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In the Scheme of Things


Nan Russell

Jul 15, 2019

Learning to Dance

Learning to Dance

I begged my parents for dance lessons. Sometimes when I walked with my mother the five blocks to the neighborhood grocery, I'd catch glimpses of dancers in the upstairs studio across the street. On other days, I'd watch as leotard-clad girls, not much older than me, emerged from the doorway stairs to the sidewalk. At six, I longed be one of them.

But, it was not to be. I didn't understand back then my parents were in what today might be called a "rough patch." We'd moved from Montana to a warmer climate for my brother's health, only to have a house fire consume most of what we owned. Medical bills and Dad's slow job search meant no money for "wants" at a time when we didn't even own a car.

At eight, I still asked for dance lessons. My mother found a freestyle class at the Y and signed me up. We rode the bus together to two classes before I quit, telling Mom it wasn't the kind of dance I was interested in learning. My heart was set on ballet or tap.

In better financial times my lessons didn't emerge either. Instead, my musically talented father thought my desire for dance lessons could be replaced with music lessons. I unenthusiastically took piano for three years, confirming by the end that music was his gift, not mine. And I stopped asking for dance lessons by junior high.

My desire to learn to dance stayed dormant until graduate school when I enrolled in a beginner ballet class, asking friends to help install a practice bar in my student housing apartment. I was enthralled with the class at first, but didn't enroll the second semester.

Instead I had a life ah-ha moment. I always knew I never wanted to become a dancer, but I discovered during that semester that I never wanted to learn to dance either. What I wanted was to be able to dance.

I can name dozens of things I'd like to be able to do -- easily, simply, proficiently without having to work much to do them. I'd like to speak multiple languages or be technologically proficient, but I'm not driven to either. Choreographer George Balanchine summed it up this way: "I don't want people who want to dance. I want people who have to dance."

There are things we want to do, can do, and have to do. When all three come together sometimes there's a personal magic and deeper connection that takes hold. That was never dance for me. But, I do dance. Alone. Music blasting. Curtains drawn.

Yet, in the scheme of things, the reality is I've been learning to dance all my life. Believing I wanted to learn how to dance enabled me to discover more what I have to do. And I have to write, just like my father had to play music. I have to write, not to write a New York Times bestseller, or even to have people read my words, but rather, to become who I am; to bring myself alive. It took me decades and a second-act career to discover writing is how my soul plays its music -- how it dances. How do you dance?

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