Children do it instinctively. Babies do it, even in the womb. Young lovers look into each other’s eyes and already know how to move together, while septuagenarians will shed arthritic knees and aching backs to glide out on the floor without thinking. But it’s hard for a lot of the rest of us Grownups to just get out there and dance. It’s been a part of every culture around the world forever; maybe we’re just out of practice.
I have just finished floating about the Caribbean on a giant ship, with no Internet, so no travel blogs until now. Besides which I have been too busy dancing, sometimes to a DJ in a club, occasionally with a group or at a lesson, and the rest of the time just in my head.
This is a revelation to me because from the time I was an adolescent to just a few years ago, I gave up dancing. Like many people, I was just too self-conscious that even having taken lessons, I couldn’t “do it” right. Then I took up Zumba after I stopped working full-time: problem solved.
Regular readers and friends know that I play a bit of pickleball, which is a cult, as we are well aware. Pickleball players talk about it all the time, but the folks in my Zumba classes do it just as often and enthusiastically. We have our favorite teachers and get there early for their sessions; we miss them when we’re on vacation. And once you start, you don’t want to stop.
Down They Forgot as Up They Grew
I remember vividly bringing my children on vacation with me to a family “camp” in Florida and, before a group gathering for announcements, they began piping in loud club music. As if on cue (or like something out of “Village of the Damned”) every kid– including my two–immediately jumped up and started carving up the dance floor. I know they didn’t recognize the music; I had never seen them do this at home. Even my laidback, not-a-joiner son was boogying along the floor with elbows and knees flapping away, in time to the music. It was astonishing, and the most natural thing in the world.
This proved an axiom I had suspected. Everyone knows how to “do it.” Some better than others, of course, and we’d rather watch those who are really good. It’s like those lines from e.e. cummings: Down they forget as up they grew. Somehow, we unlearn it when we cloaked it in adolescent nonchalance or force teenagers go through a gauntlet of school dances, which involve so many other things besides dancing.
Nine Thousand Years Ago…
Dancing and music are as old as humans; older than writing. Cave paintings from Bhimbetka in India show groups with arms linked, soloists kicking up their heels in what must be joy. Native American petroglyphs show an occasional flute. Dancing is ancient and worldwide.
Every culture, it seems, has a unique style of dance to go with music. Often, the music is named after the dance. Salsa! the Polka! the Hora! Flamenco! Tchaikovsky “borrowed” or stole–take your pick–a variety of cultural themes for the international Epcot dancing in the “Nutcracker Suite.” But who hasn’t seen Russian dancers perform and tried, at least once, to figure out how they manage to kick from their knees? Tried, perhaps, before turning the ancient age of eleven.
Sufi mystics practice their art in an homage to their spiritual beliefs. African tribes do it as part of their language. Customs for dancing include courtship, declaration of war, challenge between two rival suitors, an expression of faith or love or loss. As a person who thinks perhaps too much, I have come to the conclusion after much thought that dancing is something we should be doing, and far more often. It’s a thing we are meant to do.
What I Learned From Zumba
I have now been taking Zumba classes for almost six years. It’s important to explain, though, that classes are not lessons. And that’s a key revelation. You don’t need dance lessons to learn to dance, not really. Dance lessons can’t hurt, but they don’t really teach you to dance, any more than reading a book about writing doesn’t really teach you HOW to write. Reading a book about playing a sport doesn’t teach you HOW to move your body; it just tells you the rules and gives you ideas. You have to actually do it.
So here is how to dance, courtesy of yours truly, a sixty-something Tweedledum with a bum knee, meaning that if I can do it, anbody can.
How to Dance
- Imitate. The way to start is to do what someone else is doing. This is advice for an adult. As noted, children start jumping around to the music, but I recognize that adults want to look like they know what they are doing. Look at someone else who looks like they know, and do what they do. We do know how to Follow the Leader, which is entirely what Zumba is about.
- Practice. This is the part adults all miss. You can not “look” like you know what you’re doing if you don’t actually do it. You can not hit a pickleball straight just by watching someone. You can’t try to execute a proper cha-cha step unless you are standing up and moving your feet. We know that we should practice anything else we want to lean, but somehow we don’t want to practice dancing in order to be better dancers.
- Feel the Music. Or, in other words, dance to music that you like. If you don’t like Latin music, then try something else (Zumba isn’t all Latin–there’s a lot of pop music, BTS, African, Indian, and Arabic styles used. But you can also find other styles to “exercise” to. The plus with an exercise class is that you don’t need a partner. Then, when you go out to a club, you won’t need a partner either.
- Go to a Place Where there is Dancing and Start Moving.
You could just dance in your kitchen, of course. But there is something about enjoying the vibes of other people, feeling the communal joy. It doesn’t require you to have a romantic relationship with other people on the floor; it doesn’t require you to drink a few first; it doesn’t require you to be thin, young, good-looking, or graceful. It requires commitment and desire.
My vacation is over, so no more club on the ship to practice the Electric Slide or learn a new move from a smooth-moving neighbor. But my next class is on Wednesday night, so I’ll get right back to it.
Sooner the better. What are you waiting for?