On Slow Dancing
[This is an old personal essay from 2013.]
Have you ever tried to teach someone to slow dance? I never have. I’m not sure I’ve ever slow danced with anyone. Maybe in middle school, I think, to a slow-jam R&B song, and we probably had two feet of space between us, and we probably didn’t make eye contact, not once. That, I’m guessing, I did. I have a vague recollection of one. I recall feeling very warm inside, because at some point, I was telling the boy how nice it was of him to dance with me, that he didn’t have to do that, and he said he wanted to. I remember that. He said he wanted to and I felt very warm inside. There was a certain enchantment around that, I guess.
I read somewhere once that—and I’m paraphrasing, forgive me—that enchantment was wanting something so desperately and knowing somewhere “not obvious” in your soul that you were not going to get it. When I read that, I remember feeling warm and cold all at once, recognizing something so integral to my history and something so hopeless for my future that I felt I’d had the wind knocked out of me for a moment. I feel enchanted all the time, and when I don’t feel enchanted, I feel sad. Often I wonder if other humans feel this way: either my head is floating at the top of my spine, or I can’t seem to keep my eyes up off the ground. There has to be a middle, doesn’t there?
I thought I loved a man once, but I was very young, and we were not in love because there was no we, and I’m under the impression that a we is necessary for two people to actually be in love, or to get close. Then, I think I loved a man a little later on, and I’m still trying to figure that one out. He was mostly a phone call that lasted for hours and hours, day after day, and we spent about a composite week in mutual enchantment. Now, when I go to say that I was not in love with him, I feel a tug in my guts somewhere, like maybe it’s not true. Once, I thought maybe I wasn’t in love with him, and it just made it seem more meaningful to say I was. Now, I think maybe I was, and it just makes me feel better to scoff and say I wasn’t. I don’t know. I guess I might not ever.
I have had a lot of imaginary slow dances. Maybe it’s the movies, but something about it seems so intimate, so gentle. Success in slow dancing is marked by a closeness, an understanding of the unique curve of someone’s back, how his knees work, whether she wants to hold your hand or not. Hips press, breaths mingle, shoulders fraternize so closely with shoulders that they’re doing their own dance. There’s more communication in the placing of a hand on a lower back than I feel I’ve ever successfully communicated in my life. I have songs picked out. I think I’d probably panic in the moment and tense up, but who knows.
Slow dancing, the art form, the intimate act, is dying. People only slow dance at weddings these days, and usually only the newlywedded couple. Maybe that’s also why it seems so meaningful to me now, because I don’t know when or why we do it, and it doesn’t seem we do it often. It has a mystery for me that it never had for someone in 1950. Or, maybe it doesn’t, maybe it had a mystery in 1950 that’s identical to my own, and maybe people experienced it—the thrill, the terror, the sheer absurdity of being that close to someone for that long in that slow motion—every time they danced. Of course, that’s all just what I’d imagine it to be.
From time to time, I make a playlist. I have been known to dance around my room with my arms up, but have only been known to do that by myself. Once, someone said that to me, “Imagine what it’d be like to dance to this song by yourself.” The song was “Born to Be Blue” by Chet Baker, and I had imagined it, and when that song comes on, I still want to get up and slow dance with the empty air. Sometimes, I do.
I keep a very big, very reinforced lockbox within myself of things like this, like slow dancing. Maybe, in the time of rampant slow dancing, people were better at letting go of lockboxes. Maybe they loved differently. Maybe they weren’t, and maybe they didn’t. I think I’ll love someone someday, and then sometimes, when I think that, I can’t imagine at all what it will be like.
I was picked on a lot in middle school. I know, I know: a lot of people were. Or everyone was. Or Middle School itself just picks on everyone. Or our bodies are picking on us from the inside out, causing more change than our brains can handle, causing more conflict with our fellow adolescents than our parents can handle, creating a whole internal world built on the sufferings of an overwhelming awkwardness that cannot be communicated but wants, so desperately, to be.
But, to be fair to my body—which I’m so rarely willing to be—it never chased me, crying, down a hallway and into the girls’ restroom and stood outside the bathroom banging on the door and yelling mean things at me until it had to go to class.
We had themed dances all the time in middle school, in the gym of course, that expansive rubber-floored wasteland. I played basketball in that court. I went to afterschool daycare in that gym. I felt safe in it when it was sportive and fluorescently lit. For dances, they darkened it, stacked the bleachers against one wall and put half-assed decorations on them. There was a puny fold-out table, covered in plastic, offering chips and dip and punch, hugging the entrance, serving as a mooring for all those parents too neurotic to leave their children and all those children too neurotic to leave their parents. Teachers worked the table. They never seemed happy about it. There was one tiny lobby, the width of the gym but only about twenty feet deep, where kids ran out to breathe, whisper about who they wanted to ask to dance, complain about the stupidity of these dances before diving back in headfirst. It had a lot of team photos and trophies on display, and big, clear, ceiling-to-floor windows that looked out on the parking lot.
In eighth grade, nearing the end of our time together, post the eighth grade field trips but pre the eighth grade graduation ceremonies (why elementary and middle schools hold ornate graduation ceremonies has always baffled me), we had a dance, a Spring Dance or something equally as blanket-themed as that. I had a crush on a boy named Gabe who was tall and nerdy and into science. He had a buzz cut, and thick, round glasses. The boys liked him a lot; the girls didn’t really like him because he was dry to most of them. We both played lacrosse and soccer. Our moms worked at the same college.
Who knows what inspires middle school crushes? Is it base attraction, our bodies trying to overtake our brains based on the symmetry of another’s face, our own weird preference for slightly odd-looking faces and round cheeks? I can safely say I never knew anyone on whom I crushed in middle school, not really. We did not have discussions. I did not know their taste in music, what they act like when they’re angry, how they deal with the faults and shortcomings of another person. I had ideas about them being smart, about them being funny, about them being more interested in something other than the girls who were developing more quickly, about what they could possibly bring out in me. But I never knew them.
“Who do you want to dance with?”
“Come on, tell us, who do you want to dance with?”
This is Courtney and Lee, two extremely popular girls fronting the rest of the popular girls (re: at a private middle school like mine, we had a class of about 24, and 12 of them were girls, and 9 of them were popular and 3 of us were not). I am sitting on top of the stacked up bleachers, biding my time until this stupid dance is over. I cannot not attend them, and I do not want to participate in them—or I don’t want to want to participate in them. The girls are standing below me, having taken away my only escape route. If I want to flee, I have to jump on their heads to do so. If I want them to go away, I either need to: act like a psychopath, say something mean, or answer their question. Who do I want to dance with.
“If you tell us who you want to dance with, we’ll go ask him for you.”
Courtney tries to play the friend card. In my multitude revisitings of this memory, I realize maybe the girls were trying to be friendly, maybe they did want to do something nice for me. The absurd is still possible, though it remains absurd. They didn’t directly do anything terrible to me. But then again, I don’t know what they said over there across enemy lines, how they phrased the question when faced with a group of boys too cool to be nice. Maybe they did something terrible over there. Maybe they didn’t.
Courtney is shorter and muscled, dark brown hair, strong brows. She looks about 35 in the best way that a middle school girl can look 35. Guys make thinly-veiled jokes about the size of her breasts and ass. Lee is blonde and severe and bird-like. They are a dream-team duo of middle school polarity. The other girls are just dilutions of them, of course with their own specifics and peculiarities, but nevertheless, dilutions. I do not recall what I was wearing at this particular dance, but in eighth grade I do recall that I wore bondage pants and socks on my arms, and my musty blonde hair was mostly in a ponytail. I wore make-up but I still don’t know how to do that, so I’m certain I didn’t know then.
“Just tell us, come on.”
Literally on a precipice, perched atop the bleachers, staring down in the eyes that belong to the hands of my fate. If only I’d been more self-assured then, if only I’d been more interested in fucking with people ever, I probably could have had a ball. We were all playing a game, but I was routinely tricked into trying to play theirs. If only I’d known—really known, really accepted—that deep down they just didn’t want me playing.
“I don’t know, Gabe is cool.”
And I’ve lit the fire in their eyes. Evil behind men’s smiles, and all that. I should’ve kept my mouth shut. I should’ve bit my tongue and played catatonic until they got bored with me and left me alone. Every time I try to write about middle school, it ends up sounding like a wilderness handbook. When approached by a bear, play dead. But I didn’t, because I wanted to dance with Gabe, because I wanted to be normal, because I wanted these girls to actually want to help me, because I thought they could help me. That’s always the worst part of remembering this: just how desperately I wanted almost everything I got.
So they go, the gaggle, over into that enemy territory, that corner of peach fuzz and too much aftershave—the boys’ corner. The boys’ corner and my bleacher perch are antitheses of the room; the boys are clumped in a circle, talking about what I’ve never known, not dancing, occasionally pushing each other or running around. And I watch them, the popular girls, sidle over there like it’s nothing, like they aren’t thirteen and terrified of their own bodies and the boys’, like they aren’t panicking over what they’ll say or how they’ll say it. They go in their ninestrong, Courtney and Lee leading as they always do, and this part happens like a jump-cut in my brain. I don’t remember their walk over.
I do, however, remember their negotiations as an interminably long episode. A face off—the girls having infringed on the boys’ space, the boys secretly having looked forward to this since the last breach, the general thrill in the air of both groups as a demand was made. I have a snapshot of that moment as the permanent still of this memory, because what happened next was sonic, and sensory, and had nothing to do with the sights of it. I think I remember a general fist-pumping that kept time with everything else, and I think I remember the look of incredulity on the boys’ faces, but I could have filtered that in afterwards.
What happened next was this: it started low and quiet—I’m guessing one of them said it first and knew it’d take—but it was clear even then. A chant, with all its evocations of sports and politics, fight songs and war cries, that collective noise that builds and repeats and swallows the crowd whole, sprang from the boys’ corner. In hindsight, it’s a lot like a movie, which makes it seem less real to me, but it definitely happened. I wonder sometimes what they must remember of it, how they feel about it now. I’ll never know, I guess.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!
Over and over again like that, until the word lost its meaning. Caps lock doesn’t do the expanding volume justice, its slow build, how it filled the room like smoke, how the echoes bounced between walls and multiplied, splitting in half to cover more ground. I don’t remember how many times they chanted it. I don’t remember how long I stood it, how long I sat up there on those bleachers. I don’t remember if I tried. I do remember hitting the bathroom stall, once again crying (how often middle schoolers must cry in bathroom stalls, I bet it’s a staggeringly high number), and I faintly recall the girls coming in after me, apologizing. I think I only came out once one of them threatened to go get a teacher. I remember the layout of that bathroom to do this day, but I do not remember a single detail about how my reflection looked in the mirror when I washed my face.
Gabe apologized to me—awkwardly, insincerely—later that night.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“For what,” I said.
“For…making you sad,” he said.
“You didn’t,” I said.
Two of my close friends got married to each other. We all knew it was coming, it was just a matter of when, and once the when finally arrived, I was texted a picture of the ring. I don’t remember if there was a message—I think there was, something about apologizing for the impersonality of a text message—but I do remember thinking, “Now that is going to be a banging wedding.” A few months later, after being asked to be in the bridal party, I remember talking to my mother on the phone.
“It’s just so bizarre, I feel a million miles away from that place in my life,” I said.
“Well, you know,” my mother paused, “I was planning my wedding when I was your age.”
I was walking to work when she said that, and thank god, because if I hadn’t had the comfort of soles on pavement pounding away repetitively, I think I would have freaked out. My age, she’d said, she was my age when she started planning her own wedding. Here I was, waxing existential about being a bridesmaid, and by the time I watched someone else walk down the aisle, my mother, in her life, was wedded to my father.
The concept of weddings grosses me out. I think it’s an archaic tradition rife with pomp and void of circumstance, that comes down to the meaning of a lot of tiny—and, in my opinion, stupid—details, built on the belief that a woman should be walked down an aisle and showed off and then put into the hands of the next man to run her life. A lot of people would argue the ceremony is about love, the public declaration of two people’s love for one another. I would venture to say that’s bullshit, but I’ve never been married. Here we were, the morning of this wedding, worrying about the bride’s bouquet, because she had to have a different colored one from ours, because she had to have a bouquet at all. I remember speaking quietly, conspiratorially, in the basement about what our various back-up plans would be, should her oh-so-special blue flowers wilt away entirely, like it seemed they were going to do, by morning. I remember thinking, “How about none of us carries flowers then?” Of course, what would we do with our hands in that situation?
And then I cried during the ceremony. Standing up there, bouquet in hand, I cried. Not an unseemly amount, but a visible amount, for sure, an amount that was captured in pictures, an amount that seemed to say, “I care about this happening! Look at how beautiful it is!” When I try to picture myself in love, in a love like that, I can’t do it. It seems too foreign. Like watching a Godard movie without subtitles and with no understanding of the French language: a sad gorgeousness, clearly a lot of complications, stunning camera shots, and no one’s really happy so everyone’s unhappiness is somehow their happiness. That’s wordy, I guess, but that’s how I feel about love: I feel like an outsider.
The crying I did at the ceremony, however, was nothing compared to the first dance. Sam Cooke started crooning “Nothing Can Ever Change This Love” over the speakers, and we cleared a circle and they claimed it, and I went to pieces. I wasn’t crying. I was sobbing—nasty, snotty, body-wracking sobs. I at least tried to be quiet about it, who knows how successful I was. Later, I learned that the groom was so nervous the bride had had to whisper instructions in his ear, which way to go, when to spin her, where to put his hands. You’d never have known looking at them in the moment. It seemed so effortless, so calm, the two of them clasping each other, still in their formal wear, dancing around this sloped circle in the backyard of a cabin. No one else cried. I thought I was done after the ceremony; I sobbed the whole song. Every time I thought I’d stopped, one tiny—and, I’m sure, in many opinions, stupid—thing would happen between them, and I’d go to pieces again. They had their foreheads pressed together for a few seconds. He looked into her eyes the whole time (now, I know, because he was terrified). She seemed so happily surprised when he spun her.
You can’t see me in any of the pictures of the first dance, thankfully. It’s just a beautiful moment, left alone in its beauty, no intruding sadness wailing at the border. That was the only slow song of the evening. That’s the only real wedding I’ve been to.
It’s what I ache for, mostly, how I’d describe loneliness: slow dancing by myself. I had to do it once, to “Born To Be Blue,” in front of an audience. He asked me to imagine what it’d be like to dance to that song by myself, and then he’d asked me to do it. I didn’t reveal that I was old hat, I was practiced, that dancing in a spotlight, arms up, eyes closed, no one to fill the space, was something I’d done in my mind a thousand times, let alone in my room.
By the end of the dance, once an audience watched, I had my arms wrapped tightly around my shoulders. I couldn’t bear it, to show that emptiness, to flaunt that delusion. Sometimes, we only have ourselves.