I grew up, for the most part, in Fort Madison, Iowa, a town of 12,000 people on the Mississippi River. As a teenager, I was frustrated by the lack of shopping, cultural events, and in general, the overall sense of “There’s nothing to do,” but I always appreciated the absolute safety that many teens took for granted. We were able to walk alone at night without worrying about gang members or serial killers “jumping out of the bushes,” and I realized that this security was not commonplace everywhere you went.
When deciding on which college to attend, I only applied to two – University of Arizona and University of Iowa. I had a high GPA, good test scores, and I assumed I would be accepted everywhere I applied to. I was right. Originally, I decided to apply to the University of Arizona based on the fact that my family would be moving to Cottonwood following my high school graduation. My entire decision-making process between the schools was “Iowa City is cold; Tucson is hot – I’ll move to Arizona.”
I moved into my dorm room three days after my family moved to Arizona, so I didn’t get much of an impression of Cottonwood, but I loved Tucson. The campus alone was three times the size of my entire town! I felt that anyone you came across walking through campus could just be your new best friend. I loved this new-to-me Western relaxed attitude and open-minded quality. One of my first, and still strongest, memories of Tucson was a black man and a white man walking down the streets holding hands. In Fort Madison, I only knew of one openly homosexual man – the hairdresser. It just wasn’t “acceptable” in small town Iowa to be gay.
I quickly adjusted to riding my bike to class in 95-degree weather, and joked about sending pictures to my friends at home of students lounging in the sun in shorts – in December. I majored in dance, and fell in love with the tight-knit Dance Department who expected hard work and dedication, but also treated students as family. I actually started dating, which was a new experience for me – I who had still, in high school, been seen as that same gawky third-grader long after I lost the oversized glasses and braces on my teeth.
All the same, I didn’t really realize how much freer and happier I felt in Arizona until I went back to Iowa over winter break. The realization hit me that these people I grew up with would never see me the way my new friends did. Their Midwestern “we-all-must-look-the-same-to-be-acceptable” minds just couldn’t see past the “dorky” phase of my childhood. I became frustrated with the lack of appreciation of the arts and progressive thinking, and couldn’t understand why small town Iowans were so concerned with “the way things have always been.” Fortunately or unfortunately, I have not returned to Iowa since that trip, though I may attend my ten year high school reunion this summer.
While in college, I began to think more and more of myself as an Arizonan, enjoying the weather, the culture, the natural beauty, and the laid-back population. When I graduated with my BFA in Dance, I knew I needed to find a job, but I just couldn’t see myself living someplace like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles – after all, I was a small town girl. When my mother and my boyfriend both moved (separately) to Flagstaff, I begrudgingly followed, thinking, “This is just temporary – there’s no dance in Flagstaff.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was immediately embraced by Flagstaff’s small, but strongly connected dance community. From my first ballet class here, I was told, “You should go dance with ______,” who would tell me to dance with someone else too, until I met Gina Darlington, director of Flagstaff’s local modern dance company, Canyon Movement Company. While it took me a few months to find a stable waitress job, within a few weeks, I was onstage with CMC, enjoying the acceptance of a loving group of women who were just so happy to share their gift of dance with others.
In the last five years, I have continued to dance with CMC, and I consider them some of my closest friends. I am now supporting myself solely through dancing and teaching. Since moving to Flagstaff, I have taught at Coconino Community College, Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy, The PEAK School, Sharon Manor, Marshall Elementary, and CMC’s dance studio, Canyon Dance Academy. I have never felt more accepted or needed in my life than I have here in Flagstaff. I love that modern dance concerts can sell out a full house. I love what are commonly called “Flagstaff Moments,” when you run into someone you know anywhere you are. I love that no matter where I go, I almost always turn around to hear a small, young voice saying, “Hi Miss Sarah – that’s my dance teacher.” More than anything though, I love the fact that such a diverse population as Flagstaff holds such respect for different types of people – acceptance is a way of life here.
I can feel the end of my full-time dance career coming in the not-so-distant future. The arthritis I developed at the age of thirteen gets steadily worse, and I know my knees won’t hold out forever. I will be returning to school in the fall to get a BS in Human Health Studies, (while performing with Desert Dance Theatre or Movement Source Dance Company) and then I would like to go back to Tucson to study pediatrics at the University of Arizona Medical School. I have always half-planned to be a doctor after my dance career – my father is our family’s seventh generation MD – though I have to admit, I didn’t think it would be this soon.
After I finally get an MD, I would like to return to my home, here in Flagstaff, so someday, in some park or grocery store, I might turn around to hear a small voice saying “Hi Dr. Sarah – that’s my doctor.”