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Learning to dance in South Korea softened the tight hold I had on myself

I believed that dancing wasn't the right hobby for my body shape, now I realise how wrong I was.

28 Jan 2022

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Hana, dul, set! My introduction to dancing was in Korean. Surrounded by teenagers in a beginners’ hip-hop class, the teacher would count down and we’d do our best to step in time. Being 25 at the time and one of the few black women in Gwangju, a small South Korean city, I was desperate not to stand out any more than I already did. So when the teaching assistant made a habit of singling me out as someone needing extra guidance, taking her time to show me the intricacy of every step, whilst others raced forward: it pissed me off. I wanted to be right and I wanted to be in control, but all I could do was have a meltdown.

I had been in Korea for a few months teaching English when I decided to start a new hobby. I settled on dance, thinking it would just be a fun workout. For the two years I lived in Korea, I took classes twice a week. I became fitter, more flexible, and improved my choreography retention and fluidity. However, the experience shook up many feelings that I didn’t know I’d been holding inside. 

I wanted to be right and I wanted to be in control, but all I could do was have a meltdown.”

When I was seven, I loved to dance. I strutted unabashed around the playground, making up routines to ‘No Scrubs’ by TLC or whichever Spice Girls song was being played on the radio. But when puberty hit and my body took on a life of its own, I left dance behind because I felt sexualised by others. I imagined the dancers’ bodies to have soft lines and feminine grace, whereas I was perceived as ‘thick’.

I am ‘thick’. I’ve learned to love it, but the attention it drew to me when I was 13 both sickened and delighted me. I vividly recall the day I walked home in my school uniform, and a man pulled up in his car to ask for my number. He said he was 25, and I said I was 13. He said he didn’t care. I remember how my horror was tinged with glee. He’d chosen me. Thankfully, I was too scared to give him my number at the time, but this moment triggered something new in me. I began to see my body as something I didn’t own and sexuality as something that was projected onto me by others. 

“I imagined dancers’ bodies to have soft lines and feminine grace, whereas I was perceived as ‘thick’”

When I hit my early 20s and decided to regain control and ownership of myself, I became a daring person. A risk-taker. Someone who would easily decide to pack her world into a suitcase and start a new life abroad. It gave me a lot of power. I felt I was always in control, always that bitch in charge. It was to the detriment of my relationships where ultimately, my controlling nature would stifle the other person.

It was on the coattails of this energetic shift that I found myself standing in front of a mirror in Joy Dance Academy in South Korea. I was looking for a new challenge. What I didn’t expect was to feel immediately exposed. Vulnerable. It made me angry. I was getting comfortable choosing things I was good at, but choreography was too difficult. It required me to bend my body in new ways, in time to music, and remember which step is coming next, all while not falling over. It hurt my pride that it didn’t come naturally to me. 

Dancing softened me. It softened the tight hold I’d always had on myself”

But still, I kept going. Twice a week. I started to appreciate the extra help and even asked the teacher for it before she offered. Instead of rebuking myself, I laughed at myself if I fell out of a turn or ended up facing right whilst others faced left. Dancing softened me. It softened the tight hold I’d always had on myself. And this translated into other areas of my life, too: I grew more comfortable asking others for help and letting others in. Exposing my vulnerability came with a new kind of strength and a reminder that I’m not alone.

Shortly before the pandemic, I moved back to London and put a pause on my dancing, but I started up again last summer. I’m currently taking ‘Heels and Feels’ classes at Base Studio in Vauxhall. This current style is teaching me how to step into femininity and sensuality without fear. I’ll be honest: I’m still a control freak and dealing with that is clearly going to be part of my lifelong journey, but dance also continues to teach me how to let go.

There’s a beauty to learning a new skill as an adult. Not only does it empower you to deepen your understanding of yourself, but it also gives you the chance to begin again. Taking dance classes as an adult has helped me rediscover the openness and curiosity I once felt as a child; it feels good.