The Spectacle of the Self
Whenever I read the expression, “I feel lucky and blessed to be alive in the time of Beyoncé”, I remember exactly the beginning of that time for me.
It was during the summer of 2003 when Europe was ravaged by a heatwave and experiencing the hottest summer ever recorded since the 16th century. I was at one of my best friends’, Nina’s, dorm room in the suburb of Amsterdam.
We have just finished a year of internships working for different companies. It was the last days of summer before we started our 4th and final year of college, where we will be forced to think about our dissertation topics that we hope would get us graduated to eventually become an adult with a steady job. That year, I turned into an age that no longer has the word ‘teen’ in it.
Nina’s room was our refuge from the unbearable heat of 37 degree Celsius even though it wasn’t even 10 am. Her small TV was on some nonstop music channel when we heard the blaring trumpet that was intro to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love”. The trumpet intro would become ubiquitous for the months to come, but in that room, that day, it still sounded new and commanding and exciting.
Back then, Beyoncé wasn’t a figure of near-deity yet as she would be seen in 2016, but she was already giving the presence and assurance that she was above her peers. We didn’t know then that our mode of consuming Beyoncé would always going to be about playing catch-up, she was always giving so much of everything that we, her viewers, are almost always experiencing sensory overload. With the video showing so many things at once (her beauty, her clothes, her dance moves, her body, the fast-paced change of scenes), we were in rapt.
It wasn’t our first time watching Beyoncé’s first video as a solo artist fresh off Destiny’s Child, but it was our first time watching it together.
The song was fitting for the summer — loud, chaotic, overwhelming. But it also gave us a heavy dose of energy, so much so that from our near lifeless state from being drained by the heat, we got up to dance in front of the TV.
We look like a fool trying to emulate Beyoncé — we were half to two beats behind, our moves were broken, jagged, while she uses her body to create a sense of fluidity, especially when she walked in wearing satin bomber jacket with a baseball hat and bounce her butt while moving it in circles. We were witnessing, for the first time, her signature dance move.
And when she appeared wearing the orange Versace dress while dancing in front of a giant fan, licking her thumb, touching her cleavage for the video finale dance sequence, I decided I wanted to be able to move like her even though I was clueless as to how or even know whether it was possible for me to do it.
One of the tropes in coming of age or makeover movies is when every female ugly duckling trying to be swans was taught how to walk and move enticingly in a way that combines class, mystery, and sex by a highly-refined woman — as if in those movements lies the key that tells the secrets of being a woman trying to conquer the world (or how she conquered the world’s perception of her).
In watching the video, I feel that Beyoncé is that highly-refined figure teaching me how to walk or carry myself in order to own and claim my place in the world.
The next 13 years, maybe more for me than it does for Nina, Beyoncé would represent a lot of different things (nonstop hard work, intersection of feminism and race, and the machinery shaping a pop culture icon). But in that summer of extreme heat, she first got me thinking about the unlimited range of ways women bodies are able or allowed to move.
For the last 7 years, I’ve developed a habit of going to the gym. It started out by the the basic and common quest of trying to lose weight, which I was able to do before gaining it back again. This lose and gain process happened several times until I realised that, maybe, the weight loss was not supposed to be the goal, but the creation of the gym routine is.
Whenever men I’ve ever dated, slept with, or in a relationship in, heard I regularly went to the gym, they asked why do I do it. Their comment was a variation of, “Oh, so you can be thinner? That’s good!” or they will say, “But don’t go too often, I don’t want you to be too thin,” as if my body was exercised for their approval.
Too often, the media portray fatness as unattractiveness, but rarely mention the other side of the coin, that fat women were being seek out because of them being fat. Either way, we aren’t a full-fledged human being, but only a mere type (“I like my girls BBW”) to satisfy men’s curiosities.
How do I explain to men that my relationship with the gym and the body is more nuanced than just being fat or thin without being met with blank stares as I so often do? How do I explain that in the last 3 years, the routine has become necessary in the act of taking care of the self, in helping to manage mood, and even become part of a self-therapy, of sort.
Bored with the solitary treadmill walks, elliptical, or rowing machine, I joined a combination of yoga and dance cardio classes. One morning, as I was on my way to the gym during a day off to get to a yoga class at 6.30am, I realise this was something my younger mind would not be able to compute: how my body needs exercise. I still remember the words from my first ever yoga instructor at a youth community centre. In Dutch, she said, “Trust your shoulders that they are strong, that your neck is strong, your hand is strong, so are your fingers, and toes, and legs.”
Anatomy taught me that my body wasn’t just one solid chunk but there are separate muscles with its own individual strength and capabilities. Yet that first yoga session was the first time I fully realised how those separate muscles would provide support when my body was in unconventional positions during different poses.
Yoga gives my back and spine a chance to stretch, and gives the shoulders, legs, hands, fingers, and neck, an opportunity to show their strength by allowing it to carry body weight — and in places on my body where I feel pain afterwards, I realised there are muscles lying dormant, inactive, neglected. If yoga was about training forgotten muscles, the dance exercise classes gives me the chance to do nearly all the moves in the many dance films I’ve seen.
Being in those dance classes made me understood the how of Beyoncé’s choreography, as the classes provided me with basic steps to her elaborate moves. These dance classes was the answer to my cluelessness on the ways I’ve been wanting to be able to dance like the video I’ve seen 13 years ago. And every Wednesday at 8.00pm, I would come to a hip-hop cardio dance class to do exactly just that.
The instructor — bald, beefy, in his early 40s — quit his corporate marketing job to be a dance teacher while at the same time open his cupcake shop. He was always pouty while checking us one by one to make sure everyone memorises all the dance steps correctly. He wouldn’t hesitate to yell or stare intimidatingly at you for even one misstep. He pushes you to do better by making you want to pull out whatever source of energy you have left so you can kick and jump higher or move your legs a little faster until you feel burning sensation on your thighs and calves.
As I was doing a pirouette-like movement of standing on the point of my toes while double turning in front of the mirror, I realise how liberating that I was doing a dance free from the male gaze — simply because everyone else was too focused with watching themselves and their own movement in the mirror.
The class lasts for 45 minutes, and during that time, I was allowed to momentarily forget that being a woman living in a public space, I’m more or less controlled by the gaze. That even in the simple act of walking down the street while female, I am made conscious of being gawked at and that, too often, resulted in catcalls. And in this specific vulnerableness, I envy men who are able to feel free from it.
Perhaps that’s why everyone in the class was able to give it their all; the 45 minutes was a safe space allowing everyone the chance to relinquish control of the self so they can truly dance like no one is watching.