Tiny Dancer | The New Engagement

Tiny Dancer: Page 3 of 3

By Nicole Goodwin
Tiny Dancer essay art

Lastly, it was long before I had dreams of being a writer. Way before I was painting pictures with words and long after I had given up on drawing pictures of circles imperfectly. This is the hardest thing I have ever done admitting this. On pages of typed words. Because in my mind my brain is telling me that even having such a dream was so absurd. But when I write it’s the best way of my heart and soul telling my brain to “sit down and shut the fuck up.” And so with that said, when I was a poor black child, growing up in 1980’s crack addicted, broken down, infested, diseased—I know, I know I am stalling. When I was younger growing up in Brooklyn, I wanted to be a dancer. And not just any type of dancer either. I wanted to dance in the ballet. When I was a young girl I wanted to be a black prima ballerina and curtsy at the end of every show. I wanted to be a black prima ballerina, and give my all to the dance, so at the end of every show I performed in I’d have roses thrown at my feet. I wanted to be a prima ballerina, who was beloved for loving to dance and being the best at what she loved to do, by the world who had once told her that she was nothing and wouldn’t amount to anything. My mother would see that common sense was wrong—and in turn with tears in her eyes seeing her little girl on stage, now a capable woman she’d love me for being me. She’d love me for being the one who knew she could win by breaking the rules.

I wanted to be a ballerina, because somehow I always knew that ballerinas were strong; they could hold their own weight in the world. They fought off the evil monsters with beauty and grace. They were tough and beautiful enough to be soft and kind. Ballerinas commanded so much attention and respect; and most of all their bodies, were so beautiful like sculptors. And they were cherished like works of art. No one would dare touch a sculptor without permission; and there would be hell to pay for those who tried. In the end, a ballerina’s body belonged to not even the ballerina. The dance. The ballerina was only married and entrusted to the dance. Ballerina’s could fly through the air. Stand on their toes. Be a swan, a nutcracker, a warrior—who fight off rats. Or just a girl who wanted more than anything not to be a princess, but just to be cherished. Just to be loved. A ballerina wasn’t too heavy to carry. They were light as feathers, and no one ever wanted to let them down. And the principle dancer, the prima ballerina well, she was the strongest, the lightest, the most beautiful, most loved of them all.

For this dream, I will say a few things. This is the last time I will say it was absurd. It wasn’t absurd, it was desperate. But it was a dream, a life raft for me. I now having admit that I had it appreciate that I went for it, and failed horribly. But failing wasn’t the point. The point was loving something—even if it was “impossible.” Even if I feel like the world would laugh at me till this day. Many don’t realize how hard the dancing world is. It’s insanely difficult, and demanding upon one’s body, mind and soul. You are under constant scrutiny, and dare I say surveillance. And the competitive nature of dancing—especially ballet, hah you think football is bad! No like I said ballet dancing for me was and still is my first dream, and in reality my first failure at art. But then again what are we but our dreams.

The second thing I will say is that I am NOT to blame for having had this dream. If you translate that there a complement and an insult to this dream because it was so…outlandish? Is that a less harsh word…Anyway the fact is it was my teachers fault. One of them anyway. Ms. Taylor. It was all Ms. Taylor’s fault. Her and that damn VHS recording of The Nutcracker! Because of her I feel in love. Not just with the ballet. I fell in love with the lead male principle dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Yes, you heard me. I admit that I a black poor kid from Brooklyn was in love with the renowned male Ballet dancer from Russia, or rather the USSR at the time. It wasn’t because of his looks though. I man the man was absolutely gorgeous back then don’t get me wrong. But so were the other male dancers. They had to be. That and well white. They had to be white and gorgeous. I mean maybe that had a little to do with it, but I don’t think it was much. In fact I was upset that there weren’t any black dancers. I so wanted to see dancers that looked like me in that beautiful world. I still do, because I fucking love ballet! But like I said, I loved Mikhail Baryshnikov. I loved him so much it hurt seeing him on that screen. I loved him because of what he could do. He could fly, he was free. He was himself on the dance floor. Anybody who ever seen that man dance KNEW that much was true. And I mean he loved it. He loved dancing! God you could see that in every move he made. Every single one. He was lighter than air man. His feet didn’t even touch the ground! He was truly amazing! I mean WOW!

So Ms. Taylor, in her mean and crotched old way, being a substitute—filling in for another teacher (maybe homeroom?) hating us as a class, we were smart asses though so I can see why, in trying to get us ghetto kids to shut the hell up on an ordinary day, in an ordinary school, in an ordinary library, in an ordinary part of Brooklyn, did the most extraordinary thing in my entire young life! She opened up my world to something—a dream and in the reflection of this dream, I found myself.

In the eyes of Gelsey Kirkland’s character Clara, believe it or not. Most think that The Nutcracker is the story of a girl who gets an enchanted gift from a beloved relative. And in truth it is—well in reality. But The Nutcracker isn’t about reality. It’s about dreams. The reason I love that ballet, that one in particular is because it told me a story. My story. A story of a girl trapped in a world she wanted out of. That story belongs to me, my childhood. Clara and Nicole are the same kid, because in both of those world to things reign supreme.  We were both mice in a rat infested world. And we both more than anything in the world, needed to be saved.

This particular performance of The Nutcracker was special, because it told my truth back to me. And at the same time gave me hope that my world could indeed turn around. I just had to dream. So when I watched Baryshnikov Nutcracker Prince and soldiers, battle and defeat the evil rat king and his minions I felt Clara’s joy. Because in Clara’s real life she wanted someone to comfort her and protect her. She needed it especially since one of the members of Clara’s family was always after her. Don’t believe me look at it again, you’ll see who the Rat King is before the dream—I’ll give you a hint, he was the drunkard who ripped the nutcracker’s head off and forced the uncle to repair it. In the dream world the Nutcracker Prince feigns death by the hand of the Rat King then ends him. That’s how Clara interprets what happened in the real world. That’s another reason why I loved Baryshnikov, he was what I wanted more than anyone in the world. Someone beautiful, strong full of compassion, love and light to well come and save me. A knight in shining armor. A respectable and respectful king. A kind gentle soul full of love. To save me from the rats of the world. To take pity on something—someone as insignificant as a mouse. A timid mouse living in a timid city. Some young girl just like…me.

I watched the ballet again yesterday rather. The first time that I had looked at it in decades. I realized something that I never did before. Another parallel to my life that I hadn’t seen. The uncle instructs Clara to show the nutcracker doll love. So she does as any girl does, she rocks it like a baby. She protects it like a mother, shelters it from those who she feels would do it harm. Focuses on it rather than the awful world that was surrounding her, so much so that it recreates the world around her. Her heart is the catalyst for The Nutcrackers. He is just following her lead. Giving back the pure love she gave him. Except as in another way; not as a doting uncle, but as her knight, and her prince. Her lover, and her husband.

The Nutcracker Prince is the story of Clara finding love in the romantic sense, but not in the common romantic sense. It is the power of courage. Courage of her heart that allows her to believe that love will save her and conquer all in the end. That is the most amazing thing in the world to create. What’s also amazing is that, I didn’t see any of that. I just discovered that yesterday. My best friend—who I consider family, named Mike always said the following about being in love with his deceased wife Gina: Being in love with her, I found new reasons every day to fall in love with her all over again. I never really understood what he meant. Until now.

Right now, I just figured out what “being in love” means. It means looking back on the past, on the moments you spent with that particular person, place or thing that made your life so  wonderful, so much so that you kept feeling close, playing those cards to the chest—embedding those tender feelings deep within your heart and soul. And then JUST when you thought you couldn’t be anymore filled with that that love, when you feel like you JUST can’t take another bite out the hunger comes rushing in. And once more, you fall in love. All over again, and your heart just keeps on doing it. And just like that the grey clouds part. And you see the blue sky, and the yellow-orange sunlight shines down on your face.

You are just emptied of all that doubt that’s held you back from being happy. Hope takes root in your heart. And everything is new. Even a city that you grew up in that you thought was only full of monsters and rats, with only fingers always wagging at you.  Pure love comes down like rain; and I felt a special kind of newness then. The same as when all hell broke loose in my life and all I needed was to believe in something—not knowing what exactly. Then the rain would come and the sight of those raindrops against quiet puddles rippling against dull pewter concrete sidewalks and onyx tar streets transformed my dark dreary and sometimes nightmare constructed Brooklyn into Alice’s Wonderland.   

When I fell in love with dancing, when I practiced it I felt loved. I had no reason, it had zero to do with my academic ambitions but it was love. And love isn’t supposed to make sense. But it makes sense of all that comes into your life. And love comes, it sees you for who you are. Gives you what you need. Love, it rescues you.

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.

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