Dancing my way to happiness
Can acquiring a new skill make us happier? Edwina Ings-chambers thinks so, which is why many of us are yearning for learning
Edwina Ings-chambers on how learning a new skill opened her mind
It felt a little bit like Fame, if several decades on, waistlines a little wider, and relocated to London. But there we were, a group of 16 (very much) grown-ups, paying in sweat, as we tried to perfect our paradiddles (a rhythmic four beat, in case you don’t know). And we were all loving and giggling our way through it. Yes, in my late forties I’ve finally taken up tap dancing. It’s odd, really, that it’s taken me until now to learn something that has been in my heart for as long as I can remember. As the by-product of old Hollywood movie consumption I believe that if all were right with the world we’d tap dance our way everywhere. Why Tube it if you can step-ball-change it?
Yet somehow, I had never taken it up. I’m not even sure why not. Yes it’s hard to find a proper tap course for adult beginners in London; I eventually found mine at City Academy, and every Monday evening for eight weeks I lost myself in music and dance for an hour. And yes, I’m probably guilty of having had my head in my work too much for far too many years. On top of which, for decades, my spare pennies have tended to go on fashion – a Mulberry bag here, a Miu Miu dress there – or on evenings out with friends rather than self-improvement.
Then something changed. It could be that I went freelance and suddenly my time was my own. Or maybe I’m suffering from ‘stuffocation’. “We’re so saturated with and fatigued by material ‘things’,” says Ruby Warrington, author of the bestselling Material Girl, Mystical World. “Experience has become what makes us feel rich.”
But is something deeper going on, something more seismic? After all, the ‘experience’ trend has been on the rise in recent times: hot-air ballooning with a glass of Ruinart in hand or some expensive spa in the Himalayas for a spot of massage and soul searching rather than till-seeking on Bond Street. But so much of that can still feel manufactured, and I was feeling the need for something more nourishing, something that brought out a bit more of me in myself. By this I don’t mean education in the traditional sense (though I certainly don’t exclude that) but more a yearning to acquire a skill, particularly a creative one, and to become really adept at performing it. Certainly at City Academy, where they teach a variety of performing arts, they’ve seen a 30% increase in student numbers year-on -year for the past five years.
THERE ARE OTHER CLUES.
Kate Moss proffered one earlier this year when she explained about the kind of talent she was scouting for her own agency. It wasn’t enough that someone should have a pretty face; she’s looking “for characters. Like someone amazing-looking who can also sing and tap dance…” We are entering a new era, one that I call The Age Of Accomplishment.
I’ve noticed people around me becoming accomplishment focused, too. One friend, and mother-of-three, we’ll call her Bella, recently left her job in magazines to move into textile design – and took up pottery classes on the side. Her own giant vase now stands on her dining table and she has beautifully painted plates decorating her kitchen. For her too, life had been out of whack. Hers had been a glamorous-sounding – but not high-earning – role.
“I reached a point where I realised I’d worked so hard and put so much dedication into my job but, at the end
“I was feeling the NEED for something that BROUGHT out a bit more of MYSELF”
of the day, the company didn’t care about me. I’d been passionate about it but realised that passion often isn’t reciprocated by employers. So when I left I thought it was high time I put some of that effort into doing something just for me and I really wanted it to be creative, to channel that side of me.”
Then there’s yoga teacher Steph, who’s decided that it isn’t enough to help everyone else perfect their downward dogs, and that it’s about time she knew how to make a soufflé rise and has enrolled in a cookery course. And a PA chum who’s moved from flicking through interiors magazines and Pinterest, so is spending a week of her summer holiday on an upholstery course in the countryside. “I didn’t want to just keep reading about other people doing the things that interest me. I suddenly thought ‘Why don’t I learn to do it myself?’” She isn’t looking to make a career change out of it “but you never know”.
Warrington wonders if this obsession with creative skills could also be because “subconsciously we believe that the internet age, where we can access any and all information at the tap of a button, is making us dumb? Is it a bit scary to think we know less than our machines?”
Well, certainly my laptop couldn’t get up and do an impersonation, whatever the quality, of a Fred & Ginger number. I think screens come into it too, but in another way: getting away from them. Actually peeling ourselves off the sofa, away from Netflix and the edited highlights of other people’s Instagram lives and being far more present in our own.
It feels good to break free. There’s something about learning and being physical and creative with it that is totally engrossing and almost childishly liberating. I don’t think or worry about anything else when I’m at tap class. And as someone who tries to be as perfectionist as possible with my work, I’m more amused than anything with myself about making mistakes in dance class – so often getting it wrong is the key to getting it right. That in itself is immensely freeing, I’m so much less selfjudgemental. Then there’s practice at home to take me away from the telly and gadgets.
Because all this watching other people’s lives from the outside doesn’t appear to be doing us much good. It’s an issue looked at in
by Will Storr, published earlier this year. Storr points out we’ve only had around 10 years of social media – Twitter launched in 2006 and the first iphone selfie camera came out in 2010 – so the data on the topic is still young, but it all points to selfies and suchlike making us unhappy. “We’re surrounded by everybody else’s perfect moments which, of course, has a terrible impact on our sense of self: we, as animals, judge our own self-worth by comparing ourselves to those around us, we can’t help but do it.”
STORR THINKS I’M ONTO SOMETHING BY GETTING ACTIVE,
rather than passively observing others. “There’s a lot of psychological work that shows that in order to be happy we need to do something that’s meaningful to us,” he explains. “So there’s the idea of hedonistic happiness – taking drugs, eating chocolate, having sex. Then there’s eudemonic happiness, which is this Aristotelian notion that happiness is the struggle to achieve, the perseverance, the striving.” Plus, ‘personal projects’ are important; according to Professor Brian Little, who’s been studying this subject since the ’70s, we can define who we are by the things we’re doing and thereby measure our happiness, too. However, says Storr:
“You need to be getting better over the long stretch. So personal projects have two qualities: they have to be meaningful and you have to have some sort of efficacy.” Being active rather than passive has certainly brought me joy and a sense of mental and physical liberation. It’s exciting to be starting at the beginning and feeling proud of my progress. I’ll be keeping up my tap, though I think that now I know some of the basics – and still am at basic level – I’ll intersperse pitching up at the weekly group class at City Academy with more committed courses. I may even re-do my beginners course to really instil the fundamentals before moving on to the intermediate; in the school of life we can all learn at our own pace. These days my tap shoes are usually in my bag if I go away for a weekend so I can practise, and I watch Youtube tutorials to spur me on – and keep me from evenings sitting on the sofa.
I’m going to continue looking at the phone less and paradiddling more. I’m learning and literally enjoying every step of the way. I may trip up, but I haven’t felt this light on my feet for years. Edwina learnt to tap dance at City-academy.com
Edwina calls the era of the experience trend ‘The Age Of Accomplishment’