Escape your comfort zone: I only dance while intoxicated or alone. Can I face my fears and jerk off sober? | To dance

We are all programmed to dance, says Janette Manrara. “Babies can’t walk, they can’t talk, but put on a song and they start to wobble. One of the first things she did, growing up with a Cuban family in Miami, was stand on her father’s feet when he danced salsa.

You probably know Manrara for her role as a professional dancer in Strictly Come Dancing and for presenting her companion show, It Takes Two. She’s the real deal, and she’ll teach me how to dance.

Somewhere in me I know what it means to be programmed. Music is important to me, and when it’s the right kind of music, I feel the need to get on with it. But I haven’t made much progress beyond the oscillation phase. I never really felt comfortable – even comfortable – on the dance floor. The odds aren’t exactly in my favor: I’m a gangly, introverted Englishman, now 56 – maybe it’s okay to throw in the towel on this one and accept my place as a wilted wallflower.

But the problem is less the shape or age of my body, the more what’s going on in my head. It is about self-awareness and self-confidence, respectively too much and too little. I love to dance, but I worry about how I look when I do and what other people think. That’s why I usually only do this when I’m drunk. Or all alone. Often both in fact.

And right now, I’m neither. It’s noon, we’re in a bright dance studio in Fulham, West London, and it scares me. There are mirrors all the way up a wall – that’s not going to help self-awareness. It’s also a constant reminder of how much I am not alone. It’s not even just me and Manrara – Lucy from the BBC commercial is there, as is photographer David the Guardian, with all his stuff. “Forget he’s here,” Manrara said. “Dancing is not showing yourself, it is feeling a certain way, and as soon as you realize that you are not doing it for anyone other than yourself, you will look good dancing and you will appreciate it. “

We start with a little warm-up: jerking, loosening, head down, after which Manrara says I seem to have good self-awareness and I get a festive double punch. Now she’s going to teach me the basics of salsa. “Because salsa is the least technical, you don’t have to think much, as long as you can keep up with the timing. So don’t aim too high.

The steps I’m learning are less like the standard Latin dance moves you see on Strictly, but more like something you might see at a family party in Cuba. I’m happy ; take me to the family reunion in Cuba. “It’s not a performance,” she said.

First without music, she shows me: move forward, backward, close feet, backward, forward, close feet. Now, lifting your feet a little, oops, no, like that. Next to the right and to the left, the legs bent a little, less stiff, less like a salsa-robot.

‘Dancing is not showing off’ … Sam Wollaston with Janette Manrara. Photography: David Levene / The Guardian

What about my arms? I never know what to do with my arms. “Imagine playing the drums with your hands in front, elbows outward, and your hands going opposite your feet. And move your hips. She wiggles her hips, like a slalom skier. I stir mine, like a stumbling drunk. Hips don’t lie. But I think they can wait; no baby and all that.

Manrara then puts on salsa music, loud, but not loud enough to cover my inhibitions. Now she’s in front of me: “Don’t look down, or you’ll step on my feet,” she said. Where to look then? I’m not ready for eye contact; I sit over his shoulder.

OK, okay, it’s not that bad. But it’s a pretty special routine that Manrara taught me and that I was able to follow. But I also want to be confident, you know, just dancing, at a club (unlikely, these days, to be honest), at a wedding, maybe, daddy dancing to I Will Survive, Staying Alive or Thriller. .

“There is no right or wrong, it’s about letting go. When a song comes along that you like, forget who’s around, it’s about you; just be Sam. What’s your favorite song? ”My God, my favorite song, so…“ Your favorite style of music, so? ”Uh, I really like reggae? She puts on Can You Be Loved by Bob Marley and me said to close my eyes and relax.

That – with closed eyes – is a good thing. I’m not in a bright studio with a famous dancer on TV and a photographer from a national newspaper, I’m in a beach bar… Don’t let them change you, oh! Or even reorganize yourself! Oh no! And I’m starting to wobble, in a good way – well, in my own way, I don’t care if it’s good or not, remember? I still don’t know what to do with my arms …

“Put them in place!” Manrara said. What, in the air? I don’t think I’m doing that… well, maybe once, in Ibiza in 1987, but I’m not really the “hands up” type. So I wave them just a little – but then I hear David click with his camera, and I remember where I am and why I’m here, and that kind of ruins the moment.

Still, I get a double high five, and guess what: Manrara says I have a natural internal rhythm! Ha! Obviously she tells everyone, but I take it.

Anyway, back to salsa, and she wants to try one more thing. Remember the step: forward, back, closed feet, back, forward, closed feet, then sideways, sideways. But now she takes my hands … And it makes me embarrassed again. I should have mentioned the operation on my hand that I had a few weeks ago, the new scar. It might sound a bit odd and rough – is that why she recoils in horror? She doesn’t back down in horror, though – she’s going around in circles! Loosen your grip, she said. I see, to make us less sinuous, less like a wet towel being wrung out.

She turns again, this time with more success. I’m not gonna lie, I feel a little happy with myself, not that I have much to do with it. This leads to more kudos and a double high fives. “Own your length!” Manrara tells me. What does it mean? “It’s not being cocky or arrogant or thinking you’re the best when you walk into a room; it’s about loving and kissing you all. Own!”

Included: owns my length. And I have to promise to go out and dance more often. “Because it is truly a medicine for the soul and will confidently help you in all aspects of your life. Great, I think I’m the one who got healed then. As of today, no one is putting Sam around.

Janette Manrara hosts the Strictly Come Dancing Live UK Arena Tour, from January 20 to February 13.

Tickets are available on strictlycomedancinglive.com

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