If your high school was as lame as mine – and I’m betting it was – then you might know the exercise in humiliation that is Air Band. If you are not familiar with it, Air Band is a competition whereby various groups stand on stage wearing badly made costumes and dance and lip-sync to terrible music. At my school it was a competition between grades. Normally this is the sort of thing I avoided like it was…well, like it was Air Band. But my girlfriend was in it. That meant I was in it too.
Each grade was assigned a musical decade. The sophomore class got the 70s. The segment my girlfriend and I were in was Motown or disco related, or something like that. I don’t remember what song we “performed,” or how we did it. During the lead up to the performance I was terrified. I didn’t have stage fright, exactly. I’ve always been comfortable talking or performing in front of crowds. But I did not like to dance, and it blew my mind that people in the 70s didn’t find their outfits embarrassing at the time. My only consolation was that my best friend also got roped into it and the prospect mortified him and strongly as it did me.
He dropped out the day before the performance.
My only job on stage was to dance next to my girlfriend for two minutes. I told myself over and over that I could do that. It was quick. It was simple. Realistically, it had a less than 30% chance of actually killing me. Those were pretty good odds. None of it helped. I wanted desperately to back out, but they already had to scrounge for someone to replace my friend who won’t be mentioned but might have just recently had a baby. I wasn’t sure how angry my girlfriend would be at me if I ditched. I did know exactly how sad she would be. That was much, much worse. So I went ahead.
As the curtains opened and the music swelled I clinched my jaw so tightly it ached for days. Everyone around me started to dance. My girlfriend looked over at me, her eyes alight with anticipation. I just froze. I couldn’t dance in front of these people. It was too humiliating. So I just stood there. My girlfriend danced, and the other girls danced, and each of their partners dance. And I just stood there. The godawful music pounded away. I saw my girlfriend’s tense look through her forced smile.
A few very long minutes later it was all over. I never had to do that again. I was tense and achy and emotionally exhausted and very, very relieved. What’s more, I had gotten through it without having to dance in front of anyone. I ignored the problem and it actually went away. I covered up my fears with a blanket and hid in a trashcan. I beat the system, and the best thing was there would be no consequences!
We left the stage and sat down to watch the rest of the Air Band. All I could think about was my decision not to dance. I couldn’t have paid attention even if I had wanted to. There was a YMCA that was just as respectful as you might imagine, and some senior girls with skimpy shirts, and someone doing Bananas in Pajamas. The whole thing took about forty more minutes. Four minutes after it was all over I was made to regret my decision.
I was barely out of the auditorium when a few of the seniors, still dressed in their Bananas in Pajamas costumes, came up to me in the hallway and told me they “really loved my dancing.” I pretended there was a chance they were being serious. Willful ignorance is a nerd-superpower in high school. I tried to ignore them.
During the next few days I was barraged with insults and mockery that I could not ignore. Those days were…not so fun. I chose not to dance like everyone around me was doing order to avoid embarrassment. In so doing, I made myself the biggest jackass in the entire Air Band performance, an event basically designed to let people get on stage and look like jackasses in a socially acceptable manner.
A few days ago I went to a climbing gym with my friends. I really wanted to do it, but it was a new experience and therefore it made me nervous by default. I am exponentially more experimental and outgoing than I was in high school. But that nerdy kid who wouldn’t dance is still in here, and in uncomfortable situations he takes over the show. As I sat in the locker room and put on my gym shoes, I considered going out there but not doing any actual climbing. I didn’t know how to climb, and I was worried I would look like a jackass. Everyone would identify me as Club Footed Outsider, throw their sweat socks at me, and sing camp songs about what a colossal asshat I was.
That’s when I remembered Air Band. None of those people out there cared whether I could climb. Even if they were all experts, even if new people rarely came into this gym, they wouldn’t be paying attention. In fact, the surest way I could think of to make sure I did look like a jackass, other than taking my pants off and streaking around the gym – which I only seriously considered for a few minutes – was to stand around and not do any climbing. In other words, trying not to look stupid is often the best way to make sure that you look really really stupid.
So I put my shoes on and I went out there and climbed. And you know what? No one pointed at me the whole night. Even when I landed on my leg badly after my very first climb and spent the rest of the night groaning and limping like a jackass. Because you know what? I am kind of a jackass. Honestly, it’s a big part of my charm.
Dancing badly on stage is not going to change anything.