Well Aware I Can’t Dance
My older sister inherited completely different parts of our parents’ DNA than I did, and consequently we look nothing alike. She got my mother’s curves and body-type, womanly in every line and shape, whereas my appearance is much like my father’s in that my only curve is the tip of my pointy chin. My sister got my father’s olive skin, and in the summer she can take a walk around the block and return looking as if she has just vacationed on a tropical Island in the Pacific. I have my mother’s freckles, and when I was recently diagnosed with skin cancer my sister sort of shrugged the way she used to years ago when explaining to me that the reason she got to sit in the front seat and I didn’t was because God sent her to Earth first. “Sure, you’re the one who has to worry about being in the sun,” she said, “but you’re also the skinny one. That seems fair to me.”
One of the biggest differences between us is something hidden well underneath our appearances in the small joints of our knees and toes. My sister absorbed every molecule of rhythm my mother had to give, and as a result my brother and I were born with a missing rhythm chromosome. She can dance as well as anyone I have ever seen in a music video, and as a teenager she used to recreate the choreography from Footloose and Flashdance for various talent shows. I used to sit against the wall in the living room as she practiced her steps, envious of her natural talent, riveted by the way her arms and legs moved as if being pulled by strings from some larger, unseen source. I used to fantasize that one day she would grow up to be a back-up dancer for Janet Jackson, and that I would, by extension, get to see the inside of Michael Jackson’s house.
I often tried to dance, but I was far too lanky and awkward to produce anything other than a reenactment of a grand mal seizure. I was good at learning steps, as good as I was at memorizing lists of vocabulary and multiplication tables, but coordinating those steps with music was totally impossible. The frustration from wanting so badly to be able to dance and always running up against the brick wall of reality, the paralysis of not being able to move my legs the way I wanted them to move, that tension made me worship other dancers as if they had super powers. I even envied my peers who were cheerleaders, and as much as I had reason to resent them — they were popular and beautiful, whereas I was a geeky academic with chicken legs — I would always be the first one standing to applaud after their half-time routines. There wasn’t a single day in high school that I wouldn’t have traded my grades for an ounce of their raw athleticism.
As an adult I have no illusions that maybe with wisdom I picked up a little rhythm. But that hasn’t stopped me from moving to music any chance I get, often while drinking and in front of large groups of frightened people. I dance not because I think I’m good at it — I know I’m not — but because of my love for it, and more than once someone has taken a picture of me pulling a move I learned from John Travolta and posted it to their website, usually with a caption that says, “Something tells me this woman is drunk.” Interestingly, the way I move my body while intoxicated is no different than when I am sober, which is why I am lucky that a cop hasn’t ever pulled me over and asked me to walk in a straight line.
My new favorite television indulgence, “So You Think You Can Dance,” is the perfect show for uncoordinated people like me. I love reality television, but this show is different in that the contestants are discernibly talented. They aren’t chosen because of their stupidity and the potentially hilarious situations that could therefore ensue (see: every single episode of “The Real World”), nor are they thrust into circumstances where the only talent they are required to have is a weak gag reflex or the ability to go without food for days on end. The contestants have to be able to dance, and the true success of the show is that it doesn’t go to great lengths to exploit a contestant’s weakness or failure. What makes this show so great is that it celebrates just how magnificently the contestants can move their bodies.
Few reality shows, if any, have ever given me chills like this one has, and while watching “So You Think You Can Dance” this summer I have cried more than once when a street dancer has realized that his world can be so much bigger. Contestants are paired into boy-girl couples and given a style of dance to learn in less than seven days. Most of the styles are probably as foreign as an African language to the show’s young demographic — Viennese Waltz, West Coast Jive, Cuban Mambo — but watching these young kids who have never danced anything but hip hop pick up a slow waltz as if they have been practicing it for years has been some of the most inspiring television I have ever watched. I have discovered that I like watching people dance just as much, if not more, than I like listening to people sing.
The thing that makes it all work, though, is the fact that this is a reality show. The kids on this show are, in many ways, dancing for their lives, for their futures, and the journey I have watched many of them go on, from street dancer to master of the mambo, make it all the more heartbreaking when they are voted off the show, their one chance to hit it big. I know that some people will roll their eyes when they read that, but what makes any good television show good is how it makes the audience care about the characters, how it makes us sympathize. “So You Think You Can Dance” not only makes me hopeful for the contestants, but every week it has put me square in the middle of a new dance routine, an exhilarating new style, as new for me as it is for the dancers, and in the relative solitude of my living room I can feel at least for a few thrilling minutes as if the rhythm is moving through my own feet.