|by Calliopejen1, from Wikimedia Commons|
I’m standing on a worn wooden floor, marked with dents and silvery grey streaks. Two walls of this large room are lined with floor to ceiling mirrors, and the outside wall is covered in large picture windows. It’s an unusually warm spring day, and I can feel sweat on the small of my back from the warm-up. I snap my heels together à la Dorothy Gale, and the steel taps on the bottoms of my shoes click pleasantly. The sound blends in to the other clicks around the room as the rest of the class fidgets between songs.
“Ok,” our substitute teacher Tim says, drawing our attention, “so we’re going to start with some basic flap-heels going forward, starting with the right foot. Then we’ll move into a couple of Shirley Temples–right, then left–and then toe-heel right, toe-heel left. Then we’ll jump and slide our feet together and snap our fingers. Got that?”
None of us want to admit that we might not have it, so we nod nervously, in unison. He sees through the bluff and smiles knowingly. “Let’s mark it through a couple of times, then we’ll try it with the music.”
We fumble our way through the steps the first time but improve on subsequent tries. Hey, I think to myself, pleased, I think I’m getting the hang of this!
“Ok, now with music!”
Immediately, my body tenses and my brain leaps into overdrive, rapidly speeding through the steps I just barely learned. In the mirror, I can see stiff legs–where my knees should be bent–and wide eyes. The music starts, and we stand through the intro, listening for the beats.
Using the mirrored wall, Tim looks at us behind him, smiles comfortably, and says, “Now remember to keep breathing, and five, six, seven, eight!”
Because tomorrow is National Tap Dance Day*, I cannot help but remember this invaluable lesson I learned while tap dancing. When learning something new, it’s so easy to think, “I’ve got this!” in practice and then choke when it comes time to perform. Remembering to breathe may not help you remember everything you need to perform, but it sure does help keep you calm. Moreover, you can actually enjoy the task at hand–even if you mess up!–a whole lot better when you aren’t cutting off your oxygen supply.
For a perfectionist (in some areas), this is a hard lesson to hold close to my heart. I so want to do well in all my endeavors, to impress those around me, and to earn their approval. I want that affirmation! (Don’t we all?) So when I feel my body stiffen, when I start holding my breath, I force myself to breathe–deeply. And then I remember the Lord of the Dance, whose feet moved through these steps before me. Then, even if I misstep, I can keep dancing with joy.
*Traditionally on NTDD, folks perform the Shim Sham Shimmy, which is a much loved tap dance with choreography known the world over. There are a few regional differences, but regardless of where you’ve learned it, you can dance along with someone else and do just fine. Even swing dancers know it!