Dance Lesson Torture: Then and Now
~By Melissa Wiley, Families in the Loop
Dance recitals are not for the faint of heart. Nor the flat-footed. Nor clowns, come to think of it, though I have been all those things while standing on stage in sequined attire among a group of females considerably more poised than myself.
My first recital took place at age 5. The teacher was perfectly kind and lovely, with a clear, lilting voice, and my eyesight at that time was fully capable of clearly observing her every movement as well as my own through the wall-length mirror. The only problem was that no one had taught me the meaning of the word “lesson.” Or “teacher” for that matter, which I assumed simply meant another nice woman with wavy auburn hair who wasn’t my mother and liked to wear leotards instead of normal clothes.
Just because all the other little girls were shuffling their metal-plated shoes in time with this woman who wasn’t my mother didn’t mean I was supposed to do the same — did it? Certainly the question never arose inside my head. I was far too preoccupied with standing invisibly in the back row gazing out at the window at a German Shepherd, whose amber-colored tail was tickling an impassive tree trunk. Bewitching stuff, needless to say.
The recital, such as it was, did not prove a success, at least in my mother’s eyes. Afterwards, as I was standing awkwardly and hopelessly round-stomached in the obligatory glittery clown costume, she asked, “Honey, didn’t you pay attention in class at all?” Well yes, I had paid intense amounts of attention — to the German Shepherd, the curling blue paint chips decorating the window ledge, the soft and soothing quality of my teacher’s voice, and the shiny tips of my black leather shoes, which I swiped across the floor in rhythm with the German Shepherd’s tail on occasion. Was there something I missed?
Oddly enough, when at home I lost no opportunity to tap in time to Shirley Temple reruns on the VCR, making as much noise as my little legs could muster. I watched every one of her spitfire numbers at least thirty times, thanks to Christmas and an overly generous Aunt Millie. As my mother could easily attest, I was a dancing fiend. Out of the public eye at least. I just wasn’t made for an audience.
So it’s little wonder that in the scores of lessons I’ve taken since, beginning at the tender age of 29, I haven’t graduated beyond stage 1 in any of them. At the beloved Old Town School of Folk Music, I’ve taken tap 1, Irish step 1, Argentinean tango 1, hip hop and urban social dance 1, flamenco 1, Middle Eastern belly dance 1, and Zumba, though the latter is not strictly a dance — it’s one hellofa confusing workout dressed up as a dance, which is a little deceitful for my tastes. I’ve also contracted whiplash via a two-hour West African dance workshop taught by the inspiring and fantastically limber Muntu Dance Theatre and been spun into an unforgiving cinderblock wall at a contra dance session with the Chicago Barn Dance Company.
In short, I’m still trying to understand what “dance lesson” means. Ostensibly, it implies that a dance is something you can do rightly or wrongly, though when you have Ms. Temple as your idol the question is almost a moot one. For me, Shirley’s inscrutable rhythms, chubby dimpled legs, and curly moptop will always remain the pinnacle of good form. And what grown woman can live up to that? Certainly not I, even when I sleep in curlers. So, as I see it, an endless round of experimentation is my only option. The upside? No more recitals.
[Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt]