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

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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.


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.”


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’

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