In Defence Of Black Women (Like Me) Who Can’t Dance

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
It’s the summer of 2013, Miley Cyrus has just twerked on Robin Thicke in that infamous VMAs performance, and my colleagues and I are enjoying a night out. Amidst the revelry, a dance circle forms and I’m quietly two-stepping on the fringes, trying to maintain a low profile. As a hip-hop song comes on, one of my colleagues locks eyes with me and sure enough, they ask me to teach them how to twerk. There’s only one problem: I don’t know how to twerk. Ever the trier, I step into the middle of the dance circle and, as all eyes look to me expectantly, I recreate my best rendition of a twerk. It’s an assortment of squats, jolts and hip gyrations and it’s terrible. Their disappointment is immediately palpable. On some faces, I see quiet confusion whilst on others, I see the horror stemming from my failure to live up to their expectations. What they have just witnessed is a unicorn, a Black girl who can’t dance. I laugh it off and extricate myself from the dance circle but what I cannot extricate myself from is that feeling of not being enough.  
I have always loved dancing; one of my earliest memories is of dancing on the roof of my parent’s car as they looked on, clapping. Back then, it didn’t matter whether or not I was a good dancer, the joy it brought me was enough. I should note here that I’m dyspraxic so coordination doesn’t come naturally to me, but for a while, I didn’t even know I was such a bad dancer. I certainly wasn’t the best, but bad? Surely not.
It wasn’t until I was 12 years old and learning choreography for church that I came to understand how dire it truly was. We were each required to master the basics before being allowed to move on to the more complex aspects of the routine but as everyone else picked up the choreography and moved on, I struggled with even the simplest steps. This went on until I was the only one left still learning the basics. If dancing should be a steady, effortless rhythm then my body was a chaotic symphony of off-beat rhythms. As I struggled to grasp the movements frustration set in, exacerbated by shame when I noticed the looks of sympathy the other kids gave me.
As it became apparent that dancing was not a talent I possessed, I began to withdraw. At my Nigerian church where dancing is considered an offering to God, I stuck to the two-step rather than attempting the more flamboyant moves I usually favoured. At parties, I got really good at mimicking those around me to avoid my deficiency being detected. Where I once relished the unrestrained pleasure that came from letting loose on the dancefloor, I began to dread it out of the fear that people would see through my disguise. 

"I’d love to say that my fear of being the Black girl who can’t dance is something I’ve overcome but the truth is I have to make a very deliberate effort to dance carefree."

Dancing is often regarded as an innate skill that all Black people possess. Not only is it a stereotype thrust upon us by those outside of the Black community, but even within the Black community, the inability to dance is almost considered a deep shame. As many celebrations in the Black community centre around dancing, the lack thereof is not easily concealed. 
My inability to dance made me feel like a fraud. Around my non-Black colleagues and friends, I was masquerading as someone with rhythm, afraid of being called out on it. I avoided situations where I would be the Black representative on the dancefloor because it was one thing for me to be a bad dancer but another thing completely to let down the entire Black community. At the same time, when surrounded by my Black family, insecurity festered, and imposter syndrome set in. As a British Nigerian, older relatives often regard your ability to execute the latest dance moves as a measure of how connected you are to the culture. When measured on a scale, I just wasn’t Black enough. 
What makes stereotypes so dangerous is the way they limit an entire social group to one narrative, not allowing nuances in abilities, preferences, or personalities. Even a seemingly positive stereotype like Black people being good dancers can be damaging because it reduces the Black population to a monolith. Another example of this is the stereotype that Black men are naturally athletic, this ends up being a double-edged sword because if they live up to it, it’s no longer an accomplishment but an expectation, and if they don’t, they are somehow inferior. This line of thinking only serves to propagate a culture of hyper-masculinity. In my case, I allowed myself to be constrained into a cookie cutter of what a Black person “should” be rather than just being my authentic self. I was so concerned with failing to live up to the expectations of others that I didn’t notice I was losing an integral part of me, as an activity that brought me so much joy was being stripped away.   
It all came to a head on my friend’s birthday, when she wanted to continue the celebrations by going clubbing. As we stood in the queue, all I wanted was to be back in the comfort of my own home. I tried to make up excuses to leave but as the designated driver for our party, if I left the night would be over. I dreaded going inside, having to pretend this was fun for me when it was more akin to torture. As we entered the club, I felt myself transform into a grey cloud, casting a shadow over everyone’s night. I stood stiffly refusing to dance, a spectator watching as everyone else had the time of their life. Then it dawned on me that I was the problem, I had squeezed myself into this box that could not contain all that I was and now I was resentful of others for enjoying their freedom. No more. I was no longer satisfied watching on from the sidelines, not being an active participant in a joy that could have been mine. 
I’d love to say that my fear of being the Black girl who can’t dance is something I’ve overcome but the truth is I have to make a very deliberate effort to dance carefree. I still get heart palpitations when I have to dance with an audience watching and shady comments directed at my dancing make me want to retract into myself.  What has worked for me is exposure therapy. Rather than hiding, I film TikToks with my girls as we attempt popular dance routines. I am still the slowest at picking up the choreography, but I’m not hiding from it anymore — I refuse to allow myself to be shamed out of dancing. Black women should be allowed to exist as their authentic selves, free from any pressure to perform. So, if that means the world has to be subjected to my bad dancing, grab your dancing shoes and join me, because I’m going to be here a while.
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