What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
I’m a size 14. We’ll start there.
I hate to admit it, but I’ve got more insecurities about my body than anyone really knows about. A bit of it can be attributed to a mom who made me wear “minimizer bras” as a teen (she meant well), and most of it to an asshole ex-boyfriend who regularly complained about my tummy (he never meant well), but that’s neither here nor there.
And adding to the conundrum of my covert body conciousness? I love to dance. My very first taste of the crowd happened the summer I turned 13. I spent the vacation with my aunties in Boston. They enrolled me in Jamnastics. So three times a week I took dance class and then performed the routines we'd learned at events throughout the city. When I got back home to Pittsburgh my friends noticed the difference, “Whoa! You totally came out of your shell!”
I've been dancing ever since.
In 2007, I started taking classes with a woman named Kelly. Kelly is amazing. She welcomed all her students with hugs and kisses, paid special attention to everyone’s strengths, and dared us to confront our weaknesses. She wanted me to dance bigger, to be more confident. “Don’t be afraid to use the space!” Never was my body an issue because, well, I could cover it up. Funky jeans, loose T-shirts, Nike high-tops and I was good.
After about a year and a half of classes,Kelly suggested I audition for her semi-professional contemporary company, Massive Attack. I showed up fully clothed in a flowy tunic that made me feel like a real “dancer” and my favorite yoga pants. I made it and spent that summer doing leaps, pirouettes and lifts in tank tops and stretchy pants. I was elated.
The next year Kelly, planned a full-length concert. By this time, I'd learned all sorts of fancy leaps and extensions that I couldn’t wait to show off. Rehearsals were exciting. My fellow dancers instantly became my new family. It was a diverse group, a range of ages, colors and professions. I was so engrossed in the process -- creating, moving -- that I stopped thinking about how different my body was. There wasn’t much time to worry anyway -- buzz about the show was building. Excited as I was, eventually I had to ask, “What are we wearing?”
She looked up from her choreographer’s notebook, “Wifebeaters and boy shorts.”
I froze. A wifebeater? The thinnest of all undershirts? With these breasts and this stomach? And BOYSHORTS? Inmy bedroom, sure, but on stage? With these thighs? These fabulous-but-still-larger-than-average thighs? I’ll look like an egg!
“It’ll be fine,” Kelly reassured the entire group but I swear she was speaking only to me. “All of our bodies are beautiful. And people are paying to come see us do amazing things they can’t do. It’s fine. You guys will be okay.”
Have you ever been the voluptuous girl in a room full of lithe dancers? Even when they’re your friends, it can mess with you. I had the biggest everything. The biggest wife beater (size L), the biggest boyshorts (size XXL) and probably the biggest hesitation about jumping around half naked on stage.
I tried a bunch of body-shaper options to “smooth out” my “problem areas,” but everything was so obvious underneath the thin cotton of the costume that I eventually gave up and hoped for the best. At dress rehearsal, I put on my undies and quickly joined two of my dancer friends on stage. There’s safety in numbers.
I relaxed a little. We were chatting and giggling when a guy in the cast walked by. “Oh, look at y’all! Looking all sexy like a Dove commercial!” Even with all my feminist training, I felt good about a guy complimenting me. Maybe I didn’t stand out as sorely as I thought?
The night of the first performance, all my anxiety came rushing back. Now my friends were going to be in the audience. Friends who’d only ever seen my cleavage during nights out on the town. Taking my place behind the curtain, I suddenly found myself pulling my shirt up, tugging my shorts down, desperately trying to coax my tummy to shrink in. Goosebumps tickled the backs of my shoulders and I instinctively crossed my arms over my waist, a self-conscious tick I’d developed long ago.
But something happened on stage. When my cue came, the boy shorts shrunk in the background of my extensions, which were awesome. I nailed turns I’d been trying to get right for weeks. The dancing became more important than anything else, any wifebeater, any boyshort, any jiggly thigh.
“I’m doing things you people can’t do,” I said smugly to myself as I waited in the wings for my next cue. That’s why they paid to be here, right? This was a concert, not a bikini contest. And I was nothing if not a dancer, belly be damned.
We got a standing ovation opening night. And for the next three performances that followed.
I did it! I danced in my undies in front of everybody. Then the pictures appeared, and you know what? I was proud. Proud of the production, proud of my fellow dancers, and especially proud of how awesome my leg looked extended just-so over my head. That particular picture brought me so much joy, I made it my avatar on Twitter, for more than 700 followers to see. Me in my undies.
“Whoa, V,” one friend tweeted. “That’s you?!”
I smiled. “Yup,” I tweeted back. “Sure is.”
For the next season, Kelly came up with the idea of the company as primal animals. Costumes? “Tank tops and boyshorts, again,” she said. “In earth tones.”
I smiled at the thought. “I’m game.”