Walking and Working Toward Belonging

Gabrielle McNeillie

Belonging, according to the Oxford dictionary, is “an affinity for a place or situation.”

I have always enjoyed walking and the time it takes to get to another place. I walk fast; I know where I want to be; yet I take in more of everything. A long walk through the city, around the block, or on the trail near our house gives me time to reflect, to breathe, and to observe my surroundings. So many questions surface during these walks; Who lives here? Who moves in these spaces? How do they move? How can I move like them and better understand who they are? How can this help me better understand myself? Walking in other places makes me feel whole. My world often feels small as I go from work to home to work again. When I escape the small town, this small world I reside in, I feel expansive, larger, and able to take up space. I did not know my life would take me to where I am now. Even after so many years I have a hard time calling this place home. Where do I really belong?

When my eyes open, I already know what my day is. I walk to prepare myself and soon hear the tiny footsteps of my children who seek me out in all moments. They come to greet me with hugs and requests for waffles and smoothies. I walk them to the kitchen. I walk up and down the stairs countless times to gather and fetch what they require before we leave for the day. They attach themselves to me with their eyes, their words, their shouts for more or another hug, and “don’t leave me Mom.” I belong here. I am wanted and needed here.  

I walk into my building on the campus where I work. The hallway is long and smells of new carpet. I greet my colleagues with a tight smile and soft words. My mornings are so hectic that this part of my day feels like a different world, starting the day over again. I am on an island here. The only full-time Dance Faculty, the only arts program in the College. My unruly hair is up, and my clothing is a mix of athleisure and the old sweaters I can’t let go of, while my colleagues wear polo shirts and khakis. Do I belong here?

I walk across campus. As the sunshine hits my face, the leaves are changing and falling, the sky is bright blue. I listen to music and walk to the beat; I can’t help it. I smile at students and faculty; most don’t offer me one in return. As I make my way, I choreograph in my head. Sometimes I stick out an arm, lean, or turn. Maybe this is why they don’t smile back? This walk renews me, I love walking to this other space. I feel ready, prepared, engaged, excited to offer movement to the students in my class. The building is old and cold. The space was not made for dancing, but we have cobbled together pieces of other spaces and placed them here. There is Marley on the floor, over old vinyl flooring, over concrete. There are portable barres, the walls are lined with costumes, there are no mirrors. I know this will not last long. We are temporary residents here. I will miss this space. I belong here.

As the students walk in, we exchange hellos, and our true smiles speak to each other. They are like me. We chat about our recent projects or “that one” class. They see me, I see them. The dancers are loud and fill the hallway and find their snacks before we start rehearsals or class. Their energy is palpable. I begin and we move together through the space finding our limbs, spine, fingers, and toes. We smile and laugh, raise eyebrows, and answer questions that our bodies ask. I walked here and will dance out. We belong here.

I walk back to my office with the sun at my back, the day is quieter. My office is quiet. This new space is stark and feels strange in comparison to the patchwork studio I was just in. This daily juxtaposition between my mothering life and my work life and, within that, the two places I move between at work; one old and one new. I am constantly shifting who I am piece by piece. I walk and wonder who else in this world feels this. We all do, right? We all are shifting and moving to remember who we are, rediscovering old selves and new. Working to find where we belong.

I know I am not alone in this need to belong. Can I create a place where others feel like they belong if I am still grappling with this concept in my own life? I can try. I do try. Creating a space where people feel safe to explore movement and express themselves is a goal that I am continually striving for. There are so many factors I cannot control, or fix, and I have very little control over the history and social climate of the greater institution that I work within. What I can control or have some control over is the support I can offer and the environment that our program creates through rules, practices, and our vision and mission (Allen 2016). Even so, I can only hope to shape my own classroom into a place where they can belong.

On the first day they enter, students are quiet, full of nervous energy, furtive looks, and worried shoulders. There are two language barriers, physical and verbal. Will they belong here? I ease them in. We work together and explore questions like, “What does that movement feel like? How might we work together on this?” They are each on their own journey, for some this is the first time they have entered a space like this while others have lived most of their life in the studio. Eventually they enter with quiet conversations, smiles are exchanged and come more easily. “How are our bodies feeling today? How are our minds,” I ask. They share or they don’t, often just a groan or a shrug. We move together, we share, we laugh. They come to me with questions or concerns or “can you show me that again.” I try to offer them what they need: space, time, more time, resources. I meet them where they are. I want them to enter the classroom as they are, who they are that day, or to discover who they might be. I want them to belong here.

I often get bogged down in what we don’t have access to, the never-ending budget crisis, the reduction in class offerings and faculty, the push to offer less and do more. We all feel it. My students want and deserve more and I want to provide that for them. Often my hands are tied or I am too exhausted by the cycle. Eking out small changes in the spaces where I can, while we wait for the larger and slower wheels of Academia to do the same. At the very least I can do this much. So, I walk to clear my mind. To close the gap between who I think I could be and who I am right now, between where our program is now to where I hope it will be in the future. To consider what else I might offer, what I need to hold back, what to keep close to my heart. I will keep walking and working for belonging.

Works Cited

Allen, Kelly-Ann, Dianne Vella-Brodrick, and Lea Waters. 2016. “Fostering School Belonging in Secondary Schools Using a Socio-Ecological Framework.” The Educational and Developmental Psychologist 33(1): 97–121. doi.org/10.1017/edp.2016.5.