THE BASE: SOLID GOLD REBEL - Where BellaDancer & The Beast Began
Second Grade Fall
From my bedroom, I hear the front door go ka-thump! I do a little jig.
Free! My fifteen minutes of bliss!
And how will I spend it? Duh, dancing!
Mom is a teacher’s aide at the school, so she has to be there fifteen minutes before I do. She told me goodbye before she left, and I pretended I was still getting ready. Nope. I’ve been ready to leave for three minutes now. I’ve just been pacing in my room, waiting to hear that I’m alone.
The second I am, I rush out to the living room, throw my bag near the front door, and turn on the record already waiting in the player: The World’s Best Classical Music. My favorite song from Carmen blares through the speakers.
I am a Toreodore!
I don’t really know what that is, but this music makes me feel proud and tall. I march around the room — because it’s a march, and because the song tells me to. I kick my legs high and fling my arms like I’m carrying swords — until the moment when everything goes floaty. I know exactly when it’s coming. Right on cue, I parade around like I’m wearing a very long dress with a train. I pretend my hair is long, too, instead of my boy’s bowl-cut. Then I’m off! Marching and flinging and kicking again. Toward the end, the music becomes like Dorothy’s house caught in the tornado. Tornado is close to Toreodore, so I spin super, super fast and then stop! I stomp tah-DAH!
I look out through the big picture window, arms still raised in triumph, ready to take my bow.
But Henry Anderson is standing out on the street in front of my house, watching me. He is Johnny’s oldest brother, the scariest of all the big kids. He points right at me, does a few of my dance moves like they’re the stupidest thing he’s ever seen, and then he doubles over laughing.
I want to crawl under the house, never to be seen again.
Racing into my bedroom, all I can do is shake. This time, all the flinging is me onto my bed, face down where I want to hide forever. I’m a thousand — no, a million times more embarrassed than when Becky made fart noises behind me on the first day of kindergarten and blamed it on me. I can hardly breathe. I’m sure my cheeks will start the blanket on fire, and that would be horrible. Besides, I can’t stay here forever. I have to get to school.
Is he still out there?
I dart down the hallway and poke my nose out from behind the wall. He hasn’t come up to stare into the window so, very slowly, very carefully, I slink-crawl my best kitty-prowl under the piano bench, behind the railing, and over to the front door. I peek out from behind the curtains.
That doesn’t mean he’s not hiding behind somebody’s house or that he won’t lie in wait on the next block. But at least I’m safe for a minute. I grab my bag, knowing I’m going to have to run in order to make it in time for the bell.
Tomorrow and forever after that, I will close the curtains whenever I dance, because no laughing, pointing, scary Henry Anderson is going to stop me doing what I love most!
Air Meets Earth by Leigh Photography 2019
I have always been a dancer.
The addiction started with my mother’s piano playing and records of classical music. My favorites were Teddy Bear Picnic and March of the Toreodors. Eventually, I longed to be a Solid Gold Dancer, Alex the Flashdancer, or my cousin Jill’s mini-me.
That last dream at least got to be reality whenever we visited or vacationed with the family of my dad’s brother. Jill has been a dancer since she was three. She still is, and the dancers she turns out *ba-dum-tss* are champions, including her daughters.
As a dancer, she is one of the people who made me. We had no dance in my rural Minnesota hometown, and it wasn’t possible for me to travel to the “big city” of Duluth for lessons, so during holidays Jill taught me the dances she had learned for competition. She dressed me up in her costumes, and we presented them in shows for our family.
In between those events, there was always Little Orphan Annie. I had acquired a group of enthusiastic performers and taught them Hard Knock Life for a school talent show. We rifled through my dad’s ripped, paint-stained work clothes for costumes, and scrubbed our knuckles raw on the basement floor. I played that soundtrack so obsessively my mom finally had to hide the vinyl.
But I would not be thwarted! I could sing those songs in my sleep — and I did!
How I dreamed of running away from it all into a better life where someday I, too, would inspire a rebellion of the oppressed and outcast through my songs, my dances, and my woefully straight, cowlicked, dun-brown hair. And my big 80’s glasses. And yes, especially my braces and headgear. Which I had to wear all night and all darn day.
On to the dance rebellion!
Apparently I really had been born to twinkle my toes, but alas, in spite of being a natural performer and an eternal ham, off stage I was so shy and socially awkward that becoming a Rebellion Leader didn’t happen.
So I became a Dastardly Infiltrator instead.
MBTI Side-note: Perhaps if I’d been put in charge of a squadron of robots, things may have turned out differently…
But I wasn’t. Here’s what happened instead:
Sixth Grade Spring
“So…I was wondering…”
I shut my gym locker and turn to face her, swimming bag hoisted, face set to neutral.
The Willowy One has waited until almost all the other girls have left the locker room before speaking to me.
I should say before dropping the bomb I never could have seen coming.
“So…all of us are trying out for cheerleading on Friday and everybody needs a partner and…” Her eyes go shfty. She tries a little smile. “I don’t have one so…would you want to be mine?”
I blink. Blink again. I’m pretty sure my face must look like somebody just removed my brain and replaced it with the insides of a watermelon.
Her smile grows bigger. “You’re athletic and you’re always so good at jumprope and you did that dance in the Hula show and…”
And my blink slows waaaaay down. Glacier mode approaches.
Reminding me of that fourth grade Hula dance is not the best way to sway me. Those girls had spent at least fifteen minutes squabbling over who would have to play the third Mama In a Mumu in our Hawaaian teacher’s choreography for Grandparents’ Day. (The first two girls volunteered faster than light speed so they wouldn’t be forced to wear coconut shells and grass skirts.) I had finally gotten sick of the bickering and finger pointing.
“Well, your belly hangs over your pants!”
“Well, you’re flatter than a pine board! You should be the Mama.”
“I don’t wanna be the Mama. She should be the Mama!”
“Fine!” I had shouted, grabbing the big flowery, shapeless dress that would hide every one of the dance moves I could do in my sleep. “I’ll be the Mama. Sheesh!”
Victorious Grinners: 2,794 Me: 94
In acknowledgement of my long-hailed dance skills — seemingly so awe-inspiring that they were memorable beneath a mumu — I lift my head and let it lower, unmoved by Willow’s compliments.
What will be the price of admission this time?
And why me? The class geek. The super-nerd. Cheerleading? No way. Cheerleaders are exotic aliens. They’re paragons of the gleaming smile, the leggy allure, and the Aqua Net hair, while I am…
Is this another setup? I clutch my bag close to my chest with my feet braced to bolt.
Willow’s smile falters and I see it in her face for a second. She means it — no. She needs it.
I take a quick head count. Of course. Queenie will try out with Princess. Jeans will pick Rainbow. That leaves the newcomer, Willow, who has only been with us for two years.
The hugeness in her eyes tells me how nervous she is to try out by herself. “Please?” she asks — more like squeaks it in a voice that betrays her fear. An absolute no-no. Such vulnerability is never to be revealed to one of my pariah status.
But I’m a sucker for someone in distress (and a sucker for dancing), so I agree.
After classes finish, we meet in the cafeteria where two high school girls teach us a few cheers and the school song. As it turns out, cheerleading is nothing more than musical theater: memorize the lines, enunciate and project, portray the proper character, and perform the steps as though people in the nosebleed seats need to see them.
For me, this is as easy as failing to keep my cowlick straight (Aqua Net and all).
By the time the first practice is done, I can feel my classmates’ slitted eyes and growls already. Nothing new there. So I have a perfect toe-touch on the first try.
So they’ve been practicing these moves since we were in kindergarten when some of them were awarded tiny cheer uniforms to follow the real cheerleaders like mini-mascots in rosy cheeks and hair-bobbled corkscrew curls. Some of these girls have been dreaming of being a cheerleader since they could stand.
Me? Nah. I want to be on Broadway. I’m not a cheerleader. I’m just playing one onstage. For One Night Only!
I mean, come on. Cheerleaders don’t invite ugly, glasses-wearing geeks into their ranks, so I give it my all if only to prove the point: that I can out-herky my jerky schoolmates who have hated me, turned my name into a bad word, stalked me home, lied about me when they aren’t dragging my desk away from the classroom, destroyed my forts and artwork, tripped-shoved-punched-smacked-poked-pinched-and-prodded me since kindergarten — or earlier.
Just to savor my one grand moment of triumph before the cheer positions are awarded to all the cute, popular girls (and before the ones from my class rub my nose in it for a week straight), I blow every one of those back-stabbing twits out of the water.
Afterwards, I jock-walk my nerd-self home, patting myself on my hunchy-shouldered-don’t-look-at-me-please-don’t-ever-notice-me back.
OHHHH, that felt good!
But I’ve learned the hard way that being good at stuff doesn’t get you picked first by other kids, especially when it comes to things like boys, coconut shell bras, and flouncing around in shorty-short skirts. Oh, well. I can console myself by adding toe-touches and pikes to my latest quest to teach myself how to do a back walk-over.
The normal shuffling of books and bags and the daily pecking order ensues as we make our way to our desks. The bell rings.
A few seconds later, the outgoing senior class cheerleaders descend from on high, a matched set of four in their orange-and-black uniforms. They are tall and leggy — dare I say willowy? Like Queenie and Princess, they are gorgeous Amazons or pixies with perfect, permed hair and gleaming smiles. A beatific glow hums around them, shining sunlight into our shadowy grade school halls. They come bearing two orange-tipped carnations.
Both of them for me.
As Meg and Ursula pin them to my red-and-pink plaid shirt, I almost swallow my tongue. I am completely certain that I’ve transformed into a set of unblinking eyeballs, gawking at them through my glasses.
Because these two aren’t merely cheerleaders. They’re student council leaders, in the National Honor Society, and they are the first- and second-chair flute players of the high school band — my idols. Meg was my favorite babysitter when I was little, and those girls were the big sixth-graders when I was in kindergarten.
On those days when the Wicked Witch left me in the cafeteria with the command that I had to finish all my canned peas before I could join them on the playground for recess, the sixth-grade girls took me as a pet. They called me Milkweed because that’s what I had named my first tooth. It fell out while I was finishing my milk. These girls sat with me and petted my hair and called me cute and told me stories so that I didn’t care about missing recess. I refused to eat those peas. They weren’t even green!
“You don’t have to,” Meg told me with a wink.
“Nope,” Ursula chimed in. “We won’t tell.”
As they pin cheerleading carnations to my shirt to make me one of them, I doubt they remember that. But I’ve never forgotten.
“Congratulations,” they say, and I can barely squeak out my thanks.
I look down and touch the flowers, just to make sure they’re really there — they’re really mine. Then the realization strikes.
One carnation is backed by a construction paper basketball. The other sports a football.
My tongue finds its way up from my stomach to flop out on the ground. Yes, adding insult to injury, I have not only made the JV basketball squad, I have also made the coveted football squad. Technically that’s varsity, as we only have one football team.
The announcement over the intercom sends shockwaves rolling through the grade school.
Apparently everyone forgot about that one birthday party I was invited to at Queenie’s house during second grade. There in pajamas, backed by dark umber wood paneling, on a stage of gold shag carpet (solid gold, baby), the dorky little egghead — the shy, homely loser with the homemade clothes, the one nicknamed “Farty-Harty” and “The Dog” — blew everybody’s dancey minds to a new pop hit: Toni Basil’s Hey Mickey. I’d never heard that song before they put it on, but I still won that dance contest.
You see, the Willowy One wasn’t here in second grade, so she didn’t have a clue. She had unwittingly invited the fox up the pecking-order ramp, and I cleaned out the henhouse.
My dejected classmates got the last laugh that day, because initiation into cheerleading came with a day dressed up and painted as a clown to be heckled and jeered until the final bell.
Nothing new there, either. I took my hazing like the seasoned reject I was.
Ultimately, it would be my destiny to grab back the last-laugh and hold onto it for several years, because it wouldn’t be until our sophomore year that any of my classmates made any cheerleading squad.
By then, I had become Miss Cheer Thang. In spite of still being a Misfit Toy, nobody could deny my choreographic prowess. I was also destined to inherit Ursula’s old position of second-chair flute. I made National Honor Society, All-State Band, All-State Volleyball, starred in multiple plays and musicals, and although my classmates never would have voted me into student council, my position of Valedictorian wasn’t awarded through votes. It was earned over the course of thirteen years stuck in Hell, my discipline and determination tallied in cold, hard black-and-white.
In my black-and-orange, on the other hand, I at least looked like a popular girl. At away-games, everybody mistook me for one. Shorty-short skirt, lace-trimmed ankle socks, saddle shoes, and nylon jacket with the fancy embroidered flap on the back.
Geek Incognito: Perpetually on Code Orange-n-Black (11th Grade)
In contrast, on non-game days while I was wrapped in the woobie-armor of my quarterback boyfriend’s blue-and-white letter jacket from the evil rival town, I raised my middle fingers at my alma mater for the atrocious way She had treated me since I had entered Her doors.
Hadn’t I always wanted to become a Rebel Leader?
Well, Princess Leia I was not, and my huge cheer foamies with the upraised middle fingers didn’t win me any fans. But after a decade of ostracizing and abuse, it made the point. Two of them.
Don’t worry. I paid for that.
Oh yeah, I promised to tell you how the glasses-wearing geek became the choreographer for the Varsity cheerleaders, didn’t I? I don’t mean the football squad I cut my teeth on. Nope, I mean the senior high girls who cheered for varsity basketball.
Too bad my fellow JV squadders chose to roll their eyes and brush off the stupid little overenthusiastic seventh-grader’s choreography to Deniece Williams’ Let’s Hear It For the Boy. They didn’t want my dork-dance.
But the varsity squad did.
True to form, I’d always gotten along best with the kids considerably older or younger than I was. In truth, I preferred to hang out with adults.
Teaching the older girls that dance didn’t win me any favors with my own squad, but they were already un-thrilled to be invaded by a social outcast. In that school, you just didn’t outshine the beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed bombshells. Especially if you were a brown-eyed, brunette brainiac of dorkalicious notoriety.
But I just couldn’t stop myself from giving everything my all.
I paid for that, too. Hard.
I still pay for it to this day. My underdog-misfit issues are legendary among anyone who knows me well — shit, anyone who knows what they’re looking at.
Yet it’s my passions that have always saved me. If I remain loyal and devoted to them, they never fail me, and they’re a far better hole-filler than alcohol, sex or drugs.
As a cheerleader, what I wanted most was to choreograph awesome dances and cheers, and to share them with anyone who wanted to play with me. But in order for anybody to reap the benefits of the choreographies or my three-foot vertical in volleyball or any of my other Solid Gold Skillz, they had to deal with ME.
And I had earned the first layer of that mighty chip on my shoulder by the end of kindergarten. Sitting there alone in the cafeteria with the lingering refrain of my teacher’s sneers and my classmates’ echoing jeers had soured the taste of more than my lunch. That chip pretty much built itself.
Chiseling it off, layer by layer, has been considerably more difficult.
I never was named the official cheer captain. I was the youngest for a long time, and in my senior year, we got a new advisor who didn’t want to rock the boat of those very girls I had beaten out in sixth grade.
Fine with me. I had been the primary choreographer for years without the title, and that’s what mattered most to me — the cheers. The dances. I didn’t give a flier’s bloomer-covered butt about the position of captain. I just wanted to create something amazing together.
For a time, we did. By my junior year, our podunk little squad had plumped to ten girls and two boys. We got snazzy new uniforms, and we placed in our first competition.
Girls are girls, though, and when we were seniors, my classmates got to finally overturn everything I’d built with my handful of cheer-geeks-in-arms. During fall photos, a squabble ensued over who got to be on top. It put such a deep rift in that squad that we never made it back to compete.
And those photos?
Well, there is a reason why the smaller, lighter girls fly, and it has nothing to do with how cool or how pretty they are. If it did, I would have been relegated to the bottom of the base.
Cheer-Nerd: 7th grade
And with that, we conclude Round I of my childhood memories. That was the brain I was born with, the development of my initial personality, and how I got started dancing.
We’re going to delve into that last topic more heavily now, because people constantly ask me what my dance style is and where it came from, and because in order to understand the TBI ghost, it’s important to know who died and who Phoenixed.
People also ask me how I keep mustering up the tenacity to keep dancing in spite of 20 years living with injury, against the medical prognosis that I’d “never be a dancer again” and amidst the storms of the dance world itself. Teachers, dance partners, critics, producers, and the slew of toe-twinklers who have tried to convince me that I don’t “do it right.”
Well, I have always instinctually understood how to form a stable foundation. I learned that from my parents, and later from my closest friends. Their love and support is one of the primary building blocks that gives me the strength to keep believing in myself and my passions amidst hurricanes.
An art which I’m still learning to this day.
Along with this one:
Up Next: Cracking open that old burning question — was I actually ever a belly dancer?
Want to go back to the beginning of this whole adventure? Here is where I began answering all those questions.