Last week I attended a marvelous birthday bash for my South African friend Sal Roux. Sal threw her party at a game preserve called Phinda, in a “sand forest” where the trees stand like cathedral pillars under an eerie green canopy, and you never know how many animal eyes are watching as you pad your way through the soft soil.
When I unpacked at Phinda, I had a sickening realization: I’d left my formal shoes in Johannesburg. Sal doesn’t do anything by halves, so I knew her birthday banquet would be a black-tie affair. I’d brought a couple of halfway-acceptable outfits, but now I had no shoes to go with them. My usual bush footwear—brown cowboy boots—just wouldn’t do. Luckily, I had a backup pair of flat black slippers, although, because they were slightly too big, I had to bulk out my feet with a pair of brown socks. That way they at least stayed on my feet, though I had to curl my toes and sort of waddle to avoid stepping right out of them.
“It’s really dark,” I kept reassuring my ego. “It’s the middle of the African bush. No one will be looking down.”
My ego was not convinced. It kept glancing down and seeing this:
As I neared the game lodge where the party was getting started, the darkness was split by a deafening drumbeat. The forest went from silent to deafening as a group of Zulu dancers, in full traditional dress, began dancing and singing around the arriving guests. The dancers’ animal-hide headdresses and loincloths flashed in the torchlight. Once my heart started beating again, I thought they were wonderful.
Then I got to the lodge and saw all the other female party-goers bent over, brushing sand off their feet before strapping on high heeled sandals and pumps. Such shoes are about as functional in a sand forest as a paper snorkel, so everyone seemed to be apologizing for various malfunctions affecting their Jimmy Choos.
Remember, I was wearing socks.
Thick, brown socks.
In desperation, I found a seat near the Zulu dancers and tried to tuck my feet into a shadow. The dancers were truly amazing. Each of them burned more calories that evening than I did during the entire 1990s. But as I watched them more closely, I noticed something: A lot of them were subtly adjusting their headdresses and leggings. They took turns dancing solos, and some of them seemed a little klutzier than others, and these people clearly knew it. The klutzes would return to their place among the other dancers looking as if they’d welcome a leopard attack, as long as it distracted attention from their missteps.
In that moment, with my gaze swinging between the self-conscious Zulu dancers and the self-conscious high-heel wearers, I had an epiphany: All humans are united, no matter how great our differences, by our fear of looking dorky.
In an instant, this changed my view of other times and cultures. I could see other African dancers getting dressed before history began, asking their friends, “Do you really think the kudu skin goes with the porcupine quills? Isn’t it kind of too much?” I pictured ancient Americans saying, “Uh, Bison Flower, hasn’t anyone told you not to wear elk teeth after the green corn moon?” I can imagine a moment when the 12th-century Japanese Shogun realized his armor no longer fit around the middle, and that in that moment he strongly considered ritual suicide.
This revelation was deeply comforting. I felt new kinship with people from all times and places who ended up in their culture’s equivalent of brown socks at a sparkling black-tie event. I took a deep breath, watched a Zulu dancer furtively adjusting his impala-skin loincloth, and waddled out to join the rest of humanity in our common sea of appalling insecurity.