When I was three years old a gypsy, selling heather, stood on our front doorstep and told my mum I was going to be a dancer. Soon after, my mum enrolled me for dancing lessons.
My first performance was a tap routine in a yellow gingham skirt to ‘Windmill in Old Amsterdam’. My first and last performance. It seemed I wasn’t cut out for dancing after all. Which was less of a surprise, given my build, than the fact that my deeply religious mother took any notice of a fortune-teller in the first place.
Fast forward a lifetime to my New Year’s resolution in the year I was to turn 50.
I am going to learn to dance.
Drawn to contemporary dance, I persuaded a friend to join me at the beginning of a new term for the Beginners’ Contemporary Dance Class at Dance City in Newcastle.
Never have I felt so out of place. And yet never have I been so excited for the next class. And the next and the next and the next.
Two years on, and I still often feel way out of my depth. And yet I come out at the end of each class glowing. I have been transported into a wonderful world. I am changed. However, I’m no fool. I have to face the fact that I am by far the worst in the class each week (and so maybe that does make me the fool). The others are all young, flexible, fit, strong and all trained dancers.
Can I call myself a dancer yet?
I really don’t know.
It’s all about confidence
Martha Graham, who developed this glorious dance technique that I have come to treasure so much, said that it takes ten years to become a dancer. Ten years of hard work, turning up week in week out to give 100% in the studio. Two years in and I am merely scratching the surface. I will never arrive. I don’t think I’ll ever have the confidence to call myself a dancer.
Because it’s all about confidence, isn’t it?
I’m a writer. I’ve self-published two novels and co-authored a book about Martha Graham with my dance teacher. I get paid to write blogs. People read what I write. I’ve become comfortable with describing myself as a writer.
And yet a friend said to me recently: “I can’t understand how you have the confidence to call yourself a writer. I could never do that.”
Yes, that’s right, a friend said that. My friends and I believe in honesty.
Sometimes, there’s a clear line in the sand. Everyone is a son or a daughter. You’re either a mother or you’re not, a sister or aunt or grandma or not.
Some titles we pick up along the way. Wife, for example. That’s a choice, a commitment, a role that we can enter into if we choose. The same with a profession – some of us become doctors, some teachers, some shop assistants, some accountants. The title comes with the job. It’s not something we have to agonise over.
How about a runner? Can I call myself a runner? I go out running. I’ve completed the Great North Run and the Blaydon Race. I call myself a runner. I’m comfortable with that. Even though I am a really bad runner. To more expert runners, my running is barely more than a walk. I call myself a runner and yet my friend that I run with cannot call herself a runner. There’s something in the word, you see, that implies a level of competence to her. If she calls herself a runner, she sets herself up to be something she is not, for others to say, “Call yourself a runner! Look at you! How do you have the nerve to call yourself a runner?”
Because the opposite of this confidence to sit with the label, is the enemy of confidence that is imposter syndrome.
– a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’ and the inability to internalise accomplishments.
It is imposter syndrome which poses the questions –
How do you have the nerve to call yourself a mother?
You play the violin, yes, but what makes you think that makes you a musician?
You write blogs, but does that really make you a serious blogger?
You like drawing, but you’ll never be an artist.
It is Imposter Syndrome that questions the positive feedback and medals and certificates and performances and praise and sense of achievement, convincing you that it’s all meaningless and you don’t really deserve it and, one day, you’re going to get found out and exposed for who you really are.
Imposter Syndrome feeds on our fear of what other people think. And will think. And may already be thinking. It erodes the enjoyment of what we are doing, pours water on the flames of our passion, undermines all that is good and life-giving.
It is Imposter Syndrome that caused me to ask my dance teacher over a cup of coffee last week if I should stop attending class, if I was making a complete fool of myself.
And he was amazed I was even asking the question. It was as if asking the question was in itself the foolish thing.
“You have every right to be in class. You are no different to anyone else. Everyone struggles with confidence and self-belief, whatever their ability. You are an inspiration. You inspire me. Your love and commitment for Martha and her technique shine through.”
I may not be able to call myself a dancer yet, but I will continue to learn to dance. Nothing is going to get in my way.
I can’t remember the day I felt able to call myself a runner and mean it. Or when I felt comfortable calling myself a writer.