Saturday, December 10, 2011

You Have A Mental Problem



Lesson with Ivan

It is ironic that in my last post I mentioned that for me dancing is somewhat of a spiritual practice.  I arrived at my lesson with Ivan today expecting the usual work out and practicing of technique but the work we did today was so much deeper than that, and for me, potentially life-changing. 

Today Ivan and I talked about the essence of dance, why people even do it.  The reason, I think, is self-expression.  Deep down we all want to be seen, heard, acknowledged (I certainly do).  Dance is one medium for this.  But many of us (me included) have learned to cow ourselves in, edit ourselves, hold back, make sure that everything we say or do is perfect or politically correct or socially acceptable.  Now I'm not advocating for people to do whatever they want without considering the consequences or how it may affect others but I do think holding back has prices, steep prices, that I've been paying to my detriment.

The feedback Ivan has given me is that it's killing me.  When I hold back, I kill the movement in my body that could be.  I stop myself for fear of looking bad, doing it wrong, being ridiculed, or to prevent people from judging me.  I'm afraid of being vulnerable and really letting go.  If I did, everyone would think I was too much or a diva or making a fool of myself.  They would see my imperfections, and no one wants to see that, right?

The reality is, however, that holding back does me no favors.  Why can't I just embrace the idea that I'm gonna look bad when I'm first learning a step and even when praticing it?  I have to experiment to find the right placement of my foot, my balance, how to settle into the hip, and not every try is going to look good, espeically right off the bat.  I am probably going to be doing something "wrong" too.  I don't know how to do all this dance stuff, that's why I'm taking lessons, so to expect myself to do it all "right" is an impossible expectation that sets me up to fail every time.  Finally, people will judge me.  We all judge each other all the time.  It is a a fact of the human experience.  I have to accept this fact and go be me and dance anyways.

I have to think of it like this:  how would I be toward a child learning to dance?  Would I expect a 3 year old to do the steps perfectly every time?  Would I berate her for doing it "wrong?" Would I yell at her as I so often do to myself in my own head?  Or would I encourage her, tell her what she is doing right, praise her for her progress and forgive any backtracking?  Would I think she was precious and darling just as she was and value her for no other reason that that?  Would I acknowledge the effort she put forth?  Probably so.

But for me this is not as simple as it sounds.  I get really caught up in my head about how I look, how I'm doing everything wrong, how I'll never get it right, how my body isn't a "dancer's" body.  As Ivan says it, I have a mental problem.

Now you have to understand that Ivan is from Bulgaria so English is a second language.  Sometimes the way he says things cracks me up.  Usually you tell someone they have a mental problem if they are psychotic, but in this case I get his point.  I psych myself out of owning my beauty, my greatness, my expressiveness before I even take the first step.  I am looking to him for feedback if I'm doing okay rather than simply dancing and loving it and staying centered in myself.

This is tricky too.  I have to stay centered in myself but not get so caught up in my own experience that I forget to connect with my partner.  Ivan says this is selfish, that I'm not sharing myself with him or the audience when I do this.  Also, I have to dance myself, be on my own two feet, and not rely on him to pull me or push me, but still stay in the dance with him, simply responding to his invitation to move in a particular direction and choosing of my own volition to do so.  I have discovered that it is completely possible to be dancing alongside someone and even to be in a hold together but not be dancing with them.  I want the connection but I cut it off at the same time. 

I have asked myself what the appeal of ballroom dancing is for me.  I have a theory that we seek out those experiences that teach us what we most need to learn.  For me, it is embracing vulnerablility, loving myself, owning my power, expressing myself, and connecting authentically with others.  I'm deficient in all these areas and ballroom dancing is the perfect therapy.  When I reflect on it as art form, I love it specifically because when the connection is there, when the partners are 100% with themselves and also at the same time 100% with each other and 100% sharing that with the audience (yes I know that adds up to 300%, but we are talking synergy here, people) the effect is magical.  I want to be that.  I want to live like that.  And I get to practice it when I'm dancing.

But the holding back, my "mental problem" creates a barrier within my own body and between me and everyone else.  As Ivan tells me, I am looking at him but not really seeing him.  Nor, I realize, in effect allowing him or anyone watching to see me.  It is what I so deeply desire, to be seen, but so deeply fear at the same time.  I feel naked, vulnerable to really open up like that.  Yet that is why I even dance!  I admit it, I'm a mess!

So I guess Ivan's right, I do have a mental problem.  I have been believing the illusion that I am not worthy enough to be seen.  But I don't think I'm alone in this.  Ivan shared with me he also has a "mental problem."  He also makes up stories about himself that are negative.  And so does his exquisitely beautiful partner and wife.  I think we can all find things about ourselves we dislike.  But if I dance focused on this, everyone can feel it.  If I am scared or insecure or ashamed, those watching me can feel it.  The good news is that if I am loving me and confident and happy, they can feel that too.

At the end of my lesson Ivan told me to stop trying to be somebody, to quit trying so hard and to quit attempting to emulate anyone else.  He told me I am very feminine and soft in my movements and to embrace that, finding how a step will look best on me, not anyone else.  It is up to me to make the choice in every moment to break down the wall, release this dam, and allow myself to be seen authentically, vulnerably, and whole-heartedly, whatever that looks like along the way.

I think this blog is a step in the right direction.

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  1. I have only met you once, but you are amazing. Ivan is a very smart dance teacher. Reading this makes me realize I have forgotten to have this discussion with my own students. I am sending them all here to read this blog to realize they are not alone in their struggles to become a better dancer. I also try to get them to understand as we grow as a dancer, we grow as a person. Thank you for your post.

  2. This is a wonderful blog and I hope you will continue it. I actually do have a mental problem...PTSD. I started taking ballroom dance lessons in June and I learned more about trust in the first two months of dance lessons than in ten years of therapy.

    No disrespect to the sciences of psychology and psychiatry...without them I would probably not still be alive...but I am finding it is through what I am learning in the ballroom am a really begining to live.

    Dance is fun and beautiful but it demands that you be present, that you show up heart, mind, body and soul and it does not matter if that heart is broken or whole. The ballroom has no favorite has just as much to give to the broken hearted as it does to the strong.

    Thanks for sharing these things in your blog.

  3. This post is getting shared around facebook...very nicely said, and congrats on the epiphany!

  4. A very nice blog you have shared, I too am a dance teacher and also taking Ballroom Dancing. I am happy to share this with my students and friends thank you....

  5. Stef,

    Oscar Wilde said, "Be yourself, everyone else is taken." You know who you are and your abilities to be internal and from there you will tap into your greatness. If it helps watch this 2min video. Watch it to the very end to get the full effect.
    How you perceive your situation becomes your reality. As you continue to tap into your greatness and give yourself permission to be successful and accept your internal power you will be in complete sync in your own life, relationships and in your career. Keep up all the amazing work you do. Sincerely Woody Woodward