Who Are You Dancing For?

You know those people who draw everyone’s attention when they walk into a room? Whether it’s their walk or their smile or their eyes or everything about their body language, people notice them. I am not one of those people. I am one of those people who slips in unnoticed and hangs around for 20 minutes before someone says “oh, when did you get here?!” I generally avoid the spotlight. I’ve pushed myself to let some inner light shine through in my dancing. But I still tend to retreat to the shadows as soon as I can. Unfortunately, I will not be able to go after a national title in the shadows. Shucks.

“It’s going to be a good day.” That’s what Teacher told me at the start of our last lesson. He lied. The entire lesson was focused on my most favorite thing in the whole world! (Shoot, I just spilled my bottle of sarcasm.) Emotional expression. And not just with my body. I have to use facial expression now. So what Teacher meant to say was “it’s going to be a good day for me.” Because for me, it was torture. Nothing gives me chest pains quite like being told I need to convey emotion through my face. I feel an anxious tightening in my chest just thinking about it.

Aside from all the struggles with the demons and the fight to push past the fear of judgement and rejection, this torture session brought up an important point to consider: when I go out on the floor, who am I dancing for? You can tell a story with dance. So who is the story for? Me? My partner? What about the audience?

I started out dancing for me. It was good therapy, it was fun, it made me happy, and it awoke a part of me that had been long suppressed. I danced for me. My first performance was on stage for a studio showcase. I did it to prove to myself that I could and to fulfill a personal dream.

Once I started with my current teacher, I decided to push myself to a new level and enter the competitive ballroom world. I also started learning a lot more about partnership. Because I’m not dancing alone. I have a partner. Teacher has talked before about wanting me to take him on a journey with my dancing. If I’m too closed off or reserved with my expression, I’m excluding him. He might be able to see I’m going somewhere, but he can’t tell where and he can’t ride along. It affects our connection. So I need to be more open toward him, so we can go on the journey together and make the dance that much more powerful.

I’m once again setting my sights high. I don’t want to just compete, now I want to try to win! Me, the girl who prefers the shadows. I’m aiming for a championship title. Just a little insane, but hey, only one life, right? To achieve such a high ambition means I have to grab the spotlight, in the sense that I need to catch my audience’s (i.e., the judges’) attention and hold it. It’s not going to be enough to dance for just me and my partner. I have to include those watching. And I understand the need to go for big facial expressions. You’re in a big ballroom at a competition and the audience can be a good distance away. They’re going to watch your face for clues about the story you’re telling. So even if I’m on cloud nine dancing a waltz, if I don’t let myself show that on my face because I’m afraid I’ll look stupid, it’s going to look like I’m bored or uninterested. And who wants to watch that?

I have to take a moment to step back and breathe. Because to the familiar parts of me, this is all nuts. I’m not the kind of person that goes for the championship. I always was decent at the few sports I played (soccer, swimming) when I was in school. But I never excelled. I didn’t stand out. I excelled in the quieter activities like schoolwork. Because I wasn’t a performer. I liked being in the background. It was safe. But now that part of me that woke up in those first few lessons is demanding attention. It’s the part of me that secretly wishes she could be a performer, that wants to be that main dancer on stage or that person that isn’t afraid to announce their arrival.

It’s not a safe place. It’s not a comfortable place. But it’s where that part of me wants to go, after being stifled and suppressed by fear and doubt for so long. She’s found a way out and she’s going for it! Even if she has to drag me kicking and screaming all the way.

So maybe I’m a masochist, but I’m going back for more torture. Because after the chest pains subsided and I thought more about opening myself up and dancing for an audience, I realized there will be a positive side effect that I’ve also aimed for. Connection. If I can add facial expression to help share the story of my dance, I can bring the judges and spectators in on my journey. Complete strangers will be connected for a brief moment. That’s the magic of music. You don’t need to speak the same language or be the same race or have the same amount of money in your wallet. Music is universal. Add dance, the movement of your body to music, and you get something really spectacular.

It reminds me of my first comp in San Francisco. My only goal was to enjoy myself. I wasn’t worried about technique or placements. I remember feeling nothing but joy on the dancefloor and not caring who saw, because I wanted to shower everyone I danced near with happiness. As I raised my goals, pushed myself to be better technically and started feeling more ambitious about placements, I found myself retreating behind what was more comfortable, like memorizing steps or focusing on technique. Even Teacher agreed that I didn’t need to worry about facial expressions, focus on my body. It was a good tactic. I was able to turn my worst dance (tango) into my best. And I was even able to get a little more playful with my foxtrot, which was always a challenge for me. As long as I didn’t have to worry about my face.

Now stakes are raised again. I can’t avoid the facial expressions anymore, it’s time to complete the package.  But the rewards will be higher as well. If I can find my way back to that feeling of not caring who is watching and just enjoy the magic of connecting with my partner and the people watching through music and dance, I have a shot. When I put it that way, it actually sounds awesome, instead of terrifying. It is going to be an interesting three months.

So who do you dance for? Everyone has different reasons for dancing, but they need to be your own reasons. Because first and foremost, you dance for you. Keep that in mind if you ever feel like you’re putting too much pressure on yourself or if external pressures are making you feel like you need to do more or go further than you want for yourself.  I’ve never made it a goal to win a championship before. It’s not me, at least not who I’m used to being. So I always check in with myself to ask if this is something I really want or if I’m giving in to the ambitions of Teacher or others around me. I learn more about myself every day on this ballroom journey, and I know I want this. So I’ll go back for more torture and keep riding alternating waves of confidence and fear. Surf’s up!

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