In March of 2006, I attended my first tech conference. And while I came back invigorated, inspired and bubbling over with new ideas, I also realized that what I really wanted from a tech conference was to be on stage. Number one, there were not nearly enough women on stage. Or at the conference, for that matter. And number two, I was smart, dedicated, passionate, and I felt like I had something to contribute to the conversation.
But I didn’t even try to speak at conferences until the very end of 2011. Why?
Because I was ashamed of the way I looked. I didn’t want any attention paid to me or my body. I didn’t want anyone to look at me. This isn’t an ugly-duckling-turning-into-a-beautiful-swan type story where I tell you how I lost 100 pounds and now I love myself. This story’s even better.
What’s better than that? Being comfortable in your own skin. Loving yourself right now, just the way you are.
Three years ago, when a continuing education catalog from a local community college came in the mail, I flipped through it, wavered briefly between hula dancing and belly dancing classes, and settled on belly dance. I registered and didn’t give the class another thought until the reminder email the college sent letting me know the class started the next day. And suddenly, what had seemed like so much fun a couple of weeks before made me feel nervous and jittery. I half-decided not to attend the class and tried to push it to the back of my mind.
A half-hour before the class was scheduled to start, I changed into yoga pants and a t-shirt, the whole time telling myself that I was making a fool of myself and that I wouldn’t go. But I got into my car and drove across town. Then sat in the parking lot trying to talk myself out of it. The whatifs were out in full force. Whatif I’m the only fat girl? Whatif I’m not wearing the right clothes? Whatif I can’t do it? Whatif I look like an idiot?
Somehow, through all of that, I did get out of my car and make my way into the studio. I took a deep breath before walking in the door and let it out with relief when I walked in and saw a studio full of beautiful, real women of all shapes, ages, sizes, and colors. I crept quietly to the back row, unsure of myself and not wanting to be seen.
I made it through the first class, feeling clumsy at the new movements. Trying to keep track of what my arms and feet and hips were doing all at the same time. At some point during the class, our teacher, Jen, told us (and I’m paraphrasing here because it was three years ago) that it didn’t matter what we looked like, how much we weighed, or how old we were. That we were women, and that was enough – that made us beautiful, just the way we were. It might not have been the first time that someone told me that I was fine just the way I was, but it was the first time I really heard it. And not just fine. Beautiful. And it made me fall in love a little bit with belly dance the very first class.
The second class was a breeze. I was excited to get there and learn some more new moves I felt like I’d never have a hope of doing well. I didn’t care – I did it anyway. Then, at the end of the night, Jen told us to wear our hair up for next week’s class because she was going to teach us to lead. My heart froze in my chest and a giant lump of dread formed in my stomach. “Lead?!?”, I thought. “I cannot do that. No way, no how.” And I left class that night thinking that I’d never come back to belly dance class ever again.
And yet, I found myself sitting in the parking lot the very next week, having another argument with myself. I finally bargained myself into heading into class, but leaving immediately when we started to learn how to lead. Into the studio I went, taking up my place in the very back row. We reviewed what we’d learned, and then suddenly, we were learning how to lead and I hadn’t left. Then we broke into small groups to give it a try, and instead of bolting for the door, I looked at all the other girls and you know what? They were all just as scared as I was. We all exchanged nervous smiles and I realized that we were all in it together. Nervously, we took turns, laughing at ourselves when we made mistakes and muddling through the best we could. I was so busy trying to keep track of my head, my hands, my feet, my hips that I didn’t even think about anybody looking at me.
I’m still dancing. I’d like to say all that fear and nervousness are behind me. That I don’t mind attention. That I just look forward to laughing and dancing with gorgeous and talented women. Most of the time, all of that’s true. But there are still times I’m gripped with fear and nervousness on my way to class or rehearsal and have to force myself to show up anyway. There are times when I’m taking the lead, shaking like a leaf, and wanting nothing more than to assume a fetal position in the corner, but I do it anyway.
The thing that keeps me going are the other times. The times when I can let all of that go, and really feel the joy and the beauty and the power in my body and the way it moves. The times that I feel sensual and beautiful. The times that I feel the love and support from the other women I’m dancing with, lifting me up and holding me.
Something similar happens on a very different kind of stage at a conference too. The audience wants to see you succeed, and they are kinder and more forgiving than you might imagine. I still get nervous. Sometimes I get really nervous, and my hands shake and I laugh too much. But I do it anyway.
Learning to dance and pushing my body to do things I never would have believed it could do taught me a certain kind of stage presence. Sharing a stage with my dance sisters taught me a quiet confidence and how to be myself in front of an audience. At first blush, you wouldn’t think something like a belly dance class would be helpful professionally, but this dance hobby of mine has pushed my professional career into places I never thought I’d be brave enough to go. Perhaps stepping out of your comfort zone really is something you can practice and get better at doing. I hope so, because I don’t plan to stop any time soon.