dancing and failing / by mrm

I took a hip hop class yesterday morning. This wasn't the first hip hop class I've taken, but I haven't had many. Perhaps five? Over the past few years I've taken a grab-bag of classes, including Afro-Brazilian, Modern, Bhangra, Salsa, Afro-Cuban, and Vogue. And Nearly every one has been a small study in fear and disappointment.

Warm-ups are usually ok. We stretch and it feels good. But after about the first fifteen minutes of choreography, I usually want to leave. I think, You could just walk out. The door's right there. No one will care if you leave. The instant feedback loop in a dance class can be terribly disheartening, even shaming. The teacher does a move. You are supposed to do the move. You try. You fail. You try. You fail. You are staring into the mirror, watching yourself fail. There is no outside agent, no intermediary, no tool or device on which to place the blame. It is your body, it is not doing the thing you are telling it to do, you are failing. Over and over. 

And it seems like it should work, that it should be simple: Your eyes take in information, your brain tells your body to replicate it, and bam! there you'd be. But it's as if someone says to you, "Repeat after me: cucumber," and you respond with "tennis racket." Why? you ask yourself frantically. Isn't this my language? 

It isn't, of course; that's the catch. Dance is its own vocabulary, with ideas and conjunctions, intonations and nuances, formalities and slang. It's easy to forget that, though, at least for me.  

Lousy as I am (by my own estimation, I am usually in the bottom 30-40%, skill-wise, in most any class I take), my competitive brain and threatened ego at some point start judging someone else who's also doing something wrong. The irony, of course, is that as soon as I do I'm lost. There is perhaps nothing else in my life that requires my full focus and attention so thoroughly as dance class. The instant I start paying attention to what someone else is doing instead of what I need to be doing, I mess up. Every time. It's a great lesson in being present, and in humility. And I think that having regular reminders to be humble is good for me. 

The class is an hour and a half. The feeling of miserable failure usually lasts through about the first forty five minutes of class. And even when, eventually, I start having some physical understanding of what I should be doing, I continue to make mistakes. Pieces I'd thought I'd mastered ten minutes ago suddenly trip me up and throw me off. But by the end of the class, I have a loose grasp of the piece. There are a few moves I do passably well. And my sense of accomplishment is wild, overwhelming and entirely out of proportion to the small task I've accomplished. And after ninety minutes of dipping and shaking, trying to be beautiful, tough, elegant, cool, it is incredible to feel near to that grace, that fluid elegance, to feel that if I have not grasped it, I am at least reaching in the right direction.

So I keep going back.