So I Thought I Could Dance
by Stacy Bolt
Perhaps the most important thing any of us can learn in high school is how to endure humiliation. It’s a critical life skill and there’s certainly plenty of opportunities to experience it between your freshman and senior years. You’ve got your bullies, your unrequited crushes and, of course, your deadly combination of physical and social awkwardness. But in my experience, the best way to learn how to deal with humiliation is to go ahead and bring it on yourself. Sign up for it. Ask your friends and family to come watch. And be sure to get lots and lots of pictures.
Take, for example, my three-year tenure on my high school dance team. I’m still not entirely sure how I worked up the courage to try out in the first place. There is no performance gene in my bloodline. If there were a Bolt family motto, it should be “Stop that. Someone might see you.” So when I came home from school one evening and announced that I’d made the dance team, the words that actually came out of my father’s mouth were, “What the hell are you thinking?” My parents were visibly horrified, not for me but for themselves. My joining a team meant that there would be events they would be expected to attend. Events where they might have to talk to strangers in public. This, too, was strictly against my family’s code of ethics.
Of course, nothing fuels teenage ambition more than parental disapproval,so I threw myself into dance team as if it were the cure for kitten cancer. Every spare moment was spent practicing; every spare dime was spent on legwarmers. I lived for that one weekend a month when we would compete with other schools. These were day-long affairs in which we’d pile into a bus, travel to the host school and spend the anxious hours before performance time doing each other’s hair and makeup according to the Oregon Dance and Drill Team Association guidelines. That meant pulling our hair back into slick, Teutonic buns with a combination of Aqua Net hair spray and Dippity-Do, a vile substance with the consistency of whale mucous and the holding power of drywall putty. Because the judges always sat at the very top of the bleachers, our makeup had to be applied so it could be seen from a distance. Like, say, the moon.Add in the electric blue spandex unitards that were our signature costumes and we resembled nothing less than the shiny, prancing love children of Tonya Harding and John Wayne Gacy. An electric blue spandex unitard is a cruel mistress. It makes no concessions for a few extra pounds, normally functioning human sweat glands or visits from Aunt Flo. An electric blue spandex unitard has the power to make the skinny look heavy, and to make the heavy look like shiny blue maple bars. But it was chosen by our coach — a tiny, twitchy woman who wanted to win the state championship like Gollum wanted the Ring — so we had no choice but to suck it in and dance.
In my Junior year, the unitards were replaced by something much more flattering, and yet amazingly, even more ridiculous. It was 1983, the year the movie “Staying Alive” came out. This was thesequel to Saturday Night Fever andstarred John Travolta as an older and wiser Tony Manero trying to make it on the mean streets ofBroadway. The final dance number was a smoke- and sweat-filled extravaganza of writhing, gyrating bodies who were supposedly trapped in the fires of hell. You know, like high school.
That must have been what our coach was thinking because she used it as the basis for the routine she choreographed for us, the one she believed would win us her precious state championship. It was epic by 1983’s standards. It featured a temperamental smoke machine and our brand new costumes, for which thousands of chocolate bars and rolls of wrapping paper had been sold. The red spandex leotards had high necks, long sleeves and orange, yellow and red sequined “flames” that crawled up our torsos and dangled from our waists. I recently found our team photo from that year. With my short, curly hair, thick-rimmed glasses and drag queen-caliber eye shadow, I bore an alarming resemblance to Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie.”
After months of practice and with several regional championships under our sparkly belts, our team traveled to State to claim the title that was rightfully ours. As we took our places and prepared to writhe in the flames of hell right there on the sparkling gymnasium floor, an official stepped out and told us we’d been disqualified. Not because our costumes rode up or because someone’s hair pulled a Dippity-Don’t. No. We were disqualified because of the smoke machine. The same reeking, sputtering contraption that we had used in every other competition that year without being disqualified. That thing was a stroke of theatrical genius, even if it is the reason I still get bronchitis every winter. But the judges’ decision was final and we were forced to endure the humiliation not just of losing, but of losing while looking like sexually confused Heat Misers.
Among the witnesses to our very public spanking was my mom and dad, sitting high in the bleachers, well apart from the other parents. They never understood that being on dance team wasn’t about me wanting to be in the spotlight. The whole point of dance team was to NOT stand out. We were judged on how precisely we performed as a unit, by how much our hair and makeup and costumes matched. We were the Borg in sequined legwarmers. For me, dance team was about fitting in and being one of many, which, for a lot of teenagers, is a really safe place to be. But at the same time, it allowed me to put myself out there in a way I never would have on my own. I was standing in front of people, dancing badly, and looking like a shiny, shiny fool. I was absorbing high school’s most useful lesson: how to endure humiliation. That doesn’t mean I don’t still do embarrassing things from time to time. In the years since high school I’ve managed to accidentally dye my hair orange on the day of a job interview, slap a total stranger on the ass because I thought it might be someone I knew, and pass out drunk at my own Christmas party at 10:30. But because of the lessons I learned on dance team, I did not do any of those things while wearing an electric blue spandex unitard. And for that, I can only hope my parents would be proud.