They are lucky to dance with you
When I first started to learn dance in college— competitive ballroom, then, salsa and Argentine tango— there was always the familiar flush to my face reminding me how, as I rigidly moved my body to and fro, I was feeling like a complete fool.
I will spare you the excuses that Chinese people just don’t dance; how, growing up, I had little sense of my body in space, let alone how to move it. During recess in third grade, my classmates were all showing off their cartwheels. I didn’t know how to do one, but I shrugged and tried. They guffawed for months.
In fifth grade, with nothing else to fill my suburban summers, I showed my mother a pop dance routine I had made up, imitating what I saw on MTV. When I was done, she smiled and said, very gently: “Don’t ever show that to anyone else, okay?”
Years and worlds later, I decided I was going to dance tango, and pursued it the way I pursued anything else— with intensity. It was the dead of winter in Manhattan, and every week, I would coerce myself to go to milongas (tango social events), where I didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t move two steps without feeling, again, like a complete fool.
You can get used to feeling like a fool; embrace it, even. All you have to do is own that you look bad, and accept that you’ll continue to look bad for a while. What was harder for me was the pain of inflicting my mediocrity on my dance partners. When a man asked me to dance, a voice in my head would scream: No! Stop right there! You don’t want to dance with her. You will regret this.
Growing up in a culture where perfectionism was the standard meant that I was painfully aware of “not good enough,” and more generally, of “not enough.” I was always trying to prevent an apology from tumbling out of my mouth.
The urge, this fear of disappointment, floated over all my creative endeavors: when I submitted my writing pieces to a workshop, or a design assignment for critique, I would preface it with “sorry, it’s not as good as I would like it to be because…” When I first started taking on clients, I would worry, incessantly, that I would be uncovered as a fraud, calling herself some kind of professional. Tango only made that feeling physically tangible.
Once, a man, after dancing with me, said, “Let me give you some advice. Never say sorry.” My creative confidence coagulated over time, arranged itself into a solid ground I could walk on. Part of it was rote repetition, faking it until you made it, and cherishing the learning process. But the other part was simply preventing the apologetic, overly-accommodating words from slipping out of my mouth.
As in: Here’s my assignment for critique, period. This is how much I charge for this design project, period. Thank you for dancing with me, period. It was not anticipating how others feel, and instead letting them feel what they will. It is having the confidence to lay a vulnerable part of myself on the table, and then walking away. It is not trying so hard to protect my ego like it was some precious yolk.
I learned to stop measuring myself only by the flat ruler of perfectionism. Years ago, when I confessed my sheepishness to Robin, my tango teacher, he blinked and said, “No. They are lucky to dance with you.”
At the time, I was utterly baffled. Now I realize how important it is to have that kind of creative self-respect. There is a utility of thinking of each creative exchange as a gift, because only then do I have something valuable to give. I'm appreciating the multi-faceted, serendipitous nature of any creative dance. And feeling lucky in return, too.