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On the Cusp of Inhibition

December 15, 2010

The 20-minute drive to Willcox Middle School from my temporary home begins just before sunrise. I watch the sky go from black to grey to blue to pink, orange, yellow. I am fixating on the sky when I notice the long gray ribbon undulating moving across it. Birds? Yes, birds! I see another ribbon then another, and another. Sandhill cranes!

The sandhill cranes winter by the thousands at the Willcox Playa, traveling from Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, Canada and northeastern Siberia. At sunrise they set off for nearby fields to feed. I look for them every morning—thin, gray, moving ribbons in the sky. Their formations are elegant and varied. Not strict Vs, but looser and shifting—sometimes a single rippling line, sometimes two curved lines that join at a cusp.

How inherently beautiful their flying is. How lucky I am, as a human, to witness. Their formations are purposeful, no doubt, but they’re not dancing for my sake. They probably don’t even know I’m watching. And even if they did, I don’t think they’d care.

The Willcox Middle School sits directly adjacent to the high school just south of I-10. It is a series of squat red brick buildings separated by concrete. There is a barely a tree on the grounds, which makes everything feel parched and frozen. In early December, the morning is frigid. I can see my breath.

I have five classes, four 6th grade science classes and one 7th grade art class full of kids who, I’m told ahead of time, don’t really want to be there. Linda Rothschiller teaches all five classes. She’s a small-framed woman with a big supply of hospitality. She greets me in the parking lot every day, escorts me to my classroom, and each day gifts me something—a croissant, a fruit smoothie, chocolate bar, hard candy.

My room is an art room at the far end of the campus. There is no heat and the floor is cold concrete. I keep my jacket on.

Willcox schools adopted a 4-day school week this year, which limits the time I have with the students. I decide to focus on movement basics with them and pull in some of their science content on natural disasters by week’s end. The sixth graders are eager to arrive and eager to participate. They do the warm-up with me easily, happily following along, laughing and enjoying themselves. They readily make movements to go with their names and are joyous about rolling and sliding on the floor and genuinely enthusiastic about making shapes with partners. Yay, I think. This is going to be fun.

And then the 7th graders come. They’re less eager. To put it mildly. Most of them are too cool to move. Too embarrassed, too shy, too full of a certain kind of attitude that doesn’t allow for rolling shoulders and hips and certainly not rolling on the floor.

A month or so ago, at Double Adobe Elementary, I marveled at the developmental differences between kindergartners and first and second graders. Kindergarteners cannot make a shoulder-to-shoulder line, much less three of them in a row, without adult assistance. Nor can they make varied shapes and poses with their bodies on their own—they need to copy an adult. But by first grade they can line up in formation relatively quickly, find their own poses and hold them, and even memorize steps to a dance. In less than a year they gain spatial awareness, physical motor skills, and muscle memory.

Here I marvel at the developmental differences between 6th and 7th graders. But it’s not a progressive development. It’s more like a regression. The 7th graders have not forgotten how to move, they simply refuse to. Arms fold on the chest. Legs cross. Heads turn down. Eyes avert. Faces wince.

I know better than to make them do the same activities as 6th graders, so I opt for a basic warm up and then go for simply teaching them social dances I know. Salsa? Merengue? Samba? The Charleston? I start with Samba Reggae, which is relatively fresh in my mind and has some easy steps. Of the 30 students in this particular 7th grade class (!), I end up with about 12 who are willing to move. Half of these are cool girls who probably have taken dance class before. The other half are dorky boys. Hallelujah for dorks. All the rest sit out, too cool for school.

A handful of brave 7th graders dance. The too-cool ones sit out.

I manage to teach a short combination of samba reggae and the willing seem to enjoy it, though it can’t be all that easy with the too-coolers in the back laughing. I commend their effort and promise them that later in life all the cool people become losers and all the dorks become cool. Their teacher backs me up. It’s true, is it not?

Against the apathy of the 7th graders, I put more attention on the 6th graders. I notice how they come into the room with enthusiasm, how they pay attention to me, listening for directions. I watch them spin and slide. During one class, I lose myself for a moment watching a girl in pink slacks awkwardly spin herself around in an arabesque. It’s not necessarily a move filled with grace, but it overflows with effort and earnestness.

That’s it. Earnestness. The 6th graders have it. They go for it. They don’t hold back. There is no filter, there is no shame.

So what is it that happens between 6th and 7th grade? Why does the body close up and the mind take over? Why do we become so self-conscious? And why do so many stay that way forever?

I should add that while I’m willing to roll on the floor now as adult, I wasn’t exempt from the self-consciousness as a teenager. I remember my mortification when the apprentice dance company I was part of came to perform at my high school. I was 14. I didn’t want to perform. But I had to. I hated every minute of it. And I was a girl who loved dancing. But I was embarrassed in front of my peers.

Is there some evolutionary purpose for this adolescent body shut down? How does it benefit us to no longer be willing to dance, be silly, run, jump, play? Or is this purely an acculturated response?

Surely hormones have something to do with it. The biology of attraction. It’s suddenly important to appear sensible and presentable, the body thinks, in order to attract a mate. If we do the steps—or the jump or turn or slide—wrong, we risk appearing undesirable. Rationally, this doesn’t make all that much sense to me. Personally, I’m 100 times more drawn to someone who’s willing to slide across the floor than the one cowering in the corner. But I suppose the biology of attraction isn’t all that rational.

But if sex is the reason, why are teenagers so afraid to move their pelvises? When I introduce the crumping step (a quick bootie thrusting move), not one of the students is willing to do it. Again, is it the fear of doing it wrong? Or is it the overall discomfort with being seen as a sexual being, even if some part of the brain wants that? Or is it that our bodies are undergoing a massive change and have become utterly unfamiliar, even frightening, to us?

Or is it less about the body and more about the brain? During adolescence our thoughts become more sophisticated (believe it or not). We gain a greater capacity to reason and more control and coordination over our thoughts. That might explain why we’re more self-conscious. Instead of instinctively running or sliding or spinning across the floor, we now stop to think about it first, which allows plenty of time for the censors to turn on.

Those censors, of course, have everything to do with how we’ll be perceived by others. Friends are very important for adolescents. And which friends we have tends to influence what we’ll do or won’t do, be that studying drinking, smoking pot, or dancing. And because we’re so desperate to belong, most of us will pretend we like being drunk or pretend we don’t like dancing just to be accepted.

We want to join the flock. It’s safer to fly that way.

So maybe that’s the secret. If all the 7th graders danced, in one big flock, then no single one of them would have to worry about standing out.

I wish it were true. But people and birds are different. Sadly. Beyond just the flying thing, birds don’t care if they’re being watched. They don’t worry what others will think of them. They just do their thing.

This week the birds and 6th graders teach me about abandon. They dance like no one is watching.

Each day with them, my heart aches more for the unfortunate truth of that. One afternoon, as I watch the 6th graders move so freely, I think, “This is it. They’re right on the cusp.” I even cry a little.

Watching the 7th graders, self-conscious and too cool and missing out, I wonder, “Will they ever get it back?”

I hear often from people older 65 that the self-consciousness eventually drops away. We stop caring so much about what we look like, what we wear, what we say. We return to that child-like sense of earnestness.

I’m so glad to hear that. But does that mean we might spend the 50 years in between 14 and 65 missing out on joy because we’re too afraid what others will think?

Please say it isn’t so.

Lest we run that risk, here’s some advice given by my friend Jen Hoefle a few weeks ago. She was sending well wishes for the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Don’t forget the pelvic circle!” she said, moving her hips in a giant circle to demonstrate. “Cooking, setting the table, talking, pouring wine. It’s all more fun with a pelvic circle.”

She’s right.

Try it. Right now. Don’t worry, no one is watching. And even if they are, why not take a risk?

Do it for your 6th-grade self. For your 65-year-old self. For the birds. For Santa. For joy.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2010 3:13 pm

    Thank you so much for this insight! I am myself passing through a sort of transition in terms of my censors. Over the last few years, I have been purposefully distancing myself from the conformity which characterizes my major peer group (rancher/farmer/agfolks), and reconnecting with my freespirited inner hippie/artist/eccentric/eclectic/dork. I am now pondering how much of the puberty laden transition that you describe, and that I’ve experienced again through my teenage kids, Allie and Gordon, has played a role in this liberating process? Maybe the realization that one has more years behind than out front plays a role. Certainly distilling certain values and solidifying principles for a meaningful life play a role, but I think my kids are teaching me at least as much as I teach them. I’m giving myself the freedom to be me, and hope I can convey that same sense to others. I think you certainly are Kimi. Thanks.

    • Kimi Eisele permalink*
      December 20, 2010 2:33 pm

      Dennis, Thanks for reading! It does take a lot of courage to go down the path of nonconformity, at any age. Dork-ness tends to bring about much happiness once we land there, but it can be so uncomfortable along the way. That’s just it, we have to have the courage to be ourselves, sans censors. And, well, the beauty of it is that we always can reinvent ourselves…tho’ that can bring new challenges on the path. Someone recently suggested the theme for 2011 be Dorkadelic. I love that. Thank you for writing.

  2. Darcy Alexandra permalink
    December 20, 2010 11:07 am

    Given that the majority of 7th graders are resistant or hesitant to participating with dance in a physical way, maybe there are ways for them to appreciate dance and be involved in ways that might feel more comfortable during this developmental (and hopefully transitory :-) stage.

    For example, they could work in groups of two and explore and document dance through photography, moving image, writing, choreography, costume design and makeup and music. I know you are only one wonderful teacher and I dont know the resources of this school, but cellphones, a few stills cameras, video cameras, headphones, tripod, computer (with freeware like Garageband) are not too hard to stumble across. Faced with the tasks of how to document dance on film (where to place the tripod or when to go hand held) how to write about what they observe for the local paper or blog or how to create digital loops that express certain emotions or ideas, the more resistant, shy, uncertain students might find an inroad to appreciating dance and all the creativity that surrounds it.

    • Kimi Eisele permalink*
      December 20, 2010 2:30 pm

      Darcy, I love your ideas! This is a perfect argument for continuing the funding on this, and other arts-in-schools projects. These rural schools have limited access to funds, technology and forward-thinking teachers (though there are definitely some!), it is critical for voters to keep supporting politicians that support the arts and for visiting artists and classroom teachers to be creative to overcome the deficits. The next challenge would be finding the dance locally for them to document! Or getting enough time allocated, with less rigid schedules, for them to document the 6th graders (who, then, I fear, might not want to dance anymore because the 7th graders would be watching!). Thanks for reading!

  3. Kenya permalink
    December 20, 2010 4:38 pm

    So good, so good, so right on…thanks for the honesty, the explorations and the sharing! We have to ask ourselves as adults, where do the kids learn to shut down? In other countries/cultures (I was in Jamaica at 7th grade age), it was not cool if you wallflowered. The pressure was on to get in and dance, not to sit out. The adults around us (unless they served a church role interestingly enough) all danced with a pretty fun degree of abandon. Men too.

    • Kimi Eisele permalink*
      December 20, 2010 5:20 pm

      Yay for men dancing with abandon. And yes, our cultural norms here in America are very un-accepting of dancing with abandon. I keep hoping all those shows (Dancing with the Stars, So you Think You Can Dance etc.) might change that!

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