From the age of 10 to 18, I danced. Many types–ballet, jazz, modern, lyrical. All of the independent variety. All of the variety that teaches autonomy, control, making movements as big as possible, and on your own terms.
At 18, I went to university and stopped taking these dance lessons. I started to learn social dancing. The kinds of dances you do with a partner–ballroom, salsa, bachata, lindy hop. My biggest challenge when I started social dancing was giving up my autonomy. The one complaint I would constantly get–“You’re back leading.” “Stop trying to tell the lead what to do.” “Don’t try to anticipate what comes next.”
Going from one form where you decide the movement, the intensity, the fluidity, to another form where you are completely at the beck and call of a leader–it’s weird. Anyone who’s ever met me realizes within five minutes that I am a loud, gregarious, and independent person. I don’t react well to being told to present myself a certain way, or to sit down and shut up.
But the thing about social dancing is that the follower is not just a lifeless puppet, at the mercy of a leader to twirl and spin and throw around the floor. That’s how I initially perceived social dancing. But really, leading and following is about having a conversation, where you might think followers are only listening, but really, they are also sending their own signals, communicating their own style with the lead.
The older I get, the more I learn to listen. I’ve always been able to listen, of course, but when I was young I thought I was the smartest person in any room and therefore didn’t need to listen. What could you possibly say that I don’t already know? was my thought. I know, I know, teenagers think they know everything. And I did. But I’ve learnt that I don’t, and I don’t need to. I’ve learned that I can listen, that I can take in what people have to say, but I can still push back. That doesn’t diminish my voice. And together, when we both listen, we both get what we want–a fluid, fun, beautiful dance. I can express my own thoughts and opinions and still learn what others have to say.
I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten quieter, but I’ve definitely gotten better at listening.