I Can't Dance

Nightclubs make me introspective.

That probably seems like an odd thing to say; nightclubs are supposed to be loud and noisy, explosively active and extroverted; not the place for traditionally quiet activities. I find, however, that it’s far easier to examine oneself when there are examples of humanity around you engaging in activities that you are not. In this case, being in a nightclub with drinking and dancing while you are simply sitting to one side, observing.

Now that might sound dull, but it’s actually one of the things I love to do whenever I’m out with friends. I love to watch people having a good time - it makes me feel good vicariously through them. However, inevitably, I get asked to come and dance - or why I’m not dancing - whenever I’m out in a place where other people are. I always reply “I can’t dance” or “I’m not good at it” or something to that effect, but the real reason - I’ve discovered while having an introspective moment at a nightclub - is a bit deeper.

I make no secret of my history of abuse; I’ve documented it in detail previously: physically and emotionally I’ve been attacked, berated, broken down, made to feel lesser - and I was fortunate enough to survive. However, it did not leave me without my fair share of physical and emotional scarring. One of these scars, I’ve determined, is my inability to dance - even while drunk and thus with lowered inhibitions.

Dancing is a state of vulnerability both physically and emotionally; you’re letting yourself be open and free to move with the music - to share a moment of passion with friends and strangers, generate energy and pass it along in a reciprocal surge of emotion. Once they get going, some of my friends can keep dancing all night. It’s an incredibly fun and intense experience and we’re all aware of that.

So it’s a little embarrassing that whenever I am asked to dance - and it literally doesn’t matter by whom - I immediately get a knot in my chest, as if someone had attached an anchor to my ribs and tied it to the back wall. I simply cannot dance - I can’t even try. I cannot make myself vulnerable in that way, not willingly, and it immediately kills any good feelings I’m having as I suddenly have this internal struggle.

I can sometimes push my way through it, but ultimately I simply cannot dance. Which is odd, because I’m an actor - and I have no problem dancing on stage in choreographed moves. Similarly, I have an incredibly difficult time partaking in karaoke - even though I can sing full Broadway style shows on stages. I can only surmise this is because when I’m on stage, it’s not me that’s vulnerable. It’s the character I’m playing. I can push my own insecurities to the back because if the character gets embarrassed it’s not me, it’s that character.

Now I hear you ask, what’s the point of this? Sure, we’re all glad you managed to realize what it is about yourself that keeps you from dancing but why share? Well, because I imagine there are a lot of people who feel similarly about a variety of things but don’t know why. It’s embarrassing, and frustrating - particularly because we then feel like we’re making our friends have less fun because we’re unwilling to participate in what seems to be the most fun activity in the room.

I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be able to break through this block I have on dancing. Every time I try it grabs me by the chest and yanks me back to a comfortable place on the wall, people watching. So, from me to my fellow abuse survivors - I see you, I feel you. You’re not alone in that paralyzing fear, and you’re not a downer because you can’t participate.

And to my friends, and people who are friends of abuse survivors - be sure to reach out and let them know they’re ok. When you’re afraid of being vulnerable, it can manifest in all manner of different ways. Some people can’t dance, others can’t leave their house alone or drive down the street. Be supportive, let them know you understand and that it’s ok.

It’s ok to not dance, even when all of your friends are.

John A. Bates

Photograph by Mara, 2010

Photograph by Mara, 2010