Wanna Dance?

Profiles of everyday superheroes

My meditation teacher Emily, clearly excited with her next challenge, lined us up on separate ends of the stage.

I knew I was in trouble.

Alarm bells were firing off in my head. “Now, when I start the music,” she said, “I want you to keep eye contact, no words, and dance toward each other in slow motion.”


Being on stage was already scary enough. Locking eyes with my partner Tonya Cornelisse for two straight minutes, being vulnerable AND on a stage, snapped me back to the least confident version of myself.

Fighting to keep eye contact, I turned into the shy 10-year-old I used to be.

“I don’t know how to dance with a stranger!” I haven’t danced with anyone but my wife Betsy since the 90’s!

I felt like my head was going to explode.

I was watching myself, outside of my body. Keeping eye contact, smiling nervously, made it feel like we were flirting. My 10-year-old warned me, “you have NO IDEA how to flirt!”

Then the thoughts started coming rapid fire: “she likes me… what if she likes me?… am I leading her on?” It’s like my shy 10-year-old somehow got thrown into a high school party. I started to freak out, “she’s looking at me!! Run away!! Hide!! A girl!!”

But I persisted. I put on my best “be cool” face but…

I was in DEEP over my head.

Surviving those two minutes felt like I aged a decade.

When I walked into the workshop run by a real acting coach, part of a year-long course in training to be a meditation teacher, I had no idea what I was getting into. But I did have a plan.

Besides my ambition to teach Emily’s style of meditation, I am on my way to become a TEDx “talker,” a keynote speaker, and a thought leader.

What I didn’t expect to find on my journey: how I would feel when I got paired up with Tonya, who showed no hesitation to keep eye contact while she danced toward me. After the workshop I learned that Tonya is a trained actress who has done a million exercises like this. I was clearly a rookie!

What neither of us knew at the time: those two minutes would form the basis for a friendship that has spanned miles and time zones and turned into an unlikely creative partnership.

Even though the path I took to that workshop is hard to describe, I didn’t meet Tonya by accident. Tonya is an “expander” for me, someone who shows me that I can do more.

After the workshop, still sweating like I survived a harrowing ride to the center of the Universe and back, all I could think was, “I have to do this more!” Big surprise! My 10-year-old wanted to go back to more high school parties!

The next week I signed up to take an improv comedy class. What’s wrong with me? Why did I choose the scariest thing I could do short of jumping out of an airplane?

Why do I want to do the thing that freaks me out so badly? Am I testing the limits of my antiperspirant?

No, I enrolled in “Improv 101” to test MY limits, BECAUSE that short exercise with Tonya showed me what I could become. I don’t plan to become a working actor. But I do plan to stretch myself by stepping outside of my comfort zone.

Walking into my first improv class, I fought against all of my survival instincts.

I told myself that I had nowhere to go but forward, to sweat it out, and to do my best. After I got through that first class, I learned:

Being vulnerable is a muscle that you need to exercise.

I asked Tonya how, as an actress, she handles being vulnerable ALL THE TIME. She said, “I've been performing stuff for so long, since I've been a kid. You get through it, whatever way you can. If you do it right, you're always gonna have really beautiful moments and really great moments and exciting moments and you're gonna have shitty moments and ugly moments and gross moments and you just have to embrace it all.”

I want to know more.

“I try to really embrace it. It makes me a better artist and it makes me grow and I know that, so I know that those hard moments, that those sad or melancholy or anxious moments, they're going to give me something to feed off of.”


I asked her if there are times when the spotlight is on her, the pressure to perform is on, and in the moment it all just goes to shit? How do you deal with that?

“I think there's a forgiveness that is involved. I'm not exactly super great at it yet but I'm getting better and better. I do feel like there's so much beautiful bits in the messiness and that's where the amazing stuff is realized.”

When do you remember first getting close to falling apart?

“I moved back to New York City. My whole family's in Chicago at this point and I really wanted to go to NYU and get into the acting conservatory. We didn't have a lot of money and I knew I had to get a scholarship but the day of the audition there was a huge snowstorm. I had to do two monologues. My dad only had one day off from work so we had to drive there and back within 48 hours. Of course, there was a huge snowstorm, so he drove 15 hours in the snow to get me to my audition and then we had to drive back to Chicago so he can go to work the next day.”

“I have this window at 10 o'clock. I'm doing a Shakespeare monologue and a comedic monologue from Chekhov. I’m 17 and I have all these things going through my head. I remember being in the car when my dad takes a wrong turn and now he’s driving down Broadway in New York City backwards and then we get lost deep in Brooklyn looking for our hotel. I remember thinking, okay, we're gonna die, but I need to work on this monologue. At this point it's like 1:00 in the morning and I have to get up at 8:00 a.m. to be at NYU.”

“I just remembered that there was a second of, ‘I can fall apart right now and lose it or I can just suck it up, dig my heels in, and go for it.’ It was really hard and I remember that moment still to this day. I wasn’t gonna let this shit get to me! I'm really proud of that girl, that little 17 year old, when I had to audition for that scholarship that really would change my life.”

After nailing that audition at NYU, Tonya has gone on to a successful career in LA and London as an actress and writer.

What I’ve learned from Tonya goes beyond her superpower of vulnerability. We help each other remain accountable to write, to create, to keep on track with meditating. Across time zones and sometimes continents, we help each other face the challenges that make us stronger.

Trust me: You need expanders like Tonya!

Do you want to read more stories of everyday heroes?

Sign up here!

Robert Zeitlin