So You Think You Can’t Dance.

Guest blog by Christine Anderson

If there were a reality show by that name, I probably would be the first in line.

Well, actually No, because there is NO friggin’ chance I would ever willfully subject myself to public display – much less critique – of my dubious movement capabilities, but it seemed like a theoretically nice idea for the rest of us. Did I at least get your attention?

Graceful coordination was never apparent in my genes or in my upbringing. I think I had a year of mixed ballet/tap/gymnastics class when I was 5 or 6 (I know I had a sparkly tutu in which I danced to the “Good Ship Lollipop” in a recital… the rest is a blur….). And yes, I do recall a phase around that time when I wanted dreamily to be a ballerina (my mom was furious when I bought a book at the school book fair on the subject). But that ideal was more a fantasy of beautiful pictures of ballerinas than of me doing anything that might get me there or of me having any innate talent. I was likely never so hot at the dance part, but I was kinda flexible and I could do headstands better than the other 6 year olds in my class, so I asked to be moved to a gymnastics class at which I don’t recall greatly excelling naturally either. That dubious career path also took a fatal dive with a broken arm on my 7th birthday, and I never got to revisit that urge.

In 6th grade I next asked my mom if I could join an extracurricular gymnastics class. Her response? “You can’t do gymnastics – you are too big”. I’m sure she didn’t mean it the way I took it, but to my 12 year old formative mind I was doomed as an awkward over-tall, over-broad, barreling “tank”, and I sank back from my hopeful potentiality of grace and beauty back into being the rough tough tomboy who didn’t need any of that.

My teenage awkwardness was just further confirmed in junior high PE classes where they would stick us in a room with a Jane Fonda video (am I dating myself?). Left? Right? Up? Down? GRAPEVINE??!! What? I can’t barely see that TV in the corner much less figure out which foot goes where. Arms at the same time? What?! Hopeless. Arrrgh!!

Fast forward to the summer of 2002. I’m now a post-collegiate tomboy – a feminist without much femininity. My brother, then living in England, is suddenly marrying a Colombian woman who none of my family has yet met. The complications of coordinating visas and marriage laws and appointment times mean that the wedding can only be ascertained and confirmed a few days in advance and we all scramble for tickets to get there.

“She wants to know if you will go out salsa dancing with us the night you arrive” asks my brother on the phone. Umm, OK…..

So jet lagged, no more coordinated than ever, and amongst my brother’s grad school guy friends late at night in a Cambridge basement club, his fiance is showing me this “basic step”. Doesn’t seem so basic to me, but I start to get the flow, eventually – if I think hard about it. Turn left or right? Ack! Totally lost again. A few guys come up to ask me to dance, but I honestly tell them “No, thank you – I have no clue what I am doing.” Eventually one coerces me out (that must have been after a Corona or two) and it becomes quite clear to me immediately that whatever we are apparently doing has a minimum to do with this step I thought I was just getting the hang of. Sigh…..

So determined that I would not now shortly travel to Colombia to meet my new sister-in-law’s family for the Holidays as a hopelessly non-representing American gringa (and doubting my ability to learn Spanish in a few months) I fatefully – and thankfully – received a random email special offer for a new dance studio opening which offered all beginning salsa classes for the price of one. I saw it for a sign, grabbed my boyfriend and signed us both up, and my life was forever changed.

No, sorry, this is not where the montage comes in and transforms me into a whirling sexy diva with no worldly concerns. This is simply where determination, fun and new community and friends came in and inspired me that I wasn’t entirely as impossible as I thought, and that one can do whatever one actually wants to – despite any potential “natural” (or self determined) handicaps – if one actually wants to. I started out scoffing at those “whirling divas” I’d see in the Level 2 classes: “Who needs that? I just want to go back and forth for basic social dancing” (since I wasn’t even sure I could ever do that). I got mad. I got frustrated. I saw ladies taking to this stuff like ducks to water and was cursing the fact that I couldn’t simply turn without wobbling and I couldn’t get those fancy steps, and goddammit could they just break them down a few more times?!!? But since I’d started, I wanted to get it. And since I had new friends I only saw at the studio (and I’d developed a nice crush on my favorite teacher – along with every other girl in the class) there was a motivational and competitive friendly edge amongst us all to maintain attendance and strive to get better and better.

A teacher who encourages you and tells you are a natural is a priceless teacher, and wanting that teacher to want you to dance with them socially or truly think you are good can be an incredible motivation! One who drives you is awesome. One who truly corrects you and guides you, moves you and inspires you is beyond words.

In that enthusiasm to learn, my extra pounds of my lifetime fell away without any intentional effort at all, I had a flat belly for the first (and only) time in my life, I started dressing in actual women’s clothing – and dressing sexy too. I couldn’t wait to hit the gym either – I was on a roll. I found a certain level of femininity and power that I had never known it could be possible for me to have. It was a pure feedback loop — the better I felt, the better I looked, the more confidence I had, the more powerful changes I felt ready to make in my life. I met incredible new friends and connections from all walks of life, amazing new teachers, formed and learned so much about cultures and societies and parts of NYC that I had been utterly innocent and/or ignorant of. Not to mention those new strong abs and quick feet saved me from dropping a heavy object at work or tripping in a pothole crossing a street way more than once! Dance wasn’t just some fun exercise or a class to take – it was completely life transforming!

I remember reading a National Geographic article recently that explained that the more a person practices an unfamiliar activity, the more those neurons firing in the brain are strengthening and reinforcing in that pathway of the brain. Years down the road that finally clicked with me as to why I could NOW take a salsa class and now “follow the leader” and learn a new movement or pattern pretty quickly – though I still deep inside know secretly that I am naturally the most uncoordinated and unbalanced person on the planet. Whenever a partner or observer or classmate gushes at me about how beautifully I dance or how quickly I pick it up, I still have to repress the urge to tell them they must be mistaken and are watching the wrong person. Yet my brain and body learned new stuff over time even without me really noticing, and the community reinforcement keeps all that going and motivated. Yea, brain & body! Yea, community! Who knew?

Now honestly that initial beginner Salsa obsession phase only could maintain for a year or two before life, injuries, work/money, etc. issues kept dragging me back out of the social scene and out of classes for long periods of time while I focused on other areas, but my community and the new things I continually learn from them are still ever there for me to reach out to, and they look for and egg on my return every time. Movement is an addiction, and you can only go so long without it, once hooked.

Nine or so years later I can probably dance a fine salsa in my sleep, but I still feel like a beginner every time I go back to a class or go out dancing after an extended absence. As an amateur dancing for fun I still meet partners that make me say “Woah! I am Humbled! I need to move more!”. I’m unlikely to become that diva who sashays around in 4 inch stilettos, spins like a cottton candy dream, and shamelessly executes sexy moves with a straight face… I’m not currently motivated to that, and I don’t need to be. I’m having a blast, and I’m playing with my potential and my limits where they are now, and who knows? Maybe that comes next… or not. The choice is mine.

But a few weeks ago, secure in the knowledge that I surely now have more strength and dance agility under my belt (even if having fallen way off the flat-belly dance-mania wagon long since) than the average woman, I walked into my first Pole Class at Sacred Studios on the recommendation of a friend. Wanting to gain that power and conviction in my feminine confidence and find a full-body work out that could get me out of the gym I was sure Pole Dancing would be a natural flow and outlet for me. Surely I am ready to be ready to be a natural NOW, right?

(gulp)