Dancer breaks out of her shell and unfurls on stage.

Written by: Maricela Gomez
Photos by: Austin Henry Wallace
Designed by: Julie Edgington

“Ball of foot first, heel second.” “Ball of foot first, heel second.” The eight-count combination drilled inside my mind as a troupe of metal shoes tapped on the black vinyl floor behind the curtain. When the march stopped in the darkness, I bowed my head. My fists clenched. My heart thumped as I stood still.

The brief silence transitioned into a funky guitar riff blaring through the speakers. Golden lights flickered from every corner, center and ceiling. As the velvet curtain rose, the audience appeared. My first instinct was to run backstage, but the moment had arrived. At 17 years old, I was about to perform for my first time.

My childhood revolved around my passion for dance. Polaroids captured a toddler’s elasticity during a stereo dance session of Xuxa’s “Ilarie.” Ballerina dreams blossomed. But the rhythm that had once followed me became silent as introversion grasped my identity. By first grade, my report card stated, “Maricela is very introverted. She needs to socialize with students more.”

Shyness projected throughout my teenage years. My words would slur and my eyes would gaze toward the floor during conversations. I had very few friends. My classmates would constantly ask, “Why are you so quiet?”

Silence evaded participation as introversion shielded the embarrassment and attention on me. Introversion was my haven. Insecurities blocked my chances of joining the dance team, but my love for dance crept through to senior year.

The 2010 Downey Dance Review featured beginner, intermediate and advanced talent that leaped, twirled and jumped in hip-hop, jazz, ballet and tap. I joined the Regional Occupational Program’s beginner dance team for a chance to shine. No longer was I going to dance behind closed doors, in the comfort of my home.
My arms swayed as my feet moved toward the front of the stage. A smile stretched across my face.

“I am actually doing this,” I said.2

Fifteen dancers formed rows behind the principal dancers and myself, each of us dressed in gold sequined vests and indigo jeans. My black tap shoes buckled to the left and the right of the stage while my wrists bent with style. The groovy song, “Ain’t Nothing Wrong with That,” synchronized each tap to the beat.

My hips and arms swung sideways. The tap shoes shaved the floor with pirouettes. I stepped with the ball of my left foot first as the right foot followed. My feet shuffled ceaselessly. My arms swayed through the movements with breeze. When my brother emerged from the audience with a camera, my fists froze in front of my chest. He documented the mistake, but I carried on, relieved that my family was present and attentive.

The dancers, lined up with arms wrapped around each other’s necks, and used the balls of their feet and heels to escort themselves off the stage. Applause followed. I had never danced in front of an audience before. For the first time, I was not afraid of expressing myself. I clapped and jumped with happiness backstage.

For nine months, I had rehearsed the review’s choreography at Downey High School’s dance room. A room that reflected aspiration, frustration and accomplishment. Jazz and ballet were foreign to me, but every step, leap, turn and arm movement felt natural to perform.

My childhood rhythm was back in sync with my confidence. The introverted hunch vanished. Isolation morphed into teamwork. Soon, the front corner position was mine, and the longtime follower became an ROP leader who thrived with a smile.

I waited on the stage’s right hand corner for my hip-hop performance to start. Throughout the choreography, my knees bopped. My fingers snapped with attitude, and my hips thrusted to Kylie Minogue’s, “Speakerphone.”

1The crowd’s enthusiasm fueled the team with confidence as cheers and claps filled the room.

After a third wardrobe change, I was ready to dance jazz. I was now dressed as a sailor girl with beige tights under a blue striped, knee-length dress. An oversized bow decorated my black hair. Darkness surrounded me in the theater’s wing again, but this time my nerves disappeared.

White lights glared as I guided the dancers from the right corner to the center stage. A rigid march continued and rounds of pivots followed. The theatrical jazz routine displayed sleek and extended steps on stage. Double turns were performed while Estelle and Kanye West’s “American Boy” played in the background.

The dancers on the left and I escaped toward the theater’s wing while the dancers on the right performed a solo. Twenty dancers bolted toward the stage. Arms moved left and right. Leaps highlighted the dancers’ legs. Dancers saluted the audience with energetic smiles that sailed them offstage.

The African and disco routines concluded. The ballet performance was next. The ballet’s gracious and balanced act worried me. I had to soften my rapid pace. The Jonas Brothers’ song, “Love Bug,” beckoned the dancers to the stage. My curled feet touched the floor. My arms curved above me. I was ready to dance. Pirouettes were done backwards. My weight shifted to my right leg as my left leg extended into the air. The dancers clustered in circular formation as the music stopped, and the show came to an end.

Then the velvet curtain dropped gently.

The former shy girl had just conquered the Downey Civic Theatre by performing three routines. The stage manifested a dancer who defeated introversion through dance. A smile represented accomplishment, and the new and improved me.