The highs and lows of growing up with my lifelong friend: Dance
Editor’s Note: This story discusses sexual violence that took place during my time at one of my dance studios.
I met the love of my life when I was two years old. They came into my life in the form of tiny pink ballet slippers and a mommy-and-me class at Lucille Rapp Dance Studio in Kirkwood, Missouri.
My mom put me in dance classes at the local studio down the street from our house, similar to every other dance mom. But, unlike the rest, I actually stuck with it and still have my old friend Dance by my side as my college graduation approaches. We’ve had our fair share of fights, Dance and I, but they’ve really been with me through it all. From late nights crying at the barre – that is B-A-R-R-E – because I decided to dance on a sprained ankle to crying tears of joy after winning my first double platinum award at a dance competition, I am grateful to Dance for how they’ve changed my life. But to understand why they mean so much to me, I have to take you back to the very beginning.
Bridget and Dance: The Early Years
Dance and I started off as acquaintances. We met up weekly to do ballet, but as we grew older, Dance became a larger part of my life. We started getting together to do tap and jazz, too, and eventually, Dance introduced me to a brand new world: competition.
When I was five years old, I was invited to join what Lucille Rapp Dance Studio called a “line.” My line was the youngest of all of them at the time, and we were called the Razzle Dazzles. I was an original Razzle Dazzle. We were the stars at Lucille Rapp. I felt like one of the popular girls at the studio. It seemed as if everyone wanted to be us. We had photos of ourselves hanging on the walls, all of our trophies were displayed proudly in the hallways of the studio, and we got the best dances for our recitals. We even got bedazzled Lucille Rapp Dance Studio jackets. It was a big deal.
As a member of a line, dancers had to take ballet, tap and jazz classes. Dancers on a line were also obligated to follow an unwritten rule of not taking classes at other studios.
The first dance I remember performing was a saucy little number to the song “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” at the age of six or seven, but definitely too young to be dressed as a French cancan girl, frilly garter around my leg and all.
Eventually, we graduated to the older, exclusive competition line called “The Kirkettes,” emulating the brand of the Rockettes. We typically performed tap numbers for competition but also trained together in ballet, jazz and lyrical. Our classes were exclusive to the members of the line.
The Love Affair Begins
I remember the moment I fell in love with dance. Jazz class with Jennie Galloway. Miss Jennie was the first teacher that I remember genuinely pushing me to get better. She saw something in me, and for that I’m truly grateful.
Jennie recalled me, along with most of my peers, being reserved and shy when it came to dance and performance. Then came “Witch Doctor.”
When I was 10, I was chosen to be the lead in a jazz dance to the song “Witch Doctor” by the Cartoons. Practices with Jennie were tough on me. I remember one practice in particular when Jennie made me stand in the corner of the room and do pirouettes until I hit what’s called a “quad.” That is a pirouette, or a turn, with four full rotations. It takes a great deal of balance for anyone to hit a quad, but especially a 10-year-old.
But I did it. Consistently.
I don’t think I realized how beneficial that was at the time – in fact, I remember being kind of mad at Jennie for singling me out in practice like that – but I’ll tell you what, if it weren’t for her I wouldn’t be able to obtain that skill to this day.
Without Miss Jennie as a dance choreographer and teacher along with other great teachers at Lucille Rapp, my love for dance would not have been as solidified as a lifelong passion.
A New Opportunity
As I entered my preteen years, it had been 10 years since I started my relationship with dance, and there was still one side I hadn’t really explored yet: hip hop.
I took a summer class at a local hip hop studio in St. Louis called Hip Hop Foundation Fanatics over the summer of 2014. Yes, this technically violated the no dancing at other studios rule, but I kept it under wraps. That was the start of a wild – and at times, tumultuous – era of our relationship.
Hip Hop Foundation Fanatics was hip hop as I’d never seen it before. It was actually authentic, technical-style hip hop with an emphasis on breakdance and Chicago footwork. I have to say, I felt very cool as a 13-year-old in my Adidas high tops and purple sweatpants getting down to Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar.
Apparently, I was doing something right at that class each week because towards the end of the summer, the choreographer, Nick Gates, approached me and my mom and asked me if I wanted to join his competitive dance crew, F.U.R.Y.
“You can’t teach someone stage presence,” I remember him telling me. That stuck with me all these years.
It was a tough decision. If I joined F.U.R.Y., I would have to leave the competition team at Lucille Rapp, which meant no more jazz, tap or contemporary classes. If I said no, I could be throwing away an incredible opportunity. Even as a 13- or 14-year-old, I had already had my doubts about Lucille Rapp as a studio that could take me into the professional dance world, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to fully give it up. It had been my entire life for over a decade.
Gates invited me to come to a crew rehearsal the following Tuesday night as a trial run before making a final decision. After that rehearsal, it was clear. I needed, more than anything, to join F.U.R.Y. Never had I felt more at home with dance than at that one-room, graffiti-covered studio with my fellow crew members learning about the history of hip hop culture and dancing to rap icons like Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac.
My eyes were opened to the incredible world of hip hop and all it had to offer. I felt free to express myself in a way dance hadn’t allowed me before.
I was competing at national conventions like Monsters of Hip Hop and World of Dance, and learning from hip hop dance icons like tWitch, Parris Goebel and Ian Eastwood.
I was at the top of the world with dance. I wanted nothing more than to do this for the rest of my life.
I remember the exact moment my relationship with dance significantly changed. It was January of my senior year of high school. The year was 2019. It was a Wednesday night, and I was at a production night for my high school’s newspaper. That’s when I got a phone call.
My friend Lydia’s photo and name popped up and I could only think of one thing – she never calls me.
Lydia and I danced together on F.U.R.Y. She sometimes helped out the younger classes on Wednesdays, which is another reason why I was interested in why she was calling. She should’ve been in class.
“Hey what’s up?” I asked her.
Without missing a beat she responded, “Nick just got arrested.”
My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach. I had so many thoughts racing through my brain that I was starting to get what felt like a migraine. The world around me seemingly went black as I tried to process the information I just received.
The worst part was I knew exactly why he was arrested the second Lydia said those words.
A few years back, a girl who danced with us started openly dating Nick. She was 18 at the time and he was around 38. Everyone at the studio, including myself, found it extremely strange but didn’t really know what to do or even think there was necessarily anything to do. I was 16 at the time and naively assumed the relationship began after she was “legally” an adult.
But the minute I heard about Nick’s arrest, I knew it had to do with that girl. All I could think of were all the times throughout the years I was at the studio with her that, looking back, showed signs of any kind of abuse. How could I have not seen it? How could I have not done anything when I was there?
Of course, I was also a child and didn’t know there was anything going on or even thought that that would have been a possibility. In a space that you call home – the dance studio for me – you don’t expect to encounter a predator. You don’t expect the man you’ve looked up to for years, the man who gave you so much inspiration for a career in dance and encouraged you to pursue that dream to be a predator. I was feeling every emotion available to me as an 18-year-old.
How did I not see the signs?
Could I have helped her?
Was I next?
Questions flooded my mind as my breathing got heavier and heavier. My heart was pounding. I don’t even remember what Lydia said next because I couldn’t even begin to process anything other than the words “Nick just got arrested.”
I had heard stories of dance teachers grooming dancers and taking advantage of them, but you never think that is going to happen to someone you know or yourself. Or at least I didn’t.
I started reliving moments at the studio with Nick in my head.
The time he drove me to a dance competition because my mom was at work.
The time he told me I had to wear a lace bra as a top for a costume.
The hours I spent alone with him at the studio for a private lesson.
The random times long after rehearsals where he would text me as if we were friends and not a student and a teacher.
All the times he gave me solos in dances.
Before that girl graduated from the studio, he drove her to competitions, he gave her private lessons, she got all the solos in dances.
Was I even a good dancer … or was I just next on the list?
A window opening
I didn’t actively dance in hip hop for over six months. I thought I was pretty much done with dance in a serious way until September 2019.
It was a sunny day in my freshman year at DePaul University, and I was exploring the various student organizations during the Fall Quarter involvement fair. There were a few dance groups on campus, but one in particular caught my eye.
DePaul Dance Company (DDC) gave me the space to heal my relationship with Dance and feel free to fully express myself creatively.
In the past four years with the company, I’ve grown both as a choreographer and a dancer, met some of the greatest people in my life and reclaimed my love for the art.
Dance and I will always be with each other, even through the lowest moments. I know that all I need to be a dancer is some good music and good friends to move along with me.
If you’ve experienced sexual violence you can call the RAINN hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for help.
In addition, Chicago Says No More is a website that provides resources for those facing domestic and sexual violence in Chicago.
If you are a DePaul student, the university’s Office of Health Promotion and Wellness has a variety of resources. You can also contact DePaul’s Survivor Support Advocates, who are confidential resources in that office, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (773)325-7129.
Header photo by Bridget Killian