Last week one of my writing prompts was first dance.
I was 13 the first time I went to a dance. At school they called them Bronco Nights, after our school mascot, but I had never gone to one. They seemed the territory of the knowing and bold, a place where cool people who knew how to dance could hang out with each other. Or maybe they seemed the exclusive claim of the popular kids, the jocks and cheerleaders, with the rest of us meant to respectfully and willingly opt out. I barely remember anymore, but I know I had no interest in going.
In the summer between seventh and eighth grade I went away for three weeks, to a summer camp in Los Angeles. It was a sleepaway camp for gifted kids, where I took an intensive academic course and lived on a university campus along with dozens of others just like me. Until CTY I had not known this kind of community existed. At school “nerdy” meant dully dressed, quiet, hard-studying kids who set the top grades. At CTY these nerds clustered along the outskirts, giving way to others who were wild, unique, and flying on all the exploratory energy of teenagers away from home for the first time. I hadn’t known I could give rein to all the weird and wonderful thoughts inside me. I hadn’t known that there were people to whom, now that I’d set my thoughts and quirks free, my full individuality could latch onto, blooming, bringing theirs into bloom, bringing mine into fuller flower, back and forth, crazier and bigger and more beautiful.
At CTY there was a dance every weekend, and everyone went. You couldn’t not go, actually; you could get to the gym and hole up in a side room to watch movies with the other wallflowers, but you couldn’t stay in the dorms. With my new friends beside me I found I was looking forward to the dance. I didn’t know what a dance was like, I didn’t know if I could dance, but I was a new me with a new crowd, and we were going to a party. When the party started I discovered dancing was not the vague idea I’d gotten from books and movies of boys tapping on one’s shoulder to ask, “May I have this dance?” The music was the normal pop, rock, and R&B I liked, and everyone just kind of bounced together to it. You didn’t have to have a partner or even a crush. You could just go and have fun, and when they played the last song of the night, put your arms around your friends and sing and sway in unison.
When I got back home I missed my CTY friends desperately, but once every couple of months I had a chance to revisit that energy at Bronco Night. Then as now, my lifestyle and upbringing didn’t leave much opportunity for spontaneous dance and community. I still long for dancing at every party, that reckless exuberance of jumping around for hours with my favorite people, then holding on to each other, singing the same song.