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Until the next time

January 21, 2014

“Kick up! Come on! Kick!”

My dance instructor stands near me, arms outstretched, hands cupped. “Give me your leg, darnit!”

I’ve been regretting my question even since I asked it. “After I kick, jump, and twist, is my right leg or my left one forward?” It prompted my instructor to fall back on her hands-on approach, and now here we are – here I am – in this bright dance studio, facing a wall of mirrors, surrounded by other novice dancers who are also wondering how to land this jump and (possibly, secretly) gloating that I’m the guinea pig today.

“Come on, Nanna. Kick!”

I reach that point where not acting is more mortifying than acting, so I swing my left leg half-heartedly – once, twice, three times (a lady) UP! into the hands of my instructor. With what feels like snail-like speed I jump and turn 180 degrees in the air before I land: right leg forward, left leg back. Aha!

The instructor moves on to the next student, and the next. They all get to jump and twist in her capable hands – and under her discerning gaze. Ha! Now they have all of the self-consciousness and none of the glee. It doesn’t seem to affect them as badly as it does me.

***

I flash back to November 2013. The department talent show. Students and lecturers all performed in the university’s main auditorium: if they were out of their minds/brave enough to sign up, that is.

I sort of got roped into participating. Knowing someone was already doing Anna Kendrick’s “Cups,” I felt perfectly safe saying that was, in fact, my only talent. But as luck would have it, that person dropped out and I was in. For weeks, I felt quite comfortable with my participation, but then, a week or so before the event, coworkers and organizers started complimenting me on my bravery, and suddenly self-consciousness struck. If my participation was brave, then this must be a scary thing I was doing. What had I got myself into? Why?

If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I always finish what I start. I have a pretty good track record of this. Which meant that one November evening, I climbed the steps to the auditorium stage and faced a few hundred students and faculty with nothing but a cup and my voice – oh, and two gentlemen flanking me with microphones; after all, an artist needs her entourage.  Microphones! I figured I’d just, you know, cup and sing unplugged. But no, there was one to amplify the sound of the cup and – horror of horrors! – one for me. The singer.

I’m not, nor have I ever been, a singer. I enjoy singing in the shower, and don’t mind taking the lead with birthday songs. I’ll even sing at a campfire or on the beach (provided there is enough wine, of course). But this? This was unprecedented. Microphone… Audience…I took a deep breath and did the best I could. My legs turned to jelly, my hands shook, and it took all I had to stop the tremors from audibly creeping into my voice. But like my jump, I also landed my performance: full of relief, out of breath, and probably three years older from stress, but land it I did.

***

I flash back to dance class, but a dance class of the recent past. We’re improvising, which in modern dance at the beginner level apparently involves a whole lot of dancing with your eyes closed.

Just moving to the rhythm of the music, swaying to the sound, with our eyes closed, in our own space, was bad enough, but now a partner component is added to the mix: one person will have their eyes closed – and follow – and the other will have their eyes open – and lead. My partner gently grabs the back of my neck and starts moving me around the room. Or I should say, makes very valiant attempts to move me around the room, because I’m having none of it. I push back, I squint through my eyelashes, I move in directions opposite to where she wants me to go. I don’t trust – or relax, or give over – easily.

The instructor takes over. She, too, grabs the back of my neck and starts leading me. “Breathe. Shoulders down. Breathe. Relax. There we go. Breathe. You’re okay. … … …. … …. … … …” The music plays, and I dance – as much as I can.

See, this one I didn’t land. I tried, but I didn’t quite get there.

***

It’s now one week after the dance class in the opening of this post. It’s exam/resit/project time at my university, which means mountain-like piles of grading and very little teaching. In the end, the teaching’s (obviously) why I’m in this job – and why I love it so much. But being a teacher also means that sometimes it’s easy to forget just how frightening it can be to sit on the other side of the room: the fear of not getting it, the fear of getting it wrong, the fear of others judging you and, of course, the fear of not sticking your landing.

Dancing and singing are, in the end, not that different from the things I teach – English, composition, public speaking; they are skills that you can hone through observation, but if you really want to improve, you have to get down and dirty. You have to speak and let it be wrong sometimes. You have to sing and miss your note. You have to jump and crash your landing. But the nice thing about being in a classroom or a class-like setting is that mistakes are acceptable – and often encouraged. They’re a teaching moment and a learning experience. It’s only through falling flat on your face every once in a while that you learn how to avoid doing so.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not scary as hell – particularly when you know there’s a good chance of failure or mistake-making. The tremors, the sweating, the nerves, they affect all of us and they never make us feel good. What does is our ability to power through them and, in our shining, flawed, mistake making glory, triumph over them. At least until the next time.

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