Here’s the first one: I like to dance.
Here’s the second: I’m not that bad.
Here’s the third: I’m not that good, either.
My first real encounter with dance was probably as a child, in synagogue, of all places. On holidays like Simchat Torah, we would dance with the Torah in the social hall, an event that would go on until late in the night. One of the reasons I liked it was because I got to stay up late, and the other was that I got to be a part of something. The dance of choice was usually the hora; the faster, the better. It was a way of expressing my love for Judaism without having to eat special foods or spend hours praying in the sanctuary. I remember feeling so special when my dad would put me on his shoulders, or when someone like Mr. Reich would spin me around on a chair, using purely centrifugal force to keep me from flying into the crowd.
The only dancing my parents ever did together was at weddings, and even then, limited to one slow dance where they mostly stood in place and rocked back and forth. Some of my happiest childhood moments were when my mom and I would sometimes dance around the kitchen together, just the two of us, usually while singing or humming “Shall We Dance?” from The King and I. My parents never really knew where my interest in dance or sense of rhythm came from, as neither of them danced much growing up. My dad, however, did say that my grandfather (whose name is my middle name) was “rather light on his feet.” But since I never got to meet my grandfather, who died before I was born, and there was no video taken of him dancing, I’ll just have to take my dad’s word for it.
In middle school and high school, I participated in every single school musical. Most of them were terrible. I forgot exactly where I was going with this thread, but suffice it to say that I enjoyed being on stage and dancing with the chorus, especially when I got to use a prop, wear a fancy costume, or do a solo or a difficult step. Most of it was “step-together-step,” but since I mastered that pretty quickly where others were still watching their feet, I could focus on performing for the audience. In junior year, I even got to be Dance Captain for one of the numbers in that year’s show, Oklahoma!, which made me feel great – earning a leadership role rather than being voted on it by peers (read: popularity contest).
I had put dancing aside in college, but then a girl from down the hall told me about a beginner’s jazz dance class, and it fit right into my schedule that fall of my freshman year. I joined a few weeks into the semester, and learned that there were other people who enjoyed the challenge of memorizing choreography (I was never as good memorizing lines as I was steps) and enjoyed dancing as a fun hobby where we could burn some calories, make new friends, and get a chance to just jump around for no good reason in the middle of the day. I always associated dancing with being part of something, part of a community. If you dance by yourself, everyone looks at you and thinks you’re crazy, but when you’re dancing with a group (and even better, doing the same moves at the same time), everyone looks at you and thinks, “that looks like fun,” and “wow, I wish I could be dancing right now,” or maybe even “wow, I wish I could dance like him.”
Although my friend dropped the class, I kept on with it and moved to intermediate level the next semester, and did two semesters of advanced jazz until I switched schools and they didn’t offer dance classes for non-majors anymore. I did think about making it my major, but that’s another story for another time. All the while, I focused completely on jazz dance though, no other types. I wasn’t interested in modern dance, and I didn’t want the stereotypes associated with ballet, so jazz was a happy medium. I was always jealous of the tap class though, but I didn’t have the shoes or the courage to try, a choice I regret.
My favorite parts of the semesters were the end, where we would dance in a recital. The first semester, we did a number from the Chicago soundtrack. It was not challenging, but I got to dance front row center, which made me feel special. Next semester, we did a routine a la Center Stage to a Stevie Wonder song, “Higher Ground.” This was my favorite, because it told a little story: we walked onstage with our bags and started stretching as if we were starting a class as the song started, and then once Stevie started singing, some of us started the routine, and one by one we all joined in. Then, we had a mock “dance battle,” boys vs. girls. Since there were only four of us boys, four of the best girls “challenged” us and we danced them offstage in return. Then, we did a reverse of the beginning, with everyone coming on stage to do the routine one last time together before peeling off one by one until the stage was bare. The next semester, we did a jazz/modern combo to “Ngankarrparni,” one of my all-time favorite songs, sung by Peter Gabriel on the soundtrack for Rabbit-Proof Fence. The dance itself was a bit slower in pace and more technical than before, but I had a great time nonetheless.
I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated a good dance routine, and always kept songs in the back of my head for something I should make some sort of routine for, but I never returned to jazz. On my trip to Ecuador with DAT, we took a salsa class and learned Andean mask dance from a real Andean, in the Andes. I fell in love with a monkey mask in the market and tried to summon the spirit of the monkey to help me dance, but being cold and barefoot on a floor made up of jagged, pointy rocks made it hard to focus. In the show that we subsequently performed off-Broadway, my character got to lead the others in a dance, so I’ve technically danced in an off-Broadway show, which is a cool trivia fact even though I was in an uncomfortable lion mask rather than my happy monkey.
In Houston, I discovered the Texas two-step and regularly made a fool of myself doing it with friends on Saturday nights at Wild West. I was never that good, but I usually got a few girls to dance with me before the night was over and usually managed not to mess it up too badly. I was so jealous of the cowboys and cowgirls in their boots, moving gracefully around the floor. Usually the burlier the guy, the better dancer he was, which was always a surprise to me. No matter how much I watched them twirl, dip, and toss the girls, though, I could never get it quite right, although I couldn’t have been that bad at it considering that sometimes I got a second or third dance from the same girl. I also went out to a Latin dance club occasionally, and with very little knowledge of it, gave it my best shot. I could tell I looked awkward and wasn’t the best out there, but my partners usually said, “no, you were great.” Even if it was a lie, it made me feel good, or at least better than the guys who didn’t even try to dance at all.
Even though I have mostly only danced for fun (and in my kitchen), and haven’t had much training, I enjoy it. I like the way it makes me feel. Standing still, I am alone, I am nervous, and I am vulnerable. When I’m in motion, nothing can touch me, hurt me, harm me; the faster I go, the more invincible and protected I feel, and no one can catch me, unstoppable and invincible. The planet Earth is hurtling through space at breakneck speeds, spinning and spinning on its axis; when I was younger, I could feel it moving beneath me. When I did, I would have massive panic attacks, convulsing, throwing myself on the floor, my body temperature turning white-hot and then very cold, issuing a visceral ululation from my throat the entire time. Usually they only lasted a matter of seconds, and when I was alone, I could usually cry my way out of it until I felt whole and still again. My father got used to it, but whenever my mother saw me entering this panic mode, she would hold me down flat on the ground until my body stopped shaking. I got used to it too, and through the years have had fewer and fewer episodes, shorter and shorter, until they stopped altogether for awhile. Over the past few years, I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve had one, how many times I’ve felt the Earth move under my feet. When I dance, I don’t ever feel the Earth move; I move, on the earth, through space and time. I set my own course, and I am in full control of my brain, my skeleton, all the way down to my feet. I am a beautiful creature, strong, wild, and free. I feel special, inspired, and unique while at the same time a member of the greater human race, protected like an animal in its pack; gentle, like the willows in the field move together in the wind; and magical, spinning and flying high, following Peter Pan to the second star on the right and straight on until morning.
So, recently, here in Madison, I saw a flier taped to a pole, advertising free ballroom dancing lessons. I decided to give it a try, because it sounded fun. I went, and I had a great time. Since then, I signed up for regular classes, and I’ve gone back a few times since, including tonight. These guys and girls can really dance – I thought I danced okay, but looked and felt like a complete fool when stepping out on the floor. The people seem mostly pretty nice, except for a few who seemed stuck-up, but I’m not going to let their attitudes deter me from not going back. It’s so much fun and it looks beautiful, and best of all, includes the element of community, with partnerships not just encouraged but required for each dance. That’s what I liked about dance in the first place. Hopefully I’ll make new friends in the beginner class, and maybe even actually start to look beautiful while dancing these difficult, precise steps. Maybe one day I’ll learn enough to even choreograph a routine of my own, or be in a competition. Even if I don’t, I will try to have fun, and I will feel collected, coordinated and confident in myself on the dance floor of life.
But know this: you will never, ever see me twerking, that’s for damn sure.
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