DYE JOB: How a Coin & Fringe Bra Literally Saved My Life
Updated: Sep 20, 2022
**WRITTEN ON MEDIUM JUNE 28, 2020
Fall 1991 — In my freshman dorm room just after I started college
March 1992 Nineteen years old
We seven dancers clump on the stairs at the side of the stage, awaiting our turn to rehearse. I don’t see why the director makes us come to every rehearsal, much less why we have to stay for the whole thing when we’re only out there for two-and-a-half minutes to run our piece.
We’re the Polynesian Dancers in this semester’s main theater production, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. (1–3)
You’re probably raising your eyebrows as you say, “Huh? There are no Polynesian dancers in Twelfth Night. It’s set in a fictitious version of Illyria. What the bleep?” (4)
I know. But the director wanted to set it there because it would “give our modern-day audience a better feel for how an Elizabethan crowd would have viewed the exotic coastline of Illyria.”
So here we sit, we background-scenery dancers, chatting in hushed tones and trying not to fall asleep on the stairs as they redo the blocking for Fabian and Sir Belch.
That means it’ll be even longer before we get to practice our number. Not like it matters. Even after we’re finished, we still don’t to leave.
Ugh, tedious. But it gives me the excuse to finish my homework for Philosophy, as well as the chance to watch the more experienced actors work. I was cast during fall semester as a “Reject Dancer” and the understudy for “Christine” when we did A Chorus Line, (5) quite the accomplishment for a freshman. But this time, the cast is comprised mostly of juniors and seniors.
Laurie is a senior as well. She leans toward me with her elbow on the same step I’m sitting on to whisper, “Have you ever taken belly dancing?”
My eyebrows raise. “No. Why?”
She shrugs. “You just caught onto Polynesian so quickly that I thought maybe…”
I shake my head. “I’ve never even seen belly dancing. Except, like…I don’t know, were there belly dancers in the James Bond movies I saw as a kid?”
She laughs. “Definitely. Well, you should take lessons and then take my spot at the Greek restaurant here in town. I perform there every weekend, but when I graduate, I’ll be moving back to Minneapolis and they’ll be without a dancer.”
“Huh.” Now that’s a life trajectory that would have never occurred to me.
“I’m serious,” she says. “You’re a really great dancer. This style seems so natural to you, and there are so many similarities to belly dancing. You have wonderful hips. It’s like they were made for it.”
This time, my eyebrows lift up into the overhead light bank. Then I give a little shrug and put my chin on my kneecaps, hugging my arms more tightly around my shins. If we weren’t in the shadows, I’m sure she could see my blush. I’m also grinning ear-to-ear. It’s been half a year of ox-clodding in Ballet and nobody has once said that I’m a good dancer, much less called me great or natural.
I can’t wait until next year when I can switch out Ballet for Modern and finally take Jazz. I just know those will come more naturally.
When we’re finally called onto the stage to run our piece, I sink into the dance, giving it everything I have. Laurie is right. These movements are so luscious and fluid, and they just feel good.
They feel good on me.
Unlike the way my hip joints scream and lock up every time I try to get my legs in the air in Ballet. I didn’t start that kind of flexibility early enough as a kid, and even when I took gymnastics in my earliest years of elementary, my hips and legs didn’t stretch that way. I certainly don’t have the tranquil, aloof sort of personality we’re expected to assume as we float across the floor.
Okay, as the swans float and I galumph.
But these swaying hip motions and rippling hands…now this is what I was built to do. Even my Ballet teacher’s eyes light up when she watches me perform the choreography she made for us after studying this dance form over the summer. I must be a natural at it, because this feels right, I can do it in my sleep, and she hasn’t once told me to “dance with my body, not my face.”
April 1992 Three weeks later…
Professor Linnell chats at me in her snappy voice as she works behind me next to the sink in the Costuming Department. In order to be cast as a Polynesian Dancer, I had to agree to dye my hair, since it was long enough for the character. Emily’s two inch spunky spike will require a wig, but mine has almost grown down to the middle of my back. It’s the longest it’s ever been and I love it!
I would have never let them touch it, if they hadn’t had an option for only dyeing it semi-permanently.
All the other girls have gone to a salon, but as the head of the Costuming Department squirts cool liquid onto my scalp, she growls off her tale of frustration. “Since blue-black dye will pull silver highlights under the lights, I told them specifically, ‘Make sure it has red undertones, not blue.’” She pauses to lock eyes with me in the mirror. Hers flash. “They both came back with auburn hair.”
“Ugh,” I say with a roll of the eyes.
“I had to send them back for a redo. Then the exact same thing happened with the second pair of girls. Then I sent Mary in yesterday. The salon was so pissy they used blue-black. She’s going to look like an old hag dancing under the lights.”
Now that’s an exaggeration. Mary is the top-ranked senior in the Dance Department, the Swan Princess herself, as well as a wiz at Modern, Jazz, Tap…everything she does. She is my dance mentor and heroine, so encouraging, so inspiring. It would be impossible for her to look anything but fabulous when she dances.
But I get the point, and snuffle out a commiserating scoff.
Prof. Linnell finishes squirting the dye down the full length of my perm-and-sun-gilded curls, spouting all the way. “I was so angry I cancelled your appointment. I guess it’s true — if you want something done right…”
With another sniff, I say, “No kidding.”
She stuffs the now-empty, nozzled bottle into the box and slams the whole thing on the counter. I glance at it.
And do a double-take.
I squint to read the label of the product she used: Clairol Nice-N-Easy. Auburn-Black. Permanent hair dye.
The blood rushes through my ears. My heart races. I feel a little sick to my stomach. I have never dyed my hair. Ever. I really didn’t want to, but when I didn’t get cast in a speaking role, I really, really wanted this part.
So the only dancer who had checked the semi-permanent box on the audition sheet was the only dancer who got permanent black.
I could just wanna die.
May 1992 Five weeks later…
I stand inside the closet space of my dorm room, hands gripping the counter, unblinking eyes staring into the mirror. I don’t know how long I’ve been standing here. The sunlight is fading. I haven’t turned on a light.
My eyelids drift closed. Open once more.
I don’t recognize the person staring back at me.
The remnants of that Twelfth Night dye-job still stain my hair. We were supposed to be Polynesian natives, after all, and not a single one of us had hair that could pass for black, eyes that could pass for Asian without penciling on those specialized lines and shading, or skin that hadn’t required a full coating of bronzy makeup. (6) And we white girls had gone through a lot of makeup, because we’d shown a lot of skin in our little floral hip wraps and tops that had left little to the imagination.
My hair isn’t quite black anymore. Now it’s just an icky dark brown. It makes my face appear sallow. I’m afraid to bleach it, after seeing the way Colleen’s near-black mane turned to an orangey-yellow mess of straw she had to hack off.
If I don’t want to do an impression of jaundice, I have to wear makeup every day. People ask me if I’m sick otherwise. I’m not. But even with the makeup, my eyes look hollowed out in that mirror. They match the shadows beneath them. And under my cheekbones. Here in the closet, with the sun on the other side of the building, I look almost skeletal.
I feel haunted. I don’t understand why.
I have the perfect boyfriend and I’m pursuing my favorite arts. I’m getting cast in plays and musicals, and I’m finally out of that hellhole high school, so I have no idea why I want to bash my fist into the face staring back at me.
Who are you?
I have no idea who that is in there. I only know she is hideous. Not merely ugly. Disgusting.
Oh, sure. Lots of guys ogle me when I pass them in the hallway. At parties I can tell that I’m one of the “pretty girls,” just like I was every time our team went to an away-game and I could escape the opinions of my home town.
But that…thing in the ever-deepening shadows…
What is that? Because I’ve never seen that face in the mirror before.
A click sounds at the door. My roommate comes in. Bonnie. She’s such a sweet girl. She’s worried about me. About how many nights I don’t come home and how many classes I’ve started to skip. How much I drink. How often I’m pissed off or mopey. She says I’m not eating enough.
My cheekbones would agree.
Turning away from the mirror, I exit the closet just as she flips on the light switch. She jumps and squawks at the sight of me, then heaves out a sigh with her hand on her heart. “Oh, you gave me such a fright!”
“Sorry.” I paint the smile across my lips and lie, “I was just coming over there to turn the light on. Had my hands full when I walked in.”
She laughs and puts her bag on the bed to pull out her books, setting them on the desk. “Have you gone down for dinner yet?”
I shake my head, still standing there, watching her with my arms hooked around my ribcage, two fingers curled into the fabric of my shirt.
She smiles at me. Such a warm smile. Genuine. I really should hang out with her more. “Would you like to go together?” she asks.
Her smile grows bigger and she looks relieved. “Great. We haven’t gotten to catch up in so long.”
My head moves up and down again.
How long has it been since we ate together? Well, my boyfriend and I started dating just after New Years, and I often eat at his campus apartment in the trailer court, so…
I blink hard. It hasn’t been that long, has it? No. Can’t have been…
But I can’t remember the last time Bonnie and I went down to the dining hall together. After the first two months at the all-you-can-eat-buffet, I gained the classic freshman pounds. Not fifteen, but at least ten. Then I went on the pill in February and that made everything puffier.
I’ve lost it all and then some.
I’m just…not hungry. But I go down and eat with her anyway.
August 1992 Three months later…
I’m home at my parents’ house for the summer. Dad has gotten me a job working at the oil pipeline where he’s a purchasing agent. Every summer, they hire the kids of employees for various projects. This year, it’s copying all the company’s paper documents onto microfilm.
The four of us — two girls and two boys — sweat it out in the trailer, emptying the stacks and stacks of pull-out drawers stuffed with manilla folders. Two of us rip out the pages from the prongs, one hands the pages to the fourth person manning the copier, and then chucks them in the huge trash can after they’ve been captured.
I wish it was a work day. But it’s Saturday. Only one Saturday left before I have to go back to college.
I wasn’t sure how it was going to be, riding with Dad every day for the forty-five minute trip over to Wisconsin where the office is, and then back in the evening. But it’s actually been great. We haven’t enjoyed time together in a vehicle like this since that one winter when he brought me to the hunting shack for a father-daughter ski trip. What was I then? Eight?
He taught me the mockingbird song that day.
Listen to the mockingbird… *whistle-whistle* Peckin’ at a frozen turd… *whistle-THHPT!*
Mom was NOT impressed.
Dad and I still chuckle about that one. It ranks right up there with “fish calls.” (What happens when one has to fart while out on the water. In a proper fish call, one lets the reverberation of said flatulence rumble the metal seat of the boat to call out to the fish, far and yonder.)
(What? It works.)
(Or maybe my dad is just a really great fisherman.)
But fishing reminds me of him.
That’s a good thing — the best thing — and it’s also the most painful thing. I’m losing him. I can tell. It’s been happening for months and I don’t know how to stop it. I feel like I’m on the verge of tears all the time over nothing now. And over everything. Yet I can’t actually cry.
I don’t know how to explain it. Mom keeps asking if I’m okay and what’s wrong. Dad sneaks glances at me on the way to work when I’m staring out the window with nothing to say. He doesn’t say anything either, but I can feel him.
I don’t have anything to tell them. There’s no reason I feel this way.
There’s just…this black hole. And all that shit from elementary and high school. It keeps vomiting up from my guts and puking out my mouth. For awhile there last spring, I couldn’t stop talking about it. That’s when I really did start to cry again.
I hadn’t done that since eighth grade after the Future Problem Solvers Incident where I was branded with the title of “school slut” almost two years before I’d ever had sex.
Once I escaped Hell, it all started to crack open where I could pull it out, look at it, now from a distance. It felt like squeezing smelly pus from a wound every time I was able to cry about it but —
I had to stop.
It always upset my boyfriend. That’s what started it. Losing him.
Ever since, I feel like I’m sliding down a mountainside in the middle of a slow avalanche. I keep clawing at the biggest boulders but my nails break off. Everything else slips along with me and it’s all about about to slide off the cliff, dragging me into the black hole.
Why couldn’t I have just kept quiet? Smiled for him? Kept my stupid mouth shut except to kiss him? Or other things. Why couldn’t I have just told him how much I love him instead of needing to bawl and growl about all…that?
I’m such an idiot. I really am psycho, and it’s losing me the best thing I’ve ever had in my life. He used to talk about wanting to marry me. About the life we’d make together.
Now he doesn’t say much of anything to me.
Finally, the other weekend, for the first in months, we made love. I mean, we have sex whenever we see each other, sure. But there was a thunderstorm outside and the windows were open and he hasn’t gazed at me or touched me like that since —
Once again, I stare at my reflection in the mirror. Now I understand why my mom used to stand here over this very sink, glaring at herself and hating her hair.
I hate my hair, too. It’s still that horrid shade of dark brown. I still look jaundiced unless my face is made up. I don’t have the energy for that. I don’t understand why I’m so exhausted all the time. I don’t want to do anything, go anywhere, see anyone.
But now that it’s the weekend, all I want is for Monday to come so I’ll have something to occupy my mind. I’m restless, but I’m worn out. I’m exhausted, but I can’t sleep. I toss and turn and gnash my teeth and finally crash out, only to wake up groggy and practically in tears. I want to pull the covers over my head but when I do, I can’t cry.
All I want to do is scream and scream and scream and my fingers clench around the handle of my brush.
The eyes in the mirror flash at me. Hatred.
I snarl back.
Her snarl is just as vicious. You don’t deserve to be loved when you’re like this.
Fuck you! I hate you! It’s because of you I’m losing him. You and your raging mouth, puking out stupid shit that’s over now. Why can’t you just suck it up? Put on that stiff upper lip and —
No, it’s you and your whiny-bitch tears. Wahhhhhhhh…cry-baby! Gonna cry now? That’s why he’s starting to hate you. And I don’t blame him. Everybody hates you.
Why don’t you just crawl off in a hole and die? Everybody would be happier.
Shut up! Just shut up and leave me the fuck alone! I hate you!
With a shriek of rage, I hurl the brush straight at that squinty-eyed bitch’s ugly, sneering mouth.
Her face fractures.
And then the whole thing crashes down onto the sink and the counter and the bathroom floor, leaving nothing before me but a big, black rectangle and a couple glue-stuck silver shards. I want to pry them off and slice her out of me. The black hole starts to swallow me. I start screaming and screaming and screaming and screaming and I swear it will never stop until crushing arms come around mine, pinning them to my sides.
I keep screaming until I finally stop.
I don’t know which of my parents came into the bathroom that day. I don’t remember what happened after that, except that I got my hair sliced off and my mom sent me to see a shrink. Unfortunately, it didn’t do much good, because the aftermath of that broken mirror wasn’t the only forgotten memory.
From April to September of 1992, my mind kept deleting files and hiding them in a secret hard-drive I didn’t know I had. It had done that before. A long time ago.
During college, I didn’t know that either.
All those holes in my memory left me wandering in a clueless fog, a haunted bag of bones dragging the remains of myself around, baffled by my inexplicable desire to off myself.
Fall 1992 — Bombed & Bitchy yet again, shortly after I chopped off my hair
September 1992 Three weeks later…
After the day’s classes finish, I come back to the on-campus apartment I share with three of my other Theater Department buddies. “Uff!” I drop my dance bag on the floor, kick off my shoes, and flop onto the couch next to Julia.
She’s a costuming major, so it’s no surprise that she’s hand-sewing. After our customary greeting banter, I push my chin out at her project. “What are you working on?”
“A Halloween costume.” She holds up a black bra by its elastic straps. She’s sewn black fringe onto the cups, as well a row of silver coins and a second row she’s adding now. She gives the thing a shake, making the fringe shiver and the coins tinkle against each other. “Renee wants to go as a belly dancer.”
I blink hard and stare.
…you should take lessons and then take my spot at the Greek restaurant…
I lift my head and let it lower. “That’s cool.”
October 1992 Two weeks later…
I lie on the living room floor with my feet planted on the rug, my knees drawn up, my gaze fixed on the white popcorn ceiling. From the stereo, my roommate’s Pretty Woman soundtrack plays.
“Make believing We’re together That I’m sheltered By your heart But in and outside I turn to water Like a teardrop In your palm…”
Yes, exactly. Hot tears leak out my eyes and run down my temples. He doesn’t want me anymore. He says he’s fallen in love with someone else.
With Elissa Locke, of all people.
How did he even meet another girl from my hellhole hometown? She was the preacher’s daughter. Well, the good preacher’s daughter, in contrast to her younger sister, the wild one.
And the love of my life wants Elissa. Wants to marry her already. “She’s just such a good girl.”
Slut. Whore. Skank.
Hart the Tart.
But Elissa wants to remain a virgin until marriage. Of course she does. I always liked her. She’s worthy of being liked. Worthy of marrying. She’s just a bit older than I am. Was Valedictorian, too, but a very different type of Valdictorian.
Two weeks before he dumped me for her, he'd gotten me a pretty little ring. "Until I can afford the real thing." I couldn't believe it. I had started to think he didn't love me anymore but then he put that ring on my finger. I wonder if Elissa has the real thing.
The lock at the front door clicks open. Julia and Aimee come in. Chatting and laughing. See me down there on the floor. Their voices stop.
The speakers sing my mood.
“It must have been love But it’s over now It must have been good But I lost it somehow..”
From the corner of my eye, I see them exchange glances. Not like they haven’t found me down here multiple times over the past week. The door shuts. They retreat to one of the bedrooms together. Leave me lying there in my misery.
The song ends.
I stab a finger at the Back button. The drum kicks out. Boom. Pak! Boom-boom, pak! Boom. Pak…
Another few tears slide down my face. This cyclical torment is good. I deserve it. After all, my life isn’t a Hollywood movie, so I don’t expect the sweetheart Vale-dick-whores to get happy endings, no matter how well they clean up on the outside.
October 1992 One week later...
I come out from the bedroom I share with Julia to find her and Renee in the bathroom. Renee has come over to try on her Halloween costume.
“Wow,” I say, taking her in head-to-toe. “You look great!”
She beams, turning this way and that to admire the effect in the mirror. Every one of her curves is accentuated by the embellished bra and the rows of coins and beads around her hips.
She tries out a few moves. My eyes pop open to see the effect. The fringe swishes. The coins jingle. The I-Dream-of-Jeanie pants are slit at the side-seams, joined by more beads at her knee. Little flashes of her thigh peek through as she lifts one side of her butt up and down. The fringe and coins fly and then pop.
“Oh, Julia,” she gushes and jumps in for a hug. “It’s so perfect!”
I nod with huge eyes. “You really did a great job, Jules.”
My roommate grins. “I’m so glad you like it.”
Renee kisses her cheek, then goes back to shaking all the adornments in the mirror. “I love it!”
So do I.
The faerie godmother wand jabs me between the eyes again.
You’re a really great dancer. This style seems so natural to you…It’s like your hips were made for it.
I glance down. My hips aren’t nearly as curvy as Renee’s, and I don’t have half her boobs. “So…” I hedge closer. “Do you actually know how to belly dance?”
She flip-flops her hand back and forth, then turns her back to Julia, flinging her big, thick curls over the front of her shoulder. Her hair practically glows red-violet, a shade as gorgeous and bold as she is. “Undo me?” she requests. As her everything springs free of the bra, she says to me, “I took some lessons over the summer, but my schedule is just insane this semester. So I had to drop.”
“That’s too bad,” I say with my gaze riveted to the floor tiles.
We’re all theater majors here, but I’m still not used to the way everybody strips down in front of everybody else, everywhere, no matter if they use the same bathroom or not. Julia plops down on the toilet seat without batting an eye.
The hip belt jingles onto the counter and the genie-pants hit the tiles. There in a lacy purple thong — the kind of underwear I have only ever heard of, but never seen — Renee reaches for her jeans and wriggles into them. “I really loved that class, though. It was so fun. So sexy. Mmmm… Doug sure liked it.” With a wink at Julia, she gives another little jiggle of her hips, then pulls her jeans all the way up.
Renee doesn’t strike me as a good girl, saving herself for marriage either. In fact, she strikes me as the kind of woman I wish I was. Confident. Radiant. Alluring.
There is power in that. You don’t mess with a woman like Renee.
…you should take lessons…
My eyes turn heaven-ward. All right, already! I get it!
She puts on her normal bra, a lacy match to her thong, and something I’ve only ever seen in movies — matching, non-cotton underwear. I lean against the doorframe, scraping a toe across the metal divider between the bathroom and the hallway in which I lurk. “So, uh…” My eyes lift to take in the final glimpse of her gorgeous torso. “Where did you take these lessons?”
Renee’s head snaps toward me. Her curls swish over one eye, adding mischief to her arrow-sharp gaze. Her lips curve into a smirk that I can’t help but mirror. Her eyebrows flash twice.
One of mine lifts.
Okay, so maybe girls like me don’t get Hollywood-happy endings with princes riding to the rescue, umbrellas unsheathed.
Maybe girls like me get something else. Like wonderful hips.
LINKS & REFERENCES
Our dance looked a lot like this, but…like…with less speed, skill and understanding. And alas, no guys.
Yes. You read that correctly. That would be Yellow-Face. Now, granted, our dance department in northern Minnesota in the early ’90s did not possess a plethora of Polynesian natives (or at least a pack of non-white-chicks) to assume these roles but…still.
Next Up: How some of the most notorious cultural appropriators in history became my next dance Muses— *static on the radio station*
WE INTERRUPT OUR NORMAL BROADCAST WITH...YET ANOTHER FUCKING RACIALLY MOTIVATED MURDER! ANNNNND THE WORLD ERUPTS INTO MUCH-NEEDED PROTESTS, WHICH ASSHOLES PROMPTLY PIGGYBACK, INFILTRATE, AND EXACERBATE, THUS POLARIZING HUMANITY INTO FACTIONS WHO CAN'T LISTEN TO EACH OTHER EVEN FURTHER. YAAAAAY!!!
I had to tap out. I haven't put out any new posts on Medium since this one. Seeing as how I had already been subtly growling about this topic--not just in dance but through my elementary school adventures, too--I also needed to push PAUSE and do more Listening than Speaking.
I haven't been on my Facebook profile in months, and that has been bliss. I honestly don't know that I'll be back. I've trickled a little onto my Hartebeast Page. I've been catching this blog up with what I had written on Medium, then built a Table of Contents so these memoirs can be digested according to the preferred flavors of readers. I finished editing Water and Metal for my Elements Course.
And I've been writing new posts. A LOT of new posts.
We were headed in the direction of this hot-button-topic as it was, but some of the dive into why this Catholic white-girl from Northern Minnesota chose to make a career out of belly dance and all the other non-white movement and spirituality forms that comprise my style...
Well, to answer that question, we have to go back to why I was suicidal in my sophomore year of college, and why I needed belly dancing so badly to begin with.
Remember that big timeline gap that skips from making the cheerleading squad in 6th grade directly to my dance adventures in college?
I have to open up that box I wasn't ready to tell you about before riots and hatred shut me even farther into my home. Because as things stand, I'm not actually ready to talk about why I chose belly dance. I'm still Listening too much. I'm still considering and recalibrating and shifting and mulling on that topic--something I've been doing since I first learned that there was so much more to belly dance than Bond Girls and Cleopatra.
We'll get back to it. In the meanwhile, these tales from Junior High not only turned me into a martial artist, they also laid the groundwork for the career and spiritual path I chose--a mess I've been trying to navigate since I was 19, but only gradually came to understand why it was such a shit-storm. Because I had been told for the first half of my life that "All That Race Stuff" had been "taken care of back in the 60s".
I had also been told that girls could do anything boys could do. So let's go back to 1986 where I tried to put that into action, shall we?
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: TAKE THE SHOT - A Tomboy Cheerleader's First Crush & Burn
--OR: if you want to continue in the chronological order, you can read about me as a BABY BELLY DANCER at my first class.
--OR: if you want to dive into all the cultural appropriation and prejudice issues that have plagued my decades as a belly dancer, I did eventually get in the right headspace to post them.