Good endings are hard to come by, and when I saw Dance Nation at Washington Ensemble Theatre for the first time, I didn’t really like the last few minutes. But the rest of it was kind of the Best Thing I’d Ever Seen, so I went back again. And again. And again. And again. By the fifth and last time I saw Dance Nation, the ending was one of my favorite parts. (My other favorite part was everything else.) There are approximately 15,000,000 different awesome things about the show, but Dance Nation, in one of its many acts of healing, offers a powerful paradigm shift–what if middle school makes us who we are? What if we aren’t a total write-off ages eleven to fourteen? What if we are ok now because of what happened to us in middle school, not just in spite of it?
Dance Nation catches its characters–members of an elite pre-teen dance team–at a delicate moment. They hover on the precipice of giving up dreams of dance stardom for other aspirations, like being a volcano scientist, or high school student, or diving deeper into the competitive dance world, knowing that they can never remake this choice. By the end of the ninety minutes, the girls have made their decisions, for the most part choosing each other over the rabid pull of being the best, and they are powerful. It is clear that their dance team friends will always be a part of their lives, and that, regardless of the future careers, dance is a force that connects them to each other as they take on the rest of their lives.
Imagine a stage full of people dressed like a PINK or Athleta Girls advertisement: chanting, screaming about vaginas with eloquence and hope and palpable joy. It’s no secret that middle school sucks and once we escape the belly of the beast, we collectively consider those years as something that you can only hope to escape with your life. Dance Nation allowed me to rethink my middle school years and remember not just the messy terrible parts like every single person you ever talk to being The Worst All The Time, but the good parts too. All the girls in Dance Nation, at times, feel limitless, immortal, unbelievably powerful. I haven’t felt limitless in a while.
Taking the elements of ourselves that bring us the most shame and saying, “actually, this is why we’re successful,” is an immensely healing process to witness. I saw the show on a night when they offered a talkback. There was a woman in the audience, maybe in her late forties, who started crying. She talked about her family, femininity, growing up with brothers, and how this was better than therapy. The end of Dance Nation is a battle cry for the future that fills the audience members with a complicated concoction of pleasure and pain and righteous indignation before releasing them back into the outside world. Dance Nation changed my life a little every time I saw it.
The chant is not quite the end of the play–it actually ends with a final monologue. As a sucker for personal and poetic monologues, I really enjoyed the deeper glimpses into the character’s lives that playwright Claire Barron sprinkled through her script. The actual final monologue (one of the most gorgeous moments of the play) is this buildbuildbuild, louderlouderlouder stream of words that silences into one girl. She dances, really dances, spinning and sweating, glowing with triumph and loneliness. She did not chant with the rest of the characters. She spends the last few minutes of the play curled up in a tiny ball, crying, apart from everyone else, and then finally stands up, moves, and expands. Her last words are about triumph, about winning. Winning at all costs. Barron’s monologues-as-a-window-into-the-future construct works well and assures the audience that everything she says about her future is true. She wins.
Dance Nation is about a (glorious) laundry list of things: surviving middle school, being in love with your best friend, authority figures who destroy you, communication breakdowns, the pull of promised affection, but it views all these things through a very specific lens–competition. Dance Nation, fundamentally, is about how America’s obsession with individualism and competition destroys people and their communities. From a young age, we are all ensconced in the (false!) idea that the most important work we’ll ever do is the stuff that we do alone, and that attachments to other people, ultimately, are a source of weakness. Most of the girls in Dance Nation are pretty good dancers. A few are VERY good. In a world that creates divides based on these distinctions, they are set up to fail from the beginning. This push and pull, the choice between being a normal kid or an elite dancer, sacrificing friendships or your killer instinct, combined with the weight of modesty and niceness that presses upon all teenage girls, is the fire that simmers underneath every event that takes place.
By the end of the show, everyone has made their choice and all but one of them have chosen, in one way or another, to NOT be the Greatest Dancer to Ever Exist Ever. And it seems like the right choice. These are the girls who chant together, who will go onto the rest of their lives happy and proud and relatively unscathed, and most importantly, not alone. They’re going to be fine, with happy, healthy lives full of homework and second/third/fourth/fifth kisses that are better than the first, with families who love them and friends who understand them. But there’s one girl left. And she is alone. And she very well might be the Actual Best Dancer Ever, but she’s alone. It is hard to not see the canyon between her and everyone else as anything other than awful. It’s hard to see her as anything other than broken. She is the casualty of a system that forces us to pick between people and success, making the price of dreams-come-true nothing more or less than anyone who’s ever loved you.
There’s a final piece to this ending. The girls chant, the lone dancer spins, and then, as music swells, as a single unit, they all turn back to the audience and hiss. Tiny little monsters. (Did I mention that there’s a ten-minute section of the show where they dance like zombie-robots, complete with vampire fangs and blood, climbing on the walls, and generally making the world their bitch?)
Dance Nation ran at Washington Ensemble Theatre January 17-February 3, 2020. For event information see here.