The Trance Dance

The first week of working at “the New Age camp,” as I referred to it, entailed lots of bonding exercises, standing in circles, and playing embarrassing getting-to-know-you improvisation and movement games. Most of these games included hackey-sacks. My co-counselors taught classes like Cloud Gazing and Magic Cards and Live Action Role Play and Acro-yoga and Hula-hooping and Make Your Own Moon Cycle Pad and Radical Menstruation. I taught creative writing and counted the days until I was leaving.

During the second week of camp, after the teens had formed close friendships and either felt very comfortable at camp or very homesick, we had something called Girls Weekend and Boys Weekend. The boys and girls were split up and didn’t cross paths from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon. On the agenda was a matriarchal linear circle, a power shuffle, and a sweat lodge led by a man named Medicine Bear. But what kicked off the weekend was the most daunting of all: The trance dance.

The girls were anxious—on the first day while unpacking, I overheard a very intense girl named Hunter warn the rest of the cabin that “Everyone will cry during Girl’s Weekend. Even the girls that don’t think they will cry will. My sister told me.”  The girls had a choice: They could participate in the trance dance or they could go to the dining hall with some counselors to play board games. But they were heavily encouraged to try it out.

We, the counselors, were there to assist the girls in not bumping into one another and lead them away if they started walking into the woods. We were there to calm them down if they started having a “breakthrough,” the new age word for “panic attack.” If they were feeling weird and wanted to be taken out they were told to raise their hands. The trance music was thumping through the PA system as though we were all at a rave on ecstasy instead of a summer camp. The girls wrote down their “intention” on a piece of small white paper and then threw their papers in the fire. They stood in a single file line. Lots of nervous giggling. The girls were doused with incense. They were blindfolded with red cloths. They were put in a large field. It was seven p.m.

We spaced the girls out so they could have their own room to move around. I had no idea what was going on or why. I felt like it had to be a joke. I imagined my fifteen-year old self partaking in this and in a way felt jealous that I hadn’t had the opportunity. “There will be mirrors everywhere,” we were warned during orientation week, meaning, we would see ourselves in the teenagers. Looking at these brave girls, their developing breasts, their hunger for experience, I understood.

Nothing was happening and then it was. The music blared and the woman that was running the dance yelled into the microphone about how we were all trees. How tall could we grow? We were all birds. How high could we fly? How big could we be if we really tried? Her voice so jarring and obnoxious that me and the other counselors were making eyes at each other. She was the kind of person my dad would describe as a “Quaker Nazi.”

Some girls stood still. Some girls walked around the field. Some girls tried to walk into the woods and we’d take their shoulders, turn them around and send them back to the group. Why were they walking? Were they really tripping out?

Some girls raised their hands. Some girls danced their asses off. Some girls sobbed. Some girls punched the air. Some girls laughed giddily. Some  alternated dancing fast, crying, and laughing. Some cartwheeled. Some mumbled to themselves. Some spun like ballerinas.

I felt okay at first. Then I wanted to raise my hand and be taken out. The sun was setting. The guidance counselor who was there to oversee things came around and handed the counselors mini-flashlights.  I felt profoundly self-conscious and scared and spooked and super, super, sober.

This lasted for half an hour. When a girl had an episode and cried on the grass, kicked her legs and yelled, a counselor named Lisa would go over to them and perform some sort of Reiki and shake a maraca over their body. She was taking it very seriously and was creeping me out. She put her finger to her lips and gave me a fierce look when I was whispering with my friend Veronica for a moment. I felt like everyone around me was on acid and I wasn’t which is almost as creepy as being on acid alone.

Then the woman on the mic told them now was their chance. She told them to yell things out to themselves. Things they were insecure about. “Tell yourself anything you want!” she yelled. “You’re safe here!”

It was quiet and then a booming voice. I knew that voice. That voice slept in the bunk bed above me. That voice asked me what time it was every morning. It was my British black girl’s voice. Nadia.

“I love you!” she yelled boldly, not a trace of self-consciousness.

I felt a moment of shock and then promptly keeled over in tears.

The other girls yelled what she yelled. It was dark now. A breeze. Goosebumps on every inch of my body. Teen girl voices in different pitches filling up the field with I love you’s. They were excited and emotional and they were breaking my heart in half.

“You’re beautiful!” another girl yelled.

“That’s right!” the woman on the mic egged them on. “You are beautiful! What else do you want to tell yourself? What do you want to OVERCOME?”

They poured.

“It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks!”

“You’re not fat!”

“You’re good enough!”

“Your parents love you!”

“Be whatever you want to be!”

“Trust yourself!”

After each new sentence that was thrown into the summer night, the girls hooted and danced and laughed in this deep throated way. They parroted each other and supported each other and cried and screamed “YEAH!” and “WOOOOH!”  I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. A cover of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” done on ukulele now played through the speakers.

When it was over, we sat in a circle on the stage called the Mothership. We went around the circle and each girl spoke about her experience. They mostly said the same thing: “At first I felt weird and self-conscious but by the end I felt stronger and remembered who I really am.” One girl said that once a boy told her that she was the “short thing that people hate” and she finally shed that. Another girl said her sister died and she’s still grieving.

The girls were sitting touching each other, holding hands and arms around one another. Heads on shoulders. One of the last girls to speak, Sage, said, “Well, I’m not going to lie or agree. I thought it was bullshit and I feel exactly the same as I did before, so I hope you’re all happy. I feel jealous that now you are all confident and I am not.” Half of the circle gushed to her in one motion and collapsed over her saying, “Sage, we love you, I love you, we love you.”

We were told by our manager to “keep it light in the bunks tonight.” Other years, there had been episodes. You burden a teenage girl with all of that and don’t expect episodes? When we got back to the cabin, I told my girls I was proud of them. That I was so proud of them. They looked at me shyly. They were quieter than usual. Calm. Retainers in and lights out. We fell into our little beds, trance music still pulsing in my ears.

Breakfast was at eight thirty a.m. But the girls liked to get up at the crack of dawn to start primping. I’d forgotten just how vain and tender, how insecure and confident, fifteen-year-olds can be. I forgot how much they love their eyeliner. They used eyeliner constantly. And then they started using a Sharpie as their eyeliner. They passed around a small Cover Girl mirror each morning and layered on foundation and eyeliner. Eventually I went to the dollar store and bought a mirror that was in shape of a sunflower, so we could be a bit more civilized. It also made the cabin feel more homey.

The morning after the trance dance, Nadia said, “Can we have a heart to heart, Chloe?”

“Of course,” I said.

Nadia explained the situation. The situation was what it always is. A girl likes a boy. The boy likes the girl. But the boy has a girlfriend in California. So the question was this: If the boy tries to dance/kiss/hold hands with the girl, tonight at the dance, should the girl do it?

I got too deep and began to over-talk it, babbling about how in the grand scheme of things it really wouldn’t matter–they might not even remember camp–until Nadia cut me off. Without a tinge of anger or annoyance, but just matter-of-factly, she said, “But it matters now.”

But it matters now.

Well said. I didn’t really have anything to say after that. I went back to my book.

Then Nadia said, “But guys, guys, guys.  Here’s the question. Do you think it’s possible to like more than one person at once?”

My heart. I swear my heart stopped.


Buy Chloe Caldwell’s Legs Get Led Astray:

Future Tense Books
Small Press Distribution

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CHLOE CALDWELL is the author of Legs Get Led Astray (Future Tense Books). Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood and The Frisky. She is the founder and curator of the Hudson River Loft Reading Series. She lives in upstate New York.

5 responses to “Excerpt: Legs Get Led Astray

  1. Meg says:

    Loved hearing you read this. Love being able to read it again. You’re brill beyond words, Caldwell. Don’t stop.

  2. […] 1) An excerpt from Legs Get Led Astray called “The Trance Dance” is on The Nervous Breakdo… […]

  3. […]  This video was shot and crafted by Stephen Kurowski, at my book party in Portland, Oregon last week. I am reading from my essay, “The Trance Dance.” […]

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