This is a guest post by Jordan Giarratano.
Brandon picks me up at the airport. I am now a resident of Seattle. Three hours later, I’m on a dance floor.
Problem is, I don’t know how to swing dance.
Oddly, this is not a concern for either of us. It is abundantly clear to me that I will need to learn to dance if I am to integrate seamlessly into his social calendar. Further, the unspoken contract of couch surfing requires that I accept, with enthusiasm, any and all demands of my host.
Tonight we go to East Side Stomp, a Kirkland dance studio. Ben White is the instructor of the drop-in lesson. He is affable, enthusiastic and impossibly tall. This last quality gives me hope that I will not be set back by my own gangly frame in this new endeavor.
Ben leads all of the newcomers through the basic steps of east coast swing. After the lesson, we are wound up, pointed in the direction of the dance floor and instructed in the social etiquette of the scene.
The music starts and I suddenly have no idea what I am doing. The staggeringly small amount that I was taught in the previous hour is gone like the elements of the periodic table, like the names of the state capitals—I am clearly failing this first test.
There will be more time to fail. In this first week, I will dance five out of seven nights. I like a challenge, and I believe in immersive learning. So I’m ok with this. But, I do not improve.
Despite my charm and boundless enthusiasm, each night is an exercise in frustrated awkwardness. After a few nights, thankfully, I at least find the rhythm.
My limited collection of moves frustrates me. I feel defeated by my inability to get as good as I can sense is my potential.
I beg Brandon to teach me new steps. He encourages me to focus on my foundation steps. I am hungry to learn more. I need it. I know the awkwardness will go away when I learn some more moves.
Why am I so frustrated?
I earned a black belt in the Korean martial art tang soo do when I was sixteen. For the next ten years I taught an endless stream of students how to kick high, punch straight and overcome their inabilities. I’m not new to physicality, coordination or balance—so why I am so frustrated with swing dancing?
I approach the martial arts with passion, confidence and dedication. New students always watch me. My roundhouse kick is a near-perfect blur of torque and cracking reverberation. Only the most experienced trainers in any gym I visit can safely hold pads for me.
Newcomers always express shock at this display of power, and I oblige them with a quick lesson. I adjust their stance. I modify their technique.
But still, they think I’m holding out on them. They think it’s all muscle. So, they tense up their legs, tighten their fists and make constipated faces. They lob their feet at my pad, awkwardly, blindly hoping to hear the satisfying thud of shin against leather. They are always disappointed.
The more they resist the truth, the longer it takes them to master the kick.
Power, in the martial arts, is a paradox. The harder you try, the softer you hit. Striking is an art of technique and tension.
I tell this to my students but they do not hear me. I slow them down, I take the “try” out of their movements. I teach them to loosen their body completely, to feel the kick start in their pinkie toe, come up through the thigh, to the chamber of the hip, into the gut and the upper body and to lead this chain of sensations consciously, beautifully and destructively into the target.
There is no secret. It’s all about time and practice.
Very few students ever truly master that basic kick. Eager for power and to impress those around them, they learn it wrong, substituting leg strength for technique. Their kicks may feel hard to the untrained partner, but they are now limited by an artificial ceiling. They were too afraid to look weak and inexperienced, to own their true level of ability. Sadly, they will never reach their potential.
Guess how long it took me to master the basic roundhouse kick? Several months after earning my black belt.
Another night, another dance. I sit on a bench, entranced, watching follows led confidently through a dizzying array of brilliant steps, turns and spins. It looks so fun. I want to do that.
And I realize finally that I want to kick hard without learning how to kick properly.
Well, I’ll be damned. I am my own worst student.
There is a tragic notion that envelops our culture that the only reason to do something is to be great at it or to make a career of it or even worse, to make money off of it.
Rather than embrace the sheer crazy joy of trying something new, we are secretly ashamed to show inexperience or confusion. We rush to put on the appearance of understanding, and in doing so, we shortchange ourselves.
We learn techniques poorly or not at all. We overcompensate with flash and style, and we are always comparing ourselves unfavorably to those who inspire us. Fun becomes frustration, connection becomes alienation. And we wonder: why try doing anything at all?
I finally took the advice that I give to every single one of my martial arts students: Let it go.
The second I stopped trying so hard to be good at swing dancing, I began to have fun. The woman in my arms, no longer a prop to my awkward routine, was now a dance partner. The dance, even at its most basic level came alive with the music, with the collaboration of lead and follow.
I know the basic steps, I can spin her and I can catch her. That’s all I know. I’m enjoying myself and that’s all I need for right now.
Now young Lindy Grasshoppers, what will YOU do?