My goal is to perform with a Cuban dance company. Last week was my first rehearsal.

We spent an hour and a half on less than 25 seconds of the choreography. By the end, I was completely drenched in sweat and dying for about three gallons of water. (And a massage.) (And someone to carry me home.)

It was my first day rehearsing with Yeni, the lead dancer and choreographer of Proyecto Rueda de Casino. If you’ve gone out salsa dancing in Havana recently, you’ve seen this dance company. They perform at Mil Ocho three times per week – the iconic salsa spot right at the end of the Malecon. They always perform a variety of styles and they bring a ton of energy to the crowd (they even lead everyone in “line dances” at the end of the performance to get everyone dancing).

About two weeks ago, I finally got up the nerve to ask the director Rodolfo if I could study with them, with the goal of performing with the group at Mil Ocho. He said yes! I’m starting with private sessions with Yeni to learn the choreography before getting integrated with the group.

Here are the highlights from my first rehearsal, plus video below:

  • Early on in our practice, Rodolfo advised that we needed to perfect each phrase before moving on to the next. I needed to do the movements as I would in a performance – bigger, with more energy – so that I would learn them that way from the beginning. Often when I first learn choreography, I don’t do it full out, as I’m focusing on the very basics of the technique. But he was right, it’s better to build the muscle memory of how you’ll be performing from the very start, as it can be harder to add in later.
  • I was hoping and half expecting that we would start with some salsa choreography that would be just salsa steps. Instead we started with a phrase that we’ll be dancing without partners that incorporated son, cha cha, three orisha movements (Elegua, Chango, Ogun), and rumba Columbia. It was actually perfectly Cuban and is what entices me and challenges me here – the dancing is so layered and rich, pulling from a diverse array of inter-related styles. To be able to develop that kind of mastery of movement is why I’m here.
  • “Poco a poco” and “sin miedo” are always the mantras I hear from my dance teachers that I need to remember: “little by little” and “without fear”. You can’t learn everything perfectly at first, it takes time to develop, but you also have to dance it as openly and passionately as you can from the start.
  • Good dancers make everything look so EASY. You can never tell how much work it takes to perfect the steps – and in fact great dancers make it seem like YOU could easily hop up there and do it! But it takes so much work. When I watched my post-game video (me and Yeni dancing the choreo together), I was pleasantly surprised: I looked better than I thought for my first class. You might not have guessed that I would learn a step and then forget it, then have to repeat it, then get it again, and then lose it again with the music, or when I tried it by myself. It looked fairly fluid, although with very obvious spots for cleaning. That gave me a bit of hope.
  • I’m going to have to practice at home – a lot. If I want to progress to the point where I can actually perform with the group before I leave in two months to renew my visa, which is my goal, I need to have everything I’ve learned down perfectly so I can move on to the next steps.
  • Living here is very good for my body and very tough on my body. It’s good because I walk everywhere – including up five flights of stairs to get to my apartment (no elevator!). But it’s tough because I walk everywhere, including five flights of stairs to get to my apartment (no elevator!)– then add in hours of dancing, oppressive heat and humidity, and dealing with muscle weakness and tension built up over 20 years or so – this all makes me very prone to exhaustion and muscle pulls, stiffness and soreness. So….
    • I have to take really, really good care of my body and be realistic about what I can handle. I’ve decided to budget for weekly massages and continue to work on my self-discipline with daily stretching and foam rolling every day. Otherwise, I’m going to get injured.
    • Also, I’ll miss out on good dancing opportunities if I’m not selective about how I spend my time. For example, I was having some soreness in my hip starting last Friday. I went out in heels on Sunday night and drank a bit too much. On Monday, I was too tired to wake up early and go to the immigration office to renew my visa, so I put it off another day. Then I took two hours of salsa and reggaeton classes, which put more pressure on my legs. And I went out dancing that night until about midnight. On Tuesday, I got up at 6:30 to go to the immigration office, which involved a lot of walking, and then I had my first dance rehearsal. By the time I got home, my legs were screaming and my feet were so sore I didn’t want to stand for more than a minute. My body was completely exhausted and I wound up missing out on going to one of my favorite dance spots to see a singer on his last night for a while before he goes on tour. Lesson learned.

So, here’s the video of the choreography with my teacher. I’m laughing at the end because the last steps were the ones I kept messing up over and over and over again, so I was happy that I finally got them!

rehearsal video screenshot** This is on my Facebook page because I was having some issues uploading to YouTube. I also couldn’t get the screenshot to link for some reason. Click here!

So thankful to have this opportunity to grow as a dancer! More updates to come on how rehearsals go and if I’m able to reach my goal of performing with the dance company by July.

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.

 

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.

Follow My Lead!

I don't look "perfect" in this picture, but I'm perfectly happy - in my element, dancing at Burning Man 2007.

I’m on a mission to learn all of the world’s dances.

Since I started taking ballet classes when I was four years old, I’ve loved to dance. I dreamed of being on Broadway, or better yet – on “Fame”. Or, even better yet – on “Solid Gold”.

A Solid Gold Dancer. YES. That was the ultimate dream job in my little Jersey girl mind in the 80’s.

I’m a grown-up now – in fact, I’m a grown-up with a grown-up job in marketing – but I still dream of being a dancer.

In fact, I still think of myself as a dancer. I’m most alive when I’m dancing. It’s like I have a swirling, sparkling disco ball spinning inside of me, shooting beams of light out in all directions. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true.

You know how sometimes, someone just glows? Because they’re just completely in their element? They’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing? That’s me, when I’m dancing.

I’m not saying I’m the best dancer as far as technique goes. Technique is important, but it’s not the passion or the heart of dance.

I’m saying that I’m the first on the floor at your wedding and the last to leave. (And I mean the last – I actually cannot physically leave a wedding before the dancing’s done.) I will try any type of dance.  I’ve taken classes in ballet, contemporary, jazz, salsa, merengue, Argentine tango, ballroom, country line dancing, hip hop and more.

I’m fascinated by every new dance – the music, the rhythms, the steps and the story. Because all dances tell a story – of people, of place, of time. There’s a social context that creates these layers of meaning and feeling to every movement.

It’s not just steps! Dance is a collective story. And it’s the individual dancer’s story.

So. Here it is: Follow My Lead. This is my journey to learn the world’s dances.

I want you to join me. Maybe you’re just like me. If you could chuck it all, you’d spend your whole life traveling the world, learning every dance you could.

Maybe you’re not like me, but you love music, you love history, or you just love witnessing someone else following their passion.

I plan to chart my experiences in the world of dance with articles, photos, videos and playlists – taking you with me as I discover new movements and meaning. Most of all, I want to have fun and share it with you!

So, tell me, what do you love about dancing?