When I started going to milongas I was horribly—and justifiably—nervous whenever I got up to dance. Here was this difficult thing that I didn't know how to do and I had to do it in front of all these people I didn't know who were much better at it than I was and they were all going to see when I screwed up. And I would bring shame and dishonour to the guy dancing with me and he would never ask again. God, if only all these people weren't here watching me, this might not be such a harrowing experience.
Then I started to get to know people. This was a double-edged sword. Getting to know people inevitably led to dance moments that I was more accustomed to sensing far away from the public gaze. And getting to know people also meant that these people who were watching me have moments I would rather have in private were my friends. I realized there was no “private” any more, and just like life in any small village, all my neighbours were going to know my business almost before I did and there was no help for it. God, if only all these people weren't here watching me.
Then I knew everybody and everybody knew me. The village aristocracy spoke to me in the market square and I did my ambassadorial best for visitors from other villages. Around this time I realized...wait a minute! Nobody is watching me! Perfect! That's how I want it! You don't give a donkey's uncle about me, because you're thinking about how to orchestrate your own evening. I can pretend you all are not here! I started to relax. I'd rather you weren't here, but you and I will both pretend you can't see me and everyone will be happy.
Then men and women I had never met before started coming up to me, introducing themselves, wanting to dance, wanting to chitchat, and the story was always the same. They had seen me around a lot and wanted to meet me. The men usually had some line like, “I've wanted to ask you to dance for a long time but you're always so busy,” which is invariably flattering, and the women usually had some line like, “it's nice to finally meet you, you're always so beautifully dressed,” which is invariably flattering. With charming people like this, what's not to love? But after I pin-pricked my inflated ego, I realized...oh crap, they can see me. Nuts. I guess I left my invisibility shield at home. I still was not understanding the vital role Everyone Else plays in my dance.
Eventually I decided Everyone Else was an unfortunate necessity and they would just have to put up with my letting the chips fall where they may, because if I couldn't be honest with myself, I couldn't dance, and might as well go home. But then recently I realized...Everyone Else is who makes the dance possible.
I'm always harping about the vital importance of community and how our bonds set us free and the more you belong to people the more you can be yourself. But I had to viscerally sense things differently in order to understand. And one night, I felt it. I felt the ring of bystanders (and bysitters) as a protective circle. “Don't worry,” the circle said. “You're safe. We're here. We're your peeps. We've got your back.” And I knew that nothing bad could happen inside the circle.
And...I...relaxed! That magical “r” word we're always pursuing, so elusive, without which no dance is possible. I included the public in my dance instead of resentfully excluding them. I realized I couldn't do it without them and I needed them. Just by being there, they were taking care of me. That guy over in the corner with his head turned whom I've never seen before, he's doing his part, and is part of my community. That woman pilfering the last cooky. My buddy over there with whom I will probably do a slapstick tanda later. And that guy I will pretend I can't see until conditions are favourable. I need every one of them in order to dance this dance, and they need me to dance their dances.
I have never needed external approval from anyone. But somehow this group sanctioning, or acceptance, or validation...whatever you want to call it...of this highly volatile activity takes some of the fear out of the process. It's going to be ok, no matter what happens out there. Because my compañeros are right here for me.