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Just Dance: A Rhythm of Healing

Updated: Mar 19

Today’s prompt is part of The Isolation Journals' collaboration with Princeton University for their annual Creative Reactions and Audience Voices Writing Contests. Inspired by the 2023-24 Healing with Music series, we’re inviting music lovers of all ages to reflect on their relationship with music.


When was the last time you danced? Where were you? What were you listening to? What thoughts or feelings emerged? What stayed with you?



When I was about fifteen, my mother who was in between marriages, walked into the living room where my thirteen-year-old sister (Thais) and I huddled to watch our sitcoms and without warning, flipped the television off.

“Heyyyyyy!” we clapped back in unison.

“You two need to do something besides watch TV all day.” My mother commented.

Thais, and I looked at each other. We glanced around the small two-bedroom apartment.

It was tidy.

What was she getting at?

With my mom, there was oftentimes an underlying message, which for us always felt like some sort of test.

“But we did all our chores, and our friends are busy.”

The truth was, after having moved for the third time in three years, friends felt scarcer than ever, and I was inherently shy.

Her petite frame could barely block the chunky television set she guarded, “Why don’t you just go outside?”

Thais and I looked at each other amusingly.

South Texas in the middle of summer didn’t present as a tolerable atmosphere for loitering.

“Mom, it’s hot.” we rebutted.

She shifted, “Well, we don’t have much money but I can drop you off at the mall… the dollar cinema?”

I want to state that my mother always prefaced her generosity with we don’t have much money, which is true by today's standard, but later I’d come to find out that we always had more than she let-on.

My mom, having fluctuated through jobs and relationships, always stashed funds away for her own peace of mind. Later she’d disclose it to me as her dirty sock. A dirty sock is a stash of money that you (according to her) could let no one in on, not your kids, and definitely not your boyfriend or a spouse.

“Mom.” I groaned, “We’ve seen all those movies.” And we had.

The mall had become a frequented summertime destination.

“Plus, what’s the difference between us watching movies at home or paying to watch them at the mall?”

Her lips pursed to say something, but I could tell she’d been defeated. She turned toward the bedroom and left.

My sister and I glanced at each other knowingly: She’d be back.

We reclaimed the remote and assumed our vegetative states in the meantime.

My mom emerged a half an episode later. “What about ballet?”

Thais sat up and squinted her eyes, “For real?”

“What do you mean ballet?” I quipped.

Being the youngest of us, Thais had always been a showboat. It brings to memory Stewart, from Mad TV, forever pestering (and amusing) audiences with his proclamations of ’Look what I can do!’

My sister’s most rehearsed trick was when she’d wedge her ankles around her head, totally unabashed. She’d do this pretty much anywhere.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t touch my toes and avoided eye contact with strangers.

“Yeah,” my mom insisted “Do you guys want to join ballet?”

The concept had never crossed my mind. Ballerinas didn’t exist in real life and not outside of places like New York City or Russia. She might as well have said to us, “Do you two want to become swan princesses?”

It all seemed erroneous in my jaded teenage mind.

Thais, however, jumped up and threw her arms around my mother with sincerity, “Yes. Oh mom, yes!”

It was settled that day that we’d join ballet, which felt impetuous.

Less than twenty-four hours later I found myself standing in the lobby of a miniature dance studio that was tucked in a shopping center between a Little Caesar’s Pizza, and a Dollar General.

I kept my back to the wall as my mom spoke to the Ballet Mistress. When my mom presented a paper coupon to her, I flushed. Thais would not stop touching things.

After a short back and forth, the Mistress looked up from the coupon, lowered her cat-eye reading glasses, and surveyed us.

I involuntarily pressed my shoulders back and pushed my diaphragm out attempting to stand tall. Thais was still naively perusing racks of leotards and ballet flats.

“Okay,” was all the Mistress said, and without further pomp, we were enrolled to begin ballet that week.

We came back home unrehearsed that day, my mom having purchased a black bodysuit for each of us, pastel tights, and the most financially conscious ballet slippers on the rack.

I remember how precious it all felt when I placed my bundle atop my bed. I ran my fingers over the spandex suit and opened the twenty-dollar box of slippers ever so gently.

My sister’s grand entrance startled me, “Look!”  

I flicked my head over to her annoyed.

She had adorned every piece.

I smiled mockingly, “You look like a comedy sketch.”

“Whatever.” She shrugged in light melody.

My sarcasm could never deflate her. Thais wasn’t easily brought down.

“Put yours on!” she exclaimed.

“No.” I defied, “I’m not putting this thing on until I absolutely have to.”

She rolled her eyes, exited the room, and went on parade.

I could hear a jubilant reception from my mom moments later.

At fifteen, I’d already developed.

My body curved like that of guitar, my mother’s genetic trademark.

By that time, I was also fully accustomed to shoving my fullness into black Dickies and oversized band t-shirts. When the time had come for our first class, I found myself panicked in a bathroom stall. Why had I waited until this very moment to put these things on? I fumed at myself angrily.

Hearing the effeminate giggles though the wall and fearing my being the last person to assemble, I dressed hastily and walked into the studio without taking a proper glance at myself. I was just thankful that there’d be no boys in attendance.

There’d be no boys, right?

 I entered a room of full-length mirrors and could feel my stomach wobble.

Thais walked over to me, beaming, “You actually did it.”

“Well…yeah.” I muttered. “Not like I had a choice.”

I didn’t have a choice, right?

It was too late to change my mind.

Not even a minute later our Mistress had started class.

She seemed nice, albeit bored. I don’t think she’d expected a class of five or so misfits to dazzle, and we didn’t. That first class was hard. Structured. I hadn’t even considered that I’d true posture issues until afterward. The sheer work that it took to stand correctly for an hour exhausted me. Not to mention first position, second position, third position, fourth…! And again…first position…second position…third…fourth…fifth!

I can still here her cane carving out the tempo. I avoided my reflection as much as I was able to those first few weeks, and at the beginning it was easy to do. My eyes stayed glued to our instructor.

But by the fourth week, I’d memorized the positions. It was during a set of newly learned pliés that I worked up the courage to fix my gaze into the mirror.

By then, the body that I’d begun with had taken on a new shape. It was still robust, but my sinews looked different. I could now see contractions in the muscles I extended and lifted. Sinews, tendon, and bone took on their new shapes. I was mesmerized. I found that I could not look away.

I wouldn’t say that I ever fell in love with ballet.

Six weeks later our coupon would run out, along with our enrollment, but I most-definitely fell into appreciation of ballet.

 

Fast forward, and I’ve all but stopped dancing.

I weight-lift now in appreciation of my body, to which I draw a certain correlation with dance, but it doesn’t feel like dance.

Dance, to me, feels like an act of intentional release. An act of worship. It feels vulnerable. It leaves me feeling exposed, and seen… but it also allows me to inhabit my body from a more fundamental place.

The fullness of dance leaves me out of breath amid a primal heartbeat.

When I allow my body permission to sway and twirl unencumbered by the gravity of present circumstances, I feel free.


My five-year-old daughter, Olivia, died on September fifth of 2022.

Grief has me coming back to the drawing board on everything…

Even an assessment of practices that could provide me relief from this cloak of despair.

It’s challenging to embody the present.

Some weeks back, I came across Jon Batiste’s World Music Radio album.

I was making breakfast for my husband when the song Worship entered the space.

I couldn’t not dance.

When the lyrics …’we are born the same’… reverberated through the thin walls of our RV, I bobbed my head in agreement.

Return to that place’ my hips swayed.

‘We are born the same’' a fist bump.

‘Return to that place’ a sashay.

By the time the chorus began, I was in a full out frolic.

I’d abandoned the bacon in the pan as I chanted along fervently,

“Oh , my father

 Oh, my brother

 Oh, my mother,

 Oh, my sister…”

Tears spilled from closed eyes, and within that primitive place of worship, I danced.





Original Artwork (by yours truly) inspired by Midnight Alien Ballet: An essay on music, movement & healing written by SULEIKA JAOUAD: https://theisolationjournals.substack.com/p/midnight-alien-ballet

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Thank you for your attention, your kindness, your encouragement, and your love…


Stay dancing, friend,

Shal 🤍

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I love to read your writings. They are so emotionally thought provoking. Your words are chosen so eloquently. You not only tell your story, your delivery resonates, immerses and it opens our minds to reach the inner most tucked away pain that has been buried deep within for too long. Your pain forces us to face the reality of how we came to be where we are today. Never put the pen down. Much Love. John

Dancin in the moonlight

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