The dance floor is alive and I am dazed. The music is loud enough to block out the subtle sounds that usually give shape to space, turning everyone into an amorphous and shifting landscape doused in bad eighties pop music. "This is great!" my three friends say, trying to describe the aged and the eccentric, the hip young graduate students next to the vintage novelists. We are undergraduates at a large industry conference for writers and we have been waiting all week to attend this party, speculating what might happen when the bitter rejected writers and the overworked and jaded publishers at this conference consume a few drinks. We were hoping for a brawl to break out over the role of reader response theory in graduate schools. What we find instead is the atmosphere of a high school dance with the enhancement of booze and a diverse crowd. Our voices are shoved back by all the sound. "Let's dance," they say. I fold up my white cane and am pulled onto the dance floor.
Dancing is an art of vision, of being able to express the mood and rhythm of music with the movements of your body. It is an art I have never mastered. I am weighted. I shift from foot to foot, move my hands a little. I know the rules for this space, observe my friends when they are impressed by an agile body claiming the floor with its moves or when they share space with another dancer, a visual exchange of attraction. It's too loud to tell who's where, so I take up as little space as possible. I can't derive the actual movements from the second hand descriptions of dancing I've been given so I minimize my movement to try to hide what I do not know. I am a solid among fluid bodies.
An eighty year old English professor has asked for Ray Charles and that sliding blues sound takes over the dance floor. I like this song, but I am stuck. Its rhythm says sex and circles, but I sway just a little while cycling my hands back and forth in my one dance move. This does not serve me well. My friend catches my hands, and I can feel that she is moving fast and with purpose. I try to copy her back and forth step. I want to bolt for the door, feeling as exposed as an adolescent by the wall during a slow dance. That's not a good feeling since I was most often just such an adolescent.
But on one January night of the late nineties, I danced like I had nothing to lose. Really, there wasn't much I could have lost.
My best friend and I had endured four intense days of seeing just where we didn't fit into the adolescent puzzle. This camp was supposed to be about building friendships between cultures. The Australian who exaggerated his accent to sound like Crocodile Dundee, the Spanish speakers from Peru who hovered shy and silent, and the loud girl from Dallas Texas who insisted she always had to sing along with the music in her headphones, all seemed to find more commonality than the two of us with long sticks and nonfunctioning eyes. We'd tried our best, rooming in separate cabins and striking up conversations with the other teens. But in the end, everything came down to a pat on the shoulder and being quickly herded back to the other of our kind.
Every 'in' group needs a fringe, and we were it. This was not a new experience, more like the essence of our entire adolescence, in four bitter days. We had spiraled from optimistic to hurt to angry to indifferent. Now it was the last night of Lion's Winter Camp, and there was nothing left to lose. We'd already heard the boys we liked kissing the girls we weren't through the cabin walls. We'd been politely situated in enough chairs outside of circles, enough tables to ourselves at breakfast and lunch to have any remaining delusions.
So as the music started, we began to dance, with each other sometimes, but mostly alone. To the beat of teeny-bopper tunes and grunge rock, we filled the empty space we'd been given. I jumped back and forth like a child, swinging my arms, waving my hands in the air. I screamed the edited swear words back into the songs, trying to resuscitate the teen aged rebellion that had faded inside me. It worked. This was my space. I would never see these people again. I didn't give a damn how ridiculous I appeared so with every leap and spin, I pushed them away. Somewhere in the fog of noise, they danced too, together, keeping the distance I gave them.
Tonight I can't dance like that because it is unity I want. The song switches back to the music that was made for dances like this and I sway, blank faced. Then one of my three friends grabs my hand and holds it up and out to the side, leading me along. "We're tangoing, sort of," she yells above the pulse.
"You can't tango to this," I answer, and I hear my other friend laugh. My face comes back to life in a smile, and for a moment, it doesn't matter that I can't figure out how to dance. It is enough to be pulled into the circle and heard, even in all this noise. Soon my friends have danced enough and I welcome the cold night air. The world resumes its normal shape, walls and traffic, our feet in step on the pavement.
Erin Lauridsen lives and works in Portland, Oregon. She has a BA in English from Seattle Pacific University and has followed the English major tradition of working a job as unrelated to her degree as possible.