Like No One’s Watching

Cheesiest greeting card saying ever:  “Dance like no one’s watching.”

Everyone gets what that means.  It means in your bedroom, door closed, music loud, preferably in front of a mirror, going totally nuts with your bad self.  I don’t know about you, but I look like a complete idiot when I do this.  I’m whipping my hair, I’m making bizarro shapes with my body, I’m doing very un-rhythmic things with my feet, flailing around…  and I’m having the time of my life.

But I cannot bring myself to dance that way when other people are watching.

I am a shy dancer.  I struggle constantly with conflicting internal desires to get out there and do my thing (in a jam, for example) and at the same time not want anyone to actually look at what I’m doing.  Often this results in my ideas being small or constrained, as I try to both execute an idea and hide it at the same time.  It also means I often don’t take up as much space as one really ought to do in order to make nice lines and have an energetic performance quality to one’s dance.  As you might imagine, this makes competing rather challenging.  (More on that in a moment.)  A common experience of mine is to feel the strong desire to go out in a jam, and then when I actually get out there, to have my adrenaline racing and feeling like I can hardly tell which way is up, much less how I’m going to pull off doing anything musical at 200 bpm in front of 50 people.  If I’m really feeling a song during a jam and I notice in myself that part of me would love to go out and just throw down with some solo dance, my desire to not look like an idiot inevitably overwhelms the initial impulse, and I remain clapping on the side in the crowd, moving my feet in little patterns.

Almost four years ago now, Naomi Uyama wrote a blog post about competing in which she explained that “every single person out there wants you to do well.”  Naomi has been a person in my dance life who has helped lead me to a variety of epiphanies (though she probably doesn’t know that), including that one about competing.  The sad part of the story is that even knowing this has not helped me very much.  My thought process goes something like, “Well, okay, maybe they want me to do well, but I probably won’t do all that well and then everyone will be bored or disappointed and I’ll feel terrible.”

Or, maybe more often these days, even if I am confident in myself and not afraid of doing terribly, I’m still embarrassed.  Dancing like no one’s watching is such a raw expression of self, so uninhibited and free, that the knowledge that other people are watching feels almost like an invasion of privacy, or a sudden intimacy with someone with whom you don’t otherwise have an intimate relationship.  It’s like exhibitionism.  I find it extremely uncomfortable.

At the same time, I am spellbound by people who can do this—especially women—and particularly when they are dancing alone.  Kelly Arsenault‘s first-place cabaret routine at ILHC 2008 comes to mind, as does Naomi’s ILHC 2010 cabaret piece:

And those are choreographed!  Improvising something that is just OUT THERE, letting loose in front of everybody, takes this phenomenon to a whole new level.  Laura Glaess is someone I associate with that “free” quality in her social dancing and competitions.  She’s always putting it on the floor like she doesn’t care at all what you think, but you’re probably going to like it anyway.

In my experience, improving at any skill is often an uncomfortable, sometimes painful process.  Working out and getting stronger is painful.  Learning to play guitar is painful.  (Blisters, anyone?)  If you are a perfectionist or self-conscious, as I tend to be, you know the pain of completely flubbing something that you’re not very good at yet.  (Confession:  This is one of those character traits that tends to prevent me from taking up hobbies that don’t come easily to me.  I have too much pride to let it get wounded sucking at something—which I’m not proud of.)

So, as you might imagine, I am increasingly realizing that if I want to continue to become a better dancer, this is something I’m going to have to work on.  I took a big step in that (uncomfortable) direction at ILHC 2010, performing in a hip-hop routine choreographed by Amanda Gruhl.  True story:  One of the other dancers in the routine was teaching me the beginning of this choreography in the kitchen of a VFW in Boston, and a good friend of mine (a dude) was hanging out watching us.  I cannot describe to you the level of extreme discomfort I was experiencing at that time, in a tiny dirty kitchen, in the back of a VFW, fully clothed and probably wearing a sweatshirt, trying to do these hip-hop moves.  It was mortifying.

Therefore it was a pretty big step for me to actually perform this choreography at a major dance event.  We got last place in the rankings, but I’m still kind of amazed that I actually went out there and made it through the routine without blacking out from anxiety.  Here it is:

Seriously, y’all, I am embarrassed right now because I know you just watched the video.  Yep.

I guess it’s going to take a lot of practice before I can work through this particular challenge.  But hey: no risk, no reward.

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6 Responses to Like No One’s Watching

  1. Yossef says:

    This was great to read, and it speaks to a few of the same things I have to work on.

    I want to give you a big hug. While music is happening. And then move around.

  2. Nicole says:

    You just described exactly the way I feel about competing/performing/jamming/dancing like I want to dance. Also the way it feels to not excel at something immediately, or try something new in front of someone.
    It’s super sad to have creativity inside and be consistently tamping it down in front of others; making it small, conservative, inoffensive and self conscious. It’s definitely a big part of why Laura Glaess is such a fascinating dancer; she’s like a force of nature.
    I get the same way about the written word, so you’ve got one up on the rest of us there, blogging about it at all.

  3. Pingback: Yo dawg, I heard you like dancing… | Dance with Gina

  4. Catherine says:

    I found your blog thanks to a friend of mine who shared your articles about the youtubification of lindy-hop on facebook. And here I am, one hour later, reading most of your posts and nodding on most of the points your make. This post especially was extremely insightful for me. As an intermediate-sort-of-advanced lindy-hop dancer, I struggle with shyness in dancing (while I do dance like no one’s watching all the time at home… and it does feel fabulous ;)). Feels good to know experienced dancers have the same kind of issues. This was posted more than two years ago, do you feel like you’ve managed to work through this challenge?

  5. Pingback: Learning through Play, or How the Damsels Saved Themselves | Dance with Gina

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