Balancing myself on the edge of a stool, I tried to stay still and keep my eyes wide open as my mom applied liquid eyeliner on my lower lash line. The liquid was thick and sticky and felt foreign on my skin. Layers of powder pressed uncomfortably on my skin and my hair was rigidly pulled into a tight bun. Everything felt wrong for my 8-year-old body.
I changed into my outfit for the night, a traditional creamy white costume. When I first received it, I thought it was a beautiful thing, something only one of the best dancers would wear. It was starchy and smelled of old saris. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and seeing a different girl staring back at me. The girl in the mirror was perfect — she wore beautiful clothes, looked pretty and she was a dancer.
Some things, I never forget.
I can still recall the first dance item I learned as a child. It wasn’t much, a simple yoga routine, perfect for our tiny, energetic bodies. We performed it to a small audience made up of our parents and my costume was a bright red long-sleeved shirt, paired with dark blue sweatpants, with my hair tied up by a flimsy silver bandana. Tiny strands of silky hair stuck to my face as I waited nervously, fidgeting with the nervous energy only my 5-year-old body could contain.
The dance itself is a blurred memory, but the thrill and adrenaline I felt that day was something I carried into future performances. The stage became a refuge for me, a place where I could express myself. The harsh glare of the spotlights became a welcoming sight.
I met my best friends through the sport and spent most of my time in the studio, practicing and making memories. When asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would always answer saying that I wanted to be a dancer. I had vivid dreams of applying elaborate makeup in front of vanity mirrors and performing in front of audiences all over the world.
The dance culture in Singapore, where I lived for 10 years, was rigorous and unique. In school, we trained for national competitions, 26 girls in one room, aggressively practicing for two hours straight. After school, I would head back home and prepare for dance classes. I would wear my gray and pink uniform, braid my hair and wait at the bus stop for my friend. We would both walk to classes, and at the same time refresh our memory about certain dance moves.
My days were always long, with school ending at six sometimes, and I would have to change in the car as I headed to dance class after school. My friends and I grew up around dance, frequently attending temple performances and participating in school fundraisers. When I wasn’t dancing, I was helping my dance teachers in one way or another, whether it was emceeing a show or helping with other performers’ costumes and jewelry.
Dance had the power to change my perspective on little things. Sitting in the audience of a recital as a dancer is a completely different experience from watching performances as a non-dancer. I became aware of how strenuous certain moves were and wondered how much time it took for the performer to perfect the moves.
This became a routine for eight years and dance was something I looked forward to after tiring days at school. But some habits are meant to be broken.
It wasn’t long before my parents told me we would be moving to America, which inevitably meant that I had to let go of my dance journey. Moving to another country wasn’t unbearable for me — it meant meeting new friends, visiting new places and making new memories. Saying goodbye to my home, however, was heartbreaking.
Breaking the news to my dance teacher was the most difficult. Between light sobs, she told me that I was always welcome at her studio and that I could find peace through dance. I also said goodbye to my friends, promising that I would dance on the stage with them once again someday.
The traditional Indian dance scene in America was different — and more competitive — than the one in Singapore. Dancers were constantly working towards their arangetrams, two-hour long recitals that showcased one’s dance journey. People I met in new dance schools didn’t seem to dance for themselves but rather for the sake of attaining this crowning achievement.
Dreams of pursuing dance in the future were stifled, as I started to realize it was practically impossible in this environment. Dance classes seemed boring and repetitive, and I didn’t have any close friends I could share my experiences with. My interest dwindled, and it was evident in my performances and practices.
Subconsciously, I let go of my goal of being a dancer. I no longer introduced myself as one on the first days of school and it didn’t feel like it was a part of my life anymore — just another activity that I had to do.
Despite this, I continued to cherish it and force myself to wake up early in the mornings on Saturdays to attend classes. I wanted to treasure the ambitions of my younger self and to continue dancing for her. Dance became the one constant in my life, no matter how much I despised it at times.t gave me the freedom to express myself in ways I normally couldn’t.
Dance is more than a form of expression to me. It lingered in my dreams and fantasies for days and was a form of motivation for me when days got too long. I continue to value the experiences I’ve had on stage and still believe that one day, when I stand in front of a mirror, I will see a dancer staring back at me.