You would have to twist it out of me, but I could talk about dance until the end of time. 

As it happens, It would take about that long to unpack why Lucy Vallely’s performance of Satisfaction is the most iconic moment of self-realisation on stage ever, or how it feels to watch Sean Lew crush everything and everyone in a weekday dance class. If encouraged, I would be fourteen again: modern on Tuesdays, ballet on Wednesdays, and acro on Thursdays, falling in love with dance over the Internet in every other moment I had spare. 

In the beginning, Youtube was a treasure trove of home videos. Parents shared their kids’ blurry competition videos. The website introduced me to the world of dance in America, where trophies were as tall as the children who won them. The lights, the costumes, the backdrops (screaming Showstopper! or Spotlight! or Showbiz!) were a far cry from the sleepy school holiday competitions I was used to. When I was competing, events were small. The audience was made up of family members and studio kids in oversized jackets, with red lipstick smeared all over their teeth. 

It was just a way to pass the time between school terms—until I went online, and the world opened up to me. Then came Kelsie Hendrix and Hayden Hopkins and Paulina Macias—girls around my age who were on stage to move people. They seemed older than they really were: self-assured, powerful, and practiced. In the comments of their videos people debated who had better artistry; who relied too much on technique to get by. 

All I knew was that online, these dancers were being taken seriously. This discovery was right at the crux of teenagehood, when all I wanted was for people to treat me the same way. 

Dancers took advantage of their popularity, posting How To videos in the same vein as the makeup tutorials I grew up on, filmed on crappy webcams by anyone and everyone. This is where I learned everything, from pirouettes to toe rises, risking carpet burn daily as I practiced the moves in my living room. I stretched every night before bed for a whole year—a routine I refused to break even for sleepovers or the coldest winter nights. I rushed home from school so I could have the house to myself for longer. I practiced my turns in the kitchen between drying dishes, spotting myself in the reflection of the oven. I was a girl devoted. My friends and I shared videos of our favourite performers/routines/costumes with each other, claiming an empty studio in the middle of our schedules on Wednesday nights to test it all out. We did our best, but if we were trying to be more like American dancers, we were failing. American dancers were from a different world, where gravity was kinder, pirouettes easier, and six packs abundant. 

While all this was going on—dancers skyrocketing to mid-level Internet fame, everyone capitalising on the audience, Dance Moms emerging victorious—my relationship with dance shifted. The Internet made it private for me again, stripping away studio politics, leaving me alone with a bare room and a new turn sequence to try out. I could learn anywhere I was comfortable—whether that was at the studio, or at home, or even at a park, where soft grass cushions every fall from the leaps that don’t quite go high enough. I went from dancing because I had always danced, ever since I was dragged along to my sisters classes when I was four, to dancing because I wanted to. It became a part of me, as tied up in who I am as anything has ever been—as intrinsic as my hair colour or the (non-existent) arch of my feet. 

Then I grew up. I graduated high school and started university. I wasn’t really into dance classes anymore. The discomfort I had always felt in a room full of girls, in front of a mirror (go figure), got worse the older I became. I never saw what I wanted to see: the technique, the feeling, the talent that was present in so many dancers I saw online. I fell constantly short, and at nineteen I decided it was time to cut my losses. Better to be sad about it now, I told myself, than devastated later. 

The problem was, despite quitting the day in, day out, I was still a dancer. Too many lost holidays, bruised knees, and mascara streaked tears went into gaining that title. So I kept on watching and discovering dancers, who inevitably made me want to move. If I resisted I would get cranky. I would feel disconnected from myself, like I was floating away. I needed to know where my body was at, from the tips of my fingers to my toes. How it felt to stretch this way and that, what it felt like to spin on this carpet, or those hardwood floors. It’s how I’ve always interacted with my environment. I didn’t have the studio time I used to, but I made do with the full length mirrors of my closets and the extra space I could earn if I pushed my bed off centre. It was better because I was alone, with no one to judge me but myself. Interrupted abruptly and sometimes painfully by the corner of my bed or my writing desk, but mine. My own private moment. 

Online I still follow members of my old studio who were only hip height when I left. They’ve become Instagram stars with their own followings. They can seamlessly mimic the moves which five years ago were entirely new to me. That world has changed again, drastically. People cheer from the sidelines, shouting in real time about your successes. Boldness is rewarded. Taking risks is essential.

For me, dancing alone in my room is enough. If I need inspiration, I turn to the Internet. I have curated my favourite moments, tiny and huge, in my folder of saved posts on Instagram. There’s so much energy packed in those minute-long, sometimes seconds-long clips. I feel proud to know about this community, which sometimes feels shut off from the rest of the arts world—secluded, but also protected from drama and egos, despite what reality TV might tell you. If you haven’t already, watch the videos I’ve linked above. Don’t just watch the dancers. Watch the choreographers and the classmates who surround them. Scroll through the comments. Most dancers are supportive to the point of expletives. There’s no point competing anymore in a world where everyone is striving to be themselves. 

After four years I’ve started taking classes again, some in person, others online. I’m thinking more than ever about what dance is to me. I know now that it isn’t just about going to the studio a few times a week, because leaving that space didn’t take as much away from me as I thought it would, and returning hasn’t made me feel like any more of a dancer. I am learning to split the two experiences, and find joy in both. I challenge myself in studio, giving myself a routine, trying to break down barriers that I’ve been putting up since the first time I put on ballet slippers. At home, I dance, and that’s it. It’s all a practice in being myself, whether I’m in private or in public. I’ll keep going until the two experiences meet in the middle. 

That’s where it becomes art. That’s how you become someone that others admire. I see it all the time now—moments where the private experience steps into the light. I am so amazed by what other people are able to make public. The vulnerability of Kaycee Rice dancing her heart out to Lewis Capaldi is like no other. At one point she dances with her eyes squeezed shut. As an outsider maybe you’d cringe at the emotion out there on full display, but when you’re a dancer, especially one who has always struggled to break through that barrier, it’s the most impressive thing in the world. More impressive to me than all art made public. Slam poetry, performance art—all of it pales in comparison to the dozens of people dancing to Purple Rain at the Main Event. That shit isn’t just psychically painful, it leaves bruises. Beyond vulnerability, the ability to let go in a room full of people will never stop impressing me. There are geniuses everywhere. I’m just endlessly grateful these moments are being captured, so I can keep learning from them.

I’m not sure I would have felt the need to keep dancing if it weren’t for the Internet, reminding me every time I scroll just how special it is. So many of my favourite dance moments—memories even—are online. The successes, the failures, the arabesques, the slow motion jetés. All the things we decide to capture and share. It reminds me that these platforms aren’t just websites, they’ve become very real places where we all live out our lives. 

Words: Shelby Traynor

Artwork: Sophie Parsons