Owning the Stage

How I leaped and twirled into a more confident me.

by Layla Hussein

In elementary school, I discovered that I was a talented hip-hop dancer. Each afternoon, I jumped high in the air, swirled my arms around in a fluid motion, fan-kicked, and shook my long braids. We often rehearsed in front of teachers and some classes. They clapped like they were at a Beyoncé concert, producing a rush of energy throughout my body.

As part of my after-school program, I had rehearsals in the school auditorium for three months that culminated in a performance. During one of these rehearsals, I heard my science teacher say, “Look at her! She’s taking over the stage!” The guest choreographer stopped what he was doing, looked at me, and said, “I didn’t know a tiny girl like you could dance like that,” as he moved me to the front of the line.

I had never gotten this kind of attention.

Later, I attended a middle school that focused on the arts. I chose dance as my major and had class three times a week. We studied ballet, modern, jazz, and contemporary.

The other 6th graders were as passionate as I was, and being in a creative atmosphere was inspiring at first. But now I wasn’t the only kid with talent. Seeing 11-year-old girls and boys who had higher leg holds and cleaner turns intimidated me. I didn’t know that some of these moves were even possible.

Some kids had been attending private dance classes since they were 3. I hadn’t attended any, since my family could not afford it. The praise that I received when I was younger vanished.

I still felt motivated because I loved to dance. So I taught myself with YouTube tutorials. I practiced stretching and exercising routines to help me perform specific ballet turns. When I could, I practiced these skills during free time in dance class. The spacious studio had large mirrors where I could see myself clearly, compared to the mirror behind my bedroom door.

A Bully With an Evil Giggle

One day, I was practicing my fouette turns, and as I went into the a la seconde position and brought my foot into passé, a girl yelled out to me, “Layla, Layla, no, no! You’re doing it wrong,” she said.

“I think I know that,” I said.

“This is how you do it,” she said as she danced. Of course her turns were crisp and clean. She’d danced competitively on a dance team when she was younger, and she attended dance classes every weekend.

After that day, I stopped practicing what I learned from YouTube in the dance studio.
A month later, my dance teacher offered optional ballet classes after school in preparation for the end-of-the-year dance show. I signed up, as did the girl who tried to show me up.

I was doing my best to avoid her in class, but she continually sought me out. One day, she caressed my arms, and I stared at her, confused. She whispered and with an evil little giggle said, “You’re not good enough.”

“Can you leave me alone? Why do you always have to bother me?”

“Can you leave me alone,” she repeated in a high-pitched voice.

“C’mon, when have I done anything to you?” I said.

“C’mon, when have I done anything to you?” she repeated. “There’s no point in trying when you never get better. I suggest you just stop.”

I ran into the changing room before the tears streamed down my face.

I’m Not Quitting

Her flow of negative comments became a routine. But I wasn’t going to quit just because of one person. I wanted to improve my skills for the end-of-the-year dance show. Maybe I wasn’t as good as her, but I had some talent. Plus, I loved to dance. So I bottled up my anger toward her and kept it to myself.

There were many days, though, when I thought about giving dance up. Although my school offered an option to change your major, it was too late in the year to switch. And I didn’t know how to draw, act, sing, or play an instrument.

Sometimes I arrived home with my eyes red from crying, and when my mom asked me what was wrong I’d say, “I was yawning a lot, Mommy. It was a long day, and I am just tired.”

I rarely stood up for myself in general, and because I was self taught and feeling insecure about my dance ability, I allowed this girl to bully me, and that made me feel even worse about myself.

Nervous Before Showtime

After months of practicing, we had a final rehearsal in front of the school the day before the end-of-the-year show. Some of us had never danced in an auditorium that big before.

I tried to control my nerves. I did not want to be judged, and worst of all, mess up and embarrass myself.

When I walked on to the stage, I noticed that the floor was slippery. I panicked and thought about falling, forgetting a section, bumping into someone. I tried to clear that from my mind and think positively: Remember how confident you were in elementary school when you performed? Just try to go back to that again. Breathe.

The loud music began, and it was my cue to go. I performed chaîné turns across the stage, but as I kicked my left leg up, I fell on my face.

As I heard the laughter from the audience, I ran off, embarrassed. “Are you OK?” my peers asked once I was backstage. Then I saw the huge, wicked smile on the girl’s face. I had a bruise on my forehead, but the emotional pain was much worse. All I could think about was how stupid I looked in front of the upperclassmen, and that I had to perform for the families that following afternoon.

What Does Dance Mean to Me?

After rehearsals were over, I went back to class and tried to act as if nothing happened. But inside I was reliving it over and over. I kept thinking, How can I erase this moment from everyone’s memory?

The actual show was after school. The fall drained all the confidence out of me; I just wanted to get the show over with. I didn’t perform like my usual, energetic self, but fortunately, I didn’t mess up.

I thought people would forget about it eventually, but for weeks after, people asked if I was OK. I felt like I was known as the 6th grader who fell on her face.

I hoped that 7th grade would be better.

But throughout all of 7th grade, I continued feeling bad about myself. I became unmotivated. I questioned the purpose of dance in my life: Is it still my form of self-expression or the source of all my insecurities?

Another part of me wanted to earn my classmates’ respect. I realized I might not be good at using my voice to speak up for myself, but I had the power to let dance act as that voice for me.

So throughout the summer before 8th grade, I seriously worked on my skills by following YouTube tutorials. I stretched and exercised every day. I learned how to do a scorpion, chest stand, pirouette, leg hold, and middle split. My body physically felt different compared to the beginning of the summer, and I was overjoyed to start the first day of 8th grade.

‘You Mad Flexible!’

Classmates noticed my improvement right away. “Damn, Layla!” shouted one. “You mad flexible!” The dance teacher thought I was a new student at first. But it was me, the same Layla, better.

I started to practice what I learned from YouTube in the studio again, and the girl started up with her nasty comments:

“It’s funny how much you’re trying, yet you never get better,” she said. But this time, I continued practicing my turns and ignored her.

“Helloooo! Layla! Don’t ignore me!” she said. I continued turning. I sauntered near her and proudly flipped my braids with glee. She huffed and puffed and looked at me, frustrated. She never bothered me again.

Eighth grade flew by and soon it was time for the end-of-year dance show. My dance teacher selected me and a few others to perform solos. This was nerve-racking, since this was the first time I’d have the stage all to myself. Still, I felt prepared. I’d been rehearsing for months.

Growing as Both a Dancer and a Person

Layla Hussein

In my mind, I dedicated my solo to the girl who’d bullied me for so long. Her hurtful words later acted as my fuel for improvement. I chose the song “Believer” by Imagine Dragons for its lyrics:

“First things first
I‘ma say all the words inside my head
I’m fired up and tired of the way that things have been.”

Later in the chorus, Imagine Dragons sing:
“Pain! You made me a, you made me a believer, believer.”

This line is simple, yet empowering, because the girl made me a believer—in myself. She motivated me to work harder in dance, and she also made me mature into a person who was able to stop letting people take advantage of them.

On the night of the performance, I walked on to the stage in my sparkly gold and black costume. Friends and family in the audience roared, “Yeah Layla!” I felt as invincible as I did in elementary school. Once the loud instrumentals of the song began, I was on fire.

I shook my arms from side to side and swayed my body energetically while giving the audience a fearless look. I slid to the ground and transitioned my extended right leg to a split. My back leg touched my head as I turned into a bridge position. I gracefully stood up and jazz walked off the stage. The roaring of the audience made me cry. Two years earlier, I cried because I’d fallen on the same stage. Now I cried because I performed so well. I was finally proud of myself.

I dedicated my solo to the girl who'd bullied me for so long. Her hurtful words later acted as my fuel for improvement.
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