03 May 2009


When I was little, I hated messing up at anything.  If I tried to do something, and I wasn't good at it (and given the kind of child I was, I wasn't good at most things I tried to do), I would become hugely embarrassed, strangely angry, and very upset.  I think the "upset" part may have come later, because also when I was little I was relentlessly teased and mocked by my peers, and if I couldn't do something, or messed up doing something, they would increase the mockery, and add in some cruelty, too.  So I think I became upset at not being good at things by a kind of Pavlovian commutation, wherein doing things badly became associated with the upsetment that had originally been associated with the teasing that I would get for doing something badly.  But the humiliation and anger were original responses.

Now that I'm a grown-up, I'm much better at knowing that no one is born knowing how to do anything, and I'm therefore also much better at not feeling bad when I can't do things first time round, and very patient with myself about learning.  But there remains one exception to this, and that is dance.

When I am faced with a kind of dancing that I don't know - even if it's a kind of dancing I've never seen before in my life - if I can't get it right the first time I try it, I go into what could legitimately be termed a complete meltdown.  I get very tense, and very embarrassed, and if I'm offered any kind of correction or advice I become extremely humiliated and, as a kind of rubber-band popback defence, angry.  If you leave aside the overwhelming and total misery I feel when I consider the shipwreck that is my current macro-life, learning a new dance, or a new dance step, is the only experience that these days makes me want to cry, or vanish, or both.

I think that you wouldn't be able to guess this if you saw me.  I think (and hope) that I suppress these dance-related feelings pretty well most of the time.  Also, although I can't get rid of the feelings, I do know they're coming, I recognise them when they come, and I'm able to be patient enough with them as a result that I think I play them off pretty well.  But they're still there, and it's still true that if given the option I would always prefer to be taught a dance, or a dance step, one-on-one, by someone who I feel will not judge me, or whom I don't see outside the teaching forum (hence the employment of the VTTT).  Although I've learned to work against my own instincts in this case, I hate being taught to dance by most of my friends, because if you are my friend I automatically wish to appear perfect (or at least always in control) in front of you (let's not turn this into a discussion of my ideas about the construction of friendship - I'm aware of their wackiness, and I force myself to act otherwise than I instinctively want to, but nonetheless this underlying feeling remains).  Basically, I don't want to be humiliated in front of people who matter.

But why?  What is so awful and embarrassing about not being able to dance perfectly the first time?  After all, as my friend A. pointed out today, one doesn't get anything perfect the first time.  The obvious answer, and one that is undoubtedly correct, is that dancing is somehow the part of my life in which succeeding is most important - perhaps because of all those years of ballet in which I didn't succeed (and that sediment of failure makes success much more significant); perhaps because it's the one thing I do in my life that gives me unmitigated happiness, and because the doing of it is the one time in my life when I forget myself completely.  So the stakes are highest.  But I think it's also because I always wanted to be wonderful at dance, so to discover that I'm not wonderful is a crushing blow not just to my ego but also to my hopes.

I suspect, though, that the real problem is none of these things.  I suspect the real problem is that I always wanted to be the best at something, and by being that best to be best-loved.  No matter what I do, somebody is always better than me:  that's not surprising, because it's the way of the world, and so I have no problem accepting it in most areas.  But for some reason I cannot accept it when it comes to dance.  It's so important to me to be a wonderful dancer, and I think because it's a skill that doesn't depend on brains (an area which I don't value very much), or physical attractiveness (an area in which I fall down), or coolness (an area in which I always assume I fail), or even likeability (something I achieve only through great effort and attentiveness, and always with a sense of extreme ephemerality), I think I might be in with a shot.  All you have to do is manipulate your body, and I've got the willpower and ability to do that, God knows.  So when it turns out I can't do that, that thing that's so important to me (because I love it so much) and that doesn't involve any of my failure areas, it's crushing to discover I can't.  And when you add to that the fact that if there's failure, even internal failure, I expect the mockery to begin - the situation ain't good. 

When I first started teaching, I said to my then-therapist after a couple of weeks of classes, "I think there just might be enough love in the world after all": the students obviously adored me, and that adoration seemed to fill up what had until then been an abyss of insecurity.  Even now, when I teach is when I'm most truly myself, because it remains the only forum in which I have no insecurities - I can feel the students loving me, and being fascinated, so all my worries and fakery drop away, and I'm able to be my real self.  The difficulty is, there's nowhere in life outside the classroom where that's also true; that is, there's nowhere in real life where I feel so certainly loved and admired.  And of course there isn't:  in the real world, there's no situation in which everyone is inferior to you (as they are if they are your students), and in which attention is concentrated, and in which you can do pretty much whatever you want.  Nor should there be. Nor, after years of work and care, do I seriously believe that everyone hates me, or is just waiting for me to leave the room so they can be released from their boredom or discuss what a loser I am.  Nor am I as solipsistic as this post makes me appear.

But there remains a little chip of me, buried deeply but shallowly enough to poke out sometimes, that longs for someone to say to me, all the time, "You're fabulous!  I can't get over how great you are!"  And this chip seems to come into play most nakedly when I dance.

Good heavens, will I be Stuart Smalley all my life?  Bring on the daily affirmations!

Addendum:  Thinking about this dance issue now, an hour later, it occurs to me that part of the feeling of sadness, at least, may come from the sense I often have that something in life ought to come easily:  somewhere there must be one thing that can be achieved simply and pleasurably, without intense effort and failbettering.  And if that thing can't be the one thing that makes you most purely happy, what can it be, for heaven's sake?


Incubus said...

I would like to make a lenghtier comment, but it is late. So, for now:


Take care ;)

Incubus said...

Or even better:


Incubus said...

About your last question: there is indeed one thing that comes easily, simply and pleasurably, and makes you feel wonderful. A thing so present in your life that you do not even pay attention to it. Everytime you feel misearable, just hold your breath. After 45 seconds you realize what really matters in life. The rest is just illusion.