I’ve always loved to dance. I’d spend hours transfixed whenever dancers from the ballet or Soul Train were on TV. We were poor and immigrant in Stillwater, Okla., so there weren’t that many opportunities to see anything live. We also couldn’t afford dance lessons, so there were no recitals or classes for me. I would see a routine and spend time in my room tirelessly trying to re-create what I saw. I also checked out books from the library with photos of different stages of the dance and directions underneath.
I had to guess transitions. I will never forget the “step together, step, kick ball change into pirouette” that I picked up somewhere. I could mimic movements of the dancers I saw and recorded on our old busted VCR. I memorized and studied numbers from Fame and Solid Gold and the exquisite precision of Fosse. I, of course, learned all the choreography from music videos: Janet, Paula and Michael were the ones that would allow me to hold court on the playground. My friend Sarah had cable, so I spent hours at her house teaching her the choreography to “Beat It” and “Thriller,” but because it was her house and her rich, white grandmother who had sent her the “Thriller” AND “Beat It” jackets, she insisted on being Michael.
I’m still bitter about that.
Because I never studied, I had great form and ability but terrible technique. Even as a member of high school and college pom and dance teams, “five and six and seven and eight” meant nothing to me. I just needed to know what part of the song to start on and remembered the steps by listening to changes in the music. Because of this, I could never teach routines without a more technically skilled assistant, and I was definitely a terrible choreographer.
I wish I had been bolder as a child, insisted on the lessons or gone to the dance studio and begged for lessons in exchange for whatever a 9-year-old could offer. Money was always tight, and I didn’t want my parents to feel like they needed to do more or work harder just so I could learn a proper jeté.
So I danced in the privacy of my bedroom. When most were sleeping, I was either reading or I was dancing well into the hour when dancing should have been done in dreams. I danced to settle the movement in my head. And when my body couldn’t, I imagined the racing thoughts and surging moods as dance numbers and movement. When I began to write, I wrote as movement and rhythm, and every word had to flow into the next or it didn’t belong. That’s really how I began performing. Simply by saying the words out loud and seeing if they could dance. If they fit in my mouth and left my tongue like the cool and brown of an Ailey dancer.
College was the first time I allowed myself dance classes; I told myself that it fit some credit requirement or another. Although my lack of training was apparent, in each class, for the final production, I was cast as the lead. In African dance class, I was the final person onstage, the instructor urging me to “do what you do.” I still remember the marriage between myself and the drum.
In modern, as I played the part of a Spanish peasant girl, my partner was a long, billowing skirt. I was told to dance with it, make it swirl around my body, pick up the edges and do all these Latin dances I forgot to learn. But the other girls could leap and spin in smooth, steady circles. I had the stage presence. I had the showmanship. I wanted the technique. But you don’t start dancing at 19. I left it behind me and stuck with spoken-word poetry.
After 9/11, I was in Brooklyn, N .Y., trying to figure out what to do with my grief. My home poetry venue, Bar 13, asked us to come as we were that following Monday. I still had no poetry for the day or for my friend Michael, who was lost in the rubble. So it was me and Sweet Honey in the Rock and movement that represented a brokenhearted city.
That is the last time that I ever danced onstage in public.
When I was in Nigeria, someone I once loved announced to a room I had hoped to join in dance later that “Bassey is too Americana. She can’t dance.” The group I was with exploded with laughter and I attempted a tight, pained smile. I was hurt, but he was right. I found that my hips didn’t move the way the country did. I danced like an American, all shoulders and feet and clapping hands and snapping fingers; everyone else was winding hips and waist and ass. Things I was sure I could do but for some reason couldn’t feel. I should have known then that I didn’t belong there or with him. I didn’t belong anywhere where dance was not a comfort.
I don’t dance as often now. Sometimes, when the sadness threatens to enter my bones or the stress of writer’s block is a threat, I stand to just listen to the music and pace across the floor. But sometimes, when it strikes me, I check to see if I can still do a pirouette. It’s often shaky and careens a bit off-balance, but I can still spot and I can still twist my body into a candy ribbon of dance.
I’m not as flexible as I once was, and I don’t attempt any of those reaches or kicks anymore, but at at my worst, I know that if I can dance, if I can move, then I am not yet broken.