Confessions of a Non-Dancer

like-father-like-son

Fred Astaire and Fred Jr. By coincidence, my dad’s first name was Fred.

I don’t dance. I refused to take dance lessons. Modern, ballet, or ballroom. I refused to let my dad teach me to Lindy or Waltz. It was too girly. If I had been allowed to learn how to lead, in pants, I might have done it. If I could have imagined myself as Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, I might have done it. But I was damned if I was going to pretend I was Ginger Rodgers. It was a short-sighted decision. To dance naturally you have to start young; it has to be in your bones.

I never learned to partner dance. I can barely dance solo to rock or disco – I shuffle my feet and flap my arms and try to sway on beat. I didn’t dance until I was in college. I learned on a tiny dance floor in the back of The Saint (Boston). There was a mirrored ball and cigarette smoke. It was too crowded to move.

Of all the girly things I refused to do as a child, and there were many, I only regret not learning to dance. I do not regret not learning how to sew, knit, do needlepoint, put on make-up, put together an outfit, walk in heels, flirt, do gymnastics, play jacks, or use a hula-hoop. I’m thankful that I thought swimming, ice skating, and cooking were neutral to masculine activities (life-guard, hockey player, and chef).

My parents met at a synagogue dance. I watched them dance at parties and bar mitzvahs. I was always surprised that they danced so well together. Dancing changed them from parents into a couple. They looked like they knew what they were doing. They told me that dancing was an important social skill that every girl should have. I didn’t listen.

I didn’t dance in front of the mirror. I sang along with the radio, my feet firmly planted on the floor. I didn’t dream about dancing with boys. I dreamed about being a boy.

The first time I danced with Donna was in Ariels (NYC). We’d gone out with a group of women after a meeting. Donna asked me to dance, and I told her I don’t dance. Everyone else was dancing. She pulled me on to the dance floor and told me she was attracted to me. I stepped on her foot. I apologized.

For all the things I never learned to do as a girl there is an equal number of things that I never learned to do as a boy. Never got the chance. Never had the nerve. I’m still a caterpillar.

Donna periodically complains that I don’t dance. I counter complain that she won’t go out for Chinese food. Donna has taken classes in Balkan dancing, sang with a Balkan choir, studied Romanian, and travelled in Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. We go to Balkan dance parties and Gypsy music festivals in the city. Donna dances and I sit on a chair or lean against the wall and listen to the music. The dancers form a line or a circle, hold hands, and swirl across the floor in unison according to an intricate and inscrutable pattern. The first dances are simple, and then they get increasingly obscure and complex. Donna knows the patterns.

In theory, I should like Balkan dancing. There are no gender roles. There is no pairing or partners. Everyone is equal. It is a group dance. But all the bars and clubs you can dance in are straight. I feel out of place.

Every few years I half-heartedly join Donna for the first dance. The other dances never click. My excuse is that I’m dyslexic and uncoordinated. I have to think about how I’m moving and that throws me off the rhythm.  I could probably learn a few more dances; if I repeated the steps enough they might come more naturally. I would have to be willing to fail. I would have to take classes, and go to weekly dance sessions. I would have to picture myself as Fred Astaire in a gypsy number in a Hollywood musical. I’m not sure the discomfort of learning would be worth the reward of joining in. I’m sure Donna would disagree.

Notes: Social dance anxiety affects lots of queer and trans folk, including those who really can dance. This post on Queer Bois and the Gendered Politics of Partner Dancing resonates with me.

The New York Gypsy Festival runs from September 18 to October 4, 2015. I’ll be leaning against the wall drinking Turkish beer.

 

37 thoughts on “Confessions of a Non-Dancer

  1. Lesboi

    I don’t really dance either unless I can somehow get myself intoxicated enough to not care how foolish I look. I’d like to learn ballroom but don’t see much reason to do it since there’s never been an occasion in my life yet to utilize it. Besides, there’s a pretty big height difference between Candace and me and that makes it awkward. I don’t want to feel like I’m dancing with my big sister. I am, however, a big fan of Gene Kelly. I sometimes get on a kick of watching youtube videos of him dancing for several days in a row.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I love Gene Kelly’s dancing – whenever my brother would say that he didn’t want to learn to dance my parents would hold Gene Kelly up as the epitome of masculinity. If they’d put me in a sailor suit, I would have danced my butt off.

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  2. Caidin

    I don’t dance either, and I feel extremely awkward when other people are dancing and look like they’re having a blast, and I’m sitting by myself trying not to look miserable. It looks like it would be a lot of fun, if only I felt comfortable enough to let my guard down and make a fool out of myself in front of other people. Maybe once I’m comfortable in my own body, can wear something that makes me feel good instead of trying to act like I’m enjoying myself in a dress or something, and I’m with people who I trust and feel comfortable with, I’ll be able to do it. We’ll see…

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I hear you. I was reminded that I sing and dance with Gracie fairly frequently – and that Shake Shake Shake (Shake your booty) by K.C. and the Sunshine Band is what I sing to her when she is excited (does the whole body wiggle). So if they did dog dancing, I might do it.

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  3. PlainT

    I would move “sewing” to the gender-neutral category. I don’t get why it’s gendered at all, it’s a practical skill for all.

    I don’t dance ballroom either. I would learn, though… hmm, can one follow in a tie? 🙂

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      There is really no activity that should be gendered, but growing up it seemed that outside of the playground (swings, monkey bars, and teeter-totters) everything was. I can sew buttons back on, and do basic mending, but I can’t shorten my own pants.
      Being a rebellious and ornery kid, anything my mother wanted me to do got tainted, and anything that my older brother did, I wanted to do. If he had wanted to sew or knit, I would have insisted on doing it too.

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  4. jerbearinsantafe

    I used to dance and also DJ’d for some dances back in the early-mid ’90s. Now I am disabled or as they call it, mobility impaired but I still love the idea of dance it’s just something I have to imagine doing – dancing in my mind I guess. I think the important thing is to just let the music move you and don’t worry about any amateur dance judges around.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Dysphoria and body self-consciousness gets in the way of a lot of things for me. Having had a hyper-critical gender rigid narcissistic mother left its mark. In my mind I know that no one is judging me (or that those who are don’t matter and have their own issues) but it is super hard for me to do certain things (most of which have to do with body/spontaneity). Dancing is top of the list of things I have difficulty with (swimming is now ok praise be top surgery).

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      1. jerbearinsantafe

        I understand that shaking off harmful messages from the past is hard. As you surround yourself with supportive friends who affirm your self worth those harmful messages will slowly fade. You are a special person and deserve to feel good about yourself even while dancing. As for those harmful messages; as a much loved, overused song says, “let it go.”

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  5. Mrs Fever

    I have a tendency to lead. Thus, my explorations in partner dancing have been somewhat (completely) unsuccessful. I can imitate Michael Jackson’s dance moves pretty well though, and I don’t worry too much about moonwalking into other people. 😉 The people on the dance floor at my sister’s wedding reception earlier this month figured out pretty quickly that it was in their best interest to give me a WIDE berth. 😛

    As a side note: I found your perspective on playing jacks to be opposite of mine. Jacks, like marbles, was a boys’ pastime when/where I grew up. I *wanted* to learn to play, for that very reason. The playground game I despised the most as a child was Red Rover. UGH. I still have horrible dreams about that activity. :/

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I know there are people who love to dance at weddings, and can’t get off the dance floor. My nightmare is electric slide and other “group” dances. I can’t picture moonwalking at a wedding, but I’ll take your word for it.

      Interesting note about regional variations. I never played marbles (boys) – I played “skully” with bottle caps – in the playground and that was neutral – but jacks and jump ropes were strictly for girls (unless you were a boy who took up boxing – go figure).

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  6. nadiainherownworld

    If it’s any encouragement, I’ve seen a lot of people who never danced as kids start dancing as adults (ballroom, ballet, African dance, anything) and learn how to move really naturally (though I get that self-consciousness makes it hard for many people to get to that point). Queer-specific ballroom classes are also a thing, if you want to avoid some the gender-normative thing.

    Admittedly I’m a dance person with a secret agenda of getting everyone to dance, so . . . 🙂

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Self consciousness and dysphoria are hard to shake off- and make it difficult to move naturally in my body. A number of people have suggested to me that I take Yoga because it puts you more in touch with your body – and it has been on my “to do” list, since it seems more manageable and accessible. Dancing is one of those things that I want to be able to do, but I am ambivalent about embarking on the process to get there.

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  7. Kris Alexander

    That faceless “they” say that everything Fred Astaire did, Ginger Rogers did in high heels and backwards… I’ll join you against the wall for that beer. Never had a Turkish one.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Donna can do the backwards in high heels thing easily (she has also tried to get me to dance by leading and that was an immense fail on my part). Efes is the Turkish beer that is served in Drom (the main Balkan music bar in NYC). There is limited beer drinking in Turkey due to Islamic prohibitions against alcohol. When we were in Bulgaria, in 1999, bottled beer was cheaper than bottled water (don’t drink the tap water there) and the price was controlled by the government.

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  8. The butch

    Love this post. Love it.

    This year, at age 51, I started taking ballroom dance. One month after my traumatic brain injury, which made it 1000x more difficult. I was so determined. I could learn for maybe a half hour and would have to stop from the stress and overwhelmingness of it all.

    Eventually things got better. I go dapper and I lead. And it’s really damned fun. The straight women like to dance with me at lessons because I’m so polite and good at conversation and move with more fluidity than the cis-males. It’s good to be the butch.

    That said, contra dance is huge in my region. I got kicked out years ago from a beginner’s contra dance. They told me not to come back because I was so clumsy at it. That only served to reinforce my natural tendency NOT to dance. Thank goodness my best straight friend persuaded me to go to ballroom with her this year!

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      1. The butch

        The hardest part was the male dance instructor, and older Italian-American gentleman, who had a bit of difficulty wrapping his brain around the fact that I was dressed dapper and wanted to learn the lead and not the follow part. I think this autumn I’m going to schlepp to Northampton where there a dance studio that is supposedly more queer–and hopefully more butch–friendly. We shall see.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I am lucky to be able to hear a lot of bands play. There was a big influx of musicians into the New York area before/during/after the the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and they did not go back when the war was over (except to tour).

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  9. afish25

    I do dance and wish I could teach you. We would laugh and be silly. Everyone can dance, and sing and play music. It’s in our DNA. I was shamed around singing and when I sang in the Michigan Women’s Festival Choir I was in heaven. Dancing an activity worth pursuing. It will put you more in your body and your wife will love it. IMHO. 😎

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      However, hockey is not something one does with one’s body? I think that so much unconsciously gets layered on to activities when you grow up butch (or trans) that you can learn anything that is marketed to you properly, or that makes you feel like your real self. The most ridiculous example is jumping rope (never learned it as a kid) but I did it in a “UXF” macho-y work out at the gym with a bunch of guys as if we were training for boxing.

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  10. middleagebutch

    The Gypsy Festival sounds neat. W would love it. She loves festivals. And gypsies. We will be in town Oct. 3rd for Fun Home, but that would be a lot to cram in.

    As for dance, I never really danced until I got to college. The alcohol helped. A lot. As did having friends who didn’t care if you looked foolish. We did a lot of thrusting of beer cups and beer bottles into the air. It was a celebration, and I’m glad I didn’t miss out.

    W and I never slow dance at weddings or other events. But I would like that to change. I am feeling more confident these days, so I am opening myself up to possibility.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I hope you like Fun Home! I saw it at the Public Theater and liked it a lot. I’m not sure it is “better than the book” but that is because I am a huge fan of Alison Bechdel, and also because rarely is the movie/play better than the original. I heard, on NPR, an episode of Fresh Air about the play – and it is worth listening to the podcast -Terry Gross interviewed Lisa Kron, Jeanine Tesori, and Alison Bechdel about the process of creating it. It won’t spoil anything and there is a good discussion about butchness on it.
      Did you dance at your wedding and did you have a special song for it?

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      1. middleagebutch

        Listened to the podcast the other day. I am all things Fun Home these days.

        We did not dance at our wedding. There wasn’t any music and neither of us are big dancers.

        We did dance at our commitment ceremony. Not an official first dance but there was dancing to a few slow songs that we had asked the band to play.

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      1. Widdershins

        Not at all.
        Dancing is hard work. Learning to dance is hard, period.

        And not just physically, but emotionally too. My feet were firmly glued to the ground until I was well past my twenties, and not just because I was, and still am, a box-shaped butch.
        Like you I had the ‘little girls are supposed to …’ shoved down my throat as a kid, and I hated it. (there was a bunch of other crappy stuff going on as well, but the end result was the same) My response, the only power a little kid has around adults, I suppose, was to shut down. To slam everything wonderful about my Self into a little box and throw it so far away from myself that I didn’t find it again until several decades later.
        I’m nearly 57 and I still come across compartments in that box that are unopened. When I do I face it as my quaking heart allows.
        Dancing and indeed any kind of free-form movement was a huge one of those compartments. Anything that gave me access to how my body truly felt and moved was fraught with a lifetimes worth of external and internal oppressions.
        Thinking about it now, I reckon one of my main motivators in the end was ‘f**k you’ to everyone who tried to crush my kid-self. The rest was probably a combination of being tired, bone tired of being afraid, and coming to accept, and sometimes even love, my Self, and what a glorious hunk of person I grew up to be. 🙂
        On a practical level I didn’t want anyone to see how bad I was (at any kind of dancing) until I was good enough to prove them wrong, so I’d watch old movie musicals. (I don’t think youtube existed at that point) I fell a little bit in love with the women, (Doris Day in Calamity Jane, anyone?) but mostly watched how the guys moved. I’d make sure the curtains were firmly closed and I’d mimic certain movements that felt like they matched how the music made me feel.
        Eventually I graduated to poorly lit dancefloors at women’s dances, where so many women were flinging themselves in all sorts of directions I felt like I fitted right in.

        Wanna hear an irony? Now my arthritis (and assorted injuries) is such that I can’t move and dance like I used to for those few brief years when I freed myself enough to do so.

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      2. Jamie Ray Post author

        I take back all my evil thoughts….thanks for straightening me out. The only place I have been successful is in the gym – I put up with all the initial humiliation of being overweight, out of shape, butch, and middle aged – and learned how to work out. I think that was easier than dancing (easier to learn good form, easier to measure how I was doing, and no interaction with other people was necessary). I like working out – I no longer feel weird on the gym floor (still not at home in the locker room) – but I’m not sure I can parlay that experience into dancing.
        FYI my first big crush was on Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

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  11. Vince

    I used to know how to dance (in nightclubs etc) as a girl…lots of wiggling and grinding. As a bloke I tend to do the ‘dad at a wedding’ dance – very stiff, side stepping, hand-clapping, you name it.

    Not to mention how bloody HOT it gets dancing in a binder!

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