The Dance

Essay

This essay by Michelle Forstrom was a finalist in the 2023 BYU Studies Personal Essay Contest.

Growing up, I was the singer and my sister was the dancer. I would practice my art songs, arias, and Broadway ballads, and Danielle would drill away at her ballroom dance routines with her partner. While I would memorize lyrics, get into character, and be cast in local musicals, Danielle would compete in Dancesport at the Brigham Young University Marriott Center. She would cheer me on at my plays, and I would be at all her dance competitions with water bottles and a towel. I would spray on her tans, sew on her rhinestones, and glue on her fake eyelashes. She would Febreze my costumes, apply my makeup, and go over and over any tricky play choreography with me. And with each song and each dance, something magical was created.

But even though she was the dancer and I was the singer, every once in a while, Danielle would sing and I would dance. And sometimes we would dance and sing together. Because of our Bulgarian mother and grandmother, the main songs Danielle and I learned to sing together were Bulgarian folk songs. And the one dance Danielle and I could easily do together was the Horo, a Bulgarian line dance with sometimes simple, sometimes complex repetitive steps and asymmetrical rhythms. We would jump up, holding hands to start the dance, and invariably the line would get longer and longer as people joined. It was a dance that organically took place at our family gatherings, weddings, and Easter and Christmas celebrations.

There was something unabashedly joyful about the Horo. We might yip or cheer as we danced. Those in the line varied from expert to beginner and everyone in between. You don’t have to be a dancer to join in. You don’t even have to be Bulgarian. Everyone is invited, but no one is forced. You just join when the music moves you.

It wasn’t until later, on my mission to Bulgaria in 1997, that I learned just how powerful a dance can be. I was visiting a very poor member of the Church in Sofia. Her name was Elena. Her apartment was in a sketchy part of town where someone had vandalized the side of her apartment building with the English words “Welcome to Hell” in black spray paint. Elena couldn’t afford heat. Her front door was completely detached from the hinges and was propped up by the door frame. You had to move it aside to enter, like the stone in front of Christ’s tomb.

Elena’s children would defecate into a bucket in their front room because they didn’t have a toilet. Any broken windows would be mended with plastic bags and duct tape. I remember one day when we came to visit, Elena’s hands were shaking as she cut up a head of cabbage and told us it was the only food she had managed to find in a few days. Elena lived a life that I had only seen romanticized in movies but never played out in real life.

On this particular day, my companion and I were walking up the cement steps of Elena’s apartment building when we heard banging, yelling, and muffled crying. Elena’s sister, Elka (a great mountain of a woman), tore past us up the stairs and threw aside the door. In seconds, Elka had grabbed her sister’s drunken husband by the neck and tossed him down the stairs like discarded tissue. We hurried past him up the stairs and into the apartment.

Elena’s lip was swollen and bloody, and her face was badly bruised. I could see a bald spot where a patch of hair had been ripped off her scalp. The house smelled of vomit and urine. Elena encircled her sister in her arms and murmured comforting words to her as they embraced. The couch rocked with their sobs.

I sat on the duct-­taped couch with my companion, trying not to stare at the sisterly intimacy. I felt a twinge of homesickness for my own sister. I wanted to solve Elena’s situation. I wanted to report her husband to someone. I wanted to wave a magic wand and give her everything she didn’t have—things like food, heat, and hope. I wanted to scream, punch through a wall, and throw her husband down another flight of stairs. But I just sat there, helpless and homesick.

After a few minutes, Elena blew her nose and Elka turned up the radio. She took Elena’s hand, and they began to dance. Elena held out her hand to me, and I looked at my companion, who gave me a quick “you’re-­really-­not-­going-­to-­dance-­with-­this-­woman-­who-­was-­just-­beaten-­up?” look.

And so we danced.

Round their sticky little threadbare couch. Round their table. Round and round the room to the blaring Romani music.

And that little circular dance lifted me. And more importantly, it lifted Elena. It became bigger than her current circumstance. It wrapped her in centuries of peace and power. She was no longer a penniless, battered wife in a freezing, forgotten apartment. She was a Bulgarian princess encircled by generations of resilience and perseverance. She was strong and beautiful. She was proud and fierce. And I could tell that somehow Elena and Elka would make it through.

It wasn’t until years later that I understood what the spontaneous dance had taught me. It wasn’t until I had born my own babies into a house I couldn’t afford to heat or until I held out to my sister the miraculously won Mary Kay grand prize basket at the hospital bedside of her stroke-­paralyzed husband that I remembered. It wasn’t until my sister helped me move furniture from my foreclosed home to a rental and until I held her hand when the doctor told her that she had to have heart surgery that she knew. It wasn’t until we had both experienced job losses, rebellious teenagers, mid-­mission pandemics, 4H Family camps, endless job applications and rejections, grueling grad programs, betrayals, financial reversals, our Bulgarian mother slowly going blind, and our Bulgarian grandmother gripping our hands to whisper-­sing Bulgarian folk songs one last time before she died that we knew. I could get through this. She could get through this. We could get through it together. Hard things happen, and they keep happening, but they don’t last forever. Pieces of life can be difficult, but it is only temporary. We are powerful beyond anything we could ever imagine, encircled by generations of unseen angels cheering us on. And sometimes before we know the ending, before there is a resolution, before we truly know if we are strong enough to make it through one more day, we just need to turn up the music and dance.

Notes

 

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