For the past year and a half, I have been having fun starting to learn ballroom dancing. One day recently, while learning a new step in the Tango, my more experienced dance partner asked if I noticed that I was holding my left arm too tightly. I replied that I had not noticed. He elaborated that my arm was restricting our movements.
Emotionally, I immediately felt frustrated that I was not doing something correctly and irritated about being told what to do. My mind started rattling internally, telling me stories about why the arm was as it was: “I need to feel your body with my arm to know where you will move and I also need my arm on top of your arm to help me keep my balance with these fast steps. It can’t be right that I am holding you too tightly; after all, I have done 40-plus years of tai chi and have learned to relax. You are at least 30 years younger than I am… what do you know about relaxed movement anyway?”
He continued: look, you will need some space and freedom of movement in order to sway in the next move and to extend your body. Ok, I said, lets try it again and I will pay attention. So we did the move again and I noticed that my left arm was indeed holding his quite tightly. Let’s do it again, I said. That time I noticed that I could start with a relaxed arm, but by the end of the move, it was tight again.
We had to do it again numbers of times before I was able to keep my left arm relaxed throughout the whole move. Then suddenly it was too relaxed, we lost connection and both of us lost our balance.
Eventually, I began to experience more space and sway in the movement. We continued to experiment and even tried the move once without the arms at all to see what would happen. I found that I could have more contact between other parts of our bodies in order to follow where he was moving, not just the left arm.
This experience showed me my instinct to protect myself from falling (or failing) by unconsciously tensing and grabbing on… my attachment to my self-image, my emotional reactions to feedback and my mind’s attachment to its stories.
To become more conscious of what my left arm was doing and to change it, I needed to be able to accept my ignorance, even to look a bit foolish and then be open to try the move in a completely different way.
My whole system needed its time to tune in kinesthetically, to enjoy the process of becoming aware and to relax the arm in stages.
In addition to being lots of fun, I find that my dance classes have become another opportunity for learning to listen, both to myself as well as to others and also for developing more sensitivity in the tai chi partner exercise of Pushing Hands!