Falling all over myself. Please make it stop.
May 19, 2015 8:36 AM   Subscribe

I've been clumsy, non-athletic, rhythmless my entire life. I'd like that to change.

In my heart, I've wanted to dance and join team sports but I just don't seem to have the coordination for it. For Christmas, my boyfriend bought me a bike. I was so excited because I hadn't ridden a bike regularly in years. Both times we've tried for long rides, I've fallen off the bike. No serious injury but it was embarrassing and frustrating and I was nervous the entire ride. It's not my fitness level. I run or walk long distances regularly.

I've gone to African dance classes (I'm black. I figured I should be able to do that, right?) Wrong. After two classes, it was clear the learning curve for me would be way too steep and I was mortified that even the kids in the class were doing better than I was. I've always loved dance and wanted to learn as a child but we didn't have much money and options were limited. All the classes I attended seemed geared toward kids with more natural talent than I had. Since I was bookish (and the library is free) my parents steered me in the academic direction.

I sing so I get tempo, cadence, etc., but it doesn't seem to translate to my body.

I'll be 45 in two weeks. Built like Serena Williams (if I actually played competitive tennis, lifted weights all the time and had Williams booty genes). Should I give up on my dream of being able to dance ... or do something otherwise athletic in nature?
posted by nubianinthedesert to Health & Fitness (32 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Well, it might not help with rhythm, but I found that martial arts classes (kung fu in my case) helped me TREMENDOUSLY with balance and stability. They're also fun, challenging, and provide enough intellectual stimulation for me (gyms make me want to jump out of a window).
posted by wintersweet at 8:40 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Gym-type exercise, while boring, doesn't require coordination, and getting a little stronger (especially core strength) actually makes this stuff somewhat easier. You just feel lighter and it's easier to move and to make adjustments in balance. Plus resistance training is good for your bones.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:55 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hello my clumsy sister! I found that yoga helped me with my clumsiness a great deal. I have been known to fall over from a stationary position for no discernible reason, so I know clumsy. So maybe take some yoga classes and then transition to a beginner's dance class?
posted by Julnyes at 8:56 AM on May 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Martial arts will be a help, or even Tai Chi.

Have you had your eyes examined? You may have a visual problem that you've been overcompensating for. I have convergence insufficiency (stuff doesn't double, but it appears as one and a half of a thing) and difficulty judging distances and fittings and spaces without a lot of concious effort. Tai Chi and other specific movement has gotten me improved in that area, though I decided to not put in the effort to learn how to walk in heels after I rolled pretty hard on my ankle a few years back.
posted by tilde at 9:01 AM on May 19, 2015

I was talking to someone recently who teaches circus to people of all different ages and she said that it takes older students longer to learn things than it takes for children to learn the same thing. She had a 70-year-old student who was determined to learn to juggle 4 balls at once. It took some time, but she did eventually achieve that.

So I would say, don't give up easily. Don't put pressure on yourself to be able to pick up things as quickly as the children in your class are picking them up. Kid brains are just a lot quicker at picking some things up than adult brains.

When I signed up with a local fitness centre a few years ago, they asked me what my goals were. Their options included things like "weight loss", "strength" and even "balance". They offered a "body balance" class that was a combination of a few different things, including yoga and pilates. Something like that could be perfect for starting out.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 9:10 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Before you can attempt long rides, you need to do short ones. Just go around the block. Do that a few times, then increase your distance. Find a safe flat patch of ground and practice starting and stopping, turning, looking behind, signaling, changing gears.

Also there could be several reasons why you are falling off the bike. Position could be wonky, the bike might not fit you. Keep trying!
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 9:22 AM on May 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

I taught myself/improved my dancing the old-fashioned way, watching Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson videos and teaching myself the steps. I'd tape them off of TV (eventually buying the DVDs) and watch a little bit at a time until I could put it all together. It was great because I could stop, play, rewind and go at my own pace. I learned a lot about movement and it's still fun to bust out those iconic dances at parties.

My mom is a great dancer but I've taken classes with her and she didn't thrive in a class setting. It's not for everyone.

Whatever you do, it's gonna take time. The greats practice hours a day, and even for me, as a young kid, it took me years to learn all those routines. Don't be so hard on yourself if you don't get it right away because it will feel great when you do.
posted by girlmightlive at 9:24 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Don't give up on dancing! 2nd yoga and pilates. An intro to ballet class might even be good to help with ankle strength (if that's an issue), balance, posture, proprioception. African dance is demanding for a beginner - what about starting with something like Zumba for now? I think it's likely to be rhythmically simpler, may be easier to get in touch with hips and feet and arms. I'd guess there will be more than a few there who struggle with the same issue.

With the bike - you say you've been able to ride in the past, and are maybe ok with shorter rides. What happened on this long ride? Was it fear, did you freak out? (Asking because whenever I've fallen off a bike, it's been because of that. I'll have stopped just looking ahead to where I was going, and started attending more to things I was doing or to little, easily overcome obstacles immediately ahead, and then things got wobbly).
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:25 AM on May 19, 2015

Honestly, I'd recommend just trying lots of different kinds of dance classes (or dance-y fitness classes?) until you find something that seems newcomer-friendly.

I am a fellow rhythmless person (I can't sing, either, so you're ahead there), but I took a semester of English folk dance classes in college, and I find they actually make a difference: if I go to something like a contra or a ceilidh, I seem like a competent beginner rather than an incompetent beginner, because I'm used to sorting out the patterns. In other words, don't discount the experience you'll get from flailing around for a while.
posted by yarntheory at 9:28 AM on May 19, 2015

Doing proprioception exercises (especally #5, the wobble board) has helped me with this.
posted by Melismata at 9:43 AM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

I learned to dance after spending some time in community samba classes that focused a lot on isolation drills--things like learning how to do shoulder rolls, hips circles, moving your ribcage. Lots of communities have samba performance groups that are very much open to beginners and will teach basic choreography. It's a lot of fun!

My limited experience with belly dance is that those classes focus a lot on those things too. So maybe finding a belly dance class that works on drills or isolation moves might be a good place to start.
posted by megancita at 9:47 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think the solution is to find a dance class that is fun and geared towards adults, where you like the teacher, and then just to stick with it until you start getting better. The only way to get better is by practicing, and in my experience, every new sort of movement feels awkward when you've only done it once or twice, so I think you probably didn't give African dance a fair shake. In a good class, no one else will care too much about what you're doing, because they're too focused on what they're doing, so you don't have to worry about them, especially if they're adults. My very stiff, formal Chinese roommate learned how to be a pretty good modern dancer by going to a modern dance class three times a week for a year and a half. If she could do it, I'm sure you can learn how to dance too.
posted by colfax at 9:54 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's possible that you could have a minor and undiagnosed inner ear situation, or that you have a general weakness in your core that fucks with your center of balance. You can be a decent runner and still have this issue if you have uncorrected gait problems or joint weaknesses that nearby muscles are doing double duty compensating for.

The first thing isn't really treatable ime, especially if it's minor enough to have flown under the ear infection radar all these years, but the second you can combat with stuff like a regular practice of tai chi or yoga.

(wrt gait issues you can halfassedly self-diagnose this by looking at the patterns of wear on the soles of your running shoes.)
posted by poffin boffin at 9:57 AM on May 19, 2015

I know I always say this, but a good Pilates trainer can help you develop awareness of where your body is in space (proprioception) and how your strength and stabilizing muscles are working together to put yourself in various positions, as well as giving you strength in your core and small muscles. This drastically helps with balance and coordination.
posted by matildaben at 10:52 AM on May 19, 2015

Response by poster: I love the martial arts idea! At least if I fall in there, I can look tough doing it. Some great answers!
posted by nubianinthedesert at 11:08 AM on May 19, 2015

Also, I want to add that African dance is hard! There's a lot going on in it with your feet and hands and lots of athletic jumping and fast rhythms. Definitely try something easier or seek out a class that's truly for beginners.
posted by megancita at 11:08 AM on May 19, 2015

I worked with a researcher at Stanford who was investigating Tai Chi as an intervention for the elderly who had lost balance and coordination skills and were at a higher risk of fall and catastrophic fracture as a result. In his study, Tai Chi was the superior intervention in terms of results. He also found good results with ballroom dancing.
posted by quince at 11:13 AM on May 19, 2015

So many good suggestions that all I can add is to recommend setting aside five minutes to watch Never, Ever Give Up - Arthur's Transformation as all the inspiration you need to be patient and give yourself lots of time to learn new physical skills. I can't tell you how many times I've thought of Arthur as I stumbled doing yoga.
posted by penguin pie at 11:14 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Nthing proprioception. Your body needs to re-learn that unconscious knowledge of where it is in space.

Try standing on one foot every day for 5 min a side. After a few weeks, try it blindfolded. It won't make you pick up a dance routine any faster (that is muscle memory and practice) but it will help with the general falling down-ness of life.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:39 AM on May 19, 2015

Hey, I just want to say about the biking -- I too am generally uncoordinated and was a very unathletic kid. I didn't ride for most of my adolescence and only decided to learn to ride regularly after college. It definitely took me more than two rides to become comfortable. I was visibly less stable than your average rider for the first two weeks or so. But since then, I've spent years using my bike as a primary mode of transportation (even in snow), done races and long rides. So: (1) keep at it! Just ride in safe places until you're confident (2) make sure your bike is fitted right (especially if it's an aggressively positioned bike) and (3) consider taking a bike safety/handling class, unless your boyfriend happens to be a great teacher. It helped me a lot.
posted by bread-eater at 11:41 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't know what your general fitness level is, but for myself and some people I've known, "clumsiness" turned out to be largely a side effect of not being very strong--once my muscles were stronger, I was more able to control my movements and make my body do what my head told it to. This was especially the case with my legs, feet/ankles, and core/abs.
That may seem like a catch-22, since clumsiness can make gaining strength more difficult--but on the positive side, it may mean that clumsiness isn't necessarily a permanent part of you (or at least, you may become less clumsy if you find a way to work your muscles without hurting yourself). Good luck and have fun with whatever you decide to try!
posted by Edna Million at 11:54 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Good news! Most cases of poor coordination are really caused by anxiety. Are you a little more clumsy when people are watching? If so, that proves it, no?

I thought I was poorly coordinated all my life - and also, not coincidentally, anxious/jumpy/nervous. I worked for a few years HEAVY on yoga (Iyengar system, which really trains you in proper form so you don't get hurt and you know what you're doing...there are teachers everywhere, and they have to be good to get certified). Then, when I had calmed down a good bit, I started meditating twice per day (this system, which is the most stripped-down, non-joiny, non-ritualistic one out there).

All this has calmed me down to the point where I make impossible catches of dropping stuff. I'm light on my feet and my body does what I ask of it. It's not that anything's been improved; it's that multiple layers of spazzy/flinchy reaction habits have been released. The yoga cools out the coarse stuff, and then the meditation cools out the fine points.

It's been a long, multi-year road to hoe, but incredibly rewarding all along the way. And there are a lot of side effects beyond good coordination and dancing skills.
posted by Quisp Lover at 12:13 PM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Oh hey! Fellow klutz-with-dreams-of-dancing here. You're definitely not alone, and I salute you for being willing to keep trying...that in itself is probably the biggest determining factor in terms of getting the skills you want.

I'm 36 and until this year, I considered myself a "person who Just Doesn't Dance". But over the past couple months I've managed to pick up a few moves from, I kid you not, Youtube. Whatever dance style you're interested in, you will most likely be able to find tutorial videos. And the nice thing about a video is that you can go at whatever pace you need to, and replay the confusing parts as many times as you want to, without getting behind. Plus, for any given style, you can look up tutorials made by different people, any of whom might have an approach that works well for you.

I have always been *terrible* at following other people's movements in realtime, and I am literally so bad with visual sequencing and coordinating arm/leg movements that I've never been able to get a driver's license, so the fact that I've been able to make ANY progress in dance through the (free!) magic of the youtube is mind-blowing.

Oh, along with the videos it helps me a lot to practice form and motion in a mirror (or suitably reflective surface -- I find my kitchen's big sliding-glass door is perfect for this once it gets dark outside). A huge aspect of dancing well isn't just in the movement, but in posture and starting positions and transitions between different types of movement.

Finally, whether or not you can find a local in-person class, as with the video tutorials, you may be able to find an online community to join. I recently found a Facebook group for enthusiasts of the type of dance I'm learning, and that has been *amazing* so far. I'm able to upload video clips of practice sessions and get very specific pointers on what I need to work on the most, and what I can do to improve technique, etc. The whole atmosphere is warm, positive, and encouraging...maybe I just got lucky, but I have to imagine this kind of thing exists wherever you have people who love something and want to help others share in the joy of doing the thing too. Best of luck!
posted by aecorwin at 12:15 PM on May 19, 2015

Hello - another fellow uncoordinated person here.

My whole life I've been awful at physical activities, especially stuff that requires balance, speed and coordination. Pick one- I can probably do it, mix two or three and I'm comically bad.

The first time I tried skiing, the ski instructor had to hold on to me and ski us down backwards. Thankfully I learned to ride a bike as a kid, and dancing better be broken down into the smallest components that I practice endlessly.

The only thing I have going for me, is my ability to laugh at myself, and if I really really want to do the activity - the required persistence to stick with it at my own glacial pace.

Each thing I've learned has taken about three to six times as long as most people. It's tragi-comic. For skiing I had to take some lessons and spend days slowly practicing. For dancing - I signed up for Zumba and believe me there are lots of people that are so nice and encouraging that I don't care if I suck. For learning how to ride a solowheel I had to watch my boyfriend pick it up in about 20 minutes. My time - three months!

But the time will go by whether you're learning or not, so just break each activity into it's basic-est components, and practice each one for a few minutes each day until you will get there, almost in spite of yourself. And laugh at your attempts, it's more fun that way.
posted by tatiana131 at 12:49 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Chiming in here to agree with some of the others and give you encouragement! I dance ballroom/latin and swing, and for awhile I wasn't great. I've been clumsy myself for my entire life, so I feel you!! For me, I've noticed that anxiety tends to make me way more clumsy, especially with dance, so see if you can relax before you do those activities. Persistence also worked for me - if I really want to do something I just keep trying until I get it. For dance specifically, I also found that doing a beginners adult ballet class really helped me with my balance issues. I totally sucked at the ballet and still do - it was a sloppy mess for me haha. But my class was all beginner adults like myself, and the teacher made it fun and it helped me for the dances that I do really enjoy, like waltz. I think also the ballet helped me tone up a bit too at the time, and having toner muscles seems to help me with balancing better too.

For your African dance class - I agree with the others that you probably didn't give it a fair shake. Dance is hard, and at the beginning, you will struggle. But if you really love it, don't let that deter you! Just practice practice practice and find someplace to go where the people are fun and encouraging and can break things down for you in the way you need to help you learn. Good luck!
posted by FireFountain at 2:46 PM on May 19, 2015

Skip the dance class, but consider dance lessons -- one-on-one learning, with a teacher you click with (finding one may take a few introductory-level lessons with different instructors), could be revealing. A good teacher can see how you're moving, shifting, and responding to instruction, and can pause at any time in the lesson to make a quick adjustment or try a different approach. I also think individual lessons would help lessen your anxiety around this topic, and good on you for wanting to try.
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:26 PM on May 19, 2015

Don't forget, if you are taking dance classes, most other people in the class, even if they are beginners to that style of dance, have taken some sort of dancing before. It's pretty easy to learn a new style, so they will make progress much faster than you. Don't get discouraged!
posted by lollusc at 6:25 PM on May 19, 2015

This is kind of hokey but one of the things that has made me happier lately is giving myself the freedom to try hard at something I want to do and suck at at. That is if I like something and want to do it or learn it, I do it for doing's sake and don't give myself a hard time for failing frequently or not progressing quickly (or at all sometimes.) I try hard not to give a rats ass if I look like an idiot while learning or practicing. Getting out there and trying to learn a new skill is worth it for its own sake and better than not trying at all. Every time you do whatever athletic endeavour you do, give yourself a pat on the back for doing it at all.

On a more practical note I also agree that as you develop muscles and muscle memory clumsiness goes away a bit. Anything that uses muscles is good. Don't give up on your dance dreams, but maybe some sort of beginner dance for adults might be a good place to start, even if its not the style of dance you eventually want to get to. Also it takes a while to get used to biking again and also to your bike, so don't beat yourself up over it.
posted by captaincrouton at 7:10 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

As (yet another) uncoordinated person, I can also recommend yoga, but with the important caveat that you try a few classes and pick the one that goes through the poses veeeeeery slooooooowly. It's still totally fine being the least coordinated person in your yoga class, but I've been to a handful of surprisingly fast moving level 1 or 1/2 classes, and if you're a slow learner when it comes to bodily coordination a fast paced class can be extra frustrating becoming a) you don't know the poses yet and b) sometimes you're facing away from the instructor while they're telling you what to do next, and if you can't see what's going on it can make for a really rough class.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:02 PM on May 19, 2015

I'm the guy who recommended yoga above. deludingmyself is right, and the system I recommended, Iyengar, is extra slow and careful and helpful, which is why I suggested it.

I, too, take a LONG time to parse and follow directions in yoga classes. My slowness has driven more than one teacher to near hysteria. After 35 years of practice, I'm actually a more advanced practitioner than some of those old teachers of mine (sometimes slow learning is best!). But I'm still slow to learn new stuff, and that's just how it is. And the important thing is that I'm smooth, non-anxious and relaxed in my slowness, thanks to all that yoga and meditation. My coordination isn't necessarily better, but I'm no longer fighting myself, and that makes all the difference.

Same with dance. I learn slowly, but I'm much calmer and more patient in my slowness....and when I learn a step, I've REALLY learned it.
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:01 PM on May 19, 2015

As a fellow uncoordinated person, I would recommend/consider the following:
- Good shoes, with the proper kind of support for your particular feet (this may involve orthotics or other fanciness).
- Since you may be going to a foot doctor, check into any numb spots or nerve damage (even very minor) in your feet. This is a major contributor to balance, and gradual loss of sensitivity in the foot is one reason older people tend to fall.
- A million times yoga; I've been doing it for almost 10 years and I rarely if ever fall down for no reason anymore. I almost never kick my own ankles when I walk now. While it doesn't help with my tendency to walk into things (doors, door frames, walls, desks) I'm pretty sure I'm walking into them less violently. As an alternative/corollary to the Iyengar style recommended above, if you don't live somewhere with a huge variety of yoga programs, you can start with any "hatha yoga" or generically "yoga" class. Any good yoga teacher will allow you to move at your own pace.
- Try a lot of different sports/activities! You never know when something will click. I still can't ice skate, but I could in-line skate on my first try. I have such poor hand-eye coordination that I have been known to bite my own fingers while eating, but did decently at high school archery.
- Attention matters, and if you are stressed about how well you are or are not doing, you aren't paying attention to what you're doing. Especially if it's an attention/stress issue, you may wish to avoid competitive team activities, or any activities where something is flying at your face (softball, tennis, etc) until you feel more confident. Yoga and pilates work here, as would something like swimming or skiing.

Don't give up! Brains may learn slower and slower any time after adolescence, but they can still learn; just be gentle with your mistakes and keep trying.
posted by sarahkeebs at 10:06 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Fellow uncoordinated person whose speciality was hitting door frames or large, highly visible objects like photocopies even when there was heaps of room around them.

My weird balance issues resolved significantly when I had to go strictly gluten free. Not that I'm recommending this for you as I'm not a doctor but it was an awesome side bonus for me and it turns out that neurological symptoms associated with celiac/non celiac gluten intolerance are a thing, its not all about stomach issues.
posted by kitten magic at 5:32 AM on May 20, 2015

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