The Magic of Dance
My heart raced, my palms covered in sweat, I nodded, thinking that this must be how piggy banks feel when impatient children turn them upside down, and shake them until the last bit of change falls out. The year was 2005. I was at a Nepalese festival, and my best friend at the time, Mayan, demanded that I take the biggest step in my Bboying (what pop culture calls breakdancing) career, and battle someone. Michael Jacksons sang Do you wanna be startin’ somethin’ on the loud speaker. I faced my opponent and began to dance, first standing up, and then on the ground. Mayan screamed at me, “You roasted him Jeff Rock!” The other guy dancing after me, then he and his father came over to hug and congratulate me.
It was not like any battle I had ever seen, but the social freedom I experienced was indescribable, which makes for bad writing so I will try anyway. Listening to music, and using it as an excuse to dance gives you the feeling of excitement and a cardiovascular workout. In Bboying, we don’t dance to the music. We surrender to it. We allow it to surge through our bodies, and we ride the beat like a wave that rises and falls. We rise and fall with the wave, responding to the beat with movement like a conversation rather than something we are witnessing from a far.
There is duality in dancing to music merely to be entertained. When you dance to battle someone, there must be oneness. Every time, you catch the beat in the most subtle, but well-timed moments, you will see your opponent and onlookers respond with praise. You battle the man, but your true journey is towards complete surrender and self-acceptance.
When we try to control the beat or our bodies, we are still performing for others, trying to protect what we have inside, careful not to accidentally let a vulnerability (or two) slip out. We don’t become the captains of our bodies in this way. The body is simply a vessel for transporting well-crafted ideas, and acceptable overtures.
Reclaiming Our Bodies
To become a great dancer, you must exhibit profound connection to the music, and release that which you have inside. Your own unique style, your simple truths spoken by body movements keeping time by responding honestly, and without inhibition to the sound and words that come next. That is character, and once you have it no one can lay claim to your body again. It is yours forever.
I completely underestimated this process. I saw it as another artistic venture. It was something I loved, respected, was captivated by, and I was sure would lead to some self-knowledge. I had no idea that it would be the road to claiming my heritage as a unique human being without apology for what I loved, who I loved, and who I desired to be. But, every time I battled someone or contributed to the dance circle we call a cypher, I would have to strip away one more layer to get to the next stage of ability.
Nothing motivates you more than losing or struggling to come up with the exact movement to match what the music made your heart say. One of these realizations involved learning that my favorite color was red after a lifetime of believing it was blue. Blue is beautiful, but I liked it because it was universally accepted and non-threatening. It placed no stress on me to impress others. Red was something completely different. When I wore red to bboy jams, people would expect great dancing, intense dancing, aggressive and masterful dancing. When I went out to dinner, the bar, or a nightclub, people expected me to be confident and fearless. So many reasons not to wear red, but bboying taught me that there were just as many reasons to wear red. It was, in fact, my favorite color. It was my body. I will dress it with sincerity. I am not obligated to respond to your expectations, and owning my own experience means that I will transcend most of them anyway.
Taking Her Body Back
While I had many such revelations, the most profound experience I had involving dance was as a teacher. A small statured, shy Korean girl about 19 years old had been a victim of an attack near her dormitory, and stayed in most nights to feel safe. One night one of her classes ran long, and a friend dragged her to our practice spot. She just watched, but it was clear that she was enamored with the dance. She did not pay attention to gymnastic movements, such as people practicing back handsprings or forward tumbling. She locked her gaze on dancers known for their style and finesse.
Perhaps now, bboying can be learned in studios, but when I danced full time it was a street dance. The only way to learn was to show up at underground practices, and try to dance until the bboys realized you were serious. Then, someone would take you under their wing and teach you.
The second practice this girl came to, I introduced myself and tried to help her make the rounds. Knowing how difficult it was to navigate these practices without basic fundamentals, I offered to help her. For weeks, she would come and quietly practice along side me, mimicking the dance steps standing, and trying to mimic those on the ground. We would go over fundamental movements, and I would repeatedly mention how important it was to make the dance your own; to find a way to feel the music that made you feel both alive and empowered, and to trust that your heart would breach the gap between the music and your body.
After several weeks, I noticed a shift in her body language, and manner of dress. She held her head more erect, and her shoulders rolled back. She slowly added color to a wardrobe previously composed solely of blacks and greys. The first day she battled, I could see how frightened she was, and I reminder her to trust her heart, and let it bridge the gap between the music and her body. To this day, I have never seen a better first try. She exceeded her expectations, and she did so with style. A few months later, she found a really nice guy from practice to date, and they became inseparable.
On one particular day, I remember that she seemed especially happy. I acknowledged the changes she made since coming to practice, which she appreciated, and then I asked her what she attributed these changes to. I still get goose bumps when I think of her words. This dance helped me own my body. I don’t think I think I have cried in front of a girl since I was 10, but I cried then. We all deserve to own our own bodies.
Translating the Teachings of Dance to Self-Compassion Practice
Like dance, self-compassion, especially self-compassion meditation gives us the courage and will to surrender to our experience. It gives us the insight of knowing that a life lived in being led by fear and the expectations of others is only a punishing one. It teaches us to accept rather than reject the qualities that we are the most reluctant to share, and claim as our own. In claiming that difficult experience, self-compassion helps you unlock the depth of your truest self. The self that only abides being kind to yourself, and following the interests that occur to you naturally. It is hard to live a full life, when we restrict life’s dimensions to the approval and expectations of others. That tends to be a small life, a small life that is somewhat rigid and uninspired.
When we relinquish our need to present as happy and interested in what seems acceptable, we give ourselves permission to pursue what truly inspires us. For people who have long lived in reaction to others, this can feel like throwing the match they have kept lit into a pool of gasoline. Their fire burns bright, and like most things passion, their burgeoning interests tend to inspire others.
It is hard not to feel like your thoughts and body belong to others, when your decisions about what to like and who to like are driven by popular consensus instead of your heart. These moments are especially troubling in unhappy relationships and unhappy jobs. The truth is that no matter how good you get at fooling others, you will never truly be able to fool yourself, and that is a good thing.
Whenever you can, surrender to your experience, even if it is just for a moment. Let out a loud scream with others at a sporting event or a concert. Give one of your friends or family members the uncensored version of one of your thoughts. Give yourself permission to feel however you are feeling in this very moment, even if that feeling is really anxious or depressed. Some of the most anxious and depressed people in history have captivated our hearts, minds, and souls. Do not use this as an opportunity to judge yourself. Just let it happen when you can, and be open to the synergistic effect of these small moments over time. Open your heart, and reclaim your body. Everybody deserves to own their own body.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 70. In the Books.