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Confessions From a Dance Teacher: My Students Taught Me the Power of "Thank You"

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Hardly anyone writes thank-you notes anymore. But sometimes it's just not OK to send a text, and there are two notes I've been meaning to mail the good old-fashioned way. I know most people say it doesn't matter anymore, but I don't think that's true. What's true is that it is easy to stop remembering what matters.

It's not like I believe there is nothing like the good old days, I don't. In too many ways they weren't. But each day I'm trying (vigorously!) to balance my embrace of change with the unwise choice of embracing too much of it, blindly. But I'm getting ahead of the story here. So let me back up.

I was 23 when I taught my first beginning adult dance class in a rickety room above Dollar's Garage on Water Street in Port Townsend, Washington. It was an effort to keep myself from moving too fast for beginning students, but I enjoyed the challenge. I chose music measured enough for students with less experience to enjoyably make their way through. Except, clearly, it was still too fast.


Two of my students, Leslie and Chen, (both in their mid-30s, possibly early 40s at the time), were the best sports in the world. And the worst...well, the only good thing you could say about their technique was that they tried. At recital time, I choreographed a simple sequence for them, cross walks in a circle, but who was I kidding? The steps are adorable for children to present, but it's a toss-up whether people would love adults for trying, or drop their heads in pity.

As recital drew nearer, Leslie and Chen's smiles tightened to mirror what they were feeling inside. When I asked if they'd like to run the ticket sales at the door instead of performing, I could tell they were as relieved as I was. "We're all best at something," said Leslie, with her arm around Chen's shoulders. They'd become friends outside of class, and it made me happy to feel like the catalyst for bringing them together. We all need friends for support.

One evening I heard Leslie say to Chen, "You say she's your friend, but when I hear you talk to her, you don't even sound like yourself." It was such an intimate thing to say, I remember turning my back to give them their privacy.

"What do you mean?" Chen said.

"Like when you said you thought Aaron (the only man in our class) was weird, just because she thinks so, when you don't even feel that way. You love Aaron."

"I don't like to make her mad," Chen said.

"So what if she does get mad, if it's how you really feel? At this age, you decide one of two things, to tell the truth the way you see it. Or tell hers."

I didn't know if Leslie was referring to Chen's mother, sister, daughter or friend, but I didn't need to know.

"I'm not like you. I don't need to be right all the time," Chen said.

The look that came over Leslie's face was suspended. It waited still and silent while the insult made its way though. And while I feared there might be words, Leslie's answer was a patient one. She did bring her face closer to Chen's, though, before saying, "No, but does that mean you need to be invisible?"

Chen walked away. A few seconds later, she turned back to say, "You coming?" But her voice was warm when she said it. I have a photo of them taken at recital. Chen's arms are clasped around Leslie's back. She is peeking out from under Leslie's right shoulder and they are both laughing. The look on their faces told me things about friendship I was just beginning to understand: that there is dependable honesty between friends—if we're lucky.

I suppose there are some conversations you never forget, and don't ever want to. Leslie and Chen prepared me for a lifetime of risky truth-telling, one of the most difficult demands of all on a friendship. In that sense, they turned out to be my teachers.

And what's lovely is that I finally get to thank them properly. Pen to paper. Next to nothing on my part, but, oh yes, it matters.

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