I was a learning disabled child who had difficulty in visual and auditory perception, knowing left from right, and motor coordination. This story describes how it felt to learn to dance. I took the classes between the ages of seven and eleven, before my coping skills were well-developed. Hopefully, readers will gain a better understanding of what it’s like to have this handicap, and how it affects the emotions and relationships with other people.
What was dance class like? My father drove me to the studio. I’d enter the cool dressing room and change into my leotard. I loved its smooth feeling against my skin.
Then the class lined up. I stayed in the back to follow another student. The teacher led us in warm-up exercises. Music played. We sat down and spread our legs apart and bounced up and down. We knelt down and brought our arms around in a circle, like a windmill. We stood up and did a routine of kicks and bends and steps. It moved too fast for me, but I tried to do it.
Then we stood at the bar with our heels together and our toes out (first position). Then we’d “plee-ay,” bending our knees as far as they’d go. We learned the other four ballet positions.
Sometimes, we’d sit in a circle and the teacher would beat a drum with random beats. We listened and tried to repeat the beats the way he did them. When the class did it together, I’d watch the student in front of me. When it was my turn, it was hard. I couldn’t remember as many of the beats as the other students.
We did lots of exercises. The teacher didn’t yell at me as often as most of my other teachers. He often said “very good”. The problem was that he said “very good” to the other students more often than he said “very good” to me.
Sometimes, I talked back to the teacher. Once he told us to get into a ball and uncurl gracefully as if we were butterflies coming out of a cocoon. When he said I wasn’t graceful, I told him that my science teacher said that butterflies came out of cocoons very slowly and sloppily and could hardly fly at first. Actually, I didn’t really know what “graceful” meant.
My body didn’t do what it was supposed to do. It felt far away and I’d reach and concentrate to get my heavy, awkward arms and legs to move correctly.
Sometimes, the teacher would say “Dale, don’t do that. Do this instead”. He’d show me what I was doing wrong and then show me how to do it right. Why did he do the same thing both times? I couldn’t understand it. Now, I know that I couldn’t visually perceive the difference. But back then, I thought he was fooling me.
I took the beginner’s class two years in a row. Then, in the intermediate class, I couldn’t keep up. We learned a dance called “Greensleeves”. I couldn’t memorize the steps. I did fine while he taught us each step, but they wouldn’t stay in my mind. We weren’t learning in rows anymore, so I had to dance without anyone in front of me. I couldn’t remember well enough to practice at home.
As a child, I had learned not to show emotion. I never cried, but always felt tears behind my eyes. Sometimes, in class, a few tears would squeeze out of the corners of my eyes. It released the pressure and felt very good, especial the coolness of the tears on my cheek. But I didn’t want anyone to notice. Nobody said anything about it.
I was embarrassed so often, I was numb to the feeling.
When I couldn’t keep up with the intermediate class, they let me take the beginner’s class again. I enjoyed it, because the routine was comforting and finally, I could do many of the steps. But, I felt ashamed of having taken it so many times and of being in class with younger children.
Later, I took both the beginning and intermediate class at the same time. I didn’t know how to practice. I just concentrated in class, doing my best to follow the teacher and the other students. It seemed as if I did everything wrong, but I knew that if I worked enough, I’d occasionally do it right. The third time I took the class, I was allowed to perform in “Greensleeves” for a recital. I was excited.
I remember wearing my costume and waiting my turn, afraid that I’d make a mistake. Finally, we went to do our steps. Carefully, I walked out on tip toes, following the student in front of me. Then, all of us had to jump three times while “scissoring” our legs. Then we had to meet the other students and touch their hands across from them. Was I relieved when I met the right student! Then we went back to our original places and did more steps. Finally, the dance was over. I had not made any errors! I wanted to jump up and down and shout with joy, but I knew better.
I went behind the curtain of the dressing room to change my clothes.
“Dale did well,” I heard someone say, “But she wasn’t in rhythm to the music.”
The happiness turned off, and again, I felt tears pressing hard against the corners of my eyes. I blinked hard to be sure they didn’t creep out. I hadn’t done it right after all.
How I needed a shoulder to cry on at that moment. I deserved to feel pride for overcoming a handicap that nobody knew I had. But the reality was that my performance was still significantly poorer than the other students. So, as usual, I was made to feel ashamed at a time which should have been one of triumph.
Behind the shame, there was anger. At that time, I couldn’t feel it. But unconsciously, I knew that I should have been respected.
It is these strong emotions that lead many learning disabled boys to act out. However, as a little girl, this was not an option for me.
I’m glad that I took modern dance, though. The perceptual-motor training helped me. My dance teacher was more helpful than many of my other teachers. I’m not sure why or how, but I think he cared for me and tried to help me learn.
And caring helps learning disabled people most of all.