Worries ricocheted against the walls of my thoughts, my face pale and fingers limp. Tap class is nothing to worry about, I reassured myself as I walked in, but I couldn’t help noticing the older girls who had already reconnected after winter break, giggling and giving others side-eyes.
“Oh my god, you went to the Bahamas over break?”
“She literally went to Italy for three days. I can’t believe it.”
I sighed, the exasperation in my breath lingering in the air. Already being in the advanced tap class for a year and half, I still had no clue how I’d put up with girls two, three — even four — years older than me who’d formed exclusive cliques with their friends at school. There were only two other Asian girls in my class, both a year older than me and close friends at school, so I never summoned the courage to strike up a conversation with them. The freedom I felt when I danced was the single strand threading the thoughts of quitting and pushing on together.
The peeling beige paint on the walls of the dance studio hallway cried out for help as I crossed to the opposite side of the room, relieved to have found a place to dodge stares. The tote bag with my tap shoes resting inside weighed heavily on my shoulder, adding to the emotional baggage this class had brought me.
“Come on in, girls!” Mrs. Rachel called, motioning for us to enter the wooden-floored studio with a gentle smile. So she’s still the only genuine person here, I concluded, having had Mrs. Rachel as an instructor for three consecutive years. With routine, we filed into the room and began shedding our winter coats for short sleeves and athletic wear, putting on our tap shoes, and taking our places for the warm-ups.
As I stepped onto the dancefloor, the metal slabs of my tap shoes struck the wooden panels, sending an echo into the chorus of click-clacking tap shoes. In the midst of excited chatter, I made my way over to the front row of the upper left side. Striding over to her speaker, Mrs. Rachel cranked up the volume for “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars, pushing a steady beat with her feet.
Tap, tap, step, tap. Bam, pat, bam.
“Shuffles!” she shouted. We brushed our feet forward and back, simultaneously moving our legs in a clockwise motion. Front, side, back, ball change, I muttered under my breath, trying to stay present in the exercises.
“Pas de Bourrées!" Bruno Mars now reached the song’s peppy chorus, singing with passion. The rhythm of the music reverberated around the room, bouncing off the walls and against my sore temples. I could no longer concentrate on the warm-up, now in a headspace far, far away.
The tick of the clock fell silent. I envisioned the first time I wore tap shoes, when I didn’t know what one hour every Tuesday could do to me. In truth, I’d never planned on attending tap dance class for this long — almost three years. It was meant to be a feel-good hobby, a chance to live out my dream of dancing, but not in a class like this, where no one acknowledged or spoke to me. Was it that I wasn’t wearing Lululemon? Or that my hair wasn’t brunette with blond highlights? Most of the time I thought the source of my loneliness came from my Asian-ness, that in the sports world Asians were a minority and I couldn’t possibly break that barrier.
Each Tuesday, a tug-of-war battled out inside my head. Quit, you don’t like coming here. No, just make it to the recital. Quit, you’re Asian. No, I’m still as good as them. This constant cycle drained my confidence as a normal teen and my love for tap dance, until I loathed the dance itself and felt insecure about myself, reaching my breaking point.
That day in tap class, even Bruno Mars got on my nerves (which never happens). I couldn’t dance, couldn’t muffle out their high-pitched laughs like I did for so many months. And the freedom I once felt when I danced became a suffocating, dizzying sensation. My attention span probably lasted fifteen seconds before my mind broke off into another cycle of debate and thinking insecure thoughts. I couldn’t look Mrs. Rachel in the eye, only giving her a small nod before heading out. And as I stepped out of that building for the last time, winter clawed at my red cheeks and bit at my fingertips; like the wind, I wanted to scream into a pillow.
So I did, revealing all that had been happening in that dance studio to my mother. And, to my surprise, she agreed to let me quit without hesitation. It was the idea that Asian moms never let you quit from what could be your next talent, which made me bottle up my exhausting thoughts until this moment. I remember feeling guilty for quitting a month prior to the final recital, for ruining the dance formation, but at the same time, I was so relieved to be rid of something that had damaged my self-esteem and twisted the pride I should feel as an Asian American.
It was a phone call between my mother and Mrs. Rachel that ended Torture Tuesday. It was as liberating as empowering, the moment I truly felt I could be unapologetically Asian. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to tap dance, but I loved writing, making dumplings with my family, and getting boba with my friends. The dance studio might not be my happy place, but there were countless others. And I guess, countless other dreams to live out now, too.
Author: Hannah He
DeclarASIAN Blog Contributor