At the end of last year I added something to my week that I have been trying to get into for many years: a dance class. Despite years of figure skating competitively (or maybe because of that), I feel like I have a really difficult time expressing myself through movement. I’m shy (even though I am very extroverted). I feel stupid (even though I know myself to be intelligent). Those of you that know me as a yoga teacher might beg to differ about the quality of my movements as you see them in class, but yoga postures like figure skating are carefully calculated in every way. I’ve studied the alignment and feeling of yoga postures in the same way that I memorized the feeling of triple jumps.
Dance is different. Dance for me does not feel calculated even when it is choreographed. Dance feels expressive and more in the moment than anything else I have ever experienced. It has emotion and responsiveness in a way that I do not experience in yoga and that I never experienced in figure skating.
About 8 years ago when I knew I wanted to explore a style of movement through dance so different from anything I had ever done, I researched Hip Hip dance classes. In its powerful moves and sharp lines I feel a really distinct beauty. Hip Hop music sounds like poetry to me. This seemed like a type of dance I would enjoy and that would challenge me as something so different from the gracefulness and stationary nature of yoga and figure skating. I found only one class that I could make with my teaching schedule. It was a beginner level and I was so excited to try it. I anticipated that evening class all week!
It ended up being absolutely awful. I barely made it to the end and was crying on the way home in my car. The teacher did not explain anything. He went super fast through showing the choreography and chose very fast music. He picked on those of us (about 5 including myself in a room full of 40 people) who could not keep up. It was obvious the other 35 people were not beginners. He broke us into groups at the end of class and made us do the choreography in front of everyone. He put the 5 newbies together and laughed when we couldn’t do what he asked. Perhaps worst of all: at the end he told me I had no rhythm and that I shouldn’t come back. My deepest fear confirmed – point blank – I couldn’t dance. I, of course, didn’t go back.
Ever since then I’ve looked every now and then at dance classes and thought about going back to try again. I always found an excuse: I was too busy, the time was too close to one of my classes, it was too expensive, etc. Really I was just scared that I would repeat the terrible experience of my last dance class. This is ironic because I spend most of my days coaching other people through things they are scared of or feel they are not good at (think of being a beginner at a yoga class or any tight yoga pose and you get the idea). I’m also usually really good at approaching things I fear and using that experience to grow. There was something about dance that really got to me from the beginning.
Last Fall something changed. I got an email from the Old Town School of Folk Music – I think I had signed up for their mailing list at a local music event over the summer – and they listed dance classes as one of their class categories. I clicked through and noticed that they had a beginner Hip Hop dance class at a time I could actually do. I called and checked – yes it was for sure a class where beginners and non-dancers were welcomed. “The teacher is amazing,” they said, “You should try it.” I don’t really know why, but I registered as soon as I hung up the phone…for an 8 week course. I justified it as needing something new, fun and non-yoga in my week. Really I think my Spirit knew there was something deep for me here.
I was so nervous when the first class rolled around. My stomach churned. I was also excited and hopeful that this might be different. When I arrived the class was small and the other students were so nice. They talked and chatted with everyone like me who was new. It was a completely different vibe right from the beginning. The teacher came in super low-key and so nice. He led us through a warm up and some choreography. I felt awkward and stiff and out of place. He was supportive and funny. The other students helped and encouraged one another. It was a completely different experience than my last dance class. At the end of every class we got time just to free move and it was so fun. The whole thing was fun – something that had been really lacking in my life.
After a few weeks we had settled into something of a rhythm and while I still felt nervous and awkward, I didn’t ever feel judged or ashamed. Around the 3rd or 4th class our teacher said something that I will never forget. He said, “No small movements! I want to see big movements! Exaggerate it! Make it huge!” as he stepped, moved his arms and shifted his shoulders to the beat of the music in singularly sharp, rhythmic and fantastic ways. When I went through the choreography that day, I felt like for sure I was moving in an equally enormous way.
We recorded ourselves at the end of this class and when a fellow student emailed us the recording I watched in dismay. What had felt to me like huge movements of my arms, hips, shoulders and legs were in fact TINY! I barely moved and most of the time I looked at the floor as if afraid to see myself in the mirror. It was an interesting experience. I suddenly felt inside, “How long have I been playing small?” and “Where else am I playing this small and tiny in my life?”
These simple questions unlocked an enormous amount of wisdom to me. I realized that in so many ways I had been playing small for most of my life. I had worried for so long about other people that I forgot to bring my Self to the the live I’m living. I tamped down my smarts because I was “intimidating.” I stomped out my creativity in skating to please my coaches. I quieted my emotions to assuage my family. I shut my mouth out of fear of retribution from my attackers. I let fear of more hazing and harm keep me from reporting it. I “took it for the team” when attacked by colleagues instead of standing up for myself. I let bosses push me into doing things I didn’t actually support instead of sticking to my beliefs. I sidelined my own ideas to support others in their dreams. In this moment of inquiry I realized I’ve spent most of my life being so much smaller than I actually am. And I have no good reason why. I haven’t found the origin point yet of this pattern, but I realize it has dominated so much of what I do and who I am.
I’m a planner so as soon as these realizations came to the surface, I made some internal agreements about how to move forward to keep the ball rolling. I made a commitment to start practicing being “big” in my dance class. Even if I felt foolish I challenged myself each week to go a little wild. I watched our video recordings and practiced at home. I started moving to music in front of mirrors at home and actually began to (sometimes) watch myself in the mirror at dance class. From each of these small steps, huge openings started happening elsewhere in my life. I have no idea if my dancing changed at all on the outside or if anyone noticed anything different about me, but on the inside it was like a dam broke open.
I started to feel like I was angry at my coaches in skating for trimming me down all those years. I felt the need to reach out to high school friends that had either hurt me or tried to help me just to reconnect. I wanted to find the people who attacked me so long ago and rip them to shreds (and I am not a violent person). I wanted to talk about how many times I “bit my tongue” out of fear of how my expression would be received. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs about all the “spiritual” people who had verbally maligned me. I had an outpouring of brilliant, creative ideas that have filled pages – book outlines, poems, business plans, website ideas and so much more. I started moving/dancing all over the house. I think the arrival of the #MeToo movement around this time pushed some of my internal dam breakage as well.
This outpouring made me think: how many of us are unintentionally playing small? How many of us regularly avoid the things that make us uncomfortable? How long have we let our conditioning to please others over our self hold us back? How many times have we all ignored the evidence that we are so much greater than someone else would have us believe? I think this happens so much more than we would like to admit. I keep wondering how I missed it in myself for so long. I’m so happy that I came back to a dance class so these triggers could be brought to the surface again – perhaps with better tools and wisdom on my side at this point in my life to approach working through them.
What about you? Could you pick something that scares you – but also excites you? And then do it. Maybe it’s a new job, a new relationship, a new type of exercise, a yoga pose or a place you have always wanted to travel to. Recognize how it makes you feel and all the threads of excuses that keep you tied back from actually doing it. Tell me what you find out about yourself when you take even one step into that great “Bigness” of life. For the love of all things important in this one wild beautiful crazy life you get, please play big for all of us to see.