What Are You Afraid Of?

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Author’s Note:  This post is a direct result of what happens when a comment rattles around inside my head for awhile.  I have some mental notes but this is going to end up being more free association and I have no idea where it will end up.  Remember that you were warned!

The comment just flew out of her mouth so easily and then it just hung there.  Again, we were talking about our open routines and my standing tall so that everyone could see me and I made a comment about the tallest nail getting hammered down first and that’s when she said “What are you afraid of?”  I had no response because I was stuck between saying “I don’t know” and just screaming “EVERYTHING” which would have sent her head over heels like Lucy in the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  Technically, he screamed “THAT’s IT” but it was in response to Pentaphobia – the fear of everything.

I was also lost because how does one adequately capture years of doubt and some self esteem issues and explain that to a very young lady who doesn’t have a lot of life experience.  Besides, the whole “dance instructor as therapist” scene doesn’t work so well.  But, ever since then, the comment has been bouncing around inside my head.  I’m still no closer to an answer so the next best thing is to just get some thoughts out there and see what happens.

I don’t know why I should be afraid.  I’ve done many solos in the past.  I’ve danced in an Egyptian costume, I’ve tossed cheap sunglasses over the ballroom, I’ve played a pilot drunk on a plane and I’ve gone down the Highway to Hell.  All of those were definitely situations where I was saying “Look at Me”.  The more showy and outrageous the dance/costume was, the more comfortable I felt.  Strange but true.  So why does the thought of doing these new open routines stir up these emotions.

I can tell myself that with the solos, I’m just playing a part.  I mean I’m not an Egyptian, or a pilot or a rock star so part of it that they weren’t really seeing the “real” me in any of those routines.  The other part is that I was doing those for the audience.  Yes, the comments and critiques were important but the real fun was in the audience reaction.  The cheers and comments and feedback and knowing that I had given a good show.  Why my mind partitions things this way, I don’t know.  Sure, I always had doubts about my abilities to pull off the routines but once I got the choreography down, getting into character and doing the show was the easy part.  In these open routines, the beginning choreography is simple – I mean the Rumba starts with some second position breaks – but it is trying to capture the look of the dance that is just terrifying. Or should I really say, trying to actually look like a confident male lead is the real issue.

These routines are different than the open routines I did with Z.  In each of the three, OwnerGuy has us start apart.  I’m alone, isolated, naked, vulnerable and exposed.  No partner to hide my mistakes and make my frame appear more solid.  I have to stand tall and be there and I have to do it on my own.  And, as they say, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  If my posture isn’t there, it will be obvious and I’ll be all by myself with my bad posture and it will just be that easy for the judges to dismiss me and never look back.  So all the “wow” choreography that they’ve put in and that has been giving me fits in practice won’t really matter because I’ll be dismissed out of hand at the start of the dance because I’m not comfortable extending myself.  There is no safety net and the “Look at me” just becomes scary.  I don’t want to be the center of attention in that situation.

I’ve spent most of my life being in the background and it is comfortable there.  I’m much more the behind the scenes chief of staff pulling the strings than the leader out front.  I can do that part when necessary but it is only comfortable in those situations where I feel like the expert.  Give me an audience to talk about something where I feel I know more than anyone else and I’ll be that guy.

They tell me I’ve got to own my spot and claim my space and that’s all part of this. I guess it comes down to what a proper lead should look like.  Dance seems to be tied up in classic gender roles.  The ladies wear all the bright colors and do all the dramatic moves and the men are MEN.  Maybe it is to fight against the impression that ballroom is not a sport that the male role has to compensate for that.

To me, some of that just feels like ego run amok.  It goes against my hard wiring which is to not boast and not call attention to yourself like a strutting peacock with his feathers all puffed out.  Frankly, I see guys like that, and my main urge is to burst their balloon not to want to be like them.  Yes, this seems silly because that’s not really what I’m trying to do but it is certainly what it feels like I’m supposed to do.  It doesn’t help when Kid T makes comments like being a man.  No, she doesn’t say that specifically but it is implied.

Yeah, I’m not the most macho kind of guy.  Who knows, maybe there is some femininity in my brain.  And, trying to channel that while standing there and doing these steps just feels WRONG.  I can’t explain it.  I can’t control it.  I can’t express it all that well.  It is just there.  I try to do it and so many voices in my head start screaming at me to stop.  My forte is smarts and a little bit of sarcastic humor.  I’ll out think anyone in the room and I’ll come up with  a snappy comeback but I’m not going out-macho anyone.  And it feels stupid when I try!

Now, I’ve put this out there and I just feel even more stupid and wrong.  All she’s asking me to do is stand up and take up more space.  But won’t the judges just see right through me.  Won’t they know this isn’t my natural way.  Am I kidding myself that I can really pull this off.

Well, this hasn’t really helped like I thought it would.  I’m still no closer to why my brain seizes up when I start thinking about standing on a floor with actual judges and trying to be the strong leading man.  And I still don’t have a good answer for Kid T’s question.

Then again, I can think of what I told one of my staff when I asked her to do a presentation in front of a group.  I knew it was going to scare the hell out of her but it was necessary to push her to help her with her career interests.  I used the phrase “growth opportunity” which loosely translated means doing something you absolutely hate to do because someone tells you to do it.  Yes, I could always go to OwnerGuy and say I’ve changed my mind and that I don’t want to go down this path anymore.  But the internal competitor in me isn’t going to let me quit.  My overall goal still remains to become the best dancer I can be and if that means learning to be comfortable standing out there on my own, than that’s what I have to do.  It is my own growth opportunity and it is going to suck.  But I’ll figure a way to work it out.  After all, “no matter day or night, I’m shining, bitch, I’m a star”.  (Someday I may believe that)



  1. Something that helped me (and it did take a lot of self-convincing and doing), was to start making myself adopt the same posture off the floor as on. So when I was at work, I would make sure when I walked my lower abs were pulled up, my bum was tucked and I was standing tall and a little forward. It was awkward and difficult for the first two weeks…then it began to become a habit. Suddenly I wasn’t just standing tall with my core engaged on the dance floor, but also anywhere I went–and that made being tall and strong on the dance floor easier–and it helped with the confidence I displayed at work too :). Just a suggestion of something that worked for me–taking someone intimidating from the floor and making it ‘normal’ one day at a time in my every day life.

  2. Wall – I get where you’re coming from, I do. I’ve enjoyed a measure of success in my “regular” life, but came late to dancing. Because I’m not young, and not an innately physical person, I will never be a really good dancer. The most for which I can hope is to get a less bad each year… until even that is no longer realistic. So, showing up at showcases makes me seriously uncomfortable. I’m not used to being a relatively poor performer. My ego doesn’t like that one little bit – which is one of the reasons dancin’ is so teriffically good for me. When It finally grows me all the way up, my ego concerns will fall away and there will be only gratitude. Only, THANK YOU.

  3. (snort) … would you believe EXACTLY the same reaction, and for the same reason(s). I’m an introvert and pretty much used to being on my own. I’ve always thought of myself as fairly intrepid and even though it was something I didn’t really want to do (whether on or off the floor), I just bit the bullet and did it.

    “What are you afraid of” really hit home. I don’t know exactly when it started, but my dance “courage” has been gradually diminishing. Maybe it’s the pressure of meeting the current competitive standard (I’ve mentioned how we’ve got pro-am people out there who are better than the professionals). Maybe it’s embarrassment when I don’t place, or feeling like a fraud (I’m not really a dancer, I’m just pretending to be one), or even hopelessness (no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be good enough).

    The result of all this is that when I feel unsure or “threatened” or think I’ve made a mistake or whatever, I go to the Turtle Defense” … I pull my head down into to my shoulders and get smaller and smaller, which, of course, is the antithesis of what we’re trying to achieve in dance.

    … but I did have sort of an ephiphany at the competition on Wednesday: We’re letting the bullies (doubt, insecurity, old behavior patterns, inner demons) get the best of us. We’ve worked hard to grow and change for the better and we owe it to ourselves to stand up for ourselves and fight back. We owe it to ourselves to stand tall and COME OUT SWINGING and with blood in our eye.

    PS–sorry to have gotten so long-winded !!!

  4. Can I just say that I love this village? I have also been asked on multiple occasions by multiple teachers what I’m afraid of! The one that really struck me was a female teacher who was just teaching a group class I was in. We rotated and I was to dance with her and the second I got into frame (I think we were doing tango), she popped the question. All she had to do was feel me in frame for like 2 seconds and she could feel the fear in my body! All I could think was “crap, is it that obvious??” My teacher has asked me too and I was eventually able to articulate my many fears, all of which you guys have mentioned!
    Your writing about being the man and the lead on the floor reminded me of this video my teacher did awhile ago for dancesportplace.com. He talks more about how to be a partner to your lady but maybe it’ll give you some different ideas on how to mentally approach your dilemma?

  5. I wonder if asking that question is something they have instructors do during teacher training 101, because mine has asked me the same question, and I’ve had pretty much the same response as you, and everyone else here. I’m scared of everything.

    Dancing is baring your soul to people: that leaves you in an incredibly vulnerable position, and feels terribly uncomfortable. It opens you to the judgement of others, and invites criticism. Why would we want to voluntarily do that? But getting to that point also allows us to release (some) ego, to break through to that next level, whatever it may be for ourselves. This is not to say that I’ve “gotten there”, far from it! But every day I’m trying to chip away at the fear that keeps holding me back from standing taller, taking up more space on the floor, and allowing myself to achieve more of what I think my potential can be. Some days it is an easier process than others. Days like today, I had to put on an act to make it happen. “Fake it till you make it” is a motto for days like today, and after the end of classes I almost believed that I could do it. Hopefully it will be easier tomorrow, for all of us.

    1. Maybe dance instructors are genetically engineered to detect fear and uncertainty. (Was that too geeky?) Seriously, thanks for sharing. Looks like there is a lot of common ground to what I posted. Makes me feel so much better knowing I’m not alone.

      1. Total geek mode:
        “I must not fear.
        Fear is the mind-killer.
        Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
        I will face my fear.
        I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
        And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
        Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

  6. It must be a standard question. My real answer would be “everything”, too. But I tend to just say ” looking like an idiot” and then he gives me the standard lecture after that and we carry on. Reading your post and all the comments were more healing than what teach could come up with anyway. It’s nice to not feel alone.

  7. I love seeing all this discussion! It is so great to have a community where we can share our fears and our wins and relate to each other. So often we think we are alone in the tough stuff, but look! Evidence that we are all in this together and we all root for one another. Thanks for sharing so richly, D-Wall, and for everyone else who is chiming in.

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