I was thinking about this not too long ago when Andy first joined my Morris dance team. Its a rich and interesting thing to observe all the wonderful differences in how each individual moves or dances or approaches learning. In Andy's case one of his salient characteristics is that he has very good balance. Andy's profession is technical theater, so good (even exceptional) balance is pretty much a necessity for him. You often find Andy up in the rafters of any building we find ourselves dancing in that has rafters in the first place, having magically climbed his way there using splinters on the supporting posts and in some cases molecules in the air as footholds. Also Andy is something of a bag of bones, being significantly taller than me yet weighing nearly 80 pounds less. Andy and the birds, they have a lot in common skeletally.
Noting the ways in which Andy's balance comes into play, it hit me with great clarity that just as Andy has notably good balance, I have notably bad balance. I don't think I'd ever thought about this in particular, but once I realized it many things going back forever made sense. In my Morris dancing, for example, I had never done a good job getting the form right for a step called right-toe-back (RTB). For this step, you jump into the air, put your right leg out behind you, then land on your right knee (ow!), your hands out to either side balancing your hankies just so. I had a lot of trouble keeping my torso even and steady, and landing gracefully. It was a revelation to realize the issue wasn't strength or muscular control so much as balance. Knowing this doesn't magically give me better balance, but it focuses my practice on things like keeping my head still and forward-looking, rather than on my arms or legs in particular -- they fall into place if I can keep my balance.
The ramifications of this bad balance are pretty widespread, and at some level I've always known this. For one thing, climbing trees and even climbing ladders has always made me very nervous and uncomfortable, always. It's not that I didn't want to climb trees (certain pine tree with their frequent even branching were such an enticement), but there was something akin to a neurosis I would feel, even at the age of 8. I am absolutely convinced this is because I knew -- or my body did, anyway -- that this was a dangerous thing for me. Even now, each step of a ladder increases my trembling, which is a problem these days when I have to replace the lightbulbs in my kitchen ceiling fixtures, which I have to do regularly. I can do it (what choice do I have?), but it leaves me quaking every time and never gets easier.
When I was in high school I went on a summer youth group trip to Israel. One thing you do on such a trip is walk the walls of the old city of Jerusalem -- there is a path of sorts on top of the wall, with many stairs along the way to get off and on the path. There are areas where the walls and path are quite narrow, and I simply would not walk them. I'd walk down just before those areas, then walk back up just past them. Crippled kids walk these walls, it's a mystic ritual. But me, I just looked and said no. I couldn't have told you why at the time, but fortunately even then I would not do things I did not want to do, however hearty or even shamemaking the tourguides were.
I don't get out of cars gracefully -- in fact, I don't do a lot of things gracefully and it's not because I'm clumsy and awkward (which is what I got told all the time as a kid -- except when dancing, but you don't do a lot of that in gym class). In general, my movements are somewhat graceless when going from a seated to a standing and walking position, and they always have been. It's balance. It's just not something that comes easily to me.
Of course, if all those years of required shamemaking gym classes had involved instructors who had the temperament and training to work with kids in the areas they needed coaching (just as tutors worked with kids who had academic issues), then this story would be a different one. For many many thousands more people than me.