During fourth grade, my Mom signed me up for an entire year of jazz class. As I sat in the headmistress office, she explained that I’d never taken a formal dance class but would like to dance with girls my own age. However, due to my lack of experience, the headmistress placed me with third grade students, in hopes I’d catch up next year. It was humiliating to tell my friends and girls I wished were friends, that I was not talented enough to dance in their class.
The lack of eligibility reminded me of the stark differences between myself and the other girls within my private Catholic elementary school. Distinctions separated us. The backbone of my home life fashioned obscurity and failure to matchup with their elite status. Mindful of the divide, I awkwardly fumbled through fourth grade dance, failing to obtain sanctuary in anyone’s posse.
The majority of the girls in my school took ballet, jazz or tap at the same dance academy where Mom enrolled me. Those girls seemed to navigate late childhood with freedom, they made excellent grades, were sought after by boys and were the beautiful people.
Twice a week I’d see them in between dance classes, and they were confident in their bodies that just seemed to fit gorgeously into their one piece spandex suit. I was uncomfortable in my body, and the leotard felt restrictive, bunchy and excessively tight. The close fitting one piece garment didn’t feel flattering to my chubby frame. I was aware of my polarity to the other girls and so self-conscious of my husky figure, that was now mummified in this dark navy leotard and pale pink tights. At night I sank into my customary cycle of eating for comfort.
My heart was desperately seeking solace, hoping to find mastery over the mayhem.
Overeating was a daily part of my growing up, which made pardoning the shame of dance and my fatness as easy as a bowl of macaroni and cheese. Food was a compounded cure-all to the sorrow of my young soul. Yet, underneath my brown bangs my eyes would fill with tears, saddened by the poking fun from other kids, my paunchy physique and lack of social nobility. The violence I faced in and out of home cultivated my continual abuse of food. At night I’d eat to feel, which was executed by consuming gorge sums of food, only to awake in the early morning hours to a tummy ache and explosive vomiting. This pattern spilled over into my teenage and young adult years, bridging into restriction of meals and purging, increasing my hate towards my body and numbing my visceral sensation.
At the beginning of fifth grade, Mom signed me up for jazz. I don’t recall exactly if I was promoted to dance with peers my age or my feelings of finishing fourth grade dance but do remember anxiously prolonging my departure into a new semester of dance. My Mom told me that I did not want to dance and did not want to go back. In prompts to writing this piece, I asked my Mom, “Why didn’t I want to dance?” Her reply, “I do not know,” an astoundingly flat answer to an extended truth. An answer I pardoned for my own until I experienced the magic of dance.
Since fourth grade I’ve learned of dance’s extraordinary ability to ground our connection to our body and to the community with whom we dance with. A realization that clicked last January after I’d spent two weeks volunteering at Homes of Hope, an orphanage for girls in Southern India. The residents, as young as four and old as twenty, carried narratives of sorrow, abuse, violence and abandonment, yet their faces were a reliant testimony of the healing power of community. Curious of the program’s thematics, I spent time with the director, Sister Ancy, a lovely older nun whose words poured out like grace. Clearly the residents were loved and supported but the key link to their success was a delicate thread of liberation.
Upon departure, the girls prepared a special evening to honor all volunteers in my group, and the main of event was dancing! I was enthralled to watch numerous choreographed sways, twirls and taps, but the finale was the most spectator production. Rehearsed moves, sporadically overflowed into a group free-style dance party, where every girl, nun and the volunteers boogied to their own cadence.
In the thick humidity of an Indian summer night, as we grooved and moved to Bollywood beats, I looked over to see Sister Ancy dancing with the girls. As I danced over to her, she looked kindly into my eyes, touched my arm and leaned toward my ear and said, “When we dance we get free in our bodies, it is our therapy.”
The words and presence of Sister Ancy mothered my heart and its etchings of fourth grade Anna, who really does want to dance but in the past didn’t have a container to hold her tender young spirit so that she would be free to do so.
That night there was a tangible freedom of dancing amidst the Sisters and forty orphans; it was the liberty of the Holy Spirit. As we danced, my feet grew iridescent, heart became a feather and I felt stunning awe of Jesus’ pleasure upon us. Jesus delights in our heart’s longings, He dances with us, He takes part in our dance of joy and mourning. He sings over us and weeps with us.
Jesus redeems our time to dance.
Anna Smith is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Restore One, where she works diligently on their chief project, The Anchor House. The Anchor House will be the first shelter in the nation designed to meet the needs of sex trafficked and sexually exploited American boys. Anna has a resilient passion to see sex trafficking victims experience true healing and restoration. In her spare time, Anna enjoys biking with her husband Chris, reading, cooking, throwing pottery, running and yoga. Learn more about Restore One here.