“I’m a beginner,” I said, introducing myself to the teacher. Without even looking at me she said, “This class is not for you.” I looked down at her. Orange baseball cap, long black hair, black leggings, crop tee shirt and cool kicks, and a lithe and little body. “She has to be older than twelve to work here,” I thought. And while I appreciated her honesty, she did not understand the lengths, both emotional and logistical, that I had gone through to be standing before her.
“Well, thank you for that,” I said, swinging aside my feelings in the same way she had just swung aside her hair. My voices were screaming, “You know she’s right! What are you doing? Look around. You are decades older, multiple decades in most cases, than the thirty people in the room.” It took every bit I had to stand my ground, “Well how about I hang out in back and do the best I can?”
“OK,” she said smiling, with something of a blend between enthusiastic support and anticipation for the coming train wreck. I walked to the back of the room ignoring the curious looks. The school’s schedule said Beginning Hip-Hop, but based on the warm-up Sarah had just run, this was not a beginning class. I shouted down the voices, “We’re here and we’re staying.” My head got quiet and the music got loud. It was Bruno Mars and Cardi B singing about “drippin’ in finesse.” “Unbelievable,” I said to no one in particular and took the first of many awkward positions for the evening.
For the first two beats of music things went well, but after that, it got ugly. In the mirror running the length of the room in front of the class I could see an older lady in the background jumping after others had landed. Hitting angles soft and with question rather than hard and with attitude. Turning right when others were turning left. “There’s no finesse dripping off that woman’s body,” I observed. But I didn’t care because I was there. I was doing it. I was taking dance classes in New York City, and that was what mattered.
After class I went to the front desk, “What’s lower than beginner?” I asked. Humiliation is fine once or twice but hopefully not for my entire tenure with this school. “There’s basic,” said the girl who had probably never driven a car. I dripped with relief. “Excellent,” I said, “show me.” She looked at me blankly then highlighted a few spots in the vast dance program offered at Steps on Broadway. There was basic theater dance, basic ballet, basic jazz, and a beginning hip-hop. “This one really is beginning,” she said when I pointed to the room I had just left.
Turns out, that Steps is the place where those with an “equity card” go. Don’t worry, I had to ask too. An equity card is the mark of someone who is a professional actor. They get the card after a lot of non-equity work and with an annual fee. It is that laminated piece of paper that says, “I’m serious.” Steps is one of the dance schools where serious people hang out in between auditions and evening performances.
A few days later, self-esteem recovered, I introduced myself to the instructor for the Basic Theater Dance class. Things were looking good, he was older than me. “I’m a beginner,” I said. He took his time looking me over and then said, “Honey, this is New York. There are no beginners.” I walked to the back of the room working through the logic, “I’m in New York therefore I’m not a beginner.” Then the music began. I made it through the first three beats before things fell apart. “Improvement already,” I thought. And just as a side note to prove the point, this particular instructor let it slip that he used to follow Bob Fosse around. And yes, elements for our choreography that evening included jazz hands.
“I’m serious too,” I remind myself when I emotionally prepare for my weekly basic class of something at Steps. But what I’m serious about is a little different from those in class with me. I’m serious about trying new things. I’m serious about putting myself in uncomfortable situations and seeing what happens. The other day I did a cartwheel. The class clapped at my clumsy effort which resulted in a brief moment of time when both hands were on the floor and both feet in the air. The voices in my head cheered my courage. I’m learning to move my body in different ways and find places in the dance that I’m truly passionate about for elements of jazz, theater, ballet and of course hip-hop.
And something completely unexpected has come from the experience. I get to do more than take a peek into the arts profession in New York. I get to walk through the door and participate. I get to benefit from those bits of wisdom casually thrown about. Wisdom that can be applied to all of life, not just dance. There may be no beginners but there is always a basic somewhere and the all-important, “Oh no dear. Don’t worry about people looking at you. We’re far too busy looking at ourselves.”