Dancing with Britney Alone

It’s 2002. I’m fourteen. The Legendary Ms. Britney Spears was 21ish. Her third, self-titled, album was released back in November of 2001. We’re talking Britney orbiting the perfection and physical mastery that anyone who knows will recognize as hers. “I know I may be young …but… I’ve got feelings too. [synths!] And I need to do, what I feel like doing. So let me go, and just listen.” Did you feel that drop in your chest just now??? Oooooh lord. (Too bad about the title of that song, though, huh? But, to be honest, which is worse, a white girl casually singing those lyrics or Janet Jackson, for whom it had been written. These days I’d pick Option C, edit the lyrics.). Oops!… I Did It Again was released about 18 months before, and …Baby One More Time 18 months before that. In The Zone would be coming the next fall, the summit of the early-middle phase of her career.

Britney’s 2001 concert in Vegas was filmed and produced by HBO. Thanks to who even knows how many people, that concert made its way onto VHS and that VHS made its way onto the shelves of Walmart, so that I could come across it at the local Walmart while I was there with my grandmother for the weekly grocery shopping. I’m the kind of person who hates grocery shopping: it is so boring. It is now and it definitely was then—although back then, at least, I’d get to go off and roam the electronics department and dream about all the things that would have given me a dopamine rush. But one of those days I happened to see Britney Spears Live From Las Vegas and you know what? I spent my saved-up allowance on that, then and there, and it was probably the best money I ever spent to this day.

Even before I found that magical VHS, I’d spent hundred of hours mastering Britney’s choreography, at least an hour every day after school before my grandmother got home from work. During the summer, I’d spend whole mornings or afternoons or sometimes both listening to the same series of songs over and over, blaring them through the ungodly large stereo in our living room. Even before that, I danced. I’ve always danced.

When I was in first or second grade I got Billy Ray Cyrus’ cassette with “Achy Breaky Heart.” I was so young, what the hell right did I have obsessing over that song? To this day, I couldn’t tell you, and that’s the truth. But fixate I did. I even broke the rules and brought my little portable tape player to school with me for about a week so I could play the song at recess and dance my heart out on a little wooden platform raised off the pea-gravel they had all over the place. A lot of other kids even came and danced with me. There’s a picture in the yearbook that year and everything, kids at recess dancing on a wooden platform, me in the middle. I wish I could get to choose what I remember from my childhood so I could remember what that felt like. It was a strange singular moment when my tormentors set their weapons aside and a community formed around me in a way I’ve rarely known before or since.

Anyway, I’d always danced. And whenever I saw what few music award shows I could watch on one of our four channels, I’d record Britney’s performances so I could learn her actual moves and add the ones I liked into my own routines. This was back before things like ‘YouTube’ and ‘stable internet.’ Ha. This was the early Napster era, over dialup, with 15 minutes to download a song, minimum.

But, damn… Every time I saw Britney dance, even just a clip, I knew she was for real. She never missed a beat, I swear it. And the way she would dominate a stadium stage with that strutting-gallop. Maybe there’s a better word for it. Gallop makes her sound like a horse, doesn’t it? I’m sorry, Britney, but wtf do you call that prancing jumpy strut you do to get across a stage so fast?

And those stairs!!! Lord have mercy! I dreamed of descending my own lofty staircase-from-nowhere onto a wide stage. I’d start almost every song at the back of my ‘stage’ mapped out across the living room, and sometimes I’d dramatically raise my arms, even my whole body, as if to make it clear to my non-existent audience that I was definitely being raised to the top of my stairs-to-nowhere to make a long descent, throwing my legs into the air or lurching myself rhythmically along with the song’s intro.

But those intros only last so long. Have you ever thought about trying to get down all those stairs within the short span of a conventional pop intro? And then at the end, when you have to get from the stage to the lift at the top of the stairs in time to hit your mark on the final beat, looking back at the audience as you descend suddenly out of sight for a costume change? I’d’ve ended up a mess of splayed out limbs, hitting every step the whole way down the stairs. It’s a wonder how quickly she did it, and I think I only saw her lose her footing once in all that time.

Anyway, it’s 2002. I spent basically the whole summer, all of it, or at least every weekday while my grandma was at work and the house was empty, watching Britney Spears Live in Las Vegas, her “Dream within a Dream” tour. I watched it so much I feel like I could recognize her dancers from that tour just about anywhere. The leggy extroverted black girl with her beautiful fro and that gap between her front teeth? Love her! Last time I saw her, she was with Beyoncé. From a Queen to a Goddess, that’s a ladder to climb!

There were some real logistical issues on my end, though. When a wall came down from the ceiling and it was a rotating video-screen of Britney dancing so real-life Britney could dance with herself… Damn that took a lot of ingenuitive imagining. But you know what? That panel descended from my ceiling every day, never an issue. And at the end, too, when Britney climbs into a suspended platform for a stripped down version of “…Baby One More Time” I climbed onto my own suspended bit of stage, but I never bothered to hook myself in. (Speaking of that song though… I swear to god, Britney did like a New York Jazz Club version of this in 1999 and a cabaret version in 2003 and I loved it so much. I want so much more of that vibe.)

But things were even more intense for me restaging this particular performance than just a descending and rotating screen, because water also had to come bursting down from the ceiling all the sudden. Oh, I forgot to mention before, Britney and I put on raincoats, see-through. (Also jeans and a crystal-encrusted bra and a clear cowboy hat.) There was a see-through umbrella involved, too. I didn’t have a bra for it, in case you’re wondering: my nipples never bothered anyone… (sorry!) I wore matching jeans—low rise, bootcut, distressed—and I had a rhinestone-encrusted belt to match her top and a matching clear cowboy hat. It was an awfully daring look for a kid who refused to take his shirt off at the beach or in a pool, even compared to the other costumes Britney and I put on for that show!

We did it all. I got on that tiny platform, in step with Britney. But I realized I liked it on the ground better because I wouldn’t be at risk of snapping my skull off my spine in a spill. After we got back onto the stage for the big finish and the final exit, I was thankful for solid ground, for Britney, for the rain soaking me in my mind, for the great show we put on again that day, live in Las Vegas.

Britney taught me so much. She taught me what it meant to be cool, to exude sex appeal, and to be alone. Obviously cool and sexy, right? ‘It’s Britney, bitch!’ But you know what else? She was always staged isolated from her dancers, even in interactions with them she had to be visible, isolated. It’s a reproduction of the isolation she’s experienced, isn’t it? It packages that isolation as a pop show for willing audiences. Is that making lemonade from lemons? Or is that something awful? The latter, we learned this year. Very much something awful.

But what Britney gave me at the time was a lifeline against the awfulness of my own situation, back before #FreeBritney, back in 2002, as I danced show after show five days a week with The Legendary Ms. Britney Spears, live from Las Vegas, both of us alone on our stages. If Britney could be like me but still be Britney Spears, then maybe things wouldn’t always be so terrible for me. That was the hope that sustained me, the hope on which I based my theory that at least some things would get better at some point and that it was worthwhile for me to stick around for them no matter the isolation of the moment or the degradations I experienced daily among my peers or from random strangers in public places, a constant exposure in a kind of degrading bigoted voyeurism, on a stage of my own wherever I walked, always apart from anyone else.

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