So You Think You *Can’t* Dance?

On Friday, when I wrote this post, I got a comment from a friend of mine on Facebook. She said:

Sorry, Meg. If you had seen me in Zumba the other night… you’d know this just is not true for me! My first thought was “I have absolutely no rhythm or ability at ALL!” My second thought was “And Meg thinks ANYONE can be a dancer. P-shaw!” 😛

And something clicked into place:

We need to talk about definitions.

OK, I admit it: there are hundreds of kinds of dance that do need to be learned. You don’t come out of the womb doing pirouettes or time steps any more than you come out of the womb able play the violin or to draw photorealistically. Someone needs to teach you, and you need to practice.

This took years and years of practice.

And yes, you can be “good” and “bad” at things like ballet and tap and flamenco and possibly even Zumba (although I’m pretty sure the whole purpose of Zumba is to have fun no matter what you look like…maybe I’m wrong, I’ve never tried it).

But dance is bigger than dance techniques (i.e. style-specific steps and choreography). Sure, *insert-your-dance-technique-here* is dance. But dance is more than that. They’re not equivalent. And not being able to do dance technique well isn’t the same as not being able to dance.

Dance in its truest, largest sense is simply this:

Movement for its own sake.

I can elaborate if you want: it’s mind, body, and spirit moving together, pleasure in motion, emotion made physical, the essence of presence in the body.

And that kind of dance? Hell yes, anyone can do it. It’s not even a question of “can” or “can’t.” It just happens. It doesn’t have to be learned. And it can’t be judged and determined “good” or “bad,” because everyone is different.

So…what does that mean? It means that you can stop telling yourself you suck at dancing. When I say “you’re a dancer” and you flash back to that time you took a ballet/jazz/tap/ballroom/Zumba class and you totally fell over your own feet, that doesn’t mean that I’m wrong or that you’re somehow the exception to the rule. Not being able to master a style of dance doesn’t make you a non-dancer. You’re a dancer because you’re alive.

When you look at dance through this lens, there are no limits to what you can do. You can move to music whenever and however you damn well want, because your body wants to move and all you need to do is get out of its way, dammit!

You were born with an innate desire to move to music. It doesn’t matter what you do, when you do it, how you look doing it, or whether you’re moving right on the beat. It doesn’t matter your age, shape, size, or fitness level. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never taken a class, or if you tried one and fell on your face.

You’re a dancer. Always and forever. No matter what. Shift your perspective.

39 thoughts on “So You Think You *Can’t* Dance?”

  1. I feel the same way about music. To play an instrument well takes years of dedication and practice. But as I read somewhere once (I think in a Stephen King book, oddly enough) – “all God’s children can sing”. I tell my boys this all the time. Even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, if making a joyful noise makes you happy, let ‘er rip. Same idea. 🙂

  2. i love every word of this post.
    doing NIA for the last few years has taught me that….getting in touch with the way I move.
    some of the best moments are when we are being SO silly and free dancing and moving without any judgement of what it might look like….so freeing.

    p.s. i love your blog. i’ll be visiting lots!

    1. Yes!! And I feel like we’re taught to discount that kind of dancing. Like it has to be difficult and require years of training in order to be worthwhile. It makes me CRAZY! That’s why I’m so happy that classes like NIA and YogaDance and 5Rhythms exist…we need more classes that remind us to just be present in our bodies and not worry about what we look like!

      I’m so glad you stopped by! 😀

      1. You’ll like this. Everytime I put music on, Violet comes running to the kitchen and says, “Mummy, are we having a dance party??”

  3. I guess it depends on how you look at it…

    When it comes to titles like “dancer” or “musician”, I reserve those things for the people who have BOTH the talent AND skills to truly excel in those areas. To ME, writers are really good at writing. Athletes are really good at one or more sport. Musicians are really good at playing/composing/singing music. And dancers are good at dancing. I am not any of those things because I am not good at doing those things and, though I have some capacity to improve in SKILLS and, say, learn to play a song on the flute or get through a game of soccer without crying (:P), I will never excel at them. I just don’t have that innate talent and ability. And of even greater importance, I don’t have the drive and burning creative NEED like, say, YOU have for dance or Matthew has for drawing or Chris has for making music.

    See, here’s the thing… Everybody has their own talents, skills and abilities. We’re not all good at everything. We really just AREN’T. And, no, I don’t think we CAN or SHOULD be. It’s really, really okay that not everyone is a dancer. Dancers are beautiful and SPECIAL. Not every t-ball player needs a trophy. We’re NOT all “winners”. It’s okay. Truly.

    That being said, I do ENJOY dancing. Sometimes. If no one’s looking and I’m a wee bit drunk.

    But I will maintain that I am no dancer.

    (Stubborn, ain’t I?)

    1. That’s my point exactly: it’s a matter of perspective. Not everyone can be good at ballet or jazz or hip hop or whatever. But everyone has the capacity to drop their inhibitions and let loose and BOOGIE. And there is no “excelling” at that kind of dance (no matter what anyone says), because there’s no scale on which to judge it. Just like I can’t breathe better that anyone else. It’s not a trophy or a consolation prize…there can’t be prizes if there isn’t a contest. We all breathe. We all blink. We all dance.

      So, should we all try out for dance companies and So You Think You Can Dance? HELLS no. That would be stupid. But let’s not kid ourselves that those things encompass ALL dancing. What most people think of as “dancing” is a cultural construction. We’ve been taught that the only “real” dance is the kind you learn in classes. But that’s just not true.

      The dancing you enjoy doing when you’re a little bit drunk and no one’s looking is important. The dance you do when you sway with your babies and try to get them to sleep is important. The dance you do when you don’t even realize you’re dancing is important. We can agree to disagree on this one if you want, because just as stubbornly as you maintain that you AREN’T a dancer, I will maintain that you ARE. I don’t have a history of stubbornness, but I’m making an exception here.

      Plus, “Everyone’s a dancer, except Kerry” doesn’t have the same ring to it 😛

      1. “Plus, “Everyone’s a dancer, except Kerry” doesn’t have the same ring to it.” LOL!

        I’d also like to add that even if you don’t have innate abilities, it doesn’t mean you can’t excell at something you enjoy doing. Hannah went to school with a fellow who loved music, and wanted to be a professional organist. Now, (and Hannah can attest to this) he had no innate ability whatsoever. A tin ear, he had. But he practiced, and practiced, and practiced despite teachers telling him that he’d never be good enough to be a professional organist, despite the fact that even though he worked harder than anyone else, he was still not as good as the people who had the innate ability. Guess what he does now? He is the organist for one of the cathedrals in Halifax. If he had listened to the people telling him he wasn’t a musician, he wouldn’t be. So enjoyment and dedication counts for a lot, even without innate abilities.

      2. Yeah, but… 😉

        Keep in mind you’re looking at this from the point of view of someone who loves dancing, is very talented at dancing, and even LIVES and BREATHES dancing. Try substituting it with something else that you lack confidence and skill in. Say someone told you “YOU are a football player, Meg. Oh, yes you ARE! Drop those inhibitions and insecurities and get out there and play! You can do it! EVERYONE can!”

        Do you agree?

        Maybe you COULD go out on that field and just have fun anyway, even if you had no clue what you were doing or what the rules are or how to run fast enough. But some people might break down and cry under those circumstances. Some people hate being put in a situation where they know NONE of the skills needed to be up to par.

        For YOU, “just boogieing” is gonna look good no matter what. You can move your body in beautiful ways, you have a great sense of rhythm, you DO know some steps and moves. Some of us do not, and we can get self-conscious trying to “just boogie” because we feel awkward and limited and not so graceful. Maybe no one’s judging, per se, but some of us prefer to only do things in public that we KNOW we have some abilities to accomplish.

        On that same note, someone who CAN sing and loves to listen to music doesn’t get it when another person chooses to put on the tv instead of the radio and would rather not sing anywhere but the shower because doing so may cause a listener hearing impairment. 😛 If you CAN sing well, of course you love it and think everyone needs to and can and SHOULD. But it’s not necessarily true. And, yes, if a person has the passion to learn a skill despite having a lack of natural talent/ability, they CAN push through and learn it and even be very successful at it. But that’s only IF they have the ambition, passion and drive to do so. If not, it ain’t gonna happen.

        It’s like if I try to tell my mom that everyone’s a reader and she can read well and love it. Not true. She doesn’t. It’s always been a huge struggle for her. She’d LIKE to read and enjoy it, but it’s too much effort (due to some learning disabilities we think she has) and not really fun for her at all. Do I understand that? Well, in one way, not really, because reading is something *I* love and HAVE to do and don’t see how anyone can’t like it. But, on the other hand, she’s explained it to me and I accept that for her, the natural ease of reading just is not there so it will never be fun for her and she will never be “a reader”. And I also know my brother, despite being exposed to lots of books and being read to every night as a little kid just as my sister and I were, will also never be “a reader”, despite what “they” say about early exposure, etc., etc.

        I don’t know if I’m getting through. But I’ll leave it at this, and let y’all move on with your lives! Be thankful for your talents and passions! You’re all awesome! 🙂

        1. Kerry, I want to thank you for being so honest about your own feelings. As a movement facilitator, it’s my job to take people who consider themselves “non-dancers” and help them get comfortable enough to move their bodies. My job is to create an atmosphere where the fear goes away. For many people, saying “You were born to do this. And you can’t do this wrong. At all. Period” makes them feel free and able to dance. But -and here’s the part I have no control over- they have to get to a point where they’re willing to consider that possibility. When they show up in my class or comment on my blog, I know that they’re ready.

          When it comes to football, a structured game with rules and equipment is completely different from the kind of dance that I and other movement teachers/students are talking about here. You have to *learn* how to play football, and you can be “good” and “bad” at it just like you can be “good” and “bad” at ballet (same with reading…we’re not born reading. It’s a cultural construct, albeit it a very basic and useful one). But when we’re talking about dancing, we’re *not talking about something you have to learn.* It has nothing to do with steps or technique, it’s something we already have inside that we can access if we relax. Good and bad don’t exist in this definition of dancing (and no, I’m not saying that because I have dance training. In many ways, I have had to *unlearn* what I learned in order to get to this point).

          Thank you for highlighting ideas that need to be elaborated in future posts.

  4. Kerry, perhaps you are a dancer, but not a Dancer? Does that help?

    Furthermore, the first kind of worship humans ever participated in included fire, drums, and dancing. Dancing we might not recognize today as “dancing,” but dancing in the uninhibited, let it all go, move your body til you drop, and show the universe you love it, kind of way. AND THAT is what movement teachers are referring to when we say “everyone is a dancer.”

    Shows like “So you think you can dance” are TOXIC to our creative and loving souls. I will change you if you give me just a few classes. Period. Because I AM MORE STUBBORN even than YOU! 😉

    1. Christine, I kind of adore you. And that’s exactly what I’m talking about!

      I’d love to do some research on early dancing-as-worship and on where all of our current styles come from…I think it would be VERY instructive. The kind of dance we’re talking about is really all about returning to our roots -back before there were codified dance steps. It’s exciting! 😀

      I agree with what you said about SYTYCD. I’ve always enjoyed watching the routines, because my inner bunhead loves well-executed technique, but I find myself increasingly troubled by it. How many people leave those auditions determined to never dance again? How many people watch the finalists and think “Wow, they’re so good. I suck. I should never dance in public.”?

      I’ve experienced art wounds like that, and they’re horrible. I can’t really call the show a force for good in the world, even if it’s entertaining. (My circle of friends will probably be incredulous about this, but there it is)

      1. Regarding SYTYCD, to give the judges credit, when someone not fit for the show auditions but demonstrates a general light and passion for dancing, the judges usually acknowledge right off the bat the person is not good enough for said competition but that they should continue pursuing their passion in the clubs/studio/etc. Nigel seems to be an incredibly virtuous man, and I love that he doesn’t knock everyone a la Simon Cowell and American Idol.

        I’m not concerned for the well-being of those who audition for SYTYCD. I would hope that everyone who goes into those things realizes that it’s not JUST a dance competition–it’s a TV show; they’re looking for beauty, sob stories, multiple ethnicities, drama. That’s why they chose two almost identical-looking blondes as contenders for the Top 20…it’s drama. Ooooh, who will get chosen? Also, by now these auditioners have HAD to see the show and what it entails. They KNOW the caliber of competition. I dance, I am a dancer, I know I have talent, but I would never, ever consider auditioning for the show, the same way I would never apply to a job that lists more requirements and experience than I hold. And if I were to audition for the show or apply for that job and then get turned down, I wouldn’t throw my hands in the air and quit. I auditioned for Disney several years ago and was cut within 10 minutes but I came into the situation fully aware of the competition I’d be facing and the rigor of the audition, so I wasn’t surprised, disheartened, or discouraged when I was let go. For Disney, I am a terrible dancer; to others, I dance pretty well; for myself, dance is my life.

        1. In general I agree with what you’re saying about the judges, especially now that Mia Michaels is non-cranky (at least I *hope* she’s still non-cranky…). But the audition episodes always make me cringe. I find them very VERY triggering. It brings up so much “stuff” for me.

          But, to be honest, I’m still figuring out what my problem with it is. I don’t even think I really nailed it with my last comment at all…I’ve never really tried to put it into words, so it’s still sort of muddled and confusing to me. It’s just…something. When I know what it is, I’ll make a post about it.

          The weirdness is further demonstrated by the fact that, like I said on your blog, I’ve been excited to see the new season! I’m looking forward to checking out the Top 20 and the dancing now that they’re all picked out and seeing what they can do, because like I said…my inner bunhead LOVES well-executed technique. There were such great dancers last season. I got VERY passionate about it! The combination of enthusiasm and ambivalence kind of makes my brain hurt.

          I think it’ll be interesting to see if I’m still bothered by the show, having skipped the audition episodes…maybe that will give me some insight…

  5. Oh, Mia Michaels. I never understand how one day she can adore you and the next day pick you apart till you’re raw. It’s such a love/hate relationship with her.

    This season looks AWESOME. So many great dancers. It puts me in the mood to dance too, even if it’s just in my living room!

  6. Chiming back in because Corinne told me to read through the comments and then we had a really good discussion about them…

    First, yes, the fellow she’s talking about who is now an organist at a church here in Halifax? Was truly the least naturally-talented person I’ve ever met. He had a tin ear. He liked everything loud. His favourite piece was Handel’s Water Music and to this day I cringe every time I hear it because he practiced that goddamn thing day in and day out at full volume for three years. But, he’s succeeded. And I’m happy for him.

    Second, Kerry, I want to say that I understand exactly what you’re getting at – I really do. I feel that way about drawing. I come from a family of people who have natural abilities to draw & paint. As a child, I would get very frustrated because I would ask for help learning how to better “draw what I saw” and only ever heard back “just relax – everyone can draw!” Well, yes. But not everyone can draw in a way that brings them joy when they look at the finished product.

    I think the result for the creator is very important. If sketching a little cartoon rather than rendering a lifelike portrait makes them happy, then that person ‘can’ draw. If singing off-key show tunes in the shower makes them happy, then that person ‘can’ sing. And if me bouncing around to the radio while pushing the vacuum cleaner makes me happy, then I ‘can’ dance.

    Now, do I draw? No, I do not. Because I don’t have certain innate abilities (and drive) that will allow me to create what I wish I could. Because I’m not happy with the end result, I don’t find joy in the act itself, and therefore I don’t draw. And when my very talented mother says to me “just relax and let go – EVERYONE can draw!”, far from feeling encouraged, I actually feel worse. In my head, my interior monologue says “well, if everyone can draw, and I’m so unhappy with it, I must be doing something wrong”.

    I say all this a) so Kerry knows that I *think* I know what she’s getting at, and don’t entirely disagree; and b) so Meg, you have maybe more insight into what will block some of your prospective students.

    1. “I think the result for the creator is very important. If sketching a little cartoon rather than rendering a lifelike portrait makes them happy, then that person ‘can’ draw. If singing off-key show tunes in the shower makes them happy, then that person ‘can’ sing. And if me bouncing around to the radio while pushing the vacuum cleaner makes me happy, then I ‘can’ dance.”

      And if dancing just doesn’t make a person happy, then I would gladly send them on their way. Seriously. I’m a big believer in letting your right people find you.

      Another way to put it is that we’re going for experience rather than appearance. I’m not looking for “pretty” or “graceful” or “skilled” from an observer’s point of view, I’m going for the “happy” on the inside. The “happy” is more important than the way it looks in these classes (there’s a reason why I cover mirrors in dance studios). *mental note of another blog post to write*

      MAN, this conversation has been useful! Thanks, guys!

      1. (Can’t help myself. Gotta reply again. But this really has nothing to do with the continued argument, so….)

        I like mirrors when I’m trying to learn to move. I said in Zumba just last week that I wish we had mirrors so I can see if I’m doing things right at all. Yes, I know that case is different than what you’re intending to do in YOUR groups, but I also kept sneaking peeks at myself in any possible reflective surface I could in the dancing group I attended at your place last summer. I needed to see if I looked good at all in order to feel good. Maybe this is because of being such a VISUAL person? I don’t trust my body unless I can SEE it? Or maybe I’m narcissistic. 😛

        Weird. Anyway, this really struck me and I had a revelation so I thought I’d share. In no way am I saying you SHOULD have uncovered mirrors because I really, really get what you’re doing by covering them up and that’s probably for the best for most people. But for me, I’d like the mirrors.

        Go figure.

  7. I keep thinking about this post and the questions it has brought up. Perhaps saying “Everyone can MOVE!” is more welcoming than using the verb “dance,” which brings up connotations of ballerinas and B-Boys. The lesson then is to teach others that their movement is their dance. Take the Stillness portion of 5Rhythms; for many, the moves executed in this rhythm are subtle, soft, almost non-existent: Moving only the hands. Simple swaying back and forth. Lying on your back and gently pressing the hips into the floor. It is not “DANCE” by dictionary definition, but it is conscious movement, and to me conscious movement IS dance. Sometimes those barely-there moves in Stillness are more “dance” than something soft-shoey and dancey-dance I may have forced upon myself during Staccato.

    The trick for you is to get people to move and then open their eyes to “dance.” I think of it the same way I was introduced to yoga. If someone told me in 2003 that I would be meditating, chanting, Om’ing, and feeling a connection to something greater than Self because of yoga, I would have been too scared and weirded out to try. I started yoga for the same reasons many people start it–I wanted to improve my flexibility, shape up. For the first several months of class I shunned the Om’ing, the Sanskrit, anything but the asanas. But the more I took class, the more intrigued I became to these “other” aspects of yoga, and gradually all of these things became part of my life. I think your challenge then is not to hang this heavy, telling message over everyone at first–“EVERYONE CAN DANCE; DANCE IS THE GREATEST!”–and to begin the process gradually: “Today we will move our fingers, hands, and arms. Next week we move our hips and knees.” With time, that inner dance will shine.

    1. “I think your challenge then is not to hang this heavy, telling message over everyone at first–”EVERYONE CAN DANCE; DANCE IS THE GREATEST!”–and to begin the process gradually: “Today we will move our fingers, hands, and arms. Next week we move our hips and knees.” With time, that inner dance will shine.”

      Exactly this. 🙂

  8. I have to disagree with Jennifer here. I think the challenge is to convince people that it’s not a heavy message at all.. because dancing is what it is. Starting gradually works for some and jumping in works for others. If the term “dance” frightens and alienates someone, that should be explored, not redefined. I mean, call it what you want, but creative movement *IS* dancing and I think the issue here is not the term itself, but the deification of the capital “D” Dance. Everyone is starting from a different place. I never thought this blog was instructional, but rather inspirational. By reducing that I think you lose some of the meaning.
    Was it a broad and bold statement? Yes. But that’s what you do. You inspire. I think you have your fair share of toe wiggling posts as well as your broad sweeping statements about how everyone is dancer. You can’t and shouldn’t try to please everyone. You are staying true to your message. If that doesn’t resonate with some people, that’s not really your problem.. but it does make for some great discussions.
    Not every post is going to be accessible to everyone, but I found this inspiring. I am a dancer. (even if it’s just with a little “d”)

    1. I miss our big group dance numbers. When we’re all back in the same place, we should hire ourselves out for weddings.

  9. Would like to clarify (and then I’ll drop it) that even with the possible pausing? holding back? on the word “dance” and everything it connotes for people, I DO find Meg’s unbridled enthusiasm and encouragement very inspiring. Because of Meg, I have dance parties in my dayhome; I always have music playing for the kids and urge them to move around, especially when they get grumpy or bored (and with all this rain, it happens a lot!); and I find myself grooving while doing chores more than I used to.

    All I was trying to get at with my thinking about this particular topic is that some folks who may turn out to really, really respond to Meg’s teaching style might at first be intimidated, and why.

    I’m done now. Lord knows I don’t want to hijack Meg’s space with my own ideas (and wasn’t trying to).

  10. I just love this post Meg.
    And I get this all the time – not about dance but about creativity.
    And you know what – some people just don’t want to think of themselves as a dancer or as creative or as whatever. They are holding onto the part of them that says “No I can’t”. And they have every right to do that.
    You and I and others know that if they let that part go – they’d find that they could. And that’s our job.
    But we can only work with people who are willing.
    When I started doing creativity workshops a lot of my energy went into try to convince people it was ok. It was safe. That they could do it. That I could help them find their creative spirit even if they didn’t think they had one.
    I found that was a pretty tiring approach.
    These days I just work with people who know they have a creative spirit and are looking for ways to bring it out. People who say yes because they are ready to say yes.
    It’s a lot more fun for me and it makes everything about my work easier.

    1. Andrea, thanks so much for commenting! I had this feeling that it wasn’t just me. It’s very reassuring to know that I was right. And I wholeheartedly agree with your philosophy <3

    2. ^Exactly this. This post and subsequent comments were winding me up FOR DAYS, and it’s not even my blog, but Andrea’s comments are exactly right. I’m so glad I came back to see if anything else had been said! I’ll say this, though, this whole discussion has cleared up and solidified my own views on creativity in general, and inspired me to live more what I know to be true.

  11. This new set of comments is interesting. I had a revelation tonight (in Zumba class, of all places :P) that I had experienced something analogous to this in my own way.

    Waaaaaay back when I was taking my Rec. Therapy course, we had to plan and implement sample programs with our classmates as participants over and over for practice. This particular class was all about creativity, and my chosen program that day was to have my classmates listen to three very different pieces of music and use paper and oil pastels (chosen since they’re very loose and flowing) to express their own interpretation of what the music felt like to them. I encouraged them to use colors and strokes and shapes to visually describe the “story” or feeling they got from the songs, rather than trying to produce actual images or “pictures”.

    Most of them kind of looked blankly at me. Some looked scared. Almost everyone doodled things like hearts and houses. It was kind of a complete disaster.

    I was so frustrated! This was exactly the type of program this class was all about! Not the crafts with set directions most of them led us through (which were fun, but no offence, not what the teacher had in mind). This was REAL creativity! This was inspired and cool and… EASY! Just close your eyes and let the pastel floooooow over the paper. Come on people!!

    But it dawned on me afterwards that not everyone saw things as I did. Drawing and visual arts just weren’t their talent or ability or love. The assignment — which was supposed to be fun and freeing and inspiring and REALLY REALLY COOL dammit!! — was intimidating and confusing and even boring to some of them. And I realized that it would be even more so for my target audience, of older residents in long-term care with varying declines in mental and physical health. (And, indeed, crafts were one of the hardest programs to plan in my days at the nursing home. We stuck mostly to simple tole-painting type projects, like what you’d see preschoolers do, because the motor skills simply weren’t there anymore in that population to do anything more intricate, and the mental capacity to do something “outside the box” wasn’t really common, either.)

    So, you know, consider yourself lucky is you CAN choose to ONLY work with people who GET your idea of creativity and are ready to get the most from it. But, understand that not everyone is ready or able to do that. Or need lots of baby steps to get there. Some of us are the “doodlers” of the dance world. 😉

    1. I always loved your piece called “F**k Off, It’s My Painting.” Do you still have that? (Or have any idea what I’m talking about?)

      1. Was that one of my crazy, finger-painted abstracts done at the Radcliffe apartment? If so, I have all three that I did at that time. I don’t remember naming a painting that, but I don’t deny that sounds like what I might do. 😉

      2. Thanks! I like that one. 🙂 (Not sure if this will post where I intend…. It didn’t give me the option to reply directly to your last comment, Corrine.)

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