Monday, 23 October 2017

Maybe if I just close my eyes and breathe...

I told her that I'd see her on Thursday, at Salsa. In truth, I didn't know whether I would be there or not. Recently, I've started to feel that I might turn my back on dancing for a while. To get away, and avoid too many questions, I said I'd be there. Being so economical with the truth didn't sit well with me.

As it happens, I'm feeling quite ill, and it looks unlikely that I'll be able to go on Thursday. The question is, if I was well, would I go? As much as I love dancing, there's a sense that, for me, it may be coming to an end. I have an event to attend in January, with a very good friend, but after that...
I've considered just going to that event, taking a break from dancing in the time between now and then; I've considered just going to the classes and taking a break from the other events; I've considered going to the events and taking a break from classes.

I can't honestly tell you whether I'm feeling like gradually reducing my involvement, with a view to leaving it behind at some point, or I just need to take my foot off the accelerator for a while. All I know is that, right now, I don't love dancing as much as I once did, and it's wholly based on feelings that I bring to the classes and events with me, due to things that have been going on in my life.

I recently recorded a video, in which I danced with a friend with whom I love to dance, and danced my favourite style with her. When I watch that video, I remember how that dance felt. The problem is, that dance reminded me of what it was like to fall in love with dancing, and too many dances now feel like I'm just going through the motions.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Two years of dance

I've been learning to dance for two years now. I started with modern jive and, a few months later, I started learning salsa. I still don't consider myself a good dancer, from a purely technical perspective, but the amount of times I get asked to dance seems to contradict that.

I'm not the best at learning new movements, especially if they're part of a long sequence and involve multiple changes in direction. When I'm shown a new movement, I watch, and I try to take in where my left hand should be, where my right hand should be, what my feet should be doing and, most importantly, where my partner is. Unfortunately, that's not one of my strengths. In effect, I have to translate all of that visual input into a form that works for me, and that's how the move feels.

What I end up with is an approximation of the movement that's a little fuzzy around the edges, but it's enough for me to work with. Maybe being a little different is a good thing, and maybe it contributes to me being asked to dance. I don't know. Maybe it's a question of attitude. I'm always mindful that a lady will want to dance with other men, and that being asked to dance is quite flattering, so I keep her as the focus. If I can help her to show what she does that is unique to her, rather than restricting her by dictating what she does, then I think it's reasonable to expect that men will ask her to dance. After all, that's likely to be what prompted me to ask her to dance, or put a smile on my face when she asked me.

If I'm paired with a relative beginner, I try to imagine what it must be like for her to dance with me. Remembering how it was for me as a beginner is useless, because that was my experience, and her experience will be different. What I try to do is to focus on what she does well, as there will always be something I can highlight as being particularly good. The last thing I'd want would be for her to give up: that's ultimately her decision to make, but it seems a little sad if she gives up out of a belief that she's not capable of being a good dancer.

To me, dancing is about sharing those few moments with someone. I'm not there to show what I can do, or to make anyone else feel bad. I'd rather do a few things well than many things badly. It's not about having a carefully choreographed, set sequence of moves either, and my mind seems to rebel against that anyway. I'm very much about how a move feels, and all of them feel slightly different to me, and some of them feel wildly different or are associated with a specific feeling. Consequently, even with the comparatively limited number of moves I'm able to remember, there's a whole lot of expression in the way I dance, and how I move will depend on who I'm with as much as how I'm feeling. Apart from anything else, the two of us need to conspire to show the rest of the room what she can do.

I've seen leads dancing with two followers at once. If I'm honest, I regard that as showboating, and it doesn't interest me. I have less interest in rueda and birthday circles too, than I have in dancing with one partner for the duration of a song. It feels like an extension of how I prefer one to one conversations to group interactions.

I think that's probably how I should sum this up and bring it to a close. Whether I'm talking to someone when I'm dancing with them or dancing silently, I'm communicating with them and, whether they realise it or not, expressing a whole lot of feeling.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017


“If you have made mistakes, even serious mistakes, you may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call "failure" is not the falling down, but the staying down.” ~Mary Pickford

I needed to go circuit training. I needed to be in that room, with people who were mostly half my age, and struggle to keep up with them. I needed to sink to my hands and knees, gasping for breath, and to get back up again and keep running. Maybe they questioned why I was there, when I was running at half the speed they were running, and it was obvious that I was finding it difficult. The answer is, I was there because I found it difficult.

I was there to remind myself of a fundamental aspect of my character.

A few years ago, I did something that would usually be unthinkable for me: I started to open up about what was happening in my life, and how I felt about it. I can't tell you that it was a conscious decision, though. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I was carrying more emotional baggage with me than I could have been reasonably expected to hold.

What's important is that, when I started to open up, I wasn't seen as weak. The friends I chose to confide in painted a very different picture of me than the one I was expecting. What I heard was that they realised I was closing off a lot of myself, but they were okay with it, because they realised there must be a good reason for it. Importantly, they recognised that opening up was a sign that I'd reached a point where I was finding it impossible to cope. Then, one friend said something that took me by surprise:

"I admire how strong you are. Life keeps knocking you down, but you keep getting back up again."

Those may not have been her exact words. In truth, a few people expressed the same sentiment around the same time, so it's difficult to be sure who said what, but she was the first to say it.

When I started learning to dance, I thought I'd never get it right. It didn't matter how many people told me I was making good progress; what mattered was my own view of my progress. I stuck with it, though, because I wanted to dance, and I was determined to get it right.

It was the same thing that pushed me to keep going during circuit training. It didn't matter that I had to stop and catch my breath; it didn't matter that I ran at a slower speed than the others. It was embarrassing, maybe even a little humiliating, but I wasn't going to let it beat me.

Recently, I've been feeling the need to disconnect for a while. I've not been my usual self for a long time, and the main thought behind shutting myself away is that it can't be pleasant for other people to see me like this. I'd stacked everything I'd been dealing with into a neat pile, you see, and then the death of my sister, a few months ago, brought it all crashing down. I don't honestly know whether isolating myself will be good for me, but there's still that sense of protecting others from the effects of my grief.

Add the above to me being massively, massively introverted by nature, and you can see how much I feel the need to not be around people, as much as that's possible.

A popular self-help book says that, when the thought of something scares us, we should feel the fear and do it anyway. Some fears are rational, and some just hold us back.

I told friends that I'd be withdrawing for a while. I suppose I have to ask myself how long I'm prepared to stay down, before I get back up again.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

A crisis

The words "mid-life crisis" have sprung to mind a few times. Apparently, I should be buying a sports car or a motorcycle right now. Instead, I'm in the process of becoming a counsellor and learning to dance. It feels less like a crisis and more like a continuing exploration of identity: in person-centred counselling terms, it's a time where we're aiming for greater congruence, and moving ever closer to our organismic selves. Yeah, you have to be careful how you say that last one.

It's likely that I always had a love for dance, and a desire to help others. The thing is, we bury so much of who we are, due to a misguided sense of who we should be, must be, or have to be. Our search for identity can feel like trying to paint with watercolours in the rain, or that we're forever pushing against a door marked "pull". Are we being our true selves, or the person we think we have to be?

It's particularly difficult if we were given the message, early on in our lives, that we weren't good enough, and that nothing we did would ever be good enough. This is damaging, as it leads to us setting impossibly high standards for ourselves, and labelling ourselves as deficient in some way, should we fail to meet those standards. At its worst, we may feel that we will get everything wrong anyway, so our motivation to try in the first place is affected. We might fear failure, because the consequences of past failures have been the disapproval or judgement of people who were important in our lives, which in turn affected our view of ourselves.

Maybe this isn't just about finding our true selves. Maybe this is just as much about throwing off the shackles of the expectations of others.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017


According to a receipt I've just found while trying to sort my papers, it was 37 minutes past midnight, on the 12th of July in 2016 when I bought a chicken tortilla from a shop on the seafront in Makarska. I remember that most of the sauce dripped onto my shirt, as I tried to dance salsa to the house music coming from a nearby club.

I remember keeping time with the music, as fast as it was. Then again, I'd had a few pints of the local beer earlier that evening, so I might be wrong. I was with a friend, and she was my reason for being in Croatia in the first place. From my perspective, a friend needed me, and I got a plane to Croatia without a second thought. Well, if I'm honest, there was a second thought, a third thought, a fourth and so on... but I got on the plane anyway.

It was in a bar in the town square that I'd consumed large amounts of the local beer. The bar had been quite a find. Actually, it was recommended by a guide I'd downloaded to the e-book reader I'd brought with me. There was little room inside, but plenty of tables outside.

There was something about drinking at a table in the town square... It was a nice, warm and pleasant evening. The beer tasted much better than I thought it would. Importantly, I was with a friend who'd reached a similar level of inebriation. There was a lot of laughter: some of it from me. It felt good to be away from everything that had been dragging me down, in the company of one of my very best friends.

It was only when the bar was closing that we decided to leave, via the seafront, and I saw somewhere that was still serving food. While I was waiting for my order, my friend started swaying to the music from the nearby club and reminded me that I'd recently started to take salsa lessons - well, five months earlier, to be precise. She wanted to learn some basic steps. In retrospect, the conditions weren't ideal, and I probably wasn't the best person to teach her.

"1-2-3... 5-6-7... 1-2-3... 5-6-7..."

I could barely keep up with the music. I was struggling to even count in time with the music. I got the numbers out of order a few times, due to the alcohol in my bloodstream. Somehow, I picked out a salsa rhythm in a hard house track. With a chicken tortilla in my hand, I demonstrated the basic forward step, back step, cucarachas and opening out step.

It was the early hours of the morning; I was in a beautiful country; I was with a friend; to be honest, I was quite drunk, but I was dancing. I didn't care about the sauce dripping onto one of my favourite shirts. It felt good. I thought, in that moment, that I should have more moments like that in my life.

I guess that my enthusiasm was contagious. My friend said she wanted to learn salsa. She managed to imitate the basic steps I was showing her. I looked around me a few times. The reflection of the moon was rippling across the water; above, the stars were clearly visible; not far away, a party was going on into the early hours of the morning. There I was, moving to the music with a great big smile on my face.

On the seafront in Makarska, under the stars, so drunk that I could barely stand, I fell in love with dancing.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

No sweat (I wish)!

I was at a dance last night, and it was fun, as it always is. Unfortunately, there's something that has been happening since I started dancing, and it happened again last night.

The evening started with a lesson, in which some of us learned a few new moves. As usual, I couldn't pick them up very quickly, but I started to get them towards the end of the lesson, only to forget them once I started asking the ladies to dance.

During the lesson, someone noticed that I'd started to perspire. I'd felt it myself before she'd noticed, but she confirmed what I'd felt. After the lesson, I noticed that a small patch on my shirt had become noticeably damper and darker than the rest of the shirt. For a while, after the class, I was approached by various ladies I'd met at these dances before. I prefer to take a break between dances, but I also have a rule that I never refuse a dance. The damp, dark patch on my shirt spread outwards, and my face became noticeably more wet as the evening wore on.

Why do I need to take breaks between dances? Why do I sweat so much? I remember the Christmas party in early December, where I made the mistake of wearing a Christmas jumper and not bringing a change of clothing, and I paid dearly for that mistake. A few ladies said that I looked hot, and I jokingly thanked them and told them they didn't look so bad themselves. Obviously, in that case, I suffered due to my own lack of foresight, but I still perspire heavily whenever I dance, even in the lessons.

I received a big clue as to why this happens, back when I was still doing modern jive. Someone was watching the other men dance, as he was trying to learn the style, and he later told me that he could understand what was going on when he saw the other men dancing, but when he watched me, he didn't understand.

All of us have our own way of moving. I know this from the many years I spent learning various martial arts. Although an instructor teaches us a specific way of moving, there will be a point where we take ownership of the movements we've learned, and they become ours through the modifications we make so that the movements feel more natural to us. This is how we get to the point where we can perform the movements with little conscious thought.

In my case, it was my early exposure to various Japanese martial arts in particular that would go on to affect how I learn movement and think about movement. Imagine the explosive speed and power which is seen as the ideal in the martial arts I'm talking about, but imagine it being expressed through the medium of dance. Imagine having to do that for three or four minutes at a time, repeatedly. Imagine that you're having to perform movements which are bigger, and not as efficient or direct as those you learn as a martial artist, yet you are so used to putting a certain kind of energy into your movements that you struggle to turn it off.

I'd considered that I was just getting old; I'd considered that I might be unfit; I'd considered many other possibilities. The bottom line, actually, is that I'm putting a lot more energy into dancing than is necessary.

The question is whether I'm able to change the way I've been moving for most of my life. The only way I'll find out is to keep dancing. I'm okay with that.

Lost in Translation

For a long time, I considered that I didn't have a favourite film. During my teenage years, and into my early twenties, one of the TV stations here in the UK would regularly broadcast foreign language films late at night. Occasionally, I'd watch one that I would connect with in some way: some feeling expressed chimed with something within me.

That brings me to Lost in Translation. It's my favourite film to watch late at night, without a doubt, and I once told a friend as much. Her reply was that the film has a very specific feeling to it, and she wondered if I could put that feeling into words. I couldn't.

The story is essentially about an affair of sorts, between a man who is of a greater age than the object of his affection, and that younger woman who seems to feel the same way about him. I struggled with this, because I wondered what connecting with this subject matter said about me, but I realised that it was something beneath the surface of the narrative that spoke so clearly to me. It was, as my friend had highlighted, all about the specific feeling of the film.

It's no accident that the story is set in Japan, and that much is made of the American leads coming to terms with being somewhere that is strange to them. In fact, it's the young woman who seems more familiar and at ease with being there, in contrast to the middle aged gentleman who is not just feeling uncomfortable with where he is in terms of geography, but also seems to be feeling a great deal of difficulty with where he is in life at this time. However, there is a point where she contacts a member of her family by phone and breaks down while talking to them, while they seem to be ignorant of how she feels, or at least show little empathy for her.

To me, the film is about yearning for a sense that we are loved, and that there is somewhere we feel we belong. In response to my friend's question about the feeling of the film, I'd say it's about feeling isolated, out of place, and finding that one person who understands and relates to you. Why is it my favourite film to watch late at night? I'll leave you to join most of those dots for yourself.