This weekend, I drove seven hours north to the coastal town of Arcata, California, to participate in a dance workshop with my friend and dance teacher, Justin Riley.
You might be wondering why a tall, skinny, 61-year-old, overly intellectual writer and coach would drive clear across an entire state to spend the weekend in a dance studio with a bunch of people half his age.
Here’s why: it is my discomfort zone. It is where I love to be.
I only started to take dance seriously a few months ago—that’s it. But it is still the part of my life where I feel most incompetent, clumsy, embarrassed, and awkward. At any dance event I go to, I am the low-ball of the group.
And that is why I love it.
I always make sure I have some area of my life like this: where I have no confidence and very little grace. It used to be skiing, then it switched to gardening, and then to woodwork. As soon as I get a mediocre amount of confidence, I have to move on and find something else that I am absolutely no good at.
Because this is what keeps us young. This is what keeps us curious. This is where all the juice is.
So let me tell you my greatest “aha” moment from my weekend of clumsiness. I mean, there were many, many “aha” moments, but this was my favorite.
At one point, we were all paired off with a partner. I was feeling pretty good, twirling and gliding my way across the dance floor. I’m nailing this…I’m ready for “Dancing with the Stars,” I thought to myself.
We were flying and pivoting and having a great time, until Justin, our teacher, came over. He was laughing. He touched me lightly on the shoulder and said, “Just stop for a minute, Arjuna, and take a breath. Start over and let the music move you.” My moment of dance triumph was instantly reduced to a moment of humiliation. But that is exactly what I was there for.
Half an hour later, Justin wanted to demonstrate something and picked me to be his partner. The thing he wanted to show us seemed complicated—something to do with syncopated rhythms—and I was lost. We were moving together across the floor, and I knew that I was completely out of rhythm: clumsy and awkward. I could not keep up with him; it was a disaster.
It was then that he said, “Now this is it, now we are in the groove…yes, yes, yes, that is it!”
We took a break a few minutes later. Light bulbs were popping in my head like I was at a celebrity wedding. When I thought I looked great and had mastered what I was doing, I actually made myself into a joke. But when I felt most clumsy, most out of control, most incompetent, that was when everything started to come together.
Then I started to reflect on the work I do with clients as a coach. It is actually all about this same thing: supporting people in getting out of their comfort zones, out of their well-rehearsed confidence, and into the discomfort zone—where the magic can take over.
Every few months, I offer a “Radical Brilliance Laboratory” where I have clients stand at the front of the room and speak to the group. The results are always the same. When people feel relaxed and comfortable, speaking as experts with great authority, the energy drops, people start yawning or glancing at their phones. But it is in those moments of zero confidence, when someone is close to tears or shaking with nervousness, that everyone else is on the edge of their seat, not wanting to miss a word or a gesture.
I’ve had a lot of practice with sounding good with words, in a blog post, video, or with a live audience. I know how to seduce people with my well-polished poetry and displays of verbal emotion.
But when given a throbbing beat from the streets of Cuba or Puerto Rico, you can’t fool anybody. And that’s why I love to dance—the body cannot lie. Either you find the courage to jump off the cliff and let the music give you wings, or you stay standing on solid ground feeling smug in your body of concrete.
I dance for the moments when I feel most like a fool. Glory, glory be to the discomfort zone.
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