August 2003 

The Red Shoes -or "how I tried to avoid going to dance class"

A few weeks ago I signed up for a local hip hop class.  I love to dance, I love the challenge of learning a routine and mastering it, and I love moving to a piece of music in a rythmic way.  I have danced for most of my life.  I donít pretend to be a fantastic dancer, but I work on the steps and can keep up to most instructors, really I just like to move.

As the days edged towards the first class I started to get a little anxious.  This seems to happen with most things that I sign up for.  In the beginning I picture my self in the class whirling, spinning, and jumping to my hearts content.  But the day approaches I start to come up with a plethora of excuses for why I would be better off not going.

Here is the list this time:
-I donít really like the competitive nature of hip hop
-Iím just trying to be younger that I really am
-Part of me is just going to support the teacher so the class looks fuller
-I really have too much work to do, I canít afford the time
-I donít have the right shoes
-I want to avoid the pain of aching muscles
-Iím never going to use this skill in my daily life so why bother
-itís just a silly class

As I kept repeating these to myself I started to believe them all.  They sank into my psyche like a small boat loaded with wet, smelly fish.  After a few days of this I am convinced that the whole thing was really a silly idea, how could I even have considered it in the first place?   So I announced to Arno that Iíve decided that Iím not going to the class tomorrow. 

He looked at me over his glasses with that knowing look, "Why?"  So I started to list off my excuses one by one, putting in emphasis where needed and doing my best to convince him that I was never truly interested in the first place.    "But you love dancing, you even bought new running shoes for the class last week."  This was true.  In a last minute effort to convince myself I was going to be a hip hop dancer, I purchase a comfy pair of retro dark red running shoes with cream stripes.  I wore them all weekend to break them in, and told people "these are my hip hop shoes, yeah, Iím taking a class next week," and then sitting back while they looked impressed with my adventurous nature. 

But deep down I did not feel adventurous, I was contemplating ways to get out of it without feeling guilty about the whole thing.  So Arno questioned me and I started work my way down to the roots of what I was really feeling.  Oh yeah, been here beforeÖright.  I donít like being pushed out of my comfort zones.  It is so much easier to just do what I already know and not step out into an unknown space where it starts to get a little unpredictable. 

I started having flashbacks to being seven years old and going to my first Brownie meeting with my best friend Pattie Barnes.  All the other girls had been going to Brownies for months and they were experts in all the pomp and circumstance, the group rituals that take place at a Brownie meeting.  I was the only one who could not join in with the chanting, the secret hand symbols and and circle formations.  I found myself consumed by a sea of mud brown uniforms all moving like robots and guided by the sound of a high pitched whistle.  The leaders had special secret labels like "Tawny Owl", or "Grey Banting" or somesuch names.  The Brownies were put into groups with names like Imps, Gnomes or elves.  My group were the green sprites, I felt more like a wounded fairy.  It was like being immersed into a foreign culture with a language you donít understand and the people are eying you with a slight look of pity, or like youíre missing a few brain cells. 

I wanted so desperately to fit in so I tried to copy what everyone was doing.  I flailed my hands and stumbled through the exercises, but it was no use, I felt a huge wall of tears sting my eyes.  I knew that crying would only make things worse, so I tried to hold it in.  We all know what happens to children who try to stifle their tears, you end up making that really loud uncontrollable sobbing sound.  Things just went from bad to worse.  No one could understand why I was not totally loving Brownies, how could you not? Cool uniforms, nifty secret codes, funky crafts.  The only good memory I have of the whole experience was at craft time we got to make a groovy belt out of the plastic circles that hold beer cans together.  Very chic, it was the seventies after all.  I never went back.

Whenever I try to attempt something new a little piece of my body remembers my Brownie experience and recoils in fear.  I was now able to identify some of the deeper issues:
-fear of having to perform 
-fear of not fitting in (being the outcast)
-fear of change
and the biggest one of all Ö
-fear of not being able to express myself when I need to (say what I need)

So all of these things are at the root of my not wanting to go to a new class, itís like there is an anchor to that seven year old brain.  But there is another part of me, the daring part that wanted to challenge myself to go right into the place I was terrified of.  When I was seven years old and choking on my own sobs I couldnít begin to calm myself down.  But now as an adult I am learning how to take things one step at a time and be kind to the place that is scared. 

As I set off for the class on Monday afternoon wearing my new red shoes, I felt the familiar little pangs of butterflies in my stomach.  It was o.k., this green sprite was ready for anything.

Keri Smith is a free-lance illustrator and native of Toronto.  A graduate of  O.C.A. she has a wide following of clients in North America.  She currently resides in a ďmagicĒ cottage in Flesherton, painting, illustrating, creating, writing, and living out loud.  Her new book "Living Out Loud -an activity book to fuel a creative life" is now available, published by Chronicle Books.