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  • Marya Kazmi

I Wanna Dance with Somebody

Recently a friend asked me a seemingly simple and straightforward question, that my over complicated and constant “need to perform and do” brain struggled with.  “What brings me joy?”

Joy is something I rarely consider. I think about what needs to be done. What will make me feel accomplished? What will make me feel I have contributed something valuable around me? How can I show the people around me I care? But thinking about my joy has not been a focus. She had me stumped and frustrated that I couldn't answer something so basic about myself. After some reflection I thought about the freedom and joy I always felt with dancing. 

Some of my best memories of childhood involve me and my younger sister choreographing dance moves to the latest songs. We could go from Gloria Estefan and the Beastie boys to Indian dances out of classic Bollywood movies. I loved the feeling of moving my body to music and the creativity of coming up with dance steps. But I grew up in a Muslim family and as I got older my dancing was monitored and looked at as salacious so I was discouraged from doing it. 

I still found my moments here and there and eventually the ritual Thursday to Sunday college nights where I would tear it up for hours on the dance floor at the clubs. Those late nights left me high on life and flooded my senses with the ecstasy of the music and letting my body loose. My body healed as I released the stress and heaviness of life. 

       Dancing brought me joy.

It’s been a while since I danced but this year with the nudge of some girlfriends, I decided to try a new form of dancing. It felt like a safe bet because they were both a part of this dance community and would usher me in as their little sister trying something new. It felt safe to put myself out there in unfamiliar territory at a time in my life when I wasn’t feeling strong or together in a lot of ways. Now hand dancing has become something I look forward to on Monday and Thursday evenings with a welcoming community that is supporting my growth and development.

Hand dancing was born and bred in the 1950's in Washington, D.C. in the African American community during the Motown era. It’s a smooth version of the Lindy Hop and features almost constant hand holding and turning between partners, and several step patterns used to keep time. There is a lot of complex footwork and the leader is in a continuous hand connection with his partner in order to communicate throughout the dance. As a dance with a partner and specific moves, this was outside my wheelhouse. Adding on that I had decided to attempt something that was culturally unfamiliar to me. This new experience was going to push me to boundaries of my comfort zone.

Unbeknownst to my new dance community, this has been one of the key catalysts in my current moment of healing. I walked in not knowing what to expect but have walked away with life lessons and a better understanding of myself. Hand dancing has been teaching me more than the footwork of a right tuck and how to feel the beat of any song, I’m learning how trying something new might bring me closer to joy. Here are some of the big takeaways I have gained from hand dancing. 

Learning requires some grapple and release of perfection.

To say I was uncomfortable when I started is an understatement. That first class where I felt like my legs moved as gracefully as a newly birthed giraffe, left me feeling defeated and disappointed in myself. My counting was a little off and the number of women who corrected my footwork, hand movements and overall dancing made me feel incredibly inadequate. I walked out of class with an internal monologue saying, this isn’t for you. I felt like I might have missed that window to learn how to be a graceful dancer and to be competent enough to do it with a partner. It was tough to do something where I was not successful or good at from the very beginning. I rarely put myself in that place in life. 

When I started to really think more I realized this fear of new, was my need to be a perfectionist in life and the honest truth staring me in the face was that I was far from decent let alone perfect at hand dancing. For an accomplished woman who generally does most things she tries well, this discomfort and grapple was stressful and shaking my self confidence. 

I  wanted to fast forward to the moment where I was gliding across the dance floor looking like someone others wanted as a dance partner. I was frustrated with myself and the fact that what seemed to come with ease to others around me was slowing my flow and grace to move with confidence. But I did not give up. 

Part of it was my girlfriends showing up to the later intermediate class with so much enthusiasm and love for me. The way my dear friend, Maniya's eyes lit up as she saw me across the dance floor made me feel a deep sense of belonging. Deanna, makes sure to check in on me between classes and review steps or just pre-game prior to class with some girl time to connect and loosen up. I was being folded into the dance community and although being new and not good at it, I was motivated to keep trying. 

Each week I would come to class and the people Maniya and Deanna introduced me to, waved hello or gave me the silent nod of glad to see you back here again. Graciously, all the men and women would offer creative tips to ensure I was getting all the footwork right and on time. I particularly loved Lola’s visual cues, “Move like you are wearing a pencil skirt (that means small tiny movements) and act like you are holding a small handbag (so my wrist is always straight). All that was helpful, but still a lot to take in as I also made sure I was counting my footwork and keeping enough tension with my partner to follow their lead. 

By the 6th class I attended, I had gotten the hang of it enough that I didn’t feel silly in my movements. I even got encouragement and high fives from my dance partners on how I was doing well. I also make it a point to practice often at home in the kitchen, shower, bedroom and wherever there is enough space and music to feel the rhythm and flow. I walk into class with confidence and knowledge that I look like I am dancing not fumbling. This past week that led two of my partners to give me a couple of extra spins in one of our moves which was an intermediary step for a beginner. 

                     Learning and improving on a new skill brings me joy.

Still I am reminded to slow down and follow the lead of my partner instead of moving before he does. That brings me to the next lesson I am taking away from being involved in a partnered dance. 

Trusting someone's lead requires me to let go of control.

Every dance I have ever learned or been involved in was usually a solo or group activity. Aside from some quick salsa lessons here and there, I have not been given much time to learn any partnered dances. Hand dancing is very particular in this respect that the partnership requires my knowledge of the steps and movements, but also my release of control. I have to trust someone else in order to allow them to lead me.

That is a tall order. Trusting others to lead me has led me to cleaning up someone’s lack of leadership in the home and family I hoped to build. Trusting men in particular has led me to be disappointed more than feel safe or have faith in success. So for me to let go and allow a man to lead me requires me to feel confident he can and will. It’s important to note that the moves required by the leads in hand dancing are much harder than the one who is following. I have experienced both veteran dancers and ones who are at the very start still getting the hang of it. The difference in what a man knows and pays attention to impacts how a man leads.  

When a man doesn't know the steps himself and is cautiously focused on his own movements, his leading is haphazard and confusing. On the flipside, the men who are skilled and know the moves, are very clear about where they want to move me and how they want me to glide on the dance floor. They are able to not only lead me, but they can also change it up and add some flavor to the dance because they know what they are doing and push me to try new things with confidence.

I love this about hand dancing. It is a liberating feeling for me as a hyper independent woman who avoids trusting others, to now let go and allow a man to take over. 

I have been accustomed to getting things done myself without help. I can relax knowing that I will be led to the place that expands my skills with my partner. At that moment I get better because he is guiding me to go out of my comfort zone while also gauging my needs. This ability to let go of my need to control the outcome and direction I am moving allows me to feel softer and free. I am not always good and sometimes still in my anxious moments will try to take over, similar to life. But when I check myself and believe in the way the dance and these partnerships work, I enjoy the dance much more and even can squeeze small talk or humor while we are moving. 

          Letting go of control and being led well by someone else gives me joy.

Community is a safety net to evolving and taking risks. 

This is truly a dancing community. They say the only way to really learn these dances is to put yourself out there and go do them at a fun dance night outside of class. I have only been able to make it to one of these on President’s Day weekend. I attended this dance event only after taking three classes, so I walked in with very little more than the basic footwork and simple turns under my belt. 

As soon as I got there one of the veteran dancers grabbed my hand and said let’s go and pulled me right on the floor. I was not feeling confident enough to be at the venue let alone on the dancefloor. But, the way he led and was thoughtful to my needs as a new dancer, got me warmed up. As I sat back down, my girlfriend introduced me to three new guys and a few from the class that I had not danced with yet and said, "This is Marya, she is new to dancing, help her out today.” and they did. 

My dance card was literally filled all night. I even had a moment where an intriguing and very handsome stranger asked me to dance one of the slower styles called the Bop. I held my own enough, but truthfully it’s given me more motivation to get better so that the next time in this small dancing community I run into him, I will know what I am doing on the dance floor and maybe even feel comfortable enough for some small talk while dancing. 

This community looks out for each other and I now have been brought into the fold as one who is also being cared for and guided.

                 Community and a feeling of belonging gives me joy. 

I don’t get to come to class as often as I would like with life’s responsibilities. However, when I am there I excitedly show up to class a few minutes early and stay back later to catch the seasoned dancers and do some open freestyle dancing. I love the smiles and nods I get and I walk out of class satisfied with myself and lighter. 

Dancing brings me joy and reminds me that I wanna dance as often as I can right now and like Whitney says, one day with somebody who loves me. 


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