So a while back I came across this article about a neurological condition called “beat deafness.”
The basic idea as I understand it is that there exist a small number of folks whose ability to recognize and respond to rhythm is impaired for neurological reasons. Now, I am not a scientist, but I have been teaching dance and music for over a decade and my life has been intimately concerned with rhythm, and while the idea of a neurological foundation for rhythmic impairment may indeed prove to be true for a small and specialized segment of the population, I can just hear legions of people who think they can’t dance and have no sense of rhythm saying “Yes! That’s me!” and feeling like they have been let off the hook somehow.
Well I just don’t buy it.
I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have heard people say things like “Oh, I love what you do, but I could never do that. I have no sense of rhythm.” Or “I wish I wasn’t completely tone-deaf.” Or my personal favorite; “It must be wonderful to have so much talent.” (This last is an actual quote. It’s a pretty difficult statement to think of a comeback for.)
Here’s what I think often happens. People see the end result of a lot of practice and some pretty hard work and think it’s some magical ability. I don’t know, maybe there is some magic in it, but what is not always visible when watching someone do something they do well is the unbelievable amount of tenacity that goes into that process. Part of skill is making the execution of that skill seem effortless. But that is because the effort has already happened.
I don’t mean to discount natural ability. As a teacher one does encounter students who seem to take to music or dance more easily than others. We could debate the nature/nurture question until the cows come home, (I personally believe in a mixture of both innate and environmental factors) but let’s skip that for the moment and accept that there do exist dance or music students who struggle a lot less than others for the development of the internal metronome. However, for every one of them, I guarantee you there is someone out there who plays/dances like a natural and had to fight for every inch of their skills, paying for their ability with practice, frustration and long stretches of “why the hell am I doing this? This is really hard…”
I believe that what separates most people from skilled musicians, dancers etc is blind persistence. It’s the old 90% perspiration idea. The inspiration is important but even more so is the willingness to go ahead and learn. And big part of that process is learning to accept being bad at things for a time while your brain and body synthesize new skills
Which is, let’s face it, pretty hard. Some of you may remember my struggles at Jacob’s Pillow last summer. The ability to accept being a beginner and not take yourself too seriously is really tough. It’s one thing if you are an autodidact, working by yourself. It’s quite another in a group situation where a fair amount of personal humiliation crops up for most of us when we are learning alongside others.
But somewhere along the way, if you spend enough time doing something, especially if you are not just going through the motions but actively trying to get better and really focusing as you work, you experience this weird feedback loop. Things fall into place and it starts to feel good, just for a moment. You get it. And the memory of that moment’s elation drives you to keep working on it. And then at some point it actually is easy.
So easy that you don’t have to think about it. And someone watching you thinks “Well, clearly she came out of the womb that way.” I can forgive them for thinking that, but as you may have guessed, I am on a little bit of a mission to convince people that they can do it too. They just have to make the mental leap, believe it’s possible, and then spend time doing it. And getting frustrated. And coming back to the table (or in our case as dancers the floor) with a willingness to remold themselves.
Why do I care if folks think they can dance? Not just because I am a teacher and stand to benefit from more people wanting to learn…
I believe that as a culture we have gone badly astray somewhere, becoming deeply disconnected from our physical selves and from our fellow human beings. It maybe sounds trite, but how many ills, social and otherwise could be solved by people gathering regularly to dance, sing, play music? Not hard to answer for anyone who dabbles in an instrument or has ever been social dancing. Once you have felt the raw power of that kind of shared experience, I don’t think you can ever go back.
How does the saying go? Something like “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you are right.” Well guess what? It’s true. I didn’t mean for this to end up as a pep talk, I think I started out ranting about the misguided belief so many people seem to have that they are missing some critical piece of hardware, preventing them from dancing or playing an instrument, but now I bloody well am cheerleading. Whether you realize it or not. You need dance in your life.
So the only question is, where are you going to dance?