Dirty Dancing Saves Your Life
When you are raised by fundamentalists,
at slumber parties you resist. Approved-
of-girl, goes to your church, sly fantasist
whom no one hurts, her mom insists
you stay the night — both look sufficiently up-
tight, lacy collars, skirts below the knee.
Seventeen, you’re finally old enough
to sleep over, with righteous families.
Patrick Swayze grinds on TV (secret
sheltered women keep). Touch yourself tonight
once they’re asleep to a dance sequence
in future stilettos, kneesocks, neon lights.
More than moves, you learn you are not alone.
You were already dirty on your own.
Dirty Dancing Saves Your Life, annotated:
I grew up in an abusive, fundamentalist family. I’ve written quite a lot about the abusive part. Exorcising their behaviors, indoctrinations, secrets from my physical body has been invaluable in my healing. This sonnet, while referencing these aspects of my young life, is not as much about abuse as finding a sanctuary in an abused life where you can be yourself. This sonnet is about me triumphing over that oppression and savoring that victory and my body as a young girl, as my own and protected for one night.
Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to go to secular slumber parties or sleepovers. I was invited as a young girl in elementary school to such things and quickly informed by my father there would be none of that. “These people don’t believe like us. Who knows what you would be exposed to?” He would quickly assert and there would be no further discussion. It would make more sense if I was actually being protected, but in an abusive context, actions need not make sense. Abusers have no impetus to provide any logic for any behaviors or decisions. They have all the power.
For my parents, religion was about control. In the Mormon religion, men and boys are bequeathed authority by God. Teenage boys are recognized as priestholders in their early teens and given responsibilities that women in the church will never have. I think, to a person into power and control, a father of daughters he kept on a very short leash, all of these aspects of a very authorian religion were very appealing.
My father always pushed restrictions further than even a strict religion mandated. There were lots of Mormon girls who went to slumber parties, who even drank Coca Cola, who wore lots of pants and shorts (as long as they were of appropriate length.) We did none of those things in my elementary and middle school years. In late high school, I was given some new freedoms. I did wear jeans and pants some, dated a boy when I was eighteen and before that, to sleep over with an appropriately religious family.
In middle school, a Mormon family moved into our neighborhood, and that was an unthinkable delightful turn of events. In the town I grew up in, I didn’t go to school with any Mormons my age. I lived in the panhandle of Florida and that’s not an area with a tremendous Mormon populous. It’s a very conservative, Old Southern region where most people are Catholic, Baptist, Episcopalian or Methodist. Suddenly, there was a Mormon girl only a year younger than me in my actual neighborhood. She lived in a house acceptable to visit – and one day be invited to spend the night.
This family, I’ll call the Williams, a pseudonym, looked even more diligently Mormon than we did. My dad insisted on following every rule as far as eating and dress and moral decency, but my mother refused to comply in one area: she worked. She actually made more money than my father. I think deep down, as much as he wanted to appear to be that perfect Mormon family, he wanted that money more. So her deviance from the ideal Mormon female role was never a point of contention with them – at least never discussed in my presence, but I would see his conflicted feelings in longing looks at the families in our church with homemaker wives and mothers. It was clearly his unattained fantasy.
The Williams were such a family that my father would covet. The father was in the military and away often, but his wife, a glamorous redhead, stay-at-home mother who dressed stylishly but with incredible modestly, baked cookies, dressed her happy, blonde children in appropriate cheerful Sunday dresses and suits. At church, she was always holding someone’s baby though she had three children, one a toddler, of her own. She just enjoyed children and radiated joy. A mother to many children in the neighborhood, she became such a figure to me as well.
I hung out at her home with her daughter, Cathy, after school whenever I could. It was actually Mrs. Williams who invited me to my first sleepover there. She seemed to see my depression and sense that I needed this outlet. I felt somehow she had an idea of what my home life was like though I never, ever spoke about anything that happened to me there.
When I admitted to Mrs. Williams, rather embarrassed, that I hadn’t yet been to a sleepover, she was quick to say I’ll talk to your parents. I had no doubt that my father would say yes to her. Her appearance was everything that my father wanted me to be – modest, submissive, a woman of the home, domestic and servile.
I already knew a secret though, from my visits, that made me tingle with new possibilities, Kathy and Mrs. Williams were a lot more complex than their meek appearances. They were lovely, kind and very good people, but they were a carefully crafted illusion of innocence that allowed them freedom to be who they were behind closed doors, out of sight of a patriarchal oppressive culture. I would come to find others like this when I attended Brigham Young University as well – people raised where Mormonism was the dominant culture and hence seeking to conform in public appearance only. Behind closed doors, these people lived their own morals.
In the Williams household, R-Rated movies, restricted by the Mormon prophet, were played in the family room from time to time. I heard Kathy Williams cuss in front of her mother, a thing I could not imagine, and though her mother scolded her, it was with a smirk and quickly forgotten. We guzzled cokes, and the Williams parents both drank coffee, also restricted by the prophet’s admonition on caffeine. Mrs. Williams talked to us about boys at school, their voices and bodies, the ones who paid attention to us, with knowing winks. She listened and never preached about behavior. She told us candidly about her own mistakes and adventures as a teenager.
And when I spent the night, we watched Dirty Dancing. I could not believe it. It was a movie I had heard of but never ever thought I’d see while I lived at home, didn’t drive and didn’t have access to other people’s televisions. Mrs. Williams watched and giggled with us at Patrick Swayze, his sensuality and moves. I had a sexually actively friend, secretly, in middle school, and I had learned things from her companionship, but this was my first time enjoying a film like this with someone’s parents – like it was natural even for a woman who baked cookies and watched everyone’s babies. It felt normal to have these feelings, reactions inside my body for the first time in my life, that someone’s mother would sit there and encourage our budding interest in sexual matters.
Though I’d been raised in this puritanical culture, I was always a hedonist. I used to take off my clothes in my tiny closet – not a walk-in, just a standard, long closet with accordion doors – and touch myself in the darkness on the shag carpeted floor. I loved to be naked though I didn’t chance it much in my dangerous house. I was convinced because these urges came with such terrible repercussions, if caught, that I was very damaged and sick.
Lying on their couch watching this film with two other women who seemed to have the same reactions as me, I had never felt more normal, more okay to be exactly who I was – to not have to pretend to be pure of heart and chaste to be loved. We would all, of course, pretend these things again. The Williams would go to church and keep up appearances, and I appreciated this. It meant that they were an acceptable home, and I could come back, and I would as much as possible. Their home was an illusion that enabled it to be, for me, a sanctuary of normalcy.
Tonight at their home though, we were all ourselves, and it was intoxicating, such an aphrodisiac to drop the veil of internalized misogyny, that I may have indulged in a little self love later on their couch. I just felt so free. My parents, had they known this story, would have probably blamed such a betrayal for my eventual escape from Mormonism and my career in topless dancing. They would have been wrong though. The only thing I gained that night was confidence that sexuality and sexual feelings were normal and nothing shameful. I learned that I was not alone. I wasn’t a baby though I had a babyface and everyone thought I was. I would some day, not that long from now, really be a professional dirty dancer, dirtier even than the film we watched. Patrick Swayze didn’t teach me anything. I was already dirty on my own.