Dancing towards play

I think of play as a loss of self-consciousness in bed with flow, birthing a child-like joy. Like when my 12-year-old, honey-coloured Beaglier – a King Charles Cavalier x Beagle – chases his tail.

I turn to the Macquarie Dictionary & Thesaurus Online to check my interpretation. I discover that for a four-letter word, play has just as many facets as a classic-cut diamond. Well, almost. The Dictionary offers 97 definitions and uses for the word. (A quick Google search also reveals over 340 idioms.)

The first definition listed is “a dramatic composition or piece or a drama”, and the second is “a dramatic performance, as on stage.”

A stage play doesn’t come to mind, but Neymar Jr does. You know, the Brazilian soccer legend renowned for his ‘diving’ antics during the 2018 soccer world cup? Diving is the theatrical falling down and rolling around on the field acting as if you’re grievously injured.

Even if this behaviour isn’t considered outright cheating, I liken it to dirty play. Maybe I have a narrow viewpoint, though. The world at large has played along with the joke, fervently taking up the ‘Neymar Challenge’. With online news headlines proclaiming “The Neymar Challenge has fans around the world dramatically falling down” and “The ‘Neymar Challenge’ is the latest viral sensation taking the internet by storm.”

I just don’t get it. What a party pooper I am.

The third – “exercise or action by way of amusement or recreation” – and fourth – “fun, jest or trifling, as opposed to earnest” – definitions confirm my lack of playful genes.

It’s 1975. A one-year-old baby, almost a toddler, is carefully lifted out of the car. The mother is about to place her on the fresh green grass of the front lawn. Instead of delighting in the anticipated ticklish prickle of the lush blades against her bare feet, the toddler scrunches her toes and bunches up her legs.

About 10 years later, the same mother willingly writes notes so that her precocious daughter – who at the time equates exercise with an excruciating way to lose weight – can get out physical education classes.

Having lived with the daughter for over 40 years, I am realising, rather disappointingly, the seriousness of my disposition. Reviews govern my restaurant choices. And familiarity my repeated visits to the same cafès, with the staff knowing my name and me theirs. Uncertainty sends me to Google in search for an answer, a way. Behaviours such as these allude to a fear of a life lived wrong.

Over two years ago, my five-foot-two self butted against a former model and basketballer turned author, PhD student and business owner – all rolled into a six-foot blonde. She was my boss. And I worked in her business for nineteen months before she unceremoniously pushed me out. I believed it was my continual refusal to put her on a pedestal and apologise for being human. But it was my lack of play that was to blame.

I realise – always too late – that when two strong-minded personalities clash, one must concave to soften the impact. Behavioural experts recommend this concaving come in the shape of play.

In The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships, John M Gottman (with Joan DeClaire) writes:

“We also discovered the importance of playfulness in people’s bids [for interaction and connection]. For years I have wondered why some couples are able to make jokes and express affection for each other – even in the midst of an argument. It’s an important question because our research shows that such emotional ‘repair tools’ lead to the development of happier, stronger relationships.”

Dr Stuart Brown also concurs, stating in his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul that “The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.”

So, instead of shooting emails at each other about the restructure of my role – my boss from her office and me from my shared space less than two feet away – I needed to get up and walk over to her and say: “Hey, what’s up? Is it my turn to get you coffee or something? Let’s grab one and chat.”  

I still might not have kept my job, but the departure might’ve been less acerbic.

Not long after my demise at work, my life took a serendipitous turn towards play. I got a job with an organisation that has ‘vitality’ in its name, to which it is unabashedly true. As its digital content specialist, I can work from home, but I choose to turn up in the office at least once a week. Why wouldn’t I? I laugh often, hear pet names like ‘precious’ and ‘sweet cheeks’ float through the airwaves, and my mistakes are seen as part of being human – i.e. no big deal!

Both Dr Brown and another behavioural expert, Bowen F White, a medical doctor and author of Why Normal Isn’t Healthy, stress the importance of selecting friends who are playful. I just happened to get lucky with my colleagues.

Work wasn’t the only ingredient to up my play stakes. Roughly a year ago, I took up dance classes. Not ballet. But dance of the street variety – Bollywood and Latin Rhythms – where improvisation and feeling the vibe of the music are keys to loosening up and playful self-expression.

Before each class begins, our Zumba instructor tells us in her thick Venezuelan accent, “I don’t expect you to be a professional dancer. I want you to just forget your problems and have fun.” And my Bollywood teacher instructs the class to “Move your hips so far right, that it’s out the window.” This proclamation is immediately followed by a giggle.

Soon, I discover I’m confident enough to take play off the dance floor and into situations I’m not naturally comfortable.

In a meeting a few months ago, a new client is describing her swanky offices in Docklands, a modern harbour development adjacent to Melbourne’s CBD. Floor-to-ceiling windows. An indoor bridge connecting two buildings. It all sounds glamorous. And I say, “Well, welcome to our humble abode.” We all laugh, the ice broken.

When I google the etymology of play, I find: “Old English pleg(i)an ‘to exercise’, plega ‘brisk movement’, related to Middle Dutch pleien ‘leap for joy, dance’.”

Maybe there’s a hint of Dutch in my bloodline.

Whether I was born with it or not, I know I can dance – not dive – my way onto the field of play. But vital players are necessary.

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