In every dance course that I take, we are asked about our training. Some students mention ballet; others modern. Then it is my turn.
“Hey, my name is Andrés, and I would say that I’ve been trained in the Britney Spears technique for twelve years.” After the laughter settles, I go on to list my other, “more professional,” training: ballet, modern, jazz, and Mexican folkloric. But really, I’m not lying about the Britney Spears technique.
Let me explain.
As a twelve year-old kid, I did not fit in. I faced bullying every day given that I was not considered “one of the guys.” I didn’t like sports. I hung out with the girls. I had Hilary Duff posters on my locker.
One day, in seventh grade, I was cornered by three eighth graders. I was slapped in the face and called horrible slurs. Soon after, I tore down the posters, abandoned my female friends, and joined the basketball team.
Needless to say, this was one of the most difficult times in my life. I would come home after basketball practice and cry in my room. That is until one Friday, my eldest sister picked me up from school.
During the drive home, she was playing a CD that I had never heard before. I immediately fell in love with it and asked if I could borrow it.
The CD was Britney Spears’s In the Zone. On it were the hits “Toxic,” “Me Against the Music,” and “Outrageous.”
From then on, I would rush home from basketball practice — even ditching a few — and choreograph routines to every single song on the album. These routines were basically dances that infused hip-hop and pop dance styles—forms that are currently taught professionally.
These moments of choreography were the times in which I felt most free and joyful. But I hid it all. I hid it from my schoolmates. I hid it from my family.
I continued this discreet hip-hop dancing throughout my equally difficult high school years. I turned my pain and frustrations into choreographed dance. It made for four years’ worth of routines.
When I joined the Jesuits after college, I mentioned my therapeutic Britney Spears/hip-hop dancing to my spiritual director. He encouraged me to embrace and celebrate it. I was shocked. I never thought that I would be asked to dance as a Jesuit.
“Andrés, this is your spirituality; this is your prayer.”
In fact, it was my prayer. The dancing had little to do with the pop star herself nor the content of her songs. Rather, the dancing had offered me a way to break free from so many hardships and it allowed me to be my truest self. My mind would go from stress and anger to joy and the present moment. It was cathartic.
“God has worked in you through dance. Use it,” my director said, as my eyes welled up with tears.
That was all it took. Every dancer has a “reference point,” a specific technique from one’s earliest training, and I used the Britney routines that I had developed during my difficult youth as the means to create new movements.
Thereafter, I began to perform in front my Jesuit brothers and my family. It was liberating. Above all, it was incredibly spiritual.
Before every routine, I would spend an hour in a chapel, praying for the gift of confidence to be my truest self during a performance. As always, my faith needed to be strong for me to dance with full joy. And it was then that I came to learn an important lesson: to dance was to be joyful, and to be joyful was to know God. I mean, just ask King David.
That being said, my dancing did experience some backlash. Just picture a twentysomething Jesuit moving around to hip-hop music in the style of Britney Spears. Questions started arising. Was this actually spiritual? Was God really working through this style of dance? What exactly was being promoted through these dances? These were worthwhile questions.
And so, each dance needed justification. Some dances were stopped altogether. Although it was emotionally difficult at the time, I kept performing and embracing my dance. As time went on, God began confirming it more and more.
Once, after performing at a talent show, one of my Jesuit brothers hugged me and said, “The cutest thing happened while you were performing.” He pointed to the top of the bleachers to a shy-looking boy hugging his mother. “That little boy started dancing along with you for the entire dance performance.” I couldn’t believe it. My dancing had moved this one shy boy to move, to be free. It had inspired him to be joyful for that moment.
I thought: maybe, this kid will one day use dance as a tool to truly be who is. Wow. Thank you, God.
Here, I saw greater value in what I was doing. I realized that I wasn’t and had never been dancing solely for myself. My dancing had always been a way to reveal God’s joy to others.
I knew that if I taught dance to children, they would have a time and a space to feel completely free and unjudged. This is now my second year as a hip-hop dance instructor at a parish school in Ferguson, MO.
“Hey, my name is Andrés and I would say that I’ve been trained in the Britney Spears technique for twelve years.”
In the year and a half that I have studied dance, my ballet and modern dance instructor has supported my Britney Spears technique. I got weak in the knees when she, a professional ballerina, saw my dancing as…art.
The Britney Spears technique: it’s hip-hop, it’s pop, it’s jazz, it’s modern, and it has hints of ballet. Call it what you may, it’s dance. It’s art.
It’s liberation and an expression of the soul. Just ask my thirteen-year-old self. Or, just ask the fifth graders that I teach in Ferguson. They can all attest to the freeing and joyful power of a sassy hair whip, twist, turn, wink.