Dance as a Path for Healing: Reclaiming One’s Self

Child Spinning

 

Love of Dance

I have always loved to dance.  I recall being a child, spinning around and around on the living room floor.  As with most children, I was not at all shy about dance.  I simply experienced the pure joy of movement itself.  I had no awareness or fear of judgement from others or self-critical voices of perfection editing my expression.  I was simply dancing as an expression of life.  However, as an adult, this freedom of expression no longer comes to me so naturally.  So, what happened to that carefree spirit?  When did this all change?

 

Certainly, at age five, all was well.  It was my first time in a dance recital.  “I’m a little hula hula baby…”  I still remember the song and the dance, as I had received much validation.  I was placed center stage because I knew the steps so well.  To top it off, the local newspaper mentioned the event and I, along with three other dancers, were in the featured photo that accompanied the article.

Hula Dance Recital

During my elementary school years, beginning ballet turned to tap dance and eventually I switched to gymnastics; so by the sixth grade, I was no longer in the dance recital, I was in the audience observing it.  I recall this so vividly because there was a featured dancer on stage. A classmate nearby identified that dancer as me.  Obviously, it was not, for as I pointed out, I was sitting right there. By being mistaken for the featured dancer, my awareness of the ability to dance in relation to others was heightened.  Self-critique had entered my consciousness.  I dabbled in dance, whereas that dancer on stage was more committed.  I never knew who that dancer was, but looking back, it very well could have been my dear friend, Michelle, whom I met the first day of middle school.

Michelle, my new best friend in the seventh grade, became my dancing buddy.  Even though our dancing paths were different, we both shared a love of dance.  Michelle was dancing the path of rising dancer for the company, Minnesota Dance Theater.  I also took ballet class at MDT, but as a “normal” person, wearing the black leotard and pink tights.  Michelle’s group wore light blue leotards.  I wasn’t in competition with her per se, but was aware of the difference in our training.   The “wannabe dancer” in me vicariously lived through her. I took joy in trying on Michelle’s point shoes when I’d be over at her house after school.  I took joy in watching her perform as a mouse in the Nutcracker ballet.  As she grew into new roles throughout the years, Michelle would teach me the choreography for her parts.  That was fun.

I continued to experience the joy of dance along side my friend, Michelle.  We both ended up on the high school dance line.  Though I may have gotten nervous before a performance, I mostly recall feeling comfortable dancing in front of the crowd gathered at a homecoming football game or at the high school pep fest.  Perhaps there was comfort by being part of a group, along side friends.

Loss of self and dreams

It wasn’t until my college years that I more clearly recognized restrictions I had formed around dance and my ability to express freely.  Surely, after a few beers, I was able to dance at a fraternity party or night club; but that’s not the kind of dance expression to which I refer.  I’m interested to know if I have the ability to express joy and life itself through movement and dance as I stand alone in time and space. Do I block myself with self criticism and ideas of perfection? Do I fear judgement from others? Am I afraid to move freely, even when only I am present?

Some part of me was blocked.  I could see this when I’d take a jazz, contemporary, or ballet class.  The spirit of life was not flowing through my movement.  I so longed to be able to dance, truly dance.  By my college years, I had acquired a filter that suppressed my unguarded spirit.  This was evident through my dance as well as seen in my cautious approach to other aspects of life.  Did I feel judged by friends, by my college boyfriend, my own self-criticism?  I remember crying my eyes out to my sister one night.  I was recalling the movie, Flashdance, and was feeling so very sad that I had not gone down the path to become a real dancer.  In that moment, I felt that’s what I wanted to do and the opportunity had passed.  It was also around this time in life that my dear dance buddy, Michelle, had died in a car accident.  I had lost not only my best friend in life, but my dance muse as well.  There were such very strong emotions at that time. Whether they were triggered by Michelle’s death or the lack of personal dance expression, my tears were a reflection of a loss.  Not only had I lost a friend,  I had lost that childlike part within, the carefree spirit that naturally connects and expresses life itself.

I pretty much stopped dancing after college.  There would be an occasional wedding in which I’d make my husband dance with me. He’d spin me around and I’d be happy, but, for the most part, I had forgotten about the dancer in me.  I became a mom and focused on raising my children.  Dance came back only in snippets as I’d sing and dance with my children in the privacy of our home.

Getting Back Into Dance

It wasn’t until after eighteen years of marriage, that I began dancing again.  I had met my husband in college at the age of eighteen.  Within the year we began dating and by the time I was twenty-four, I was married and living in Los Angeles.  We had joyful years together, having two wonderful children, some furry pets, a house and an exciting experience in the entertainment industry, living a mid-western version of the “Hollywood lifestyle.”  I began exploring my interests in healing work, art and photography. I thought I was fairly complete, but it wasn’t until we divorced that I realized I had let a part of me go.  Perhaps I hadn’t individuated enough before entering a committed relationship.  Perhaps I took on a role as observer to the more exciting career my husband had as a comedian and writer.  Many things I’m sure led me to give up a part of myself, but through the divorce, I began to recognize this.  Post-divorce, I was now ready to reclaim that part within me I had ignored and suppressed.

“I’m going to learn Argentine TANGO!,” I exclaimed to myself.  How in the world did I think of that?  I had no awareness of social dancing earlier in life, not even enough to take a dance lesson to prepare for my wedding dance; so, why would I think to take up tango dancing now?  I found myself amused at the thought. I even bought myself a tango dress, well before taking any lessons whatsoever.  It was a declaration of claiming back ME!

Not Fully Present

My divorce helped me recognize some pieces of myself I had let go within my marriage; but, I also began to see a familiar state in which a part of me wasn’t fully present. There is a difference as I see it. I was comfortable as an observer in life.  This was true in high school, college, life in Los Angeles.  I had always felt like I was a bit on the outside of things, though I was comfortable this way.  No one would know this from an outside perspective.  I had friends.  I was well liked.  I had social activities and interests; yet, I can see now that I wasn’t experiencing myself or life with full presence.  Had I suffered emotional pain, lack of validation, a past trauma as a child leading me to “check out” a bit?  Was there trauma carried over from a previous incarnation, causing me to feel unsafe on this beautiful planet?  Perhaps. I could invest my awareness in the past to identify causes, but I prefer to be present in the NOW. 

Self-Portrait

Self-Portrait

How fully present are we? We are both body and spirit. Our spirit self, our consciousness, can reside within our body or be elsewhere.  Is our awareness stuck in the past, the future, on the highway, at work?  Has our spiritual awareness checked out as a result of the body experiencing pain, chemical substances, sugar, caffiene?  Perhaps we, as Spirit, have felt more comfortable hanging out in a “heaven” we believe to be outside our body experience.  Most of us are still on the journey of awakening to our awareness, of incarnating more fully into our bodies. As we gain more presence within, we bring the knowledge of our spiritual selves into the present.  We don’t need to go outside ourselves for heavenly comfort.  By bridging our spiritual awareness with our earthly selves, we in turn, merge Heaven on Earth.

Can we experience our own version of heaven through dance?

Dancing as Presence in the Physical Body

Have you ever stubbed your toe because you weren’t paying attention to your surroundings?  I have.  Where was my consciousness awareness?  Who was operating my body at that time?  Have you ever driven through an intersection, realizing you didn’t consciously notice if the light was actually green?  Chances are it was, but the body was on autopilot.  Our body knows our routines so well at times, it’s easy for us to let our awareness drift and be outside of our bodies. I chose to dance again as a way to get more fully into my body.  Dance is a physical activity, and as such, one must have heightened awareness or fall prey to injury. It involves our sense of hearing, our sense of balance and equilibrium.  We can express our physicality through rhythm and motion.  Not only are our muscles challenged to wake up and be present, our brain needs to fire new neurons and signals to inform muscles what, when and how to move.  Within social dancing, one mentally needs to be sharp in order to decipher cues from the lead and follow as to what improvisational move is next.  Autopilot won’t work on the dance floor.  One must be present, in the driver’s seat of our body vehicle.

Dancing for Social Health

In addition to the physical benefits of dance, there’s room for personal growth and presence on a social level.  Have you ever consciously “checked-out” as a result of feeling uncomfortable in a social setting? Within social dances such as salsa, west coast swing, tango, blues, there’s ample opportunity to explore social skills.  I was not looking to find my next romantic or life partner when I began social dancing; rather, I was happy to find a place to have fun and interact with people.  After taking a few classes, I became familiar with my classmates.  Rather than sit home alone in my thoughts, I could go out dancing and know that I would see familiar faces and have a good time.  I didn’t need to call up another single friend, pull someone away from their family and spouse or wait until I had a date partner.  How freeing is that!

Dance as an Expression of Self

I am still challenged to move freely, without inhibitions, when dancing “free style.” My self-critical, perfectionist, fear of looking silly filter is still present, but it’s loosing its grip. Social dancing has helped. In my youth I had a dance buddy in Michelle, and friends on the dance line.  Similarly with social dancing, we are not alone on the dance floor.  There is comfort in having a partner.  There is comfort in having “moves” that you and your partner both know.  I have been dancing West Coast Swing since 2009.  This style of dance specifically offers opportunity to explore creativity and improvisation.  One can, at their own pace, begin to expand their comfort zone of body movement and expression.  I find my own self expression weaving it’s way into my dance.  There is no filter when I am inspired by particular songs, or if I decide to “make fun” of dance. The child within celebrates, glimpses of my carefree spirit shine forth.

Learn More About West Coast Swing

I recommend visiting the dance web site linked here to learn more about West Coast Swing.  Although it’s a local Minnesota site, there are universal applications for learning about the dance and music.  Read the section under What Is WCS/Why Should I Do It? There are awesome quotes by people regarding the value dance has had for them, illustrating not only the physical joy, but the joy one finds in connecting with others, exploring creativity and freedom of expression. Well spoken by Soleman K., “To me, WCS = Heaven.”

Next Steps?…

African dance, hip hop? (Now there’s a growth challenge for me!)  Most importantly…  Find a space, turn on music, and move!  Leave the inner critic at the curb, and without anyone watching…Dance, move, express! Explore freely, the essence within, that is JOY and LIFE itself!  May we all give this gift to ourselves.  What is there to lose?  Just be fully present in our bodies so we don’t stub our toes!  If so moved, please share your thoughts/experiences about dance, expression, creativity, vulnerability, courage as they relate to Being Spirit in a Body.  Share a photo of you dancing!   With your permission, perhaps I can share your comments/photos along with this blog post!  Celebrate with me in the Delight of Dance!

-Amy Laederach

 

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About the Author

Amy Laederach is an energy-based therapist and health advocate, facilitating health & well-being for the body, mind & soul, at Everspring Health in Minneapolis, MN. In her spare time, Amy enjoys writing, photography, art and West Coast Swing Dance.