My Fatalistic Relationship with Dance

December 19, 2019
Christopher Davis in Atacama Chile

Today’s blog post comes to us from University of Arkansas Little Rock student & API blogger Christopher Davis. He’s studying abroad with us in Valparaiso, Chile.

Christopher Davis in Atacama Chile

Well, ladies and gentlemen, my time is winding down in this country.

As I look to the prospect of having to go back to the United States and face a cold snowless winter, I want to squeeze in some last bits of analysis on my experience here and share with you all what I’ve learned.

 I’m especially excited about this entry because it involves some personal revelations about how I have used one of my favorite pastimes, i.e. dancing, as a psychological crutch.  Are you ready? I’m not. Let’s proceed.

What I found myself doing in the past two weeks is unpacking this desire of mine to be noticed. 

One of the key conclusions I came upon in this process is that I often times am of the disposition that I can’t just be “accepted.” l I have to be “accepted with honors”. (I think that dissatisfaction is due to being accustomed to being in “honors” positions for most of my childhood, but that’s beside the point.)

One consequence of this compulsion to at least try to secure the awe and praise of those around me leads me, which leads me to be suspicious of friendships when I don’t feel like I’m being seen as particularly noteworthy. This suspicion played out especially as I evaluated my friendships here.  There were plenty of times when I felt like I hadn’t actually built any friendships at all, especially as I would be looking towards the quickly-approaching end of my stay in Chile. In all actuality, I had. Were they “developed?” No–but they were three months old (if that). At the very least, they were progressing. Growing. But I wasn’t able to, or rather, didn’t want to see any of that progress because it would mean, by extension, giving up on the need to be noteworthy to be in fulfilling interpersonal interaction. It would mean that my friendships didn’t have to run on the logic that either I get all the accolades (and inclusion to outings) my little heart can take or nothing at all.

Another consequence of this brand of fatalism was that by constantly focusing on trying to be note-worthy, I wouldn’t let myself develop in certain social situations even though I thought that I was putting forth an effort, bonā fīde, to grow. When I would feel uncomfortable, I would remember the Director of the office of study abroad at my home university saying (paraphrased) it was good for the students were uncomfortable because it is outside the student’s comfort zone where the magic happens.

Remembering this wisdom, I attempted to tough out the uncomfortable situations I’d find myself in, but internally I was not letting myself be present in the experience (if anything I was giving myself participation points). 

Instead, my goal in the moment would be to learn everything and anything I could to escape my own ignorance as quickly as possible–and I am frustrated myself every time (and achieved neither greater comfortability nor rapid progression). In all of this I would notice bits and pieces of these issues in my mindset and try to “recenter” myself but I never fully “kicked” the mindset.  I still haven’t kicked it totally after all of this revelation.

The uncomfortable situations I’d find myself in would occur specifically and especially when it came to social dancing. In fact, it was in the process of thinking over my attitude (my incessant nervousness among other things) during dancing that was the catalyst of the “revelations” above (and seeing how I was using dancing as a “psychological crutch”).  

Coming to Chile I had a limited experience with dance.

Five years ago, I started to really invest time into practicing a style of dance called animation (here’s an example video of the style, if you aren’t familiar).  I also began learning the very basics of Latin dances at a Latin club called Club 27 that is near my university.  It wasn’t the easiest thing to mentally prepare myself to actually ask someone to dance the few times I went, but I made it through.

When it comes to animation, I am not perfect at this style, but I’m a lot more confident with the actually dancing in front of more than just a mirror.  Looking back on how I started out with dance, I can identify how my dispositions towards wanting to be noticed manifested itself. For example, being too nervous to dance in public, I’d often times dance in the confines of my room, emulating youtube videos, in the middle of the night, imagining myself dancing in front of people and wooing audiences (which could range anywhere from small gatherings of classmates in my head to pep rallies).

In Chile and began to dive a bit more in outings to salsotecas and classes for bachata and salsa. I was always keenly aware of how skilled I was not. Not that it was a “secret.” I would lose track of my steps halfway in the middle of trying turns. I would lose my rhythm while walking…

And religiously, when those nights were over, I’d go to my guest home, I’d make a beeline to the back patio of my guest mother’s home, blast “my” style of music in my earphones, and resort to imagining myself in front of audiences and “reclaiming” that I had some competence in dancing (only now those audiences were updated with the newest dancers I met).  It didn’t escape me that this internal exhibition was escapism wrapped tightly around my pride, but even in “seeing” that my imaginings for what they were clearly (I’ll even give myself a little credit for the eventual effort of trying to stop), I still wrestled with the same nervousness and discomfort.  

Every time I went, I felt embarrassed and had a lingering jealousy and inferiority complex toward everyone who was more experienced than me. 

This jealousy is what manifested itself as the aforementioned suspicion of friendships. The idea of someone seeing my deficiencies (granted something like dance which isn’t the biggest concern in the world) and accepting me made me cringe!! It is so much more comforting if I can control the perception that I have (or think I can) and cultivate the positive image that I want. And dance was a tool for me to do that. The problem was that here, dance was useless to that end here.

What was left? Relentless nervousness. But I didn’t want to just sit in relentless nervousness and be afraid to dance. Thus began the process of unpacking my nervousness so that I could at least take some steps to end it.

I started from this simple/nearly-cliché idea: dance is about self-expression and, more importantly, fun. So, whenever I was nervous in the salsotecas and taking a break (i.e. stalling from dancing), I would tell myself to calm down, and “just have fun.”  In all honesty, that didn’t always shake the nervousness every time, but it at least gave me a taste of peace every once in a while. So, I kept telling myself this advice and trying to dig a bit deeper into what my issue was.

As I kept going, I started to realize that I was nervous as if the reception of my performance would have a permanent or irrevocable mark on “me”. My perception, my reputation in the eyes of my current partner and everyone in the room would fall into the pits of shame. So much shame.

All of…that, naturally, leads to the question: is it really that serious?

The answer, of course, is no, but in having to recognize that whatever impact my performance did or didn’t have on the perception of those  around me wouldn’t be serious enough to necessitate a panicked grasping to “preserve my reputation”; what remained was the real problem was precisely the fear that came from not being able to control what the perception of other people concerning me.  That identification helped.

Furthermore, I got help from simply taking in the idea that I don’t have to be good at dancing or good enough to feel like I can exert control over the perceptions of others to enjoy it.  That pressure is self imposed, because I’m trying to control something I couldn’t control in the first place. However, I can exert greater control over the expectations that I contrive for my own performance and the outcomes of a social gathering.  And I can start by not believing that in performing poorly I’m at risk of incurring, in a manner of speaking, social “death” (which I use to highlight the internally contrived sense that a lack-luster performance would lead to a permanent stain on my social presence).

By the same token, presenting to my imaginary audience would not be the moment I achieve my social “life”.  My exhibitions were escapes meant to lick wounds on my pride. Self-inflicted wounds at that. Nonetheless, the appeal of those late night “exhibitions” is still something I wrestle with. As I said, the revelations have shown me how I seek out escapes, but I’m still having to engage in conscious efforts to not let myself indulge in my own grabs at control. I slip in and out of those modes. 

At the very least, by actually seeing this tendency to obsess over the “permanent” impacts of my impressive behavior (or lack thereof), has given me an internal language that allows me to not make my dancing such a high stakes game.  Also, accepting that I can’t control where I begin in salsa and bachata has served as an aid to realign my attitudes of dancing with other people so I 1) can be fully present in the process of trying to get better, and 2) and even enjoy myself from time to time. Considering my tendency to control has, at least triggered an internal problematization of my dissatisfaction with the speed of the development of the ties I’ve started here, and that opened me to actually reevaluating my perspective and changing it.

What I’m saying in all of this, is that I see the work I need to do, but only just started. 

So even though the attitudes aren’t totally gone, I have noticed that every now and then I can let go of the self-imposed pressure and get a glimpse of what sustained peace in social settings feels like. Beyond feeling less on edge when I’m around people, I can see myself becoming a little bit more comfortable with the idea that I have deficiencies and that not always as perfectly impressive and skilled as I want to be is okay, and I think that’s a good start.  I hope you all enjoyed!


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