THE sound of applause surprised me as I struggled up from the high-school gymnasium floor where I'd just performed my first modern-dance composition. I was wearing a wrinkled, royal-blue gym suit with white felt letters that spelled W-E-I-N-E-R across my back. A bright red headband kept my unruly dark hair from falling over my glasses. My feet were bare. As I pulled on my white cotton socks, I didn't yet realize what that applause meant to me.
Attracting attention was new for me - especially in gym class. My athletic skills had peaked in eighth grade when I scored above average for the number of sit-ups performed as part of a national fitness test.
Comfortable only in my studies, I delighted in memorizing the conjugation of French verbs or in gathering facts for my 11th-grade history papers. I racked up lots of A's on my report cards, but said nothing in class - content to pass through school unnoticed.
On most mornings before school began, my classmates sat on the floor talking with each other. I shyly avoided them by locking my eyes on some literary classic. I felt some of my strongest emotions through the lives of characters from the novels of Henry James or Thomas Hardy.
At home, I often listened alone to music. My taste stretched from Gilbert and Sullivan and Brahms to the Monkees. Sometimes, if the music moved me, I'd dance.
I discovered that my lonely improvisations had a name - modern dance - thanks to a new teacher, Mrs. Newcomb, a lively petite blonde. She introduced my class to Doris Humphrey's falls and Martha Graham's contractions.
Something about those classes captured me. I found a way to express feelings that I normally tucked inside. I could even push my body into new worlds opened by music and my imagination. My excitement - and fear - grew after Mrs. Newcomb told us to compose solo dances for performance at the end of our modern-dance unit.
To begin my dance homework, I clicked on my portable record player in my bedroom. I tried out record after record for my dance until I fixed on ``Poppies,'' an eery Buffy Saint-Marie song.
I made up my dance behind a closed bedroom door. My bare toes burrowed into the familiar pile of wall-to-wall carpet. I had to move carefully or I'd bump into the bed thrust into the middle of the room. Somehow, I managed to come up with a dance.
On the big day, I braced myself to perform. As Mrs. Newcomb placed the needle on my record, the music pulled me in.
I flowed across the floor using every square inch of my short slender body. I became so absorbed that I didn't see the other girls or the sunlight pushing through the barred windows above my head.
I concluded by sweeping my body to the floor in a graceful Humphrey fall. My right hand didn't flop over my head to touch the floor. Instead, it traced a partial circle as if my fingertips wanted to slice through the thick gymnasium walls and fly beyond my body. My movements had become more than a series of steps. They were dance.
Applause cracked my trance. I hadn't expected it. The girls had responded with silence or even giggles to the others' performances - even to the delicate graceful moves of Kathy, a classic beauty with many years of ballet training. With my classmates' applause began the recognition that I didn't have to live solely through my intellect.