It’s 20 minutes before the start of a hip-hop class at North Dallas’ Centre for Dance, and I’m sitting in my car having a mild panic attack.
When I pitched the idea of conquering my fear of dancing in public, I’d pictured myself following along to YouTube videos of routines like the Wobble—from the privacy of my living room. John McAlley, Spirit’s executive editor and my boss, gave me a reality check: “The point of this story is to get you out of your comfort zone,” he said to me one afternoon in his office.
So in the parking lot of the dance studio, I try, desperately, to get a handle on my heart rate. I can do this, I tell myself. I can do this. IcandothisIcandothisIcandothis. It’s no use. I am way beyond “out of my comfort zone.” But there’s no turning back now. I hope you’re happy, John.
Once inside the studio, I nervously introduce myself to the instructor, a five-foot-tall, and incredibly svelte, black woman dressed in a turquoise hoodie and stretchy pants. Mbange Ngaaje, or “Geena,” as she tells me to call her, is a lifelong dancer whose resume includes performing in Super Bowl XLV’s halftime show alongside a little group called the Black Eyed Peas. “Intimidated” doesn’t even begin to cover it—more like “scared witless.”
“Every-whap-body’s-whap-sexy-whap-is-so-different,” she says, hitting the tabletop between us for emphasis. “Just because one person does the hair flip and they feel sexy does not mean you’re gonna flip your hair and feel sexy. For you, it may be a shoulder pop.” Her words are encouraging—even though I don’t know what a shoulder pop is, much less how to execute one. I was about to find out.
A steady beat pulses through the classroom speakers as the group warms up with stretches and—by my approximation—about 10,000 crunches. The volume makes it difficult to hear the instructions, but on the plus side, it distracts me from the pain in my out-of-shape abs.
Geena, who’s pulled on a pair of heeled boots by this time, moves with natural grace and exudes an easy confidence that I immediately envy. But her attitude is contagious—and I’m catching it after just a few minutes in her presence.
The main event is a choreographed routine to Rihanna’s “It’s Raining Men.” Geena breaks it up into segments, and as soon as we get one set of steps down, she has us link it to the previous set. Repeat, repeat, repeat. By the time it all comes together, I realize that an unexpected, but welcome, sense of confidence has snuck up on me. When did that happen?
At the end of the lesson, we run the three-minute routine from the top. “If somebody’s watching, don’t worry—they just want to steal your moves,” Geena shouts out over the opening beats. And for once, I’m not worried; I’m too busy having fun.
After class, another student—whose moves I’d definitely wanted to steal—approaches me. “You were so good! You really looked like you knew what you were doing out there,” she says.
The compliment leaves me beaming. “Thanks!” I say, flattered and totally flabbergasted.
I stand a little taller as I walk out the door, knowing I’ve just redefined my comfort zone. Next on the list: perfecting that shoulder pop.