Monday, 17 April 2017

First steps into dance

I was a chubby child. And somewhere between the ages of 6 and 8, the schoolyard taught me to see my body as disgusting and shameful. It was one of the most powerful, most enduring, most life-changing lessons I was to learn from school. I still experience its influence every single day.

One of the ways in which this knowledge manifested itself was in a particular horror at dance. Having internalised that my body was disgusting, the last thing I wanted to do was draw attention to it by moving it around, maybe causing it to wobble or jiggle. And, already bearing the brunt of ridicule and teasing for even existing in this body, I never wanted to do anything in public view where I might appear clumsy or inept, or in any way invite even more mistreatment and contempt.

So, apart from whatever enforced dancing lessons at school I could not escape by feigning illness, I avoided dance floors from then on at almost all costs. Maybe the highest of those costs were refusing point-blank to join in the dancing at my brother's wedding, and, a few years later, being relieved that my fiancée agreed to not having any dancing at our wedding at all.  

And yet...

Part of me loved dance. While I hated those dancing lessons at school, I loved the actual dancing (it would have been great if I were invisible, or alone). Over the years, I made a couple of furtive excursions into dance, when it felt very safe to do so. For example, a short stint of latin dance classes, accompanied by a nun I knew; or a casual, one-off Lindy hop class at a jazz festival with a group of other absolute beginners.

And I loved to watch dance: I remember first going to the ballet with my parents when I was about 10 or 11 years old,1 beginning a life-long adoration of this art form. Years later, I came to love watching flamenco performance as well. But for me, dance was something for other people to do.

Fast-forward to the present.

Step 1: Zumba

Over the last two years, I've been on a journey to re-make my body. Part of that has been exploring different forms of exercise. For me, the support and encouragement of friends has been a vital ingredient in this venture. So when one of them put out an invitation to join them for some free fitness classes being offered in our city (the Medibank Feel Good program), I was eager to go along. And when I looked up one of the classes, Zumba, and discovered that it wasn't that thing inside the big inflatable balls2 but was exercise inspired by latin dance, I was filled with a mixture of simultaneous trepidation and curiosity.

So, on 2 April 2015, a rainy Thursday afternoon, I made my way to South Bank. Looking around, I was relieved to see that I didn't know anybody other than my friend. I was still very worried about looking ridiculous.

The class wasn't easy for me. I felt like I was doing the right move only about 25% of the time and felt my balance and co-ordination taxed to their absolute limits. By the end of the 45 minutes, I was not only physically exhausted, but my brain had turned to mush from trying to control my limbs into making unfamiliar movements, while simultaneously translating the instructor's visual cues into actions. I felt sore and overwhelmed, but I had also had so much fun! Unlike running and cycling, which took time for me to fall in love with, Zumba hooked me right from the start. And as for my fears? I discovered that I was focusing so hard on the movements and following the instructor that I became completely unaware of anyone around me. I learned that I didn't have to worry about what anybody else thought: I wasn't going to perceive it anyway.

The Feel Good program runs twice a year, in ten-week blocks during autumn and spring. By the end of the autumn 2015 block, I became a Zumba regular and already started seeking other places to get my Zumba fix while Feel Good wasn't running. I was delighted to find out that Brisbane City Council was offering free Zumba classes on Saturday mornings as part of its Active Parks program.3 And when that block of classes finished, I found a regular Saturday morning class close to home and became a regular there.

By now, my confidence had grown enormously, and I felt like at last, I was dancing the right steps in most of the routines at least most of the time. A huge moment of validation arrived on 16 January 2016. Our instructor had a practice of inviting classmembers onto stage with them for some tracks, to dance in front of the whole class. On this day, I was invited up for the first time! In a little under a year, I had gone from someone who wouldn't dare to be seen dancing to being not just comfortable, but excited to be getting up on stage. I scored a commemorative wristband too.

But soon, some changes in my weekly schedule made it difficult to get to a Saturday morning Zumba class, and I was left searching for alternatives.

Although I hadn't known it at the time, connections that I'd made through the free, public programs I'd attended would pave the way forward. At Active Parks, I'd met an instructor whose style and energy I really enjoyed. When, later in the year, they also taught classes in the Feel Good program, I was excited to learn that they worked at Pure, a gym near my workplace that provides the instructors for the program. So when I was offered a great deal on a membership package there, I readily signed up!

Step 2: Barre

Zumba alone would have made my Pure membership worthwhile to me, but this gym also offers the most amazing variety of other classes: everything from traditional aerobics-style workouts to more kinds of yoga than I knew existed, to pilates classes on mats and on machines, to hula-hooping and mini-trampolining... and barre.

The start of my journey to become fit and healthy was purely being unhappy with the way I looked. I restricted food dramatically (even stupidly) and exercised intensely to shed a large amount of bodyweight: eventually, 63 kg (139 lb) of it.  As my weight decreased, I started having to engage with a new question: I knew what kind of body I didn't want; but what kind of body did I want? To be honest, I still don't really know the answer to that (and the question has become less important to me anyway). But when a friend suggested that maybe I could now start building muscle, I freaked out a little bit. As much as I knew I didn't want to live in a fat body any more, I also knew that I didn't like the look of a bulky, muscular physique. And by now, running and cycling had already made my thighs larger and more muscular than I was happy to see. I was actively avoiding any strength training out of fear of what it might do to my body. When I told my friend that, their advice was to look at athletes' bodies across different sports, see which physiques appealed to me most, and this might give me a clue about what kind of training might take me in the direction I wanted. My psychologist endorsed this approach too, and made me aware of photographer Howard Schatz's iconic and amazing work Athlete. (If you're not familiar with it, I highly encourage you to take a look!)

A fresh, full body workout using the ballet bar to burn fat, tone muscle and create long, lean physiques. Using a series of small, isometric movements to target the butt, thighs, abs and arms, this class is the fastest and most effective way to create your perfect ballerina body - and all in 30 minutes!
Beautiful. Graceful. Transforming. Pure Barre. Fusing classical ballet & innovative conditioning to offer a powerful, tightening, and toning workout.
As I perused these images, I could quickly see that none of them appealed to me as much as the understated leanness of a dancer's body: strength without bulk. But I had no real idea of where to even begin to translate that insight into any kind of training, and the idea just sat at the back of my mind. By the time I joined Pure several months later, I had never even heard of barre classes as a form of exercise outside of ballet training (and I couldn't imagine I'd be ever be doing that — isn't that something you have to start when you're about 3 years old? Don't you have to be ultra-flexible and have perfect balance and co-ordination?) So, when the timetable app and a poster on the gym wall offered this class and described it as "Beautiful. Graceful. Transforming." and as creating "long, lean physiques", I knew I had to give barre a try!

Before I even went to my first class, I was lucky to have a practical demonstration that strength does not equal bulk. A free personal training session was included in my Pure membership, and as luck would have it, the trainer to whom I was assigned was the architect of Pure's barre program, and a former professional ballerina. Much physically smaller than me, lean and slender, I was amazed to see her lift weights apparently effortlessly and with complete control that had me struggling and wobbling all over the place. It was a powerful visual reassurance not to fear becoming strong.

On 25 August 2016, I stood at the barre for the first time. I was nervous, but also wildly excited. When a couple of other participants also raised their hands at the instructor's question "Is this anyone's first barre class?" I felt myself relax a tiny bit. Over the next half-hour, I had the surreal experience of terms I'd known for years, and movements I could recognise by sight — plié and grand plié, relevé, arabesque, the positions of the arms and feet — suddenly coming to life. It felt like I had gained an extra sense. It's like reading a verbal description of a picture and then seeing it for yourself. And even more to my astonishment, although I was shaky and weak and my range of movement small, I could make some of these moves! Crude and imperfect, sure, but what I saw in the mirror was at least recognisable to me. Now, as we're often reminded, a barre class is not a dance class. But it does contain some of the same building blocks, and it was a thrill beyond words to experience that. It would set the scene for the next step.

And beyond all the positive ballet associations, nothing had ever made my body feel so good as barre does.  More than that — since radically changing the shape of my body, my whole sense of the space around my body feels weird and distorted. My body moves in unexpected ways. It fits through spaces it seems like it shouldn't. My limbs bend in ways that feel unnatural. Sometimes this just feels odd; other times it's even disconcerting. Nothing I have tried has better connected me to this new body, the way it moves, and the way it occupies the space around it than barre has. It's also done wonders for my posture!

So my appetite for barre quickly increased. One class a week was not enough, and soon I was doing two, then three. Taking more classes let me experience a range of different approaches to barre, reflecting different instructors' personal styles and backgrounds. Some classes had a stronger pilates flavour; others were more yoga-like; others more like an aerobics workout. I liked all of them, and enjoyed the variety of this barre-smörgåsbord. But the classes I found I liked best were the ones that had the strongest ballet elements. In these classes, it felt like my vocabulary of movement (and terminology) would grow just that little bit more every week: tendu, fondu, attitude, retiré... Discovering how much I enjoyed this style of class left me wanting still more.

But to skip ahead slightly, on 4 March 2017, I took part in a charity fundraiser ("Pure Palooza") which saw me do a barre class (amongst other classes) out in public — on the main stage of the Queen Street Mall, the heart of Brisbane's CBD. In other words, totally exposed and in public! Not only was I quite OK with this, but I really enjoyed the experience. Less dance-related, but more tellingly, I was also OK now with the other classes in public that formed part of the event, even things like hula-hooping and mini-trampolining that I had only done once or twice and was by no means competent at. My need to feel like I really knew what I was doing before letting other people see me do it was gone (at least in this context). The journey I'm describing in this post gave me that.

Step 3: Ballet

The appetite that barre classes had kindled in me led me to question my assumptions about ballet. Might it actually be possible to learn to dance as an adult? Google immediately confirmed that it was; and that there were a number of options for adult beginners in ballet right here in Brisbane, including classes offered through the community engagement and education arm of our state ballet company, Queensland Ballet. Their "Ballet Basics" level is a structured course designed specifically for people like me: adults who had never danced before. I couldn't wait to sign up!

On 12 January 2017, I attended the first of two "taster" classes I had enrolled for; opportunities for prospective students to see if they liked what the course had to offer. I did. Very much. The four months of barre had definitely helped prepare me by making some of the positions and movements familiar. But even from the very first taster class, I was learning new things, and loving the experience. And maybe the best thing that Zumba and barre had given me was the freedom to be wrong; in other words, to be a learner. I was OK with not being perfect straight away, even when other people could see me!

The course itself began two weeks later and over the next two months, we would vastly expand on our collection of steps. It was everything I had hoped for and more. By the end of Ballet Basics, we were stringing some of what we had learned together; week 5 was the first class in which I felt we had started to dance, even if it was a sequence of only about six steps. I realised that, in addition to the foundations of dance itself, I also enjoyed soaking up the little bits of the ritual and etiquette of this beautiful art that we were exposed to. In short, the more I experienced, the more I loved it.  

"Graduation" and the end of the course felt like another real validation, and I'm very eager to progress on to the next level: Beginner Ballet!

The best thing about being an absolute beginner is the joyful anticipation of the long journey ahead.

Final thoughts

I wrote this post to commemorate three recent milestones:
  • the second anniversary of "taking the plunge" at my first Zumba class
  • my 50th barre class
  • completing the Ballet Basics course

Two years ago, all of this would have been unimaginable: not only that I would be able to take up ballet, but even that I would want to learn to dance rather than just watch from the sidelines. My life has become unrecognisable, and I am deeply grateful to my friends and teachers for their inspiration and encouragement. And of course, to my darling wife Laura who supports all my dreams and passions. I loved dancing with you last year at your birthday, the first time outside a class context, and only the second time ever. And we have a big anniversary coming up...

You never know who's life you may change. Invite someone to class.
Collected from Facebook. Forgive the
grammar; the message itself
could not be more true.
My journey into dance has also been a journey out of self-consciousness and into self-confidence; and yet, if there's one message I wish I could send back in time to myself it's that dance is for everybody.

At Zumba, at barre, and at ballet, I have met fellow students with a wide range of ages, body shapes, and abilities, brought together by a love of just how well music and movement go together. If you're reading this, and you've always wanted to dance but you're worried about any of those things, I wish I could share that same message with you.

1 I'm disappointed that I haven't been able to pin-point the production, despite generous assistance from Queensland Ballet trying to match my childhood recollections with their historical records. It seems that my earliest ballet memories are a mish-mash of a number of different performances. 
2 That's Zorb, for the record.
3 New Farm Park; for any of my parkrun friends reading this, it was the proximity of this Zumba class that brought me to New Farm to try parkrun, even though Stone's Corner and South Bank parkruns are actually closer to me!

Note: this post updated 25 April 2017 for improved historical accuracy.

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