Being told you’re a failure at the age of 8 is a hard life lesson to learn. It was at this age that I was thrown out of my ballet class because, apparently I ‘wasn’t really learning anything’ from the class. I hid my upset well, an early version of my teenage shrug as my answer when my Dad asked if I wanted to go back. I had, after all, learned the whole ‘Birdcage’ dance!
Put the birdcage down and have a little look.
That (points to the imaginary bird in the cage)
Bird (fluttering both arms in a high outstretched V)
Is Mine (pointing gracefully at my chest)
Terre, terre, terre, Together
(In my head, this is shouted in Miss Bangham’s strict staccato voice)
So that was something. I’d learned! And how to tie my blue knitted ballet cardi. And I still hadn’t grown into the ballet shoes I’d been given from some other failed ballet dancer – the toes were still packed with cotton wool.
So I knew that it wasn’t that I ‘wasn’t really learning anything’ in the class. Oh no, knowing Miss Bangham (“But Mum, she has a baby, so how can she be ‘miss’?” “Shhhh, Ailsa, be quiet.”) her actual words probably included ‘baby elephant’, ‘as graceful as’ and ‘a bit chubby’. Well, that was the message that my 8-year-old-self got anyway, and carried on into adulthood, as far as dance lessons went.
Of course, growing up in Scotland, we had the obligatory Scottish Country Dance lessons instead of PE each Christmas time before the school dance.
The Gay Gordons.
The Dashing White Sergeant.
The Canadian Barn Dance.
I think one year we may even have attempted a Highland Schottische.
The horror of standing in the line of girls on one side of the gym, facing the line of boys on the other! Then the boys advancing, usually in groups or pairs, and appraising you in terms of what people would say if they were to pick you. It was quite usual for me to get one of the smaller boys who only came up to my shoulders (I was fairly tall for my age), or the ones with the sweaty palms and crispy jumper cuffs. Then there were ones who only chose you because their pal was dancing with your pal and they’d Made An Agreement with him, and were keen to let you know this. I became a bossy dancer, not in terms of shouting at my partner, but by what I now recognise as leading them. But I could learn the dances faster than many of the boys – probably they were even less motivated than I was.
I missed out on the teenage dance classes my friends went to, learning the Alleycat, mainly because the of mental scarring from the ballet classes. It all looked a bit contrived to me when they demonstrated it in the playground, and I didn’t want to prance around in a leotard with sequins and fringing stuck on with glue.
But as I grew older and became a student, I had a revelation and found that I loved going out dancing – it was still called ‘going to the disco’ then, even though the 70s were finished and raves hadn’t quite started at that point. I loved to dance, and found that I was quite happy to be myself and dance wildly to the music in the dark, smoky places. Being a student at Strathclyde University meant Level 8 on a Thursday night, where all the beautiful people went. But Level 4 on a Wednesday was where all my friends went and we danced to Ever Fallen in Love, Nights in White Satin, and It’s the End of the World as We Know It. Some nights, if there was still some grant money left, we went dancing in one of the many of the sticky-floored Glasgow dance clubs. Panama Jaxs, Cleopatra’s, Rock Garden, The Cotton Club, Cardinal Follies…. Classy joints one and all!
But I only came to take dance lessons again in my 30s, because of my complete and utter mortification on the dance floor, definitely one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life.
Travelling on a 10-day cruise around the Galapagos Islands in 2001, the boat was small enough for us to become friendly with the crew. When the boat docked at one of the towns, we would slip over the stern with them and jump in the back of a pickup and go to a bar.
On one particular night, Steve was playing pool, and I was chatting to Juan, the handsome wildlife guide from the boat. There was a dance floor which was in full swing with great music I couldn’t name. Would I like to dance? Juan asked. Of course! I love to dance.
What followed was the most excruciating dance of my life.
I now know that the music playing was salsa, and that Juan was dancing salsa, and that he expected me to be able to dance salsa. But when the only formal dance style you’ve ever mastered is Scottish Country Dancing, it’s a little difficult to instinctively understand what your partner is expecting of you. Pulling and pushing me around, while he twirled and swooped like a flashy matador, Juan did not seem to appreciate my attempts to break free from him to do some freestyle. He kept grabbing my hand, twisting it, while simultaneously shoving me on the shoulder or back with his free hand to indicate where he wanted me to go.
I didn’t know about 1,2,3, pause, 5,6,7, pause. I didn’t know about dancing on the one, moving my hips, letting him lead. I had no clue about the meaning of his signals from his fingertips, nor could I anticipate his lead from his body language.
Juan persevered, and persevered – but not in a good way. Not even by counting the beats, showing me basic footwork – nothing! He just began to get more and more irritated with me, telling me to move my hips, to follow his lead, and basically pushing and pulling me around. At first, I just wanted the dance floor to swallow me up.
And of course, it was one of these extra-long salsa tracks, and felt like forever.
But as he became more and more pushy with me, more annoyed, I began to get annoyed with him too. How dare he think that my Scottish hips could actually move in any kind of direction! My straight, immobile hips were just perfect for Scottish County Dancing, thank you very much.
Finally, both thoroughly fed up with each other, we left the dance floor as the track ended. Juan vanished into a thicket of adoring girls, and went back to dance ‘properly’ with one of them. He obviously felt that I didn’t appreciate him
There and then, I made a promise to myself to find out what on earth this ‘salsa’ was, and to learn how to do it. It took me a few more years to find and commit to a class, and now it feels wrong if I don’t go dancing at least once a week. As anyone who dances knows, once you start, you can never stop!
When I began writing this, I wondered if I should belatedly thank Juan and his sheer humiliation of me on that Galapagos dance floor, as that is what it took to introduce me to salsa. And Son. And Bachata. And Merengue. And Cha Cha Cha. But I don’t think I will, as he made me a nervous dancer for many years, and is probably still terrorising some non-dancing salseras on some distant dance floor.
So, to all the Juans of this world – shame on you!
Dancing should be fun, enjoyable, and make you feel good about yourself. It should lift your spirits, and be a source of happiness. But if you can’t make your dance partner smile and feel like the most amazing person in the room, then STOP DANCING! Give it up for all of our sakes!
As for my hips – well, I can’t lie – with a mind of their own when it comes to music, they are now completely ruined for Scottish Country Dancing.