Turning Point

I fell out of step with my own life. Then I made a move to get back on the beat.

For the better part of a year, I spent every weekend working as a videographer for Showbiz National Talent, on the elite kids and teens dance competition circuit. My job was to send footage to the judges and make sure families at home could see the performances via livestream.

From a tripod at the back of the country’s most beautiful historic theaters, I filmed unending parades of grand jetés and sequins, medleys of Justin Timberlake and Sia booming through the halls. I’d carefully zoom in and out to changes in the music. Tracking sudden leaps and blooming formations came naturally. Long hours disappeared as I entered the story of each routine. It almost felt like dancing. Once, after the last trophy was awarded in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of the judges approached me while we were waiting for late-night takeout at the hotel bar.

“What studio are you from?” he asked, mistaking me for a dance teacher.

“No studio,” I said. “I’m the Showbiz videographer.”

“You look like you’re a dancer,” he said with a hint of suspicion.

“I used to be.”

On the elevator up to my room, I glowed at the recognition. I knew I was cut from the same cloth as these teachers, the same cloth as my mother, a professional ballerina. But, more than 15 years away from classes and stages, my capacity as a dancer had become irrelevant. On tour with Showbiz, though, I could sometimes feel it in my blood.

My mom danced her way through the 1970s, first as a student at Texas Christian University and then with the Fort Worth Ballet Association, known today as the Texas Ballet Theater. There’s a photo of her in the Dallas Morning News in April 1978. Jan Hines, left; blonde, petite, and tough, en pointe with the legendary Arthur Mitchell, who founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

A year after that photo appeared, an elderly couple drove up a hill on a two-lane road near my mom’s hometown of Tyler, Texas. They were in the wrong lane and hit my mom head-on. She lost a kidney, a kneecap, a month to a hospital stay, and her career as a performer. She was 27.

Teaching and taking classes sustained my mom for decades after the wreck. She rented a studio on the town square in Lancaster, Texas, where my brother and I grew up. It was known lovingly as “The Dance Castle.” My friends took ballet, tap, and jazz in the modest second-floor walkup, next to a boarding house for cats. So did I, a passionate but undisciplined student who mouthed the words to Color Me Badd’s “All 4 Love” in the mirror, against policy.

Rehearsal was her truest love, my mom often told me. Building. Progress. The work was the heart of dance, not the show.

Trading your jazz shoes for Asics to be a high school cheerleader was something of a Texas tradition. If your school didn’t have a dance team at the dawn of the 21st century, then the alternative was nailing stiff hip-hop-inspired routines set to cheer mixes with whipcrack sound effects.

In high school, showing off and making friends became more important than devoting myself to art. I sold it hard from the front of bowling pin formations every time we danced to songs like Missy Elliott’s “Gossip Folks” and Lenny Kravitz’s “American Woman.”

My training faded, and I backed away in college, opting instead to write about the arts as a journalist. If I wasn’t going to be the best, then why do it at all? My body became that of a passive observer, ideal for staying as inconspicuous as possible in any given setting. Stumbling through the occasional adult hip-hop class confirmed to me that yes, I loved dance, and yes, I had lost it.

T he day I started dancing again had not been a good day. I woke up in Brooklyn without my boyfriend. I had thought he would be house-sitting with me for my brother and sister-in-law, who’d gone to London without their dogs, Phoebe and Delilah.

This was a weeklong trip I’d dreamt of taking with him since we’d met five years before. Sudden distance and three weeks of stonewalling and confusion had given way to a phone call during which he’d said, coldly, that the relationship needed work he could not do.

Days later, I took Phoebe and Delilah to the Williamsburg Bridge, numb to the sunlight. Trains rattled beside us. After we returned, I lay down and felt a weight settle in my limbs. For about an hour, a sense of grief pressed me into the bed. I did nothing else but lay still, as if waiting.

This routine went on: the bridge, the walk, the stillness. Finally, I realized the frozen feeling always hit at about 11 a.m., the latest hour I’d get a text from him if we were apart, and the hour during which we’d often start our days together on the weekends. My bones seemed to remember this structure. The proof of this daily habit, of pure attachment, struck me. So did the count of hours I’d stayed in the apartment while my favorite city swirled outside, one flight of stairs below.

The need to get up became a matter of urgency. Whatever I did over and over, my body would remember. As someone who deals with chronic depression, I have employed many tricks to stay on my feet. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. There was one I hadn’t tried with consistency in a long time. That afternoon I needed an hour without my phone. I needed loud music. I needed to keep myself from slipping.

I pulled on a pair of floral bike shorts, put my hair up, crated the dogs, and took the train to Midtown for dance class.

B roadway Dance Center in New York City was among the first studios in the world to offer drop-in classes, the kind anyone can take for a single fee without registering in advance. Today, there are more than 350 weekly sessions to choose from, at various levels of ability. One can study vogueing, Broadway jazz, or the flow-ier jazz fusion; there’s a class devoted to locking, one to jumps and turns, and another to theater tap (not to be confused with street tap).

Ever wondered what Madonna’s dancers do when they aren’t on tour? Or where you might find the choreographers who give So You Think You Can Dance cast members quick-turn training? They’re often helming classes at top-tier studios like BDC.

For years, I had watched them intently on Instagram. Via social media, I drew connections among the who’s-who of dance west of Times Square like it was my beat. (It was not; I wrote about dance sometimes, but kept the BDC fantasy sacred.) Walking up West 45th Street, I swore I recognized the faces of dancers leaving the studio.

The 3 p.m. beginner hip-hop class with Leslie Feliciano drew a dancer who’d just moved to New York from Israel. There was a pair of shy friends from Queens and a tall, commanding student who seemed to be spending the entire day at the center. He strode to the front of the studio at Feliciano’s request so the back line could watch.

Feliciano’s style was all Latin dance beat with the heavy shoulders of hip-hop. I could isolate my neck to slide to the left at his instruction. The right, not so much. Footwork across the floor was a baffling equation. Rhythm, though, would never leave me. The song with a clap-trap breakdown in the intro sounded familiar. When I folded and extended my arms on the counts as he taught us a combo, Feliciano noticed. “Where are you from?” he asked me.

My face flushed. “Texas,” I said, surprised at how proud I sounded, not for my home, but that I’d made it to class.

“I see you, Cactus. Welcome to New York.”

The author Julia Cameron introduced the concept of the “shadow artist” to creative circles. Latent artists, she contends, are often themselves drawn to these worlds as facilitators. A talent agent may have once loved acting and dropped their own practice to nurture a career that helps actors succeed. A musician might set her work down and decide instead to become a counselor, applying pent-up creative energy to solve the problems of others and, perhaps, satisfy her parents with a more traditional career.

Or a dancer might fall away and circle that world with a camera, until there was nowhere left to hide. Since taking the class in New York, I have begun a daily practice of creating short movement pieces. While recording with the webcam on my laptop, I combine steps I’ve learned through tutorial videos and then improvise to music. After about an hour of experimenting like this, I review the footage and assemble the movements. Finally, I post the video on Instagram to stay accountable.

Every day I wake up thinking about a song, the shapes in it and what I might try and make of them. I’m now working up to three classes a week. I’ve committed to at least 10 hours a week of additional training and conditioning in a converted studio at my home. Just days after I started sharing my dance videos on social media, two friends asked me to collaborate.

It will take years to regain the flexibility and endurance I need to learn more in the realms of contemporary and jazz fusion, the styles which most interest and elude me. But little by little, my sessions are improving my physical memory for choreography. The concept of increments as a way forward has never been so clear.

My need to grow is now greater than my fear of being misunderstood, of being too slow, of promising so much of my time to one thing. When you think about it, dance is learning to begin again, over and over. It’s a lot of work. But for the first time ever, I believe I’m worth it.

Lyndsay Knecht is a writer and dancer living in Texas. Email her at lyndsay.knecht@gmail.com.

Originally Published January 2020