I do not have a dancers body–nothing about me is long, lean, slender, or angular. I am all curves, round and full. But, there is a vein of dance in my heart. I will not hesitate to open and close down the dance floor at a wedding. When listening to music, I envision dance moves in my head–things that my body can’t do but my imagination can. Admittedly, I even like dance movies, even the ones that reek of cheese.
I’ve taken a lot of dance classes in my lifetime. Enough that I can instinctually feel the rhythm of music: “1 eee and a 2 eee and a 3 eee and a 4 eee” or “one n’ TWO, three n’ FOUR.” Taking dance classes as an adult can be a challenge. I’m not a complete beginner. But, I’m not destined for Broadway either.
When I moved to DC, I looked up the adult classes at the nearby studios. Dance is a form of exercise that doesn’t involve a feat of willpower and I desperately needed the natural happy of endorphins. I tried a handful of classes including Zumba, Hip-Hop, and Casino Salsa (the Cuban version of square dancing! Yah, I didn’t know that either.)
On a whim, I mustered my courage and walked into a class labeled: African Tribal Dance. Not long after the warm-up was finished, I was hooked. I’ve been a regular the entire time I’ve been in DC.
The West African dances we are taught involve dramatic movement to the music of live drummers, performed by men and women wrapped in bold prints. At times, grandmothers modify the steps while maintaining the fire of the movement and the younger women hoot and holler as a sign of respect. Bodies of all shapes and sizes move across the floor in small groups according to experience. There is swaying and hopping and flailing arms in big sweeping motions. Some of the movements communicate worship and gratitude, others speak to crops and childrearing and animals. All of it requires me to step outside of the intellectual life of graduate school and into the world of rhythmic music and form and steps. For at least a hour, I am out of my head and fully present to my body.
Gratefully, there are no mirrors in the classroom. For, as much as I love the class, I find myself very self-consciousness.
On a practical level, my body simply does not move with ease in some of the ways that are required. Many times, watching the more experienced dancers, I have placed my hands on some region, say my lower back, and tried to think through, feel, and build a simple sense of muscle memory for what it is like for those muscles to move according to the step.
In another way, my self-awareness is an insecurity of role. Am I an intruder into an ethnic art-form? Am I the awkward white girl whose movements revert to Western dance postures when a more soulful stance is required? Am I the outsider in a community of people who clearly know each other well?
Nothing has happened externally to cause these questions to be raised. I’ve been met with graciousness and professionalism throughout my time at the studio. Rather, it’s an internal insecurity, a questioning of my place.
And really, the same questions resonate in many areas of my life: Am I a poser in the academic world? Am I the legit as a student who stammers to communicate my thoughts in a classroom full of articulate peers? Am I an outsider to the East Coast culture where I often feel a bit unusual?
Having been through a significant transition in recent years, I am rebuilding my sense of self, at times fumbling and confused, experimenting a bit. I am finding that I’m a bit more mysterious to myself than I realized.
But, you know what?!?!
I do know that I love to groove to African Tribal rhythms! So, awkward or not, I am gonna own that!
Photos were found online associated with Dance Place: http://www.danceplace.org/.
© Enoch Chan
Mary, I love this story, I love that you fell in love with African Tribal Dance, and I love learning more and more about you with each post you write!
As someone who has moved frequently the last few years and relished the chance to “reinvent myself” in the new places – I so resonate with discovering that you don’t always know yourself well, that you find yourself a bit of a mystery. I still believe it’s good to reinvent yourself!
Mary, this is lovely. This line made me tear up, so foreign to my experience culturally: “At times, grandmothers modify the steps while maintaining the fire of the movement and the younger women hoot and holler as a sign of respect.” And this: “Rather, it’s an internal insecurity, a questioning of my place.” Yes, this seems where I fall too. The over-analyzing so prized in the academy can be a weakness too. And yes, may we exult in the movement of love that we follow that. Thank you.
I love this piece! I think we are all more mysterious to ourselves than we realize. Life would be boring without mystery. It is fun—perhaps, an odd word to use in this context—to be surprised by ourselves: how we can stretch ourselves, figuratively and literally, and learn new ways to dance in life. Keep on learning new dance moves!!