The documentary Bronx Gothic begins with a woman dancing. Facing away from us, she shakes and writhes for an uncomfortably long time. Sweat flies. Her body contorts in a mesmerizing, sustained way that makes me wonder whether it is puppet or puppeteer. For long minutes, she doesn’t turn around. The dance isn’t for us, only for us to witness: unapologetic power, unleashed.
The film, which documents the making of the one-woman show by the same name, pans the faces of audience members, who exchange nervous smiles. Is this it? As she dances, what I think I’m seeing changes: a woman in love with her body; no, a woman trapped by her body; no, a woman in love with the trap of her body. In the live performance, this initial dancing lasts thirty minutes. In the film, these minutes are compressed, but we feel the audience’s consternation at being taken hostage, even willingly.
The dancer—and writer/choreographer—is Okwui Okpokwasili, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants who grew up in the Bronx. Her genre-defying show weaves dance with readings of fictionalized notes between two adolescent girls figuring out how to live in their bodies—and in the Bronx. The lines whiplash between horrific allusions to what a stepfather does to one of the girls and often hilarious reminders of their innocence (when one girl tentatively confesses to having an orgasm with a frisbee, the other chastises her for being gross, to which the first responds: It was my own personal frisbee).
For eleven years, I took ballet classes. I can still conjure the texture on top of my head, shellacked furrows dragged by the brush when I slicked my hair into a bun. My piecemeal memories are sensual: the toe doughnuts to keep pressure off blisters; a sheet of cool jelly applied to raw spots; white first-aid tape wrapped around toes, the edges gummed and gray after class. The hiss of radiators in dressing rooms. The flat plane of my pelvis in a leotard, the valley of sucked-in stomach, the subtle mound of pubic bone. The gritty floor under my nose as I stretched. The way we clustered in the studio, panting delicately with hands on hips, recovering from one combination while our teacher demonstrated another.
Early in motherhood, I’d resolved to keep my now six-year-old Eva out of dance studio bathrooms forever. There my fellow dancers and I convinced ourselves of a carved clavicle’s beauty, whisper-read passages of V. C. Andrews’s novels, talked each other through first-time tampon insertions, and rolled seamed pink tights over our thighs, all the while parroting insipid conversations overheard from older dancers:
“I’m so fat.”
“Oh my god. You are not. I’m so fat.”
Dancing ended abruptly for me via scoliosis surgery at fourteen. My surgery cast me out of the dance world just as becoming a mom cast me outside girlhood; looking back in, I see the danger of inculcation everywhere. When Eva asks for dance lessons, I remember flocks of girls who would rather smoke a cigarette than eat a bagel.
Okpokwasili’s daughter is about the same age as mine. In the film, during interview clips in a minimalist New York apartment, her daughter bounces on her lap and hams for the camera. I’m not surprised to hear that Okpokwasili conceived of this show post-motherhood. The performance is an offering from older self to younger self, mother to daughter. Her kinesthetic telegram relays not so much how to navigate this world as the facts of its terrain.
While I wish I could have seen the live show, the documentary’s commentary widens the lens. If the performance is adolescence lived (heady, claustrophobic, sweaty), the film is adolescence relived (intuitive, kaleidoscopic, backlit). Dimensions unfold through interviews with Okpokwasili about the genesis of her show, and the scenes where, as visiting artist, she sits in university classrooms with women who discuss their own harrowing passages through adolescence, or else cry silently. This added material is like the perspective gained upon realizing that every woman has been through a version of the tunnel. As a teenager, you can only see a few inches ahead and smell the dank walls. Looking back, you see the wider landscape, your own story a dot on it.
What moves me most is the daughter as catalyst, thrusting her mother back into the dark tunnel, the way my daughter’s existence has pushed me back into ballet studios long torn down. I too want to make sense of it, so I can hand Eva something other than my own survival. After the film screening, the lithe Okpokwasili answers questions. At one point, she says: “I love my body when my body is strong.” She harnesses her body’s strength and power by dancing. How could I have forgotten that part?
Though Eva no longer answers the door naked, as she did at three, she still inhabits her body with an animal comfort, rejoicing in its ability to leap so high off the couch that she touches the ceiling fan’s chain. We both savor her sturdy, unblemished body, her lack of curves, her long, efficient lines. I hate to overlay that body with future inhibitions. She doesn’t yet feel the audience’s eyes upon her, but she will.
At one moment, Okpokwasili asks, “Can I make all of you be born again as a black girl?” Her performance illuminates the cage of girlhood, yes, but even more so, the cages of black and brown girls. This question, and its implicit no, reminds us that girls of color can’t opt out of society’s sexualizing, condemnatory gaze. Racism compounds sexism. What hubris, to think I can avoid signing my white daughter up for society’s lessons on how women should view their bodies. Eva’s cage already has more space between the bars than some. I can keep her out of dance studios, maybe, but I cannot keep her from middle-school locker rooms, or Snapchat. The trap is sprung.
I give in and sign her up for ballet classes. Bronx Gothic makes me question how practical it is to tell a daughter don’t go in. Better perhaps to say I’ve been there, too—and send her in armed.
Anne P. Beatty‘s work has been published in the American Scholar, North American Review, the Best Women’s Travel Writing, and elsewhere.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative nonfiction for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines.