Last night my wife and I went dancing. It was a Salem Big Band night at Mission Mill Museum, a beautifully restored woolen mill dating from the late 1800's.
When we walked in, about half an hour after the festivities had started, I could tell that my thoroughly intermediate dancing skills were going to be stretched. The piece being played was energetically cool, but I couldn't place it in my stylistic repertoire.
Foxtrot? No. Waltz? Definitely no. Latin style? Absolutely not. Swing? Sort of, but not really.
Yet couples (and some uninhibited child singles) were dancing away with abandon, clearly having a good time. People were doing... whatever. I suppose the music was supposed to be a jive, lindy hop, or such -- styles I know next to nothing about.
That didn't matter, though. Skilled dancers looked more accomplished than the "cludgers," but everybody was doing their thing happily, even if I couldn't put a name to whatever dance style was reflected by the live music being played.
We were seated at a table with a guy and his partner who are pretty darn good dancers. They come to practices at the dance studio where we've been taking lessons for several years.
When Laurel said, "Sometimes we can't figure out what style is supposed to be danced with a song," the guy told us that this is common with Big Band music. You just have to improvise, move with the beat, do what comes naturally.
HIs partner added, "I like that. I don't have to think about what to do, just follow his lead."
Well, if you're the lead (the man, usually), dancing to an unfamiliar style of music isn't so easy. You've got to take steps -- literally -- without hesitation, even when you aren't really sure where you're going on the dance floor.
Which is a lot like life. More than that: it is life.
Sometimes in our living we feel entirely confident about what to do; sometimes we don't. Each day every person is alive, there will be a blend of actions and thoughts which span a large section of the confident/unconfident continuum.
Last night I started out on the unconfident side of the scale. I wasn't sure how to dance to unfamiliar music. I looked around to see what other couples were doing, which didn't help much since free expression was being played out on the dance floor.
I watched with envy as a twenty-something guy and gal glided around in sneakers and other decidedly casual attire, showing a rare combination of great ballroom technique and creative youthful style. When they danced next to us I'd feel like a 12 inch black and white TV being displayed next to a 3-D technicolor movie screen.
Then something changed. A voice inside my head started to say Screw it, just do whatever feels right. Driving home, after telling my wife "I had a great time tonight," I recalled the words "Dance like there's nobody watching."
You've gotta' dance like there's nobody watching,
Love like you'll never be hurt.
Sing like there's nobody listening,
And live like it's heaven on earth.
That's what made the difference for me as the Salem Big Band wound its way through their song list. When I couldn't tell whether the music was Foxtrot, Waltz, Swing, or Cha-cha-cha, I stopped comparing myself with what other people were doing.
Which made the evening a lot more fun, even before the bar lady poured me an extra-large glass of Oregon Pinot Noir for $4. (I have to also give due credit to the wine, though.)
Sure, sometimes it's good to know that other people are watching what you're doing. We're social creatures. It's important to get along with our fellow Homo sapiens. Failing to care about how we look to others can be a sign of sociopathy.
But most of us err on the side of being overly worried about how we're coming across to other sentient beings. We're excessively conscientous. And when it comes to God and religion, overly scrupulous.
Lots of people believe that God or some other higher power is watching everything they do, along with knowing all that they think and feel. This is much more anxiety-producing than wondering if other dancers are dissing your moves. But there's a commonality between secular and religious "dancing."
In both cases, there's no need to worry about what you look like to someone else. What's important is how you look (or feel) to yourself. You can't dance well, in life as a whole or on the hardwood, if you aren't confidently enjoying what you're doing.
Dance. Like nobody is watching.