Dancing Gives My Body Back To Me
In a world that demands that I straighten and shrink myself, I haven’t always been comfortable enough to dance freely. But nothing makes me feel more connected to my community — or my own body.
I hate sweating.
Summers on the East Coast can feel torturous. Sticky and sullen, I fan myself to stay sane during humid daytime hours. I wilt and whine. My skin, wrung for every ounce of perspiration it can produce, admonishes my other organs to slow their frenetic movement.
But at night, in dark moments and even darker corners, I welcome my body’s barometer. There is one space where sweat signals not discomfort but accomplishment, where my energy need not be conserved. On the dance floor, I (two-)step outside the constant demands made of my body and simply let it be. Here, I move both despite and because of constant reminders that I should not.
To inhabit a body both black and woman is to shoulder the twin weights of racism and sexism without respite, without intermission. We, the wrong kind of women, bear the burden of respectability even as we celebrate. Moving with abandon in the wrong company means risking the omnipresent danger of “catching someone’s eye,” as my mother often says. Indeed, my body never moves outside the specter of gendered violence. Every woman I know has been harassed at a bar or party or lounge by a man who refused to accept that her “no” does not mean “convince me,” that her body can twirl or twerk without operating in service of his pleasure.
This country’s obsession with dancing as a signifier of sex can color even the best nights spent wining or Milly Rocking or swaying to some smooth jams. That my femininity (or rather, the perverse hostility it engenders in men) should limit how freely my body can express itself is not lost on me. For many men, dancing is a means to an end. It is the perfunctory road we must grit our teeth and traverse before arriving at sex, our socially predetermined Final Destination. So often, any rhythmic expression is interpreted as an invitation for more, for what really counts.
But at its best, dancing is more than enough. With a partner, dancing offers the opportunity to remain in control of my body even as it moves in unison with someone else. This duet, like any, is mercurial. Calibrating two bodies is an imperfect science. But these dances are as much a friendly competition as they are a collaboration. Causing a man to lose his balance, physically or otherwise, is a point of pride. If the dance floor is a court, then ideally I am the player who sets the tone. It is where I flex, where I win. When my rules are respected, both of us can enjoy the game.
And yet, it is not any one dancing partner to whom I am wedded. I am bound only to the tempos of a DJ’s whim (or Spotify’s shuffle). The beat guides me, and I can match it however my body chooses. We are co-conspirators; I am not subordinate. I relish this shared control. It is a joy I refuse to give up in a world that demands women, especially black women, straighten and shrink ourselves.
I dance when I get ready to leave for work because I can’t get out of bed without help from Drake or Future or Rihanna or Beyoncé or Teddy Afro or Vybz Kartel or Aventura. I dance when I sit at my desk because sometimes a subtle twerk makes time spent clearing my inbox move faster than the bass. I dance while I cook dinner, stirring on beat (you know, the flickadawrist). It is how I unwind after a long week, how I check in with what my body needs, how I reset my internal compasses. But even when I dance alone, the act is not solitary. Dancing offers me my most visceral connection to the communities that have shaped me, a chance to quite literally embody my influences.
It is a joy I refuse to give up in a world that demands women, especially black women, straighten and shrink ourselves.
My shoulders have always moved, loose but rhythmic, of their own accord. Something short of a shimmy, the habit feels as instinctive as breathing. When I am alert, I remember to calibrate its subtlety to match my environment. Calling it muscle memory feels imprecise; my people have been moving like this since far before my own flesh and bones coalesced.
Eskista, the dance named for the sound that leaves our lips as our shoulders snake, is perhaps Ethiopia’s proudest export after coffee. I am an enthusiastic but admittedly unskilled practitioner of the dance that moves through my blood. A childhood spent living almost entirely in America, away from the guidance and constant consternation of my family in Ethiopia, has left my shoulders imprecise at best and culturally atrophied at worst. And, for all my diasporic romanticizing, Ethiopian weddings are the competitive arena I fear most.
At one ceremony in Addis Ababa last year, a cousin I love dearly acknowledged my eskista attempt: “It’s so nice that you try,” she said, the sincerity and warmth in her voice cushioning the sentence’s blow. Unintended shade and all, it made me smile; it assured me that I belonged, and my effort to bridge a gap as wide as the Atlantic had not gone unnoticed. Dancing together reminded me we’d never be strangers.
But for most of my life, I was too scared to ever “try” in front of people. Awkward and deeply unathletic, I was already 5’7” at age 12. My body was more nuisance than instrument, a thing to be hidden and kept out of the spotlight at all costs. Dance classes — full of white peers whose smaller, lighter bodies made me want to shrink and scrub myself — felt like my own personal version of hell. They combined my unshakable stage fright (you still won’t catch me singing karaoke) with the kind of bodily scrutiny that only magnifies the standard-issue misery of (pre-)adolescent insecurity.
In college, parties where my face was no longer the brownest — even on my interminably white campus — presented a new set of fears. I’d traded nerve-wracking dance classes and performances for the delicate social choreography of dorm parties, but the anxiety remained: I am not good enough to be seen.
And then I made more black friends, who pushed back against our college’s distorted images by intentionally reflecting — and celebrating — the multiplicity of blackness. Hailing from the West Indies and West Africa and the American South, they taught me to loosen up, to let my hips latch onto a beat the way my shoulders did instinctively.
Where before I’d been content to just hit a casual, Americanized eskista and shuffle about, suddenly I found myself grateful for the same hips I’d once wished smaller. A quick twerk to Juvenile, a decidedly purposeful grind to Ginuwine, a slow wine to dancehall artists I’d heard in Ethiopia but never in California. Without the burden of stiff choreography and bright lights trained squarely on my Otherness, I began to find comfort in the way my body communed with music.
Later, in New York, dancing to Afrobeat at the Senegalese-owned bar near my old apartment taught me a new language with which to relate to West African friends (both old and new). Weekend after weekend, I went back and learned to meld my eskista with a quick azonto, to sing “Kukere” and “Chop My Money” and “Nwa Baby” with the same enthusiasm with which I belted “Abebayehosh.” On the dance floor, our willingness to learn — to try — connected us even when language failed. We traded moves and tunes and references easily, pausing every so often to marvel at obvious overlaps in the way only people of African descent know.
Sharing music with someone is a special kind of gift; at its core, it is an invitation to experience joy. Dancing with friends of the diaspora to music from our respective homelands feels like being invited to join a secret club; being taught their dance moves feels like learning the club’s special handshake.
At times, that exchange has been fraught. The African diaspora is not impervious to complication and hierarchy, nor are we immune to the kinds of male entitlement that fill my body with fear instead of music. And yet, there is a kind of unmistakable sonic negritude which, when I hear it — at bars, or parties, or even Romeo Santos concerts — sparks an instant understanding between my body and the bodies around me. It brings us home.
Sharing music with someone is a special kind of gift; at its core, it is an invitation to experience joy.
When I went to Trinidad earlier this year for Carnival, writer Rawiya Kameir’s words looped through my thoughts: “Years ago, at parties where soca sets ran longer than four or five songs, I’d become too aware of my body, too paranoid that it was doing the wrong thing.” Reading the sentence over and over felt like looking in a mirror and seeing my own anxieties reflected back, daring me to push past them — and to consider how impossible my comfort in Port of Spain would have felt had it not been for the encouragement of friends from all over the diaspora.
On the streets of Trinidad’s capital city, the soca and dancehall songs I’d played on loop before the trip blasted everywhere. Their lush, layered rhythms demanded that my whole body move if I were going to do them justice. Following the lead of friends who taught me to be fearless, to isolate my hips but not myself, I felt ready to try.
And so I did.
Pon di road and at many a fete and on the beach, I let myself wine and chip and bubble and sweat alongside friends from Trinidad, South Carolina, Ethiopia, and Barbados. My friend Imani, whose family had been kind enough to open their homes and hearts to our friends, always dances beautifully. But on the island she calls home, away from the decontextualized frenzy of New York bars, her joy felt especially unrestricted. And I felt honored to share that experience with her, to learn more about my friend and the place that shaped her.
We joked about going to the gym the second we got back to New York to start preparing for next year’s Carnival. Next year we would wine harder, chip longer. We would be (more) prepared for the moments when our Designated Wining Partners (or “DWPs,” as BuzzFeed’s in-house Carnival wizardress Stacy-Marie Ishmael says), made us work up a sweat. We would tell the truth when a man’s wine was just “Normal.”
So until next year, I keep rhythm alive right here and celebrate all the ways music connects me to the people I love most. I dance to remember all my body has survived, to celebrate it. I dance because I need to.