The Music in Me
My partner Michael and I had been dating for only a month when he asked me a question that made me cringe inside. He wasn’t fishing for sordid details about my divorce.
He wasn’t prying about how much money I made. What he asked was much worse. His exact words were: “Would you like to go dancing with me some time?”
Most people would have said yes without hesitation. Who wouldn’t want to hit a club in the city and surrender to the music for an evening?
I wouldn’t, that’s who. Because I never learned how to dance.
With my most apologetic smile, I confessed, “I’m not very good.”
He wasn’t deterred. “Well, do you enjoy it?”
I paused, thrown by his question.
Deep down, I’ve always loved how free I felt on the few occasions when I allowed myself to move with complete abandon at a packed nightclub. Goofing around with my friend Jacki and her Wii Just Dance. Most other times that I felt compelled to dance, I was tense and awkward, worried that everyone was watching and would see that I was doing it “wrong.”
After all, nobody ever taught me which way to step or what to do with my hands. On reruns of the TV series The Brady Bunch, I watched as the eldest daughter received a lesson from her dad before she went to an important dance. As a teen, I waited endlessly for my dad to provide my Brady-style lesson, but he never offered and I never asked.
At school dances, I’d sway to power ballads with boys at arm’s length, but whenever a fast song began, I’d dash for the closest chair. I was shy and self-conscious and didn’t want to look foolish around my peers. I was certain that they’d be critiquing me. It had happened before.
In high school, when I felt too awkward to learn the “YMCA” dance moves, the teen teaching us rebuked me in front of everyone. At every family wedding that I attended during high school and college, my father joked that I’d inherited his (flawed) dancing genes. Even throughout my 30s, my now ex-husband belittled my moves.
But I really liked Michael – so much so, I was willing to step outside my comfort zone. I secretly vowed to become at ease enough with myself to go dancing with him.
I realised that I needed help.
First, I called my Wii pal Jacki, who dances more than anyone I know. She thought that I could learn to enjoy myself if I danced often with someone I was truly comfortable with. I’m completely relaxed around my son and daughter, even at my most awkward. So I threw an impromptu dance party and pranced around the house with my kids.
Feeling confident, I sought advice from MacKenzie Mushel, SHAPE America’s 2014 National Dance Teacher of the Year.
“Many people see dancing in public as a really big risk,” Mushel told me. “The hardest part is getting past the anxiety of ‘What do I look like when I dance?’ If you can find a few dance moves that you’re comfortable with, that can be your pillar.”
My kids and I started dancing regularly, and I relaxed about my technique. Practising helped me ease into the music without wondering what to do. Within weeks, I felt ready to dance in public, but because of my history of shyness, I contacted an expert.
Bernardo Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, told me to think positively, because I’ve always clung to people’s criticisms about my dancing.
“When you’re highly self-conscious, you focus on your negative characteristics, and you select to remember one negative comment you receive instead of the 50 things you did right,” he said. “The truth is, people don’t care how you dance; they care how they dance.”
Carducci also urged me to dance sober, because people who drink to overcome shyness attribute their success to alcohol, not themselves.
That week, I invited my salsa-dancing friend Paula to our local nightclub. I sipped soda water until the DJ played a song that I liked, and we headed to the dance floor.
Only ten people were dancing, so there was no crowd for camouflage. Nonetheless, I danced how I’d practised at home. It felt invigorating! I even lifted my hands above my head, which I’d never done in public before.
“You’re not a bad dancer!” Paula shouted over the music, wondering why we were there. That felt good.
Not long afterwards, Michael and I walked past a particular bar and I suggested that we stop in. (I didn’t mention that I’d wanted to go for years but had shied away because of the dance floor.)
Inside, the music blasted. Couples grooved on the dance floor. Michael and I sat and got caught up in conversation. An hour later, we still hadn’t left our bar stools, so I boldly asked him to dance.
I grabbed Michael’s hand and steered him toward the gyrating masses, even though a little voice inside my head was stage-whispering, The music isn’t right – how am I going to dance to a live band?
That’s when I realised that whatever happened that night didn’t really matter.
My real victory dance, so to speak, had taken place when I went out with Paula. I didn’t need to prove to Michael that I was brave enough to move on a dance floor; I needed to prove it to myself, and I’d already done that. If I could dance in a room full of strangers, surely I could do it again with the man who loved me.
The band played and I half-swayed, half-danced with Michael, who had no idea what lengths I’d gone to reach that moment. It was empowering to move without apologising or feeling awkward. I felt free.
Later, I realised that I couldn’t recall how Michael had looked when we were dancing, which made me chuckle. Carducci was right: I’d been so obsessed with myself, I hadn’t even paid attention to the man I love. I guess that I’ll have to ask him to go dancing again soon.