I have always loved dance and dancing. It’s in my blood, probably. My grandmother, who never let truth stand in the way of fiction, often spoke about some distant family member, Danish royalty, apparently, who was sent to South Africa as punishment for dancing. She was a very talented dancer, the story goes, but behaved disgracefully – I think she danced barefoot, or something – and was banished from the family. My father’s conclusion to the story is that she then spent the rest of her days ‘dancing barefoot in Kraaifontein’.
My parents met each other at what was probably called a ‘social’ back in the day – a place where people went to dance; kind of like a ballroom rave – and were both very talented dancers. My dad, at age 85, can still pull out a few decent moves on the dance floor. My mom is more prone to foot tapping and in-chair bopping.
As a child I desperately wanted to take ballet classes. I have no idea how I came to know about ballet. It wasn’t something my parents had any interest in, I had not seen it on stage and we had no television in those days. But I became obsessed. I didn’t get to take ballet classes until I was way too old – about age 12, I think – but I collected books and went to shows whenever I could convince my mom to take me to the Nico Malan. I remember playing a bean in a school concert and sitting amongst all the other vegetables and flowers in their cardboard and crepe paper costumes watching the school’s golden girl pirouette across the stage on her tippy toes. I was mesmerised. Maybe that’s where I fell in love with tutus.
As I grew older, I replaced the desire for ballet lessons with the quest for ballroom dancing classes. The problem with ballroom dancing is that, as they say, it takes two to tango. I needed a partner. Finding a guy who had any interest in ballroom dancing back in the eighties was not so easy. In fact, as a girl, finding a guy who will take up an activity with you purely for the sake of the activity and not in the hopes of a bit of something on the side is not so easy.
I tried a few times. I had a partner, we went for lessons, we did pretty well for a while and then he became more interested in me than in the dancing. I was more interested in the dancing than in him. So our partnership – and my dance lessons – ended.
When I married my first husband, I tried the ‘let’s go for ballroom dancing lessons’ project again. He was ready to try most things and soon we were stiffly foxtrotting in in tight circles under the stern gaze of dance teachers, Brian and Charmaine.
We tried a few competitions, which was quite fun. Until the night we stood in the middle of the dance floor, ready to compete in the cha-cha heat, and he drew a blank. We just stood there, me looking puzzled (and annoyed) and him staring wide-eyed at the wall behind me. He couldn’t remember a single step. And so that was that.
The ballroom dancing idea got shelved and I took up other things instead – things that didn’t need a partner, like painting, for example. We got divorced (not because of the cha-cha) and life as a single mom was too busy and skint for dance classes. I got involved with a new man and waited about a decade into the relationship before I tried the ‘let’s go for ballroom dancing lessons’ line again.
I had high hopes for this partnership. The fellow knows his music, has good rhythm, can hold a tune and had, from time to time, shown some adventurous dance moves … granted, those moves had been generously lubricated and rather, ehrm, freestyle.
Anyway. We gave it a go. It did not go that well. It turns out ‘freestyle’ is really more his style and counting and walking (or dancing – but, really, it was more walking) at the same time can be quite hard for a guy. So he quit. But this time I carried on. The world had changed over the two decades since I last tried to take dance classes. You could now join a class without having a partner. If you wanted to dance competitively, there was something called ProAm – the Pro being the teacher and the Am being the student.
Finally! I was now in my forties, pissed off that I had missed twenty years of dancing, and determined not to miss the next twenty. I signed up for two half-hour private lessons a month, later increased the half-hour lessons to two one-hour lessons a month and then, later, to four one-hour lessons a month. It cost me a fortune and getting to the lessons through traffic and on the other side of town was quite a commitment, especially since my deadline-driven work and kid-schlepping would often work against me.
But I loved it. It was tough, sometimes, to remember all the steps and variations of all the different dance styles, but when it all came together – ah man! There was nothing like it. Moving across the dance floor, rising and falling and turning to the rhythm of a waltz was for me as exciting as a swirling roller coaster ride.
Some politics at the dance school saw my dance teacher leave abruptly, without a goodbye, and I was assigned another teacher. But I was in luck. My new dance teacher was a former South African Latin dance champion and had competed internationally. He was a superb dancer and we ended up dancing together for about three years.
I think I exhausted him sometimes; I had so many questions and wanted to do steps over and over until I had the technique right – the way I had seen them done by the pros on YouTube. He appreciated my intensity, though, and we would sometimes spend an entire hour working on one dance variation. We took part in numerous competitions and eventually I was inspired and brave enough to do an exhibition piece at the school’s showcase. And I won some competitions – I did! I won dance competitions. In my age group, of course, and it was in social dance competitions, not professional. I didn’t always win, of course. Sometimes I placed second or third, and I was a pain to be around when that happened. But, generally, I fared pretty well.
And then, again abruptly and without a goodbye, he left. And I was assigned a new dance teacher. A young guy, also a good dancer and quite a good teacher. He was not of the same calibre as my previous teacher, but I felt positive about the new partnership. My previous teacher was smaller than me and I often felt a bit like we were Jack Sprat and his wife, especially after I gained a ton of weight when I took on a stressful in-house job. The new teacher was taller, younger, stronger and I felt we would be able to put some exciting dances together. It was also time for a change, I thought, as it seemed I was able to dance only with one person.
I don’t know what happened, though. I don’t know if the new guy needed very desperately to prove that he was a better dancer and dance teacher than the previous guy, or if he was really just very earnest in his efforts to teach, but I came to dread each lesson. Every step I took was criticised. Every step I took was wrong. I became flustered and lost confidence. I would forget how to do even the most basic steps. When I did a step well, he made out that it was because he had taught it to me, not because I had learnt it from my previous teacher.
And he talked too much. He talked and talked. About himself, about his girlfriend, about his computer games. He just talked. I wanted to dance. He wanted to talk. And he always had a hand on me, somewhere. On my back, on my waist, holding my hands. There was always contact, even if we weren’t dancing. it was all too close, too much.
Soon I started feeling not so good about myself. I started feeling stupid and inept. I would start feeling depressed at the thought of going to my dance classes. All I could foresee for the next hour was constant criticism; a litany of what I do not do well.
For six years my classes had brought me joy – sure there were ups and downs along the way, but mostly my lessons brightened my life – and now they were cause for glumness. I would leave most of my lessons fighting back the tears.
I decided I was strong enough to work through this. The South African Dance Foundation’s National Championships was coming up. I would enter. I had no confidence that I would do well and we had not worked through a full set of dance steps for any dance style in months. But with focus and hard work I knew could be ready in two weeks – just to take part, to be there, not to come home with any medals. All I needed was for my dance partner to also focus and work with me. I needed him on my side.
My previous teacher wanted to win as much as I did. We worked together. We decided what dances we were going to do, what steps, where we were going to be on the dance floor, where we needed to move to so that we would be most visible to the judges. He wasn’t perfect. He also focused more on his own dances than on the dances he did with me – he was a professional and he was competitive. But he knew what he was doing and I could trust him to be on my side when the time came.
I paid for extra lessons and booked an hour’s lesson each day for the four days running up to the competition. I worked out a game plan. I could do this thing. I had four hours in which to get competition ready. Lesson one went okay. Then my dance partner cancelled lesson two. He had hurt his back doing a lift in a routine he was going to be doing in the competition. I was down to three hours of preparation, not four. I turned up for lesson three (which now, of course, was only lesson two). He was glazed over from the pain killers he was taking and we spent the first part of the hour walking around the dance floor doing the waltz basic. Basic. Six years of dancing and a competition two days away and we do the basic step – one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, round and round the floor.
‘Why are we doing this?’ I wanted to know.
‘To see if you can concentrate,’ he said.
No, that was not patronizing or insulting at all. And the truth was that he was too spaced out on whatever painkillers he had taken, and possibly too sore, to do anything else.
We did the tango next, or the foxtrot. Something. I can’t remember. But he threw in a step I didn’t know. I had had enough. I had less two hours left to prepare for a dance competition. I didn’t need random surprise steps thrown in. Not unless they were going to be incorporated into the steps we’re going to be doing for the competition.
‘That’s a level two step,’ he said, with what I perceived, in my sensitive and probably overwrought state, to be a sneer.
I stood in the middle of the dance floor. I remember the sharp light coming in from the door on the far side of the hall. I remember how the grey floor shone and how cold it was. Something I had loved all my life, something that made me feel good, something that I had thought I had some small talent for, was being ruined by some guy who was no one in my life.
I walked out. I quit. I never went back.
I threw away a pot of money that day. Dance competitions are expensive, I had entered and I didn’t take part. And I continued to believe that I my dancing was crap. The previous successes had been a fluke. I had been delusional. The judges had been drunk. I don’t know. But my dancing was crap, obviously.
Last night I sat clearing photos and videos from my iPad. The cracked old thing is so full of stuff that it doesn’t have sufficient memory to upgrade the software, so I was loading some pics and videos onto Dropbox and deleting those that were junk. There were a whole lot of dance videos, recorded while we (my previous dance partner and I) were practicing my routines so that we could remember the steps and see what needed to improve.
The frozen images on the video thumbnails were pretty eeuw! They showed, without compromise, how much weight I had gained during that unhappy, stressful time that I was bound to a desk in-house at a publishing company. Luckily my marathon training has rid me of that lard and has whittled down my waistline somewhat.
I was going to delete them all without looking at them but then, as one does when driving past an accident on the highway, I decided to torture myself by taking a look at just how fat I was and just how crap a dancer I was.
I was fat. But I was not such a crap dancer.
No, it’s not Dancing with the Stars, and these are only practice videos, not competition videos. There are flaws. I’m not a professional dancer and I danced only an hour a week, and then not always every week. But I was not that crap. I was certainly not useless enough to give up dancing forever.
The realisation made me somewhat sad. But the videos also taught me a lesson I should have learnt many years ago, and that is:
People who tell you that you are bad at something are not necessarily right. And even if they are, their opinion should not make a moment’s difference in your life. If something brings you joy, whether you have a natural talent for it or not, then no one has the right to spoil it for you.
Do what brings you joy. Everyday life is banal and hard and disappointing enough as it is. You don’t need a Grinch in your life. Chances are that the Grinch or Grinchette in question has his or her own issues and inferiority complexes.