“Yes, that’s it. Guys, I just want you to pay attention here, okay?”
It was Saturday morning and I was in practice with the junior dance company. I was 11 years old, in a room with girls ranging from 10 to 14 along with my dance teacher, Mark.
I stood with my back to the mirror, a short distance away from the barre. A couple of fellow dancers to my left, Mark to my right. Hands lightly on my hips, I pulsed my ribcage so my chest stuck out and my back curved. Then I showed the girls what the move looked like when I pulsed my ribcage inwards, sucking my belly in to meet my back, chest sinking. Mark laughed, “That’s exactly right.”
It was important that we do that step with the body popping out to the beat, not sinking in. It was a jazz/hip-hop number called “Hit House,” and we were performing in the Florida Show Stoppers competition with it in a few months. There would be several performances first at shopping malls and retirement homes, but we had to stick it in practice on Saturdays so we didn’t look messy.
I loved getting things right. I was never an athlete, but dancing instilled competitiveness in me from age 8 onwards. Getting things right or painfully, awkwardly wrong were the best ways to get attention so I aimed always for the former.
When I got things right, I got to show off for my fellow dancers. When I got things wrong, though, something more valuable happened.
On a Wednesday night, the first class is ballet. Warm up on the barre is grueling. There are stretches that make your calves burn like someone dug into them with a small, blunt hunting knife and wiggled it around between the muscles and the tendons. I’m still correcting bad form learned from a careless teacher my first year of dancing while at a different school. Sometimes, while I hold my arm out during a sequence of pliés, instead of creating the graceful graduated curve from shoulder to fingers, my elbow drops, interrupting the proper slope, ruining the line.
Mark will catch me, every time. Whether I’m being lazy or just negligent. Or, you know, just paying more attention to the burning pain radiating from my heels through my calves as I go into the third set of grand pliés. If my elbow drops for even a moment as I come up and complete the plié, he is on me, yelling, scolding.
Do you know what happens when he corrects me? Even when he is so angry that little bits of spit fly out of his mouth and onto my face as he corrects me? I say, “Thank you.” I say it out loud. “Thank you.”
Then I have his attention in the right way. It’s no longer about how my elbow dropped, or how much my calves are burning. It’s a teacher and his student, learning. I’m learning and paying attention to him, as he has paid attention to me. People who don’t care about you will let you continue to make stupid mistakes. It takes effort to care, effort to take time out to say, “You’re doing it wrong.”
In situations where I respect the people I’m dealing with, I appreciate and seek out their advice and correction. Sometimes I know I’m steering a rough course, making wrong turns. I may not automatically reroute when a friend or colleague says, “You’re doing it wrong,” because I’m stubborn. But I will listen to the people in my life. And a few days, weeks or months later when I take their correction and it makes things right, I say, “Thank you.”