What we really do through partner dance is help people become more themselves. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we long to step out of our supporting role in other people’s lives and become the hero of our own story, to step out of the colorless, ordinary day-to-day life to one of Technicolor and magic, filled with unlimited possibilities, to become “larger than life”.
But most of us, as Caroline McHugh says in her TED talk on The Art of Being Yourself, “do not take up nearly the space the universe intended for us; we take up this wee space around our toes. Which is why when we see someone in the full flow of their humanity, …they are at least a foot bigger in every direction than normal human beings. And they shine, they gleam, they glow. It’s like they’ve swallowed the moon.”
Lawrence Elkin, founder of National Dance Clubs used to talk of the “presence” of a ballroom dancer: the confidence and power of someone who has faced the fear of what people might think, to become more of who they would like to be and who they can be, and to transform through the power of partnership dance into a person more confident in their own skin and able to inhabit more fully their own space.
We see people that come into the ballroom for the first time trying physically to take up less space, to shrink into themselves so as to become almost invisible: their head sinks down into their body like a turtle’s as their shoulders rise up to their ears, their arms pull in close as though the are afraid of bumping into people and things around them. They are afraid to be noticed because they are afraid of being judged and found wanting. We hear nervous laughter and self-deprecating comments about themselves or their partner to shield themselves from what others might say or think; they apologize all the time. We see people who cultivate an image and wardrobe designed to be shapeless and unremarkable. And we love these people.
We love them because we know they are ready to become more themselves in spite of their fears; we see where they are and can imagine where they will be as they journey down their path of self-discovery, and we love to see the transformation in the way they carry themselves, the way the think of themselves, and the way they present themselves. They begin to shine, to gleam, to glow. Their whole life becomes a dance. Not only are they able to become more gloriously themselves, they are able to give and take with those around them in partnership and encouragement.
The saying in the dance business is that the hardest step in learning to dance is the one through the front door. Crossing the threshold takes great courage because it is not just a physical doorway, but a spiritual one: the transition between who you think you are and who you wish you could be. Caroline McHugh calls this an “Interval of Possibility”. These are challenging times, and most people “would rather sleepwalk until something happens to wake us up.” People settle into their comfort zones at home, at work, in their relationships and often are moved only through dramatic events to any kind of change. We can live our whole lives on autopilot if we are not careful. McHugh says, “The problem is when it happens catastrophically, you are vulnerable; you are weak. And my question is, why wouldn’t you ask yourself [who you really are] when you are strong? From a position of health?”
So many people when they entertain the notion of coming in for a dance lesson put it off for another day. They wait till their relationship is in trouble, till they have drifted apart or feel unappreciated or unheard. They wait till they have lost their spouse. They wait until they realize they must exercise or face greater health costs. They wait for the perfect time, which is actually right now at this “interval of possibility,” not some undefined time in the future when catastrophe forces us to change. At these times, “when you sense your potential for change is heightened…You know if you make that change the speed of your life will change,” and that scares people. You reach that moment when you are at a crossroads of the choice to remain the same or to become more, become better, and as McHugh says, our job is to be better and better each year, not to relive the same year over and over.
Ballroom dance, with its fabulous costumes, the expressiveness of the movements and music, and its collaborative creativity with your partner is a perfect way to explore who you are with color, music, and movement. Ballroom dance expands your heart, your mind, and your spirit, making you seem “larger than life” to those around you because you feel more confident in being more authentically you. Ballroom dance connects you with your partner and your audience. It can give you the courage to continue to grow and shine and gleam in all aspects of your life, and “Not only will the speed of your life get quicker, not only will the substance of you life get richer, but you will never feel superfluous again.”