The last two weeks of class before Spring Break were rough; it seemed like midterms and projects popped up one after another. And after my midterms over, toward the end of the week before break, I needed something to distract me from the drop my grades were going to take and put me into a positive mindset for Spring Break. 

I saw the posters for events at the Canterbury House called “A Night For Us: Colorful Soul” around campus. They showed artwork of a woman with a massive afro with the words “live music” and “poetry readings” above her. I had always wanted to go, but I never could because of an upcoming test or homework. Since my midterms were behind me, there was nothing stopping me. One of my friends, also searching for a distraction from the horror known as exam season, wanted to go too, so we met up and walked over to the Canterbury House together.

We could hear the music from across the street. After looking both ways, we ran across East Huron toward the Canterbury House. We came in and walked into the room where jazz was playing. There was a good number of people, but not so many that you couldn’t move around or felt claustrophobic, and everyone was standing up listening to the music — no one was staring at their phone or drunkenly teetering from side to side.  

As I looked around the room, I noticed how eclectic the group around me was. Most of the people looked like young college students, but there were also people in their thirties or forties. People wore everything from sweatpants to berets and oxfords. There were Black people, white people and Asian people. I didn’t feel any pressure to be a certain way, and I didn’t feel out of place.

That was one of the few times in college I didn’t act excited, though I actually was. I didn’t have to pretend like I liked the music that was playing. I wasn’t bored, or annoyed, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else.

Despite this, I wasn’t as comfortable as I would have liked to be. I wished I could be like one woman I saw there. She was on the other side of the room, smiling and dancing to the rhythm. It was like she was in her own world; she only looked straight ahead at the band and paid attention to the music.

She reminded me of the friend I was with; I even joked, “That’s you in the future.” My friend is the type of person who will start playing reggaeton on Spotify in an empty dorm lounge and force people passing by to dance with her. While we were at the Canterbury House, she tried to get me to dance but I wanted to stick with what most of the other people in the room were doing, so I just tapped my foot along with the music. I leaned against the wall because I didn’t want to attract attention or stick out as one of the few people dancing.

When there were only a few people left in the audience, a girl came up and started to sing “On & On” by Erykah Badu. Listening to her sing reminded me of when I was young; instead of being nervous, unsure and on the brink of adulthood, I was a kid in my mom’s car listening to the R&B station. I was the type of person who would try to start a “Soul Train” line and run to an empty dance floor at a wedding. I wasn’t afraid of having fun or looking silly and I didn’t care who saw me.

By this time, all the people left in the audience were dancing. It would be weird to be the only one standing still, so I started to dance. I had fun earlier, but I had so much more fun once I actually started dancing — when I did what I wanted instead of trying to blend in. It would’ve been a good idea to do it sooner. I could have, but it felt like something wouldn’t let me.

I know that just going along with what a group does is silly, but it can be difficult to do something different or new. We’re told to “be ourselves” but conditioned to fit in so that we make friends or avoid being a target for bullies. This process erodes our willingness to express ourselves freely. We’re afraid of being labeled “weird” so we become restricted to a constant state of fear and struggle to fully enjoy ourselves or be comfortable when we could be judged.

To free ourselves of these restrictions, the answer may be to constantly do things we expect to be embarrassing and act like we don’t care. But for me, this is easier said than done. When I force myself (or am forced by my friend) to do something I know will make me feel awkward, I usually have to give myself a pep talk or pretend I’m Beyoncé to remind myself to be less insecure.

Occasionally, I think about how little I cared about people’s opinions when I was young. That’s what I’m trying to get back to, and pretending to be Beyoncé or constantly giving myself pep talks is only going to take me so far. I need to do things that make me feel awkward or silly not just at cool events or occasionally, but every day. When I’m driving, I’ll sing along loudly to songs on the radio. I won’t be afraid to do a little dance if I’m bored and a good song is playing in the store I’m in. If I do things like this, eventually I won’t need to make pep talks or pretend I’m someone I’m not. Instead, I will become comfortable with being embarrassed and re-learn not to care what people think.

Now, I’m a bit jealous of people like my reggaeton-playing friend and the woman I saw at Canterbury House, but hopefully I will soon be like them. When the music plays, I’ll step away from the wall and quit caring about how ridiculous I’ll look when I dance.

Corey Dulin can be reached at cydulin@umich.edu.

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