If you can read, you can cook. Right? There is some truth in that. Reading and following instructions are fundamental to the process.
So, does it follow that if you can count, you can dance?
Sometimes, some days, all I've got going for me are the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.
For example, I took a couple of jazz classes in New York a few years ago. I was nervous going in. The warmup? No problem, went fine. The music? Michael Jackson. A known quantity.
The choreography? Oh yeah, the combination. Yeah, that was harder. It had all of these quick turns and changes of direction. After class, she told me that her apartment was small, so when she made up the combinations, she had to keep changing directions. Well, I needed a map. I couldn't remember what came next. Where to go. Where to look.
For 15 minutes, I was working on the first 32 counts, and she'd moved on. Moved on! The song was half over, and I was still working on the beginning. I moved to the back of the room, to get out of the way of other dancers. I looked at the clock -- nearly 40 minutes left in class. 40 minutes of potential humiliation. I wondered if I ought to fein a cramp or grab my dance bag and run out of the studio gagging, with my hand cupped to my mouth.
After four years in adult dance classes, I recognize the look on other dancers' faces when they are new and feeling in over their heads. The teacher teaches too fast. The steps are too hard. The music is unfamiliar. Those things may be true, but here's what I believe: You're the only one who knows that. And you're your own worst critic. No one is there to watch you. That huge 9-foot mirror? That's for you. Dancers watch themselves. So if you ever find yourself in that situation, decide what it will take for you to stay in the class.
In those painful situations, I decide to focus on one.step.at.a.time. It makes me appear quite serious. So be it. I stuck it out in that particular NY class by breaking her choreography into pieces and thinking only about those pieces before moving on. Count one: right foot. Count two: both arms up/knee up. Count three: jump. It is tedious. But after I embraced that strategy, I was HAPPY to have 40 minutes with the combination. At first, it seemed like an eternity. Time became my ally, because the class danced the combination many, many times. By the end of the class, I had learned about 2/3 of it, and not especially well. But I got to "dance it" and I felt pretty good. After class, I thanked the teacher for a fun class. She smiled, she knew I'd been struggling. "I can tell you know a lot," she said with a helpful shrug.
At least I know how to count ...
Of course, sometimes that flies out the window, and two experiences come to mind.
I accidentally found myself in an advanced modern class a few years ago. (I thought I was waiting for ballet to begin.) By the time I realized my mistake, I thought it would be rude to leave. So I stayed. [cue raucous laughter]
I have very little (read: practically none) "vocabulary" of modern dance movement in my body. Toward the end of the 90-minute (!) class, I was applying my one-count-at-a-time strategy. Except this dance was counted in sevens and in movements that I have no names for. The teacher came and whispered in my ear: "I know you've never done this before, it's okay. I don't know where we get the impression that we need to be perfect when we dance."
"Ballet teachers," I whispered back.
So what about hip-hop? Hahahahaha...yeah. Tonight I took a hip-hop class that is completely new to me. I knew what I was getting into. There's not really any counting in hip-hop. Maybe and-an-eight. Maybe and-a-one. You may hit the beginning middle and end of a phrase -- but hip-hop choreography floats between the lyric, an ever-shifting bassline, percussion -- the movement is precise but smooth. (It sure wouldn't hurt if I listened to hip-hop music, but I don't.)
As one of my dance friends said to me a few years ago, referring to our Broadway jazz class, "it was a revelation that I could get better at something for which I have no natural ability." That's the way I look at hip-hop. Bring it on, I'll work on it, surely something will happen. Can't get worse, right?
My friend Rachel nailed it this week when she wrote about being okay with being terrified when you're doing something new. I was channeling a little bit of that NY jazz class in hip-hop tonight when I found myself looking at the clock. I was so bad, the teacher singled me out for a sweet "do what you can" pep talk. I'd be lying if I said THAT wasn't a little embarrassing. I really wanted to look him in the eye and say "It's okay, don't worry about me. I'm here to do what I can and learn what I can't."
And even when I'm bad, it's all good.
And it's still fun.