On Dance and Belonging
“I believed that I could make my life into something new.”
Percussive timba music pulsed across the ballroom, low-lit and filled with couples spinning in Möbius strip-style entanglements. Wind rattled the windows and snow crystals whipped down the dark, empty street. Inside, I stood watching the dancers move, along with a horde of waiting spectators, all of us packed together in the humid room. Habitually shy in crowds, I was exhausted by the effort it had taken to ask only a few women to dance. Then a hand slid into mine. I looked up into the smiling face of a friend and let her pull me onto the floor.
She gestured to the women standing near the windows. “They won’t dance with me,” she said. “I’m older, they don’t like the way I look, I don’t know.” I nodded. Though more boyish-looking—less threatening perhaps—I felt it too.
My friend is a lesbian. I am a queer butch at least twenty years her junior. We stick out in the salsa clubs I’ve been to, both of us short, female-bodied people wearing men’s clothes, dancing the man’s part.
In such a gender-normative context, as a butch woman it can feel, in Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart’s words, “impossible to ignore the implication that, for certain people, women like me are the least attractive creatures on the planet.” And yet there we both were. She spun me in an enchufla. I caught our reflection in the mirror, turned back to her, and laughed.
I decided to learn to dance because I was heartbroken. Though it was not my first experience, it was, for whatever reason, one that led me back to a kind of pain I had managed to evade since middle school. Depression and anxiety hit me with a force I could not have anticipated. Poems and novels and theory have done a lot for me, but here they were not enough—they had not nearly the physical immediacy or quality of touch that I needed then.
Learning a dance is like learning a language. Salsa, for instance, has movement phrases that link together in grammatical sense with the music. The steps refer back to preceding dances—the mambo, son, rumba, guaguancó—much in the way that Latin roots enhance the meaning of contemporary Spanish or English language.
I can think of no more immediate way to engage all my social fears at once than to try to learn to salsa dance in a ballroom-class environment. This meant facing myself in the mirror (constantly), asking strangers to dance, arriving and leaving without the support of a lover or a friend in a non-queer atmosphere, where, in the polite maneuvers of a politically correct social milieu, I was invited in but usually selected last as a partner. I grew wary, hyper self-conscious, and over-prepared to defend myself against perceived slights. In the throes of my ordinary and consuming suffering, I wondered, as I had before, how adults endure their lives.
In his book Levels of Life, Julian Barnes argues, even as he grieves the death of his wife, that “[n]othing can compare to the loneliness of the soul in adolescence.” As a child, adults used words like “husky,” “thickset,” and “tomboy” to describe me. I wore my hair in a bowl cut, developed asthma, played Han Solo in Star Wars reenactments, and hoped to transfigure into the body of a wolf or a horse before too long.
Instead, puberty arrived. I was not so affronted by the changes in my own body, but reacted to the changes in the bodies and demeanor of my peers—the makeup, the highly feminized dress, the overwrought flirtation in the halls—with an inarticulable terror. Retrospectively I can identify this as a queer feeling, but it was also an encounter with the the expectations given to girls and their bodies, mixed with my junior-high longing for conformity. I wanted to belong, and could see no way forward, in body language, in clothes, in relation to boys. I gained weight, retreated into books and an overblown persona as a class clown. Later, in high school, I adopted a strict workout regimen, bought more feminine clothes, and learned how to apply eyeliner. Even so, I rarely felt touched, hugged or pulled close. An odd, seemingly unbridgeable gap had widened between my body and other people. It was easy to feed the persistent suspicion that this had something, intrinsically, to do with me.
It’s difficult for me to look back on photos from those years. I flip them over or shuffle them to the bottom of the stack. There I am, year after year, red-cheeked, wide-bodied, in T-shirts and baggy pants, or with a sweatshirt hood pulled up around my face. Even when I’ve lost weight and appear to conform to a more culturally acceptable physique, I stand with hunched shoulders. My smile looks effortful, sometimes like a grimace.
At sixteen, I made a wordless pact with myself that, if by age twenty-five nothing felt changed, I could end my life. Such a contract was not free of melodrama then, nor does it feel free of melodrama to type now. Nonetheless, despite my friends, I felt alone. I felt tired.
At eighteen I graduated from high school, made a request to defer my entrance to college for a year, and flew from Minneapolis, to Cusco, Peru. Friends of a cousin—she a midwife, he a trekking guide—had invited me into their home. I had justified the trip as a necessary youthful adventure, but mostly I wanted to be far away from my life. I looked forward to my departure with chilly enthusiasm, as if preparing to walk off a cliff.
From the Cusco airport I took a taxi to a colectivo stand, then rode for an hour in a car with four others across the altiplano to Urubamba, a town in the Sacred Valley. Mary, who I knew only through email, picked me up at the main square in the family’s dusty sedan. She was tall and had piercing eyes. We had hardly kissed cheeks before she set the car in gear and accelerated into the cobblestone street.
A kilometer or so outside of town, the car stopped. Two bulls stood in the road, flicking their tails. Mary sighed and sat back in her seat. After a moment, she raised her chin to look at me through the rearview mirror.
“So you have asthma.”
She twisted to face me and said that asthma was the body saying it didn’t want to live. “Well, not to live like this,” she corrected. “So what’s wrong? What makes you feel like that?”
I told her I didn’t know, and then I started to cry. I hadn’t cried in years.
The impassable wall had revolved to reveal a corridor past it. For whatever reason, amongst all the other evidence that I was loved, and could be loved, I clung to the opening I perceived in her question. I believed that I could make my life into something new.
A lot has changed for me since high school. I rarely take inhalers anymore. I cut my hair. I wear masculine clothing. I sit differently. I walk differently. I’ve learned the gestures by which men acknowledge each other on the street. I don’t make eye contact in public restrooms. I have a routine script for the kids who ask me what I am. I have learned the warmth of recognition in certain words: “handsome,” “butch,” “boi,” even “young man,” how they feel when combined with a hand on my shoulder or against my chest. I can call myself a butch and a queer and a transgender person, and understand these words and so myself, with a deep, resonating sense of history.
And this is who I was—a heartbroken, young, transgender butch—when, one Tuesday evening this past January, I walked up six flights of stairs to stand outside the locked door of a studio, where I hoped to learn Cuban-style salsa. Two other prospective students had arrived before me. The three of us stood in silence in the narrow corridor, our heads bowed towards our phones.
Ten minutes later, Israel arrived, a professional folkloric dancer from Matanzas, Cuba. A petite black man with a quick smile and an affinity for detail, he nodded politely to each of us and unlocked the door. We entered a small, sunlit studio with a poster of the orishas taped above a row of folding chairs and a Cuban flag pinned in the corner next to the wall-length mirrors.
While the other students changed their shoes and stripped to A-frame shirts and backless yoga tops, I peered wistfully out the window to watch the pedestrians below. I had no other outfit. My dance shoes were the same sneakers I had worn on the street.
A sharp blast of trumpets pulled me to attention. The rise and fall of the piano montuno filled the room. Israel stood in front of the mirror and began to slide back in forth in the basic step. The rest of us followed him, occasionally catching eyes in the mirror as he added another turn, another pasé. For an hour’s time, mostly out of fear, I thought about nothing except for my body and the music. By the end the rhythm held a slight hum inside me. I decided to come back.
During my second week of class in Israel’s studio, we began to dance in pairs. “Hombres por un lado, mujeres por otro,” he told us, parting the water with his hands. I paused, steeled myself, and walked to the side with the men. Feet shifted. A few women turned their heads, looked at Israel, and waited. Finally he turned and saw me.
“¿Quieres bailar como hombre?” he asked. You want to dance the man’s part?
“Si,” I told him.
No one spoke.
“Okay,” he shrugged. “Pues, si.”
A month or so later, during a hurried explanation, Israel referred to me by a rapid-fire mix of pronouns, from ella, to él to ella. He stopped the music and threw up his hands.
“What am I even supposed to call you?” he asked.
Blood hammered in my ears.
Before I could respond, he pulled me to his side. “No, no, no,” he said. “I’m sorry. Somos amigos.” Then he added, “pero es como eres.” It’s how you are.
“Yo sé,” I said.
After class, I walked down the street with Israel and his students for a beer. Turning the base of my glass between my fingers, I listened for a break in the conversation. A lull came. I turned toward Israel as the other side of the table talked amongst themselves.
“Para que me entiendas bien,” I began. So that you understand me better. Then I described myself as best I could, given my limited Spanish vocabulary, as a lesbiana and a marimacho (a butch). “Es como soy,” I said.
“No problem,” he said, patting me on the arm. “ Tengo una amiga como tú. Está bien.” I have a friend like you; don’t worry about it.
Discovering that we can be loved for the first time, finding the people who will do so and the language in which we can learn to see ourselves is monumental work, whose fruit, even if brought to bear, grows out of shifting sands.
Years ago, I sat outside at a table on the grounds of a Napa winery with three women who I have known since we were children. We had arranged to spend a long weekend together, in San Francisco, where two of them lived. Brought together in middle school by the ferocity of our concentration on schoolwork, we have since driven through the American West together, ran a marathon, impersonated Johnny Depp, and shared endless pounds of chocolate side by side. Whether by email or by Skype, there has remained, over time, a dependable stream of conversation.
I can recall the golden light across the hills beyond the pond next to us, on that California afternoon. I can feel the heat, the small breeze, the heady, inner warmth from the wine, and the animal comfort of my own awareness of their bodies sitting just beyond mine. I couldn’t tell you what we talked about.
Or, in Maine for a wedding, I spent a few extra days with a friend and his family. At night, he and I took walks through the town abridging the campus where I had been his student. While walking we talked, constantly, though allowing for extended pauses. And yet, in the context of a yearslong email exchange having to do mostly with serial TV shows and the news, the talk was meant only as a backdrop—an adornment to the fact of our spending time together.
This is the slow work of building out the rooms of friendship, of nurturing and widening sustained conversation, until trust comes to vibrate through the talk, and the talk gives way to simple feeling, the charged space we have created around us. It’s invigorating work, and it’s selfish too. These carefully scaffolded friendships have sustained me, like blinking lights on the horizon, in those endless moments when the boat turns over and I am thrown back into the long, painful struggle to resurface.
In one of the first classes I took with Israel, another professional dancer tried to help me loosen my ribcage. Her instructions were beyond my comprehension, until Israel arrived and began to push on either side of my ribs in time with the music. “¡Sin miedo!” he yelled. Without fear.
Later my dance partner leaned toward me. “Get comfortable making a fool out of yourself,” she said. “You’ll have more fun.”
They didn’t need to know the circumstances to see the caution with which I moved. They were reading my body. They were letting me know I was safe.
Having a beer after dance class became a habit, and over the months, I felt absorbed into the warmth of the group’s talk. Speaking emphatically with our hands and in a mix of Spanish and English, we passed around photos of kids, swapped travel stories, and argued about how best to fly from Minnesota to Cuba. I learned the names of the local bands, and where they played.
My fellow classmates told their stories about near-divorces, seven-day workweeks in bakeries, early morning shifts in fish-packing plants, and families still in Mexico and Cuba. I heard about long hours spent alone writing grant proposals and about office politics, aging parents and the end of love affairs.
“I started salsa dancing,” one woman said, “because I didn’t know anyone at the clubs. I didn’t have to talk at all about my mother dying.”
“Cuban music, maybe all Latin music, has great energy to it,” another woman explained. “And it allows space for pain.”
Israel, for his part, told us about his children, still in Cuba, about dance tryouts in Havana, and the immigration officer who made him dance before allowing him into the United States. On quieter nights, he wished in frustration that he could travel, to see his family and friends. (His Cuban passport has yet to be returned by the US authorities.)
Knowing who you are, in words or in body, won’t save you. None of us escape loss, nor rejection, nor the trapdoors in our psyches that open down, in the face of hurt, into deeper, more elemental pain. In salsa, I have found how to remember myself, how to conjure again the muscular, solid feelings that I knew during summer camp and sports practices, the unspoken sense of self-knowing—what Julia Serrano calls body feelings in her book Whipping Girl.
But there is more to it than self-knowing. This is also about the people I have found to dance with. They can be hard to find. They aren’t guaranteed.
Recently, after dance class, I walked to the bar with Israel and one of my best childhood friends. Conversation began slowly, then caught on the subject of road trips, gained momentum, and took a swing toward the subject of nude beaches, about which, it turned out, each of us had a story.
In the midst of this, I sat back in my chair. The street outside was dark. Raindrops slipped down the windowpane at my elbow. My friends were laughing. Her eyebrows were raised, his shoulders quaked at his ears. Their faces hung in loose smiles, like my own. A palpable sense of ease floated amongst us, like the sway of fan-spun air.
Names have been changed.
Enter your email address to receive notifications for author Lucia Cowles
You have been added to the notification list for author Lucia Cowles