In Defense of Ugly Dancing
The house is dark because all the blinds and windows are closed and the doors are locked, but I can still see myself reflected in the full-length mirror hanging on my bedroom wall. I am currently ugly dancing my heart out because I decided it might feel good, but I can’t look at my reflection in the mirror because every time I do I lose my nerve; I look ridiculous, like a scarecrow dancing to Miles Davis.
You might be thinking that my dancing isn’t really that bad, that I probably just look like an excited 5-year-old, twirling a bit unevenly and smiling beautifully. Nope. My ugly dancing makes your ugly dancing look like Fred Astaire. I jump up and down a lot and I like to wave my arms over my head. For some reason my feet don’t want to stay on the floor - which might allow for some sexy hip wiggles maybe, or some kind of pop-and-lock moves. No, my feet like to fly in all directions, sometimes skanking, sometimes doing sideways slides. I’d probably try to click my heels together if I could ever get enough air.
So even though I am completely - completely - alone, I’m still embarrassed.
But my body and soul are loving the movement, so I close my eyes to block out my reflection and stumble awkwardly into furniture as I hop around to Florence and the Machine’s “Delilah.”
You are probably not surprised to hear that I rarely dance in public. I sit and watch other people dance at weddings. Sometimes I get up my nerve to do the electric slide, but I spend the whole time feeling mortified and self-conscious. For me, dancing is not about having fun;, it’s about humiliation. Because I don’t know how to dance, and when I try I look ridiculous. So I don’t bother dancing often, because I prefer not to feel miserable.
But since when do we only do things that we are supposed to be good at? My two- year- old spends a good deal of time doing things that she is not at all good at. The fact that she doesn’t know how to draw or dance does not prevent her from enjoying them in the least. She sits down with a crayon, draws a crooked squiggle, looks at me and says, “heart” with unimpeded enthusiasm. I’m a nice human so I don’t tell her it doesn’t look like a heart. Instead, I tell her, “great job!” and kiss her pudgy face.
If I had to describe myself doing something which I feel I am not good at, I would say that I do it with impeded enthusiasm. Actually, just impeded. I’m impeded by expectations of beauty and perfection - my own and others’. As adults, we never admire someone just for doing something with joy; to gain our admiration, we expect quality. We expect ourselves and others to be good at things or to leave them to those who are good at them. Leave painting to those whose artwork looks less like it belongs on mom’s fridge, leave singing to those who can sing on-key, leave dancing to those who don’t look like they are reenacting how they broke their hip.
I know that adults have this expectation because I often have this expectation. At my church, there was a young man who used to sit in the front row and sing loudly during the worship service - I mean, at the top of his lungs. He was not a good singer. While I admired him for having no shame and for singing loudly and proudly, I would be lying if I said it didn’t annoy me sometimes. I wanted everything to sound beautiful and create a perfect worship environment. I sometimes wished he wouldn't sing because it was killing the mood.
I’ve spent a good amount of time focusing my own energy wherever I think I can attain perfection and beauty, and absolutely no time focused on skills and experiences where I’m sure I can’t. I was born without dance moves, so obviously there is no point in dancing. It will accomplish nothing for me. Dancing gets me no respect, no admiration, no popularity, no glamour, no glory. So why bother? I’m much better off reading another book, penning another essay, or taking another class, because that’s where I impress people. I’m pretty obsessed with return on investment.
Yet despite my lack of skill, my wild, ugly dancing brought me joy - and not the fleeting joy of admiration, but the deep joy that is best embodied in children giggling for no reason other than because it feels good to laugh. Somewhere in the wild exhilaration of experiencing what it was like to move my body however I wanted to without anyone judging, I realized how much shame had stolen from me. I expected accomplishment, beauty, and perfection at all times, and this expectation stifled and robbed me of a deep joy which can only be drunk from the fountain of child-like participation. My fear of the messy things in life - of the ugly, unimpressive, less than perfect products of being human - actually blocked me from enjoying life, even though I thought it would do the opposite.
Ugly dancing led me to the conclusion that you don’t have to do something well in order to enjoy it. I don’t have to deny myself the pleasure of dancing just because it isn’t pretty; my friend doesn’t have to stop singing just because his voice is distractingly terrible. Give yourself permission to revel in whatever experiences you long to have, just for the sake of enjoying the experience, with no other agenda - and let perfection sit on the sidelines and pout.
I am still not ready to dance in public, but I do plan on ugly dancing a lot more in private. I’m hoping it becomes a practice for me, sort of like a strange version of yoga. I invite you to do the same: ugly dance at least once a week, even if it is behind locked doors. Do it because your five-year-old self would high-five you and dance right along with you; do it to prove that messy and ugly can be way more fun than beautiful and perfect. Do it as an I’ll-show-you to all those inner (and outer) critics. But most of all do it because dancing is not about grace, poise, and rhythm like we’ve been told all our lives; it’s just about having fun. And the best way to remember that is to ugly dance.