How A Dance Class Taught Me Everything About Bravery & Vulnerability

balletPhoto by Lani Trock.
Most people would say they understand vulnerability pretty well. Confessing secrets you've never told, embracing someone for the first time. We feel it as we open up to friends, family, boyfriends, girlfriends. Every so often we might even lay open our souls, letting those people see the gritty, un-edited image we hide from the rest of the world.
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Two people and a common trust seems like such a simple concept, right? I had certainly always thought so. Hard to do, surely, but simple. And then, four weeks ago, I saw a whole different side of the equation. I discovered a kind of beautiful openness and trust that I'd never been comfortable with before — one that I'd maybe even been avoiding. But it wasn't trust between myself and another person — it turned out to be a solo effort. And I came to discover it in a dance class that really did change everything about the way I understood myself.
It's been said that one New York rite of passage is that intensely abrupt moment when you’re standing on a subway platform, surrounded by strangers, and the tears just start flooding down your cheeks. No privacy, no quiet sobbing in suburban parking lots, nowhere to hide. And you don’t even care.
My moment took some weeks ago while I waited for an afternoon uptown C train, headed to a beginner’s ballet class in Midtown. I was grappling with emotional heartbreak (of my own making) and physical exhaustion — and the water works just let loose.
The last place I wanted to be was a dance class where I couldn’t keep up with even the basic sequences. Plié, rélevé, tendu? The situation was hopeless and everyone in the room knew it, starting with me. I’d already nicknamed myself “class dunce” to ease the awkwardness. But, considering I'm never one to shy away from dancing in general (trust me, I'm the first on the dance floor at every wedding), it felt strange. Why was this different? Because keeping up with a class and mastering freestyle moves turned out to be two vastly removed activities.
After drying my tears, I dragged myself to class and struggled for another 30 minutes, my eyes glued to the feet of the woman in front of me. But then, the instructor (a dear friend and the only reason I’d signed up in the first place) had a surprise for us.
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We were going to explore vulnerability. Be acutely aware of every movement. Each of us would have to impromptu solo dance in front of the rest of the class, pulling from our feelings that day, focusing on portraying those emotions through certain body parts. I panicked, What? This was not what I signed up for.
Maybe it wasn't a huge deal. But I must confess absolute fear struck my heart (interpretative dance is quite different than busting out your moves to Beyoncé in a crowded bar; even different than dancing in front of your friends). It was intended to be serious, beautiful, and a mindful reflection of your inner state. And that felt like a lot of pressure.
But at the same time, part of me felt suddenly encouraged and challenged. In that dramatic moment, I felt like I was breaking into a million pieces — but really, what did I have to lose?
When my turn came I still had no game plan, but that was the point. I closed my eyes and stood in the center of the room, under the glare of the harsh light, alone in my black leggings, tank top, and gray socks. All I could feel was the stillness of the room. Then suddenly, I realized I was moving. My body bended, lunged forward, and spun. My fingers stretched upward. I began to concentrate, channeling all my feelings into recognizing the motions of my limbs as best I could, flowing them into the myriad of possible turns and twists available to me.
All the while, 12 pairs of eyes watched my legs, my closed eyes, the turn of my ankles, and the rise and fall of my chest. Could they see my knees shaking violently? Could they sense my fear?
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The dance must have lasted only a minute or two, but if you’ve ever done any public speaking you know how one minute can stretch into a seeming eternity. But I didn’t notice. Chloe was somewhere else. I was submerged into a new world of feeling — and the love and warmth that came from the room. The tips of my toes, the way my clothes clung to my skin, the pace of my breath, they all represented something hard that someone else had done — and everyone else was proud of me. A tad dramatic? It most definitely was. But, that's really how it felt. And I enjoyed every moment of it.
Later that night I read a text from the instructor, “Your dance was so brave, I forgot for a moment you weren’t a dancer.” My heart soared.
And then, four days later, after I'd taken some time to process and come down from the dance high, I decided I needed to try it again. Was I a new woman or just having a crazy touchy-feely moment? Only one way to find out. I had the apartment to myself that night, so I turned off the lights, put on orchestral music and began to move my limbs across the hardwood floor. The crazy thing? It was harder by myself. I felt awkward — extremely so. But slowly, I got over it. And an hour later, sweaty and smiling at myself, I lay down on the floor stretching my fingers apart on the wood, feeling every vibration and twitch in my frame, just as my friend had said to do. I prayed, I meditated. I was sensing new things, learning new ways to be awkward with myself. And I simultaneously felt more vulnerable and self-aware than I had ever known to be possible.
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