“It’s okay to talk.”
My communication’s professor nodded at me. A painfully shy 20-year-old, I sweated and had an urge to run to the bathroom but was afraid to move and shift attention to myself.
My classmates chimed in on our discussion about the O.J. Simpson trial, while I stayed silent. I was angry at my inability to speak up but this situation was far from new.
I grew up in a strict Catholic home in suburban St. Louis, and when I was 5, an older sibling said, “A little boy in my class talked too much and had his tongue cut out by a nun.”
I believed my family member. I prayed for God to help me be good. I tried to obey the rules, never cause problems, and please my always-tired mother, who possessed expectations for her three daughters suitable for the 1940s, not the 1980s. Good girls were seen, not heard, followed the dictates of the Church, didn’t ask questions, and looked pretty.
In first grade I had a nun as my main teacher. I was determined to keep my tongue, so I didn’t talk. I wanted to be the good one. I wanted to stay safe. At home, I hid behind the overstuffed chair in the corner of our off-limits living room. I sheltered myself from my bickering parents, shouting siblings, and the constant influx of neighbors, relatives and kids from a nearby boarding school for the deaf.
I freely spoke to a handful of people — a cousin who was close to my own age, some neighbors, two classmates my mother babysat, and my immediate family. But my cheeks burned, and I clung to one of their sides when even my aunt tried to interact with me. I dropped my s’s and r’s as I spoke, feeling judged. One teacher suggested speech therapy, which Mom brushed off, saying, “She’s fine ― she just talks too fast.”
Perfect ringlets and bows, patent leather shoes and ironed uniforms hid my inner chaos. In second grade when the class got a punishment for being noisy, I was singled out for being quiet and was given extra recess. Alone on the playground, I felt like a freak. I hated that I couldn’t simply speak to the students next to me. I hated the panic that overwhelmed me, forcing me to pretend everything was fine. But words faded as I burrowed within and physical issues added to my emotional ones. I faked hearing tests, shooting my hand in the air as I stood waiting for a beep that never seemed to sound. I didn’t disclose when words started moving in waves across my page. (Years later, I would get glasses and hearing aids.)
No authority figures questioned what was wrong or suggested therapy to cope with my obvious turmoil, which now would likely be diagnosed as selective mutism, a severe anxiety that prohibited me from speaking in certain circumstances. Instead, my isolation was rewarded, and my behavior won me religion awards at school eight years in a row.
I also won many medals through Irish dancing, a hobby I pursued like my older sisters and my mother, who learned the traditional dances growing up in Northern Ireland. Soon after starting lessons, I attended a feis, a small Irish dance competition. After my mother asked, “Do you need the potty?” I told her “no” and squeezed my thighs, trying not to burden her. But moments later standing in line onstage, waiting for my turn, my trying failed. My mother grabbed me around my waist, leaving a trail of pee as she dashed us to a restroom. After a quick clean-up, she pushed me back on the wet stage. I won second place.
The stage soon became my sanctuary, much like the corner behind the big brown chair had once been. Until my period hit, and I had to hide that too, only a handful of additional accidents happened while dancing at a talent show, another feis, and a St. Paddy’s Day performance. By following my dance instructor’s lessons, I found I could tune out the world and ignore pain. No talking required.
Later at a small, all-girls’ Catholic high school, I clung to the two friends I made during homeroom on the first day. They sat in front and behind me, forming a security blanket during my first minutes of school ― one I needed all four years ― despite introductions to their friends. If part of my duo wasn’t present in class, at lunch or during a study period, anxiety would flare. In class, I struggled to share. Frustrated and wanting to banish my timorousness, I moved to Chicago for college, thinking a fresh start among strangers could be the perfect antidote. I quickly became overwhelmed.
I took trains and buses from the Northside to Southside for Irish dance lessons several times each week. The no-talking-during-class expectation comforted me, especially as I struggled to adjust to my new city and the absence of my cocoon made up of my small circle of family and friends. Severe chicken pox at 19 left me covered in red scars and prompted questions by strangers like “Were you in a fire?” which pushed me further inside myself. My great plan to grow into a “normal” human who could open her mouth when she had something to say failed. Instead, I practiced my dance steps everyday for hours either at my lessons or in the corner of my college gym basement, and life revolved around three major competitions a year.
After graduating, I moved to New York for law school and found a new Irish dance studio to which I could escape. Weeks into my second semester, I received an unexpected offer to join the chorus of “Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance,” an Irish dance extravaganza touring North America. I studied a VHS of the show, joined the cast in Virginia, and performed to thundering music and thousands applauding. On cue, I ripped off my dress to reveal a pair of black hot pants and tiny top underneath, thereby transforming my stage persona from prim to powerful. The roars across the arena were unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. “You were brilliant,” my show’s star dancer told me. Back at the hotel, I spent nights in my room watching TV, applying fake tan and washing wigs.
I continued to work on my technique and stage presence. The impact I had on others through my body’s movement was a revelation. I felt so alive and confident, I volunteered to do the show’s sultry number dressed in a beautiful purple lace dress. I didn’t know my gaze and shoulder roll could draw so much attention. I didn’t know that the long toe drags across the stage could light a fire within me. I didn’t know how much I’d love expressing this side of me and all within the comfort of exact parameters and without breaking any rules. I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, and it was nothing short of exhilarating.
My dance captain said my dancing grew by “leaps and bounds.” My socializing did too, especially after an exhausting week in Detroit when I joined the cast at a pub serving free mudslides, which the 23-year-old me didn’t know would be so potent. Pent up anxiety and frustration flew out of my mouth as I told the main male lead, “You know, you’re not really the lord ― it’s only a part.” He laughed (to my enormous relief when I realized what I’d said). As the tour continued, I ditched nights alone in my hotel room for more pub nights with the cast. I organized site-seeing adventures. A local TV show in St. Louis interviewed me when we performed at The Fox Theatre.
When my mother came to see me perform she told me, “You better keep that onstage.”
When I was asked to audition for my dream lead role as “Morrighan, The Temptress,” I called home. “Can’t you be the good girl (the alternative female role)?” Mom asked.
I was crushed but knew her ultra conservative upbringing created strict standards of acceptable behavior that she forced on me. On her watch, she prohibited all sexual expression. She would have loved for me to enter the convent, not dance provocatively in red spandex. But, this was no longer her show. It was my life. During my first performance as the “bad girl,” I strutted across the stage and winked at my mom and dad sitting in the orchestra section. My parents finally knew what had taken me years to figure out: I had a voice and a body that gave me power ― and I was no longer afraid to use it.
Instead of an escape, dancing now was the vehicle that allowed me to change the way I saw and knew myself. It became clear that all those years of silence were about fear. I had been petrified that I’d do or say something wrong and disappoint my mother and everyone she held in esteem. The pressure to be perfect in their eyes stole my voice and forced me to perform as the “good girl” for years. But dancing, at last, gave me the confidence to be me. It made me realize that their rules no longer applied. My self-expression mattered. My connection to my mind and body did too. I was transformed. And suddenly, everything became technicolored.
During a stay at my parents’ house after I had left the show and resumed law school, an older cousin sat beside me. “I don’t remember you talking,” she said.
“Now she doesn’t shut up,” my mother yelled from the kitchen.
Nor would I ever again.
Tess Clarkson, a former professional Irish dancer (“Riverdance” on Broadway and Michael Flatley’s productions) and financial regulation lawyer, lives in Missouri with her husband. Her essays have appeared in HuffPost, The Washington Post, The Independent, and more. She’s certified as a yogi, astrologer, and end-of-life doula, and is working on a memoir. Find her at www.tessclarkson.com and Instagram at Tessclarkson7.