“Performance as Therapy”
By Michelle Harding
September 21, 2007
The following insert is by Michelle Harding who is currently dancing in her flat rubber shoes at the studio because of an aggravating foot injury. She shouldn’t be dancing at all and it is literally killing her not to be able to dance con fuerza. Alas, PATIENCE. Another annoying element of life that flamenco teaches us…
Some people wonder what it would be like to perform flamenco; others wonder why anyone would ever want to do such a thing in the first place. I am one of those people who began flamenco knowing I wanted to be on stage. Not everyone is like me. For many, flamenco is part social club, part exercise regimen, part personal challenge and part creative outlet. It’s probably a lot of other things too. To love flamenco – to enjoy it and grow by it – the desire to perform is not a necessary condition. For me, though, performing provides a large part of the pleasure and challenge of flamenco.
The trouble with performing is the fear. I think most of us are pretty intimate with this. Fear of failure, of looking stupid, of not doing justice to the art, and even more powerfully, there is the fear of all that attention. So what makes me want to do it anyway? I want the magic more than I’m afraid. I want the incredible perfect moment that happens when everything comes together and I can dance from my heart and feel the emotional response of a receptive audience. I want to feel that charge – it’s electrifying and euphoric. That’s the drive that overcomes the fear.
A few years ago, Maria “Cha Cha” Bermudez gave a workshop at Al Mozaico and she didn’t hide her annoyance with us polite little Canadian students. We meekly hovered around the back and sides of the room, refusing to go anywhere near the centre. We were all holding back from the front of the studio and we were all holding back from really dancing. I don’t remember her exact words, but what she said went something like this:
Why are you all hiding? What are you afraid of?
I know you want to dance.
You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have a little bit of yourself
that wants to shine and have some glory, to be applauded.
Quit being such a bunch of hypocrites and get up here and dance!
I was brought up by good conservative Protestant parents. They instilled in me the virtues of being a hard worker and of not expecting worldly reward for it. They taught me to keep my head down, keep my feelings to myself, and avoid being noticed at all costs. Until recently, I have been ashamed of the attention-seeking little devil on my shoulder who wants to have some kind of impact on people, to move them in some way. I know I’m not the only one. I know you’re out there, you closet performers.
The first time I let my attention-seeking tendencies overcome my “better” judgment was the first time I was invited to do Sevillanas at the Kino Café. I had been taking classes for about six months and I had just finished learning Sevillanas. My class was preparing for our student recital (my first) which was happening the next weekend and I had been practicing like mad.
I was at the Kino with some non-flamenco friends and one of the dancers performing that night recognized me as a student and asked me to do the first copla with Andrew. I said yes without even thinking. “Yes” just slipped out of my mouth before I could reel it back in and I began to panic immediately. “What have I done! I’ve already had two glasses of Sangria! I’m going to forget the choreography! I’m going to screw everything up and I’m going to make a fool of myself!” While one side of my brain was berating me for being so stupid, the other side was grinning inwardly with the knowledge that I, yes I, was finally going to get on that stage.
I didn’t know who this Andrew person was so I went over and introduced myself to two poor unsuspecting men before I found him. He seemed less than impressed. I then rushed into the bathroom – my stomach had turned into a serpent’s nest of knots, I was sweating, I was flushed – and I practiced that first copla three times behind the locked door.
I went back to my table and tried to act casual. “Oh man, what am I doing? When is it going to start? What if I miss my cue?” And before I knew what was happening, in a big whirling flurry, I was up on stage with my teeth clenched, my balance all wonky and my vision blurred. I guess I must have danced because I was suddenly back at my table, heart thumping, shaking, being congratulated by my friends. I did it! I went ahead and did it! I don’t know how I did it – I didn’t remember a thing except that I needed to stay clear of Andrew’s arms and that it was sure a lot more exciting than dancing in my kitchen by myself. It was far from perfect, but I had had my first taste of glory and I loved it!
Flamenco has demanded that I acknowledge my desire to experience the magic of performing. It has been one important way in which flamenco has changed my life and forced me out of my fear of failure.
Flamenco invites us to just “get over it”. The feeling of putting heart and soul into a dance and of feeling the emotional charge that comes back from the audience is, for me, the reward that makes braving fear and shame absolutely necessary. It’s not even a choice. Sure, I visit the land of fear pretty often, but now I know how to leave. Well, most of the time…