My left leg is burning. My body feels off-balance, wobbly, and when I glance up at myself in the mirror, I look like a one legged sloth drunkenly doing karate. This moment, as I’m clenching every muscle in my body trying to get into this contorted pose that the choreographer in front of me strikes gracefully and effortlessly, sums up the vast majority of my dance experience thus far.
When I first decided that I wanted to start dancing hip-hop in college, I wasn’t thinking about how hard it was going to be to teach my body to move in a way it never before or how embarrassed I would feel when I saw that first recorded video of me flailing around on stage. I was thinking about being able to freestyle to my favorite Lil Wayne song at the club and looking absolutely fly as I flawlessly executed the most advanced choreography in the world. See, the flaw in my logic was that I had completely forgotten what it means to be a beginner.
Beginner. The word I keep my eyes peeled for as I scroll through dance workshop and classes in the Bay Area, the word I apologetically offer to the poor junior whose toes I keep stepping on during cleaning practice, the word that haunts me as I drilled the same three second combo for the 57th time in my dorm room, and still mess it up.
In the process of pursuing the things I love and trying to get better at them, I’ve become incredibly specialized. Which is a weird thing to say as an 18-year-old college freshman I know, but hear me out. For most of my life, I’ve spent my free time doing same things I’ve always done: writing, reading, and speaking. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t really remember a time in my life when I was just starting out. It was so long ago that sometimes it’s easy to forget that at some point in my life, I was just starting out at these things. I didn’t know what enjambment was, I didn’t know how to speak to a crowd without saying “umm” every two seconds, I didn’t know how to write poetry that didn’t start with “roses are red…” Not to say I’m an expert at any of these other things, I’m certainly not. But there’s at least a sense of familiarity I find in these old hobbies that doesn’t exist yet for me in dance.
There are certain upsides to being a beginner. People are understanding and almost always intensely excited for you, and usually incredibly willing to help you out, whether that’s drilling a piece with you or suggesting tutorials to watch or even letting you tag along to an advanced workshop in San Francisco that you have absolutely no right to be at. Being a beginner also means there’s a ton of milestones to hit and break all the time. First performance. First solo. First original choreography. First time nailing that tutting move.
But there’s also first time falling on stage. First time blanking out on a dance you thought you knew by heart. First time not getting the timing, no matter how many times you drill and listen and mark.
When people talk about pushing boundaries and stepping outside of comfort zones, the conversation is often centered on improving skills we already have or going further down a path we’ve already been treading for years. Dropping an entire album unannounced with videos for every track. Discovering a new antibody after decades of research. Experimental multimedia art shows. No one thinks of starting knitting or taking Intro to Arabic as groundbreaking. But the thing is, being a beginner has pushed me and forced me to grow that couldn’t possibly have happened otherwise. It has been groundbreaking, at least for me. Learning how to dance has been one of the most humbling things I’ve ever attempted, and I’m grateful that I have something in my life to remind me what it means to strive.
I want to be a better dancer. If that means I’ll continue to subject myself to embarrassing Youtube recordings and feelings of intense hopelessness as I watch better dancers dominate the stage, then so be it. Sometimes I wish there was a machine that would pump musicality and grace into my bone marrow, but until then, I’ll be here, practicing the same damn move I’ve been doing all day.