New skills, grace and what constitutes failure.

I used to be a dancer. It’s a very long time ago – human bodies are fragile things and mine, it turns out, wasn’t quite able to withstand the demands of classical ballet, let alone the surgery that followed – but in the intervening years, the memory of dancing lived on in my muscles, my sinews, my very core. One of the first things I did when I left my ex – in seeking to get to know myself as a person again – was to sign up for a casual, drop-in adult ballet class.

It tends to be the first of my commitments to fall off the radar when things get busy and I haven’t made it for a few weeks, but I got there tonight, and there was a new student, a “formally fat” (her words, not mine!) complete beginner with no dancing experience whatsoever – in a class with two former dancers and a teacher so graceful that even the simple action of switching on the CD player becomes art: when she dances the world holds its breath to watch.

The website of the dancing studio I attend advertises the class as “beginner ballet”, but it’s not: grande jetes and pirouettes aren’t exactly beginner, and they’re certainly not something you’d teach someone who has never danced before. And I watched this new girl struggle, determined to keep up with the class, determined to learn, determined to master this new and foreign skill within her first class. I heard the words she spoke: so sorry, holding the class back, so unco-ordinated, I’ve got nothing to offer. And although she felt bad, although she struggled, although she put herself down and worried about the impact she had on the rest of us (no impact at all, in truth – I learn a lot from watching a skill I take for granted being broken down into the basics), she did not for one minute give up – and she told us that she’ll be back next week.

Part of me felt sorry for her. I know how it is to feel out of my depth, to feel that I’m not holding my own, to feel that I’m the only one struggling to master something that others can do fairly easily. But most of me was absolutely awed by the openness she showed in being a total beginner at something. The vulnerability that comes with that, and the grace with which she carried that vulnerability. The courage it takes to come to a totally new skill, a task so unknown that even the basics are outlandish, and say, “right, where do I start?”.

I rely on my competence to keep me safe. To help keep things together. I struggle when I can’t do something: whether it’s a complex melody which I can’t sight-read, or a turn I can’t perform, or an emotion or symptom I should be able to control but can’t – my failure, in my eyes, reflects on me as a person. I don’t fail at something – I become a failure. My worth as a human being is reflected in my ability to spell the word my colleague needs to type, or to sing, perfectly, the piece of music put in front of me. My worth as a human being is reflected in my capacity to control a mental illness which at times is beyond my control. And I’m the only one who judges me for it.

I would have walked out of that class devastated, despondent, ruing my decision to attend and thinking never to put myself through it again. But then, I would never have had the courage, or the grace, to put myself in the situation in the first place.

Probably something I need to work on, I think.

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