There’s a classic song by The Contours where the protagonist confidently proclaims a newfound ability to dance. “Do you love me now that I can dance?” the singer repeatedly croons as the song gallops along with a rock and roll shuffle. I always admired the simplicity of the song’s narrative. In my mind, the story it tells operates in three phases:
Phase one: he can’t dance so he is rejected and sad.
Phase two: he disappears for a while and learns how to dance, perhaps with the help of a dancing maestro.
Phase three: he triumphantly returns with the inexplicable ability to dance. His new signature moves include the mashed potato and the twist.
America is obsessed with these types of transformations. This song’s premise immediately conjures up examples of similar character arcs in popular culture. These are most commonly in the form of a movie montage–Karate Kid, the drumming boy in Love Actually and Rocky to name a few. The song is basically the plot to Footloose. Avril Lavigne’s Sk8r Boi kind of flips it on its head. Perhaps the most famous real-life American transformation is Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil at the crossroads. Johnson left a mediocre guitar player, but returned a soulless blues legend.
For some reason, this song by the Contours has popped into my head a few times as I’ve floated in the water, waiting for waves. I usually think of it after taking some hard spills. Learning to surf has brought me to some low-points where I’ve considered walking away entirely. These were their lowest during the first few months of getting into it. I’d go to the beach full of hope and leave drenched, exhausted, embarrassed and down. The experienced surfers seemed like gods on the wave, seamlessly gliding into swells that crested and broke while they curved backs and arms and legs with poise–they danced along the wave break, walking the board or weaving from wave top to wave bottom. These locals formed a crowd in my mind, an inner circle. It was like they spoke a foreign language that I desperately wanted to learn. I projected judgment on their behalf as I struggled to stay on my board even in still water.
On a clear, cloudless and particularly crowded day at Jungmun Beach people were out in force. From shore, the water was dotted with surfers lined up like ants. These were mainlanders and locals of all levels. I paddled out and gave nods to a few familiar faces as we floated. The break was good and consistent and had me full of promise. I caught one wave, a left, and felt my body react automatically to the waves thrust. I glided up into position and felt an exhilarating acceleration toward shore. I dropped into the water at the end of the ride full of humming. Then I caught another. And another. My confidence was swelling a bit. Maybe I was getting the hang of this. And then I accidentally dropped in on a local.
As I was popping up on a wave, I looked to my right just in time to see him hurtling towards me on a direct collision course. The waves tumbled us together before spitting us out close to the shoreline. We untangled and he started to furiously examine his board. “Are you OK?” I asked.
His board was a tiny bit dinged and he was so mad that I didn’t mention the cut that I had sustained on my forearm. He huffed and scolded. I tucked my arm behind my back to hide the blood that kept welling up in the shallow gash as he marched me across the beach to get my info. I knew I deserved to pay for the ding for my breach of surf etiquette, and didn’t want to use the cut for false sympathy.
It was humiliating being led across the beach like a misbehaving child, chided by the local surfer for my drop-in. I went from feeling bad about the ding to feeling like he was overreacting. I clenched my jaw a bit to take my mind off the pain in my arm. Maybe it was a bit more serious than I thought and was worth mentioning? We got to his scooter and he took out his phone with exasperation to get my information. It was only then that he noticed the cut and softened a bit, asking if I was alright. I told him I was fine and to just let me know the cost of the ding repair before turning around to make my way back down the beach, trying to preserve a bit of pride.
I shuffled along back to my board, hand clenched over my arm to stop the bleeding, feeling a mix of frustration and humiliation. The sunny day had soured. The brightness suddenly felt overbearing and my stomach clenched. I felt a smoldering judgment from the other surfers scattered across the shoreline and the waves and my ears and cheeks burned. This was my movie opening where I am humiliated by the cool kids. It was time for my transformation montage. But first I needed to get some bandages and iodine.
I kept at it, returning to surf whenever possible. The arm healed over the course of the coming weeks eventually turning into a slight pink divot in my arm. The summer turned to fall and then frigid winter. I surfed through snow and rain. Wearing boots and gloves to combat the frost was a must. On Christmas day some surfers wore Santa hats at Iho beach while they cheerfully stormed the break. The waves and faces became familiar. I knew the direction a swell would take, what a break would do. I started to be able to decipher a clear line even on the choppy days.
In surfing, you don’t have the option of behind-the-scenes progress. My bumps and spills all happen in broad daylight. But I’ve realized that this is the process for everyone. You learn how to dodge beginners and anticipate their mistakes. Sure there are collisions from time to time, but you try to roll with it. As long as you get back on the board and keep paddling for the next wave you’re fine. There’s no room for self-conscious doubt and embarrassment. The best thing to do after a wipe out is to grin and get back out there.
The fallacy in the American transformation story is that mastery equals success. There’s a top of the mountain to get to. I always wanted a follow-up on what happened to The Contours’ protagonist. What happened when the song ended. Did his target of affection run into his arms with admiration? Or did she shrug it all off with a “so what” and still walk off with another guy? Did the cool kids beat let him into their group or decide that something else was suddenly the new cool and beat him up anyway?
It turns out that this group of Jeju “cool surfers” is imaginary. I don’t know where I got this narrative. Maybe it’s from Point Break. Either way, there is more nuance to the social structure of the Jeju surf crew. Sure, there’s a shared knowledge and experience that the more wizened surfers have–there might even be some chat groups made where they discuss waves and the days of surfing they’ve put in–but they don’t have some secret midnight council where they perform rituals, banish amateurs and adopt new members. In surfing, coolness comes from a respect for the process.
Looking back I’m amazed at the progress I have made in a year, but there are still lessons to be experienced. Perhaps the dings that the process leaves are more meaningful than the end point. I see the surfer who I collided with from time to time and we exchange nods before looking out at the horizon for incoming waves, both looking for the same thing. He asks me how I’m doing from time to time. The scar from that bright day at Jungmun sits on my arm indistinguishable to all but me. You wouldn’t notice it unless I pointed it out. But sometimes I glance down at it and my mind drifts off to the waves that I’d rather be playing in.