Immersion Therapy: Learning the Charleston

el-baile-dance-1436613There’s only one thing that terrifies a socially anxious person more than being in a room full of strangers, and that’s being in a room full of dancing strangers. I can only remember being on a dance floor twice in my life; I avoid them when at all possible, electing instead to hang out by the refreshments and gorge myself on M&M cookies and punch. There’s a name for this irrational fear of dancing; it’s called chorophobia, and it’s very common in those with social phobias.

A few days ago, my girlfriend Jenny asked me to go swing dancing. There was going to be a class where we could learn some basics before the night’s social dance. Seeing this as a wonderful opportunity to confront my fears head on, I promptly changed the subject. She didn’t let me get away with it. After a good deal of cajoling, I finally caved in and promised I would go with her, knowing it would most likely be good for me in the long run. And so, yesterday, I found myself timidly following her through the door of Old Town Yoga, where the classes were being held.

Upon entering, we were asked to take off our shoes and put them in the cubbies conveniently located in the most trafficked section of the entire building, right at the base of a stairwell. I handed my shoes to Jenny so I wouldn’t stand in anyone’s way, staring distractedly at the number 17 which had been inexplicably scrawled across my wrist by the man working the entrance. I took a few deep breaths. Jenny asked if I was okay. I nodded, and we started up the stairs together.

We arrived in a mostly square brick room with a hardwood floor. Three or four paper lanterns hung from the ceiling, intended, I presume, to tenuously insinuate some kind of connection between the studio and Asia. Trying to ignore the obvious conflation of Chinese and Hindu culture, I walked to the back of the room where I would feel most comfortable. The lesson began immediately after.

Our instructors appeared no older than anyone else in the room. The young man, the lead, as he’s called, was a Justin Bieber lookalike with more conservative hair and a squarer jaw. The young woman, the follow, was a short, curly haired blonde with a slight resting frown. The young man spoke first.

“How’s everybody doing?”
“Good,” came the broken reply.
“Today we’re going to be learning the Charleston, and I’ve only got an hour to teach you all, so we’re just going to jump right into it.”

I was clinging to Jenny for dear life.

“Alright, so all my leads I want you on this side of the room, and the follows can go ahead and move to the other side.”

So much for that.

I joined my fellow men and a lone brunette on our designated half of the room for the very first step of dance I would ever learn, the kick-step. The kick-step is an extraordinarily simple maneuver in which you kick one of your legs out in front of you and then, shifting your weight slightly forward, hop from your other leg, landing on the leg you kicked forward. I was terrible at it. We did a couple of kick-steps across the room and I slowly began to warm up to the movement.

“Alright, now I’m going to throw on some music and I want you guys to kick-step all around the room, and try not to run into anybody.”

After a short scuffle with the stereo, the soothing sounds of swing began to fill the room. Jenny smiled at me from across the dance floor as we kick-stepped about like a bunch of flamboyant Nazis. I smiled back. So far, so good.

Our lead turned off the music, and proceeded to teach us our next technique, the “1-2-3, shhhh,” which it turns out wasn’t actually part of the dance. After counting to three and quieting down, we gathered together into groups again, to learn our next step, the rock-step. This step was simple enough. True to its name, it involves placing a foot behind you and rocking back onto it while lifting your front foot up, then coming back to rest by rocking onto your front foot, this time lifting the back foot. I turned out to be much better at this step, despite inexplicably inching backwards with each one. We then put the two steps we’d learned together along with another, the back-step. I found myself whispering aloud as I tried to perfect the rhythm: a rock step kick step front and back step, a rock step kick step front and back step, a rock-

“Alright, everyone, I want you to find a partner.”

I scrambled to locate Jenny and stood beside her. Everyone encircled the two instructors, chiming in on the “1-2-3 shhhh.”

“Alright, so leads, I want you to take your partners by the waist, and – you know what, actually – let’s have all you leads rotate to the right.”

I turned to Jenny with a look of pure, unadulterated terror. She smiled. A big, compassionate, understanding smile, with just the right smidge of sadism. The adrenaline hit me right as I turned away, setting my head spinning. Unthinking, I extended my hand to the woman on my right and smiled. I knew it would be a thousand times more awkward if I didn’t break the ice.

“Hi, I’m Jake.”
“Emma, nice to meet you!”

We stood side-by-side and I placed my hand around her waist. She followed suit, placing her left hand on my shoulder as instructed.

“I’m terrible at this, so don’t expect too much,” she said.
“This is my first dance lesson ever,” I encouraged her, “you surely can’t be worse than me.”

We shared a laugh and turned to watch as the instructors showed us the proper steps of the tandem Charleston. It turns out it’s pretty much exactly like the solo Charleston, just with a lot more muttering and off-handed apologies. We practiced the rock-step kick-step combination a few times and switched to our next partner. It was a little easier this time.

“Hi, I’m Jacqueline.”
“Jake,” I responded, “nice to meet you!”

She took my hand and I placed my right arm around her waist, just as before.

“Now we’re going to learn breakaways,” the instructor said, excitedly.

The class responded with a few oohs and ahhs.

“I said – now we’re going to learn breakaways!” the instructor shouted.

A resounding ooh burst forth from the class, and we readied ourselves to learn the final step to bring our Charleston all together.

Breakaways are hard. Basically, you kick your foot forward and then bring it back while spinning a 180, and then finish it up with another kick-step. Then you do the same thing with your other leg, bringing yourself back to where you started. It combines all the balance required of tree pose with all the subtlety of a pogo stick. There’s also some finagling about with the arms to make sure you’re still connected to your partner, which I pretty much ignored. I practiced this a few times with Jacqueline, performing pretty terribly. Luckily she seemed more practiced than I, and was able to correct some of my mistakes before I moved on.

My next partner was Jan. Introductions were becoming much easier at this point, and we quickly became acquainted. She appeared to be in her late 50s, but had aged extraordinarily well. She was taller than me and had shoulder-length graying blonde hair. We practiced “getting out” of our breakaways this time, which amounts to taking a back-step after coming back to center instead of beginning another breakaway.

I rotated again, this time practicing the subtleties of leading and following. As a lead, one is supposed to make slight hand movements – suggestively pulling on the waist, or sliding the hand along the back and pushing away – signals which the follow is to pick up on so they know whether to move into a breakaway or simply continue in a standard Charleston step. This proved to be more difficult than I first anticipated. All of my concentration was focused on the movement of my legs, so the subtle hand gestures fell to the wayside. I introduced myself to Karen, Jordan, and Katie, dancing with each and improving my skills as a lead. Jordan and I shared a high-five after successfully making it through two full sets of steps.

We were now finally permitted to go back to our original partners. Jenny and I stepped to the back of the room to practice as the DJ prepared himself for the social dance. She congratulated me on saying hello to so many people, and helped me soften up some of the rough edges of my Charleston. We danced for about an hour at varying tempos, which really helped me solidify the steps. I even got pretty good at suggesting when we would switch to a breakaway.

Eventually, Jenny became tired and wanted a break. I didn’t want to stop. She recommended I ask one of the women standing around the edge to dance with me. I was having so much fun with my Charleston that I hardly had to think twice. I strode up to Jordan, making eye contact as I moved towards her.

“Would you like to practice with me?” I asked.
“Sure!” she smiled.

And we did.


I don’t think I’ve ever smiled so much in my life. I felt so confident and carefree. All of the social barriers common to everyday life melted away. I was surprisingly comfortable with placing my arm around total strangers, moving my body with them, and making mistakes. I shared more laughter and happiness with the people in that room than I have with anyone in quite a long time, let alone a group of strangers.

I found myself asking Jan to dance, helping her with her back-step. Suddenly, confronting people and sharing a moment with them seemed so easy and beautiful. Rather than joining those on the sidelines too terrified to ask someone to dance, I implored them to forget their fears and enjoy a moment with me. I wasn’t just asking them to dance, I was asking them to face their fears and anxieties, the very ones I shared.

For all of you struggling with social anxiety, perhaps you could find a friend and force yourself to try a beginner dance class like this one. It certainly won’t be easy, but you just might surprise yourself with how well you adjust.

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One thought on “Immersion Therapy: Learning the Charleston

  1. I loved reading this post. I don’t suffer from social anxiety but I do have generalised anxiety disorder and I can relate 100% to the fear of screwing up in front of other people especially. Thank you for this post! It was beautifully done. X

    Like

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