It was 1999 and I was dancing to Black Legend’s ‘See the Trouble with Me’ on top of a table in a bar aided by a half dozen sticky red shots. I felt good, free, sexy even and not as self-conscious as I usually did until a baldy headed bar owner shouted up at me; ‘Jesus my grannie can dance better than you.’
In that moment I was back to being the old teenage me again; shy, scared to be seen and certainly not someone who danced on tables. I laughed it off at the time but his comment and the tone of it dug deep.
The scar however was already there; he had merely cut back into it.
When I was five I joined a dance school. I remember being allowed to take part in my first show and competition. The prizes mainly consisted of a white satin sash with the category printed across it in fancy black writing.
I longed to win something. So I tap-danced and poked my tongue out in concentration as I swooped my tiny majorette stick in a figure of eight shape and I strutted my stuff when it came to the final category; ‘Miss Strutteze’. I held my head high on the stage and clip clopped round in a circle in my white tap shoes and black leotard. In that moment I wanted the prize not only for myself but also for my parents who were in the audience. I wanted to show them I was capable of being good at something.
I could almost feel that sash being placed over my head.
It wasn’t to be. My neighbour; the pretty, sallow skinned, full of confidence girl next door won it. I remember watching as the sash was placed over her head, billowing in the breeze from the air conditioning as she glanced over at me with what felt like a smug grin.
I later moved on to Irish dancing. The small stout teacher who used to whack the backs of my legs with a cane to get me to jump higher seemed impressed initially. That was until my sister joined a few weeks later and the teacher announced; ‘wow and I thought you were the good one.’
It didn’t stop me entering competitions; a mix of sibling rivalry and a focus for my early teenage energy. I gave it everything in those competitions but never won anything. I secretly felt devastated. Internally the seed was sown; I’m just not good enough. Now, I can see that it’s not about the winning but 13 year old me would not understand that.
The high school disco was where I think the real damage occurred although funnily enough it wasn’t to do with my actual dancing. A friend paired me up with the ‘cool’ guy in our year. I couldn’t believe that he wanted (or was willing) to dance with me. We were doing a sort of slow awkward dance like 14 year olds do. Another ‘cool’ guy danced past us and shouted whilst glaring at me; ‘what are you doing with her?’
I still can feel the shame, the tightening of my stomach muscles as I feared being rejected right there on the dance floor. The guy I was dancing with seemed to shrug it off however the comment played over and over in my mind- what was he doing dancing with me? I wasn’t worthy and everyone else seemed to know it.
It was only recently after a friend posted a video of herself dancing beautifully free and unselfconsciously on Instagram that I began to question why I don’t dance anymore. I guess not going out clubbing and using alcohol to lower my inhibitions plays a huge part. Sometimes for my son’s sake I’ve bounced around the living-room with him- kids don’t care how we dance. But I’ve never enjoyed the relaxing and releasing freedom of dancing just for me.
It seems I’m not alone in how I feel as many women (and men) I’ve spoken to have shared their stories of being humiliated creatively in their childhood. So why do we allow those meaningless comments to limit and define us? How many times have we stopped doing something, especially something creative that we have enjoyed because of someone else’s criticism? It made me feel sad and angry too.
I decided to take action.
Every day I’ve been putting music in my bedroom and I’ve been dancing. It was awkward as hell the first few times, I felt like I was 14 again, rigid and robotic. I judged, condoned and criticised myself. But then slowly, surely it’s become easier, I have loosened up and it’s felt fun.
Here are some steps you can try;
- Find a track that gets you moving your body (like Rara Avis Footsteps, Deva Premal Gayatri Mantra or Krishna Dass Rama Bolo).
- Close your eyes and allow yourself to feel the music- move with it.
- Allow any self- critical or ‘this is silly’ thoughts to pass by. Say ‘thanks for sharing that,’ and carry on.
- Let your arms and hands move freely. Loosen and swing your hips.
- You may feel like laughing uncontrollably at the apparent absurdity of dancing alone- if so have a good giggle! It’s a great release!
- If you feel a strong emotion rise, let it. If its sadness have a cry. Try doing a self- comforting hug dance!
- Let out any anger you may feel at those comments which have held you back and dance it out to a faster beat. (Such as Born Slippy by Underworld)
Dancing can remain something that’s just for you, a way to get back in touch with your feelings, your body and your emotions.
This goes for any sort of creative endeavour you have not allowed yourself to do out of fear like drawing, acting, singing or writing. Start off doing these things in the safety of your own home and then slowly let others see you (if you want them to). It can be transformative and healing.
We can’t allow those past throwaway comments to define who we are or to crush our spirit. How many people have never tried again out of fear? How many people have gone to their graves without picking up a paintbrush again or let themselves dance freely or step back up onto a stage?
I’d recommend putting on some music, some paints or a journal and see where it takes you. It may lead you back to parts of yourself you long abandoned, to that little kid who is jumping for joy that you’ve came back.