Is My “Full Self” Allowed? – Balboa + Beyond

As a result of some wonderfully organized, motivated, and inviting people, I find myself at a dance studio in a new city. It’s Fall, but the sun is setting and the open windows don’t help how warm I already feel as the nerves increase. This is one of the moments where I remember that of the many things I’ve outgrown, embarassement isn’t one of them.

Our last session of today’s event is How to Bring Your Full Self to the Dance. “Full self” can mean a lot of things and I initially welcome the challenge of answering all the related questions, but this changes the more I think about my relationships (or lack of) within my dance community as well as with my ethnicity, body, men, and experiences with white expectations especially when it comes to femininity. Even in a room intentionally filled with only BIPOC to encourage inclusivity, there are moments I feel left behind, unqualified, and undeserving of the seat I’ve taken in the room. Everyone else here is far too brilliant and lovely to find value in my attendance. This is no one’s fault but my own. This is a result of a lifetime of feeling I have to earn my place, and thinking I’ve fooled everyone once I have. And so, here I am, attempting to confront these questions now.

Our session facilitators have us dance through the first half of a song in the most standard way we can, the most generic, as much like what we think Balboa should or has looked like. The second half we danced as ourselves, whatever that means. We were then asked, “What does bringing your full self to the dance mean to you? How did your dancing change?” I didn’t start to notice the choices my body had made until a deep breath about halfway through my second dance and it wasn’t until we all returned to a semi-circle on the studio floor that I was able to understand them.

When our song started, it was as if I was new to Balboa again. I tried to make myself small. My movements were limited to exactly what my leader had asked of me. More rigid. More passive. I tried to float as if my stomach, my hips, chest, were all smaller or nonexistent. Completely weightless like many highly-praised follows seem to be. “Dancing white” as my first Lindy Hop instructor said we should. And, yes, those were his exact words. When I let myself relax into “my full self” I expanded. I heard the music differently. My interpretation of my leader’s decisions suddenly changed from instructions to suggestions, which I was free to take, adjust, or replace without guilt.

We divided into small groups, and I couldn’t form my sentences fast enough without revealing I cry much more easily than I let on. I hope any readers of this very public word vomit forget this fact as quickly as they’ve read it. I conveniently go last and speak little until I’m politely encouraged to continue my thought in the next round. I don’t remember what I managed to get out. I only remember being in awe of all the smart and passionate people I was surrounded by.

After shuffling our groups a bit we are asked, “what external factors prevent you from bringing your full self to the dance?” Immediately, I’m out of breath. I don’t know why this is. We all face similar problems, we relate to each other’s experiences, display a range of shapes and colors. Yet I’m still (I think) the only Latina in the room and I’m forced to remember again how this is almost always the case. I notice this often, in offices and interviews and classes and even while participating in something I love so much.

But I still wonder sometimes, how much does Balboa love me? When thinking about social dancing and perception I have to ask, am I really this introverted, or have I done something wrong to have made such few connections? I know a lot of people, but the friends I have are few, and those who have lived a similar experience are even fewer. To have been dancing this long and still feel so disconnected, I often just end up blaming myself and then wondering if this would still be the case if I were all the things I am not.

I also love feeling feminine. I find strength and comfort in it. But am I feminine enough and in a way that still demands respect? Or am I, now no longer 18 as I was when I started dancing, too womanly to be treated delicately? I don’t feel delicate anymore. Am I too rough to hold, taking up too much space to move, in my own head too much to take direction. I certainly don’t look like any of those girls in the beach clip. I can’t move like some (certainly not all) of the current dancers I admire. So somewhere in between it all is me – Just Too Much and somehow also Not Quite Enough.

Now I think about my musical choices which have been too subtle to demand attention in the past. I’ve recently, finally, started to feel more pleased with them, but are they now too loud for my leaders to tolerate? Could it be possible men (yes, now I specifically mean men) will now find me too much to deal with like I’ve always feared. In a way, this is a positive development. My vulnerability in dance is precious, and I’ve decided over the course of this entry that the leads who are willing to play through a song with me are receiving something special, something I should be proud of giving. Those who are not and receive the outdated, more diluted version, don’t deserve the apologies I’m accustomed to giving. This will be hard to put into practice, especially with the countless leads I (perhaps wrongfully) assume find me too inadequate to dance with in the first place.

The group is sent on a lunch break after one last question. “What do you believe are some best practices (both individually and as a scene/community) to facilitate bringing our full selves to Balboa?” I’ve been thinking about this final question for a few days now and the only proposal I have that wasn’t already mentioned is more verbal encouragement. Besides intentional BIPOC meetups, dedication to authenticity in the way we carry ourselves and move on the social dance floor, scholarships that support our attendance at events, this is something I would love to see more of, especially with newcomers. It’s possible that I’m biased and appreciate this more than others, but my most recent dance event was confirmation of how good this has the potential to make me feel. I wonder if I’m less likely to leave a dance early if this wasn’t such a rare occurrence. I wonder how this might have affected my journey had I received more support from the beginning, and not kept at out of pure dedication to the art and sometimes out of spite. Over the Camp Hollywood 2022 weekend I was filled with so much joy, in part from the praise I received. Not from superficial things or compliments on my outfits (although I’m not offended by those either) but from comments that tell me these people saw me. They saw that I had something to say in my dances, and through that voice I’m realizing I have, saw me somewhere in there. I’m really grateful for that weekend and for this BIPOC meetup as well.

The loose ends I’ve more or less mentally untangled since then have led me here: “my full self” loves this dance. I’m proud of how much I’ve progressed and invested since I started, how much more willing I am to share myself, my space, and my ideas since seeing just a handful of very beautiful, thin, white women doing it 2015. It still sometimes breaks my heart though, that when many of us think of Balboa, that is all see or approve of. Is there room for everyone else? For me?

Lindy Focus 2019 – Honey Hill Studios