“A warrior who cannot dance? Clumsy in both war and peace he is”–Jedi Grand Master Yoda in Star Wars: Clone Wars: Cestus Deception by Steve Barnes
I’ve noticed a trend among young adults in Canada, which was once a curiosity, but now is an area of growing concern. When people are encouraged to dance, there are two common refusals that I often hear. The first is “I can’t drink without alcohol” and the second is “I don’t dance” sometimes with “I’m not good at dancing” added as a qualifier.
On the surface this doesn’t seem to be a big deal–if anything should be a matter of individual conscience, then dancing would surely qualify? What I’ve begun to wonder though is whether this disconnect from dancing is symptomatic of a bigger disconnect. Especially when it seems, at least anecdotally, that I find this disconnect far more common in my male friends and acquaintances than in my female ones (though it is not unheard of there either).
So I want to share both the story of my relationship with dance as well as some of the benefits of dancing.
When I was 8 years old, I was diagnosed with Developmental Coordination Disorder, also known as Developmental Dyspraxia. Some celebrities who have it include Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter film fame, and Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine. It has a pretty wide range of expressions, but generally DCD is classified as a neurological disorder and involves some impairments in anything where the brain has to tell the body what to do. Common impairments include fine motor skills, gross motor skills, general coordination, and muscle tone. Impairments can extend to speech, and there is hypersensory and hyposensory issues similar to those experienced on the autism spectrum.
Around the time I was 8, I attended two family weddings, and danced quite traditionally at one of them with the flower girl. There probably exists some quite cute pictures of us little ‘uns dancing, though part of me distinctly hopes they never see the light of day. I enjoyed those experiences, and I think I was too young to feel much inhibition in dancing in front of a crowd.
My next experience with dancing was the elementary school day-dances open to Grades 6-8. Those were a whole lot more complicated. I was generally socially isolated in those days, but I did still opt for the dancing rather than the board games and such in an alternative classroom. Part of me yearned to belong, to be in community, and recognized on a deep level the power of dance for community building.
Now those public school dances were definitely not revolutionary. I was far too scared to ask anybody to dance, though a couple of the older girls a grade or two above me, tried to boost my confidence by seeking me out and dancing with me, and even tried helping dance with some people my age–though that was rather ill-advised for reasons I won’t go fully into. Suffice to say that grade school boys with poor erection control leads to a lot of awkwardness when that fact becomes shockingly apparent to grade school girls.
The dance part of phys ed in Grade 7 or 8 didn’t help matters, and I developed a lifelong distaste of being a choreographed dancer. Watching choreographed dancing, on the other hand, was a great deal of fun.
High school led to many more dancing experiences, and I started to learn my way around the dance floor, and relax a bit dancing with friends–though I was far from an innate genius at this point, and my coordination and confidence in my body was lacking.
University, I’m glad to say, was the breakthrough. For many years in both university and college, I would rock out on the dance floor, both alone and with friends. At this point in my life, I had quit caring quite so much about what people thought of my dancing, and I was finally growing more confident and in control of my body. As a result, I relaxed considerably, and gave myself permission to be embarrassed. Dancing was fun, and while I still couldn’t work up the nerve to ask people to dance, I was quite content to just go out and dance and if someone came up to me and danced with me for a song or two, well that was a bonus. I also learned quite quickly that I didn’t really want to be drunk when dancing–in part because alcohol was expensive, in part because I had bad enough coordination without alcohol that I doubted alcohol would help matters, in part because dancing made me thirsty, and I knew water, not alcohol would help matters on that front, and in part because all the time I spent drinking was time I could have spent dancing.
Starting Chen style Tai Chi training helped matters immensely as well. I learned how to utilize my hips for martial purposes, and saw the connections between martial arts and dancing. Both utilize similar parts of the brain, and both use similar body mechanisms. Combat training in Tai Chi also emphasized “sensing” the intention or force of your sparring partner, which translates well into partner dancing.
So now, I still struggle with asking people to dance, but I love dancing and try to dance in a variety of contexts. I don’t hit up the club scene quite as much as I did in my university and college days, but I do enjoy Zumba classes and celidhis, both of which would be anathema at one point in my life.
Now that you’ve read my story, let’s take a look at some of the benefits of dancing in general.
Dancing is quite prevalent in many cultures, and one of is primary uses is social bonding. Dancing is often a group or partner activity, and it can really highlight how connected we are to one another. Over time, one learns how to read intent, and be in tune with those we are dancing with.
Dancing done well can be quite a bit of a workout. A lot of dancing actually is powered by the legs and hips, and the arms are often just a bit of a decorative flourish. Moving the legs and the hips will be tiring but well-worth it. It’s also a good tip for both learning a new dance or studying martial arts–focus on the lower half of the body first, getting the footwork and such right, and then move onto the integrating the rest of it.
This is perhaps the biggest one for me, and the area I think leads to the biggest disconnect among folks who don’t like dancing. I think many people are under the impression, subconscious or otherwise, that they’ve got to look good while dancing, and people are afraid of not looking good. In general, Canadians tend to be embarrassment adverse. Here’s the rub though: much like if you’re scared of falling when learning how to downhill ski, you’re more likely to tense up and thus fall AND hurt yourself falling, if you’re feeling too embarrassed, you’re more likely to stiffen up and not be as fluid dancing. With both of these things however, the only way out is through–you’ve got to dance while embarrassed enough that you realize embarrassment isn’t the end of the world, and thus relax so that your dancing improves. People recognize this, at least partly, when they insist they need alcohol to dance–the problem of course being that while alcohol will numb the embarrassment, it will actually hurt your dancing due to the coordination and impulse control impairments. Yet if you give yourself permission to be embarrassed (which is to say, recognize that embarrassment is part of the process and the only way to improve is to do it when it’s uncomfortable and you don’t feel like you’re doing it right or well first), then you’ll find in short-order you won’t feel that embarrassment. If you can’t do this on your own, there’s no harm in getting an encouraging friend to give you positive feedback when you make small steps.
All in all, I’m a fan of dancing, and I think there’s a lot of benefits to it. I worry that the disconnect many feel from dancing is out of fear of embarrassment or looking silly–and I worry that that same fear can leak over to other parts of their life, and may be symptomatic of a much larger cultural aversion to embarrassment, possibly tied-in with a toxic masculinity element. We need to move past this. So give yourself permission to be embarrassed and start dancing.