[Editor’s Note: As Dance Exchange approaches our 40th anniversary, our entire community is reflecting on what the DX practice of gathering, moving, and making means to each of us. To many in our community, Dance Exchange means that local artists have studios in which to rehearse; intergenerational movers have a place to connect and collaborate; teens discover the magic of movement; and more! Below is a thoughtful reflection on what Dance Exchange means to one of our community members, Dienna Howard. Dienna has been a consistent attendee of Takoma Park MOVES and, in April, performed with the company as part of our Co-Lab series. As you read Dienna’s thoughts and reflect on what Dance Exchange means to you, we hope you’ll consider making a contribution to ensure we’re able to keep our doors open. -AN]
I never thought that I’d become a mover and groover at any dance studio.
My history with dance started in the mid ‘80s, B.C. (before cell phones), a time that some young reader of this piece may consider “The Stone Age.” One of my sisters and I took a neighborhood ballet class one summer. I was decent – I wasn’t that girl in the class who had perfect form who we were told to emulate, nor was I the girl who always arrived late, unprepared and with poor form – I was just decent.
My sister and I didn’t continue ballet after that summer and for reasons unrelated I went from being a graceful, confident kid to an awkward, clumsy, and self-conscious nerd who tripped over her own two feet and who walked into walls. Whatever idea I had of being a dancer was over. My attempt to join the middle school drill team in the fifth grade was laughable. While everyone else was in sync I was one step behind, moving the wrong foot, turning in the wrong direction – you name it. I knew my drill team days were up – heck, they never even started – when I overheard one of the eighth graders saying that if our team made it to Drill-O-Rama that I, while pointing at me, would cause the team to lose. Well, we don’t want that to happen, do we? I quit after that. In retrospect, the experience reminded me of hippie chick Freddie struggling to get the drills down on that episode of “A Different World,” but while she finally got the hang of it, I never did.
As I went from being a little girl to a teenager, the awkwardness continued. While my sisters were both cheerleaders and one also did African dance, I was the one who was encouraged to stick with her books and writing. Try as I might to get attention, I was always going to be seen as the smart and nerdy one, as well as the awkward and weird one.
When I was about 19 or 20 and in college, I saw that basic ballet was being offered as a college course. I figured I could try again and see whether or not I could still be a dancer. What I thought was going to be a learning experience ended up being yet another awkward experience. Though the class was Dance 101-level, most of the women (no men enrolled though it wasn’t gender-restricted) in the class were dance minors taking the class as a pre-requisite. While their pliés, chaînés, and relevés were flawless, I had about as much grace as an elephant or a hippo. (Then again, seeing the way that Hyacinth Hippo, Elephanchine, and their respective troupes moved with beauty and grace in Disney’s “Fantasia,” that comment was an insult to elephants and hippos.) I did well in the written part of the class – As and Bs – but barely passed the movement part. One time the instructor taped our class, and while everyone else moved gracefully, I bopped around like a clown. I cringed as we sat and watched that tape, wanting to destroy it in the way that Dawn destroyed an embarrassing tape of herself in “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” It also didn’t help that the professor who taught that class was not a fan of me. If she saw me in the halls she’d give me a funny look and wouldn’t say “hi” to me until she had long passed me in the hallway. Not good for my shaky self-esteem.
Regardless of my continuous dance missteps, I continued to try find a dance that I was good at. I tried modern dance but my stiff back couldn’t do a flat back if I tried. I also tried samba once, but it was embarrassing when the instructor said “I see you trying to hide!” in a way similar to how an exercise instructor called out Clair (played by real-life sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad, respectively) when she was trying to hide in a tough aerobics class in an episode of “The Cosby Show.”
It was frustrating. Many people assumed that I was a dancer because of my lean frame and would seem disappointed when I said I wasn’t. Maybe I was simply meant to watch dance and not be a dancer, and maybe I should just accept my fate.
But wait…it gets better! It’s not all tears and sadness!
I started to visit Takoma and Takoma Park regularly last summer. I wasn’t a stranger to either. I purchased a shirt that says, “You laugh because I’m different, I laugh because you’re all the same” from a quirky gift shop called The Culture Shop (which is now Evolve Vegan Restaurant) many years ago, and when I was a volunteer at Empowered Women International, I had to reach out to businesses in Takoma and Takoma Park, trying to get them to act as co-sponsors for an event that EWI held at the Takoma Park Community Center back in 2011. I didn’t truly take the time to explore the area as thoroughly those times, but when I started to visit more frequently this past summer, my curiosity got the better of me.
During one of my exploratory walks down Maple Avenue, I walked past Dance Exchange. I could hear loud drumming. I was very curious to know what was going on. It sounded interesting.
I believe I started following Dance Exchange on Facebook, and that’s when I found out about the Takoma Park Moves series. Its description made it seem very open and welcoming to anyone and my curiosity got the better of me. I was living in Arlington, Virginia at the time, so I had to deal with single-tracking on Metro on the weekend and taking two trains, but I was determined to make it.
When I arrived at the first class in September that was led by Cassie, I’m sure I was nervous. I remember her introducing herself to me and she seemed nice. I also remember Matthew, who was taking attendance and collecting class fees, being very nice and bubbly. That helped to ease my nerves a little.
Once the class started, all my nervousness began to dissipate. We had to introduce ourselves with a movement. One of the gentlemen in the class did a jumping movement and made a sound, “Chuwapata!” (spelled phonetically), which I could not get out of my head if my life depended on it. I remember my movement being the most random thing, the way my body swayed back and forth against my will as I stood in the doorway of the Metro that morning, holding onto the pole and waiting to transfer at Metro Center. The way that everyone’s movements and sounds turned into this extraordinary dance simply moved me. The whole class experience was great. Not once did I feel out of place, clumsy, or awkward. I felt that I finally found a place that I could move and groove in.
Speaking of moves, realizing that yuppie Arlington was not for me, I upped and moved to the more artsy and free-spirited Takoma Park. Prior to this, I still managed to take the trek to Takoma Park to make it out to the Saturday classes. I started to feel like I belonged there and I met a lot of nice, creative, and kind individuals. It meant a lot to me that Matthew remembered my name and how it was pronounced, when I’m so used to hearing everything but my name: Diane, Deanna, Dee-YANNA, Die-eena, Dineen, Deidra, D.N.A., “What’s Her Face?,” “What’s Your Name Again?,” “You Over There,” and things that aren’t suitable for print here. It’s like when Patty Duke was determined to reclaim her birth name, Anna, which was hideously taken away from her by abusive stage managers as mentioned in her autobiography, Call Me Anna. My name is Dienna – six letters, three syllables, and it rhymes with a place in Northern Virginia andalso one in Austria. My name is an affirmation of who I am and taking the time to get it right is a sign of respect.
Once I was settled in Takoma Park, I made the effort to attend classes more frequently. I know that I’m devoted to a place when I’m willing to sacrifice sleeping in on a Saturday to get up and move.
I also attended a few Thursday evening community series at Dance Exchange. The first time I attended one I expected it to be two hours of sitting in a circle and discussing things, which I had no problem with because I like doing those types of things. Wrongola! Not only did we discuss topics we also moved, converting words and emotions that permeated in that room into movements. I was prepared for the second one I attended in January, which was the kickoff of the Winter Institute. The topic of gentrification – a touchy subject for me – came up, and beautiful movements were created from all the ideas that generated throughout the room.
I feel that Dance Exchange has helped to change me in different ways. It’s pushed me out of my comfort zone. I am very introverted, tend to be lost in my own thoughts, and only talk to people whom I know very well. People have written me off due to this, thinking that I come across as haughty, rude and cold. I’m also one who at times has a closed-off posture and is not comfortable being touched by strangers, but a lot of the moves at Dance Exchange involve intimacy and trust. I left my inhibitions at the door when I entered into that studio. I learned to trust people, trust that they would treat my body with loving care while I would do the same in return. I felt my icy stiffness melt, allowing my body to move like a flowing stream. I allowed the warmth and kindness of the instructors and students of Dance Exchange to seep right in.
Though I overcame some of my awkwardness and gracelessness in other ways (through taking martial arts in the past and yoga and meditation currently), I feel that taking classes at Dance Exchange really helped me overcome that lack of sureness and security in my body and its relationship to the space around me. This is because there is a freedom of movement in Dance Exchange’s classes – there is no right or wrong, there is no judgment. When I had a rare Friday off on January 30 I attended a Friday class led by Meredith. While it was more choreographed than what I’m used to compared to the Saturday classes, I managed to keep up the best I could. I knew I wouldn’t get the moves 100% correct, but I’m proud of myself for sticking with it to the best of my abilities and for not hiding behind people. And I appreciate the lack of judgment in the space. In many dance classes I’ve attended some teachers would shame and humiliate its less graceful students – I speak from experience of being one of those poor saps – but I’ve never seen that at Dance Exchange. There is a patience in the air and the instructors work with everyone, helping people to showcase what they can individually contribute to the space.
The freedom of expression and movement have translated into my life outside of the studio as well. I find myself dancing and moving when I’m standing at the door waiting to get off the Metro. I move when I am waiting for the bus. And during a slow time at my paid job when I was covering the front desk, I got up and did the gentrification movements from the Winter Institute kickoff, while one of the interns was watching and laughing at me through my office’s glass front doors. I heard her say, “I can’t help but watch! Why is she doing this?” I did the same thing later that day while waiting in a long line for one of the free catered restaurant lunches that the building where I work sometimes throws. I didn’t care who was looking, who was pointing, and who was laughing. I was in my own world, no longer constricted by other people’s judgments. That’s huge progress for me, coming from a place where I was constantly told to watch what I say and how I act in public – I simply learned to be in my own world and not in other people’s worlds.
Another way that I felt free in Dance Exchange was that while even though there is always effort and thinking involved in what we do there, it never feels like a job. I have been involved in different hobbies and interests where I got to meet great people, but often times those endeavors felt more like an obligation as opposed to a nice escape and another form of expression. As someone who doesn’t want her life to be defined by and as constricted as it is in the 40-hour work week, it was important to me to find something that represents freedom of movement, and Dance Exchange was it.
I knew I was part of the Dance Exchange community when Amanda referred to me as a “fixture” at the studio, and when Matthew said it was a “delight” to see me there. Those kind words meant so much to me. I know I’m amongst kindred spirits. I look forward to seeing the different people that come across my path there, and I’m also looking forward to more things I can learn with each successive class. I remember one of Jessie’s classes to ring in 2015, and one of the exercises involved creating moves from memories of past Dance Exchange experiences. I remembered the “Chuwapata!” mentioned above from my first experience at Dance Exchange, and I also remembered the breezy move (a reminder of walking in a gentle morning breeze) I did in one of Amanda’s classes, which was important to me because that was when I brought my mother, who lives elsewhere in the DC area, with me to check out Takoma Park Moves, and also when she gave me her seal of approval about my personal move to Takoma Park. She was happy that I found people whose interests and creativity are convergent with mine. That meant a lot to me.
I am here. I’ve made my move. I’ve found my home.
If you, too, have found a home here at Dance Exchange, spring into action and show your support today.
Dienna Howard has been a resident of the DC area for nearly a decade, currently residing in Takoma Park. Originally from Buffalo, New York, Dienna has a BA in theatre from Buffalo State College and has performed in different plays, a short film, and appeared as an extra in a commercial. She has also written and performed in some one-woman plays. Dienna has a multitude of interests that include acting, writing, creating art, activism, daydreaming, testing out different voices, telling jokes that only she finds funny, and exploring as many of life’s greatest and simplest wonders as possible.
More of Dienna’s musings can be found at diennahoward.wordpress.com, and she can be followed on Twitter at @diennahoward.