Less than a month until I get all dolled up and walk out on the floor at the United States Dance Championships. Less than a month! I’m currently on this rollercoaster cruising over hills of excitement and plummeting to valleys of terror and anxiety. In other words, everything is normal.
During my lesson this past Monday, Teacher wanted to work on the non-dancing parts of the competition: walking onto the floor, the approach at the beginning of the dance, and the bow at the end of the dance. In some ways, these aspects are harder than the dancing itself! It’s a mental game – if I’m going for a championship, I have to act like a champion. Which means not trying to shrink into the floor as I walk, not looking at Teacher with a “is this right?” look as he places me for the start of the dance, and not bowing almost apologetically at the end of the dance (“sorry, this is the best I can do”). I’m laughing as I write this because it sounds so silly. But the correct alternatives: walking out with purpose and determination, looking at Teacher with confidence as he places me, and bowing with grace and pride, freak me out! And don’t get me started on the introductions from the stage for any final I make it to!
It’s a mental game in which my demons have the advantage. They’ve been winning the game for years and years. It’s only in the last couple that they’ve experienced some major defeats. I’m wiser to their strategies now, so I can anticipate their next moves and better prepare for them. I know to expect the cruel laughter in my head when I attempt to open myself up more and express something besides intense thinking while I’m dancing. My hearing will be amplified and every chuckle, giggle or snort around me will echo in my head and my demons will whisper “they’re laughing at you.” I know fear will try to take control of my body while I’m dancing and make my movements smaller, and therefore “safer.” I know self-doubt will fill my thoughts with incomplete checklists to make me think I must be forgetting something. I know anxiety will tighten the muscles in my chest and make me think I can’t breathe. I know all of these things.
But I also know that, with all my efforts at incorporating positive thinking, the laughter in my head isn’t as loud as it used to be. I know even if there is a chuckle from another person directed at me, I will have Teacher there to back me up. I know with every lesson, I push what is considered “safe” a little bit further. I know I don’t need to remember every single thing on the checklist because my body will remember for me. I know I just need to take very slow, deep breaths and I will be able to breathe. I know all of these things.
This is an example of one way I’m working to change my mindset – for every negative thought, there is a positive one backed up by reality. So when I find myself hounded by the darkness, I don’t let it just sit in my head, I start poking holes in it with light.
Despite the internal battle and a few moments where I had to pause with my hand on my chest and remind myself I could still breathe, Monday’s lesson went really well! Teacher was shocked and amazed when he saw an actual smile creep onto my face while we went through bronze routines. What? Me actually relax and smile? Nah!
But I did! I felt good dancing my bronze waltz and I was even brave and confident enough to say so! I’m laughing again as I write because once again, it sounds so silly. But between caring so much about what I’m doing and being terrified that it will be taken away if I mess up, it’s really difficult for me to just relax and dance during a lesson. I don’t have any problems during a practice party or when I go salsa dancing at a club. But those experiences are just for fun, and they’re fleeting. I’m working toward something so much greater in my lessons. Not just toward a championship, but a champion version of me! One that doesn’t let the fear take control or the self-doubt produce questions about my abilities. A greater, truer version of me.
There are still some demons from the past that tell me it’ll all be taken away from me if I screw up. Nothing in the present backs that up; in fact, all evidence points to the contrary – I can screw up as much as I want and nothing will be taken away because it’s through the screw-ups that I learn and grow. Teacher patiently reminds me of that and I’m slowly working toward acceptance. But those demons from the past are always the hardest to convince. It’s hard to just relax and dance because while I’m trying to remember the steps and the technique and to follow Teacher, I’m also trying to convince those demons the past won’t repeat itself. I am a stronger and wiser person. A stronger and wiser dancer! And dance can’t be taken away from a dancer.