Dance as though no one were watching

By Caitlin Kelly

A man and a woman performing a modern dance.
A man and a woman performing a modern dance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The studio is huge — maybe 30 feet by 30 feet. One wall is mirror, one is glass, facing the parking lot. Two large fans create a cross-breeze. There is no clock.

The others are young, slim, lithe, their bodies able to do the most unlikely things with ease. There are three other women — a girl of maybe 15, one perhaps the same and one who might be in her 30s. There are two men, loose and easy in their skins, with the distinctive elegance of the dancer, both students at the University of Arizona.

Then there’s me.

I stand at the back, feeling lumpy and old in my black leggings and T-shirt, a bandana around my forehead to keep the sweat from dripping into my eyes. I’m wearing my black cotton jazz shoes, and have dropped into an advanced jazz class.


Actually, it turns out just fine. The instructor is Taylor, a tall blond whose manner is comfortable and helpful, and we start out by warming up with stretches, the opposite of what we do in my Monday morning jazz class at home. Then on to push-ups and ab work. I keep waiting for us to start the center barre — the ballet routine we normally do (battements, ronds de jambes, tendues, plies, degages, etc.) — but we never do.

Instead, to my nervous delight, we are given a routine to memorize and perform, to an aching and melancholy song by Florence and the Machine. It doesn’t feel like jazz and it doesn’t feel like ballet. It feels more like modern dance, which I’ve never studied. But in I plunge, twisting and rolling and shaking my shoulders. Taylor uses the floor a lot, demanding rolls and twists and a sudden arching of our backs with our heads as pivot point.

No problem.

It is a new feeling, to simply enjoy my body for all the things it still can do, quickly, with precision, carving forms in the air on the beat. In the old days, for decades, I would hate it for all that it cannot do, for the too-big bum or not-high-enough arches or muscular forearms that resemble those of a 18th-century laundress.

Now, after years of agony and limping and crutches, I am just so thrilled to have a functioning body that can glide and leap and twist and pivot and stretch at will.

Dance is a language, a vocabulary of movement. What a delicious relief to shrug off the burden of verbal expression! Here I speak with a flick of my hands or a roll of my head or an extension of my leg, foot pointed or flexed flat.

It is such a rare joy to move with grace and speed and power, not merely using my body-as-tool in quotidian tasks, to climb stairs or drive a car or load a dishwasher.

The other students are lovely to watch, especially the younger girl who is quick, precise and has astonishing technique.

Then we’re given four pieces of music with which to improvise. I’ve never had that chance, and here among others of tremendous training and exquisite line. Their arabesques are gorgeous, mine not nearly so much.

I could freeze with fear, knowing how beautiful and skilled they all are. I’m the interloper, the one with the new(ish) replacement hip I’m still a little protective of.

But dance we do, each in our separate bubble, and it’s lovely to make it up in the instant of hearing a note or a phrase. My hands and feet and arms and legs — having studied ballet from the age of 12 — know what to do without thought. I don’t plan or think or fuss or wonder.

Like grass or corn in a breeze, I simply move.

Untethered by expectation, for once, I simply fly free.

We’re asked to use the room: walls, floor, ceiling, mirror. There’s not a lot to choose from! I crouch into the corner, bounce off a wall (that seems familiar!) and watch the others roll and slide. Then, finally, partnering, which I shy away from, truly feeling odd woman out.

The men are simply amazing to watch, never not touching, bending and twisting and crouching and lifting. Even the teacher is moved by their seamlessness.

We’re done.

I drive off into the darkness, grinning.


34 thoughts on “Dance as though no one were watching

  1. I love your can-do spirit!
    It was also a kick to see your byline in the Yale Alumni Magazine this last issue! I felt like I was seeing my friend’s accomplishment there – which of course, in a way, I was. Good for you!

  2. Such a lovely post. Thank you for taking me on a little dance journey through your words. I’ve always wanted to be able to dance like that. I’ve been taking a tap class lately, which is way more advanced than I am. However, I’m learning to let go of that embarrassment and just dance. Next step for me would be to try lyrical. Eek.

    1. Thanks!

      It was really a bit of an epiphany as my NY classes are very rigid and pre-determined. You either keep up and do it correctly, or not. This was such a wholly different and wonderful experience.

      I have thought of trying tap — good for you! Embarrassment is silly. Have fun!!!

  3. So glad you enjoyed your class and let us enjoy it with you. Too much we live in our heads, thinking, brooding, worrying. We forget that other side of us, the physical one that gives us joy and takes the mind off things for awhile.

  4. The way you wrote of your experience was beautiful! Now I think my toes are itching to dance again. Damn…It’s been six years. It’s apparent how rusty my joints already are.

  5. Dancing is a language, one you can use to tell a story and visually delight an audience. And one of these days I’m going to organize a flash mob to perform in a public place on Friday the 13th with a Jason Voorhees theme.

      1. I don’t think they can blame me for that, especially if it’s a bunch of people dancing wearing foam hockey masks and waving around plastic machetes. Besides, any lawyer can argue that stress, old age, medical history, and other factors played into it.
        Hey, here’s an idea for an article: the effect of flash mobs on both the dancers and the viewers. Is there a medical or psychological benefit to seeing or being apart of a flash mob?

  6. Wow, good for you! I am envious. This is on a wistful “someday” or “wouldn’t it be nice if” list….meanwhile, I’ve found that when I’m tired at the end of the day, TV show theme songs are a terrific way to get moving – totally improv and you can get as wacky as you like, because it’ll be over in a flash. (The Good Wife is very brief and floaty; Bluebloods, on the other hand, is long and vigorous!)

  7. Pingback: Culturally Speaking, Does Dancing Make You Happy? | Life Lessons

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