The first dance I ever went to was at Friends Select School. I was in 7th grade, and my previous school hadn’t had dances. I felt instinctively like I would be behind the other kids. This was a new school, and I wanted to make a good impression, so I stood around the edges of the circles of people and attempted to copy whomever appeared to be doing the coolest thing. Every once in awhile a slow song would play, and I was delighted to discover that slow dancing was a three-step process:
- Ask a girl to dance
- Put your hands on her waist while she put her hands on your shoulders.
- Rotate slowly, repeat.
Fortunately, none of these steps required any sort of rhythm or even paying attention to the song that was playing. Bonus points could be achieved by making awkward conversation, and an exodus to the cafeteria followed every dance. There, we would recap the adventure of dancing with another human being, and discuss palm sweat.
By objective standards, my first dance turned out fairly well. I danced with several girls (awesome!), divided my time appropriately between the gym (where the music was) and the cafeteria (where the conversations were), and only was laughed at a couple of times on the dance floor.
I want to talk about this laughing a bit more though. Most of the perceptions I had about dances came from movies or television shows I’d seen. As far as I could tell, the characters on TV and in the movies had two options; they could show off their awesome dance moves, or they could stand against the wall, looking very cool. I suspect many of the other Middle Schoolers had similar understandings because the existence of these two groups were enforced strictly.
It would happen like this: If you were standing against the wall, but not looking cool enough, someone would come over and nag you until you danced. If you were dancing, but not looking cool enough, someone would laugh at you. “What are you doing”? They might say.
Social capital feels like everything in middle school. It was hard not to take the laughter personally. I left feeling a mixture of relief and horror. I had made it through my first dance, but the laughter had confirmed what I already believed. I am a terrible dancer. I am hopelessly behind my peers. If I attempt to learn, I will be mocked.
I attended many dances after that first one. During every one of them I felt shame while I danced, and relief when it ended. In 2008, my first year at Not Back to School Camp, fellow staffer Nathen Lester taught a workshop titled how to dance with other human beings. He advertised it as a dance workshop for anyone, even complete beginners. Attending that workshop changed my life for the better. Nathen taught us simple moves, and I danced with other people who were at the same level as me. I found out that dancing could be fun!
I’m still discovering how much of a revelation that was for me. Just typing the words attending that workshop changed my life for the better made me tear up. How completely unexpected!
This post isn’t really about dancing at all, it’s about shame. It goes back to getting teased on a regular basis throughout elementary school. At some point in my life I had so little self-esteem that a bit of laughter convinced me to shame myself every time I stepped out on a dance floor. I slandered myself, making up inner monologues about lack of rhythm that made it impossible for me to experience joy or improvement in dancing for years!
I wonder how many other opportunities for joy I turned down? How many other pursuits have I not invested time or energy in because at some point someone convinced me that I suck? I have no doubt there are many. My experiences left me feeling insecure and desperate to fit in.
Fortunately for me, I was able to find communities that were both nurturing and challenging. The Young Friends program (Quaker youth group) held weekend long retreats regularly throughout the year and a week-long camp in the summer. The leaders and other young people accepted me in a way that somehow convinced me that I wasn’t worthless. Then they put me in leadership roles which taught me that I was powerful, and they challenged me to be authentic.
I also changed schools. I went to Upattinas, an open community school (similar to a free school) where I was able to take on even more leadership. I had a closer peer group than ever before, and I was able to have meaningful conversations with teachers who helped me to challenge myself and learn.
Nowadays, I spend a lot of my time helping to put together positive experiences for young people. I’m the chair of the board of Upattinas School, logistics coordinator for Not Back to School Camp, assistant coordinator for the Philadelphia area Middle School Quakers program, and a staffer at the Unschool Adventures writing retreat. I love the work, and it’s a way of giving back to the places (and places like them) that made me the person I am now.
Today I love dancing, but I still get anxious about it. Occasionally in the middle of a song I’ll completely lose the rhythm and feel momentary fear while I try to relocate it. Its still something I prefer not to do around people I don’t know well, or whom I’m uncomfortable with. You might not notice it, but my scars are showing.