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I often think back on my life and wonder if I did anything different, where I would be now? Critical moments and turns in my life, guided by family and community, helped shape both who I am as a gender nonconforming person and who I hope to become as an adult. 

Up until the age of seven, I played every sport you could imagine… or at least I tried to. Basketball, football, soccer, swimming, and my biggest flop of all, baseball. Afraid of the ball, I flinched every time it was pitched to me. When I very bravely hit the ball for my first time I stood there completely shocked. My teammates and their parents screamed at me, “RUN”. I ran as fast as I could while everyone cheered, I leapt and landed on the base, I did it! Instantly, I looked up to realize, they weren’t cheering at all, they were yelling. I ran the wrong way, still holding the baseball bat in my hand. 

On the drive home, I sat in the backseat feeling defeated. “I’m not playing anymore sports!” I pouted to my parents. With no hesitation, they agreed – what a relief. Instead of spending afternoons after school practicing my pitch, I spent the afternoons at home with my sister. She was a beautiful dancer growing up, always doing chaine turns down our hall, petite allegros in the kitchen, turning and leaping all around any chance she had. I would try to mimic her, following her everywhere and trying to leap and turn just like her. We eventually developed a ritual. She would teach me technique before class and while she was away, I would stay home and practice, waiting for her return and my next lesson. Finally, I have a natural talent blooming.

My first time seeing a show on stage was at her annual recital. Bright eyed and full of excitement, I walked up to our local high school auditorium lobby with my parents. There was a line out the door wrapped to the corner, the lobby was filled with the families of dancers waiting to buy snacks and flowers for their kids. The space was decorated with banners and balloons, the smell of pizza and popcorn filled the air. Growing up in a small town, my family knew everybody and everybody knew us. There were people dressed in button up shirts and slacks while others chose to wear their mud boots and overalls. An even mix that displayed the two sides of my town but we were all there for the same thing, to watch dance

I begged my mom for some money to go buy roses for my sister, she gave me one dollar for a single rose and off we went to our seats. The chatter in the theater that surrounded me gave me chills, electrifying the air around us. Sitting on the edge of my seat, I fiercely protected the rose in my hand. Finally it was her turn to dance. She entered stage left with a powerful bombastic jazz walk to the song Car Wash by Christina Aguilera with Missy Elliot from the critically acclaimed 2004 animated feature film Shark Tale as it blasted through the auditorium. It took everything in me to not stand up and dance, my mom literally had to hold me back. When they finished their dance I screamed way louder than was necessary and I stood up to toss the rose on stage at my sister just like how I’ve seen it done in movies. I threw the rose and it smacked the grandmother in the row in front of me in the back of the head. As I said, sports were not my forte. 

After the recital my parents asked me what I thought. With tears of joy in my eyes I told them, “I want to be up there too.” My mom looked down on me surprised and smiled. “If that’s what you want then sure.” No questions asked, I was on my way to be signed up for dance class, something that would change my life forever. 

My first steps into the local dance studio in my small hometown was a moment of bewilderment and extreme anxiety. Never had I been surrounded by so much pink in my life. The walls and ceiling were a bright hot pink with paintings of dance shoes lined along the wall. On a table sat merchandise for students: ballet skirts and shoes, a tutu on a mannequin, handbags for the dance moms, plush toys of ballerinas (I wanted one of those so bad). Nothing in this space was for “boys”. I looked around the lobby and felt myself shrink, eyes down on the ground with my shoulders slumped. I was only used to being around other boys playing sports. 

Maybe this was a bad idea, it’s not too late to turn back, I’m not supposed to be here. “You must be Adam! We are so excited to have you!” a very eager dance teacher shouted at me through the entryway of the studio. No getting out of this now. My mom gently pushed me forward, I looked at all of the pictures of dancers on the wall as I walked down the endless hallway lined with shining gold and platinum trophies. The nerves started to turn into excitement and I took my first step into a new life.

A dozen eyes staring me down, all girls. I stood there frozen in my oversized t-shirt and basketball shorts with white tube socks and black jazz shoes. My teacher introduced me to the class. Silence. “What is he doing here?” one of them said. Her name was Angela, she was such a bitch. “He’s here to dance!” my teacher proudly told her, she looked at me and smiled. I loosened up a bit but Angela really got to me. I knew right away I wanted to be better than her. From that moment, I was there to prove something to her and to myself. 

“Okay girls! Find a spot in the room!” my teacher said. Girls… she said girls, she didn’t mention me. What am I supposed to do? I stood there and raised my hand. “Should I find a spot too?” She laughed, “Of course! Dancers find a spot in the room,” she corrected herself. Naturally I stood in the back corner, maybe one step aside from where I had already been standing. Music began to play and everyone started to groove while my teacher got ready to lead a warm up. Standing still, fighting the urge to move with them, I tapped my thigh with my index finger until Angela whipped her head around and made a face at me. It was on. I spent the rest of class laser focused doing my best. I really was a natural. My teacher spent the majority of class catering to me, constantly asking if I had questions and giving me corrections. My Mom came in to pick me up after class and I ran out to her to give her a hug, I was so excited to tell her how it went. When I turned around after hugging my mom, I saw the parents of the students all staring at me. Some were smiling, some scowling. I didn’t really care though, I had just had so much fun in class and already forgot about the judgmental classmates and chose to ignore the upset parents after seeing a boy come out of class. 

I did really well throughout the year of dance classes. I took ballet and tap in my first year and was focused on learning as much as I could. My sister and I would both practice together at home throughout the week and on weekends in between classes and we improved exponentially because of that. I really didn’t deal with any drama in regards to being bullied for dancing, not yet at least, because I didn’t tell a lot of people about it. I would pack my ballet and tap shoes at the bottom of my backpack so my classmates at school couldn’t see them for fear of unwarranted harassment. As the year went on, we were approaching the recital which meant costume day. The first moment in my dance journey and life that I experienced what I know now to have been gender dysphoria. Our teacher showed us what we would be wearing and I was in awe when I saw the beautiful purple dresses for our ballet dance and the fun cowgirl outfit for our tap routine. I was so excited to try them on, I genuinely thought we would all be wearing the same thing. When my teacher showed me what I had to wear, I was disappointed. Black tights and a blue tight shirt with white ruffles on the chest for ballet and super tight skinny jeans with a red and blue plaid shirt for tap. If I was wearing something different than them then everyone would know my secret that I was dancing. I thought if we were all in the same costumes then I had a chance of blending in more. 

I was freaking out inside. I went to try on the costumes and felt ridiculous. Wearing tights for the first time I had no idea what to do with my parts down there and my shirt for my costume didn’t cover me up. Feeling exposed, I didn’t want to leave the bathroom out of shame and embarrassment. My dance teacher knocked on the door and all I could do was crack it open, begging her to get my mom. She came over to me and I told her I was uncomfortable and that my tights were in fact too tight. My dance teacher stood there listening and they both convinced me to go back into the dance studio. I walked back in with my hands covering my crotch. The girls all looked so pretty and were twirling around the room as their dresses billowed around, I was so jealous. We got together for a group picture and I was told to stand in the middle of the group and hold my arms up in fifth position above my head. Not wanting to expose myself, I kept my arms down with my gaze on the floor. My dance teacher was so frustrated with my refusal to lift my arms she physically pulled them where she wanted. It was insulting. The photographer snapped the photo. The girls dispersed to go get the other costume on and my teacher pulled me aside. 

I pleaded with her to let me try on one of the girls costumes, she was not expecting this. She grabbed my hands and bent down to my eye level. “You can’t wear what the girls are wearing. You’re a boy, you have to bring some masculine energy to the stage! You look so handsome, all the girls are going to be all over you!” she told me. Gross. Masculine energy? I’m seven years old, I have no idea what masculinity is and I couldn’t help but cringe when she calls me handsome. I wanted to be pretty. Through my tears she tells me to “man up” and pats me on the back.

On the way home that night I told my parents I didn’t want to dance anymore. They didn’t let me quit, they already paid tuition, and they also didn’t know what to say. My mom told me she would talk with my teacher. We ended up settling on me wearing a looser pair of jeans for tap and black jazz pants for ballet instead of tights. They were still tight around my crotch but it was better than the other option. 

The recital came along and while I was excited to dance, I felt nervous to wear my costumes. The feelings I felt a year before when I went to go watch the recital were completely flipped this time. I was already having anxiety over being the only boy dancer and my secret getting out, now I was going to really stick out with having to wear different costumes than the girls. Backstage before going on, I wasn’t thinking about my dance or giggling with the other dancers. I was thinking back on all of the scolding looks from parents I received over my first year of dance. Putting together conversations I would overhear from them at the studio in my head and filling the blank spaces with negativity. I was so scared to go on after psyching myself out and I wanted to back out. My sister was backstage and saw how anxious I was. She came over and gave me a hug and told me that I was going to do amazing. This boost of confidence was just what I needed. One last adjustment of my crotch, I uncomfortably was pushed onto the stage. 

With a flat smile I got through the ballet dance as I kept glancing off stage to my sister where she was motioning for me to smile. When we finished the girls were all supposed to curtsy and I was supposed to bow. Without thinking, I curtsied with the girls and went off stage where I was met with Angela’s mother who was also the backstage manager for the recital. She got in my face and asked, “Why did you curtsy with the girls, you’re not a girl!”. My dance teacher quickly whisked me away from her and Angela’s mom was asked to leave me alone. I didn’t even realize in the moment that I curtsied, I was just doing what I felt like I needed to to blend in. I ran back to my dressing room, a janitor’s closet on the opposite end of the school to get ready for my tap dance. I ripped off my tight pants, I was so relieved to have them off. I put on my new loose jeans for the tap dance and felt so much better right away. 

With energy and a real smile, I tapped my heart out to Boot Scootin’ Boogie with cheers and hoots and hollers from the audience. We finished and this time very consciously I bowed and I ran off stage to my sister where she told me how proud she was of me. The euphoria I felt tap dancing erased my squeamish memories of the ballet piece. The recital ended and I was leaving with my sister and parents as people were stopping us and telling me how great it was to see me up there. I felt like maybe I didn’t need to keep this a secret after all. 

My parents never made a comment on the curtsy, all they had to say is how pretty I looked with all of the other dancers. I smiled, “Can I dance again next year?” I asked. They very proudly told me “yes”. 

The year after I started to take dance very seriously and added more classes to my schedule. I was at the studio almost every day of the week. Slowly learning what I was comfortable with and how I presented myself, I started to break out of my shell and make some friends. 

Dance was the key that opened up my feminine energy, which flourished in the studio, but retracted the second I left the building. My secret eventually got out around town and I was known as the boy dancer and recognized pretty much everywhere I went. This brought me into my early teen years when my body started to change and I became even more aware of myself. As I evolved, so did my peers around me and they didn’t like that I was different. There would be much more to come…

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