I have never been comfortable in my own skin. Let’s just start out with that basic truth about Teryn. Ever since puberty (because before that, I was oblivious to things), I have had an aversion to this thing called my body. I’ve always felt awkward in it. As if somehow, it doesn’t quite fit. An old hand-me-down outfit that should’ve been someone else’s—certainly not mine. I’ve never been particularly good at sports, to my shame (since society worships the athlete). I have never really been able to master this whole hand, foot, body coordination thing…
In essence, I have always been ashamed of me. This me that I am in. Of my body, movement, of being free and lively, of being in front of people, of performing or under scrutinizing eyes. And there are probably numerous reasons for this, reasons that I will not get into now. But for the purposes of this post today, let me underscore this point:
I hate with a fervent passion to the core of who I am being in front of people. I hate people watching me. I hate being the center of attention.
I’d rather hide in a corner than be in the spotlight.
I have rarely had control over my body when it comes to any type of performance. Whenever I have to be in front of people in an intimidating environment, my body usually has the final say and proceeds to freak out, no matter how hard I try to calm it down.
Example #1: My last year at college, I had to give a small presentation to the entire student body during chapel. I felt sick the entire morning before it happened, and when I got up on stage, my legs were visibly shaking behind the podium (thank God for that podium!).
Example #2: Last time I was onstage to participate in a drama on identity, I shook uncontrollably and sat on the floor with my head between my legs before performing. I was terrified, and it was all I could do to pull myself together. I also agonized about it for months beforehand. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life, and yet it was also an emotionally draining experience because my body just buckled under the stress of it all.
Example #3: Just, fear. Period. Whatever it is that seems to push me out of my comfort zone in any way, I react in fear. I hate this about myself. It’s a battle I’ve been waging all my life.
Needless to say, this is probably why I became a writer. Because this is one way I do feel completely comfortable: Writing words behind a nice wall of paper. (No one can see me then.)
Secretly, though, I have always felt a deep desire to be someone who can perform creatively. I’ve always admired dancers and actors and musicians—and anyone, really, who isn’t afraid to get up in front of people and expose their passions in a real, tangible way onstage.
I wish I could do it, I think often when I watch dancers or actresses or speakers or musicians. I wish I could. But I can’t. Because I’m too afraid. And awkward. That’s just who I am.
Fast-forward a few years. I live in Colorado. I still have a hard time being in front of people, but those instances are few and far between. I don’t do a ton with my body now, as I injured my feet and have had a long road to recovery because of it. Yes, I take lots of walks and work out at home at least once a week. I hike and stuff. But I don’t play sports, and I certainly don’t get up onstage or anything.
Then a co-worker/friend asks me to join a dance class—ballet, to be specific. The commitment is two months. It seems pretty laid back. Just a bunch of adult students. No pressure to perform or anything. The price is decent. I think, What the heck? Sure, I’ll try it out for two months. So me and two other co-workers begin the 30-min trek to an arts center in the area once every week for two months.
The first class is kind of humiliating on every level. To put it bluntly, I feel about as comfortable as a dolphin in a desert. I have no idea what to do with my arms, and they stick out at odd angles and make me feel like a scarecrow, not a dancer. I can’t coordinate my feet for the life of me—and don’t even make me coordinate feet and arms at the same time! That is too much to handle. Yet something stirs inside me even in that first month. I know I want to continue this dancing journey, no matter how awkward I feel right now. I know this will be healing. I wrote about that first month here already.
So the first two months fly by, and we sign up for another two months. Our teacher mentions a dance recital. “Over my dead body!” I tell her jokingly. (But really, I’m not joking. I will be dead before I dance in front of people. Not now. Not ever.) And no, she doesn’t make us perform that May. Phew.
Yet I’m hooked on dancing. I and one of my co-workers decide to continue doing ballet during the summer, too. We both are dreaming of getting serious about this. In fact, our goal is to get en pointe.
“Could we learn pointe? If we worked really hard, how long would it take?” we ask our teacher.
Our teacher nods, and tells us it could take about a year or more—but we could definitely do it if we work hard.
So we work hard. Because let me tell you, ballet doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I feel as if I’m having to pull teeth every time I learn a new move. I agonize over turns for months. (I. hate. turns.) I practice standing on one foot and lifting my legs every day for a solid couple of months to find some kind of balance. I practice, practice, practice… I use exercises to strengthen my feet and work out multiple times a week and push myself farther than I ever thought I could go.
I’ve heard it said most people give up on dance because they don’t push through the awkward, horrible phase. They quit before they see the transformation of their bodies. Most people never get over the fear and insecurity of feeling like an idiot for the first 6 months to a year of dance.
It’s wasn’t until a full year has passed of dance that I truly began to feel it clicking. I feel my body changing. One day, my teacher says, “You have the body of a dancer now.” I look in the mirror and see what she’s talking about. It was so gradual that I hardly noticed. My muscles are more defined, my arms less gangly. My feet became stronger. I can lift my legs higher. Turns are easier.
And yes… I did get my first pointe shoes in March.
Also in March, I began practicing for my first dance recital. Yes, a year ago I said I’d dance in front of people over my dead body. A year later, I’m willing to go to the extra practices to perform. It’s not ballet, it’s a contemporary piece–an African American spiritual. It has beautiful choreography, and I fall in love with the song.
Something indeed has changed. I just didn’t even notice it was changing.
The day of the performance, I’m all nerves. I’m wondering if I might fall on my butt on stage. I know I won’t be an amazing dancer, but I want to at least not ruin the performance. My body is already starting to react in fear. I’m afraid my legs will give way underneath me onstage. I’m afraid I will shake, shake, shake as I’ve done other times getting in front of people. I’m afraid of being afraid. The thing about dancing is that it’s so physical. There’s no hiding behind a podium. It’s all about your body and whether you can use it well.
I wish I was anyone but me, I think. Why is it SO hard to perform? Why does it seem to come so easy for others? Why am I so controlled by fear?
I want to quit. As I wait for the first performance (we’re dancing three times that day), I think, WHY? WHY DID I SAY I’D DO THIS??? My body is revolting, I can feel it starting to cave into fear.
NO, I tell myself. This is the year you said you’d let go of fear and try new things and put yourself in front of people. This is the way you will grow.
So I tell my body this: You will perform. You will not cave into fear. Not this time.
Performance One: I get on stage, and I’m shaking a little even as the song starts. All I want to do is run off stage and hide in a corner. But I can’t. The lights are on. I start dancing. My legs are shaking. I feel like I might fall over. Halfway through the dance, I start losing it. I know if I don’t get myself together mentally, I will have a meltdown on stage. I WANT TO QUIT! yells my body. Why are you doing this to me? Why are you doing this? There are people watching you! Actual people! I’m going to fall apart. I’m going to freak out!
No. You will dance, I tell myself. I also pray. Oh Lord, please, please give me strength. Please help me get through this.
And suddenly, the dance is over. It felt like hours and 2 seconds all at the same time—so long, so short.
I walk off, letting out huge breaths of nervous air, and my legs are indeed visibly shaking now.
But I did it. I performed. I didn’t mess up or ruin the dance. I danced, and it was miserable, but people afterwards tell me it was so beautiful and moving. “I didn’t look terrified?” I ask. “No!” they say in surprise.
I realize that the battle I face is a mental battle. A battle of mind over body. A battle of mental strength over the pressure to cave into fear. I’ve been battling fear my entire life. This is just another step in the journey.
Performance Two: I am much more ready for the mental battle this time. I’m going to get onstage, and I’m going to perform, and I’m going to force my body to do this. When I walk onstage, I am less shaky. I hold my hands up in the spotlight, and the shimmering air around me feels less scary than before. I think of the light as a shield separating me from the people watching.
I’m dancing for myself, I’m dancing for God, I’m dancing because I love dancing, I think to myself as the music starts. That’s why I’m dancing. The people watching don’t matter. All that matters is if I enjoy this and can have control over the fear, over my body.
So I concentrate as hard as I can on every movement. I concentrate inward. I lose myself in the dance. I stop thinking about the people. I think about the movement and the music and the beautiful message of the lyrics. I think about pain and hope and how I so deeply resonate with the song.
Something changes in me. Suddenly, my body is responding to the music. And I feel lighter and freer and…then it ends, and it was beautiful.
Performance Three: This is the best performance out of the three for me physically. Whatever mental block I had about performing is gone, and I want to be onstage and be part of this dance. I’m excited. My body is full of energy and anticipation. I perform the moves with grace and strength and fluidity. I have peace onstage. Yes, it’s always an adrenaline rush, and I’m still a little nervous. But I’ve pushed past the mental block I had about being onstage, about performing, about being comfortable in my own skin.
I feel free and beautiful and joyful, and I feel the dancing in me. I feel like a dancer.
So I dance.
I dance through the fear.
Dance has somehow been the tool I needed to push through the awkwardness, the discomfort, the fear. I have learned to embrace my body, this me that I am in. I have learned to control it and to overcome the fear that once so controlled my body. I have learned to be confident and joyous in this wondrous thing God has created called me. Somehow, my mind pushed through the mental agony and found the joy.
Isn’t this how life is? You toil and toil and toil, and you wonder if you’ll ever improve or ever overcome the things you’re trying to overcome. But if you work hard, slowly, gradually, over years, things change. The fears you felt can’t hold you back anymore. The weaknesses turn to strengths, the strengths turn into abilities you never thought you’d have.
This is the power of challenging oneself. The power of letting go and pushing past fear. I’ve been learning so much about it in my life over the last few years. Where once I was controlled by fear, now I have learned to live with fear and ignore it. There is power in putting oneself out there, not caving into fear, learning new things, trying new things, being in front of people, sharing a passion. It’s part of a full life—to challenge oneself and face fears. I overcame the fears of my body through dance.
Something changed inside me. I became something I’ve always dreamed of becoming: A performer who can express oneself onstage. It’s something I’ll never regret.
What do you need to overcome in your own life? What challenges do you face? What fears hold you back? What dreams do you have that seem so out of reach?
Don’t give up.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Alena Ozerova