It smells like decades old rummage sale leftovers. Uneven floors carry the last one hundred and fifty years of footsteps. Vintage blue ceramic tiles reminiscent of times past surround iron-stained sinks and toilets that are no match for even the strongest industrial cleaners. The floor has lost a tile or two along the way, resembling the complexities of a New York Times crossword puzzle. Bulbs line edges of the mirrors, some frosted, some clear, some missing all together. These fading panes of glass have likely reflected back the faces of some Vaudeville and Off-Broadway stars. But there are no divas here now– not really. We’ve squeezed four-maybe even five of us in a room intended for two. My head knocks against the empty metal hangers, and my elbow dumps the bucket of safety pins at one point organized by size. This is our new performance home – and we love it. After all, it is moving up in the world for us.
This year marked my 5 yr. Raq-On-versary. The studio spaces and the venues may have changed over the years, but the spirit I love at Raq-On never waivers because the essence of Raq-On lives in the amazing character of its dancers. Even when nervous jitters and melting makeup cause frustrations to rise above the temperature, Raq-On dancers don’t just put their best performance forward, they put their best person forward. These moments are the pinnacles of hard work and success; the true highlight of our shows, hidden behind the velvet curtains and glittering costumes. They are accomplishments that come not from learning techniques or choreographies, but shared and passed along by example – from instructors and from each other.
Five years ago, I entered quiver-kneed into a different venue for my first performance with the Raq-On family. Here, we huddled into the backstage room of a night club. It was the first hot day of summer, and the humidity had already bullied its way into the early summer air. Fans blew in vain, unable to abate the added heat of flat irons and fabric steamers. We were elbow to curling iron as we crouched to get cat-eyed and curled. Some were lucky enough to mark territory in the open lounge area, while others managed to tuck themselves behind boxes of barware and soap dispenser refills. There was no room to be discreet no matter how hard you tried to use those clever contortionist middle school changing techniques.
Heat, nerves, hairspray smog, and glitter bombs - it had all the makings of performance Armageddon. But no, not with this group of gals. I knew only a few dancers who were in my small class, but that didn’t seem to matter. Never before had I been welcomed by such a supportive group of women. Need your costume pinned? Help with your hair? Not just one – but several dancers appear like fairy godmothers with their rescue box of safety pins, hair clips, fashion tape, or just a free hand. And never, will any dancer at a Raq-On show perform sans glitter, because each one comes locked and loaded to ensure every one of us sparkles on that stage.
When a choreography stumbles, a veil catches, or a sword falters, each dancer is supportive and uplifting: “I messed up too! Don’t worry, you still looked beautiful;” “You did great! We’ve all been there when it doesn’t go so well;” “So you missed a step! Your barrel turn was amazing!” These are the voices of Raq-On dancers. At each performance, especially our end of the year showcase, there are always hard won moments. A dancer strikes her final pose, and she breathlessly returns backstage you hear “YES! I did it!” And there waiting are all her supporters primed for high-fives (because hugging, rhinestones, paillettes, and fringe could be a recipe for disaster).
The most memorable recital I have been a part of holds a special place in my heart. It was my third recital when we crowded in a tiny corner just off stage to watch our dance mom, Amity, perform one of the most emotional dances of her life - a tribute performance for her longtime love, Roger, who died in the fall of 2014. There were no dry eyes– not on stage, not in the audience, and certainly not among those of us who stood captivated in the wings.
But as always, it’s not so much what happens on stage, so much as what happens behind it that touches me the most. Here we all were, a family of sisters, waiting anxiously to embrace our courageous friend with all the love and positivity we had to give.
This unconditional support continues at each and every performance I’ve experienced as part of the Raq-On family. At every performance I witness the genuine, kind-hearted qualities of the women I dance with. Some have come and some have gone. Priorities shift, we marry, go to school, change jobs, move away, or move on. But that’s the natural progression of all families.
The feeling of my first show with Raq-On has never left me – and not because the heat was so unforgettable that year. Next year, we could be in a another new venue, and while I’ll miss the creaking, glitter stained floors of the Briggs, or that fact that I know my way around it in complete darkness, I can count on the comfort that my nerves will lighten with encouraging words, helping hands, and laughter – lots of laughter. And when the curtain falls at the end of the night, we’ll gather around a table of fancy margaritas and a spread of Mexican food, poking fun at our mishaps that more than likely will involve a costume malfunction by yours truly. And Amity, laughing along, will already be churning over ideas for next year.
This year our resident videographer, Lisa, came around asking us why we dance. In the moment I couldn’t think quickly enough and gave a canned answer: “because it makes me happy.” Which is true, for certain. But what I should have answered, more specifically, was: I dance because my place at this table, with this family of empowering, encouraging, thoughtful, helpful, genuine women, means the world to me.
(And of course, there’s the sparkles!)
Lisa joined the studio as a student in 2012. Being a "dancer" was a youthful flame in danger of being extinguished until her daughter took her to experience a Raq-On class for beginners, “I would have would have gone along thinking dance was reserved for trained professionals or nightclubs. But I was certainly proved wrong when I found the community at Raq-On. Plus, being new to a community isn’t easy, but here I was instantly welcomed into this amazing, supportive dance family.” Studying dance coincides with her love of studying folklore. Outside of dance, Lisa is a mother, wife, writer, and teacher, with a Master’s Degree in English. She feels strongly that studying the culture and meanings behind the dance is just as important as learning moves and choreography. Lisa, aka “Stella R. Night,” is also a member of the Vaudeville Vixens cabaret troupe who practice and perform at Raq-On.