Self Esteem


Last week I taught my first ever private lesson.  It was so surreal.  There I was, in my kitchen with Forrest, drilling him on his Lindy footwork and talking about connection.  The lesson went very smoothly.  We fixed some pretty big problems with his footwork, and did some drills.  I taught him how to do six-count Lindy turns and how to do a Sugarpush properly for the first time.  He ate it up, and told me later how much he got out of the lesson.  It was a good lesson, but still… I felt kinda like a fraud.

See, private lessons, that’s something that pros do.  I mean, the really, really good people, the kind you have to go to Lindy Exchanges and workshops to learn from.  The stars and superstars of swing dancing, the ones who can rock your Lindy world with one well-chosen, blindingly insightful comment: they’re the people who give private lessons.  Me?  I’m the girl who teaches Swing I in a small swing scene.  I’m the one who struggles with partner Charleston, who doesn’t have the self-confidence to bust out solo Charleston unless I have a solo-Charleston circle around me, the one who’s always having to work on her frame and her balance and… and on everything.  How could I really be qualified for this?  I mean, teaching with a partner, sure, especially when my partner’s been dancing twice as long as I have, but private lessons?  No way.  I felt like any minute there would be a knock on the door, and there would be the Lindy Police, asking to see my license and registration.

Moreover, these aren’t just private lessons.  I’m hoping that Forrest and Travis (who had his lesson a few days later) will become first my demonstration partner while I teach at the University, and eventually teachers in their own right.  Right now Trey and I are teaching the University Swing Club together (we had over 100 kids the first week), but after we’ve taught them East Coast basics and a tiny bit of Lindy we’re going to split the group in two.  I’ll teach the beginners, and Trey will teach slightly more advanced stuff to the kids who’ve been dancing a little longer.  Trey already has an established demonstration partner, but I don’t, and there isn’t really anyone suitable in the local scene to ask.  All of the better leads are either already paired off with a teaching partner or otherwise not available/not suitable.  So I’m training my own teaching partner.  And yeah, that feels so weird.

I told Anna about this.  She’s the senior dancer in our swing scene and the driving force behind a lot of what we do.  She’s the one who trains new instructors (including me).  She laughed at the idea of the Lindy Police, but told me that it was going to feel like this for a while.  As long as I’m willing to ask for help when I need it, and willing to pass my students on when I’ve taught them all I can, I should be fine.  She offered me the materials she’s worked up to help train teachers, and reminded me that I can always ask her for helped.  After that I felt better, not just from knowing that I had backup, but also simply because she didn’t bust out laughing hysterically at the idea of me giving private lessons.

Maybe this isn’t so far out of my league after all.

This past Saturday I got invited to speak at a Catholic young adult retreat. They were talking about living your vocation, and they asked me to speak on living your vocation as a single person. One of the young women who invited me had heard me when I was one of the emergency speakers for Theology On Tap and was impressed with what she called my, “positive attitude.” I was startled by the invitation. I mean, I know I’m a good speaker. I have interesting things to say and I know how to state them in a way that engages and entertains an audience. I’ve done presentations for my Catholic young adult group many, many times. Still, I’m not officially an expert on anything. Of all the people that she heard at TOT (including my sister Michelle, who not only has spoken there, but MCs every series), she wanted me to come speak on being single? I was delighted to do it, just a little worried about her judgment.

It was a good talk. I talked about how I’ve come to understand my life as a single person as being a gift to the situations and people God puts me in contact with. The small group of young adults seemed to get a lot out of it. I even worked in dancing. At the end of the talk I used a basic Lead/Follow exercise from my first ever swing dancing lesson to help them feel what it’s like to follow God’s lead, and how you have to listen for it. They had a lot of good questions and comments at the end. One of the young women borrowed the reference book I brought with me to copy out a quote I’d used. It was pretty cool.

Then Saturday night I went to the regular monthly dance. About halfway through the dance somehow I ended up teaching an extended solo-Charleston lesson to some new dancers. I’m still not sure how that happened. I think I was showing Stella’s friend and Pierce something, and then this other girl started hovering on the edges trying to imitate what we were doing, and then her friends came over, and they kept asking me to teach them another move. We went through the Charleston basic, turns, fall off the log, Susie-Q’s, scarecrow, kick-overs (both with and without the repeat), boogie backs, Shorty George, boogie forwards (at which point I discovered that my main pupil was a belly dancer, which made her boogie forwards very cool – Her: “It’s like doing that figure 8 thing with your hips!” Me: “Well, that’s not standard, but if you can do it I can guarantee there will be someone watching.”), and maybe some other moves – I don’t remember anymore.

It was fun, though it did eat up a big chunk of the dance. It’s also rather ironic – I’ve worked on my solo Charleston at different points, but I’ve never been super serious about it. The serious one has always been Lucy, who actually looks cool doing the moves (rather than spastic, like, um, me), who can do the crazy moves my body can’t seem to figure out. At Boston I took a solo jazz class taught by Carla Heiney. 75% of it went directly (whoosh!) over my head. Lucy would have eaten it up and asked for more. If you want to learn solo Charleston, I would think she would be the one to ask. But no. They were asking me.

I’m happy to teach whatever I know, but… why do you want to learn from me?

Recently I was catching up on some posts on danceprimer.com, and I found the following quote in Amber’s interview with Jojo Jackson:

“I would consider my recent teaching partner, Dax Hock, to be one of the best mentors I’ve had in my career. Not only from the vast amount of knowledge he shared on and off the dance floor, but for his exceptional level of public interaction at every workshop weekend. On any given night, he will invariably be seen dancing with every single follow in the room, and if the energy starts to drop, he will boost everyone’s spirits with an all-inclusive group dance or jam session.”

When I read this I instantly thought of Sam, one of the first guys I ever danced with. He was the president of the swing club at the Other Big University in town, where I had my second ever swing dancing lesson. He asked me to dance as soon as the lesson was over, the first time I’d been asked to dance by A Guy I Didn’t Know. (The entire song he chanted, “Triple step, triple step, rock step,” and let me say, it wasn’t for his benefit.) Over the course of the evening he danced almost every dance, not sitting down until he’d danced with every girl there. He did this every night, every time he was at a dance. New dancers struggle with insecurity, wondering whether, if you go to the dance, anyone will actually dance with you. Knowing that if Sam was there I would have at least one good dance was a little anchor I could cling to, making it much easier to keep dancing through my insecurities and fears until I had a chance to improve.

Sam’s help didn’t stop there. He cared about my progress as a dancer, and encouraged me to be better. I still remember the first time he took me off to the side of a dance and told me we were going to work on this thing called “frame.” When I was terrified of being dipped, he worked with me, dipping me again and again until I started to relax a little. Other teachers have taught me more, but he was the first to care about me as a dancer.

Sam was a good lead, but more importantly, he was a good Leader. The fact that he danced with every girl at the dance is a little thing, but it made a huge difference in the club. I can remember watching a new follow leave the floor after dancing with him, looking flushed and happy, and immediately grab another new dancer, dragging him onto the floor for the next dance. His energy was infectious, and the dance floor was rarely empty. He traveled to neighboring school’s dances, and took us with him. He pushed us to move beyond the university club into our city’s swing scene. Several of the better dancers in our local scene got their start in that swing club. It was great while it lasted. Then he graduated, his successor wasn’t nearly of Sam’s caliber, and things fell apart.

It’s been a long time since I danced with Sam (the last time I laid eyes on him was when I dj’d his wedding reception), but he is still my gold standard of what a lead should be. It’s not just strength, clarity and precision, musicality and playfulness – although Sam had those in spades. It’s something more. It’s having an attitude of service, an understanding of what it takes to build up a swing community, and a willingness to do what that requires. It’s being willing to dance with the new follows so they can actually learn how to dance. It’s caring about other dancers. My ideal lead isn’t just a leader, he knows how to serve.

So last night I had this, “Damn, I’m good!” moment (I was going to write “Dang” but then I decided that the moment was fully worth the swear word). This is what happened: This semester I’m taking a class on Thomas Aquinas (the Big Bad Boy of Catholic theology), and on Tuesday I gave a presentation on part of the Summa (Aquinas’s master work). It went rather well, and I was excited about it. Last night while I was dancing with Pierce he asked me how my week had been. I told him about my presentation. He asked more. I told him more. By the time we were done I had explained all of Part I, Question 105, Article 4 of the Summa Theologica (“Whether God can move the created will?”), complete with Objections, Respondeo, and Answers to the Objections. All of this while doing Lindy and neither missing a step nor failing to follow a single move. Also wrapping it up before the song was done. And I’m pretty sure Pierce understood it.

I can’t believe I did that.

Damn, I’m good!

Of course, having done something like this, I then had to find someone who could fully appreciate my Mighty Deed. This would require a fellow theologian who can dance. There are none that I know of, but I couldn’t wait until I saw Justin tonight so I could tell him all about it.

Also last night, for the first time my dancing was praised by another dancer. I don’t mean that I haven’t gotten compliments before. There’s always the cute little old people who come out for the live swing bands in the summer and just love watching the swing dancers, or beginners who don’t know what good dancing looks like yet. It has been fun watching the number of leads who want to dance with me increase, and I’ve gotten admiring looks or words of praise for individual cool moves. Dancers whose opinions I trust have told me that I’ve improved a lot in different areas. Still, I’ve never felt like my dancing was of a quality that another dancer would get pleasure from watching me. Last night I danced some Westie with Trey, and later Lyle couldn’t get over how amazing the two of us had been. He was in awe at our musicality, the moves we had done, and the way we had mirrored one another: “There was this move right at the beginning that was like a sugar push, but not! And then you both kicked your foot out to the side at exactly the same moment! It was so awesome! I just love watching you two!” It was a little humbling, especially since I didn’t remember doing some of the moves that so impressed him. I’m sure I did them, but, well, for me it had been just another dance with a better than average lead.

Maybe I’m better at this than I think I am.