First of a series looking back on my first year of breakdancing.
People often ask me why I started breakdancing. "Spite," I usually reply, because if there's one thing I've learned in life, it's how to set up an attention-getting device.
In early 2009, a friend of mine in the non-profit sector invited me to a book club run by a group of D-list conservative pundits and professional think-tank employees (average age: 65 million years. Like the dinosaurs. They were old, is what I'm saying here). It was exactly as awful as it sounds. On the other hand, they served free pizza and it gave me stories to tell. Still, by the last meeting, I was fed up with the discussions, with the topic ("civic religion," which made me feel like Groucho Marx: whatever it is, I'm against it), and with the majority of the participants. So before it wrapped up, I decided to pick a fight.
For the last class, in addition to discussing an Ursela le Guin short story, the organizer told us that we'd round out the experience by singing patriotic music as a group. When my turn came, I said that I hadn't prepared any particular songs--that, in fact, I found most patriotic music to be saccharine and hokey. Instead, I noted that when I thought of music that was uniquely American, what came to mind were jazz and hip-hop: they're both musical forms birthed here (instead of derived from another country's folk music), they both emphasize individual expression within a collaborative structure, and most importantly, they define value in terms of improvisation and invention. All of which struck me as a pretty good description of the American national character, for better or worse.
From the room's dead-eyed stare, followed by its loud denunciation of my ideas, my parentage, and possibly my genetic material (for those members of the room that believed in that new-fangled "DNA" invention), you'd have thought I'd suggested replacing the national anthem with "Big Pimpin'." The rest of the meeting was pretty much derailed: petty revenge achieved! But the irony of it was that while I had argued sincerely, I wasn't really a jazz or hip-hop fan. I generally disliked the former, and never really listened to the latter. After I left the group, that kept bothering me. If I was serious about my argument, I thought, I really ought to put my money where my mouth was and do something about my near-total ignorance of hip-hop. A little bit later, I signed up for my first dance class at Joy of Motion in Bethesda.
I like telling this story for a couple of reasons. One is that I think it's genuinely amusing, and explains how a sedentary rock-and-roll type (read: suburban white boy) like me ended up dancing to hip-hop. But another is that it reminds me that there's no such thing as a bad motivation. I started b-boying because I needed to get more exercise, because I wanted to meet new people, and because it was part of a cultural tradition I wanted to learn more about. But yes, it was also partly out of spite. And that's okay.
Now granted, there are an awful lot of people out there who fuel their worldly interactions with spite, to no positive effect. You know these people: they're the ones who don't understand why certain words are off limits to their particular demographic, or who get upset when they need to press a button to continue an automated phone call in English. I've never really understood that, just as I don't understand people who, when they accidentally step on someone's feelings in a conversation, can't simply apologize and move on (seriously guys, it doesn't cost you anything to say you're sorry even if you're really not). Nobody would say that those are healthy expressions of conflict. Is it possible I've learned the wrong lesson?
The difference, I hope, between those cases and my own comes from the target for that anger. Striking out at other people from spite? Not productive, not cool--and yet, something that many people (including myself) do all too often. What I aimed to do instead was to direct my energies toward myself, using them to kick-start my self-improvement. The resulting experiences with breakdancing have been almost entirely positive: I'm in better shape, I've made new friends and discovered new music, and it's a great conversation starter. I've got lots of reasons that I'm going to stick with it. And yet, none of this would have happened in the first place if I hadn't gotten annoyed at a group of cranky old hip-hop haters. It's like the old saying: living well (or dancing badly) is the best revenge.