Coming Home


Note: This essay was first published in Stance on Dance’s fall/winter 2022 print issue. To learn more, visit

I am a queer, nonbinary, small-fat, able-bodied, and mixed Japanese and Euro-American settler living on Ohlone land. I am a dancer, artist, educator, facilitator, and event producer. My movement background is in contemporary, modern, jazz, ballet, improvisation, and somatics. I offer a list of my identities, not to confine myself to a rigid box or to say that any two people who share an identity share the same experience. Rather, in naming these identities, I honor that my experience as a dancer does not exist within a vacuum.

Aiano demonstrates a reach upward and backward with their other hand on their stomach. Students in the mirror behind them watch and follow.

Photo by Heth Stockton

I am a third-generation dancer and second-generation dance educator. Needless to say, dance has always been part of my life. Throughout the course of my short 30 years, I have focused on varying aspects of dance: technical training, performance, choreography, teaching, and producing. Recently, I find myself with a renewed love for dance. The euphoria and love I feel for dance is something I have not had access to since I was a teenager. My journey has not been linear, direct, short, or simple, and I am grateful for the depths it has led me to and the parts of myself it has uncovered.

I believe that dance, like many practices, can be used as both medicine and poison. I once used dance as a tool of self-oppression, but it is now my strongest tool towards self-liberation. As a tween and teen, I was consumed by an ideal of ‘a dancer’ constructed by Eurocentric and white supremacist aesthetics of beauty, mainly centering thinness and whiteness. These are two things which I am not and honestly no longer have any desire to be.

My relationship to dance, like any other long-term love, has undergone many iterations. It has at times served as a source of joy and pleasure, and at others of heartbreak and pain. No matter how many times I have tried to part with dance, it always finds its way back to me. Over the past decade, I have continued to discover new aspects of dance and ways of relating to my body that support my growth. I have found that while dance at one point led me away from myself, it is also what brings me back to myself, time and time again.

A lot has changed, both out in the world and within me, since the first COVID shutdown in the US in March 2020. My body has become softer, my belly bigger, my breasts smaller. My gender has shifted to welcome the divine masculine that has always existed within me while maintaining the ferocity and softness of my femme power that has always been on display. I have recovered my personal dance practice and am taking classes regularly after years away. This time around, my practice consciously centers slowness, ease, joy, fluidity, and queerness. My current relationship to dance honors the ever-changing nature of my body in each moment of its glorious existence. While I teach in service to others, my personal practice is where I dance freely, powerfully, joyously, and truly just for me.

When the pandemic hit the US in the spring of 2020, I was working a nine-to-five in the arts nonprofit world and was in my fourth year of graduate school. While I was teaching a lot, I felt deeply disconnected from myself and my personal practice as a dancer. I was moving through the world at a rapid and unsustainable pace. The beginning of the pandemic, although terrifying and uncertain, offered me the valuable gift of slowness. It is with slowness that new truths can emerge, feelings come to fullness, and vast possibilities are revealed. Slowness requires a level of presence, attunement, and softness that is easily evaded when we rush.

As the world around me shut down and the myth of certainty collapsed before me, I felt myself turn to goo. I was a puddle at the intersection of body dysmorphia, gender dysphoria, and internalized homophobia. I didn’t know how to occupy my own body, which was an unfamiliar and terrifying feeling for me. I rescinded into the shadows, into the body, and into the muck of everything I had been too rushed to feel. I knew I had to integrate my pain to reconcile the disconnect and access the freedom in my body that I desired and knew I deserved.

Luckily, I’ve reconciled hard truths in my body before. At age 19, I re-entered dance after a two-year break initiated at the height of my eating disorder when I was kicked off of a dance company. I was told that someone with my body could never be a dancer and that teachers would take one look at me and kick me out of class. After that incident, I thought I was done with dance for good. I entered college a year and a half later as an English major, but by the second semester found myself enrolled in my first dance improvisation class. This was the first time I felt I had power and agency over my own body. Within a few weeks, I switched my major to dance.

Aiano is being partnered by a young man holding their waist as they tilt away from him with their leg extended behind them.

Aiano in high school, 2010, Photo by Blaine Covert

It was during this same time that I started learning about systems of domination, including cis-hetero patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism. I started unpacking, through dance and critical reflection, how these systems manifested in my body over the course of my life, and began healing from a long-term eating disorder.

Throughout undergrad, at the beginning of my recovery, I still mentally struggled with my body’s weight and size during technique class. I shared what was coming up to my mentor, Kara Davis, who responded, “Aiano, the more weight you have, the more momentum you have, and the bigger and more powerfully you can move through space.” This moment changed everything for me. Not only did it shift how I understood my weight, but it also completely changed the quality of my movement and removed layers of fear and shame I had placed on my body throughout the years. I then welcomed my growing body into my dance practice, took all the space my body desired and needed, and moved more freely and powerfully in my body than ever before.

The next year I started graduate school where I studied transformative teaching pedagogy and the role of embodiment in collective liberation work. I dove deep into my love for pedagogy and cultivated a teaching practice that honors the experiences of all students, practices reciprocal learning, centers felt sense over aesthetics, and brings students closer to themselves and their power. While this work fueled my soul (and still does to this day), I became so focused on creating experiences and holding space for others that I abandoned my own practice along the way.

Six months into shelter-in-place, I taught a virtual modern dance class for teens. In the midst of smoke and wildfires, a global pandemic, and political unrest, we created a soft and gentle space to move through and with our rage, grief, and dreams for a better world. I was deeply moved by this group of teens: what they were thinking about, the art they were creating, and the depth to which they knew and shared themselves. I felt both a sense of joy for their freedom and grief for my own teen self who didn’t have a dance space to be present in her body.

As the beauty with my teen students continued, I was sinking into a depressive state. I was highly anxious and my eating disorder reemerged in a new way. I felt out of place in my own body and for a few months no longer wanted to exist. I hadn’t felt this way since I was a teen and I realized my raging teen self was making her debut. She. was. pissed. She was coming after my weight, my gender expression, and my queerness – things I thought I had worked through and come to peace with. However, as I often remind myself, healing is not linear and the end of one cycle is the beginning of another.

My teen self was the last version of me to unabashedly love dance. She was also the version of me who had her heart broken by it. As I sat with her tantrums, mean words, and rage, I felt her pain. For months I tried to quell her anger and every day felt like an internal fight. One day, I opened up to a friend about my struggle and they responded, “It sounds like you’re giving your teen self too much power. What does she actually need?”

Finally, I faced my teen self. I sat with her. I danced with her. I stretched with her. I cried with her. I ate her favorite snacks without guilt or shame. I played her favorite music and wrote her a 10-page letter. In that process, I realized my teen self was hurting and scared because despite all her efforts to hide that she was queer, fat, nonbinary, and not white, I live in fullness with all those parts. She was terrified that if those parts of us were open to the world, we would be unworthy of love and unable to do what she loved to do most: dance. With this knowledge, I was finally able to give her what she needed. I assured her we are safe and we are loved; that our life is turning out more beautifully than she ever imagined; that we feel free and powerful in our body; that we move through the world grounded in our size, weight, and power; and above all else, we are still dancing.

I am the keeper of her dreams and I dance to keep our dream alive. I have returned to dance with the passion, love, and abandon my teen self had for it. Now, I am able to move through life with my teen self rather than against her, while honoring the wisdom, experience, and authenticity of my current self. When I dance, I feel all the love that every past version of myself has poured into us over the years. I dance to feel free, strong, and connected to my ever-changing body; to honor my ancestors and all the versions of myself who have ever existed and will come into existence one day. I dance to sweat, to pray, to rage, to melt, to get lost in and emerge again. I am not focused on looking pretty and I don’t care about being good. I don’t push myself beyond my limits out of fear or desire to appease. I am not afraid to say yes. I am not afraid to say no. I go slow. I feel the fullness. I am present with my body. And for the first time in 15 years, I am dancing simply because I love it.

Aiano relaxes on a blue cushion wearing red lingerie. Plates of food adorn them.

Aiano in 2020, film and photo shoot for “I Only Eat for Pleasure” dance film, Photo by Heth Stockton


Aiano Nakagawa is a dance artist, educator, facilitator, writer, and event producer in the Bay Area. Aiano creates, teaches, and facilitates a range of classes and workshops – both movement-based and non-movement-based – that provide people opportunities to unpack and process how dominant systems of power manifest within the body, while simultaneously imagining and embodying new possibilities and new worlds.  To learn more, visit

Note: This essay was first published in Stance on Dance’s fall/winter 2022 print issue. To learn more, visit

2 Responses to “Coming Home”

  1. Nancy martin

    This is what kids, teens, and young people need to hear. They need to learn how to move and be free to express themselves and learn to take charge of their bodies (and minds). Thanks.

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