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As the fires burn, I dance. As the flames fly from wall to wall seeking out life, I twist and twirl. The smoke floods the barren room with hatred and anger. Hot red emotions suck the breath from my lungs and tear the thoughts from my head. While the heat moves toward my spinning form, my raised hands and my arched back of my dance carries me away. The fires burned through the music but my song plays to my ears anyway. The melody sings through my shaking body and my leaping legs. Beats of my song hit in time with the rhythm of my heart. The bright red fingers climbing up the walls of the dance studio reach for me -- searching for my soul. As my veins pump my blood, my tune runs alongside a part of me- the routine I follow as my legs point and kick, away from the fires chasing me. As the fire flickers and reaches for me, I move into the rhythm of my song. My dance is my life, and this is my performance.
The struggle for independence entered my life in 1990 when political tensions and ethnic hatred set my city on fire. I was eleven when I first remember being spit on for being Croatian- I still see the look in the older boy’s eye of pure hatred for a struggle my generation inherited. I still feel the sticky spit on the side of my face clinging to my cheek, branding his hate. Yesterday he shared his dried fruit with me after I skinned my knee in tag but in today’s world all it takes to brand me different from him is heritage.
Yesterday after best friends Katarina and Sava, older by two years, helped me up and sat with me, he ran to get water for me to clean my knee. Today I am Croatian and he is Serbian. I didn’t wipe his hate off my face because I didn’t understand. I walked along the dusty path towards home that day counting my footsteps till I could feel what made me different. My feet waded through the sea water by my city feeling the tug of the tide against my legs. I looked out at the green ocean and wondered what his eyes saw when they watched the fallen leaves be carried by the water. I wondered what his feet felt walking out of the ocean into the dry sand as it stuck to his skin. I wondered why he hated me and what made me so different.
Every time the struggle touched me, the wooden dance studio was still standing -- waiting for me. I was three when an Aunt left me there while Mami was in labor having my baby brother. A tiny dark haired woman was giving instructions to a group of girls moving in beautiful twists and leaps and turns. I thought the woman would break as she showed a girl how to bend her body backwards to the floor. I drifted into the middle of the room watching-trying to follow. My legs moved after the other girls, my arms held me tight as I twirled a beat off. I flicked my wrists as the girls leapt but my heart was there -- in tune fitting in this beautiful movement.
That woman Adrijana Amir taught me that if you twist up and let go, you could fly. She taught me that when you pirouette into a ball change and a turn if you break it down, what side of border your parents came from doesn’t matter because you aren’t anyone but a dancer. The girls at her dance school were mostly Serbian as was she but to her if you lived, breathed, and slept dance like I did, it didn’t matter. When my brother came home bloody from stones hurled at his face when he walked by certain sections of the city, I ran to the studio. Inside nothing touched me, nothing but the blood running through my veins carrying me into each dance move. Only the beat of my heart beating with the rhythm of the song mattered. 6
I still feel my fear when I got caught throwing rocks with my schoolmates through someone’s abandoned home. I can still feel the chase as teen boys and girls hunted us throughout my city of Dubrovnik. My heart still beats faster when I hear voices behind me as I walk on the street alone. I got separated with another girl from school, we ran past the city buildings to the harbor. We flew feet pounding in unison to where the ocean of four years ago laid an escape. I threw myself into the sea, graceless and fearful. I splashed out to where I couldn’t be reached from the beach. When I looked back Katarina was standing in the shallows not following. My gaze glanced on her back and as I swum closer I saw why she wouldn’t turn her back and swim to safety. No longer a game, one of them held a gun pointed at Katarina.
At eleven I accepted if not understood that today you can be giggling with your best friend and tomorrow she might point a gun at the forehead she kissed the day before. Katarina looked her in the eye and spoke clearly “Sava, if it makes you feel better shoot me.” The air drained out of my lungs, I expected her to later tell me when it was safe and to be my shield.
Sava backed up, mouthed, “I’m sorry love” and shot Katarina in the middle of the forehead. My heart became too heavy for me to hold and my tears fell down my cheeks, staining my face with disbelief and grief. I sunk beneath the waves- terrified and traumatized. I walked home that night putting my feet down a different way- seeing the world in the raw reality I just witnessed.
Whenever something didn’t happen right for one group of people, they got angry and the streets became embers of a fire waiting to be sparked to life. One word could set the mobs off. The tailor down the street, the grocer, the butcher, and Tanya’s dad become a hating mob, not people I have walked past on the street everyday of my life. They become people made brave by being with others and they scare someone’s grandmother to make them feel strong. They hit people that can’t fight back-cripples, children, and old ones.
When the hate is lit in their eyes, the young ones like me strong enough to run and young enough to be innocent escape into doorways and empty buildings. I run to the studio -- there I am safe. Every time I barely miss being grabbed and I arrive out of breath, there are more empty places.
People are trying to leave- I noticed their absences numbly until I ran to the dance studio and there was no one but Adrijana. Her dark curls fell over her eyes masking the tears I could see falling and I watched her hurriedly stuff belongings into bags and boxes. She wouldn’t tell me what happened to make her leave now when she had been standing strong before. She didn’t need to- I could see the cuts on her face and the bruises under her eyes. I could see the slowness she moved as if my dance teacher had been broken and her body had lost the strength to dance. As we packed together I stared at the cracked mirrors that had held my image for so many years. I tried to memorize the feel of this place- I wanted to be able to come back here always in my memories. I wanted to never forget.
We heard voices of the mob coming down the alley yet she stayed calm. She held me tight to her with her tears mixing with mine. I told her if she left,13
“I would lose everything. The music wouldn’t play and I wouldn’t dance.”
“No, Dannica. You will dance- it’s in your blood and it is who you are. The life you live is your song, everyone is dancing a routine but the performance you dance is up to you.”
Those are the last words I heard from her, and she was gone. Just not there and I had a silver key pressed in my hand. I threaded a piece of string through the key and wore it around my neck under my clothes.
The war exploded above our heads in giant balls of shrapnel and fire that burned through flesh and ripped apart people. In October of 1991, my world burst into flames. The shells left craters and scars in people that held us entwined in the knots of hatred and anger that were constantly being pulled tighter.
Every time a shell hit it left a wound in the heart of Dubrovnik. When it hit buildings they burst into flames leaping high into a raw heart-wrenching reality. The shells bombarded my city constantly- they didn’t end. I went to sleep at night to â€˜boom-boom-boom-boom-boom’ it became the rhythm of the war.18
The gates of my city were filled with people searching for somewhere safe. Refugees chased from their homeland- the most desperate but also the most unwanted in our midst. I watched grown men walk by beggar children and spit. I saw women of my neighborhood who would stop their work to soothe a child’s fears make faces at the children who stood barefoot in winter. The refugees camped in the gates too afraid of the rebel fighters shelling the city to turn back, and too afraid of the shame they felt among the people who still had a home to come forward.
I sometimes sat when I didn’t hear the shells and watched the children. The little ones ran in the dirt and giggled when you smiled at them. I saw my baby brother Andro giggling as I picked him up and spun him around. The seven and eight year olds played tag games and refused to cry when they fell, determined to seem older than the innocent children they were. I saw my sister Slavi gritting her teeth as Mami dripped water over the gash in her leg. The girls my age helped carry water in grimy wash buckets plugged with clothing scraps and they smiled and giggled at each other at inside jokes as they walked.
I thought of how Sava and Katarina used to be, heads together -- twinned in spirit. They were inseparable- always laughing together or holding hands and skipping or eating lunch together. I envied them their sisterhood once.
The boys ran around causing havoc everywhere they went attempting to show off their strength and maturity to anyone who might watch or listen. I saw my classmates getting in the way as the men tried to build a boat by the seaside. The mothers smiled grimly at their children and worked side by side to survive, glistening stars of pain always about to drop from their eyes. I saw Mami pretending to smile through her tears as Papi told her about the struggle for independence. I saw her shake her head at the foolishness of the men who were getting people killed. I saw her concentrate on not feeling the pain of what this war has done to us and focus on taking care of her family and surviving.
I watched the refugees and I watched the city- we are the same- same blood runs in our veins-same language we barter for food in- same feelings we have when we swim in the waves in the summer heat- same pain we feel to hear the shells ripping our world apart around us. I think the city people hate the refugees because they know when Dubrovnik is no longer standing then we will not longer be city people -- but people without a home too. I think my mother and father and my teacher and my friend’s family are afraid that this war can take away more from us than we have already lost. We are afraid.
I was holding a refugee baby, her awkward weight slipping in my arms, when hungry people ran by chanting. They had sticks in their hands and starvation in their faces. The baby pressed her sticky lips to my cheek as I tried to shift her weight so I could back out of sight. The people were tired of being afraid in their own city, they wanted the siege to be over, and they wanted to not be hungry,’ they screamed at the refugees. Mobs of hunger-driven hating people descended on the refugee camp, determined to find someone to blame for their family’s pain and their children’s cries from hunger cramps. The baby’s mother took her child from me, cradling the child in bony arms.
As the mob walked through the camp, ghosts come back to reap the living, blasts shook the city. Rain of fire came down around us, barely missing crying babies and shivering children. I turned my back on the gates and ran. Fire erupted around me, the hatred and anger burning up my city. I scrambled through alleys and dodged building corners. The ferocity of the shells was different. The shells were more concentrated but I ran.
I slipped the tattered thread from under my shirt and thrust the tiny key into the lock. The door opened after three shells almost hit me. I slipped inside the wooden dance studio, finally somewhere it seemed safe. As the shells dropped around the studio I walked up to the cracked mirrors reflecting whom I had come to be. I pressed my cheek to it and held up my hand.
The movement mirrored me- my body began to sway- my movement carrying me into a twist. No music was playing but I knew I didn’t need any. An explosion deafened me. I felt the body shake and creak with exertion. I began to feel added warmth to the air. I heard crackling wood-soaking up oxygen from an abandoned building dry in its in use. I twirled and I twisted -- a never-ending spiral of limbs. My hair flew around me-wisps of brown hair whipping my neck and cheeks. My body bent into forms that evolved into leap and jump. My feet moved following an intricate pattern changing as I moved.
“The life you live is your song, everyone is dancing a routine but the performance you dance is up to you.”
Flames encircled me, dancing as my partner from wall to wall. The door fell with a bang, as it erupted into flickers of orange heat. While the fire leapt out toward me I backed away and turned. When the tendrils of yellow flame tried to hold my hand as we moved in unison- I bent my arms back to the floor and my movement carried my body over to my feet. My routine was steps my body felt and then became- as the fires burned I danced. While sparks leapt to wooden floorboards I flicked my wrists and twisted into a bow and spin. I don’t think out my routine because my body knows the rhythm. I avoid the fires out there for me- a continuation of the dance I have perfected with the practice of living it. As the fires burn, my routine is my movements, my song plays without me needing to hear the music and while the flames reach for me I perform the performance of my life.
Great Falls, Virginia
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