After spending a record-breaking 10 weeks at No 1 in the UK, Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey” catapulted her into the stratosphere.
The catchy tune and unusual vocals captivated many but for me, it took me back to a very dark place. “Dance Monkey” is an undeniably great song however the lyrics, “Just like a monkey I’ve been dancing my whole life,” were painfully relatable for me.
Specifically when I was younger – before 16 – I viewed the talent that I had for dancing as a way for me to be validated by people in my school. I believed it was a way for me to be equal with my white counterparts as well as the other students of colour. There were about 10 others in the whole school so you can understand my yearning for validation.
Like many black people, my biggest blessing was also my biggest flaw – passion! I was so passionate that I was willing to do anything to make friends, to dance, to perform, that I lost myself so deeply that I truly became a puppet on a string that everyone loved to play with.
Throughout this article, I am going to explore my personal introspection as well as the unfortunate ingrained fulfillment of passions at any cost that black people as a whole all seem to have.
From the day that black people were enslaved, they were seen as entertainment for the white man. Whether it was to bring them what they wanted, to work for them, sexually pleasure them or to look after their children, they were seen as the help or the entertainment.
I didn’t realise how much that kind of subservient mindset actually affected me in primary school. I felt the constant need to impress everyone, from teachers to students, to the bullies to the girls I had crushes on. From age 7, everything changed. Instead of being little kids playing, it turned into us and them… or more like them and me.
Being black wasn’t the only thing that made me stand out, being a dancer seemed to be another nail in my metaphorical coffin. Whether it was them saying “Dance for me” as a command or being overly zealous with my afro-hair (That is a whole other story for a different blog post) or assassinating my emotions, my character or my culture, my existence in school became merely that, an existence. I remember being told by my parents and their friends that, “School is the best time of your life,” but I have truly never believed it because unfortunately, that was never my reality, it was theirs.
I remember multiple occasions where the congratulations you would like to receive after performing or dancing or being creative in any way felt like acid rain. Do not let children fool you, they are just as mean and vindictive as their parents – sometimes they even develop those traits on their own – and unfortunately, I was on the receiving end of the taunting in the playground.
“Nice dancing, Darius… idiot.”
“You should really stop doing that.”
“Next time, just leave it to the girls.”
“Only girls dance, do you think you are a girl?”
Those are the nicer ones that I haven’t suppressed from my memories.
Passionate young Darius still continued to dance. I set up a dance club whilst still in primary school and, weirdly enough, the bullies and people who taunted me turned up and I taught them. Like many black creatives, we tend to take the opportunities without fully reading the small print, looking at the possible dangers or thinking about others being underhanded. I learned this the hard way…
After being kind enough to let everyone in, they were kind enough to continue to taunt me in classes. The year after, another pupil set up a similar dance class and for some unjustifiable reason, I was allowed to attend one class but wasn’t allowed back. I obviously complained about this because I knew it was unfair for someone to take my idea, an idea that had not been done until this point, an idea that I had to fight to have permission to do but yet my voice still wasn’t heard because I was told to ignore them.
This was at the time where teachers favourite lines were, “Darius, just ignore them, they will eventually leave you alone,” which I have always believed was a simple way of them getting out of having to deal with anything, especially when race was concerned.
In this day and age, you would assume that if a child said, “You’re like chocolate and you’re going to melt away,” it would at least be something to bring to attention. Something to at least tell the child not to say something like that because it could hurt someone’s feelings… you would be wrong. Because that is not what happened. But yet I continued to dance. Continued to try and gain validation from others because I thought that was the right thing to do.
Dancing went from being my safe space to my validation space which is never healthy and I completely fell out of love with it. I know that I am not the most technically talented dancer or provide the most tricks, but I know that I can always provide the party and the positive vibes. This is why The Greatest Dancer audition will forever be a surprise to me.
For many, I became a puppet on a string that people could just pull and I would move. I was so emotionally drained as a child that I kind of went along with people calling me names and just accepted it and stopped dancing for a while because I reached a point where I knew that it wasn’t impressing anyone anymore.
I was very confused with the idea of people being around me and people being my friends. There was one time of the year where I was popular or at least I thought I was… the school disco. My dad was the DJ so every kid wanted their song to be played, they would ask me to ask him. They would all be so kind and so lovely on the night and I would be lulled into a false sense of security whilst I dance without a care as the wolves bared their teeth. The weekend would pass and I would return on Monday believing that I made friends on the Friday before, only to be ignored and taunted as usual.
It’s crazy to me now that I allowed that to become my new normal. I became so comfortable being everyone’s toy for them to do whatever they liked to. If they wanted to push me down, they would; tell me I was worthless and should kill myself, they would.
The only way I found some kind of release was by harming myself. I would spend my break times alone banging my head against a wall hoping that I would wake up from this nightmare. I would pinch my skin to be able to feel something on my own terms. I would try to not eat so that I could not be as fat as everyone was saying I was. I could never bring myself to actually cut myself so I would slash a side in my kitchen with any knife or blade that I could get my hand on. At this point, my age was still in single digits and I was already feeling this way.
It has taken me until I am 21 to be able to articulate these feelings in a way that makes sense. I am so grateful to God and my parents that I am still alive fighting today. I know now what I didn’t when I was 7, I ain’t nobody’s dance monkey!
Nowadays, I will intentionally say NO to people asking me to dance, no matter who that is. Whether that is my boss, my friends, my family, I will say no because I am not here to please, entertain or gratify anyone other than God and myself.
I have said goodbye to the days where people saw me like a monkey that did everything that they wanted me to. I am no longer that man. Frankly, that person wasn’t a man, he was a shell of a man, a fragment of who I was created to be. God gave me the gift of dance to glorify him first and also to make others happy. However, if you see me dance and you do not feel happy or you see me dancing and you don’t see the talent that God has given to me, that is not my problem, it is yours.
I concerned myself with everyone’s opinions, problems and thoughts about me for far too long so much that it stopped me from doing the thing I love doing the most in the world, not dancing but being myself. I sacrificed the person that God created me to be in order to be validated by others. My encouragement to you all is to NEVER search for validation in the world because you will never ever find it there. You will always be searching for people’s opinions to define you.
God’s opinion is the only one you should concern yourself with. Also, look at how you see yourself.
I am still working every single day to not see a warped image of myself, I am working to see more or who God created me to be.
I am still learning to believe that I am more than enough, that I am more than a conqueror, that I am worth it. These are all things that I know and are affirmations that I say to myself daily but I yet still quite don’t believe them and I know I am not the only one who feels that way. For me, the whole fake it till you make it mentality really worked with me gaining some confidence.
There is one thing I know for certain, I ain’t nobody’s Dance Monkey! And I never will be again.
To all the black creatives out there, please learn from my mistakes, please do not allow the natural passion that will get you far in life be the thing that people take advantage of.
I hope that this has shone some light on a lessen spoken about the side of dancing, racism, and bullying. I also hope it helps someone out.