways I have tried to keep it alive, loves me in this way, accepts the way my body moves as worship, knows my (in)flexibilities by name. God knows my victory dance, my war cry; because dance is my prayer itself, and dance is the amen that follows.
When I was a teenager in secondary school, trying to figure out how to carry a burgled body with grace, I reclaimed myself through dance. When the prefects called my friends and I into a classroom, called us loose, sluts, whores—over rumours they hadn’t actually confirmed—and dared us not to answer, we did, even though we knew those were not our names. And because that happened at a time when being shamed was a small crucifixion, we left there crying; but it didn’t stop us. We still whined our bodies tirelessly against boys, pressed our backs into their starving hands and their sweating bodies that stayed still against the white walls. At those school discos where “will you dance with me” was a question asked with a hand already on your waist, we still danced as apology, danced as desperation for approval because we wanted somebody to love us, to call us worthy. Dance back then was a plea, an I-beg-you-please-see-me.
But dance is also a coming-to-know of one’s spirit, the fullest view, the best way to behold oneself. After the cluelessness had worn off, after many heartbreaks and unutterable things—in an unspoken agreement, my friends and I stopped dancing with boys we didn’t want to touch us. We were germinating comfort in our own bodies so instead, we formed circles of friends where no boys could enter except by invitation, where all unholy hands would be met with blazing rage. The boys stayed away. They couldn’t break or enter our fortified circle and they knew it. Dance is power. Dance is a fortress.
I have known the lasting salvation of dancing in a group of women who are not there for men; who are there to affirm one another, to say I see you, I see your body, you are beautiful and you are marvelous in my sight, despite what you’ve been through. I learned this again last year, when I was remarkably depressed and needed to be out every night. I had to avoid stillness. I was afraid every day, that my body would disappear into nothing if I didn’t move it aggressively. I was hanging over death, falling slowly into the slick black of it. If I’d found myself in the wrong circles back then, I know it would’ve been done and my life would have slipped away. Instead, I was in the belly of Lagos, surrounded in those clubs by living women who loved me fiercely, who moved their bodies in a way that was redeeming. If there is such a thing as playing dead, then there must be such a thing as its opposite. Next to them, dance was that for me. I shook my body into every painful morning, dancing to the loud music in my chest where my heart should have been, to the alcohol pumping through my veins where blood should have been, and all those things were me playing alive. Dance was second flesh, a vicious mask, my whole disguise.
Last year, after my Christian ex-boyfriend assaulted me and then suggested that we both pray for forgiveness, of course I danced to survive. The back of my eyes was full of a dizzy hunger—I was starving for my own blood. I continued my routines. I wrote, I dressed up and went out, I showed up. I took care of the house—serving my father food, keeping an eye out for my brothers, mothering my mother. Meanwhile, my body was disappearing, as in numb, as in dead, and again, nobody noticed; not because they weren’t looking, but because I’m excellent at acting fine, at playing perfectly alive.
I moved countries after that. I chose my new home strategically, because I thought being in my favorite city would shake me alive. But still, I walked past Mercato Centrale each morning thinking about how I couldn’t feel the rest of my body, how my head was the only alive thing. I was not a person. I was a bobblehead with a dumb numb body and a heavy, restless head; something my therapist later referred to as depersonalisation, as dissociation. “When a mind becomes dangerously overwhelmed with stress, it can begin to isolate itself from the body.” In Florence, I survived by sitting through my lectures, going home, napping for hours, drinking a glass of wine (or too many), then getting dressed and going dancing.
I would stand outside of myself, back pressed against the railing, watching my own unreal body make an altar out of us. My unreal body would get bathed in red and blue light, in a club full of strangers, bodies intertwined, gravitating desperately toward me. But when I moved, I moved entirely alone, sweat pouring down my face, into my clothes, soaked in my own stubborn insistence on staying alive. Sometimes it took hours, other times it took days, but dance and the ache that lay in its wake reminded my body that it was still alive, that the illness was the lie, that I was and I am—aren’t I, despite everything—still alive.
When I got discharged from the local hospital in Florence after a frightening breakdown, I went dancing at a club called Space. The bouncers had stopped questioning me a long time ago. From the moment I stepped out of the taxi, it was routine, how they moved me to the front of the queue and ushered me in, never asking me to pay a thing. It was enough that they knew me as the girl who came alone and often, to dance as revenge, to dance as assertion, to remind herself of her own hereness, and I felt welcome there. Dance and the bodies that know how to wield it well are valuable currency.
These days, when I feel the anxiety buzzing at the back of my neck or the depression curving my spine forward or the dissociation distributing me between more realities than I can count at once, I make myself get up. I remember that that is what power is—to be experiencing what I experience and still be able to bend entirely to the bass. After all, when it came to it, apart from writing and writing and writing, dance was one of the things I listed as a reason to stay alive. It was one of the reasons that worked.
So, it doesn’t matter if no one else is moving. Even when the entire room is sitting, even when I am self-conscious and my body is peppered with goosebumps, even when I am afraid what they will think of me, I get up. I look straight ahead and tell myself that this moment is for me. Every moment is for me.
I throw my hands up, let my hips move where they deem fit, use my hands to frame my moves, to take up space. I sway forward in a line, I circle around a willing stranger, let the beat hyperventilate on my waist. I unknot the room all by myself, until the space around me becomes a crowded dance floor full of strangers who know nothing about my secrets or my joys, who just know because of how well my body moves that I am something to stop and watch, that my freedom and desperation for the music are some things to aspire to.
I am aware that the dance floor will close. When I see the crowd thinning and the lights changing, I encourage my body to slow down and remember the truth: There is healing in movement and music; but also in the stand-still, in the heart’s beat, in the truthful feeling of something, anything—as long as you don’t let it bury you.