On performing “For your pleasure but the pleasure is mine”

I performed the dance, officially, twice.

On night one, I am nervous. I don’t know what to expect. I know how to do the dance, I know that in the past audiences have fueled me, given me confidence. I spend the fifteen minutes before I go on stage in the dressing room tucking and untucking my shirt, wondering if my stomach fat would look more noticeable one way or another. I repeat, you are strong, over and over again, only half believing it. I listen to semi-familiar voices close by – friends waiting to see me, greeting each other. I feel nauseous. I like to tell myself I don’t have stage fright, but I think that’s a conception of myself left over from ballet recitals. I kind of wish I was doing The Nutcracker instead of my dance.

I sit down on the stage in the dark, it starts. In the first few minutes, my task is to re-experience a few familiar yet disturbing evenings. See handsome man. Flirt with him. Hear him say, “you have beautiful eyes.” Ask handsome man to tell you a secret. Hear him say “we fucked a stripper with a hockey stick once.” Try to laugh it off. Keep it together. Cry.

Photo by Hayim Heron

I remember rote sex positions, I remember pasta out of a tupperware, I remember the quiet, still sadness of heartbreak, I remember telling him I’m fine when I’m certainly not, I remember the calendar in my bedroom, green tea incense, my vibrator, sweet songs that make me cry. The memories are palpable, that’s how it should be, but I can’t believe I am doing this in front of people. Taking off my pants. Sharing the way I breathe when I’m alone. I can’t believe I decided to do this. I feel myself being seen and it’s so much more than remembering subjugation and remembering my clamor for control, it is subjugating, I am clamoring for control. My mind sees my flaws, vulnerabilities, and failings through the eyes of my viewers, more punishing than they could ever be. Just as my dance does, my thoughts toggle between “I don’t matter, I am nothing” and “I have control, I have worth.” I’ve never felt more inside this dance and it hurts and I want to get out. I dance through it.

After I get off stage, I cry. Breathing hard from shaking my body, my face flushed simply from the eyes that have been on it, I sit down and feel almost horrified at what I’ve just done. I let them see all my soft parts! Satisfying and crushing, uncomfortable and messy and necessary! I was fragile and cracking open, they had me in their hands and I was breaking. I beg them, bent over on the carpeted floor of the dressing room, let me fall apart in your hands, let me be crushed but hold me up to the sunlight please. Let me be seen. I worry it looks gruesome but really it’s what I (we) do every fucking day.

I walk out of the dressing room with a smile for my friends. I hug people, thank people, try to make people feel more comfortable with what just happened with jokes and giggles. I continue to perform.

The next day, the next show, feels daunting, but different. I know what’s coming. The eyes on me will heighten everything and make me try to rush through the painful parts. My mind, in the quiet moments, will snap into cruel projections. I decide, since this is probably the last time I do this dance, to savor it. I decide to be in it for as long as I can, to take my time to make myself feel better when the dance hurts. My memories still hurt. I am still uncomfortable, nervous, intensely red-faced. But, this time, I care just a tiny bit less about their eyes on me. I soak up the heat of the lights more willingly. I cry in my dressing room after, but without thinking I might throw up.

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Photo by Hayim Heron

A version of this dance once ended with a kind of assertion that I don’t care how I’m seen anymore, that I have control, or clarity, or “empowerment.” I used to roll my shoulders back, one hip cocked, a little self-righteous grin on my face. A bit of a women-power fuck you. But it felt disingenuous, like a false narrative I wanted to believe about myself, or wanted to believe was possible. My cycles don’t end. I say fuck off to shitty men more, but I haven’t figured out what to do with concurrently wanting their attention and love. My patterns, and the huge gross systematic patterns of patriarchy churn forward. Nothing is solved, but also, nothing stays the same. The dance now ends more cathartically. I shake and open vigorously, catapulting my body around the stage, and then staring at where I just was. I am not fierce or triumphant. I continue to wonder who I build my body for, even when I’m alone. But I build again and again and again until the again teaches me something.

So, of course dancing it again was different, and of course it was kind of the same. I feel crushed and proud, vulnerable and composed, empty and satisfied. Of course this dance of contradictions and conflations feels this way. Of course it’s still surprising.

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