Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Fear of Learning New

Boy Stares at an Octopus
Last fall I started taking salsa dance lessons at a studio down the street from my leaky apartment. The studio leaks too, so I felt right at home.

I've blogged a bit about the salsa class here and here and here. It has been a powerful experience learning to move in certain ways. Most of the time it has just been two of us women students and the instructor (also a woman), and so it has been a non-threatening space as well. A few times a man has joined us, and I confess that I haven't gotten used to that yet. I so rarely have someone besides my children in my space like that, it is difficult to permit that intimacy. A part of me wishes for a regular dance partner--I would become a better dance with a partner. And a part of me is just fine dancing alone, parallel to the other women, able to move freely at my own direction. I don't take direction well. I don't follow well. My movements become awkward and poorly timed. I force myself to relax--I don't know if you can imagine the effort to trust another body so close?

I have found great joy and pleasure in the movement and rhythm of salsa. I have found it strange to spend an hour a week watching myself in a mirror. Learning to dance reminds me of when I learned to ski, and the way in which my brain began to make the necessary connections for my body to remember what it was doing. There was a moment on the slopes when suddenly I could swish instead of nosedive down the mountain. And there have been moments in class when I don't have to think or count, but can just move, and it's right.

I missed a class a few months ago, and the instructor invited me to make it up by coming early for a belly dancing class. I demurred a few times--I didn't mind paying for a missed class, but I didn't think I wanted to belly dance. But she is insistent, and so I came to a belly dancing class a few weeks ago, and then again last night.

Oh the horror of learning a new skill!

First we started with this head swinging thing, in which I am supposed to just drop my head and let gravity swing it around. This gets combined with an arm swing that supposedly will become more graceful with time and a side step that always knocks me off balance.

Amused, the instructor moved on to bobbling our heads. The forward movement is one that my mother always asked me not to do. The sideways movement is literally like taking your head and repositioning it over your shoulder without moving anything else. I didn't actually know people could do this with their heads, and truthfully, my head doesn't do it so well. Our instructor suggested that at some point we evolved to be able to do this with our necks, but she isn't sure how it would have been helpful.

When it became apparent that my neck muscles had frozen in place, we moved on to shoulders, which we are supposed to be able to jut forward, one at a time, without raising them, and while our arms are held out to the side. Then we added a sexy walking movement, which when I do it looks like a duck waddle. A graceful turn and then more of the same.

Then there was the arm wave to the front and the side. "Lift with your writst! Now lift with your elbow. No, not like that, like this!" And then she would make this elegant, sensuous movement and I would dangerously helicopter my arms like a threatened octopus.

For an hour. A long hour in which I felt awkward and ridiculous. An hour in which all of my muscles got tired and stopped working right. I got done and was relieved. I didn't like it at all. The first week a man walked in during the last ten minutes of class and started to watch, and I called out sharply, "If you're here you have to join us!" And he quickly walked out and waited for salsa in the other room.

I suppose that was rude. But the vulnerability of doing something so new, so embodied, so out of my element was too much to have a voyeur. I can barely stand to see myself in the mirror moving in such terribly awkward ways. I feel heavy. I feel foolish. I have a constant narrative in my head: "This would be easier to do if I lost weight first. This would be easier if I strengthened my arms, my abs, my legs. I need the right shoes before I do this. I don't like this. I am afraid."

The fear of learning new is potent. It is a specific demon, and a nasty one at that. But I'll be back next week, because I didn't know my body could do that. I'll be back next week because I think if I can learn to tame my flailing octopus arms into smooth, sensuous movement, it will teach me about other places in my life where I am flailing. One learns to flail when it is dangerous to be still. But when and how do you stop flailing?

I will be back because I am still healing, still learning to tolerate another person's touch as a dance partner. I will be back, and I'm going to get one of those scarf belts with the tinkling coins attached, so that when I lurch about next week, it will make beautiful sound anyway.



  1. Love it! I can understand that awkwardness and self-consciousness. After total back surgery 23 years ago, I sit, stand, walk, move in all ways differently from all homo sapiens. It's awkward looking and feeling. And all sport, dance, gym movement also is as awkward. But I keep trying. In the water is a bit less awkward - maybe cuz the body is under water where others can't see it. :-)
    Glad you are dancing and beginning to like it!

  2. I love that you challenge yourself! And you weren't rude about what you said to that man. Every belly dance teacher I've ever had has always prohibited spectators, male or female. It IS a vulnerable space and you won't do your best if you're self-conscious. Good for you!

  3. My pilates instructor also belly dances, taught kick boxing, clogs, and plays Queen Elizabet at the Renaissance Festival in the fall. She is in her early forties and is in great shape. She laughs and shows us a few quick belly dancing moves sometimes. She does it with abandon and joy and we sort of try to imitate and laugh at ourselves. Have fun. It is great exercise and mind body coordination. And I would have said the same thing to that man -- he was the rude one.
    Janet Bohren

  4. I am enjoying your writing. As I read this I am smiling - you share the tale so humbly and graciously - and I am cringing, imagining how I would feel and experience the fearful ideas that would so flood my mind in the same circumstance,

    I am also nodding my head, yes, as you make the connections to all the ways we awkwardly flail and allude to why we might do so. Much to ponder in regard to my own present flailings.

    Thanks, Pastor.



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