A Reflection on Learning How to Dance Again
Updated: Apr 5, 2022
Photography by Kitoko Chargois
I was eight years old when I committed to my tunnel vision of living in New York City; specifically, paying my bills by being a performer. I followed the set narrative for young, aspiring performers; that sacrifice is needed and expected to pursue the competitive field of performing arts. I missed birthday parties, reunions and playdates, which turned into me struggling to maintain relationships in spaces where I was the one Black person, or one of the few. I felt this most often in dance studios.
By the time COVID-19 hit the shores of the US I had gained my dream. Then, quickly, in the space of two months, I lost it. On the day my show closed, I moved back home to my small town. I was devastated and felt defeated. In the following months, I lost my income and friendships. Family members suddenly passed away, and my identity—which was closely knitted to being a dancer—was in flux. I admit, in the context of the public health crisis and what was going on for others, my reactions were probably dramatic. But I was changing.
Dance was no longer a priority for me. My mental health, living family, and committed friendships were far more important. But, my mental health was also at an all-time low.
Once dance made me feel empowered and safe. But I felt sad and disembodied. I practically stopped moving—let alone dancing–for about six months. At most, I taught a few virtual classes here and there. That’s a long time away for someone who had been practicing dance nonstop since age four.
There were other reasons unbeknownst to me at the time, that explained this disembodiment. The pandemic pause gave me time to find these reasons, and eventually, find movement again with new intentions. But, of course, I first had to surrender into grief.
Starting in April 2020, I began therapy again and slowly worked up to discovering that dance absolutely has the capacity to heal. When treated as more than a vessel to produce shapes and perform, the body can find home again.
I was learning about stress, and my inability to determine what my boundaries were—and how to state them clearly—created more stress for me. A recovering “people pleaser,” I burdened myself with relationships and jobs that were incompatible with my spirit.
My therapist—who I will call Alex—told me I was like a hamster running in a wheel and literally showed me a card with the image of sweaty person running in a hamster wheel! It was humorous but, seeing myself in it, I was turned off. I didn’t want to look like that anymore.
I made a commitment to prioritize myself. I’d say no or yes when I really meant it. I’d treat myself with a latte or get a manicure. I’d text a friend back when I wanted to, not when I was expected to do so. I’d stop always reaching out to folks first. I’d choose to yell when I was upset and cry when I felt like it.
Then I began to work out and run (literally) on occasion.
I started doing a style called Animal Flow, and other ground-based techniques that encourage my muscles to burn. I appreciated my skin stretching and succumbing to my heat produced as my legs pumped and arms pushed through the floor. It’s cathartic to push my body through movement with the only goal of waiting for and welcoming sweat. I wasn’t dancing yet, but I felt a release that was waiting to burst out. I got off the hamster wheel.
I’m perched on my seat, talking to Alex through my screen again, detailing how distraught and disembodied I’ve been feeling.
“I feel like I’m…”
I started to push my hands in front of me, stopping before my elbows could fully straighten as if something prevented me from going further. Alex noticed.
“Let’s investigate that movement that you’re doing. Would you be willing to do that? That pushing movement … what are you pushing?”
“It feels like I’m…pushing a brick wall…”
Alex guided me into a short meditation and body scan that lowered my heart rate. I found myself squeezed into the small space that was between the side of my bed and my literal brick wall. They suggested various interactions with the wall.
“What happens when you press as hard as you can against the wall with your hands? Your legs? What if you release into the brick wall? Are you able to support yourself like that?”
The answer, I found, was yes. When I allow myself to have the option to release my weight into the brick wall, that wall becomes a malleable surface capable of working with my body. Acceptance and release of self is scary. A flood of emotions filled the pool of my body when I gave that brick wall my feelings and released into it. It’s very different from pushing and laboring to try to shove a heavy wall forward.
I was the obstacle in my life. I felt I deserved the punishment of unnecessary struggle. I felt that to grow, I would need to “get over” or “around” myself. But, really, I just needed to accept myself and work with who I am at any given moment.
At my summer job, I work as a direct support professional (DSP), caring for clients with physical and intellectual disabilities, from ages 8 to more than 80. They will need basic care and accommodations for the rest of their lives.
After lunch, Caitlin, a young woman in her 30s with a severe seizure disorder, needs to be changed into a new adult diaper. To transfer her from the dining table to her room I need to either transport her via wheelchair or assist in walking her.
Her mother wants her to walk a bit more while she can, so I opt to walk. I undo her seat belt and bend down in front of her. I put my left foot in between her feet that barely touch the floor. I place the inside of my elbows into the space in her armpits for security and gently coax her to standing. I smoothly and gently transition and shift to be behind her. I place my elbows under her armpits again and my chest on her back, then cross my hands to support her upper body. I bend my knees behind her to place the front of my hips on her butt for extra support. As I slowly walk, my shifting helps her legs shift into motion.
All of these actions could be considered just doing my job. Instead, I see them as a dance—a duet—with Caitlin following my lead.
During the height of the pandemic, I consumed hours of entertainment on TikTok, chuckling and laughing out loud. Today, I find myself swiping to the face of a person—face directly in the camera—talking about grief and the growth it takes to surrender into it.
“Is there a story…in your brain that you’re just trying to get the pieces to fit?
“I want to invite you to the possibility that this is actually grief. Your grief. Grief and fear and loss are some of the biggest and hardest feelings for people to tolerate.
“One of the most effective ways to [repress them] is by intellectualizing them. It’s okay to set down the story.”
They continued to speak about the action of surrendering. A quick Google search of it’s definition would tell you it’s to “abandon oneself entirely… to give in… yield.” I say it means to give up. That phrase give up feels like it could be painted in a negative light but I chose to spin it.
By this time, I’ve been consistently taking antidepressants and stimulants to manage my anxiety and overwhelming symptoms of ADHD, and they’re working for me. For years, I never thought I’d take medication for my mental health because it felt like giving up. The decision to take them took some surrenderance to my situation: that I needed help and pills can help alleviate some stress. Still in my bathroom, I got up and started dancing with the word surrender etched into my mind. I let the word travel through my body. As my knees bent, I allowed my pelvis to follow suit at the joints. I bent my head forward, giving in to the effort to let go. I reached up to grab hold of something intangible, elbows bending, hands yielding to another choice. Chest and head lifting upwards, I strived to see the narrative I’d made up and decided to graciously push it away. Now I am dancing!
Currently, I don’t consider myself to be a dancer, nor a performer, but, rather, someone who, when available, makes art. Right now dance is the medium. Unlike when I was younger, I no longer need my identity to be attached to my profession. Calling myself a dancer does not give me space to be fluid in my choices.
I can dance in my room… I can dance in my room and feel fine that no one is watching. I can study to be a therapist. I can get paid equitably to dance. I can choreograph. I can teach. I can love. I can be loved.
This is what movement is made of. Movement is never made in a vacuum. It comes from the emotions and actions of living- at least a strong attempt at living- a life. The good, the bad, the ugly all included.
Picture this in your mind’s eye: two naked babies run around on a sunny beach. They let the ocean’s water tickle their toes. They are laughing, they are touching their bodies and they are enjoying each other.
Take a moment to hold this image in your mind’s eye and notice how your body feels. Stay with that feeling for another moment.
Did you get tense? Did your body compress into itself with your heart rate getting faster? Did you want to turn away from that image? Did you want to shrink? Did you want to cry?
Or did you loosen up? Did you smile? Did you feel warm? Did you want to extend your arms towards that image of the sun, twirling in the way you did as a child? Did you feel like you could expand?
Originally published for "Imagining: A Gibney Journal (Issue 6)"