Although I have been dancing for years, the decision to take formal lessons did not come until last year. I needed to have an outlet for the sudden surge in my workload; I needed an exercise regimen that I would love enough to want to do regularly. So dancing was my best option. It was something I could picture myself doing even well into my 80s. When I dance, I am in my very own happy place. I was dancing ouido-style through the years, just getting by to meet performance deadlines. But then I realized I might as well have a goal: it was time to stretch beyond my comfort zone. There was much to learn; old habits to unlearn, too.
Committing to dance lessons under a coach I respect and admire was the first step. It has not been too long since that first day at dance class but it is easy for me to say those lessons were the best things I have spent good money on. Dancing makes me feel alive. I dance not with the intention of performing someday; I dance purely for myself, for how it makes me feel. It is something purely personal on the best days and on tough ones, a way to take me out of myself even for just a moment. That I keep my weight in check along the way is just icing on the cake.
Learning the techniques behind deceptively simple-looking steps, when transferred from coach to student, is grounding and empowering, while the lessons I stumble upon are reflective of slices of real life as I know it. It goes beyond mere dance steps. Yes, there are days when it is just a good sweaty workout, but often I leave dance class not just physically energized, but inspired in ways that go beyond what I hope to achieve as a dance student.
The rumba walk is the foundation of the latin dances. Once you’ve mastered it, you’re good to run away with the whole rainbow, so to speak. On that very first day, I emptied myself and started from scratch; I came to class as a blank canvas, never assuming anything, just receptive of everything. It was the simplest, most liberating thing I had done in a long time.
Everybody says I should learn to dance the standards because I have the height and build and countenance for it (whatever that means). The standards include the waltz, the foxtrot, all those lovely and proper moves you see in princess movies and royal events. But my heart is drawn more towards the fiery, earthy, passionate rumbas and cha-chas and sambas. Never mind that they are harder to learn or if my personality doesn’t seem cut out for it. What matters is that “latin” is what I want. For now at least, but already I suspect maybe also forever. I look forward to learning it throughout my life. It excites me. It keeps me passionate about this thing I want to do till I am way over 80. And that is another truth right there: go for what you want, never mind if other people will tell you that the alternative is easier. Listening to your gut has its own rewards.
Here are 25 truths about life in general that I learned in dance class:
The first time I walked in the dance studio, it was filled with people twirling and twisting beautifully like graceful pretzels. They were all at a very advanced level in terms of technique. I was overwhelmed. I felt like a tall giraffe, fearful of the great learning curve ahead of me. A part of me wanted to run away. The part of me that wanted to stay settled quietly into a corner to observe. And absorb. I familiarized myself with the environment, drawing strength and inspiration from the moving images I saw.
I could move that way one day
, I remember telling myself. Soon enough I had warmed up to the place. And I continue to warm up to the place with every lesson I take. I’m glad I stayed, even when I wanted to run away. When you have to do something new, go early to the venue to allow yourself to be broken in. It helps. Always. And in more ways than you will ever be able to fully comprehend. So do yourself a favor and do not just come in from the cold. Part of being prepared for the task at hand involves being physically present in the place before you actually start anything — it will afford you the chance to pull yourself together.
You learn a lot just from watching. Deep into a lesson and especially when you have already achieved a measure of confidence that makes you feel there is absolutely nothing you cannot learn given enough time, you will be jolted by some new thing that will challenge that very thought. So when the first impulse is to copy right away a new move in an effort to demystify and get it over with, it is far wiser to be still and watch. Really watch how the experts do it. There is some process to it; it does not just “happen,” even if it appears that way. The more you watch, the more you can break it apart in your mind so that it is easier to understand, and eventually do properly.
The start of every lesson is the hardest for me. I feel like I do not have my balance, or at best whatever balance I thought I had from the lessons prior got left at home in my closet. To fix this, I am told to start from nothing. Be at level zero. There is a process. My coach, Bong, always asks me to warm up (even and especially when I do not want to) and walk around the perimeter of the studio a few times. Only after that will I start pointing the toes. And then I add the hip action. He asks me to be aware of where the shoulders should be positioned. He tells me to be mindful of keeping my neck long, my chin at a certain level, my back not arched. All these, one at a time. Only when I have built up slowly but surely can I create a fluid movement that looks and feels natural. The easiest mistake is to lean into something too quickly, rush into its end without building up and passing through all the phases in between.
We are always on different levels of listening. What my coach taught me last month I might not comprehend in its entirety until this week, and ironically, only when he is teaching me another technique altogether. Sometimes when you “defocus” and stop thinking about the same thing too much, you understand it more and thus are able to deal with it better.
He will show me a new step and once I understand how it is done he will show me the junior and senior versions of it, performance-wise. I try to keep up and as I do it repeatedly I go in and out of learning, alternating between sometimes getting it, other times not at all, and frustratingly enough sometimes hitting the target but not knowing how or why. Tsamba, we call it. I push myself some more and just when I am at that point when I want to give up and start pulling my hair out, he stops, wise man that he is, and teaches me something even more challenging. It frazzles me to say the least but after some time, he makes me go back to the step we were learning prior and, surprisingly enough, I get it. Not just tsambaanymore, and always still in its raw form, but I do get it. It is an exhilarating feeling. When you continue to stretch yourself and test your limits, you become stronger in the same way that you also become more capable. All of a sudden, what initially seems so hard is not anymore.
Everything is a matter of perspective. I used to hate turns so much because they made me fell clumsy and disoriented not to mention just plain dizzy and I would totally just scrap them from any choreography I had in the past. But at dance class I am taught to treat every new step as if it were my new toy or my current favorite dish. Instead of resenting it I am taught to conquer it by relishing each step, every difficult bit so it feels familiar and ultimately enjoyable. It works all the time.
My greatest distress happens when I am asked to do dance exercises with those far more advanced than me (read: national and international champions). We do the same exact movements, dance to the same music and beat. As a group. It feels like a game of Spot-the-Not and I would get so flustered. I still do, but the more I do it the more I appreciate it. Learn from those better than you every chance you get. You will have no choice but to step up. Yes, it is intimidating, but I promise that it is also liberating and there is no telling how you will also be inspired in the process.
When I cannot get it right, the coach pulls me aside and together we go through the whole motion again. Slowly he chops up the movement to make me understand not to jerk here and there in wild abandon. Controlled movements. Keeping it all in. Mindfulness. There is a reason for everything. The step before makes the next one happen.
I started with very ill-fitting dance shoes. They were so expensive, but they did not fit me well at all. I have narrow feet and the fit was a tad too wide. I would wobble with every step. My first instinct was to simply change my shoes but Coach Bong’s way was to make me wear them anyway until the new, better-fitting (and cheaper!) ones arrived. He summed it up by telling me that my shoes fit terribly, yes, but my mind should be able to control where my feet go and what they do. It made perfect sense. And although it was not easy I did it. For months I was dancing with those beautiful, ill-fitting shoes but by the time the new ones came just recently, I had already full control over it instead of the other way around. And all it took was the reorganization of my mind.
Sometimes I still lose my balance and there are days when getting into the groove is just difficult. I remember how I am supposed to move like a wheel turning, just going on and on, not cutting short any movement. Just like every inch of the wheel touches the ground as it moves forward, so should I go through every single motion the full step requires. Sometimes that is all we have to remember so we can keep going: putting one step in front of the other, moving forward as gracefully as we can.
If you fall, do not fight it. Break that fall gracefully by leaning into it as if it were deliberate instead of stiffening up and resisting it. Then falling becomes less fearful and as such trying new things become less intimidating. Learn to roll with the punches.
When I remember how awkward I looked when I first started, I appreciate all the more how far I have come. Have the humility and the bigness to laugh at yourself and your mistakes. Do not be afraid to try out new steps even in a full studio. Do not be conceited enough to think the others have nothing better to do than watch you go through that awkward stage and make a fool out of yourself. It’s all good. We sometimes have to feel like ugly ducklings first before we can be graceful swans.
In life and in dance, it is always easier facing the truth than spending so much time running away from it. I know my strengths but I am also aware of all my weaknesses. With every step I mistakenly take and every move I wrongly make I am able to have a honest look at how much harder I have to work on myself and my goals.
Use your flaws as assets, your assets as tools to develop your own style. As part of our lesson, the coach points out to me perceived flaws of other students, who happen to be wonderful dancers all. One girl has elbows that do not just stick to the sides the way elbows usually do at rest. But I never even noticed that until he told me, and only because she moves so effortlessly and beautifully. She was once conscious of that “flaw” but instead of hiding it he taught her to celebrate it, and use it to her advantage. You should see how she moves her arms when she dances. She is a beautiful dancer with a style all her own.
There are rules. Dancing involves a lot of techniques that requires understanding how body parts move in certain ways. Ultimately though, once the music starts you have to, well, dance. Unless you let go of all the clutter in your mind about rules in its strictest sense you will never quite enjoy the dance the way you were meant to. At class and while training, yes, be mindful of technique; but once the music starts allow yourself to be swept away and moved by it. Move to it and trust your instincts. Only then will you feel truly alive.
People who do not smile first are, more often than not, just shy, plain and simple. Do not immediately write them off as aloof or snobbish. You lose nothing by smiling at them first. Even if they choose not to smile back at you (they always do, even if it be ever so faint).
It will hurt, you will get calluses. The pain can be in the heart or something that is more physical. Regardless, think of these as battle scars. It reminds you where you’ve been and how far you’ve come. It tells you that you have gotten from one point to the other. It says you have progressed. And that you continue to make progress.
Love yourself by finding sacred time to do what makes you feel alive. It is impossible to be unhappy when you are doing something you love!
Every journey starts with the first step. Commit to it, set goals. Nothing happens when you simply wish for it to happen for you. Take charge and make it happen.
Sometimes I can be very hard on myself. So on the most difficult of days, when I feel I cannot possibly get to a certain level, I remind myself to trust that the goal is worth it. Only then am I able to keep on and hold on to its promise.
There will be days when I will be lazy to even go to dance class given, no matter how much I love it. I just go anyway. I have to make an effort to rise above my feelings and my every whim. I know that when I start to move and sweat, I will feel as happy as I wanted to be to begin with.
Practice makes perfect. Champions do the rumba walk and only the rumba walk for five hours. As with most things, you will be rewarded by your efforts. By how much time you’ve invested in it. It will not go to waste even if at first you do not get it right away, or in one go. There is such a thing as muscle memory. Your body will remember. In real life it is the same. We get a better grip when we layer lessons, experiences, memories. As you go through life they always find their way back to you.
It is so easy to be goal-driven that we actually go through our days so focused on what is before us and we forget what is right next to us. The journey matters as much as the destination.
Don’t forget to breathe. Believe it or not, this is my greatest flaw at dance class. I’m probably blue in the face sometimes. I concentrate too much on perfecting the moves as taught to me that I do not notice I actually hold my breath here and there for the most part. As such my body tenses up and I’m sure when that happens I look like the giraffe I felt I was on that first day in class. Breathing oils the motion, allowing for some grace and flow where you cannot imagine any to exist just yet. Breathe. It actually makes life easier, literally and figuratively.
Sometimes, the things that you are most afraid of are the ones that make you the happiest. We all have to take risks — whether it is a high kick or a series of turns or something far greater and more important than that. Most of us, if not all, fear the unknown. But that is why it is called a leap of faith. You just make a go of it anyway. And in the face of every uncertainty, we can always choose to hold on to what is good about life and about us, trusting all throughout that then, happiness will not be too far behind.
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