April 25, 2019 | Narrative
learning the elements of dance
A few weeks ago, the professor of my Philosophy and Psychology of Happiness course introduced us to the concept of flow. Flow, as he described, comes from taking action to complete a difficult task. When a person is in flow, their enjoyment of a task lies outside the boundary of anxiety and boredom, where a task challenges but doesn’t overwhelm them.
My friend and I first saw the hip-hop dance group Impulse perform in the spring semester of my sophomore year at Brown. Halfway through the show, a group called Elements took the stage. The show’s program told me that Elements was a beginner hip-hop dance group run by Impulse that teaches students foundational dance skills and choreography. As I watched the group perform, I was amazed by how confidently and passionately they moved and began to imagine what it would feel like to be on that stage myself, even though I had my reservations about dance.
Dancing and I have had an on-and-off relationship for most of my life. I started with ballet lessons in kindergarten, but for some reason, I stopped going. My interest in dance revived when I decided to take an African dance class during my sophomore year of high school. But I would always compare myself to my classmates. How did they do that move so naturally? Why can’t I look that graceful? I didn’t take another dance class until the fall semester of my sophomore year at Brown. The course was eccentric, to say the least; we wore strange costumes and even danced in paint. After completing it, I decided I just wasn’t free-spirited or coordinated enough to appreciate dance. But after seeing the passion and energy of Elements’s performance, I decided to give dance another shot and try out for the group.
Yet when Impulse announced the Elements Dance Workshop Series this January, I still found myself looking for excuses. You have to meet at least twice a week? I can’t manage that with my academics! Over 100 people are already interested, and they’re capping the group at 80 people!? What’s the point in going if they’re already going to be over capacity? Despite all these excuses, I somehow found myself walking to the dance studio for the introductory meeting and being greeted by a mass of people in a small room.
Maybe I stayed because the student teachers were so welcoming and encouraging. Or because everyone around me looked like they had no idea what was going on either, and we laughed through the choreography anyway. Either way, the workshop culminated in just one performance. How bad could that be?
Good God, I thought many times throughout the next six weeks as we prepared for our performance in the Impulse showcase. The learning curve was steep for me; I had underestimated how difficult it would be to learn and remember the choreography. For the first couple of practices, the only thoughts running through my head were What are my arms doing? What are my legs doing? What direction should I be facing? And while trying to figure all of that out, I still needed to be in time with the music, matching the chill vibe of one song or the fast-paced beat of another.
But, it was the first time in a long time that I felt fully immersed in the moment. I’m always thinking about the next five things I need to do—helpful for staying organized but terrible for enjoying myself. However, while learning choreography, I was so focused on my body interacting with the space around me that my looming to-do list never crossed my mind, something I only realized after practice ended. Moreover, after practicing the choreography so many times, I began to trust my body would remember the moves for me. With each practice, I could relax more with the music. As my psychology professor would say, I entered a state of flow.
And maybe that’s what my previous dance experiences lacked. Before Elements, I was constantly overwhelmed during workshops—simultaneously trying to keep up with the choreography and make my dancing look effortless. I was so focused on seeming confident that I ended up appearing inattentive and bored. Elements challenged me to let go of what I looked like and focus instead on how my body felt, something that the teachers emphasized.
Right before I took the stage for my performance, my friend from Impulse pulled me to the side. “I just want to say I’m so proud of you, and that our friends in the audience came to see you. You got this,” she whispered, tapping my nose with her finger.
My friend’s encouragement and my experience in Elements gave me the confidence to continue dancing after that performance, sparking my desire to grow more as a dancer. I wish I could say my relationship with dance has been smooth sailing ever since, but that’s definitely not the reality. I sometimes still walk into workshops and can’t help comparing myself to the dancers who are better than me. I still catch myself feeling discouraged when I can’t pick up choreography as quickly as I would like to. A month after the show, instead of enjoying the video of my first performance in over five years, I cringed at the tiny mistakes I’d made.
My confidence in dance is still a work in progress. My lifelong, rocky relationship with dance perhaps stemmed from my unwillingness to accept that there would be challenges in the first place. Inevitably, more challenges will come as I learn different dance styles and push myself to participate in more workshops and auditions. But as of now, challenges and all, dancing is the only activity that makes me feel centered and grounded—it’s at once a balancing act and a breeding ground for growth.