Giraffes CAN Dance and So Can You

I read a kids’ book this weekend while visiting a girlfriend who was my inspiration to learn salsa. It’s called “Giraffes Can’t Dance”.

It’s about Gerald the giraffe, who’s awkward and clumsy when he tries to dance. He goes to a party with his animal pals and while the lions can tango and the warthogs can waltz, he embarrasses himself with his graceless moves.

He’s convinced he can’t dance and he runs away while the other animals laugh at him. (Very mean animals!)

It reminded me of people I’ve talked to who have told me, “I can’t dance.”

That always breaks my heart just a little bit.

Not because I think everyone should be as in love with dancing as I am, but because, more often than not, I quickly learn that they CHOOSE not to dance because they don’t THINK they can.

They’ve come to accept a belief about arts and creativity that is very harmful, which is: “You’re not good at this. Therefore, you shouldn’t do this.”

It’s not true. Because the truth is something closer to, “I choose not to dance because I feel insecure about my skill level.” But instead we say, “I can’t.”

Now, if dancing is not something you enjoy, and you don’t want to do it, that’s cool. But if you don’t dance because you’re convinced there is some skill or talent level you have to reach before you’re allowed to do it, then I’m here to tell you – No.

And, you’re not getting off the hook that easy.

There are many different ways to explore life as a dancer. Your journey may be to find the confidence to just enjoy dance. To dance at weddings, on the street, or in your living room and not care what anyone thinks – to just have FUN moving your body to music, technique be damned.

Or, you may be fascinated by specific styles and you want to learn the technique, the language of the dance. You may come upon a dance style that grabs a hold of your heart and inspires and transforms you. And then you can study with different teachers, experiment with new moves and try performing. You may turn into a dancer that other people look at and think, “Wow! She’s amazing!

Either way, you’re a dancer.

So, back to our sweet, sad giraffe who wants to dance but “can’t”.

He runs off from the party and happens upon a cricket, who wisely advises him to concentrate on the beauty of the moon and the gentle night breezes. Gerald breathes and sways while the cricket plays his violin and before he knows it – he’s dancing!

The other animals take notice of this “miracle” and are captivated by Gerald’s boogy-licious leaping, flipping and turning.

And then Gerald speaks the truth:

“Then he raised his head and looked up

at the moon and stars above.

‘We all can dance,’ he said.

‘When we find music that we love.’

Giraffes can dance. And so can you. Find the music that you love, dance your butt off, and don’t let “I can’t” stand in your way.

 

Getting Honest

I’ve been working on honesty here at Follow My Lead.

A big part of the reason I started this project was to encourage and support anyone who wants to dance to feel empowered to do so. The thought that anyone would WANT to dance but hold back because they’re embarrassed or afraid breaks my heart.

For most of my life, I’ve talked about how much joy it brings me, how much I LOVE to dance. And my friends, family and colleagues all know that and have seen that love and passion in action.

But it’s not so easy to talk about the other emotions that seem to flare up so easily: the envy, the insecurity, the body hate.

It’s necessary though. It helps me learn and heal, for sure. But I also want to be real. I don’t think it means much to have someone who has studied dance for their entire lives to encourage everyone to “just get out there!”, “have fun!”, “feel the joy!”

Because it’s scary to dance. It’s easy to compare yourself to other people and feel like you’re coming up short. It’s hard to feel comfort and love for your body.

It wouldn’t be fair for me to just talk about how dance is joy in motion, how it’s a form of human communication that spans our globe, how it’s a spiritual experience, how it is so much FUN. It is all of those things.

But it ain’t easy.

I know you have to get over some fears and make yourself vulnerable. You’re not alone. My fear is that if people really knew what I was thinking, knew how insecure I was, they wouldn’t like me. They’d think I was negative and weak.

So I write about it. The times when I dance and I feel love, freedom and joy. And the times I feel unworthy, envious and insecure.

Those feelings are scary for me to admit. Maybe as scary as it is for someone who’s never danced to get out on that dance floor at his cousin’s wedding. Or for someone who doesn’t fit society’s extremely narrow definition of physical beauty to put on some tights and take a ballet class.

We’re all scared sometimes. Dance is frightening because it’s so powerful. I think we can make it less so by sharing the journey together. And I can only share it with you if I’m honest about it all.

Feeling Intimidated? Ask Them to Dance Anyway

My friend and I were talking the other day about guys not asking her to dance salsa. A lot of times she’ll have to ask them to dance and at some point they’ll tell her, “I never asked you before because I was too intimidated!”

This frustrated and confused her a bit, because she is a very friendly, modest and down-to-earth person. She’s not dancing from her ego or showing off, she’s genuinely enjoying herself and usually smiling the whole time! So, to her, the fact that she could be perceived as “intimidating” didn’t make much sense.

I got it though. When I first saw her dancing, I was completely intimidated just as another female follower in the same room!

The thing that makes her dancing intimidating is that it is immediately obvious that she knows more than just the steps. Her movements are fluid and complex, stemming from her knowledge of African dance, and more specifically Afro-Cuban dance – the roots of salsa. When I see someone who clearly embodies the richness of a certain dance style, it inspires me to step up my game, but it also makes me think twice about whether I’m ready to dance with that person.

Sometimes you just have to go for it though.

In my experience with salsa, most dancers are friendly and non-judgmental (and they remember when they were beginners themselves!). I wouldn’t ever try to monopolize a more advanced dancer’s time, but from time to time it’s definitely important to step out of your comfort zone and ask someone better than you to dance (leader or follower).

You may surprise yourself and dance quite well! You might also be completely out of your element and get the chance to recognize your weak spots – and that’s a great opportunity to focus your ongoing study of dance.

And don’t forget one of the most important elements of partner dancing that has little to do with your level of technique – your energy! Your unique personality and way of expressing joy and humor all comes through in the way you dance. Let it! This is the essence of our connections to our partners and it is just as meaningful as technique for your partner’s enjoyment of the experience.

So, next time you’re out dancing, I challenge you to a little experiment: Put a smile on your face and ask that intimidating person to dance. Who knows what you might discover!

***

Tell me in the comments – how do you deal with feeling intimidated by another dancer?

6 Reasons Why I Love Dancing with the Stars

I’ve been watching Dancing with the Stars on and off since it first premiered in 2005 and I’m still a fan.

As I’m sure you know, the show pairs B-list celebrities with ballroom dance professionals. Each week they have certain dance styles they have to learn and perform. The dance couple with the lowest combined judges’ scores and fan votes gets kicked off.

Is it cheesy and melodramatic like most “reality” shows? Yes, it is. But, there are a lot of good reasons why I – and many other people – love the show.

1. You get to root for an underdog. Each season the celebrity mix consists of stars of all ages and abilities. There are always a few ringers (Olympians like figure skaters or gymnasts, young Disney stars) who seem to dominate right off the bat. But there are also a few contestants who just shine even though they don’t have the moves down quite yet. They’ve got heart, a sense of humor and a lot of potential, and it makes it so much fun to root for them each week. Plus, sometimes they win!

2. You see “regular” people transform into dancers. As this mix of non-professional dancers continue each week, you start to see a magical transformation. They learn, they grow, they get better scores….they start to look like dancers. It’s a really beautiful and inspiring thing to see people grow in their confidence, ability and joy in dance.

3. You connect with the emotion and spirituality of dance. Dancing is such a powerful experience when you open yourself up to it. A lot of people don’t get to do that – or allow themselves to. There are many fears that hold us back from dancing. On DWTS, contestants who want to win have to push through those fears. And when they do, we witness something beautiful. We see someone channeling joy, strength, vulnerability and love through their dance: they feel it and we feel it. There are no shortage of post-dance interviews in which contestants are either crying or extremely emotional because of what they experienced in their moment of dance.

4. You see that everyone is a dancer. I’m sure that a big part of the mix of celebrity dancers is to appeal to varied audiences to get high ratings. But, I don’t mind, because it is so incredible to see men and women of all ages, body shapes and physical abilities get out there and dance. During the course of the show, each one usually has a moment when they shine as a dancer. And at the very least, it’s clear that they’re having fun dancing. I think it sends a clear message to viewers that anyone can enjoy learning different dance styles – dance is not for an elite group of people with “perfect’ bodies, it’s for everyone.

5. The celebrities’ stories pull at your heartstrings. I don’t know the Hollywood behind-the-scenes reasons why stars decide to join the show, but there are definitely some stars who are overcoming some bad stuff. it’s a good feeling to pull for someone who is overcoming some challenge in their life and moving forward, in part, by dancing. In this season, Valerie Harper was on the show. She’s in her 70s and has terminal cancer, and was one of the most positive, delightful people you could hope to watch. She wasn’t the best dancer, but there were moments in her performances where she was in her element and it was very touching to watch.

6. The judges are great. One of the main reasons I’ve avoided other reality shows in the past is because I can’t stand either the judges themselves (e.g The Voice’s Blake Shelton “jokingly” tweets about running over turtles for fun, SYTYCD’s Nigel is such an egotistical chauvinist at times) or the ridiculous drama between them (e.g. Simon Cowell versus anyone, Mariah Carey vs Nicky Minaj). But on DWTS, Len, Carrie Ann and Bruno are professional and knowledgeable, while each having quirky personalities. They’re straight with the contestants, but rarely cruel, and always encouraging. They’ve got a great banter with each other and you can just tell they really love their jobs.

These are the reasons that I find myself coming back to DWTS. The one thing that keeps me away is that I get too emotionally attached to my favorite dancer and then I’m heartbroken if they get kicked off too early or don’t win!

Are you a DWTS fan? If so, what keeps you coming back to the show?

If you’re not, would you consider watching now that you’ve read this post? Why or why not?

Are You Ever Too Old to Start (or Restart) to Dance?

I’ve started a new morning ritual. I get up a little earlier than usual, grab my yoga mat and some massage tools, and head to our guest room to do some stretching. My “massage tools” are a golf ball and some kind of Medieval torture device thing from Gaiam.

It’s always good to stretch in the morning, so the healthy fitness experts tell us, but I’m doing it for a different reason: my muscles are tight as hell and I can’t stand it anymore. Stretching can only go so far when you’ve got years of muscle tension and knots. I basically need to massage my body so that the muscles can move when I stretch.

And that massage? It’s not the dreamy, relaxed Zen spa kind of massage. It’s the uncomfortable, painful kind where you’re digging into some unhappy stuff.

But it has to be done. It’s so important to me as a dancer because I feel very limited in how I can move with so much muscle tension in my body. I can’t do a split, which I would love to be able to do! That’s a bit ambitious though, since I can’t even do a fully-rested, yummy-stretchy seated forward bend.

It’s time like these when I feel “old”. Maybe even “too old” to pursue this project.

I’ve always had tight muscles and felt physically inflexible though. Even as a kid in dance classes, I wasn’t the Gumby kid.

But now it’s been over 20 years since those classes, and although I’ve always continued to be physically active, I’ve also added 10 + years of computer work in there.

Part of me thinks, Melissa, don’t kid yourself. You’re 38, you’re not a professional dancer and you can barely touch your toes some (OK, most) mornings. You really think you’re going to travel the world hosting your own dance travel show?

But another part of me, I think a bigger part, says, You can do whatever you want whenever you want. It’s never to late to live your dreams. (It occurs to me that that part of me speaks in cliches.)

It’s true though. I don’t feel a certain number age. I just feel like Melissa. Yes, I’m older and I’ve learned a lot since my teens and twenties. But I’m still the same person who loves to learn new dances and share them with people. And my body is ME. It’s not a separate entity to resent, regret or despise.

I saw this story on Humans of New York’s Facebook page: One of HONY’s photography subjects “Banana George” had just died at age 98. When he was photographed, he looked pretty physically weakened and frail, and was being pushed in a wheelchair by his caretaker. But he had a story: he was the world’s oldest barefoot water skier (at age 92 he had set the world record).

The cool part? He didn’t start water skiing until he was 40 years old! Then it became his passion and he went on to perform in shows at Cypress Gardens. He even sustained many injuries (broken back, ankle, knee and ribs) over the course of his career, but he kept skiing until the last moment. Here’s a video of him water skiing at 90 years old!

So, I’m going to keep my morning ritual, even though those massage balls hurt and it’s frustrating to feel so tight and tense. I know I need to be patient with myself. Banana George never let his age hold him back, and neither will I.

***

What about you? Do you have a dream you’re pursuing or want to pursue, but sometimes you feel like you’re “too old”? What do you do to combat that feeling? Tell me in the comments!

Taking the Risk to Dance

I saw this image quote on Facebook today and started thinking about risk and dance.

via the PVD Lady Project

I don’t think most of us think of dance as a “risky” behavior generally. It’s not particularly dangerous and or even uncommon.

But any time you put your heart and soul into something, there is risk involved, because you’re vulnerable.

And dancing – whether it’s learning a new style, dancing in front of or with other people, or just getting comfortable with moving your body – is not just a physical exercise. It’s emotional; it’s spiritual. It requires both strength and vulnerability.

I can think of a lot of situations in which dancing could be seen as a risk that someone would be afraid to take:

  • Dancing with people after being told their whole life that they’re not a good dancer (or having told other people that).
  • Being terrific at a certain dance style and then trying a new style and being a beginner again.
  • Choreographing a dance and performing it and wondering whether people will “get it” or even like it at all. Or worse, criticize or mock it.
  • Dealing with physical injuries or limitations and taking dance classes with people who are in “better shape”.
  • Learning to dance a partner dance and worrying that the other leader or follower will not enjoy the dance.

I could think of many more scenarios where dancing is scary. It’s emotionally dangerous and risky because it triggers a lot of fears and shame we may be harboring about our own bodies and what others will think or say about us.

But, of course, the exciting things happen when we can recognize something as scary and risky and decide to push through and see what happens!

I’ve been pushing myself out of my shell more and more in the Reggaeton Fusion class I’ve been taking and it’s been feeling great. I feel more confident, have more fun and I think I’m improving as a dancer.

Last week, on my birthday, I even volunteered to do our choreography solo. I was so glad I did! We all dance in a circle while students do the choreography in the middle as we clap and cheer them on. I felt so much birthday love from the other students 🙂 and I was really proud of myself for just going for it. I didn’t have to be a perfect performer and there was no real reason to be scared. It turned out to be one of the highlights of my birthday this year!

What about you? Does dancing ever feel scary to you? What risks do you take so that you can enjoy dancing more or grow as a dancer?

You Have a Right to Dance

National Dance Week started last Friday, April 26, so it’s a great time to celebrate dance in your life!

No matter what your experience has been with dance, no matter what you’ve been told or what you’ve believed, how you’ve compared yourself to others or how you’ve worried about getting the steps – know this: Dancing is your birthright.

Every human being has an internal rhythm. Literally – it’s our heartbeat. And we all have the capacity for great joy and great love. Add those ingredients together and you’ve got dance.

You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to look perfect. You don’t have to know the steps or get the rhythm just right or master the technique.

All you have to do is hear music and let it move you. Breathe, smile, enjoy.

Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Dance Advice from my Mother

I was reading the new issue of Real Simple magazine and the Editor’s Note was all about advice from moms. The editorial staff shared the favorite words of advice they’d received from their moms over the years.

It got me thinking about advice my mom has given me and one bit in particular popped out.

She once told me that when someone asks you to dance for the first time, always say “yes”.

One time I said yes to dancing bachata with a guy in drag - go-go boots, sequined dress, blonde wig, the works! (It was the weekend before Halloween, but it still felt...strange.)

This may not seem like a big thing, but it takes a lot of nerve to go up to a stranger and ask them to dance. I’ve adopted my mom’s philosophy as my own, thinking that I can always dance ONE dance with anyone.

It doesn’t mean I have to say yes every time or even finish the dance. If dancing together makes me feel uncomfortable – whether it’s a rough style or the person is drunk or creepy – I reserve the right to stop the dance or say no next time.

On rare occasions if I’m taking a break for my feet or to get some water, I might say “not right now”.

But, for the most part, I say “yes”. It doesn’t mean I always end up with the perfect partner for me, but it does make me feel good to share a dance with someone and not contribute to any feelings of dance rejection.

I’m not saying everyone should do this since everyone (especially women) needs to set “yes” and “no” boundaries that work for them, but it works for me.

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What advice about dancing has helped you?  Tell me in the comments!