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By Dachondra Cason

“This is normal,” the manager assured me as he escorted me down a long dark hallway back to the dressing room. “After a little bit more practice, you’ll be ready.”

I’d just bombed my first exotic dancer audition, but I was still proud of myself for mustering the courage it took to get up on that huge stage alone, one Hugh Heffner clone staring at me. I felt empowered, invincible, almost immortal, until I put a little too much weight on my right foot and fell toward the wall in an attempt to avoid landing on my ankle. Luckily, the manager was kind enough to catch me. There was no more conversation needed, we both knew I’d never be back.

I got the nerve to try again, this time on a Friday night at a predominantly Black club, and with a close friend. There was no daytime audition at this club. Instead, the process consisted of just one brief conversation with the manager (who I’m certain was more about seeing my body than hearing about my experience). I was expected to immediately blend in with all the other girls.

I walked into the crowded dressing room a nervous, sweaty-palmed ex-theatre kid, but I emerged floating to the stage in my mandated six-inch heels, all of my insecurities hidden behind the costume, the lashes, and the bright lights. I remember looking in the club’s mirrored walls and admiring the woman I saw as she felt the music and danced as if she were alone in her bedroom. The theatre kid in me had subconsciously jumped into character. By the end of the night, it paid off, literally, and I was hooked. There was something addictive about the music and the dressing room sessions where we shared our darkest secrets and insecurities, free of judgement because, after all, we didn’t even know each other’s real names. Then came an abrupt end.

I’d just come from the dressing room after a costume change and sat next to a security guard I’d forged a friendship with. We were joking around when he asked if I’d heard about what happened to one of the dancers who wasn’t there that night. It wasn’t unusual for dancers to rotate to different clubs, so I responded with the assumption she’d be back in a month or so. “No”, he replied, watching the dancer on the mainstage, “she committed suicide last week”. He continued the conversation, no change in his tone nor body language, but I was in such shock I couldn’t even hear what he was saying. I left early that night and never returned.

Ideally, this would be the part where I’d explain how I created my own business in the next week, and never looked back. That’s nowhere near what happened, though. I soon found myself continuing my job search from a homeless shelter during the holiday season. I was on the verge of what I am sure, in retrospect, would have been a nervous breakdown, when I finally got a call that changed everything.

Five years after that Friday night, I sat in an interview room for a position at one of the nation’s largest financial institutions, equipped with all the confidence I gained as a dancer. The process was identical to what happened before I got on stage: my body wouldn’t stop trembling and my heart was about to explode. Much like that Friday night, my name was called, and I stepped into character. I gave firm handshakes as if this were that first night I met with the club manager. I smiled and made eye contact as I did with my customer. I walked with my head held high as I did when I entered the club every night, and told myself this was just a conversation.

Dancing had taught me that confidence has a magical way of grabbing almost anyone’s attention, it makes the audience want to know who you are, even if the audience is a leader in corporate America. That has become one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned in life.

Three days later, I was offered the position, and immediately decided to create a timeline of my career goals, including how much I wanted to make, where I wanted to live, and what I was passionate about. It took six years, four promotions, and relocation to two different states, but here I am, and the lessons were so valuable that I wouldn’t choose another route even if I could.

There is no sense of fulfillment like that which comes from reinventing yourself, taking risks, and stepping outside of the box society has created for you. As a dancer, the club was my box. I knew society’s expectation was for me to gain success solely based on my physical appearance. No one wants financial advice from a dancer. As women, so much of our success hinges on that one courageous step outside of what society has deemed our norm. While yours may not be a strip club, the same principles apply. I challenge you to do what you want, with no regrets, and no regard for what the world thinks. I promise the entire universe is waiting.

Dachondra Cason is a freelance writer, blogger, poet, and mom who lives in Atlanta, Ga. You can connect with her on her website, WriteDae.com, or on Instagram @thewritedae.