Dance like nobody’s watching

By Abigail Rasminsky

For months my daughter has been taking ballet and tap at the local recreation center, and she recently came to the requisite end-of-year performance. My kid is only four, so her part was minimal—a few short, absurd appearances, flanked by all the other little giggling girls in her class. The real show started and ended with the older girls. I knew I wasn’t in store for something professional, but I still didn’t expect what was coming.

There was one preteen whose performance was so cringeworthy—who was so totally lost, so out of sync with the other girls—that my husband, not at all a ballet connoisseur, turned to me, utterly befuddled, and said, “Did that girl just join the class today?”

Hands partially shielding my eyes, I immediately dubbed her “Anxiety Dream Girl” because she was, quite literally, my worst and most common anxiety dream come to life. As a child I was a competitive gymnast and, in my twenties, a professional dancer, so this particular storyline still appears again and again whenever I am at all on edge: I am thrown onstage, and not only do I not know what show I’m in, what steps I should be performing, but I don’t even know how to dance.

I just never thought I’d see such a thing onstage.

But here’s the thing: the performance wasn’t, I must now say, all painful. The real-life thing—not the one in my dreams—also involved acting, and this pre-teen was very good; perhaps the best one up there: confident, easy to hear with good articulation, joyful. The dancing, it seemed, was the problem. It just wasn’t her forte. And yet, as the lingo now goes, she persisted.

Forgive me if I sound too cruel? I shouldn’t be so quick to point out this one poor girl because she was not surrounded by little Baryshnikovs. The little kids—those in the 3-6 range—stirred loud ooohs and ahhhs from all of us, adorable in their matching outfits. (Who can resist a toddler in tap shoes?) Although you could spot the ones who relished the spotlight, it was impossible to tell if any of them had any talent. They were turning in the wrong direction and bumping into each other; they were giggling and waving at the audience and falling over and missing their entrances and exits and getting stuck in the curtain—exactly the kind of comedy of errors you’d expect from little kids. Did this stop me from crying and laughing in delight at my own child onstage? It did not.

Other than Anxiety Dream Girl, the older girls did actually seem to know where they should be standing, and in which direction to turn. But it soon became clear that not one of them demonstrated any real understanding of basic ballet technique. But did they care? No, they were wholly committed to their every mistake. They were showing up, step after awkward step. They were showing us all the hard work they’d put in. They were, for the most part, dancing with gusto, proud of themselves in their fairy dresses and blushed cheeks. And it made me feel—could it be?—that I’d never had an experience like that, of doing something really badly, just because I loved it.

When I started training as a gymnast at age seven, it felt just like that: training. That’s not to say there wasn’t joy in it—there was, in heaps and bounds, so much so that I eventually competed all over the country, and later became a professional dancer, performing all over New York. But I was good at it. How did I know it? I advanced. I won medals. I did it because I loved it, but for a long time—at least as a child—I continued to do it because I was succeeding. I was achieving something tangible. A medal, a qualification, words of praise from Someone Important. And later, as an adult: another job, a bigger break, a good review. There was a ladder and I was visibly ascending.

Would I have kept doing it if I had shown little talent? I stopped my gymnastics training when it became clear I’d hit a plateau and wouldn’t actually make it to the Olympics. The pleasure was, it turns out, all wrapped up in the success. Would I even deign to try something now—in public, no less—that would make me feel so wildly out of control and unskilled? That might make me look like a complete fool?

I’m not suggesting that these girls will keep dancing forever, in spite of all evidence to the contrary that they won’t—this horrible phrase—“make it.” Soon enough, too soon, they will come up against the reality of how the dance world, the professional one, at least, really works. Perhaps most of them don’t dream of being professional dancers anyway. Perhaps they just love the freedom of moving through space, the way I always did, the way I still do—a feeling that nobody has monopoly over.

Anxiety Dream Girl made me laugh, but my tears were real. They were the result of being deeply, deeply moved—by her willingness to show up, to get onstage in front of hundreds of people and dance those steps she didn’t know and could not follow. In her awkwardness, she reminded me of what we too often forget: that we are allowed to do what we love, no matter what. That there is real value in satisfying your soul with no outside accolades to show for it. That pleasure-seeking need not produce evidence of even marginal success. That our biggest anxieties—being thrust onstage with no clue as to how to comport ourselves—might actually be a path to happiness, to our own shaky liberation.

Abigail Rasminsky has written for New York Times, The Cut, and O: The Oprah Magazine, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is getting up the courage to go back to dance class. More at and on Twitter @AbbyRasminsky. 

Spring Fever
, 2010, Mary Leslie

Like what you are reading at Motherwell? Please consider supporting us here.

Keep up with Motherwell on FacebookTwitterInstagram and via our newsletter.