I have noticed a dance in the human race, a dance that is often unconscious and effortless. Once you learn the rhythm your are set to go; you will will always be able to know the steps to a particular tune no matter how long it’s been since you last heard it.
My dance began at age six; when my parents packed us off to live in Swaziland. The tunes I heard as a second grader were very distinct and initially hard to understand. The first song I learnt was called Racism, I learnt that the colour of my skin was highly significant in placing me on the social dance floor. It earned me a place in a class at school reserved for black local kids. However, this song was swiftly overtaken by another more complicated tune called Xenophobia. Wow, to a six year old I struggled to even pronounce the term – and so I was given the less technical version of ‘Shangaan’ which as some would know was a popular song back then.
Due to my Zulu sounding name, I was classed in with local ‘ordinary’ Swazis, however, due to my fair skin, hair texture and nationality, I was removed from the class and put in the ‘mix masala’ class where the rich Swazis, Coloureds, Indians, white and ‘other’ kids were grouped. Mind you this was the early 90’s and this kind of thing was not really out of the ordinary in this part of the world.
Not understanding this phenomenon at first, I later learnt that these factors; skin tone, wealth and language are strong determinants of where one can dance in society, and they evidently teach you how you are expected to dance within the confines of that social environment.
After mastering how to maneuver around these two techniques for several years (racism and xenophobia), I found myself back in my ‘homeland’ at age 12. I came back expecting to sashay back onto that dance floor and pick up where I left off. Sadly, I discovered that my dance moves were completely alien to this scene; I perceived that my foreign accent, my clothes and especially my worldview were not well received. I was dancing to a completely different song using dance moves that were unknown to this new world.
At first I convinced myself that I could fake it till I made it, I tried my best to relearn my language and speak it without an accent, tried to catch up with the acceptable form of dress, I never told anyone where I’d been living, but all to no avail. My dance moves labelled me an outsider, a foreigner in my own home. So, I stopped trying to change the steps I had learnt, instead I began to learn new ones.
High school; four girl’s boarding schools in four years. I learnt a lot! Through the expected hard knocks of adolescence, bullying, parents’ divorce, alienation, confusion, through all the different people I met while moving schools across the country from far north to deep south. I learnt to trust the dance steps I had learnt as a child; my skin colour this time allowed me entry into most society dance floors, and yet when I opened my mouth-my language (accent and fluency in English) prohibited me from actually taking part in any dancing. I could come in, but not belong.
So, yet again I maintained what dance steps I had learnt, and focused my energy on learning new ones and reluctantly accepted the role of outsider. Since I spent so much time on the sidelines watching everyone round me share their mutual enjoyment of identity and belonging; I had plenty of time to observe their dance moves, integrate some of what I saw around me into them and create new ones. I spent a lot of time reading about other societies in Europe and England, I even attempted to teach myself how to dance to their music.
Seventeen years and eleven months after I was born, I moved to Nottingham, England. My favourite and most pleasant dance floor so far. Over there I discovered that they had no entry requirements for me to fulfill before being accepted and allowed to dance in their arena. Thanks to the many millions of ‘outsiders’ that had been there before me, this society had decided to incorporate all kinds of people and cultures, regardless of their skin, language, or nationality. I was in paradise!
Finally able to express myself fully in an environment that did not judge me first-then ask questions later. I could fit in to any dance circle be it school, work, church, friends, they did not comment on my accent or shun me because of my being different. Here I learnt how to move like a Jamaican, Zimbabwean, Kenyan, Nigerian, St Lucian, American, British-Londoner, British East Midland-er, I learnt their cultures, their language, their slang, and they learnt mine. It was a free dance floor, a welcoming one and one that I will forever cherish for its richness and kindness.
A brief stop over in the homeland at age 22, just to be reminded of that dance floor’s dis-interest in me. But this time I was prepared. I reserved my new found rhythm and steps, instead I went straight to the wall and took notes, learning what I could from an observer’s point of view without taking part.
The biggest move in my life came at age 23, I moved into the most complicated, frightening, fast paced, and clearly demarcated dance floor of all time. I moved to Cape Town, South Africa!
Over here, everyone has an assigned song, dance, and place in which to dance. They all know the rules, and they all follow their assigned posts and function fairly well. If England felt like the Carnival with its mixture of flavours, this felt very much like a Police marching band! Now my skin was not just one factor; but the tone of it coupled with the texture of my hair determines who says hello to me and in what language, my accent and fluency in the English language also determines how long a conversation will last as well as who would be willing to engage me in such a way. It was a tremendous shock to the system; I didn’t know where to stand, what was allowed and what was not, I had no idea what the rules were, I became paralysed.
After several years of floundering around from one end of the dance floor to the other, I did what I had been doing all along across most the countries I’ve lived in; I went to the wall, stopped dancing and started learning. I learnt that Couloured people in Cape Town have a specific dance, they move in a particular way that is recognizable in their own community; the same applied to the black and white community, although the white locals consist mainly of white European and Afrikaans which are very different in culture as well as language. To an outsider coming from a totally different these differences are a shock to the system.
I soon learnt that there was no way for me to integrate like I did in England. The foreign locals were not any different, you will find cliques of French, Nigerian, Zimbabwean, and Malawian locals, sticking together through either religious or social circles. I found again that I could not join in any of them. My dance moves were not distinctive, they didn’t fit in to any of the groups in this strictly organised social dance. I tried to get out-move cities again in case there would be better music elsewhere; I tried to look for what I had in England to no avail, this place is a different planet.
Six years on, I find myself in a smooth rhythm, my own rhythm. It turns out that one doesn’t really have to dance to the socially prescribed music in the socially prescribed way. All my life I thought that in order to get along and be liked by people around me, we had to be the same or at least move in a similar rhythm. Because I moved around so much in the past, I have become an expert at learning about any new society I found myself in as quickly as possible; I became even more sensitive to social norms and expectations than what ordinary people would bother to be. I suffered rejection, dejection, and self ejection from any group that I tried to join where my efforts were fruitless. In the end, I belong to no group, no formal dance floor but my own.
Perhaps this knowledge comes with age, at 29 years and 3 months on planet earth; I have finally come to know that the only rhythm I need to learn and know how to dance to is my own. You see, I have been developing my own rhythm throughout my life in all the places I have been, taking elements from each culture, each society and each experience. Storing up all that knowledge, not using it because I believed it was not right. Yet now I see, it is perfect, it is what I need to be in order to be authentic. I don’t need to judge myself by skin colour, accent, features, and my nationality, I don’t need to ‘belong’ to any social group in order to be myself. Yes, I can dance to the beat of the songs around me, in my church society, in my school society, my many different friends with their own different songs and dances. But, I have only one dance floor where I truly belong, and that is in me.
Maybe you find yourself in a place in your life where you are dancing to society’s beat. Ask yourself, is the music you hear coming from your heart?