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Hip, Hop, Hooray!
It all began with a simple, mildly rhetorical question: “Have you ever tried hip-hop?”
And so I was launched into the incredible world of glass-shattering pop music, baggy sweatpants, and anti-leg-warmer sentiment. To a proud and conservative bunhead, it’s a world entirely mind-blowing.
I spent all of my free hours for the past eight years doing the same thing in the same room at the same place: ballet. I’d been pirouetting since my diaper days. My first memories involve an eruption of pink tulle and spandex, with my toes crunched into stiff, squared-off torture devices cleverly disguised as wearable shoes.
I remember the dusty light filtering through a propped-open window, reflecting the mirrored walls and vinyl floor, where I could see the faint glint of my own sweat-drenched complexion. Needless to say, I’d never considered doing anything else with my abundant free time. My adolescence was, and still is, entirely dedicated to the practice of squeezing oneself into unflattering nylon, folding oneself into impossible alignments, and abusing one’s hair to the point of near baldness. All with Tchaikovsky plunking about in the background, played by an obese Russian woman whose only job was to be constantly chastised by the irritated ballet mistress.
Much to my parents’ chagrin, I’ve dedicated my life to this art/torture/joy, with all its neatness and tranquility and blood sacrifices. Ah, if only they’d known, the night they took me to my first ballet. I believe it was The Nutcracker, or perhaps Swan Lake or Giselle, some ancient piece of classical work that demands utter perfection from its leading bunhead, a ballet that should have resulted in intense boredom, but instead nourished some passion unknown to little three-year-old me.
So the thought of me, a proud, slicked-back, helmet-haired, straight-spined ballet student taking a dance class where neon was socially acceptable? Nuh uh. However, in the spirit of change, I donned my baggiest pants and tightest shirt, but instead of looking artistic or uber-hip, I resembled an inflatable penguin with sneakers three sizes too big.
Nevertheless, I found myself in a square studio on a Saturday morning, sweat clouding the mirrors, inspirational posters tattooing the concrete walls. No pianist, no ballet mistress, no pink. Mind blown.
The dance teacher was the epitome of cool. She wore legwarmers on her arms, sported oversize hipster glasses, all while rocking along to obscure existential rap music. Before the boombox was set on full blast, she yanked me to the front of the room, introducing me to an armada of equally cool, spandexed teenagers who couldn’t help but giggle at my duck-footed attempts to “body roll.”
It was exhilarating. Totally freeing. The heavy metal beats and the screech of a wailing pop star, all while our bodies blurred into a rainbow of fluttering crop tops and baggy sweatpants, faces hidden by swinging hair. These guys got the beat, and boy did they move to it. They were hip, and they sure knew how to hop, and roll, and pop and lock. The movements were jarring, edgy, hopelessly modern, and most of all, impossible for a girl whose lifelong mantra is “swan neck, soft hands.”
Two water breaks later, we were back on the floor, me trying to get my “cool” on, though I ended up squatting and awkwardly waving and cycling my hands, as if I were sponging an imaginary windshield. Meanwhile, up front, the teacher was crying out the names of various indistinguishable positions, the students following her command, each with a whiff of serious attitude.
Instead of striving for uniformity or perfection, they moved for the pure freedom of moving. Shouted steps and stern commands were merely guides, not instructions. At the end of the two-hour session, I learned three exceedingly important morals that would serve me well for the rest of my life: a) Don’t just randomly break into the robot/sprinkler/Macarena when you don’t know what the step is, b) Don’t touch anyone while you are dripping sweat, because it is disgusting, and c) FOR GOD’S SAKE JUST DANCE.
Dancing isn’t about the swan neck and soft hands and rigid posture and following the person in front of you so you aren’t out of time with the rest of the corps. No, it’s about moving and laughing and leaping and flying, letting the music fluctuate down your neck and through your arms, electrifying your toes, until you feel like the ceiling is merely a limit. Whether you’re waltzing to Mozart or popping to Eminem, it’s all the same. Hear it, feel it, dance it. I may have spent the greater part of two hours head-banging to crashing melodies and flailing my arms over my head like a very angry squid, but I still danced. And I still loved it.
Hear, feel, dance.