I am a dreadful dancer. This is not even a remotely contestable fact.
It started in 7th grade, when I went to my first dance. It was held in the low-ceilinged cafeteria of my school. The lunch tables had yielded to a DJ and the throbbing base of lousy 80’s music. (Now that I think about it, was there any other kind of 80’s music?)
As a handful of students – predominantly female – danced with each other in the middle of the room, I and virtually every boy who had elected to come planted ourselves to the floor while leaning against the building’s walls in poses of what passes for calculated cool when you’re 12. (Read, actually not at all cool.) Even though every one of us had come because the dance offered an opportunity to be “with” a girl – in the totally nebulous way that a 12 year-old understands that concept – we pushed our shoulders back into the painted concrete with an intensity and focus suggesting that we were trying to push ourselves through the wall and onto the street outside. How does one explain this phenomenon?
Previous research establishes that the average 12-13 year-old human American male displays a statistically-significant inability to accurately assess the impact of its words and deeds on those around it. Driven almost entirely by hormonal impulses, this creature spends between 85 and 93 percent of its waking time thinking about/trying to initiate physical contact with (1) similarly-aged children of the opposite sex, or (2) its 4th-period Math teacher. (The remaining 7-15% of its time is divided equally between fantasizing about a career in professional sports/singing in a rock band, avoiding homework, and texting/tweeting inane sentence fragments to peers.) In this investigation, we develop and investigate the primary initial social institution designed to maximize this primal urge. Using a physical space that features (a) what is popularly called a “dance floor,” (b) a creepy middle-aged male of the “mobile DJ” variety, (c) music chosen by the “mobile DJ” that generically falls into the following 3 categories – (i) “tweener pop” (e.g., anything by Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez), (ii) “more popular than it should be” pop (e.g., The Black Eyed Peas), and (iii) “classic pop/rock” (increasingly called, “oldies”) (e.g., Michael Jackson, AC/DC) (known by less than 10% of the subjects, and those that do know it equate it with suddenly incoherent and uncoordinated parents holding beer bottles at late night backyard parties in the summer), and (d) roughly equal numbers of 12-13 year-old American boys and girls, this study explores the relationship between (c) and increased proximity of the subjects in (d) to each other. Our hypothesis is that the “music” in (c) leads to closer physical relations between the subjects in (d), and in extreme cases will require adult intervention (by “chaperones”). The data from the study demonstrate that upon introducing (c) into the testing environment, subjects had little to no physical contact. The males of the species clustered in small, stationary groups on the periphery of the testing environment while the females grouped loosely in the middle of the testing environment and moved in approximate rhythm to (c). The results of this study highlight the need for further analysis, as they defy easy biological explanation.
Of course, the answer to this seeming anomaly is that dancing is one of those rare activities where neurosis can trump fundamental biological imperatives. In my case (and, I would hazard a guess, that of a majority of males), the failure to dance isn’t because we lack the basic physical capacity to do so. I had enough innate coordination to move in a way roughly consistent with the (electronic) drumbeats of “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “I Ran.” (Unfortunately, at that time I also had a poorly-developed-enough taste in music to consider both of those songs worth listening to. The aforementioned electronic drums should have been the big tip-off that this music was crap. Electronic drums are never appropriate in rock music. Unless you’re the drummer for Def Leppard, in which case they constitute a reasonable accommodation within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Or you’re Radiohead, in which case they’re magically transformed into art.)
“What if I can’t dance like Michael Jackson? [Thriller was HUGE then, folks.] What if my friends see me flailing about like a wounded ape? What if? What if? What if?” Since I, and males generally, have no answers to these questions – or at least none that we find particularly comforting – we attach ourselves to the wall, only shaking ourselves loose after the last song has finished playing (inexplicably but consistently, “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC, which is decidedly better than the aforementioned high water marks for Duran Duran and Flock of Seagulls, respectively, because (a) even then, Angus Young was far too old to be wearing the outfit of a 7-year-old English school boy but insisted on doing so anyway, and (b) they used real drums.)
Even those who take a step toward the middle of the room do so only in a half-hearted way. My friend Wayne got married about 14 years ago. I asked him before the wedding if he was ready to dance with his wife in front of a full banquet room. Wayne said, “Oh I can’t dance. But I’ve figured it out. I just try and surround myself with a group of people so no one can see me from the waist down. Then I just march in place to the beat. Everyone thinks I’m dancing.”
I mention this because it perfectly captures what’s going on in the non-dancing guy’s brain: he has to create the illusion that he’s dancing, not for himself, but for others. I watched Wayne march in place all night with a big smile on his face, not because he was dancing, but because he knew he appeared to be. (Well, and I guess he was happy to be married also. But I think it was mostly the dancing trick.) He knew he couldn’t get outside his head long enough to ever consider simply living in the moment and just do it. Wayne’s not a better dancer than I am – but he undeniably found a better workaround than I ever did.
I was always convinced that I could do better than marching in place, and I probably did . . . if marching in a circle until your partner falls over from dizziness qualifies as “better.” My wife, who actually enjoys dancing, appreciated my efforts. But while she never said it, I knew that I undeniably sucked.
When I lost my leg, I finally got the built-in excuse that I had lacked for lo these many years – “I can’t/won’t dance because it really doesn’t work on an AK prosthesis.” (Yes, I know that the history I’ve disclosed above invalidates this argument, since I couldn’t ever dance, even on two legs. For more on this, see my previous screeds on delusion.) So I winnowed down my already infrequent ventures onto the dance floor to slow dances, which involved nothing more than rocking from one leg to the other, somehow still managing to crush my wife’s foot under my carbon graphite one every 8th step.
In light of this sorry history, the fact that my nearly thirteen year-old son is a fantastic dancer proved – to put it mildly – surprising to me. In fact, given his tendency to worry about how others perceive him even more than I did at that age, this phenomenon is, objectively speaking, about as likely as waking up tomorrow to find out that we’ve been enslaved by a master race of raccoons. (If that does happen, our primary task will be opening up the garbage bags for them so they can eat our rotting food more easily. But for good measure, they’ll still insist that we toss the garbage all around our yard so that it still feels familiar to them.)
But anyway, my son regularly steps onto a stage in front of hundreds of people and a group of adult judges . . . and dances. This weekend, as I was standing in the decrepit high school men’s room that served as a dressing room for my son and the handful of guys brave enough to dance alongside, conservatively, 4,382 girls, I realized that my son’s gift of motion amazes me, in the truest sense of that word.
If you’ve stuck with me long enough to get to this point, you are logically asking yourself (if you didn’t already pose the question 5 paragraphs ago), “What in the world does any of this have to do with limb loss/difference?”
Just this: as I watched my son on stage and puffed up with paternal pride, I realized that his passion for fluid movement, his ability to easily and quickly replicate what his instructors show him, resonate with me because of my limb loss. I always understood that talented dancers have some kind of gift, but it wasn’t until I had to learn the unique biomechanics of walking with a prosthesis that I appreciated it.
That’s because every step with a prosthesis reminds me both of what I’ve lost and what I’ve reclaimed.
The loss is felt in the misstep, the awareness that how I now move is a mechanical act, not an instinctual one. It manifests as frustration and sadness.
I’m not being completely honest if I don’t admit that somewhere, deep inside, there isn’t a piece of me that’s jealous of my son, envious of the fact that he can do what he does with such seeming ease. The synthesis of all his parts, the simple grace he’s capable of jolts me out of the torpor that typically characterizes my everyday thought patterns.
I, on the other hand, am consciously microanalyzing every step I take: What’s the terrain like underneath my foot? Did I land with the heel too far in front of me? Is the knee going to swing smoothly into extension as I walk over the toe? Contrasting these questions with my son’s innate physical gifts makes me acutely aware of limits – even though I never did dance the way he can, I theoretically could have when I had two legs. Now, that’s an impossibility.
But at the same time that I feel this sense of limit and loss, a pain that could separate me from him, there’s a real connection that I feel with him. Yes, what he does looks easy, but I’ve seen the hours of practice that it takes for him to get to that point. I’ve seen Lora, Samantha, and Katie putting him through the same steps over and over and over. I’ve seen him dance on our kitchen floor for two-plus hours straight, trying to replicate a move he saw on YouTube. And it reminds me of how I learned to walk after my amputation. Day after day, week after week, repetitively performing the same activity until it became “natural.”
The same frustration he feels when I shake my head and say, “Nope,” in response to his question, “Was that it?” as he tries to perform the dance move is the frustration I feel when I stumble in public, or when someone I don’t know says, “Did you hurt your leg?”, thus establishing that they know there’s something “going on” when I walk. The same thrill of achievement he gets when successfully completing a routine is the warm glow I get when someone I’ve known for months admits that they had no idea I wore a prosthesis. And the moment-to-moment awareness required of him as he competes on the stage mirrors my self-monitoring when I stop to consider the strengths and weaknesses of my own gait.
Until Saturday, I hadn’t realized it, but my dancing son and I share an appreciation for and connection to the movement of our bodies, albeit for different reasons. We’re both “in the moment.”
The only thing I’m aware of is the striking of my left heel on the ground and the lifting of the prosthetic foot forward tenths of a second later. And when he’s on the stage, this 12-year-old – who, like all 12 year-olds, spends many of his waking hours simply trying to figure out how and where he fits in – is processing similar data, albeit on a much higher and more complex level. As I told my sister, “When he’s up there, he’s truly himself. He’s the person he wants to be.” Everything else in his life falls away and is subordinate to his passion and focus.
He finished his solo dance Saturday and I just sat on the blue cloth fold-down chair in the third row, a stupid grin on my face sliding into laughter as I watched the judges’ and audience’s reaction. I walked back to the “dressing room” and waited outside the closed door. It flew open and he instantly realized I was there, launching himself into me, burying his head in my chest with a smile that practically radiated light and heat, arms wrapped around my midsection.
And for a split second, neither of us moved. Our motion brought us to together. Mine, linear and mechanical; his, circular and flowing. Both of us dancing in our own way.