On overcoming perfectionism

There I trembled. Sweaty and shaking – trying to vanish into the floor or the walls or some place away from the watching eyes and the bright lights and the honking horns filtering distortedly through the filthy window panes.


“5, 6, 7, 8” yelled our pint-sized, flat-abbed, terrifying instructor.


The music began… my bare, blistered feet shuffled underneath me as the figures next to me began animating. The next class – an advanced hip hop class no less – was about to begin and the participants surrounded us. Looking simultaneously bored and amused at our broken forms.


Their cool clothes that screamed effortless break dancing genius.


The teacher’s pet in the front – a wildly overweight, sweating, hairy man in his late 30’s grinned like an idiot… anticipating another opportunity to demonstrate his phenomenal, gravity-defying stag-leap. He should definitely not have been in the beginners class.


‘How the fuck did I get myself into this?’, my mind protested – reliving the last 45 minutes of hell wherein I had twisted my ankle, stubbed my toe and created ominous sweat patches between my thighs and all down my grey cotton singlet. Cotton grey singlet, Meg… really?? I had found myself giggling regularly, breathless like a little girl. Looking around my fellow participants with crazed eyes in a desperate attempt to garner some kind of support – or at least one who could share some snide remarks about our female Benjamin Button-like instructor.


I had managed to catch the eye of a nervous looking girl next to me – and I thought we had a moment of connection about half way between learning the sequence where we had to slide on the ground, spin and then stand up. A move that left me with floor-board burn, a dusty butt and a mild case of sea sickness. But once I had lost my footing and backed into her, arms wildly swinging, she started avoiding eye contact with me. Focusing instead on counting her steps and keeping her head buried floor-ward.


I was in a dirty, but edgy dance studio above Melbourne’s Chapel Street.  A part of the city I rarely ventured to in an establishment I had never set foot in. I had never taken a dance lesson in my life … save from some jazz ballet lessons as a younger girl where I vaguely remember feeling constrained by the choreography.


The class was called ‘Contemporary dance for beginners’ which sounded great. Reading the website had evoked images of me floating ethearlly across the stage wearing flattering but loose street activewear. Rolling, pirouetting, rhythmically pulsating to the tunes of a ballad that depicted the plight of lovers unable to make it work – Ed Sheeran, perhaps.


I had willed myself there after weeks of making excuses. Back and forth my mind went. ‘But you really want to take up dancing – you’ll love it and it’ll be great for you’. ‘But I’ll make a total dick of myself’, came the retort, ‘and it’s all the way across town’.


Finally, the righteous and adventurous (or maybe the kamikaze) part of me won.


The idea was a good one. I was listening to my soul – something deep within which was calling me to integrate a different type of movement into my stiff body – conditioned to sitting at a computer and used to being pushed to its limits in high-intensity sports or fitness activities.


But the form?


Ah the form. That was the problem.


Sure my body was calling for dance. For rhythm. For music. For engagement. But I had fixated on the idea that this HAD to be learned. In a studio. From a teacher.


I had assumed that if I wanted to dance I had to take a class. Read a book. Maybe study ballet first and then move onto contemporary. I had to be the best.  Maybe one day I COULD audition for ‘So You Think You Can Dance’.


There was no other way. If I was to be bad at it, there was no use in doing it. Dancing in my home, in a towel, to Sia’s Chandelier wouldn’t cut it – even though doing so left me joyful, flooded with endorphins and secretly thrilled – like I had stuck my middle finger to the ‘man’ and just danced like it was 1999.


This particular version of perfectionism, I know, is a sickness of my generation. We cannot be beginners at things. We suffocate under the expectations of not being the best. We believe that we can gather skills like trophies and then add evidence of them to our instagram profiles and social media. Saturated with images of what perfect yogis and dancers look like, we contort our bodies unnaturally into silhouettes on the beach to grab the perfect image. Projecting our lives as imagined in our fantasies as opposed to experienced in the moment.


We cannot dance just for the sake of dancing.


Everything must be structured and scheduled. Slotted in to our lives into a neat category of ‘wellness’, or ‘fitness’ or ‘hobbies’. We will only admit that we are partaking in said activity once we have accomplished a certain level of proficiency and will receive requisite praise for. Until then it will remain a little secret.



The normal instructor for this class was sick that day, it turns out. And so we had this ambitious mini-energizer bunny in her place. And she had taught us a routine so ridiculously complicated that even old mate up the front with the sweat and the hair floundered every now and then.


It should have been funny! It should have been one of those scenes where we were all rolling around laughing having the best time as we slipped and cavorted here and there.


And yet there we all were – desperately pretending we were nailing it! Clinging onto the image that we ‘had this’ even though the teacher was yelling out French words that sounded more like venereal diseases than dance moves.


And so here I was. About to do the whole routine through again. This time with an audience. And I wasn’t laughing. I was mortified – if not by the situation but by my own insistence on ‘doing things the right way’. The way that looked like the images we have been bombarded with our whole lives.


I took a deep breath, rolled my head around my neck as if I was preparing to dance in the Russian Ballet and plunged into the routine. Vowing to myself that I would never step foot in this studio again.


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