When I was born, I had thick bands of red blisters along my right wrist. My mouth was raw from sucking on the skin. I was clinging to myself for dear life.
Growing up, I danced constantly, atop the wingback chairs in the living room, around the swingset in the backyard, and inside a well-worn mouse hat onstage in The Nutcracker. I perhaps lacked the technique, but I had loose joints and springing tendons that allowed my toes to brush past my face and my arms to bend around themselves. My dance teachers saw potential in those long limbs extended in between the bones, in the rolling vertebrae that gave way completely when I leaned back. I moved through my classes and my life swinging from those ligaments, balancing precariously on floating bone and loose joints. I relied on my ability to bounce back from the ground on sheer springiness, but left the muscles untouched and unused. I thought I could sail through without them.
I was wrong. The spaces deep between those bones and tendons and ligaments were filling themselves, trying to hold the pieces together. They were rubbed raw from overuse, and bloated with fluids to try and smooth the motion. The knuckles of my toes buckled outward as the bones in my feet splayed wide, tendons tugging so badly I had to wear pointe shoes in all my ballet classes for a summer because I couldn’t bend my toes upwards. Cragged, rock-hard muscles knotted up in my back to try and keep my shoulders connected to them, squeezing my ribs enoght to pop them out of place. My knees were the worst, burning and clicking with each step, angry enough to refuse to allow me to abuse them ever again. I spent months in a full-leg cast, which forced my leg to spring out straight whenever I sat down. I daily laid out on the floor doing endless, repetitive exercises, which limited my range of motion to a slim arc. I missed the stretch of the leg, the limitlessness of my body’s motion. But my body was trying to hold itself together, just as it always had, since I had sucked my wrist raw.
I know what it feels like to fly. I have felt momentum build and boil over, swinging and flinging and twirling. I have also felt what it’s like to fall, pieces knocking and cracking on the way down. I’ve felt my head spin on the final collapse, disoriented and stuck, parts so far flung away that I have no confidence that I’m a whole at all. In those moments, I long to pull my limbs to me, squeeze out the air, press each piece into its natural place. I long to hold myself tight enough for it to burn, and rub, and blister. But without the strength to pull the pieces back, I merely drift, hazy and faded and weak.
I am trying to learn to find those muscles. I have learned how to extend my limbs so that my hamstrings unclench and my shoulders click into place. I must constantly remind myself to point my toes forward when I step, to release my knees to a gentle bend, to stop the motion of my arms before I even feel the remotest tug. I search to find the middle place, where I can build up my muscles so that they can hold me when I spin and whirl and fall. When my kneecaps skitter off their rail, I want my muscles to squeeze them back. I want my shoulders to lock in tight so can pull myself up with sheer strength. I want to line each vertebrae one on the other, so that I can balance my head atop with smooth ease. When I find myself swinging out of control, the space between the pieces of me stretching and flying away, I want to have the strength to pull them back. And in the collapse, because collapse is inevitable, I want to have the strength to stack shin over ankle, thigh over knee, shoulders over ribs, and head a natural extension of the spine, looking clearheaded towards the next moment.