I am not a dancer.
I have never been able to dance. Not in the sense of those who feel self-conscious about their dancing skills; I have no skills to be self-conscious about. In the nightclub, at weddings, even in the privacy of my own home, I can never manage anything other than a simple shuffling of the feet and an odd canting and gyrating of my pelvis. I am a vacuum of grace and poise, my very presence diminishing the performance of other dancers merely by proximity.
What I am, is a fighter.
I have always been able to fight. Kickboxing, contact karate, even a bit of old-fashioned boxing. It is the only thing I can do with any grace, and I do it very well. Casually sparring or in the ring, it doesn’t matter. When faced off against an opponent I am a sure-footed, well-honed machine, nimble and precise, my hands and feet moving with exemplary coordination.
Or at least I was, until the hardest roundhouse I’ve ever felt connected with the side of my head, and my eardrum exploded.
It was like a thunderclap inside of my head, blasting me off of my feet. And there I stayed.
There was surgery to repair the damaged tissue and prevent permanent hearing loss. The damage to my equilibrium, though, wasn’t something surgery could restore. If my fighting body was a precision machine, then that blow had fundamentally damaged something within the internal gyroscope.
Even walking at times became difficult, especially in the immediate aftermath. I was prone to spontaneous dizzy spells, sudden tsunamis of vertigo that would leave me reeling, even if I didn’t actually fall over. And I fell over plenty.
Ever the fighter, this new paradigm wasn’t something I would surrender to. I spent hour after hour at the gym, practicing focus drills on the bags, working coordination and footwork exercises with trainers and teammates. But the the dizzy spells never abated, arriving so unpredictably that we took to keeping a spit bucket nearby as a receptacle for the vomiting spells they produced.
Nothing worked. My strength, my stamina, these things remained unchanged. But to step the wrong way meant a tumble to the mat, to kick or punch at the wrong angle meant losing control and flailing convulsively. No matter what we did or how I trained, I simply couldn’t remain standing.
If you can’t stand, then you can’t fight.
Finally, a physical therapist recommended a treatment that had shown some success in restoring the mobility of stroke victims. Though nothing invasive, results would still be a long time in coming, and for me especially, the treatment would be arduous.
His prescription: dance.
Specifically, ballet. In theory, the exercises would work my muscles in new ways, encouraging my equilibrium to reassert itself in new ways as my tympanic membrane healed.
Which is how I came to find myself clad in tights and uncomfortable shoes, practicing raises and barre exercises in the beginner’s class. And because that is the way of things, I was surrounded by preteen girls. All of whom had a good giggle whenever I fell over.
I fell over a great deal. I would have even without my injury. But I kept at it.
Little by little, things started to happen. I stayed upright more. The dizzy spells, when they came, were less of a crashing wave and more of a gentler tide. At first I could cross the dance floor without falling over; then I could cross it twice; and then, a third time.
And then, one day, after months of drills and practice, I stood en pointe. Every muscle in my body worked to balance my weight on only a few small points. I held it.
For five seconds.
In a fight, five seconds can be the boundary separating victory and defeat. I knew, finally, which side I was on.
I practice every day. I’ve lost muscle mass but gained flexibility, and am more agile than I’ve ever been. I can pirouette without involuntarily vomiting, and leap, and dive.
I can dance. Awkwardly, and not as good as an eleven year-old girl, but I can do it.
I’ll be back in the ring one day, I know. Being a fighter is too much of what I am. For now, though, I have a different opponent: this dance floor.
I’m learning how to defeat it.