I heard the music from across the park while talking over cider about the satisfaction of being a social coach with my new Austrailian friend Andrea. We had broken away from the group we were in earlier to get a drink over the luminous park in Portland, Oregon decorated with strings of lights that were just starting to turn on as the sun began to set, all for the kickoff party at this event.
I love going to big parties like this, and it almost always has a mix of personal, oftentimes deep conversations like the one she and I had started to have now and silly dance party antics. Right now, we were having a semi-DMC (deep, meaningful conversation). She had been a life coach for over a year, and I loved hearing about her experiences as a coach, and as she described the moment that she realized that she should be telling people that she is a coach with pride and without an ounce of falter or stammering over that she also works in Information Technology, I could see this familiar energy rise from her chest and beam into her eyes with enthusiasm.
I live for moments like these. Seeing people come to life like this lights up my own passions and drives me to engage with them further. I feel like I'm sharing in something important in their world that they're letting me in, and I'm always thankful to be part of it.
But in this moment, just as I heard the music pulsing and building up as the vibrations reached my rib cage and awakened a different kind of energy that the Inner Child in me is all too familiar with, I knew that I couldn't stay away from the dance floor that tantalized my own energy and my Inner Child for long. She was already thrashing inside, demanding we get on the dance floor so she can come out and play. Within eight measures, I found myself thanking Andrea and excusing myself from the conversation to find a safe place to put down my off-white wristlet and my gift box that they had given all the guests at the party to keep closed until we opened them together, and with each step I took towards the music I found my Inner Child jumping with joy to the beat, ready to be unleashed from her cage and fully coming out on the dancefloor.
They started playing the songs, and I found myself not even thinking about how I would dance. I never do when the music plays. I just moved with the small crowd that was forming at the front, throwing some of my ballroom training in whenever the beat felt right and simply letting my head shake wildly side to side while I jumped and leaned into the drop. I pretended to play piano, threw in random Charleston kicks and sailor shuffles, and got in a few Bachata-inspired hip bumps to slower songs as they played. And of course, I had to dance with my fists pounding up in the air with other people and even shimmy with a few fellow girls that I share the dancefloor with. Each thump of the beat electrified me as if it were the power to keep me moving as much as I wanted, and my energy seemed to let people's barriers around dancing come down and dance as well.
But I wasn't always this way.
Rewind about eleven years ago. Young Sammie Varnerin, age 15. Tall, quiet girl that mostly kept to herself during the school days and barely ever saw friends, but extremely thankful that a friend invited her to go to a football game with her early that year because that meant they got to be closer friends for all of high school. That friend, Kate, turned out to be one of the most freeform girls I have ever met that also felt the need to share her love for singing (even if her rendition of "Hit Me Baby One More Time" put me more in stitches because of how comical it was when she closed her eyes and balled her fists whenever her voice cracked on the high notes for the lyric "still believe") and her desire to have awesome house parties with all her girlfriends (her parents were the best). I went with it halfheartedly at first, trying to use this energy to forget about the problems I was dealing with at home. But being around Kate meant that I in turn became just a bit more outgoing, even if I was mostly quiet during the day still. And of course, it meant going to more football games to keep up with her crazy amounts of team spirit, which meant both of us had to learn how football worked pretty quickly so we could cheer for our team when things were going well on the field.
But the Kate that made the most impact on me? The Kate that went to all of the dances my high school had all four years she was there (I would have been able to say the same, but I missed the very first one). It wasn't until the Freshman Semiformal where I couldn't bring my boyfriend from a different high school to it that my attitude towards dancing changed (since that boyfriend made me super self-conscious about dancing). Since I couldn't bring who would have been my date and Kate didn't really want to go with anyone that didn't already have a date, me and my friends formed The Dateless Club and went to the dance together. This strange freedom from a judgemental boyfriend that refused to dance gave me my first chance at expressing myself through music without worrying about another person, and since I always loved the lyrics to songs that resonated with me, I began to create moves that flowed with the lyrics to my favorite songs effortlessly. I probably looked goofy and awkward as my lanky 130-pound self danced around, but something happened that night. As I bounced in my Cinderella-blue dress with no makeup on since I had no clue how to use it then, I began to tap my fingers in front of me like I was playing on a keyboard for the first time. This became one of my go-to signature moves without me noticing over the years, and something about that motion made me feel unique about how I expressed myself on the dance floor. And so I became addicted to dancing, and quite quickly I unleashed the girl that had to put her hair in a high ponytail after an hour because her neck got too hot from dancing so hard you could practically see the sweat dripping off of each strand of of her then-shoulder-length brunette hair. Dancing to music became my therapy for when I felt down over superficial things.
I don't know when I started bringing out the me that was on the dancefloor off of the dancefloor. When you do this enough and you realize that the person on the dancefloor is the person you want to be in real life every day-- the you that is unapologetic for being you-- that same spirit becomes present in your daily life. Sure, you may tone it down off the dancefloor (or if the floor is a bit too crowded for crazy antics like some of the ones I pull off), but that Inner Child that just wants to have fun is awakened and you get to be you. I found myself singing louder in the car (to my mother's dismay during the years I couldn't drive yet), being kinder to strangers, giving everyone compliments on things they wear that I like and enjoying the brief flicker of delight they have when someone notices it, finding the wallflowers in a room and befriending them, cheering the loudest for my team mates during track and field meets, and trying to get involved with anything that meant doing events. I wasn't just simply giving my energy to the dancefloor. I was giving it to other people. Funny enough, I didn't even notice that I wasn't really the quiet girl I thought I was anymore when I got nominated as a Homecoming Princess my senior year.
"That can't be right," I thought. "Nobody even knows who I am." But people remembered me complimenting them, singing in the choir, helping out for student council for the sole purpose of getting to the dances first, giving a cupcake to people I knew and didn't know that well on Valentine's Day just because, taking care of the Prom playlist my junior year (and when people were worried about the list, one of the teachers defended me and my ability to find good music to dance to), and the various sports that I did and was more than happy to cheer others on for their good abilities. I guess I just followed the things I wanted to do to make people happy and didn't even notice the impact I had until I got recognized for it (but I didn't get Homecoming Queen. That went to Bethany, who totally deserved it).
But even if I didn't do those things, people most definitely remembered me as the person that started in the back of the room dancing with all this space and suddenly breaking into the middle of a dance circle and unexpectedly pull fun, crazy moves to leave the circle in awe and excitement to follow it up with their own crazy moves. And they appreciated it because it meant they had the right to express themselves.
College came around and naturally I learned ballroom dancing, which took me some time to adapt moves I learned to solo moves to incorporate when dancing with a partner isn't possible (although every once in a while I find a willing and able partner in uncanny places!). And I had so much love for learning I got the most enthusiastic partners I could ask for, learned more, and eventually became the Captain of the dance team and was able to teach the incoming freshman how to get their best selves out on the dancefloor both technically and mentally. My greatest joy was that first competition of the schoolyear as Captain when my rookie dancer in the Rookie-Vet fun dance competition willingly wore a pink halter top for the Polka while I jumped on his lanky, long back so he could let me piggyback ride him around the floor in front of judges while they shook their heads, trying not to laugh (note: this wasn't an official event. This was a "fun dance," which meant this behavior was 100% acceptable. If it was an official dance, we would have been kicked out of the venue).
Fast forward to the past year. I've been known to not give a damn what people think of my dancing, and that gives them permission to be themselves on the dance floor too. I caused a dance stir at a casino in Connecticut that had people jumping up in their seats to join my conga line (that I didn't even try to start). I made my way out to a 90's night bar and, after another girl I didn't know spilled her drink on the floor, I swiftly grabbed a cloth from the barback and literally wiped the floor while sensually moving to "Genie in a Bottle" while this girl and her friends applauded my skills for the next ten minutes afterwards. I went to the Cambridge Citywide Dance Party and started it wayyyy earlier with my best friend by listening and dancing down the street to Ke$ha songs to pump us up, not caring what strangers see us/shake their heads because they think we're drunk (we might have been a little). And pretty much every time I have headphones on and go for a walk, I can't help but do a couple steps to the side or a bachata hip roll every once in a while, but then if a swing comes on my playlist I just go all out with my kicks and triple steps. I definitely got caught by a stranger that applauded me for my made-up late night swing dance repertoire down the street myself... more than once. And of course, since I love singing and dancing (especially making up harmonies for songs so I can sing multiple parts with a friend), so many extremely enthusiastic karaoke nights were involved.
Music and dance are so engrained in who I am, and I love being able to express it with how I move when I hear it.
But dancing in itself a very vulnerable act. We're revealing a lot of what defines us when we dance, and sometimes we look really goofy and it shows our not-so-perfect selves, so many people just opt for not doing it. I have no problem with people that just don't want to dance because they don't feel like dancing, but I feel bad for the people that do want to, are fully capable of dancing any way they feel they need to, but can't bring themselves to rock out because they're scared or self-conscious. What else are they scared of doing in their life if they can't even take four minutes with a song they really like to let loose and move however they feel they need to express themselves properly? So in a way, my crazy antics aren't just for me, but also to bring people to get themselves out there and think, "Well sugar, if she gives zero damns and lets herself loose the way she does, maybe I should do my own fully-hearted dancing." So in a way, my Freak Flag makes everyone else comfortable showing theirs.
Fast forward to this moment in Portland, and I was dancing with a small group that was slowly growing. More energy came out on the floor, and people were dancing with me over and over again. One guy came out from a corner and started dancing and said to me, "You really don't care at all and needed to let this out of you, didn't you?" Ohhh, you have no idea, man. This girl is always ready to dance.
At one point we lost power to the music, so I took a break to grab some water (since I sweat like crazy from all the dancing I do), one woman said that I looked so happy out there. "Thanks!" I smiled and took a sip of my water, the familiar feeling of beads of sweat running down my neck and soaking my hair. "So when are you getting out there?"
"Ohhh, maybe later," she trailed off, shifting her eyes. Ah, another woman that wasn't ready to show herself yet, at least not tonight. So while I caught my breath and let my hair dry a little, I asked her about her experiences in Portland. We got into conversation about how she moved around and loved each city, but she loved Portland so much. Her eyes brightened about Portland and her family here, which lit me up and made me want to talk more. But the music cut back on and I saw her start bobbing her leg. She wasn't too far from getting on the dancefloor, and my Inner Child made victorious roars at this win before begging to go back on the dancefloor again because THIS IS A GREAT SONG. So again I excused myself from another conversation and started dancing.
Within ten minutes, she was out there, her black layered hair bouncing with her steps that were distinctly Merengue-like with a mix of hip-hop hand motions. Her Inner Child is amazing and sassy. My Inner Child clapped and demanded more dancing with her specifically because this woman has even more spirit than when she was talking. THIS is what I live for! To see people go from happy and enthusiastic talk to doing something to match or surpass that energy level. I danced and ran around a little bit, noticing others that were very enthusiastic about their dancing. My Inner Child felt so happy that she wanted to break out and dance with every person she saw just to make them feel even remotely like this woman did.
Then the music cut out again, which was disappointing. My Inner Child stomped and pouted, sad because she couldn't even remember the lyrics to that song.
And then another man's Inner Child broke out of their silence and sang, still dancing. And he switched the song in the midst of the silence to "Hit me Baby One More Time." And my Inner Child stopped dead in her tracks, that distant memory of Kate causing both her and my heart to flutter in a strange way we haven't experienced together before.
You have to dance with him, my Inner Child insisted, whomever this person is.
To be continued...