By Lesley Schneider
The auditorium was dark, filled with chatty parents holding bouquets of carnations in one hand and cameras in the other. The spotlight hit the red velvet curtain as it began to open, and suddenly Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” was blaring through the loudspeakers onstage. After a couple counts of five-six-seven-eight, fourteen little girls in pink and green sequined tutus began to shake to the beat—well, all except for that little brunette one who was crying on the back right. That one was me, of course.
As a child, I did not have good experiences with dance class. In fact, there were few things I enjoyed less. I was an exceptionally sensitive five-year-old who hated being ordered to keep her hair back in a bun while being criticized for not pointing her toes, sashaying well, or spotting while doing turns. I could not do the middle splits, nor could I properly leap across the floor, I hated tights and leotards, and frankly, I was the most awkward-looking dancer in my entire class, and my teacher made a point to let me know.
The shame of my childhood dance disasters followed me from kindergarten to senior prom. I quit dance in seventh grade to pursue martial arts after begging my mother to let me switch and from then on refused to dance at all costs. The days in gym class where we were forced to square dance, waltz, and swing, I went to the nurse’s office or skipped class. For my first high school homecoming, I went to the post-football game dance and watched my friends jump around and grind the night away, having the time of their lives, while I stood around awkwardly hoping no one would notice me. I continued to live this way through every single dance I attended throughout high school, much to the chagrin of all of my formal dates and to the amusement of my parents.
Whether my extreme level of discomfort with dancing came from bad childhood memories or my complete lack of self-confidence (mix glasses, braces, frizzy hair, and lanky, angular limbs with no butt or boobs to be seen to form Lesley Schneider aged eleven to eighteen), it crippled any desire I had to attend parties or functions that included any form of dancing.
Fast-forward to October of 2012: I am now a freshman at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. I have finally found a friend group at the university, mostly composed of people I had met on the eighth floor of Middlebrook Hall. One Tuesday in late September, I walked into the dorm of my good friends and saw that a group was getting ready to go out somewhere.
“Hey, guys, where are you headed?” I asked.
“We’re going to ballroom dance club to get a free lesson in swing dance. Do you want to come?” someone answered. I swear I felt my stomach fall through the floor as I processed this answer.
I refused that day, as I did each time they invited me for the rest of the year. I’d watch my friends as they dressed in dancing shoes and cute outfits, saying how much homework I had, occasionally fessing up to my dislike of dancing. For an entire year, I denied myself a fun social activity because I could not handle how awkward I felt about dancing—really, how awkward I felt about myself.
It dawned on me each week as my friends left to go dance that a little part of me did want to go with them. I wanted to twirl around the floor and flirt with boys like the rest of my friends, but I was anxious about how I’d look moving my hips, worrying if my partners would judge me if I missed a step. What would happen if I stepped on someone’s toes? Would people make fun of me for looking like a fool? I couldn’t bear the thought of embarrassing myself in front of a bunch of strangers or giving my friends another thing to rag on me for. There was no way I was ever going to dance.
There was no way that I was going to dance, that is, until I learned that the ballroom dance club put on an event, Minnesota Ballroom Blast, that had something called mixed proficiency, wherein a competition team member was paired with a newbie to teach them a dance and then get critiqued on it. My good friend Joel pressured me into doing a dance with him of my choosing. I had always loved watching people waltz, and here was a clear opportunity to learn, but still I felt the old anxiety creep into my body as I considered his proposition. It occurred to me, as I ruminated over whether I wanted to participate in mixed proficiency, that if I didn’t learn to dance soon, I probably never would—I could go my entire life missing out on fun opportunities because of my pride—so after much thought, I agreed to learn to waltz.
Joel and I spent about six hours practicing for the event: learning to butterfly, underarm turn, zigzag, and chasse. I initially felt clumsy and ungraceful as we drilled basic moves, and dreaded attending the basic waltz lesson. I was afraid I’d waste the members’ time and disappoint Joel, who was putting a lot of effort and patience into teaching me, but through attending the lessons and general dance with the ballroom club members, I realized the most vital reason people dance: it was fun. Even when I was stepping all over someone, red in the face with embarrassment, I enjoyed what I was doing, and I felt a little freer each time I danced. All the years of disdain for an entire art form melted away as I flew across the floor on Tuesday nights, and it felt fantastic.
After a couple of weeks, the day of mixed proficiency was upon me. I arrived at promptly 2:00 in a beautiful, borrowed skirt and top. My hair was smoothed back, I had way too much eye makeup on, and I was feeling something I had not anticipated: excitement. Watching the more proficient couples glide around the Great Hall in Coffman Memorial Union—the ladies decked out in lovely dresses, their hair pinned with glittery barrettes and flowers, the men looking suave in dress shirts and ironed pants—I actually wanted my turn to come so I could be part of it too.
At 3:05 p.m., the time arrived for Joel and me to waltz. He led me onto the floor—I am pretty sure my hands could have passed for a water fountain—and we started to dance. Even with thirty people watching me, I felt smooth and elegant as we drifted around the other couples. I messed up my footwork a couple of times, but I didn’t even care, because I was having fun, and I was happy.
Mixed proficiency was a memory that I’ll always remember fondly. It was so much more than I expected. It was not just fun, but made me realize that I can dance. I can move my body and not feel awkward, I can learn steps and be led, and I can do it with a smile on my face. Here’s to many decades of dance to come!