Fun

Let’s Dance!

An ex-wallflower’s tips on getting down.

Collage by Ruby A.

Collage by Ruby A.

As a kid, I was a fairly gutsy person. Jump off the high dive at the public pool? Sure, let’s cannonball! Ride down the big grass hill on my bike without looking? OK, me first! Let go of the swings at the highest point in the sky? Well, all right, but I really think we should try to do somersaults before we land!

But something happened when I hit puberty: Scary things started to seem scary. I lost my bravado and began to live in the shadowlands of fear, a place I haven’t left since. But of all the spooky-scary things in the world (of which there are so many), there are three things that are most powerful, most capable of frightening me senseless and sending me into a blind panic. Those three things are words, said in this order (imagine I am saying this with a flashlight under my face):

“Let’s go dancing.”

OH MY GOD, NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! You guys, I…I…I cannot dance. At all. I am a terrible, extremely self-conscious dancer, and I’m not exaggerating or being humble. I’m so bad that I once turned down a first date with a girl I’d had a crush on for months, just because she’d asked me to go dancing with her and her friends. If she sees me dance, I thought, it’ll be alllllll over.

I mean, what are you supposed to do with your arms? What do your feet do? How do you move your arms and feet in different cool ways at the same time? How do you know when to stop doing one motion and start doing another one? Why doesn’t anyone else seem to have a problem with any of this??? And let’s not even talk about grinding—I can never figure out how to sync up my rhythm the other person’s and when I try to “get low,” I just lose my balance.

I realized dancing was a problem for me at my first formal: Bay View Middle School’s eighth grade dance. My friends and I excitedly put on our sparkly, spaghetti-strapped dresses and our platform Mary Janes, snapped glittery barrettes into our hair, and applied lots of lip gloss (uh, this was the early 2000s—we looked cool, OK?). As we entered the cafeteria around 9 PM, we gasped—everything looked so magical! All the tables had been removed, and streamers twisted across the ceiling. There was even a disco ball throwing flecks of light onto the floor, plus a DJ. It was just like in a movie…except that the boys stayed by the food all night, while the girls took over the dance floor, dancing with each other in tight circles.

There were fast songs, where all my friends moved their feet in ways I couldn’t copy, and slow songs, where my friends ground on each other sexily as I looked on, mystified. How did all my friends know how to dance to all these songs, when each one was so different? I suddenly became really aware of my arms and legs.

Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba came on, and everyone cheered and started jumping up and down, in unison. I didn’t quite know what to do besides sway. When I went home that night, I dejectedly told my mom what happened, and she laughed and told me that I shouldn’t worry, and that things would get a lot better as I got older.

Things did not get better. In fact, they got worse: My friends continued to improve their dancing-in-public skills throughout high school, and I just felt more and more awkward. The worst part was, I actually really wanted to dance! But I was pretty sure that everyone would watch me and judge me for being bad at it!

My self-consciousness eventually took over, and I simply stopped trying. When my friends wanted to go to high school or college dances, I’d go along, but I’d hang out at a table or against the wall, trying to look relaxed and jaded, like someone who was just too cool to dance, you know? If I was feeling especially wild, I would go out on the dance floor and continue to stand there as my friends danced, smiling a fake smile and pretending I was having fun.

I was never having fun. Not once.

But dancing was not going away! It seemed like the only thing my friends wanted to do on Friday and Saturday nights. Then one day, in my mid-20s, as I stood on the dance floor of a crowded club for what felt like the thousandth time, smiling tightly and getting bumped and jostled by everyone’s butts, I suddenly decided I’d had enough. I’d wasted enough time, and I was tired of thinking about how I looked to other people. Dancing really did look fun! I just needed to get the hell over myself.

Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” was on. I love that song, and it was so crowded that maybe no one would even see me. Looking around furtively, I raised my arms into the air and ever-so-gently swiveled my hips. No one noticed. I repeated the motion, and my friend came over and yelled, “HEY! YOU’RE DANCING!” over the music.

I kept swiveling my hips and said, “I KNOW, RIGHT?! NOW WHAT?”

“JUST KEEP DOING THAT! YOU LOOK GREAT,” she hollered back before hopping away.

So I just kept doing that: With a stupid grin on my face, I waved my arms in the air and moved my butt in a big circle. No one laughed or even seemed to notice. For the first time in my history of going out dancing, I actually had a good time.

My loves, if you feel like you’re not very good at getting down, I want to help spare you those self-conscious feelings and encourage you to have a great time on the dance floor! It took me several years, but I stand before you today able to get up and dance, in public, without being paralyzed by shame. I’ve learned there are a few things you can do, and tips to remember, to help yourself, and I’m happy to share them with you today! LET’S BOOGIE.

PREPARATION:

1. Practice some basics.

Turn on loud music in your room, look in the mirror, and try…

  • Stepping from side to side to the beat.
  • Putting your hands in the air and jumping to the refrain.
  • Swaying your hips to a rhythm. Go faster! Then slowwwww it dowwwwwn.
  • Coming up with a few signature arm movements that don’t make it look like you’re thrashing about wildly, unless that’s what you’re going for. Raise ’em up! Lower ’em down! Now, quick: jazz hands!
  • Head-banging/nodding your head extra-emphatically to the music.

If you practice these moves for a while, you’ll get used to feeling your body moving to music. As you get better, you’ll be able to test out new things you see your friends do, or that you think of on the spot, ON THE DANCE FLOOR.

2. Follow the music.

My girlfriend Jen invariably looks cool dancing. When I asked her how she would teach someone to dance, she said, “Different parts of songs can inspire you to move different body parts. Like, your feet can go with the drums, your hips can go with the bass, and your arms can go with melody, especially vocals. Move each body part to the way its corresponding part of the song sounds, and you’re dancing!”

If that sounds complicated, she also suggests always using your head and hair as a dance prop. “Shake your hair in your face and bob your head like a maniac.” Here’s a photo of me doing that very thing recently, and loving it:

A recent night where I followed that last bit of advice, plus a disco ball to protect the RHYTHM NATION.

Disco ball to protect my fellow citizens of the RHYTHM NATION.

3. Find a buddy.

If you have a friend that you think is a good dancer, pull them aside sometime and tell them exactly what is up. Explain that you feel ridiculous when you dance, and ask them if they wouldn’t mind dancing with you a little bit the next time you’re out together. (Friends usually do not mind this.) Even better, ask them to show you some actual moves, to actual songs you both like, at your house, in private. Bedroom dance partis can be totally fun and get hilarious really quickly.

4. Get in the mood.

Play dance music at your house when you’re getting ready to go out, and dance around really goofily until you’re doing it without even thinking. That way, getting down in public will feel like an extension of what you’ve already been up to for hours. It’s just a natural continuation of your evening!

PRO TIP: This is one of the best “getting ready for going dancing” videos on the planet:

You know what? Just learn that entire dance by heart and do it every single time you go out. JKJKJK—I’ve been trying to memorize this dance for three years, and no luck. (But maybe you’ll do better?)

OUT ON THE FLOOR

1. Remember that trying is 99% of the battle.

Don’t be like me, standing still and talking on the dance floor—move! If you’re nervous at first, just step from side to side over and over again, to the beat—that’s waaaaay more fun than pretending you’re too busy talking to dance. Then you can segue into the basics I broke down above!

And, if all else fails, just do this:

Sage wisdom from the window of Carterlane Barbers.

Sage wisdom from the window of Carterlane Barbers.

I tried it last week. It actually works.

2. Dance in crowded places.

If you still feel dumb, dance only when the dance floor is packed. That way, you’ll be just one more person in a crowd, and feel less like you’re standing out. Plus, no one will be able to see your feet!

3. If you don’t know what to do, dance “funny.”

Do the Lawn Mower, where you pretend you’re pushing an invisible lawn mower. Or try the Sprinkler, where you put one arm behind your head and move your other arm forward like an automatic sprinkler. My friend Sarah’s entire style of dancing is “bad dancing,” on purpose. She just focuses on trying to make herself and other people laugh. And guess what? She usually ends up having a great night. That’s because when Sarah’s around, everyone dances, since it’s not possible to dance “worse” than “that weirdo” out on the floor. She lowers the bar on purpose! Obviously, she is my favorite person to bring dancing, btw.

4. Make having fun—not looking cool—your goal.

My friend Shelby is also a great dancer, and when I asked her if she had any tips for people who might feel self-conscious about dancing in public, she said, “Don’t try to look cool—everyone who just tries to have fun ends up looking way radder than everyone else.”

Jen chimed in with, “Don’t worry too much. Except for like maybe two people in the room, no one is a ‘good’ dancer. Just go for it. People are more intimidated by confidence than they are by actual choreographic ability.”

Me, center, with two disco balls I happened to be in a conga line with recently.

Me, center, plus two disco balls with whom I happened to be in a conga line recently.

9. Keep in mind that no one is watching you as closely as you’re watching you.

You might feel scrutinized on the dance floor, but you are your own worst critic. No one is watching you closely enough to know if you’re doing the same basic moves over and over again. They’re all busy making sure they have their limbs under control, just like you! So you got this, BB. Now let’s dance! ♦

13 Comments

  • CorduroyMagic June 3rd, 2014 7:11 PM

    I like to say that what I lack in skill I make up for in enthusiasm. I’ve found that even if you think you are a bad dancer, nobody else ever does. Dancing is about having fun, almost nobody actually feels good at it, and nobody will notice you. I’ve also found that if you look confident, if you just dance like you don’t care, people will think you are good. NOBODY KNOWS HOE TO DANCE, THAT’S NOT A THING, DANCING IS IN YOUR HEART, so if you look like you know what you’re doing, people assume you do. I’ve noticed shy/wallflower types trying to copy my moves as I dance even though I actually have 0 clue what I’m doing and feel ridiculous. Even when what I am doing is nowhere near what everyone else is doing. JUST DANCE!

  • Kardvark June 3rd, 2014 7:32 PM

    I was always TERRIFIED of dancing in public! But a couple years ago I signed up for some belly-dance classes at the community center. It really helped boost my self-confidence, and I don’t randomly flail my arms and accidentally hit people anymore! And last year I met a girl on the dance floor who turned out to be a salsa instructor, and she complimented my dancing. I was like WHOA. To people who are nervous about dancing, I really recommend finding out if your school or community center offers dance lessons, because they’re often low-cost (or even free!) and you can learn some new moves and meet people who are just as awkward as you, and it’s fun.

  • beansprout June 3rd, 2014 7:42 PM

    this was super super applicable to my life, especially since i’m going to my first prom on friday and i am SO NERVOUS. thank you thank you thank you

  • Kavita June 3rd, 2014 7:56 PM

    im a pretty shy person in general so dancing in public makes me absolutely terrified!!! the last time i danced w/ my friends was at my grade 8 graduation and ever since then (ever since high school started) i haven’t danced since. and for some reason the idea of having everyone seeing me dance makes me feel so embarrassed but like I DON’T WANT TO BE EMBARRASSED TO DANCE!!!! the thing is i don’t care about looking silly and not knowing how to dance, (because half the people who do dance don’t really know how, they just do it for fun) so i think the reason why im so afraid of dancing is because i guess i’m shy and since not many people have seen me dance (or remember me dancing) i feel like if i do dance then my friends/family are going to pay even more attention to me because it’ll be like “a big deal” or something since i never dance

    ok, that sounds so ridiculous and stupid when i actually write it out hahaha but anyways i keep telling myself to quit being so shy and just do whatever i want to do and i know its easier said than done….but im trying to work on it and this article is really helpful! thanks krista :)

    • Kavita June 3rd, 2014 7:58 PM

      and people who dance always look like they’re having a blast!! i used to have “dance parties” in my room as a kid and they were so much fun and i feel like im missing out by not dancing so u kno what im gonna start dancing more even if its not in public maybe ill just have mini dance parties with my friend like i used to when i was younger. I CAN DO THIS

  • christinachristina June 3rd, 2014 8:11 PM

    “I waved my arms in the air and kept moving my butt in a big circle” – I am visualizing Tina Belcher, which is the best kind of visualization.

    When you’re in doubt of dancing or of anything in life, JUST BE TINA BELCHER. Just BE Tina BELCHER.

  • Mimi7 June 3rd, 2014 8:39 PM

    When I was little and finally got to stay home alone, the best part was my solo dance parties. Wait for the car to pull out, and then up with the volume….
    Haha, but I’m sometimes embarrassed to dance in public. Taking a dance class helped make me feel more confident and I learned some basic technique that just helps for any type of dancing.
    Another thought is that if no ones dancing, it’s hard to start, but you’ll make everyone else’s night so much more fun!

    http://dreaminginfashion.wordpress.com/

  • maddiegal June 3rd, 2014 9:26 PM

    Thank you SO much for this!! I’ve had an irrational fear of dancing in public for my entire life. Because of it I didn’t go to a single high school dance and I totally regret it. Now that high school’s over and I’m heading to college in August, I feel like I have the perfect chance to start fresh and actually dance in public settings. But I’m still super nervous because it’s hard to imagine myself actually doing it!!! I will use your tips and dance alone in my room this whole summer, whatever it takes!! For a follow up post, don’t hesitate to provide a tutorial (haha, jk.. well not really)

  • littlediamonds June 3rd, 2014 10:47 PM

    This is actually amazing, oh God. I used to feel like this, too, and sometimes i still do – that’s probably why I only dance when the place is crowded. But when I do dance, i really don’t care about how it looks like.
    Dancing is about having fun! And if you’re having fun, then nothing else matters.

  • tortu12 June 4th, 2014 4:17 AM

    OMG I have been thinking about sending a “how to dance” question to Rookie for weeks… this was PERFECT. :D

  • Hecticglow June 4th, 2014 10:03 AM

    This is perfect, if only I had it two weeks ago for prom

  • flocha June 4th, 2014 2:03 PM

    i am pretty much the world’s worst dancer (I dance kinda like napoleon dynamite, only with more bizarre grinding), and more than one person has told me I am so I just decided to roll with that. And hey, turns out its fun being a terrible dancer.

  • Pattymafu June 4th, 2014 3:35 PM

    As soon as I read the quote from the barber, I got up and tried to write my name! It didn’t go as I expected, and my half-brother, half-friend, half-flatmate wouldn’t stop laughing at me hehe