Dancing on the Blade
Content Warning: This essay chronicles a healing ritual for survivors of sex trafficking with mention of rape and sexual trauma.
Guarded by outlines of enormous crows, the words "You are Beloved" are painted in giant pink letters. A six-foot lantern burns as if leading the way. The artists won't finish their work for another few weeks, and the official ceremony is months away with the misguided hope that the pandemic will be over by then, but already the mural takes up a presence on The Blade as if it were a living, breathing being.
On one side of the mural, a kneeling orisha holds a bucket of water. Her skin is luscious, a creamy brown that I was taught could never be beautiful. You don't have to know she is Yemayá to understand that she is a goddess. Opposite her, there is a door painted red—an actual door! Who knows where it leads? If you know this part of East Oakland, you know this is a nod to Regina's Door, the vintage boutique run by playwright and activist Regina Evans. Her storefront offers sanctuary for survivors of human trafficking. Here on The Blade, she is known as Momma Regina.
But I don't see any of this. I walk right past the Beloveds' mural with my eyes glued to the ground. Maybe it's because, like the dance I'm about to perform on the street, this attempt to make a difference feels like a drop in the bucket. A symbolic gesture at best.
* * *
In some ways, the stretch of Oakland they call "The Blade" looks a lot like my neighborhood in Oakland, the one they call "Rockridge". Both neighborhoods have homeless tents at the end of the street and police who patrol. Both are just a block from the freeway.
But really, The Blade is nothing like my neighborhood. My neighborhood has homes with carefully tended gardens and bakeries that make artisan bread. The cars parked on the street are Priuses, Audis, and even the occasional Tesla.
The Blade has fast-food restaurants slathered in graffiti. Yards are cemented over and sheltered from the sidewalk with wrought-iron bars. The gutters are littered with cigarette butts and sticky with urine.
But the biggest difference is that on The Blade, girls stand on the corner in short skirts and midriffs, soliciting sex. Some are as young as thirteen years old. They are "the Beloved", Oakland's sex-trafficked youth.
That's why they call it "The Blade". It has been a hotspot for sex workers, adult and underaged for years, but since the pandemic, the number of Beloved has exploded.
The invitation to dance came to me from the director of Oakland Ballet. His neighbor, a friend of Regina's, suggested that he get involved in her latest project, "Beloved, An Insistence", which combines performance art and action to draw attention to sex-trafficking in this part of Oakland. Two weeks earlier, a percussionist from Oakland Symphony played on the strip of International Boulevard and 21st Street, aka "The Blade".
For the show I will dance, four pairs of dancers and poets will perform five minutes of choreography on each corner of the street. They will be surrounded by altars made to honor the Beloveds, Regina Evans's name for the girls who are exploited for sex. Afterwards, there is a healing ritual.
The performance is scheduled for a Thursday in mid-August. We don't know yet that lightning will ignite the West Coast a few days before the showing and that the air will be hazy, tinged with the scent of far-away fires.
Regina has given specific instructions for the script that will be read and the poems that will be spoken. No statistics. No stories about "the Life". No images that evoke The Blade.
These girls need no reminders of the life they left or in some cases may still be living.
The director of Oakland Ballet has never seen me dance—I retired fifteen years ago. We know each other because my daughter danced in his Nutcracker and because we have colleagues in common. My director in Iceland was one of his classmates at the Royal Ballet School.
But when he mentions Claudine, who runs the ballet school where I taught before the pandemic moved all classes to Zoom, I suspect the real reason I have been asked to dance. These pockets of Oakland—just six miles from my own home—are the product of structural racism, exacerbated by white-savior complex. Before the pandemic hit, Claudine hosted free, one-week intensives for teenage girls in East Oakland. Each day in the intensive featured a hot lunch and lessons that range from how to write poetry to how to escape from the inside of a van.
Without him having to say it—perhaps because I see how Claudine is careful to pick instructors her girls will relate to—I know I have been called, not because of my professional background and abilities, but because they need performers who are not white.
There was a time in my career when this would have ruffled my feathers. But now I see it as an obligation. My skin color is not my privilege; my situation is.
I do not have to drive a delivery truck or work at a grocery store to make ends meet. Because of my privilege, I am not essential. That means I have a responsibility to show up, to answer the call. Because I can. There are not so many brown ballerinas. Especially those who are comfortable and capable of transporting themselves safely in and out of a neighborhood euphemistically described as "a little rough".
But privately, I am terrified. Maybe I don't look like a white savior, but I feel like one. And besides, how could a little dance possibly make any difference?
* * *
When I think of sex workers, I think of the women in dirty lingerie and men in gold lamé shorts, both groups in high heels. You can find them strolling about just around the corner from picturesque San Francisco landmarks such as the Opera House and City Hall, and from tech offices such as Twitter's headquarters and Dolby Sound Systems.
I thought of it as the underbelly, the seedy side of the city. Dirty and dangerous, but still connected to the sexual freedom the city encourages. Like the stores that sell vibrators and
dildos. It's all part of the spectrum of adult entertainment that encompasses raunchy drag shows and dominatrix dungeons. Some of it deviant, some of it merely self-expression. All of it ostensibly consensual.
In the movies, the sex workers are glamorous, empowered women, like Rebecca De Mornay in Risky Business or Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. When they decide to leave prostitution behind, they have been strengthened from their years manipulating men. They are not diminished.
I know how to lure a man. It's not that different from being in a ballet studio pulling the choreographer's eye without looking at him. And it does feel like power. Flirt. Pull. Tease.
This is not like that. The Beloved are children. Their sexuality is a gift they have not yet grown into.
Browsing through Google results leaves me nauseous.
A short documentary "International Boulevard", made by high school students in Oakland, begins with three shocking statistics: Eighty percent of those sex-trafficked are women;
most of them are children. Forty percent of the nation's sex-trafficking happens right in Oakland.
Most of the girls are local, fleeing disadvantaged socioeconomic circumstances. Others are abducted from elsewhere in the United States, bought, sold, and brought to the Bay Area. Predators are looking for vulnerable targets and know how to prey on a child who is homeless or has experienced abuse or sexual trauma.
Underaged girls are held hostage by threat of violence to themselves or their families by pimps in the guise of a boyfriend figure. Fear, guilt, and shame are debilitating and prevent victims from speaking out in defense of other girls with whom they are held or advocating for themselves. Even if they were to escape, where would they go? Would they be accepted back
into a safe home environment? How will they get their basic needs met—food, clothing, shelter—while on their own?
The girls are getting younger every year, a police officer says in his interview.
The documentary was made eight years ago.
* * *
I was a firebird once. Not rising-from-the-ashes phoenix kind. The ballerina kind.
In my hometown of El Paso, Texas, an amphitheater sits nestled in the mountains that bifurcate the city. The domain of the Tigua until Spaniards came to claim them and name them, these mountains hold magic. That's where I discovered that I knew how to fly.
The ballet The Firebird is based on a Russian fairytale. The evil sorcerer Koschei the Deathless has trapped twelve princesses in his enchanted garden. Prince Ivan, captured during his attempt to free them, summons the Firebird with a feather she has given him. The Firebird comes to the prince's aid, dancing an incantation so beautiful that all the monsters are lulled to sleep. The prince crushes Koschei's soul with the Firebird's sword, and the monsters are transformed back into benevolent villagers.
The lullaby was my final solo of the ballet. The mountains enveloped me like an embrace, a quiet, affectionate nod from Mother Earth. I fluttered from one side of the stage to the other, breaking the spell and freeing the princesses with my own magic.
The mountains told me I could fly, but no one taught me to time-travel. I figured that out on my own.
A scene that lives in my cells more as a stain than as a memory: me, with my face in the dirt, my navy-blue shorts over my head like a hood. I'd been told to count to a hundred, but when I got to forty-seven, I could tell that he was gone. I stood up and walked to the curb. I waited for the light to change as I crossed the busy Seattle street to go home.
And then I left my body.
I watched myself from above—a small, almost-eighteen-year-old ballet student in a white sweater which was now stained with blood, grass, and semen.
I didn't come back into my body until I was in the shower, scrubbing and sobbing. In the trash can, new lace panties that had been worn once three weeks earlier. They'd been a gift to myself for losing my virginity to a friend I'd known since middle school.
That night, in a fitful sleep, I dreamed I was a huge cavewoman the size of a mama grizzly, skin like the weathered bark of a redwood. With a club the size of the hind leg of a buffalo, I guarded the entrance to my rock. Large, brown, angered into action—all the things I wasn't allowed to be as a dancer—I bashed in the head of anything that came near me. The dream replayed itself on an infinite loop.
A few months later, I moved across town from the lakeside house where I'd rented a room to a basement apartment near the ballet studio where I hoped to get a job one day as a real dancer. I listened to Cat Stevens and Pink Floyd and smoked menthol cigarettes. When spiders crawled through window cracks, I screamed at them.
I plastered shelf paper on the walls and drew murals—pictures that were six feet high. In a charcoal mashup of circles, I drew a girl, the same girl, with ovals for eyes and an oval mouth, all blackened, hollow and empty; she was always drawn in mid-howl. I slept under these pictures, and when I knew the spiders had been squashed, I prayed to a future me.
I called myself the Angel. The Angel was tall and strong and so impossibly old—like thirty. The Angel did not feel the violence as blows. She did not see looks of pity from people who knew. She rose above it, literally, because angels have wings. And in her spare time she would come to me and visit. She would hold my head in her lap and rock me. She would say, "It's ok. One day you will feel beautiful. One day you will be me. Look at me. See?"
Five years later, I stood on the outskirts of Reykjavik. On a black beach of sand ground to grains from ancient volcanic lava, I lit a cigarette. Like a debt to be repaid, the moment had come for me to travel to the past and be the Angel. It was summer, and the midnight sun was high overhead, standing guard in a sky that was a spectacular Arctic blue.
I floated to the hallway of my Seattle apartment where I'd slept on a futon on the floor. My guardian-angel self cradled the head of my eighteen-year-old self. The Angel stroked the girl's hair and whispered things. Around us were my floor-to-ceiling drawings of an anguished soul. On some sheets of paper, she cowered in oval cages, and on others she slumped under trees, her mouth always open in a toothless wail.
My guardian-angel self could have said all kinds of encouraging trivia about the future: dancing as a professional ballerina, touring Europe with a wonderful boyfriend, also a dancer.
But she didn't whisper any of those things.
The girl she held in her lap was hurting with a pain that caved in on itself like a black hole. The girl didn't need words about the future; she needed to be spared from the suffering of the present.
"Shhhh..." I said, holding my teenage-self in barely-adult arms. Occupying two places in space and time, I was both the consoler and the consoled.
I felt the crisp Arctic wind on my cheeks and the weight of years-old grief in my heart.
The Angel cupped her hands as if she could collect the girl's sorrow, absorbing her pain.
Claudine admits that someone was shot at the nearby Jack in the Box earlier in the month, but she's hoping we won't run into any of that tonight.
"You know the drill, right?" she asks.
I do. Leave nothing in the car, not even in the trunk. If I do need to bring something like a backpack, make sure it's small. I don't want to look like I am carrying something valuable, like a laptop.
It's a smoky Thursday night. I dress in black pants and a long-sleeved black shirt. I add a thin, black muslin top, long-flowing with fringe. I have never worn it before. It's the kind of shirt you might throw over a bathing suit at the beach.
"Stay safe," my husband calls out as I drive away.
Armed with hand sanitizer, extra masks, a scaled-down purse, I go over my instructions: Don't worry about repeating the same steps when you move to different street corners. The emotion conveyed is the important part. Stay on the sidewalk. Watch out for traffic. Wear old shoes or sneakers. You never know if there will be broken glass.
Again, I worry, what do I have to say?
Circling for parking I realize how well I know this neighborhood. When my children were smaller, I dropped off my gently-used maternity clothes and donated boxes of disposable diapers to the non-profit that provides such necessities to new mothers. Two blocks away is The Bikery where the nonprofit Cycles of Change provides at-risk youth with bicycles, helmets, and other equipment. Next door to that is Sol Garden where Claudine's girls feed chickens and learn how to garden.
An SUV with the markings of the Oakland Police Department idles on a side street. In my rearview mirror I see a cop talking to someone sitting on the sidewalk, but I can't see if the person is drunk or defensive. Cops lean forward when they are interrogating and lean back when they are being helpful. This cop stands slack. If his conversation buddy weren't sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, I'd think he was having coffee with a good friend.
There are no parking spots on The Blade, but there are plenty of spaces on a side street a few blocks away from the Cultural Center. I could park anywhere on this stretch of block near the cop's SUV. In a move that feels strangely territorial, I park directly in front of a tent pitched on the sidewalk. I feel a twinge of shame—a part of me knows I'm encroaching on their space, but I quickly brush the thought away. I'm just parking in a well-lit area. I'm just staying safe.
When I get out of the car, I see there are three men in that one-man tent. They sit on a sleeping bag. Two pass a joint back and forth. The third smiles at me and waves, like we know each other. He wears a blue paper mask on his chin. Like a reflex, I smile back, although I wonder if he can tell with my sunglasses and face mask made of antiviral cloth.
At the Cultural Center, there is an antechamber between the front gate and the door to the center, a place to linger while security cameras record. Claudine buzzes me in and a man materializes beside me and slips in after me. If he were going to grab me or knife me or even just jeer, I'd sense a menacing buzz before I'd see him. Nobody sneaks up on me. Not anymore.
But this guy isn't sneaking. He's like an invisible calm, except he is anything but invisible. He is the size of a linebacker. He wears jeans, a white t-shirt, and a black mask. He
doesn't introduce himself and he doesn't make eye contact. During our rehearsal, he stands as if to make himself undetectable, as if this is how he conveys his role as protector.
For costumes we've been instructed to wear black, with little to no skin showing, a directive everyone has followed except one of the mothers who will be reading a poem as her daughter dances. But then again, if I had tattoos like hers, I wouldn't cover up my arms either. It turns out there are many ways to take up space.
The altars on each corner of The Blade and 21st Street are chairs draped with fabric and adorned with yellow flowers to symbolize joy and painted affirmations signed with Regina's moniker: "The Queendom". Among the decorations are supplies: bottled water, hand sanitizer, PPE, granola bars, candy, condoms, and informational brochures in English and Spanish promoting free COVID-19 testing.
The corners overflow with thick, gold ribbons and electric tea candles that flicker in their fake Dollar Store way. Chalk designs on the concrete read, "I am a sacred vessel" and "I am
Behind us the freeway hums, backlit by a sunset stained pink from the far-away fires.
"They can see you," a woman in a brightly colored turban and complimentary mask tells us. She is Momma Amara. "The Beloved see you. Do you see them?"
A girl in peach-colored shorts cut to expose as much flesh as possible walks up and down the middle of the street. Not pacing. Not eager to go anywhere. Her matching flip-flops smack on the pavement. She holds her chin up. She's not wearing a mask.
That's so risky, I think, before scolding myself. ¡Que tonta! Don't be an idiot. Not wearing a mask during the pandemic is the least of the dangers she faces.
And then I get it. We are not here to preach or to pluck girls from the streets into Children's Protection Services. Momma Regina and Momma Amara know: this is not a problem so easily fixed.
We are here to take up space. We are here to occupy the corners that yesterday, tomorrow, later tonight, will be crawling with pimps and johns. The Beloved will read the affirmations in flowery chalk. They will trek back and forth on The Blade and see Momma Regina's lantern calling to them, reminding them they are seen. They are loved. At the very least, they might drink a bottle of water and collect some pretty trinkets.
Claudine gives me a Macaw feather. "It is a symbol of healing in Aztec culture," she tells me. It looks curiously like the Firebird feather I gave Prince Ivan as a magic charm to summon me in his time of need.
I take my starting position. Claudine reads the poem Momma Regina wrote for the occasion. She conjures up a heroine who feels a rise she has forgotten.
Behind us, a man in a mask with the words "Beloved, An Insistence" beats a djembe.
Behind him a group of young men in hoodies smoke pot and drink out of paper bags. They hoot and holler amongst themselves. A girl with long, straight hair whoops along with them. Their laughter is a wall between them and us. None of them wears a mask.
As I wave my Macaw feather back and forth, I feel a current—not electric; it's more like the current of the ocean coaxed to the shore by the gravity of the moon. It builds in intensity, like a wave threatening to crash. Instead of plugging into what the Tigua know about their mountain, I'm trying to connect to the Ohlone land now smothered by cement.
The current does not whisper to me. It hisses. It is easy to project anger outwards, as if the rage under my feet is an off-gas from the indigenous people buried under this Oakland asphalt, or the wrath buried in the marrow of the pimps and johns who unleash their violence through rape.
But at its core, I carry the rage in my body.
It is a seething that sits, coiled, compressed. An internal simmering to erupt as lava. It feels sinister and fragmented. Pockets of fury that quiver and shake, like a snake looking for its prey, or a dam about to break.
The reverberation through my limbs is the silent scream from my teenaged charcoal drawings. I pull it up from the depths of my dreams, a thick-thighed cavewoman with the hind leg of a buffalo who smashes in the head of anyone who dares to try to harm her.
My dancing is not frantic. It is deliberate. I balance and turn like an incantation. As if the palms of my hands could pull the life energy out of every sick fuck who harms a young woman.
In the final steps of my improvisation, I wave my Macaw feather, as if it might grant safety. I stand on a stool and open my arms wide. An angel who tells the Beloved this is not always you. You are not a fixed thing. This is not forever.
The haze from the California fires hangs in the air like ceremonial incense.
As the dusk falls into darkness, more Beloved come into the street and away from our altars. After I perform on each corner, poets and dancers stand sandwiched together, shoulder to shoulder.
"We see you, Beloved!" Momma Amara shouts into the intersection through a megaphone. "We see you. We do not forget."
A young girl in a black-and-purple veil whispers prayers as Momma Amara touches the tips of my ballet shoes and sprinkles a sweet-smelling tonic over my feet, blurring the line between performer and audience, between savior and survivor. A healing ritual—for me? I thought I was here for the Beloved. My teenage-self who conjured up angels never thought of herself as a survivor.
"All of this," Momma Amara gestures to the altars, "is because of this woman." Momma Regina presses her hands to her heart and bows.
"But she can't do it alone. MISSSEY, S.H.A.D.E., Dream Catchers—" Momma Amara rattles off the names of neighborhood organizations who work with exploited youth, names I wish I'd found in my Google searches. It would have given me hope.
"Nobody can do this alone." Momma Amara turns in a slow circle, pausing to point and make eye contact with us. She opens her arms to the street. "These are your daughters. We call them beloved because they deserve our love." Her voice cracks. "This is up to all of us. We are all responsible. Promise me. Promise you will take care of your daughters."
On the way back to the Cultural Center, the giant man walks four feet behind us, like a ghost guardian. Claudine points to a building with a gate painted in the colors of a rainbow. In four languages a sign reads "Community School for Creative Education".
"This is an amazing elementary school," she says. "Waldorf. Everything they do is taught through the lens of art. They do great work." A pause. "At least, they did when it was open."
Across the street a woman in a tight blue skirt screeches obscenities into her phone. A Waldorf school? In this neighborhood?
Next door to the Community School is a mural in the final stages of completion. It has been commissioned to be a beacon to the Beloved, brought into being through the efforts of muralists and local activists.
As stunning and vibrant as the mural is—spanning two stories and running the length of two storefronts—I didn't even notice it when I passed by earlier. I'd kept my eyes on the ground the entire time, on the lookout for shit and broken glass.
But now our group lingers in front of the mural as one of the volunteers points out the symbolism in the painting.
The woman on the far left of the mural holds a six-foot-tall lantern. With her turban she evokes Harriet Tubman. But maybe this is Momma Regina, a modern-day Tubman to free the enslaved.
On the opposite side of the mural there is another woman. She has long black hair with wavy blue accents—is that the full moon behind her or is it her halo? She pours a pail of turquoise water that spills onto the sidewalk.
"She is cleansing it," the volunteer says.
It is Yemayá, an orisha, a spirit-woman whose origins can be traced back to the Yoruba people of Africa. She also shows up in Cuba and the Caribbean, brought to this continent through the slave trade. Orisha spirits are said to have left their spirit lives behind to become human.
Yemayá is a water deity. She is motherly and protective, known for cleansing her children from their sorrows. She is normally calm, but when she is angered, she is destructive as a tidal wave. The face in the middle of the mural is hidden behind the mirror she holds in front of her.
Her braids are thick with gold bands, and her skin is the richest purple, like an iris in bloom. She is framed in yellow with a sky-blue background, as if this Beloved is flanked by sunshine.
Around her there are candles and cowrie shells, calla lilies, sunflowers, and intricate lace patterns.
In a corner painted on the stark yellow-green leaves of tropical plants are the words "For our beloved...we see you...we love you."
At the very top of the mural, two blue-black crows perch on fuchsia letters: "You are Beloved."
If I can see the woman across the street, then she can see the mural.
Suddenly, it clicks. Momma Regina hands out water, snacks, and postcards. The Dream Catchers offer training and housing. Claudine teaches dance and self-defense. They are like stars in the night sky that come together to make a constellation. And the mural stands guard, a spirit that never sleeps. A reminder that there is hope.
I saw none of this when I had my eyes on the ground.
My car sits in a pool of light from the streetlamp above. The three men are zipped up in their tent. My ballet shoes are not as dirty as I thought they'd be after dancing in the street.
Instead, they are covered in pink and purple from the chalk designs around the Beloveds' altars.
Recent road construction on The Blade has been made to redirect traffic, to make it difficult to cruise back and forth, and on my way home to the Rockridge part of Oakland I get lost in the turnarounds. This lane is just for buses. That one is right-turn only. The side streets are narrow and full of potholes. It's almost completely dark now. My GPS only knows how to find the shortest distance between my car and the freeway; it doesn't know which streets are safest.
On my second loop around, I see a young girl. She looks like my daughter. Thirteen, maybe fourteen years old. She stands alone on the corner of The Blade. She wears short cut-offs and a skimpy top. In one hand she holds a vape pen. Her hair is luscious and thick. She's not wearing a mask and I can see that she has heart-shaped lips. She doesn't look jaded or bored or even scared. She looks like a little girl in a flimsy outfit standing as still as possible on the corner.
And I know. She is one of the Beloved. I know not because the tops of her thighs are exposed or because her shiny camisole barely covers her nipples. I know because I recognize that the body in front of me is just the shell of her skin.
This is different from my ballet students who, unsure and inhibited, make themselves more visible by their desire to hide.
This beloved girl is not hiding, but she is not trying to be seen, either. She has left her body. It's as if the angel that she is, the woman that she will be, floats above and watches from far away.
I don't know what this young girl has to face tonight. Or tomorrow. Or the next night. I don't know what will pass through her head as she walks past the mural on her way to her corner.
Dear Beloved. I hope you can escape your body. Tonight, tomorrow, and any nights after.
May you watch from above as a Beloved Angel. May you one day feel healed and whole. May you travel back in time to whisper in the ear of your younger self to tell her that you love her.
Oh, Beloved, I see you.
For more information on trafficked youth, please visit:
"Five Myths About Human Trafficking", Washington Post