Dance is often referred to as an art/sport because of the athleticism required to produce beautiful and inspiring performances. Dance is a full-body workout; we all know and have experienced that. It’s also a mental and emotional workout as we try to remember all of the choreography and technique required to move our bodies in beautiful ways while also adding on style and expression that will connect us with our audience. I’m a little tired just thinking about it.
The sport half of dance always came easier to me. It was more black-and-white and scientific. Technique had rights and wrongs. I could muscle my way through the movement, which made me feel strong instead of vulnerable. When teachers started talking about arm styling and suggesting I do what feels right, I balked. What felt right to me was doing nothing with my arms, but that’s not what they were trying to get me to do. They wanted me to feel the right way to launch my arm over my head or out to the side in a way that looked graceful and effortless, or in the case of tango, strong and confident.
I hated not having the correct answer to arm styling. It was all about feeling out what was right for me and my body, a total gray area that I had to navigate in order to become the dancer I dreamed of becoming. I had anxiety every time I was told we were going to work on arm styling, even a couple panic attacks during pre-competition lessons.
Gradually, the anxiety eased and I learned to appreciate the value of figuring out what movement felt right for me. It led me to a stronger connection with my own body, which allowed me to explore deeper levels of the movement.
Flash forward to a month ago, when I attended my first-ever class in Modern dance. We were lined up in the corner of the room to start a simple sequence across the floor. It was set to a waltz, and it’s like my arms were lifting up to welcome an old friend. I couldn’t help but dance my arms along with my legs and feet as I moved down the diagonal. It didn’t really occur to me that I was adding to the sequence until the teacher said we were going to do the sequence again and this time, add some arm movement. The same thing happened when we did other sequences to other music. I was actually having fun playing with the arm styling on top of the steps we were given.
When did arm styling become a natural and enjoyable part of dance for me??
It’s funny to look back and see how something that once triggered panic attacks is now something I have fun with, without even trying! It’s also amazing to recognize how we transform along our dance journeys. What once made me cry with frustration and fear is now a source of play and exploration.
Modern is proving to be a wonderful way to explore more of dancing. The class pulls from Modern schools like Horton and Martha Graham, as well as other dance styles like jazz and ballet. I feel all those years of working on my technique and the sport part of dance supporting me on this new path. I’m physically equipped to dance on that edge of off-balance where Modern likes to exist. Working my way through the anxiety of being vulnerable in the art side of dance has built up my confidence and self-assurance, so I can also play on that edge.
There’s a release that happens in Modern which I haven’t experienced yet in other dance styles. I’ll be engaging everything, tapping into that dance technique, to extend a line or maintain a balance, and then the choreography allows me to let it all go. I’m finding that release of the body also releases the stress and pressure to be “perfect” as a dancer. Whether it’s holding up our frame in ballroom or maintaining our turnout in ballet, any moment of release is usually called out as a mistake. There is so much control to maintain, is it any wonder that we have to be reminded to breathe when we dance?
I’m enjoying the absence of the pressure to always be in control. I’m actually having fun while learning a new dance style. Usually the fun comes later, after I’ve gotten over the initial anxiety of not knowing what I’m doing. In the case of Modern though, I didn’t enter the style completely clueless. I came in with a foundation built in other dance styles.
Even if the dance style was completely different from my background (like when I dabbled in hip hop while training in ballroom), having any dance background is an advantage because of the confidence I’ve built and the willingness to try, fail and try again. As dancers, we understand that failure is part of the journey and it’s only really a failure if we give up altogether. We develop a resilience that serves us in other areas of our lives. We know how to own our mistakes and, more importantly, how to recover from them.
I think that’s when we can start to have more fun with our dancing. If mistakes are part of the journey, then we don’t need to feel held back by them. If we’re not holding ourselves back, then a world of opportunities to explore different areas of dance opens up to us.
A snippet from Modern dance class: