It was my first summer stock experience as both a dancer and choreographer. I was young, awkward, falsely confident, and tortured inside. You were older, glamorous and made everything you did seem effortless.
I started dancing when I was four. Like many little girls, it was an activity my mother put me in —but unlike most girls, I fell in love. Walking into Mrs. Hackney's School of Dance from the cobblestone street and seeing the older girls finish their class took my breath away. Then from my first plié, something happened inside of me that told me this was where I was supposed to be. At the end of that class, Mrs. Hackney had us stand in one line if we wanted a mini marshmallow and the other if we wished to have licorice. I stood looking at myself in the large mirrors, trying to decide. That day solidified my path by entwining food, dance, and body image.
You would glide from one side of the stage to the other. No matter how poor my instructions were to you or how frustrated I became, you were patient. Others snapped back and stormed out, but you never did. You were always kind, calm, and ready to work.
When I was fifteen and dancing in Oklahoma, I skipped dinner between shows one Saturday night. One of the ladies in the cast stroked my head and asked me if I was okay. The connection was made. If I didn't eat, people would pay attention to me.
You never commented on my eating habits or gave me attention for not eating. When others questioned my smoking and diet coke consumption versus my food intake, you only smiled and left the room. Then one day in the dressing room, when it was just you and me, you asked me to come to sit down. I turned from from where I was scrutinizing the size of my thighs, and our eyes locked in the make-up mirror. As always, you looked like you were glowing from the inside out. You were wearing all black and your hair glistened golden under the lights. You patted the chair next to yours. I sat. "You will always hate your thighs until you learn to love yourself," you said. “But I can’t love myself until my thighs are thin,” I answered back. Your eyes flashed with sadness and quickly returned to compassion. You put your hand on my face and said again, "you must learn to love yourself." Then you walked out. I had no idea what you meant by love myself and was left feeling bewitched, bothered, and bewildered.
Several months later, back in New York, I'm dancing in another show, and someone loans me a book. There's a chapter on self-love. I devour it. It makes me angry. I still don't understand it. As I pick myself apart during long rehearsal days in front of the dance studio mirrors, I think of you. Sometimes I see your eyes calmly looking back at mine.
You've unlocked a curiosity in me I know this because no matter how much I suffer at my own hand, I’m always looking to understand what it means to love myself. I read many books, and finally, one cracks the darkness in which I live. I read it repeatedly for months before I'm willing to try any of the exercises. Finally I’m brave enough to try mirror work. I look into my eyes—this makes me think of you. Then per instruction I say “I love you” to my reflection this makes me so sick I won't try it again for months.
I think of you often over the years. I wish I could remember your name. You float into my consciousness like a glamorous Yoda whenever I'm struggling. I hear you singing Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered, the song you sang in Pal Joey all those years ago and, it speaks perfectly to how I have felt about you over the years.
It's been decades since we met. But those short three weeks with you changed my life I think in truth they were a part of what saved my life. I'm no longer a dancer. I went through many dark nights with my eating disorder, but continued to fight to learn to love myself because of you. It wasn't just what you said that day in the dressing room. It was who you were—how you were.
Recently I heard a young Chinese American olympian talk about the importance of not just having representation in the world but being that representation for others. You were that for me with self love. I take that legacy seriously and do my best to be that representation for others who don’t love themselves or even know what it means. These days I'm a writer, life coach, and self-love advocate who works with women to create and live lives they love.
So to the lady in the dressing room who bewitched, bothered, and bewildered me, I thank you and want you to know your legacy lives on.