When I was maybe about 6 or 7, I was pretty into gymnastics. I did some kind of classes at the YMCA, and whenever tumbling and mats and balance beams and all that crap came out in gym class, I was well up for it.
This was before I shot up too much in height. Before I became over-aware of my above-average stature. Before I let my naturally higher centre of gravity get the better of my brain. I did cartwheels and flips and at least attempted things like parallel and uneven bars without worry of what I would look like or whether I’d be much good at it. And I looked at girls on TV in the Olympics and thought, DUDE, I COULD TOTALLY DO THAT, THAT IS AWESOME.
Then one day I was messing around and took a running jump at a knee-slide across the floor and somehow hurt my ankle. Not enough to send me to any kind of emergency room or anything, or even to mention it to my parents (I guess I thought they’d be mad or something), just enough for me to limp off and be very suddenly thrown into that period of life when fear of pain prevents you from trying things you’d not have thought twice about when completely carefree and small.
This is the first memory I have of feeling like that. Maybe that’s the start of growing up.
Then the gymnastics dream was really squashed when I started being told I was ‘just too tall’ to be a gymnast. Yeah. That. And the good old tall girl standard: ‘Why don’t you try basketball?’ That shit started EARLY. But I’ll tell you what – I’m fucking terrible at basketball. They put me on the middle school team almost certainly because of my height, and then never played me because they realised their mistake.
This was kind of a relief as far as I was concerned because I had no interest in playing, but it was also annoying because my parents wouldn’t let me quit before the end of the season. So it meant I had to go to practice with a bunch of girls who weren’t very nice to me, and then sit mostly on the bench during games, being bored but told to look involved because team spirit or whatever. This just gave a lot of those girls extra fodder for giving me shit for not being good enough. But I didn’t freaking WANT to be. I wanted to be doing flips and handstands. I wanted to be overcoming the terror of being a giant in a sea of average height. Or at least, you know, having more time to read books by myself and be on the MathCounts team.
I’m sure there was a lesson in the entire experience, but I can never help but wonder if being actively discouraged from pursuing gymnastics due to factors completely out of my control was the start of pushing my ability to maintain balance downward. Just, you know, in life, in general. Because if there is one thing I am rubbish at, it is balance, in every form and incarnation. Physical, mental, emotional, work/life, social/antisocial, eating, drinking, standing on one foot without wobbling. All of it.
About a year ago, I was reading Bobby White’s Swungover post on partnership in dancing (a fantastic thing you should read) which includes this aside that I now think about almost daily.
I want to steer us into a side alley at this point to talk about why we often feel incompetent in a dance practice. Modern middle-class people (which comprise almost the entire modern swing scene), simply put, are not good at body movement because most of us pretty much checked off walking, running, sitting, standing, and throwing a ball and then decided to take a break. Until a decade or two later when we suddenly discover swing dancing and all of a sudden we curse ourselves for not having those types of parents who shoved us into dance classes as soon as we got cocky with all the walking. We now have the incredibly infuriating process of trying to do things that are often simple in concept but incredibly hard to carry out. And as adults who’ve mastered so many aspects to life, we’re not used to that. It’s like if you’re right-handed and suddenly try to write an entire paragraph with your left hand — you feel confused and incompetent. So, in the dancing sense, because you haven’t daily trained your body to respond to complicated movements with finesse since you were young, your entire body is now a left hand.
Nail. On. Head.
I have been thinking a lot about balance in every part of my life, mostly because I now have a regular reminder of how my own physical balance is horrendous. I can’t help but wonder if only I was encouraged in different ways when I was much younger, would I have better ways to maintain my own ability to keep my feet under me and support my own weight? Literally AND philosophically. Did I lose the tools for this as people more or less told me that things like my height meant I couldn’t possibly HAVE those tools?
I spent all last week at SwingSummit, which was hard work in the best possible way – there are exactly zero ways that practicing swingouts on an open air dance floor in the gorgeous mountains of southern France every day can fail to be incredible.
I’m not going to write about at length because picking apart a week of intense swing dance camp nerdery is just not interesting to most non-obsessed human beings. But one of the best things it did was give me some new tools for working on keeping my feet and my weight where I’d like them to be. And perhaps indirectly, a bit of training on the kind of balance I’m working even harder to achieve inside my head. Or if we’re following Bobby White’s stellar metaphor – training for full mind-body ambidextrousity.
Most people would not consider working harder on your holiday than you do in your normal life ‘balance’, but I just think of it as being a foil for people who sit and do absolutely nothing on their holidays. Plus, I already did nothing for a week on a beach in Cambodia and hated every boring minute of it. So we have established that I am not the best at sitting still.
But some things other than dancing happened last week too. I stayed away from the internet and all forms of media for seven full, glorious days. I had a whale of a time lazing in a rural French supermarket parking lot talking sweat management with a bunch of guys while we waited for our laundry to finish. I sat on a beat-up outdoor swinging bench seat idly chatting, looking at the mountains, and swatting at flies for over two hours without moving more than the swing itself.
I’ve not managed relaxation like that for longer than I can remember. Somehow this time, it came pretty naturally.