Our whole lives we work to meet a standard or expectation. As small children we are slowly introduced to the ways our specific tribes (families). Each family has their methods of interaction, rituals and ways they have of doing things. Everything from the way we speak, what we eat, dress, as well as our moral codes is taught to us in these foundational relationships. Instinctively we are eager to please our “tribe” and quickly learn to fit in. We are so young our exposure is limited, and our view of the world is relegated to those we come in contact with. We hardly know or realize that there are other ways of being. Since we have very little contrast in our lives or the capacity to comprehend what that is, without thought we emulate the examples surrounding us. Slowly, and gently our world expands as we begin to socialize in other arenas (play dates school etc.) it is at this point that alternative information in introduced and we begin to experience contrast or other ways of being, and this is the beginning of our realization that something else, something other than what we know exists, it is at this point that we start the cycle of questioning and choice.
When I was a very little girl I did not know who Elizabeth Taylor (dubbed the most beautiful actress in the world) was, but I knew whom my mother was, and in my eyes no one could have been more beautiful or elegant than she. My Mother even after having nine children (one at a time) had managed to maintained her waistline, with ample breasts and hips in perfect balance, she was noted for her curvy legs and had the most beautiful hands I have ever seen save for her belly mapped from childbirth she was unmarred. My mother is very fair, I am a nutmeg brown in complexion and were I grew to have her legs (thanks mom) my physique is more that of my father’s side of the family. Though I did not directly look like my mother somehow it was fine. As a family brothers and sisters and I are like the colors of the rainbow ranging from what is called “high yellow” to my nutty complexion. Our body types are divergent as well, from short and round, to tall and lean. As a little girl when I sat around the dinner table I could see bits of myself in all of the faces and bodies surrounding me, and though I always wished I were lighter in complexion I never felt uncomfortable or inadequate.
My world expanded rather quickly and exponentially, at the age of three I started Montessori school and was thrust into to a world where people not only came in different colors but ethnicities. Who knew that people came in so many shapes and colors? One of my fast friends during that period was a girl named Rya Silverman. She was possibly the whitest person I had ever seen. She had pale, translucent skin, blue eyes and white blonde hair. She looked like all of my baby dolls. She was frail of body and emotion quite the opposite of me. Both Rya and I moved on to Baldwin Academy for Girls in Bryn Mawr the suburbs of Philadelphia.
It was in this environment that I learned to hate my hair. Every Wednesday was swimming day. This was pre-Revlon hair relaxer days and I knew that my carefully pressed out ponytails were going to be puff balls by the end of the day once the water hit them. I was smart enough to know that after swimming my best bet was to stand under the hairdryer, my hair still bound in pigtails and dry them the best I could. To release them was to unleash a mane that, as a seven years old I had no skill to handle. One day my teacher, concerned that in the winter weather my hair would not dry thoroughly, insisted that I take my hair out to dry it. I looked up at her skeptically knowing full well what was going to happen. But she had already started to undo one side. A limp puff was released, and as my hair dried it became a tsunami of an Afro puff. Now without the proper tools to comb through the mass we both stood there trying to figure out what to do. I gave her the “See, I told you so” look annoyed at the fact that knew that I was right, and because she was bigger and older I had to obey. Now, not only did I look a hot mess, but also I would be forced to go through my day looking like the pick-a-ninny that being the only black student from k-9th grade I already felt like. Add to that the fact that my mother was going to kill me because I knew better, in this simple act of taking out my wet hair I had just created an hours worth of work for her combing out my rat’s nest that evening. Chagrined, my teacher, now fully aware of her mistake and in ignorance at how to deal with this expanding problem left me there and feigned busying herself with the rest of the children. I was left alone to wrangle my hair into some sort of order the best that I could. She never came near me again on swimming days when I stood defiantly under the dryer with my hair in ponytails. This incident was one of the most indelible of my childhood. I had always known that I was black, and “different” from girls like Rya but moments like this confirmed it in a negative way. My teacher knew instinctively how to help my white classmates with their hair but was clueless as to how to help me. I was on my own. This was one of the first times I can remember wanting to be something different, to have different hair, to be like the rest of my classmates to be the same, not to be “other”.
After school I went to Pennsylvania Ballet where I trained 3-5 days a week. I was once again one of the only Black children in the program. It was there that my desire to look like my white classmates not be “other” was fully formed. In the dance studio where you are exposed physically and emotionally, trying to master a technique that hinges on aesthetics, the perfection of line and placement, when you do not have the ability to blend in appearance (meaning skin color, hair type and style) it puts undue pressure on you to be perfect on another level. The only way I could blend or look like my teacher was to perfect my technique and line. When I looked in the mirror even if I managed to create the correct line, my brownness got in the way, somehow it always looked wrong. At least at my dinner table I could look around and see aspects of myself, in the ballet studio there was nothing like me, once again I was on my own, other.
This two worlds, my academic and artistic created a separation that I had never experienced in my household with my tribe but and odd thing happened as a result, those two environments created a separation for me in my household and my neighborhood. My family new little of my talk of dreidels, Passover and bat mitzvahs (common occurrences in my predominantly Jewish school) the kids on my block looked at my Lacrosse stick like it was a medieval instrument of torture, nor did they know what a Ronde de Jambe or Grande Allegro was. In an effort to educate me to the best of their ability, my parents had unwittingly created another level of isolation. I had through the years grown into the “Other” in my home. My interests expanded, my references grew, my aesthetic changed so did my ability to connect with my family and neighborhood friends, and I began to segment the areas of my life. I began to want to look like a “dancer” with not behind, and arched feet, I spoke of people like Gelsey Kirkland, Kyra Nichols and Baryshnikov, where they understood the world I was speaking and dreaming of, they did not, could not understand it. Even to this day my family as no concrete idea what my life as a dancer, as an artist consists of, they are still perplexed by my traveling the world to dance, or teach. It is a world apart from them, they are proud, but they stand outside of my world looking in.
If I were to truly look at the source of my sense of otherness its nascent roots would stem from my body, both inside the tribe of my family to my schooling and my dance training. From being the brownest member of my family, and then becoming a dancer, to being one of the only students of color in school and in the dance studio I was always slightly different. I could change elements of my personality to blend, an ambivert by nature (believe it or not when I was younger I was quite shy when I was in public) I remember the day I consciously decided to exercise my extrovert, and use my humor as a protective shield to be liked and accepted, my thinking was, “If you make people laugh they won’t want to hurt you.” In the world I could be smart, funny, I could use my talent as a way to “fit in” but still my body as it was set me apart. With my family I could fall into our shared tribal ways of being, but the desire of my heart in terms of what I wanted to be (a dancer) was far from them, there was always going to be a part of me that I could not share and experience with my siblings with an intimate level of understanding (except on a level with my father who worked to educate himself as to the world of dance). This sense of isolation has stayed with me; it has informed every aspect of whom I am. Standing on the outside while being in the center of these worlds as giving me the perspective I hold now hold about race, and education, dance, art and the world and yes even the body.
I am, and have always been “other”. Other is a term to describe not being apart of the majority, the norm the status quo. I have been “other” in body all of my life, and later as my world began to expand through education (both academic and artistic) my thinking and philosophy about life and the world relegated me to the realm of “other” as well. As a youth I did not understand it, I resented it; it was painful, isolating and lonely, I have since learned to embrace what my “otherness” offers me, the ability to be a part of and yet set apart from concomitantly, to see things from multiple angles all at once, it has helped me arrive at a place of acceptance instead of mere tolerance for things unlike myself or anything else, and especially of myself. My Otherness has been for me the beginning of Understanding.
One thought on “Otherness…”
Hi. My sister was a girl named Rya Silverman (my half sister on my father’s side), and she went to Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr. I did a google search on her. I would like to know more about her, as she passed away when I was only two years old. Please contact me if you have some time to share some memories of Rya.
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