I set a goal for myself to practice performance in at least three of my lessons in the month of April. I had the same goal set in March but I didn’t tell my teacher and never really pushed myself to do it without him prompting. So this month I let Teacher in on the plan, and like the good teacher he is, he set aside time in my last lesson for me to “perform.” I managed to not run away in panic.
While I wrang my hands together, Teacher told me he wanted me to dance our waltz routine by myself(!) to the music that was playing and just try to feel the music. Whatever feeling I got from the music, I should try to express that through my body. That was an important point – through my body, not my face. When I watch the pros at a competition and see the dramatic looks they put on their faces when they dance, all I can think is it’s so far from anything I’m comfortable with and seems so over the top. I much prefer subtlety. Teacher assured me I didn’t need to worry about doing anything with my face, just move my body to the music. The emotion will still show through without me having to think about my facial expression. Ok, Teacher.
A more melancholy waltz was playing, lucky me. I like the darker waltzes, the happy ones are a little too cheesy. I connect with the darker moods more easily. So I stood in my closed position, holding up my frame for Harvey (my invisible partner is a tall white rabbit named Harvey), listened to the music for a moment, prepared to make a fool of myself, and then started to move. And after about four steps, I was off time. Grrr. Teacher said don’t worry about the frame or the timing, just listen to the music. Ok, deep breath, don’t run away. Back in my starting position, but with my arms down and relaxed, I tried again. This time I stayed on time more or less and tried to just flow with the strings and the piano I was hearing. I stumbled here and there, but just kept moving.
After a few measures, Teacher said I could stop and seemed very pleased! He said he was getting a sense of longing or that I was missing something/someone from my dancing, which is what I was feeling from the music. So success! I tried to dance the feeling of the music and the feeling actually reached my audience of one. Teacher even had goosebumps on his arm, which he said meant I successfully carried him on my waltz journey. Or he held his arm in front of the AC vent while I was dancing to give my ego visual proof of my accomplishment. Or maybe it was my dancing. In any case, he said I could check one day off my goal!
I spent some time after the lesson analyzing what I did, because it actually wasn’t as terrifying and impossible as I thought. I didn’t feel like I was trying really hard to express what the music was making me feel. But Teacher still was able to see it. So what did I do?
Teacher made one comment while he was talking about what he observed in my dancing that gave me a clue. He said lots of people have trouble practicing the emotional expression part of ballroom, some just won’t try and think they’ll be able to do it when they’re actually competing. But he said I looked like I just said screw it and gave it my best shot. “Screw it” has actually become a useful tool for me in facing my many fears related to ballroom. I’ve gotten more and more tired of my fear controlling my actions, so when it wakes up and jumps on my back, urging me to stop and go back to a more comfortable place, I just adjust the mental weight like you would adjust a heavy backpack, and move forward anyway. Many times, Teacher asks me if I’m ready to try something and I usually say “no, but let’s do it.”
I tried to replay what was going through my mind while I was dancing the solo waltz and the answer is not much. Which means I wasn’t thinking about trying to express emotion, I wasn’t thinking about Teacher watching me, I wasn’t thinking about my technique. I was just focused on the music and the steps of the routine. I believe the lack of thinking was the key to my surprising success.
Along with my “screw it” philosophy, I use compartmentalization to help me carry my fear forward, kicking and screaming. I have a whole series of boxes in my head and if I don’t want something to affect another thing, they go in separate boxes. Fear gets a box all to itself. So the fact that Teacher is watching, that the idea of expressing emotion in dance is terrifying and makes me feel vulnerable, that I would rather hide behind my technique – all of that goes into one box and in another box are the images and feelings I get from the waltz that is playing. I focus on the second box and close the first one.
One more thought – it definitely helped that waltz is a dance you can perform “far away.” Like Teacher said, the emotion I was expressing was longing for something. That is an emotion that carries you away from your present location and whoever happens to be there. So it was easier to forget I was being watched because I was mentally travelling somewhere else. I know a dance like Foxtrot is going to be a much greater challenge because part of the emotional expression involves interacting with your partner. Foxtrot has that fun, flirty feel to it and you can’t be far away to convey that emotion. Having to stay in the moment, interact with my teacher, dance the steps and express a fun, flirty emotion is a lot to compartmentalize along with the fear screaming on my back. But screw it! I’ll try anyway.