Sunday, February 17, 2008

Taking Classes - It's Easy for You

I recently had a couple people say, "Oh, taking classes is easy for you, you're a natural." My first thought was "Natural... are you kidding? I wish! I'm really just a persistent SOB, even when quitting feels like the obvious option during a class." I generally don't say that, instead I grin and say "thank-you," like my Mom taught me many decades ago.

We all need to stretch ourselves, either in dance or another activity. We are all moving forward or backward; there really is no “staying right here” and treading water. Your longer-term physical and mental health is enhanced by stretching beyond your previous best efforts. Sometimes being a fish out of water is the best way to grow, although short term it can bust my ego if I don’t keep my head straight.

Here's my scene a couple years ago: I walk into class and everybody turns and looks at me. They look like they're staring at a lost puppy and their face says "Ah... Clearly you are looking for the senior fitness class." No! Welcome to beginning ballet at the Millennium Dance Complex. They address me as "sir" as in, "Hello sir, this is beginning ballet, is that what you are looking for?" Their voice makes it obvious they assume I've stumbled into this studio when I was simply looking for the rest room.

It's deadly quiet except for some piano music playing softly from the CD player. Almost everybody is stretching, keeping to themselves, and most are lacing up those satin dance slippers the ballet types wear during the exercises. Two thirds of the room are young enough to be my daughters, and the other guy in the class is dressed in a skin-tight, spandex leotard, not looking super masculine.

Turned out spandex guy was an excellent dancer (like most of the females), and rightly so didn't care if his attire looked girlish to me. He was serious about being a stronger dancer. Later I learned the tight clothes allow the instructor to make more corrections, where my ghetto look hides a ton of errors from the instructor.

I'm in my shorts and athletic shirt, and you might guess I didn’t exactly blend with the natives. It took a few minutes and I'm wondering to myself, "what the heck am I doing here?" Taking serious classes and lessons is not for the faint of heart.

Imagine being male, late 40's, gray hair, never danced before and taking your first beginning ballet class. Yes, I did it. It wasn't pretty, and I'm thankful they don't allow video because blackmail was a distinct possibility if I was on the tape. It was painfully clear those exercises look much easier on stage or TV, especially when someone else is doing them.

I couldn't bend over and touch my toes, and I didn't know a plie from a pizza. A chaine turn wasn't in my vocabulary and to increase the fun, the excellent instructor was from Japan. All her French words (the official language of ballet) were spoken with a sexy Japanese accent, leaving me wondering what the heck she was saying most of the time, although it sounded great. She was extremely nice to me, had great technique and was more than patient. She mercifully ignored me other than providing subtle corrections and encouraged me to return, since she could tell I was trying, but there was little denying I was the ugly swan in the room.

I was slowly getting it together, but for months I was in the wrong zip code. I often reverted to knuckle-dragger mode and used my famous monkey-see, monkey-do learning technique because I didn't understand the language of the dance. Many of the moves were too fast for me and I hated the "across the floor" exercises. (People going one to two at a time, spinning, turning or in my case, stumbling across the floor while everybody else watched.)

I had points where I had to simply laugh at myself, because I was either that or leave with my tail between my legs. Many times I was bad enough the others took pity on me and complimented me when I did the least little thing better. Sometimes it was close to "Wow... you really hold on to that bar well" but I think they realized that I wasn't leaving, and I earned respect for simply staying in the game week after week. I found ways to focus on incremental improvements and just keep going, even when the "fun" part of dancing seemed worlds away to me.

But I stuck it out, once per week for almost a year. At one point the class I was taking was cancelled due to remodeling at the studio. Now all the ballet classes during the week are in the morning instead of the one evening class, so I have moved on to a couple jazz classes each week.

It's still not pretty, but now I'm committed to going to jazz classes a couple times per week, working my way from total ignorance to intellectual understanding. My technique is still in the lower third of the class but considering I started in the lower 10% of the class (read: usually the worst) actually seeing a few people behind me is something new and welcomed.

Here's the point for you: If I can do it, so can you! Maybe you go to a shines class, a more advanced salsa class, stretching, ballet, hip-hop or jazz class (the good ones are excellent spinners, and someday I will join that group).

Do something to improve your game. Nothing builds confidence like starting at the bottom and attending the classes until you move up the ranks into the reasonable range. Maybe like me, you find yourself outside the norm for the class attendees. Maybe you wonder if you really can become a dancer, since everybody else makes it look easy and they don't struggle like you and me. Over a few weeks (or more), we can push through the feelings that make us all feel uncomfortable when we start something new.

I'm still a work in progress in that area, but every week I try to do something that is a little outside my comfort zone, building my ability to block out what others think of me in the process. That is an excellent life skill that applies to learning anything significant as we continue to mature.

Obviously, it's easy to say "never stop learning" but unless we push ourselves, it's much easier to stay home and watch TV. Learning more benefits your dancing and makes you feel much better about yourself. Little is out of reach, even if you don't fit the "normal" status compared to others.

Of course, you need to make a commitment to stick it out a few months and more. There is real magic in taking classes beyond a few months. Things that seemed impossible (like touching my toes or chaine turns) become routine with consistent practice.

Find a way to stretch yourself this year. Life tends to favor the bold, so go find a class, DVD or otherwise find ways to continue your dance education. The rewards are amazing, and go way beyond the dance floor.

Again, I rarely blend in my classes, and at points it can be painfully obvious I'm not a natural dancer. In my experience, the harder I work, the more natural I look. Overcoming obstacles and sticking with it a while builds your skills and more importantly builds your self-confidence. That carries over into other areas of your life, making you a better person even if you don't become a world-class dancer.

Let me know what you are doing to improve and stretch yourself this year.
Until Eve arrived, this was a man's world.
-Richard Armour


  1. How we are stretching ourself?
    Well, since there is no way to learn LA Style salsa around where we live we just started to teach it ourself.

    A friend owning a dance studio (ballroom, Rock'n'Roll) offered us a small side room, we put up some ads and now the room is cramped with 11 couples to teach LA Style Salsa to.

    Way cool, and so far no one ran away even though I sometimes talk utter gibberisch, move too fast or do some other stupid thing.

    I really hope Edie will do her weekend for teachers around europe sometime soon, this would help.

  2. Sam,

    That is great. When you teach something, you learn even more yourself. Some things you do without thinking now require a breakdown or different approach for others.

    Sounds like you are growing your community, and that is a win for everybody!

  3. I think that if one really puts the effort and does their homework at home. One can make it easier for themselves to become a better dancer. It's their own goal. Not anyone elses unless your on a team. My goal is to become a better dancer in shines on2. Build my confidence up and feel the music inside of me.

  4. You are right, unless you are on a team, we all improve because we decide to improve. Dancing better is up to us because as a social dancer, I can have a great time even as a beginner.

    Also note that there are some good DVDs that provide some raw materials for improvement. Please let me know how you're doing.

  5. "I was slowly getting it together, but for months I was in the wrong zip code. "

    Last I checked, beginning ballet is always like that. I think they build it into the curriculum.

    You certainly have courage -- the measure of a man (and certainly of a great lead!).

    P.S. If I get out to the West Coast to take your seminars during one of the big festivals, and you have ballet class one of those days, I will go with you.

    Then you will look better by comparison, because I took ballet for years and still look dumpy, awkward, and stupid.

  6. As for growth -- sorry, I got so carried away by the story I forgot to stick to the point of the post -- I'm going to gather up my courage and go down to Soho Dance to take class from Ismael Otero one of these days.

    I learned one of his routines off of myspace -- my thought is to present it to him when we do the introductory lesson so he'll, um, know what he's dealing with.

  7. OH...Don, I just took a short-term Modern Dance class for 3 weeks and decided not to continue....Yes, all the French terms, and the across-floor final review.....made me feel that I am the worst one in the classroom. And I could not relate those to my confident salsa world...
    Okay, I guess I have to give it another try...this time I'll choose Jazz. :>


I love feedback. Your thoughts, feelings and comments are appreciated. Civil disagreements and other points of view are always welcomed!

Feel free to send me private mail if appropriate.

Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero