Mama Outsider: Reminder Notes to a Dancing Girl

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The weekend before my white-ish roommate kicks me and my daughter out of her house, she tries to kiss me at a drag show. This, after I told her about my brain. The crippling effects of cortisol. The way I need safety before I can think of any of that other shit. The way even thinking about being romantic with a person with whom I am communal is destabilizing. All the ways you can say “no” without being offensive, without being a Black bitch, without barking like the other dogs she rescues as community service.

It is the weekend Beyoncé releases her “Formation” single and a bad queen has just performed it without breaking a sweat. I am watching the queen and learning that the way not to sweat is to move so little that every move seems like drama. I’ve got the not moving part down, which is how I am here at a club with a roommate whose friends want to meet the Black girl she let live in her house.

Slightly tipsy, I yell, “Yes!!!” a little too loudly for present company as soon as I hear the first few measures of “Formation.” My roommate and her friends laugh, thinking it alcohol and not Black girl magic rising up in me, calling out to my wished-for cousins in the room. I spot one cousin across the way, locs swinging as she and her girls cheer the queen on. Where their hips are free, mine are locked in place between two friendly-enough people I won’t get to know. In fifteen minutes, one will destabilize my life with her advances and the other will start crying. I focus on these would-be cousins, wishing to be with them. Wishing to be winding in the company of friends. Wishing for dance ciphers and yelling, “Yes!” and “Get it!” and “Okay!” and “I see you!” and “Do your thang!” and “Werk!”

Dear one, you do not know that you are already dancing. That you are perfecting the dip you learned so long ago. That even when you are low-low, your core holds you up. You will wind slowly until you stand again. Your girls are screaming, “Yes!”

I am fifteen and my friend’s mother has thrown her a backyard party. The boys stand on the periphery of our dancing circles because they know where they are. There are mamas and aunties and grandmas and big cousins standing around. This is different than dancing in the absence of adults, in the teen parties where some boys think that winding is an invitation for them to lean their hips in (sometimes with their boys holding them up from behind) while some girl works them into a frenzy. There is no negotiation of sexuality going on at this party, which is one reason the gods send in Big Cousin to teach us another kind of lesson.

Big Cousin is probably 19 and she is 1997 Louisville fine, which is a roller wrap, lip gloss with the brown line, and white eyeliner on the eyelids. She is teeshirt tucked in tight jeans fine and she has come through loudly with her girls. I know to take note. I know my life is about to change. I know there is something these young women will teach me about being grown, so I’m taking notes in the socially awkward way of writers that most interpret as staring to the point of disrespect. I’ve learned to hide the camcorders of my eyes to avoid confrontation so I disappear into the background of the party. And then her song comes on. Cousin drops it low, her butt nearly to the ground, then brings it up slowly, hips rotating to the beat. These are four of the longest measures I’ve ever heard. The song escapes memory, but Cousin does not. She is laughing at herself when she gets back up, says something like, “Y’all ain’t ready,” before bouncing off to the next relative, some grown auntie shaking her head and saying “That girl’s too much,” in a way that is the highest compliment to black girls, in that way that black women learn to mix pride and worry and arrive at hope. Proud that she’s “too much.”  Worried that the world will try to take her down to size, fit her into its tropes no matter what limbs must be cut off to do so. Hope that “too much” will be enough to resist, to wreck that shit.

I am forever changed. This dip becomes my signature move and I will practice it in mirrors until I master it. And I know I have mastered it when I feel my body moving with my memory. The integration, embodiment. I practice and in practicing find freedom to be wild. To be too much. I learn to listen for the code in the base, to hear rhythms telling my hips what to do. I dance wild. I dance freaky. For the next few years, someone taps me on the shoulder to pull me away from the spectacle I am making of myself. Soon, I will be grown enough for nobody to care.

Dear one, it is because you are grown that everyone cares. You destabilize world order with your womb, your winding, your wild ways. Ignore the tapping and take the floor. Find water when you are thirsty then return. Should your dancing bring unwelcome attention, your real girls will fuck somebody up before they try to sit you down. You are fine.

After the drag show it will take a while to remember just how fine I am. Homelessness requires re-memory for all the disses. Displacement, dis-ease, the disaster of living with someone who no longer wants you in their space. It clings to you like grime, like that which makes people avert their eyes. You forget to put on your fine, to perform it until it is real again. And then the gods send Cousin Patricia to your Facebook inbox, Patron Saint of Black Girl Fine. She’s the first one who taught you that fine is not the stuff you were born with or even the stuff other people put on you. That stuff is just baggage you root around in until you find your mascara.

“You never put on mascara before?” Patricia asked in shock, bopping her head to the beat of JJ Fad’s “Supersonic.” I am six and on my first road trip without my nuclear family. I am in route to my godmother’s house, a big girl trip, and Patricia’s house is a stop along the way. I am six and in awe of teenage girls. The mingling of grown-up and child in bodies are like mile markers pointing me to my “one-day-soon.” I put spritzed bangs, popped collars, and mascara on my list of all the ways I will learn how to be fine when I get to be her age.

Patricia also knew how to pick up the needle so as not to scratch the vinyl when she started our song again. By the third repeat, I forgot that I was lonely and I learned to say, “Eenie meenie disaleenie oo wop bop aleenie…” I learned what it means to be something else — a member of this free floating kinship that is humanity and full of cousins you didn’t even know you had. It means mascara and the latest dance, Supersonic on repeat and lipsyncing in the mirror. Feeling ourselves, feeling flyy, feeling baaaad and too good to be worried about what they say outside safe doors.

Dear one, be something else. Be Louisville fine and dropping low to bring it up. Be bringing wreck to parties and when they ain’t ready, just laugh. Be Supersonic — they cannot steal your voice. Be cousin and connected. Be always holding someone’s hand. Sooner than you know, you will be home.


We’re hoping to amplify the voices of people of color and foster connection between writers of color and readers of color at Autostraddle. We can’t wait to hear from readers of color in the comments! If you don’t identify with the author’s experiences, a good way to support her work without commenting on the article is to share it widely in the hopes it reaches its intended audience. Thank you!

Asha French is a writer living in Baltimore, MD. She has been published on Ebony.com, Mutha Magazine, Emory Magazine, and poetrymemoirstory. She is currently working on her first book. Check out more at her website.

Asha has written 6 articles for us.

11 Comments

    • Tiana!!! Thank you so much. You have moved me to scalp tingling and raised arm hairs. Everything in me saying “yes!!!” and “I see you!!!” Thank you for seeing me too. So much love!

  1. Your writing is beautiful, the music of the words matching the dances that you’re writing about. “Tthat way that black women learn to mix pride and worry and arrive at hope”–wonderful. Thank you.

  2. It is one thing for my White, southern best friend to laugh as I try to explain the way to summon Beyonce into your spirit when you’re feeling down, and another thing entirely for her POC girlfriend to agree completely while demonstrating the best way to catwalk down a sidewalk.

    I can sometimes feel disconnected from the Black community because of my wallflower habit, very much unlike some of my sassier sisters, so thank you for this relatable post.

  3. These experiences of dancing and being connected to family and community is not one that I have, but that you have described so powerfully and made so beautiful through the musical cadence and poetry of your words. I think you are a divine writer. Thank you for sharing your writing, and your experience.

  4. Been meaning to comment a while now but apparently forgetting my password for this site is my default!

    I love every single one of your posts. You are an incredible writer, and I love the style you employ.

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