So You Think You Can’t Dance

Just pretend that I’m not here, watching your every move, Spongebob Squarepants drones from a computer in the library’s children’s room, where Shmuley is in is element, working on some quasi-educational program. Spongebob–that rude, uncouth, sponge–is verboten in our household (the kid is only four, we have no television, I’d say it’s a good parenting decision, for now), but in a weak moment I let him play the Spongebob spelling game, under the pretense of its educational value. Really I just wanted a minute and a half to myself.

I’m not a stay-at-home parent, by training or inclination, and I’m reminded, in these long and frankly painful weeks between the end of the school year and the (blessed) beginning of day camp, that I am not cut out for such a life. I should be grateful for a healthy child and for the flexibility of a work schedule that affords me this time, but at the moment, “having it all”–working and having this child attached within ten feet of my person at all times seems an arrangement better left for the birds. I’m ready to lean in, just, you know, over a cliff.

So I am motivated to exercise, with something resembling compulsion, on the days that I am home with my child. I am fortunate to be a member of a Y with unlimited, inclusive onsite childcare (amein) and this means I am able to tap into hours of blessed, fitness-related freedom.

I’m training for a marathon (more on that later), so before I leave the gym, I’ll run, but first I take a dance class, which brings brings me great, almost irrational pleasure.

The beauty of adult amateur dance class is that everyone takes it seriously yet no one gives an F. This is not the Joffrey Ballet; you are not being evaluated on technique or talent, skill or training. The point is not to be the best. All you need to bring is joy.

For a long time I believed I couldn’t dance–this, despite years of practice, informal and formal; intense training under the watchful eye of seasoned teachers, and even the admonitions of professional dancers. You’re actually great! my friend K, my favorite dancer, repeatedly implored. I could not believe.

The culture of dance–exacting judgments, intense body scrutiny, the calls to lose ten or twenty pounds immediatement–was not for me. I had taken up dance too late; I was not a serious enough student; I had the wrong attitude and the wrong shape and the wrong look. Teachers suggested I had perfect feet but a terrible body for ballet (true); told me even at your thinnest, no one will be able to lift you, I should take up modern instead, and I hated the scrutiny, and the demands, so the exclusionary judgments came as a terrible relief and I quit before I could realize my potential.

I was wedded to this narrative of limitation, stood beneath the chuppah of my own making, and married myself to constraint. I stopped dancing. I couldn’t dance; I wouldn’t dance. It never felt true exactly, but like many of the lies we tell ourselves, it felt safe.

Later, I amended my narrative to something slightly less pathetic. I was still a terrible dancer, you see, but something shifted and I no longer cared as much–I liked to dance, so I’d dance anyway.

Today, in that class, I faced myself and my aging body in the mirror.

Not being able to dance is not a crime against humanity, I reasoned, I had nothing to prove, it didn’t matter, I was dancing for the pleasure and not for the performance.

And that was true, and it was okay.

But as I contemplated my reflection, I realized I was actually good. Not Bolshoi good, naturally, but YMCA good, for certain. I could move and I had come to play. The idea that I was terrible had been another lie. I wasn’t Baryshnikov or Beyoncé, obviously, but I had moves and I put them on the floor. I didn’t require anyone’s permission, endorsement, or validation. I could dance. All along, I could dance. This brought another truth: at some point, I alone decided that I couldn’t. Dancing was a decision, I realized, a revelation and maybe for an hour in that studio, life itself. It exhilarated me, although I was still a little afraid. I paused for a minute to take in the tempo; the dance had shifted when the music changed. Pay attention, mija! my instructor called to me, smiling, maybe you can learn something. Like Spongebob in the library, she was watching my every move. I turned my attention away from my body in the mirror and back to my teacher. I picked my moves up and dusted the fear that lingered away.