A few weeks ago I received and email from a follower of this blog, a beautiful woman from New Zealand who took the time to write to me to say that my posts had helped her through a bit of a personal melting down. She said something that a lot of people who write to me say; she mentioned her age and that she felt she was “a bit late” to be going through the changes that she felt were happening to her. By changes I mean personal changes in behaviour or choices or lifestyle or whatever. The sort of changes that can come at any time and that a lot of people try to avoid because they think they’re too old or too late to follow through on what they want to do.
Sometimes, and some of you will already know this, I accidentally write big long email replies to people without meaning to and that particular morning was one of those times because her email came exactly when I had just been thinking the same thing about myself. Here’s the extended version of what I wrote to her.
I used to be a dancer. Actually, I am a dancer. I gave it up for more than twenty years then picked it up again a few months ago. Dancing is my greatest love. It’s in my bones and my blood and my chest and my gut, and until recently, one of the greatest, deepest regrets of my life was giving it up in my teens. At the ripe old age of fifteen I fell away from ballet because I was being bullied by other girls in my dance class and because I had become freakishly thin and because I didn’t know how to commit to a life of something that felt so big and terrifying to me.
I was really good too.
I had been fighting returning to dancing for over two decades. Seeing dancers would move me to tears, leave me breathless, then furious. It actually hurt, caused me real physical pain in my chest to see dancers on stage or on TV or even in photographs. I’d come up with all sorts of reasons why I couldn’t go back and the one that seemed to cancel out every single reason to do the thing I loved doing most was my age.
Even when I was eighteen.
Because one of the easiest and most effective ways to stop yourself from doing something that scares you is to tell yourself you’re too old and that it’s too late, and you know what? Most of the world will happily back you up because they’re all telling themselves the same thing.
I hear students who are eighteen telling me that they’re running out of time to do what they want to do with their lives. I thought the same thing at twenty five, then thirty five, and now at thirty eight I’m wondering if I’m too old to be a mother and a partner. It’s easy to tell myself I’m a haggard old crone that no one wants to knock up or settle down with, but how much of that is actually coming from outside of me and how much of it is my own comfort blanket keeping me away from the things that scare me, insulating me from all responsibility for my own choices?
Just before my thirty-seventh birthday I commented on a post on Elizabeth Gilbert’s Facebook page and she actually replied with the most incredible comment. She wished me a happy birthday and told me that life expands as we get older. She told me not to give in to bullshit ideas about which boxes I should fit in to. She told me that she feels younger in her forties than she did in her twenties. Elizabeth Fucking Gilbert wrote actual words to me.
At first that felt amazing and exciting and I thought about all the wonderful things that could happen as life gets bigger and bigger. Then I shrunk. I thought how the hell will I cope if life gets bigger? I’m just me. If life gets bigger it will crush me because sometimes I can’t even handle the small life I’ve crammed myself into.
Tango seemed too big for me, so much so that my first Tango class almost never happened.
Tango has always made my skin hot and my chest hurt. Always. I’ve been fighting taking up Tango for most of my adult life. I saw a Facebook event page for a “Taster class” at an arts venue in Glasgow and I asked a friend to come along to be my partner, because I thought showing up for the class alone would make me feel like a colossal loser. I booked the class for the two of us. The prick never showed up. He text me as I was waiting at the train station to say he wasn’t coming. I handed my train ticket to another passenger. The train pulled up. I started to walk home in the rain, a tiny part of me was relieved that I had a solid excuse for not going to the class.
Half way up the road, cold and wet and pissed off, I stopped right there and asked myself; if I was a character that I was watching in a movie, what would I want that character to do next? Would I really want my character to accept her thirty-eight year old place in life and give up and go home and do something more age appropriate?
I turned around, walked back to the station and got on the next train. I arrived at the class drenched and braced for rejection. I sheepishly asked the teacher if I could participate on my own. She said yes. I hid in the toilets for twenty minutes until the class started.
As the rest of the class arrived, in pairs and happy couples, I stared out of the window on to the street, fighting back tears and forcing myself to not run out of the room because a horrible voice in my head was telling me that I was stupid to try to be a dancer at thirty eight when I’d clearly wasted my time and not achieved my dreams by the time I was twenty.
Like a kid who doesn’t have a partner to pair up with at school, I had to dance with the teacher.
Tango is all about connection. You feel your partner’s movement, and a good Tango “leader” can feel what their “follower” is capable of and an excellent Tango leader can guide their partner into steps and sequences they didn’t know they were capable of. My teacher is exceptional. That first night though, I was uptight, twisted in knots and resisting running out of the door and back under my too-old-for-dancing comfort blanket.
When I danced with my teacher I twisted my head to the left, as far away from her as possible, and stared off into the distance while still holding on to her arms. She told me to look at her heart. I stood bolt upright like a soldier facing down an enemy. She told me to lean into her. Along with the other couples we walked around and around to the music. Basic, simple walking steps. Ooonne, two. Threeee, four. Round and round and round until I closed my eyes, feeling where my partner was moving, following and mirroring her steps, gently, carefully, and then all of a sudden the world flipped upside down as she twirled me around, and as if they were possessed my feet began doing things that I hadn’t told them to do and I was moving as if I really knew what I was doing and it wasn’t stopping and my feet and legs and arms understood all of it.
My eyes shot open and I pulled away as if I’d been burned. Then I stared at the floor and apologised.
I went back to the toilets and hid again trying to breath in what had just happened. It was as if someone had sliced right through all the layers of excuses and fear and reasons, held a mirror up to me and said “THIS IS YOU. You don’t have a choice in the matter any more. You are not going to be able to ignore this or wrap this up in reasons to avoid it.”
A similar thing happened to me the first time someone described me as an “artist”.
After I plucked up the courage to leave the toilets, I went back upstairs to the Tango class which had now become a Milonga, a social dance event where people dress up in sparkly clothes and shining shoes and dance like they mean it. Lots of people were showing up and they all knew way more about Tango than I did. Most of them were older than me.
I sat there watching them and one woman in particular struck me. She had beautiful silver hair, an elfin face, and she moved like…there is no other way to say this, like light over water. She looked effortless but sparkling and always changing. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her feet. There was a line of beautiful men waiting to dance with her. She wasn’t the only breathtaking silver haired dancer either. The thing with Tango is that it can take decades to become good, and most often, at least in my experience, the best dancers are the ones who are older. The beginners are the ones who look heavy and stiff and creaky and weighed down by the anxiety of getting it wrong and wondering what the hell they’re doing. The most experienced dancers look the most effortless, light and dare I say it, young.
I used to look back at being a teenager with regret, seeing all the potential that I had and didn’t use. I wished I was younger again so I could take advantage of all of that youth and energy and time, because now I know just how precious and rare and fleeting all of that is. The reality was that when I was younger I was terrified all the time. Seriously, ALL the time. I was anxious and self critical and awkward. I was afraid that I was too fat, too ugly, too intelligent, too outspoken, too weird, too normal. Nothing I was or did passed without scrutiny, panic and self criticism. I couldn’t even get dressed without melting down because I was so terrified of getting it wrong. I never knew what I was doing. I didn’t yet have enough experience of rebuilding after fucking things up to realise that even if it all went wrong I would get through it so I avoided confrontation by doing as I was told which often got me into more shit than I ever could have gotten into by myself.
Being young was shite. There’s no way I could have done then what I do now. There is no way in hell that I would have been able to do any of the things I think I should have done then and that I tell myself I’m too old to do now.
It’s not age that’s held me back; it’s fear of not knowing what the hell I’m doing, of being vulnerable, maybe getting it wrong and being a bit crap for a while until I work out how to be better. What’s more at “my age”, I worry that I should appear to know what I’m doing so instead of stepping out of my comfort zone I just make excuses and avoid situations where I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m telling myself I’m too old so I can avoid reliving all of the anxiety of not knowing what the hell I was doing when I was younger.
But some things are powerful and important enough to cut through all of that.
I decided that I had learn to Tango after sobbing uncontrollably while watching two other people Tango dance on TV. It was on Strictly Come Dancing, a show I don’t even watch. After that first taster lesson, when my teacher sliced through whatever had been keeping my dancer self buried, I didn’t sleep for two nights. I booked a course of lessons. I bought shoes and a new leotard (no one wears leotards to Tango classes) and a bag to carry my stuff to and from class in. I listened to Tango music on Youtube.
Three months in, I’m changing. Or rather, I’m returning. There are other things I had written off that are making their way back into my world. Music, clothes, friends, things I thought I was too old for. These things make sense to me again.
AND I have moved into my new studio. Being back in a studio complex with other artists and designers has brought me back to the time twenty years ago when I started Art School, but this time without all of the anxiety and fear and panic. I’m realising that this time in my life shouldn’t be about all the things I’ve left behind; it should be about all the things I am able to build without the fear of getting it wrong because I’m old enough now to work out how to get it right, and sort it out if I get it wrong. I feel younger now than I ever have.
Saying that, I managed to bruise my toe and knacker my hip after overdoing it a bit dancing to Beyonce the other night, so there are some limitations, but still…