Tiny Dancer | The New Engagement

Tiny Dancer

By Nicole Goodwin
Tiny Dancer essay art

Most of the time when I think of my life in Brooklyn my mind shoots directly to the struggle and the pain of it. Those are the most vivid memories. But there are other memories buried underneath all the ruin, and rock. A place where the moss took over and the grass decided to grew out of the forgotten soil. Places memories full of magic and wonder outside of the woe. It might seem strange to you for me to write the following sentence: I didn’t always want to be a writer. My dreams were various, and mostly based on what I was exposed to back then. Because I could draw in fact I was the ONLY one in the house who could actually draw well and my favorite uncle was a professional artist I wanted to be an artist too. But overtime drawing vexed me. I didn’t have the patience for it. Something about my drawings never seems quite right or good enough—I suppose it was my obsession with perfection especially when it came to circles. No one ever sat down to tell me that art like life was imperfect and these little mistakes, mishaps and fuckups that make life colorful and beautiful in the end. Perfect is stagnation at its best. It’s a horizon everyone chases in their life but no one ever actually catches it.

Then of course like every kid who studies in school I wanted to be an astronaut. There were plenty of reasons why that didn’t happen; and I won’t go into any at least at the moment. I will say that all in all it wasn’t meant to be and yet some of that magic still lingers inside of me just as illustrating does. My daughter like myself is scientifically inclined and draws so well that it’s absurd. I’m glad I was able to pass those gifts on. I don’t think that they were quite the right fit for me. I mean sure I use some of those tools from those toolboxes, but that doesn’t make me a plumber. I just apply what I can to what I need and what I have learned about science and the stars and art and illustration on a practical level. I like these gifts as much as the next person but somehow it’s a come a go relation with them. Not at all how my daughter Shylah feels. I guess there just plenty of smoke but no fire ever was made.

When I think of writing I think of a monster who burrowed its way into my soul rather than that of someone given a gift. Meaning, I did not want to be a writer in the beginning. I had no idea that people actually did that for a living. I was just fond of reading scores and scores of books. Some loves take a great deal of time to set in; the difference between my heart then and now is an echo that speak volumes. No, I actually wanted to be a dancer when I was younger. The first love I ever had in my entire life was that of dance.

Okay, yes I said it! Dance. I love to dance. I did it all the way into high school.  Do I look like a person who loves dancing, no I don’t I never actually have by western standards—hence why I stopped trying to dance professionally. Too many no’s and not “good enough’s.” Too many people with their judgmental eyes, measuring me my wide waist, my large black ass, my thick thighs. Too many “beautiful” people who made me feel well ugly. But in the beginning it didn’t start out that way for me. And in the end, I don’t think that love is dead. But I’m jumping back and forth and way too far ahead. I shall start at the beginning. And for me the beginning is always and will always be in one place: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

When I went to Dr. Ronald E. McNair Public School 5 in District 16 (see how that is still drilled into my brain) we went in hard. Everything about going to that school was hardcore, attendance (which I sucked at because it was hard) and Physical Education (which I had no interests in till this day I am far from athletic) and of course academics (we were one of the leading schools in Science and Mathematics looonnnnggg before there was STEM and Common Core and Regents scholastics) so much so that the homework we received my mother and step-dad had to admit that they couldn’t help us with at all. “’Ree dey smartah den us!” To which we all laughed, but I think that this hurt my stepfather’s pride and alienated my mother. They weren’t privy to the opportunities there kids were given both being from the south. I was the worst because being the youngest I rubbed salt in their wounds—unknowingly of course. Using this weakness in their authoritative persona’s against them. I tell this day can’t help but be ashamed in the fact that they didn’t receive a “proper education.” But I suppose this is the prejudice that “Black Excellence” instills in its students. Don’t believe me—just look at Ben Carson speeches, as well as Bill Cosby’s didactic pontification on when it comes to “pulling up the pants.” Most black intellectuals feel the need or rather the pressure to disassociate themselves from the “poor me” black community in America. It’s a public secret and most only run back when abased by white America just for temporary moral support and then it’s off to the races for us once again.

But I’m digressing. I apologize I do that a great deal. Where was I? Oh yes dancing. Why I love it. Simple. It make me feel free. I mean really, really, really free. But at the same time connected. You see I have body issues. Not just about my weight and feeling beautiful. Yes, I have those too. My body issues I suppose you can say it’s a combination of body dysmorphia and disassociate disorder. Those are two very clinical terms for: I hate my body, I hate myself. And not in the normal everyday “I feel fat” moments that both men and women have. Because we’re all human and are living in a culture telling us we’re ugly. Most of us go on the average bum diets all the time and complain. But they don’t HATE their bodies really—not to the point of disconnection. This is a complicated type of self-hatred. To get to the reason why I love dancing, you also have to understand the reasons behind my dysmorphia and disassociation disorders. In other words you have to get into my head to realize why most of my life I only lived there. I should warn you though, it’s pretty dark. But at the same time if it wasn’t for these holes in me I don’t think the light would come though. But I’m going to pause for a minute. Because just as it might hurt for you to listen—it hurts more for me to tell it. Trust me there’s gonna be tears before the laughter. But if we hold out we’ll get through the storm I know it. I believe. I have faith. I have to, because I actually know where the end of the journey is. I should know I mean I’m living it and have lived through it as well. What trips me out is actually walking backwards discovering how I came from point A. to point B. or rather walking forwards in a 360 motion. And ending up once again at the start. No one ever warned me by the way when you get older that that actual happens. That sometimes a person needs to be nostalgic and transgress so far forward you’re back at the beginning. It’s all a part of growth. The necessity to jump back into the ether, the mud and restart while bearing witness to how you started in the first place. It’s a strange duality this thing called life. I suppose that is also a mandate of growth.

As many know, I was molested growing up in my mother’s household by my brother. But growing up in Bed-Stuy meant that I was subjected to a whole lot of subjugation outside of my home as well. For whatever reason—my breasts especially my breasts, many men especially older men felt that they had carte blanche to say whatever they want.  Imagine if you were a little black girl, and every day you walked to felt like a death march. Every single second your alone, every step towards getting to school for me was like being on death row. School being the oasis; but it was so far sometimes the walk—it seemed so awfully far. This wasn’t because of distance. It was because New York City back then was called “The Concrete Jungle.” And in the jungle there are dangers. A young girl was always at risk of “something” happening. My mother kept us close to her a great deal. But how much can one woman protect her daughters from the “bad people” that was her euphemisms for the rapists, and the killers, the junkies. All the men who crush the flowers that grew out of the concrete. Timid things; timid kids. Timid girls like who I used to be. I don’t blame my mother for what happened. She just didn’t realize that monsters don’t just lurk outside the home. And that years of fighting off the monsters turned her into one. But then again, whoever realizes that the saviors, the ones always trying to fight off the demons often themselves NEED the most saving. Maybe not physically, and sometimes not mentally whatsoever. No what they need most is to be saved emotionally. To be loved and appreciated. They need saving of their souls. But what did I know back then? I was just a child. And I loved, and thought and felt like a child. “When I was a child I spoke of childish things.”

I definitely stopped talking about all that happened outside after what had happened inside my mother’s home. How many times can you scream fire before you realize that no one is going to stop the flames? It was tiresome for me to go to school and fear being raped. But it was even more tiresome for me to speak of the things that almost happened how I escaped calamity by a thread. I was never “street smart.” If someone would say “Hey kid, come over here for a second.” I’d do it. I trusted them. I suppose my logic was the monster lived in my house; and maybe this man would save me from the monsters. Not knowing that these men were just bigger meaner monsters themselves.

The first erected penis I saw was on my way to school. I know, I know you are wondering what in the hell does this have to do with dancing. Trust me it does. I’m getting to it. But this is the part of the story that you need to know. This is the thread I’m handing you. Once you start to pull it the sweater will unravel. By the time you get to the end, you’ll be at the “Eureka” moment. And it would have all been worth it. That’s how magic—my magic works. It’s called misdirection folks. Don’t worry it gets good after this part. But you have to sit through this part—or the good part won’t mean anything okay?

Like I said, the first erect penis I saw was on my way to school. I remember it was a grey day. But then again all the days back then were grey days. It’s like a quiet violet in my mind. I was late for school. I don’t really recall back then if my brother was still in my house or not. To be honest us growing up together was brief in all reality he didn’t live with us long. I don’t remember him growing up with me the way I grew up with my sisters so in all actually I can’t reference the exact time this happened. So I’m gonna say 8. Because till this day I don’t remember being 8 years old at all. So I was late for school, I know this because I was walking by myself. Or maybe I was early—because I was walking by myself. That seems about right. Now why is this important? Because it’s important to know that my mother back then didn’t let me walk anywhere alone.

Nicole Goodwin is the author of Warcries, as well as the 2013-2014 Queer Art Mentorship Queer Art Literary Fellow, as well as the winner of The Fresh Fruit Festival’s 2013 Award for Performance Poetry. She published the articles “Talking with My Daughter…” and “Why is this Happening in Your Life…” (Personal essay/Review for award-winning documentary Tough Love) in the New York Times’ parentblog Motherlode. Additionally, her work "Desert Flowers" was shortlisted and selected for performance by the Women Playwriting International Conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

Join Us!

Mercy, ingenuity, nuance, complex truths, guts and honor still matter! Join us in proclaiming so by purchasing, or giving the gift of, The New Engagement in print.

Order Today!

Follow Us

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."
~ James Baldwin

Help us spread the ethos of compassion and understanding by joining our social media networks and sharing generously!

Contests & Prizes

Flash Fiction Contest
On May 1st, we announced the winners of our Flash Fiction Contest: Thomas Garcia (1st), Rick Krizman (2nd), and Rios de la Luz (3rd). Read more.

The James Baldwin Literature Prize
It is with great pleasure that we announce the winner of The James Baldwin Literature Prize of $1,000 to Hafsa Musa. Read more.

The New Engagement

The New Engagement endeavors a novel approach to discovering, introducing, and showcasing writers, artists, and filmmakers, by providing them digital and print platforms, while encouraging and supporting their social-consciousness.