Nope – this is not about Men Without Hats’ one hit wonder, but we can definitely dance if we want to.
Despite my sassy writing voice, I have a rather sunshiny personality. I’m usually smiley and happy-go-lucky about life (when I’m not rocking RBF); it takes little to make me feel good, largely because I’ve figured out what makes my star player happy.
But I keep a few things in my arsenal to dig me through life’s proverbial dirt when things get rough:
- Running for “overload explosion” emotions because there’s nothing like Runner’s High
- Boxing for those Mt. Vesuvius rage eruptions. Rare, but effective
- Hiking to cure “OH GOD SO STRESSED SO OVERWHELMED CAN’T BREATHE” brain melts
- Writing to make sense of it all
- Yoga for turning the body into pizza dough (aka relaxation)
These allow me to be a more emotionally healthy, balanced human.
But there’s only one thing that lights up my happy sphere, shaking off the dark feely clouds, turning me into a ball of euphoric light: dancing.
Good golly J’s on my feet, I love to dance.
I love how the beat penetrates my pores, taking over my body, forcing complete surrender, chained to the rhythm (because Katy P, obvs).
I love how the right song grabs my feels so tight that I don’t have anywhere to go but along with it. As I write, I’m at Java House, bumping to a Spotify playlist, dancing in my chair. I’m that person, and I don’t care. My body and the beat have a tough time not going together.
Dancing is my ultimate “let go.” Yoga focuses on this through breathing, but I have a tendency to hold my breath (LOL doing that wrong). When I dance, everything falls away. My body talks. I step outside self-judgment, and I let loose.
Formally, I’m a novice. I didn’t take dance classes until college, where they quickly became my favorite because as soon as I stepped into the studio, everything else evaporated. The music and choreography swallowed me up, forcing laser-like, present focus. It was the first thing outside of running that could untangle me from my thoughts (because Loud Brain).
I had amazing instructors, who I respect and admire for the unexpectedly transformative lessons I learned. My first jazz instructor was encouraging and passionate; my second boldly declared, “If you forget, commit. If you’re gonna fuck it up, fuck it up big.” And then there’s my hip-hop instructor, Duane: the personification of a warm hug in a chocolate fondue fountain. I didn’t have a hip-hop bone in my body, but I was desperate to learn, despite the possibility of looking like a fish having a land seizure.
Luckily, Duane shifted the focus from fear.
“You’re in a safe space. When you’re here, you can workshop, make mistakes, and figure out how the moves work in your body. No judgment. Feel the rhythm, and follow.”
This was a phenomenally cathartic lesson because I was in emotional ruins, desperately in need of “a safe space.”
I’d been in a long-term, emotionally abusive relationship. It took me a while to catch up; I couldn’t identify it until a year after (circa hip-hop class), when I started having symptoms that looked a lot like PTSD. Emotional abuse is tricky; sometimes it’s obvious (verbally berating), and other times, it’s subtle (cunning manipulation tactics).
The clever weapon in my situation: guilt. Attempting control through manipulation this way was effective and employed often. His insecurity and jealousy prompted unnecessary, unfounded fights, always resulting in me apologizing. He played the victim perfectly, and I was slow to catch on. Implied threats were deployed on the sly, creating an avoidance environment. Hovering threats are devious; it’s harder to call them out as bold-faced bullshit when they remain unstated.
This seems obviously unhealthy and fucked up; it seems so clear, in a “Why didn’t you just fucking leave then” kind of way. But it’s never that straightforward. There’s often leverage involved, and it’s fucking impossible to explain how it happens to those who haven’t experienced it. Humiliation feeds into the guilt loop used against you for years, and it’s a devastating cycle of self-criticism.
The shame is crushing. “I’m a smart girl… how did I let that happen?”
It was gnarly but subtle; by the time I found my “fuck this shit” bone, I didn’t have much of myself left to stand on. Ironically, that tipped me off: I found myself frequently wondering who I was outside of the relationship. Emotional abuse starves your self-esteem so slowly that you don’t notice until it’s wasted away. And somehow (you’re not sure because now everything seems so fucking clear how could you miss that), you let it happen. It’s a shit, ass-fucking place to land.
Fortunately, I had a great support system. When I started talking about things I thought were “normal,” friends gently pointed out, “You know that isn’t normal, and it’s not okay, right?” When I needed to verbally process a “regular break up” (because I hadn’t put together all the pieces of the abuse puzzle yet), my parents patiently listened to the same things over and over for weeks.
When I fell into dance, feeling safe was hard to come by. Ironic then, as dancing requires vulnerability, but it felt different; vulnerability with movement was okay. Music wasn’t going to hurt me. But vulnerability with people was hard; it felt like I was too open to being taken advantage. Logically, I knew this to be unlikely, but trauma has a way of fucking with your sensical brain.
Dance gave me a safe space I could take with me when class was over. Dance became a way to move through trauma, without having to exhaustively talk about shit that kept triggering flashbacks. Dancing became a way to heal all the painful parts that I couldn’t stand to let anyone touch.
Spring break is almost here. The city will quiet when the students leave, and facilities will empty. So, for the next week, I’ll spend my mornings, or afternoons, or nights, in my safe space, workshopping new choreography, learning routines, and dancing until I can’t breathe, until nothing else exists but my body and the beat.
This weekend, it’s my good friend’s birthday. You can find me on the dance floor. *throws on DJ headphones, cranks it* Dis the kinda beat that go…