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Janelle Tan


the most beautiful thing was white people 

           dancing on tv. the girls in american high school novels

always talked about dancing –

           the first time i felt the pulse 

of my body, i was eight in the living room,

           my hips learning 

                      their girlish music.

                                 my father came down the stairs:


oi! don’t do that! that’s sex! and i never heard

           my hips sing again. i wanted to be reborn

in america, open under some colder

           sky. a group of people swaying their bodies

is a ritual. an invitation

           to be blessed. 

                      the first time i learned my body

                                 was an offering


i held it in my groundward toes.

           in high school, the dance instructor only used me

to fill the back row. you’re just not

           a very good dancer. i wanted to direct

his gaze to the years

           i begged my mother

to put me in ballet classes.

           i was never


a very good dancer. 

           to be desired, the body has to forget

itself. i could never.

           the first time a man wanted my body i tried

to forget it. if i wouldn’t swallow, he would

           sulk. does the pull out method work?

                      i don’t know, only that i didn’t

                                 get pregnant those two years


and protection meant i didn’t love him

           enough. language was invented to make

prophecy and keep inventory – every interaction is prediction 

           or cataloguing. maybe orgasm is both,

divining the power of a body 

           in surrender. 

                      asked to speak 

                                 a language it never learned,


my body was used as barter. i never learned thrashing

           could be response. 

in the american novels, girls talked about giving

           the joy of your body to a man. it always happened

after some school dance. and so my inability to dance

           meant i was not ready to gift. i could not thrash. 

i never said yes.


if we were taught to think about penis

           as enlarged clitoris, he might have given me

himself. i still don’t know what the chinese call

           clitoris. maybe female pleasure is for white girls 

who place their bodies forefront. years later, i started to demand

           my satisfaction, 

                      opened my legs

                                 to the rapturous state


of dancing in my room alone

           to blondie. a moan comes

from where all want begins

           to seek escape. 

i learned to dance late, from the spanish girl 

           who wrapped me by the waist, 

                      held her hips to mine

                                 and said follow me


gently, our hips curving 

           with the front-back step,

in her my first

           real surrender.

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Janelle Tan was born in Singapore and lives in Brooklyn. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Winter Tangerine, Nat. BrutThe BoilerBodega, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate at New York University, Web Editor for Washington Square Review, and reads for Perugia Press. 


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