Scared to dance

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I would love to be able to dance a bit. Not formally I suppose, but if I’m truthful, enough to have people being happy to dance with me and perhaps even to be able to connect with someone through dance the way I can while playing music with musician friends. There, I’ve said it! The truth is I am not at all happy about my dancing, and even worse, I am so uneasy being associated with wanting to dance that I am embarrassed to have said that!

When I was at school and the rounds of school discos arrived, I vividly recall watching friends and peers dancing around the floor, and remember wondering why so few of them seemed debilitated by self-consciousness while I seemed to be. I believe I may have found the courage at some points (few and far between) to ask some hopelessly desired girl or another to dance, but all I can recall of these ghastly experiences is the glacial duration of the songs and the shocking awareness that out of all of the dancers on the floor, I was so uniquely comical and wooden, not to mention tall, that every eye must be on me, storing the deliciously ridiculous sight for the standard teasing later. I hated it. The trouble is that I hated not being able to do it just about as much!

No one that I can recall ever asked me to dance except perhaps a kindly teacher and the first signs of my anti social dance withdrawal were clearly evident in my probably rude and dismissive refusals. (What a cheek considering I had been offered sympathy dances!) naturally this evolved into my public and actually deeply held belief that dance was a bad idea. At any social event during the next 20 years of my life, I would happily hold forth on my miserable view that dancing was the work of the foolish and I wanted no truck with it. This would have been ridiculous enough had I the decency to slip out of society and ignore dancing as a reclusive, but no, I was that big embarrassing idiot, the guy whose aunts were dragging up to dance while I (literally) leant back on my heels, refusing until eventually, my huge embarrassment was escalated into a social-nuclear-incident with huge post-mortems and most people associated left damaged and humiliated. Trying to talk me into just relaxing, dancing (badly) but politely had no effect whatsoever. I was a social nightmare and I am deeply sorry to my ex-wife amongst others that I was such an embarrassment. In my defence I always pleaded that if I was simply left to myself to sit and chat, that there would be no problem. The truth is that this is thin stuff by way of mitigation and I was actually deeply unhappy about the situation.

There was an odd green shoot early in this period, and that was my fondness for the trend for ceilidh dances. (Scottish country dances). I always maintained that the key attraction for me was the dancing-by-numbers approach that meant even a dance-challenged idiot like me could “muscle through” a quick strip-the-willow or a Canadian barn dance. The culture around such dances was such that mistakes were laughed off by everyone and above all, there is an expectation that everyone takes responsibility for everybody else’s dancing; you pretty much can’t fail at a Ceilidh, as long as your expectation is pleasure, rather than dancing competence! I loved them, but they remained the only positive experience of dancing that I had known until about 5 years ago.

At that time I had a pivotal learning experience; I was dating a girl who, yes you guessed it, was a very enthusiastic dancer. She danced many different forms of dance from freeform to more classic forms, but principally at the time, tango. As you can imagine I felt very inadequate and not a little afraid of any further dance humiliation. I was able to completely avoid the whole dance business until New Year, when I agreed to us attending a big ceilidh/ dance in Edinburgh. This event turned out to be far less ceilidh and a lot more “disco”. Imagine the scene; there are the two of us, 10pm till 3 am, 90 minutes in, she, toes-tapping-and-frustrated but polite and not pressuring me, me dying inside and terrified to dance but more terrified of the coming hours of increasing tension! Conversation was to all intents not possible due to the pounding music, so desperate measures were called for. I figured that I could die skulking in my seat hoping the ground might do the opening-up-thing-so-desired-by-the-hopeless, or I could die with my boots on as the cliche goes. A few glasses of wine for Dutch Courage and realising the alternative really was a slow death, suggested we dance…

In relative terms this was like me meeting Einstein, and suggesting we stroll down to the pub to riff on the implications of Special and General Relativity so that i could help help him out with some of my thoughts; it was laughable in my mind. Actually, risible would be more accurate! We then arrived on the floor and the moment of reckoning arrived; I searched my experience for anything which had worked before, but no, nothing, nada! Some instinct at the last moment suggested that there might be hope for me in parody; my ridiculousness was a racing-certainty, so how could I soften the harsh disdain of the crowd stopping to marvel at my downfall? I thrust a hand in the air, doing my most cheesy Travolta-in-Saturday-Night-Fever thing, and strutted like a man possesed. I figured that a few minutes of this and we could all laugh at the idiotic-but-game-for-a-laugh awfulness and then retire to a quiet table with a poor night ahead with some token honour maintained at least. I admit it was pretty poor as plans go, but if I can just remind you dear readers, I had nothing else and social death had extended its scaly hand! So as I executed my stomach-churningly embarrassing Travolta-aping, I waited for disaster, and the most astonishing thing happened. My partner, who actually had a clue, responded with great ease and essentially started mirroring my silliness, and then somehow, skillfully manouvered me into all sorts of routines that I really don’t know how to do but she kind of guided me to do anyway. I relaxed a little thinking just another song or two and then I can retire with the damage at least limited. Two things then happened that nothing had prepared me for: The first was a woman stopping us to show a picture of us dancing that she had taken “as she thought we looked so good dancing together”, the second was that I started to enjoy myself. Seriously folks, I had leapt blind from a burning building, and landed on a trampoline! I didn’t understand what had happened then, and I’m really not that sure now, but a fun night of dancing actually did ensue!

That relationship was a short lived one, but my “partner” tried to build on this by teaching me some steps and moves. In terms of learning, these ultimately futile sessions are easy for me to remember and even to analyse. She would take me through a simple step, and I would just begin to get it, with the nervousness beginning to rise again. She would then try to introduce a second step to build on the barely-grasped first and by this point I would be so tense that I couldn’t get into that flow-state that I believe you have to enter to learn dancing. In short I couldn’t stop being self-conscious long enough to enjoy stringing the steps together and to build from there. I got so uptight it was like each step I pictured my own failure. Any teacher knows that this is indeed a short path to failure and so it transpired. I learned a little, but truly not much, except, that I knew I could enjoy dance, and could no longer simply declare it all a nonsense and not for me. Something had changed in learning terms.

You might of course wonder why this matters to me at all? The thing is, I really love music, and rather like singing in the shower, (of course you do sometimes), I am always delighted to dance to loud music at home on my own. (I know, you do that too)! I suppose that I am trying to say that if you love music, the desire to dance to it is just natural, for me of course, it only feels like that when I am on my own. There is this disjoint between what feels natural and the reality that cuts in when I am around other people; in my learning journey with dance, I have moved to a place where I can see that this gap doesn’t have to be permanent. I have been able to close it a few times and can see that in time I could get to a more relaxed place, but I’m still a long way from there. So what is my strategy? I believe it is best described as “fake it till you make it”. I’m not really sure that I want to learn anything formal in dancing, but I want to be a bit more relaxed about it. My “fake it till I make it” approach is simple; when a social dancing event happens, I pretend to be relaxed about it, and even ask people to dance as though it is “my thing”. This mostly works, although there are many occasions when I suddenly become self-conscious again and the old woodenness and panic returns; the trick I suppose is to persist with the strategy and eventually it might become second nature. If you have read my post about learning to type, there are parallels there. I find now that I can relax for a minute at a time while typing and I stop feeling tense and panicked at the keyboard. During those times I am finding the keys much more easily, sometimes not even looking! This may not sound like much, but a few weeks ago, 5 seconds would have been a long time to “forget myself” and flow. I am sure that in a few more weeks these occasional minutes will join together to be whole periods of flow. I hope that the dance progress will be like that too; the discipline is to just keep saying yes to dance, while the keyboard discipline is to just keep saying no to the old fingering.

So that is the main strategy, but the other problem I have is that I just don’t have much repertoire to improvise with. I recently did a celebratory dance in my office on the receipt of some good news. (Strategy 1 in practice: fake it till you make it)! One of my wonderful colleagues, declared in amusement, “that is dad-dancing”. At a stroke she put her finger on it perfectly, I really don’t have many “chops” to bring to the party. Would it be possible to learn more? Is it worthwhile for me doing that anyway? The reason I want to learn to dance a little bit is primarily to overcome the social awkwardness, so might that be more effort than I need when I am clearly not going to become any kind of serious dancer, but it is interesting that it has even crossed my mind; that is an indicator of progress I suppose. I wouldn’t actually exclude the possibility now that some dance lessons for fun might loom in my future. I don’t actually have any idea what that might entail, but I might be open to ideas!

This has been a big learning challenge, and I might not get any further with it than where I am now, but I would like to think I have learned to tackle it like an adult at last. My mum and dad loved to dance, so I imagine that they would be pleased that at least I have stopped hating the idea.

Posted by Matthew.

Thanks to Auspices for the great image under Creative Commons

This track always resonated with me very strongly as a dance refusinik!


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