Stripped, p.1part #1 of Stripped Series
“No daughter of mine will engage in any such lewd and sinful behavior as dancing,” Daddy says to me, his blue eyes blazing. “It is gross and immodest and entirely sexual. I’ve seen the kind of dancing those…those harlots engage in at that so-called academy. You will not attend. ”
I screw my eyes shut and restrain the urge to scream and stomp my foot. I’m sixteen and a lady. Stomping my foot does not become a lady. At least, that’s what Mom tells me. “Daddy, please. Please. I won’t do anything like that. I’ll be modest, I promise. You can okay each dance, each outfit. Just…please. Please, please, let me dance. ” I clasp my hands in front of me and dip at the knees, giving him my best puppy-dog eyes.
He’s wavering. I can sense it in him. “Grey, I don’t approve of dancing. God does not approve of dancing. ”
Mom to the rescue: “Now, Erik, you know that’s not what the Scriptures say. You’re just being a cantankerous old dinosaur. David danced before the Lord. The Psalms mention dancing to honor the Lord in several passages. ” She glides to Daddy’s side and presses up against his arm, resting her hand on his shoulder. “Our daughter knows right from wrong, and you know it. She just wants to bring glory to God by using the talents He’s given her. ”
“Please, Daddy. I won’t allow any choreography that’s lewd or sexual. ” I can barely breathe from the burning weight of hope in my chest.
He glances from me to Mom and back. I can see him chewing it over in his head. “I’ll allow it…for now. But at the first sign of anything sinful or ungodly, I’ll pull you out of there so fast you won’t even have time for your head to spin. You hear me, child?”
I hug him, squeal with joy. “Thankyouthankyouthankyou!”
“Don’t disappoint me, Grey. You are a pastor’s daughter. You have to set a fitting example for the entire community. ”
“I will, Daddy. I’ll be the best example. I promise, I promise. ” I spin away from him and dance a few flowing steps away, then settle into an arabesque, which I hold for a moment. I turn back to him. “See? Nothing wrong with that, is there?”
He just narrows his eyes at me. “I have to finish preparing Sunday’s sermon. ”
Daddy is the founder and executive pastor of Macon Contemporary Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in the entire state of Georgia. Granddaddy Amundsen was the hellfire and brimstone pastor of a tiny Reformed Baptist church in the backwoods of Georgia, so Daddy grew up a pastor’s kid, was groomed for the pulpit his whole life. Granddaddy was even more strict than Daddy, impossible as it seemed. He didn’t even approve of me wearing pants or shorts, even as a little kid, but Daddy let me get away with that as long as the shorts weren’t too short or the pants too tight. To Granddaddy, women stayed in the kitchen, wore dresses, and were seen and not heard. He was a bit of a fossil, Granddaddy. He never approved of the fact that Daddy taught the more modern and contemporary Baptist theology.
I’ve been dancing in secret since I was fifteen, watching Internet videos, teaching myself, watching So You Think You Can Dance on my laptop and trying to imitate the choreography. Mom helped me out a bit this past year, taking me to dance classes on Saturday mornings, telling Daddy it was manicure-pedicure appointments. He approved of mani-pedis as little as he did everything else, but he had a hard time saying no to me and Mama, so he let us go. He didn’t need to know about the secret dance classes as long as Mom was driving me. Of course, Mom and I really do get mani-pedis after dance, but that’s beside the point.
I grin at Daddy as I dance out of his study.
Mom is waiting for me in the kitchen. “There you go, Grey. Now you can dance all you want and not worry about either of us getting in trouble. ”
I hug Mom and give her a kiss on the forehead. “Thank you, Mom. I know you didn’t like lying to Daddy—”
She glares at me, silencing me with a finger over my lips. “I never lied. Not once. He asked if we were going to get our nails done, and that’s what we did. If he didn’t ask where else we went, that’s not lying. If he had ever asked me directly if I was taking you to dance classes, I would have told him. You know that. ”
I don’t argue with her, but as I head up to my room to email Mrs. LeRoux that I can officially join the troupe, I wonder at my mother’s evasions. Wasn’t it lying by omission if we didn’t tell Daddy what we were doing? He wouldn’t have let us go at all if he’d known. If he finds out now, I’ll never be allowed to leave my room again. I don’t know what kind of trouble a wife can get in, but I know Daddy would be mad at Mom for her complicity.
I glance through the videos Mrs. LeRoux has uploaded to the website since last week. She’s taken to setting up a video camera during every lesson, and then, at the end of the day, uploading the content to her website. Or rather, she has her daughter Catherine do it. If we haven’t been there for that class, Catherine and Mrs. LeRoux go through the video of the day and cut out most of it, leaving in bits that are supposed to teach us something. No one knows this but Mrs. LeRoux started this practice mainly for my sake.
She saw some kind of potential in me that very first class I attended at the beginning of this year. She loved the way I danced and applauded the fact that I was self-taught. She gave me a scholarship so I could attend for free. Since I couldn’t attend as many classes as everyone else did, she started taping the lessons, rehearsals, and group practices so I could keep up. Other students started watching them and found them useful as well, so they stuck.
When the first midweek group lesson rolled around that Wednesday, I’d practiced the group choreo, as well as the solo piece I was working on. Daddy had watched me practice in the basement, sitting on the stairs with his fingers pressed together in a steeple, eyes following my every move. It was nerve-wracking, honestly. He was watching me just to see if I’d mess up, to see if this plié was lewd, or that leg extension was improper and unladylike.
Group on Wednesday after school is split into two parts, forty-five minutes each. The first section is group choreo, going over the eleven-girl piece Mrs. L designed, making sure each of us knows our individual parts and that the whole piece flows properly. The second part is instruction, where Mrs. L teaches us a new move or technique, demonstrating and having each of us try it in front of the class. She corrects as needed. I’m struggling a bit with the group work, since I’ve never danced in a group before today. I keep messing up the pas de chat in the middle, missing a step and knocking into Devin, the girl next to me.
Finally, Mrs. L stops the practice and brings me forward, having everyone else line up on the barre along one wall. “Grey, you’re doing great, my dear, but you need to get this part down. You can do the pas de chat perfectly on your own, but for whatever reason, when you try it with the other girls, you mess up. Why do you think this is?”
Mrs. LeRoux is a tiny woman, barely over five feet tall, with iron-gray hair and pale gray eyes set shallow in her beautiful face. She’s French, having moved to Georgia twenty years ago with her husband, who died suddenly, leaving her in debt. She opened a dance studio with the last of her cash and fought her way to prosperity, one lesson at a time. I’ve seen her dance before, and she isn’t one of those teachers who can’t do what they teach. Mrs. LeRoux can make you cry with a two-minute routine. As a teacher, she’s fiery and fierce, demanding yet fair, and compassionate in all things. She’s never mean in her criticism but she expects you to do your best and she refuses to let you get away with less. I love her dearly.
I stand in front of the class and consider Mrs. LeRoux’s question. “I’ve never danced in a group before. ”
“It’s the same as dancing alone, my dear. You must merely be more aware of your surro
I take a deep breath, set myself into the crouch that leads into the pas de chat. It’s a ballet move, since Mrs. L’s training is primarily ballet, although the studio also focuses on contemporary dance, jazz and modern. Every piece she choreographs tends to have a balletic bent to it, I’ve discovered, which is fine with me. I love the flowing nature of ballet, even if I don’t like the stiffness of it. I dance to be free, to express myself.
I go through the series of steps and leaps, and I know I nail them. Doing them alone was never the problem.
“Very good, Grey. Perfect. Now, Lisa, Anna, Devin, take your positions around her. Aaand…begin. ” Mrs. L nods as the four of us perform the section of the routine together.
I get through the first two leaps with no problems and this time, I focus all my attention on Lisa to my left and Anna to my right as we pirouette together and begin the second series of leaps. Devin is behind me for the beginning of the series but ends up in front of me after we pause, readjust our lines, pirouette, and leap again. This switch, the pirouette, is what I’m having trouble with. I’m always too close to Devin, and my arms smack against hers as she and I spin in opposite directions, with Lisa and Anna spinning to either side of us in opposing directions. It’s a beautiful sequence, or at least it will be if I can nail it this time.
It’s not technically a pirouette, according to the balletic definition, since our arms aren’t domed above our heads, but rather are spread apart to create a kind of vortex effect in the center of our four bodies. If it was a simple balletic pirouette I wouldn’t have any trouble, as my arms would be contained within the sphere of my elbows and knee, but with my arms extended like this…
I feel the knife-edge of my left hand brush Devin’s forearm, and although I finish the maneuver, I know I’ve messed it up yet again.
“Better, Miss Amundsen, better. But now again. This time…focus. Watch Devin. Your hands should pass above hers each rotation. Again, go. ” Mrs. LeRoux gestures imperiously and steps back.
We return to the beginning position, leap, leap, leap…pause, set, spin…
I nail it perfectly, grinning in exultation. The next series of leaps flow naturally, and at some signal from Mrs. L that I don’t see, the other girls join us without so much as a whisper of interruption. The rest of the piece is effortless. We do it through three more times, and now it’s smooth as silk as it should be.
Instruction period is easy. We learn some basic tumble/floor jazz sequences. After everyone demonstrates the moves to Mrs. LeRoux’s satisfaction, she dismisses us. She calls me aside as I gather my things.
“Grey, a moment?”
I set down my bag and curtsy as I stand in front of her. “Yes, Mrs. LeRoux?”
She smiles at me. “You did well today. I’m proud of you. ”
“Thank you. ”
“How is your solo coming?”
I bobble my head from side to side, an unsure motion. “Pretty well, I think,” I say. “I’m kind of stuck near the end, though. I can’t make the transition go smoothly from one part to the next. ”
“Show me. ”
“From the beginning, or…?”
She waves her hand. “Yes, yes. From the top. Let me see it. ”
I slide my gear bag to the edge of the room with my foot, and then take position in the center of the room. I’d do better with my song playing, but that’s not how Mrs. LeRoux works. She expects you to know the steps and the moves cold, with or without the music. She says the music should add soul and expression to the piece, but it shouldn’t be a crutch.
I pause for a few beats, sinking into the mental place where I can call up the rhythm and let it move through me. I bend at the knees, extending my arms to either side, then sweep my hands around in a circle, sliding one foot out and putting my balance on the other foot. My extended leg rises, my arms slicing forward to put me into a flat-footed arabesque. I hold it, rise up on to my toes, and then bend at the waist and point my toes skyward, letting momentum pull me into a head-toe-head-toe diagonal spin. At the end of three rotations, I plant my palms on the floor and let the energy of the spin carry me over into a handstand. My feet droop slowly, and I arch my back until I’m doing the bridge, feet planted, hands planted, spine arched, head between my arms. I lower myself to the floor and twist onto my stomach, crawling forward, trying to express desperation. This is a piece that is meant to speak of my desperate need for freedom, my sense of confinement. Parts of the piece are wild and energetic, arm-flung spins, floating across the floor. Other parts are contained, limbs close to the body, gliding across the floor in tripping steps. I near the end of the piece, coming to the place where my choreography is stuck.
I’m in the center of the room, upright, coming off a pirouette, arms clutched against my chest. My palms turn out and push as if against a wall, an invisible barrier in front of me. The barrier gives way suddenly and I topple forward, stumbling as if taken by surprise.
“This is where I’m stuck,” I say, huffing for breath in the middle of the dance floor. “Originally, I’d intended to fall forward, but it just doesn’t feel right. ”
“Show me the original move, please. ”
I do the pirouette again, the pushing against the wall, the deliberate stumble forward, and let myself fall forward. I stand up and wipe the sweat off my upper lip. “See? It just…it doesn’t work. ”
Mrs. LeRoux shakes her head, scratching the back of her neck. “No, your instincts are correct. It’s not quite right. ” She peers at me as if seeing me moving, though I’m still. I can tell she’s working through the choreography in her head.
“Ah, I have it. Instead of falling forward, stumble, sway, and spin in place, but off balance. Like this, yes?” She demonstrates what she wants me to do. “Through the rest of the piece, you’re battling the forces containing you, struggling to find your equilibrium and your freedom. So here, at the end, you must be victorious. It is the purpose of this piece, yes? It’s an expression of your sense of entrapment. I see this. So now, you must break through. The wall gives way. So, when you end the pirouette, which is beautifully done by the way, instead of just pushing against it, act as if you’re beating it down. Smash and flail against it. Let your anger bleed through. You’re holding back at the end, Grey. You’re ending weak. This must finish strongly. You must feel the power in yourself, yes? This could be a breakthrough. Not just in your dance, but in your head. In your soul. In yourself. Batter against the wall.
“I think I understand some of your struggles in your life. I fought them, too. My father was very demanding. He put me into ballet when I was only four years old. I danced every single day for my entire life. I had few friends and fewer social activities. There was only ballet. Only ballet. Then I met Luc. He swept me away. He was a dancer, too. He was so fluid, so strong. Every thing he did was beautiful. We met in a vineyard in le Midi. I don’t remember exactly where. Near Toulouse, perhaps. ” She gazes into the middle distance, remembering. She shakes herself. “No matter. I understand. You must break free, in yourself. In this dance. ”
She waves her hand in the gesture that means again, again.
I run through the piece from the top, and this time I think of each rule I have to follow, each party my school friends go to that I can’t, each time I’m told that a pair of jeans is too tight, a top too low-cut, that I’m wearing too much makeup. I think of the expectations of me to be a perfect little southern belle, the perfect little pastor’s daughter, the expectation that I’ll marry a godly man headed for the seminary, some boring young man with no aspirations beyond the pulpit and the flock.
I put all that into the dance. When I leap, I fling myself into it. When I spin in place, I let all my muscles pull me into the spin with all my
I look up to gauge Mrs. LeRoux’s reaction. She’s leaning against the wall, hand covering her mouth, eyes wet.
“Perfect, Grey. Just…perfect. I felt it all. Perfect. ”
Her gaze flicks over my shoulder, and I turn in place to see my mother watching from the doorway to the foyer area. Her eyes reflect her emotions, and I know she’s seen it all. I know she saw what I felt in that dance.
The corners of her eyes are tight, her forehead wrinkled. I turn away from her, back to Mrs. LeRoux.
“You think it was good?” I ask.
She nods. “I think it was an example of your potential. You can be a magnificent dancer, Grey. You must keep putting all of your emotions into your dance. Don’t allow yourself to hold back. ”
I bend to grab my bag, rummaging through it for a towel. I join my mother at the door, wiping at my face with the rough white cotton. We leave and neither of us speaks as Mom drives us through Macon and out to our house in the suburbs,. I turn to glance at her, confused by her uncharacteristic silence. Usually she’s chatty as a blue jay after dance class. She was a dancer, too, until she met Daddy and had me. She likes to talk about what I’m learning, the various techniques and such. Talking shop, reliving her days as a dancer. Now, however, she’s slumped toward the window and she’s driving with one hand. Her other hand is pressed to her forehead. Her eyes are narrowed, her features screwed up tight.
“Are you okay, Mom?” I ask.
She shoots me a faint attempt at a reassuring smile. “I’m fine, honey. I just have a headache. ”
I shrug and let the silence hang.
“Your dance was beautiful, Grey. ” Her voice is quiet, as if to speak too loud would cause further pain.
“Thanks, Mom. ”
“What did it mean?”
I don’t answer right away; I’m not sure how to. I shrug. “Just…sometimes I feel…trapped. ”
Mom is the one to hesitate this time. “I know, honey. He just wants the best for you. ”
“His best. Not necessarily my best. ”
“He’s your father. ”
“That doesn’t mean what he thinks is right for me is always the only option. ”