Outtake From a Work in Progress

I’m trying to write an essay about dancing. Still trying to find my angle inward. The other day I got way off track, and started writing about Susan Boyle. Because I can’t imagine any other place for it, I leave it here for you:

Dancing is easy. It’s easier than writing, of course, but it’s also easier than sex (lower stakes, no culmination, no need to provide another person their pleasure). It’s easier than sleeping (no dance form of insomnia, or apnea). It’s not easier than sitting, and it’s probably not easier than walking. And here I come to a fact of dance I’ve avoided: dancing is ableist. Dancing requires a body that can move. Not necessarily a standard body. Here’s a YouTube video of a legless girl doing a routine to “Shake It Off” in her bedroom. Here’s a clip of a one-armed woman and one-legged man doing a ballet duet together. Here’s a video of a man in a wheelchair dancing with an able-bodied woman. Here, though of a different kind of disability, a video of a UK boy with Downs Syndrome dancing to Justin Timberlake on national television, and making the TV host cry.


These are videos of triumph, bodies overcoming limitations placed on them by the suspecting audience—the suspicious, presuming audience. What becomes viral is the infectiousness of the feeling we get when those presumptions get overturned. Susan Boyle’s voice is just pretty good until you see what she looks like compared to other chart-toppers. Then it becomes magical, transcendent. “You didn’t expect that now, did ya?” Britain’s Got Talent’s co-host says, pointing into the camera at us, after Boyle begins her infamous rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” and the audience goes wild. I find, watching the clip 10 years after it was aired, my heartrate jumping in anxious anticipation, as I see Simon Cowell ask his obligatory questions, roll his eyes, the audience vocal in how willingly they laugh at this beetlebrowed frump in a the ugliest dun-colored dress ever seen on TV. I am very scared and nervous for what’s about to happen, because I know something that not one of those hundreds of people know, and it’s thrilling.


Then she starts singing, I listen to the first wave of applause, and then I click away, bored of her voice now that the surprise has exhausted itself.
When I wrote just above that Boyle’s voice was magical and transcendent, that was a lie. Her voice is pretty good. She couldn’t hold a candle to Lady Gaga, or Maria Callas, or David Bowie. Her performance is what’s transcendent, delivering her ugly appearance up past reality’s velvet ropes to the VIP section of beauty/grace/fame. The magic of Susan Boyle requires her image, a truth of contemporary art that Lady Gaga and Sia worked, earlier in their careers at least, to fight against.


What I’m getting at is the visual—because dance is all visual (though dancing is physical; I can dance in pitch dark and get most of the same pleasures I do dancing under disco lights)—and the visual’s impact on success. What I suspect is that all dance performances, regardless of the dancer’s (dis)ability, are about bodies overcoming limitations placed on them by the suspecting audience.


Those suspicions come down to two related arguments:
1. You can’t possibly dance well.
2. I’ve already seen what you’re capable of.


When the girl with no legs, or the boy with Downs, or Janet Jackson’s plus-size backup dancer pulls off the thing they have put themselves on camera to do—or more accurately, put in front of our stingy attentions to do—we revel in Argument 1 being proven wrong. When Janet Jackson follows up her “Rhythm Nation” video with the video for “If”, we revel in Argument 2 being proven wrong.


When I got a reply to the email I sent to a writer in town, thanking her for inviting me to her party, I reveled in the words she ended the reply with: “You’re such a good dancer, I had no idea!” Argument 1 and Argument 2, slain to bits by the kindness of someone with 15 times the Instagram followers I have.

Shame Spirals and How I Get Out of Them

There’s lots I feel ashamed of, maybe half of it sex and sexuality-related. I thought stepping out of the closet would mean stepping away from shame, but no. No no. That’s not how shame works.

For me, shame is a chorus of voices in my head that tell me I’m a bad person for what I just thought or wanted. Sometimes it’s for something I did, but usually it’s just for what I’ve imagined. The chorus is full of pristine, confident people with genius IQs and spotless records when it comes to their sexuality and moral behavior.

If you are a person I’ve met and spoken to face-to-face, odds are I’ve convinced myself you’re another one of these perfect choristers. Rationally, I know it’s not true. I know you’re not perfect, but I don’t yet truly believe that you’re not.

That’s how good shame is at making me stupid about the world.

Now: I’ve felt shame enough to know I shouldn’t feel it so much, and so when I do, I join the chorus of voices and tell myself I’m a bad person for being ashamed of myself. I feel ashamed of my shame. It’s a perfect trap, and I say “trap” because when I get in this shame spiral it’s very hard to do anything other than sit and hate myself for hating myself.

I didn’t use to have a way out, but one day, outside of a shame spiral, I came up with one I’m going to share with you, just in case you’re not a perfect person and might feel shame, too.

Step One: Say this out loud: “It’s okay that I’m feeling ashamed.”
Shame itself isn’t a bad thing. If I forget your birthday for the third year in a row, or make plans and then flake on you more than once, feeling ashamed can help me look more closely at what’s going on with me, what my commitments are, how I want to live my life, etc. (Some folks might quibble here that what I’d be feeling is guilt, not shame—because it’s about what I’ve done, not what I am—but after 2 years of thinking it over I can report back that discerning the differences between shame and guilt won’t help you conquer either.)

Step Two: Say this out loud: “I should be proud that I’m even capable of feelings.”
Optional if you’re a person who readily and easily feels your feelings, and has always at your fingertips the right name to put to those feelings. This is not me. So I like to congratulate myself when I do a good job in this regard.

Step Three: Acknowledge that you’re standing in a hall of mirrors and seeing only distortions of yourself.
This is the one that took a lot of time and work to realize. (Dr. Heisler, I salute you!) I used to think that a shame spiral felt like being in a dark hole, but you can’t see anything in a dark hole, whereas in a shame spiral I can see only myself, or rather, I can see only the parts of myself I’m unhappy about at the moment. Also: I can only see myself. There’s nothing else I’m capable of at the moment. It’s Narcissus in the classic scene, except he’s loathing the image that’s looking back. Once I saw that narcissistic image of myself staring at myself, I felt less shame and more disgust and annoyance, which are also strong emotions, leading me to…

Step Four: Smash the fuck out of those mirrors and find someone to ask questions to or otherwise engage your head and heart in.
Other people are a gift I keep forgetting the world got me last Christmas.