I remember my first Argentine tango class six years ago. I dressed up: fishnet stockings, black dress, makeup… because that’s what you are supposed to do, I thought. Within minutes of entering the class I wanted to crawl into a hole somewhere. I felt exposed, awkward, intimidated, clumsy. You know that feeling that you are the only weird person in the room and everyone is staring at you? That feeling.
I remember watching the gorgeous teacher gracefully moving in front of the mirror as I was trying to hide my disgust at my own reflection. And then there was another person in front of me, holding my arms as he tried to figure out how to move my body in a particular pattern.
This was the beginning of my transformative, painful, and rewarding journey into dance. My curiosity over time guiding me to experiment with different partner dances and gradually making dance a significant part of my process as an artist.
As many dancers will agree, dance is a metaphor for life. Especially within the context of partner dancing, life’s dramas get played out in the microcosm of the dance floor. Every form of insecurity, doubt, fear, pleasure, desire, heartbreak, and bliss gets expressed at some point, starting with that very first baffling experience of having to move together with another body and questioning the rightness of every action, facing the inner critic.
Now I take it for granted that I come to a foreign country and without question I go out onto the dance floor with a complete stranger, confident in my ability to connect with his/her body and eager to experience the music. As I reflect on my journey thus far, here are some important insights that I came to through dancing with strangers (and friends):
1. We are all bodies with particular abilities and limitations. Last week I wrote about the idea of embodiment (being a body) which is the first simple and yet shocking realization I experienced as I had to come to grips with my physical form, the shape of my movements, my limitations, and my image in comparison to other bodies.
2. We all want to be attractive. We spend enormous amounts of energy on clothes/shoes/dance classes/festivals/marathons/ etc. Why? Because we all want to experience pleasure, to be objectified, to be sexy, to be appreciated, admired, complimented, respected. This drives us to act in the most beautiful and/or clumsy ways.
3. We are all searching for connection. Every social dancer is after that mysterious out of body, dreamlike, timeless experience with another person when the bodies move in perfect harmony with the music. This is because our bodies are driven by the desire to connect with other bodies, to be touched in meaningful ways.
4. We are all responsible for our experience. The best thing we can offer each other is genuine acceptance and appreciation of the self and other. To me this is the most difficult and important skill to cultivate. It doesn’t matter whether my partner has less experience than me, smells bad, too short, too tall, too experienced which might make me nervous, too drunk (that did happen once). However unpleasant the experience, however nervous I am, however bad I feel about my body, however tired, genuine acceptance and appreciation of the connection with my partner is the only choice that brings about positive change.
5. We are all trying to heal through relationship. Each dance is a mini relationship, and as such, it makes us tap into the memories and inner voices of past hurts, experiences of failure, fears, doubts, and judgments. And as in a relationship, moving with another body confronts us with the challenge of finding a balance between listening and talking, expressing and witnessing. The small, seemingly insignificant achievements that I accumulated over the years in dancing with other people have directly impacted my life by allowing more humility and empowerment.
There are many more lessons and insights to share. They all revolve around the same themes though. The same unifying principles organize any creative, collaborative, life endeavor: acceptance of who we are, curiosity about what else we can be, and celebrating the process of becoming… together.