Flights give me a lot of time to think, especially since I have the unfortunate gift of never being able to sleep a mile above the ground. As I left the Gaborone, Botswana airport and began the long journey back home, I settled into my unconscious mind and attempted to unravel the amazing web of new experiences, people, and ideas I had been introduced to over the last seven weeks. Sifting through riotous volleyball matches in the Okavango Delta, millions of newly learnt impala facts, and a night under nothing but the stars, one thing stood out to me, something that I felt had taught me more than anything else.
My time in Botswana began with traditional dancing, and dancing has followed me through tents and past campfires, kicking up dust and leaving flattened grass in its wake. During my time here, I have had two very distinct firsts with dancing. The first time I watched, and the first time I became a part of the whirlwind of stomping feet and rattling ankle bands.
The first time I watched, I was entranced. Wide grins graced the faces of the girls dancing, and they moved with no fear. They were having fun. Members of the crowd let out long strings of ululation, showing their appreciation and joining the dance in their own way.
In the crowd watching, I found myself an outsider, unsure of what to do. I was certain there was some secret I wasn’t in on, some class I was missing on how to be a good Batswana audience member. I wanted to call out as well and join the ululation, but I felt as though there were invisible hands holding me back. Even pressed between bodies in the audience, sun beating down on my back the same as anyone else, I felt other.
It was a feeling that was familiar even without the cultural barrier. All those times I thought of something hilarious in class, before looking around and deciding to keep it to myself, all those times I wanted to do something ridiculous and put myself out there, but didn‚Äôt, couldn‚Äôt. That‚Äôs what I was feeling in that moment.
I felt the same hesitance the first time I got to dance. I was plucked from the crowd and led onto the stage by a performer, the eyes of my peers following me. The whole time I was stuck in what I though dance had to be, what I thought other people wanted from me. I kept my eyes glued on the feet of the performer next to me, trying my best to imitate her rhythm, her steps. As my feet started to stomp out a decent mirror of the performer’s movement, she whirled me to the back of the crowd, stopping me before I could carry on dancing.
“Move your hips,” she told me. “This is not dancing.”
For a moment, I felt like I had failed. I hadn’t copied her steps well enough; I was too clumsy, not good enough. But as we rejoined the rest of the group, I stopped looking at anyone’s feet; I stopped thinking about who could see me, or what they were thinking. I felt the invisible hands peel back, finger by finger, and I danced.
There are so many opportunities to dance, to learn, and to grow that the world gives us. The only reason we can’t take them is our own self imposed rules and expectations, the social constructs that have been thrust upon us since birth. Especially as a young girl, the world makes it so hard to live freely, without fear. I know I‚Äôve been told a thousand times to ‚Äòbe myself‚Äô, only to be shut down swiftly as soon as I show an inch of individuality. All our lives, we‚Äôve been conditioned to hide our interests, our opinions, our personalities, until they cease to be our own any longer.
However, what we can sometimes forget is that it‚Äôs no one else‚Äôs choice to decide how we act.
Until we learn to leave behind our own set of invisible hands, it is impossible for us to truly experience life.
While I was dancing that night, I felt as if I could breathe freely, as if a weight had been lifted off of my chest. My heartbeat sped up, and for once it wasn’t fear that I’d be judged, that I’d be punished for this moment of freedom later. It was an unfettered, unconscious and exuberant flood of joy, the thrill of being bold and living through it.
As I returned to my seat that night, my performer smiled at me. “Now that is dancing.”
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