Weekend Inspiration: From Dystonia to Dance

This is an incredible snapshot of how dance can help us heal – not just emotionally, but physically.

Federico Bitti suffers from dystonia, a disease that causes involuntary muscle movement. His condition was not improving, despite traditional medical treatment, until Madonna entered the picture.

Yes, you read that right. Check it out:

Getting Honest

I’ve been working on honesty here at Follow My Lead.

A big part of the reason I started this project was to encourage and support anyone who wants to dance to feel empowered to do so. The thought that anyone would WANT to dance but hold back because they’re embarrassed or afraid breaks my heart.

For most of my life, I’ve talked about how much joy it brings me, how much I LOVE to dance. And my friends, family and colleagues all know that and have seen that love and passion in action.

But it’s not so easy to talk about the other emotions that seem to flare up so easily: the envy, the insecurity, the body hate.

It’s necessary though. It helps me learn and heal, for sure. But I also want to be real. I don’t think it means much to have someone who has studied dance for their entire lives to encourage everyone to “just get out there!”, “have fun!”, “feel the joy!”

Because it’s scary to dance. It’s easy to compare yourself to other people and feel like you’re coming up short. It’s hard to feel comfort and love for your body.

It wouldn’t be fair for me to just talk about how dance is joy in motion, how it’s a form of human communication that spans our globe, how it’s a spiritual experience, how it is so much FUN. It is all of those things.

But it ain’t easy.

I know you have to get over some fears and make yourself vulnerable. You’re not alone. My fear is that if people really knew what I was thinking, knew how insecure I was, they wouldn’t like me. They’d think I was negative and weak.

So I write about it. The times when I dance and I feel love, freedom and joy. And the times I feel unworthy, envious and insecure.

Those feelings are scary for me to admit. Maybe as scary as it is for someone who’s never danced to get out on that dance floor at his cousin’s wedding. Or for someone who doesn’t fit society’s extremely narrow definition of physical beauty to put on some tights and take a ballet class.

We’re all scared sometimes. Dance is frightening because it’s so powerful. I think we can make it less so by sharing the journey together. And I can only share it with you if I’m honest about it all.

Learning the Steps is Easy

Something I realized recently is that most of the challenges I have studying dance have less to do with any actual styles or steps I’m learning and more to do with just dealing with my own shit.

The steps are simple, in a way. It’s clear to me that if I commit myself to learning a dance and I keep practicing, I will improve. This has happened before and it will happen again. So the easy thing would be to keep going to classes and blissing out to that fascinating process of gradually learning and mastering new steps, secure in the knowledge that I’ll keep improving and becoming a better dancer. This would be very fun!

But, no.

My mind loves to fixate on what’s wrong.

I learned the steps of the choreography, but didn’t get the style right.

I’m so tight and inflexible that I can’t properly do all of these steps and I bet everyone thinks I’m old and pathetic.

Ugh, my teacher loooves that other dancer so much. Sigh. She should love her – she’s an awesome woman inside and out and I adore her too! I’m the one that sucks.

Sprinkled in with the joy and exhilaration of dance are so many other painful feelings: insecurity, jealousy, frustration, self-loathing, disappointment.

But there’s an upside to this. What dance illuminates, I can heal. If it weren’t for my dance classes, I wouldn’t necessarily get such stark reminders of how much I need to practice loving and accepting myself – being KIND to myself. When so much insecurity and jealousy comes up for me, I know that’s a part of myself that needs healing.

Dance truly does make me feel joyful and blissful. But it does more than that. When I’m open to looking at ALL of the feelings that come up when I dance – the good and the bad – that’s when dance transforms me.

***

Do you find that dance brings up joy and pain for you too? How does dance transform you? I’d love to hear from you – talk to me in the comments!

Act Like a Dancer

For me, stretching regularly is always a challenge. It feels like such a chore – especially since I need it so much, so it is rarely comfortable or relaxing.

I know I should take rest and stretch breaks from my computer during the day at work, but I find myself forgetting, putting it off, or just feeling kind of demoralized and apathetic about the state of my body.

Over the last three years or so, as I’ve become more immersed in a 9 to 5 computer-based office job (previously I was self-employed and spent less time sitting at a computer all day), I’ve gained around 15-20 pounds, lost strength, flexibility and muscle tone, and become more prone to fatigue and minor colds.

This depresses rather than motivates me, so I continue my routine of sitting with my laptop all day.

Then, last week, during a massage for neck and jaw tension, a thought popped into my head:

What if I identified as a dancer first, and an office worker second?

It would be a priority to move and stretch regularly throughout the day because I’m a dancer and that’s what I need – and more importantly – want to do.

As a marketing specialist, I need to answer emails, research sales data and run conference calls. As a dancer, I need to take five minutes here and there to stretch my neck, massage my feet and do a few pliés, as well as taking a walk break to move and get fresh air.

I knew I would need a reminder of this to keep it top of mind and start a new routine, so I drew this and placed it near my computer at work:

It’s been about a week and I’m happy to say – it’s working!

My mindset has shifted. I don’t feel bad about having tension and tightness (“boohoo, my computer is slowly killing me”) and needing to stretch it out because if I were a full-time dancer, I’d be doing the same thing and probably dealing with painful injuries to boot.

Without those negative feelings, in the past week I have enthusiastically:

  • Taken several walk breaks at lunchtime
  • Gone to the gym twice
  • Taken a Reggaeton Fusion dance class (and heading to another one tonight!)
  • Done yoga on my own at home and taken a power yoga class
  • Taken time to step away from my laptop to gently stretch

There’s such a difference between “should” and “want”. As an employee with a desk job, I “should” take breaks to care for my body and prevent chronic computer-sitting tension and weakness. But as a dancer I “want” to move and stretch and bend. It’s such a simple part of who I am and what I do. Easy!

***

Do you have a similar challenge when it comes to what you “should” do for your body to stay healthy and feeling good? How do you deal with it? Tell me in the comments!

Taking the Risk to Dance

I saw this image quote on Facebook today and started thinking about risk and dance.

via the PVD Lady Project

I don’t think most of us think of dance as a “risky” behavior generally. It’s not particularly dangerous and or even uncommon.

But any time you put your heart and soul into something, there is risk involved, because you’re vulnerable.

And dancing – whether it’s learning a new style, dancing in front of or with other people, or just getting comfortable with moving your body – is not just a physical exercise. It’s emotional; it’s spiritual. It requires both strength and vulnerability.

I can think of a lot of situations in which dancing could be seen as a risk that someone would be afraid to take:

  • Dancing with people after being told their whole life that they’re not a good dancer (or having told other people that).
  • Being terrific at a certain dance style and then trying a new style and being a beginner again.
  • Choreographing a dance and performing it and wondering whether people will “get it” or even like it at all. Or worse, criticize or mock it.
  • Dealing with physical injuries or limitations and taking dance classes with people who are in “better shape”.
  • Learning to dance a partner dance and worrying that the other leader or follower will not enjoy the dance.

I could think of many more scenarios where dancing is scary. It’s emotionally dangerous and risky because it triggers a lot of fears and shame we may be harboring about our own bodies and what others will think or say about us.

But, of course, the exciting things happen when we can recognize something as scary and risky and decide to push through and see what happens!

I’ve been pushing myself out of my shell more and more in the Reggaeton Fusion class I’ve been taking and it’s been feeling great. I feel more confident, have more fun and I think I’m improving as a dancer.

Last week, on my birthday, I even volunteered to do our choreography solo. I was so glad I did! We all dance in a circle while students do the choreography in the middle as we clap and cheer them on. I felt so much birthday love from the other students 🙂 and I was really proud of myself for just going for it. I didn’t have to be a perfect performer and there was no real reason to be scared. It turned out to be one of the highlights of my birthday this year!

What about you? Does dancing ever feel scary to you? What risks do you take so that you can enjoy dancing more or grow as a dancer?

Dance and a Doctor’s “Stroke of Insight”

Last night, I saw a beautiful contemporary dance performance by Jenni Bregman & Dancers at the ODC Theater.

One of the pieces, called “Stroke”, was inspired by Jill Bolte Taylor. She’s a neuroscientist who wrote a book called My Stroke of Insight about her experience having a stroke and what it taught her about the right and left hemispheres of the brain. It’s one of my favorite books of all time.

Here is her TEDtalk on the subject – it is fascinating, poignant and inspiring. (I always cry at the end whenever I watch it!)

I think for many dancers, we can relate to the peace, joy and connection that is characteristic of the right brain’s perception of the world. In fact, I dance in order to have that very experience.

When I dance, I feel joyful and light, expansive and at peace with my place in the universe, and connected with the flow of love and energy that is life. I’m not just thinking, or doing. I’m literally “human BEing”.

Dance helps me remember who I am.

Why I Sweat My Prayers

Life’s been really busy lately, so I’ve temporarily fallen out of my dance routine.

I was away on vacation and traveling for work, then sick with a cold, and then I moved homes. It was really hard to fit in any dance classes.

But right before the move, I was able to squeeze in a two-hour dance session called “Sweat Your Prayers” that totally revitalized me.

This sign outlining the 5Rhythms hangs in the gym where we dance.

Sweat Your Prayers is not a class so much as a dance gathering. There’s a DJ/facilitator who sets the theme and tone for the morning and plays the music. The music generally follows a path called the “5Rhythms“: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness.

There’s no talking on the dance floor, although you do communicate with other participants through smiling, laughing, occasionally cheering, clapping or singing – and of course – through dancing.

Sweat Your Prayers gives me a Sunday morning to dance at my own pace with my own movements for a whole two hours. I have plenty of time to warm-up, rest and dance according to however I’m feeling that day.

I also have a lot of fun experimenting with different dance techniques. It’s a very open, welcoming space, so it’s easy to let go of feeling self-conscious. If I want to do some ballet steps, some salsa moves, or just leap around the room, I can.

And I love dancing with other people who are there to immerse themselves in dance too.

Admittedly, I was a little shy at first to dance with other people. I just kind of kept to myself and avoided eye contact. But lately, I’ve been opening up and have had some wonderful experiences. Sometimes it’s just sharing a smile and a laugh, sometimes it’s coordinating dance movements together. It’s really fun!

I actually got a little choked up at this last Sweat.

Our facilitator started playing the song “You Get What You Give” and a bunch of people let out a little cheer. To be honest, I’ve always gone back and forth on this song; sometimes liking it and sometimes thinking it’s really annoying.

But everyone was excited and smiling and dancing, and I started listening to the words as I danced.

But when the night is falling

And you cannot find the light

If you feel your dream is dying

Hold tight

You’ve got the music in you

Don’t let go

You’ve got the music in you

One dance left

This world is gonna pull through

Don’t give up

You’ve got a reason to live

Can’t forget

We only get what we give

My heart just opened up.

I hadn’t danced in weeks and here I was surrounded by all of these blissful people just dancing their hearts out. I felt so connected to music, to dance, to people and to life.

And that’s why I sweat my prayers.

***

(And if you feel like dancing to the song too, here’s the music video – complete with 90s fashion, angst, mall setting and a big dance party/food fight.)

How about you? Do you ever get emotional or teary when you dance? Tell me in about it in the comments!

Rest is Not Optional

One of the main reasons I haven’t posted in over two weeks is because right after I wrote about having an “off” night salsa dancing, and needing to get back on the horse again, I got back on the horse again and completely exhausted myself.

Two nights later after that depressing salsa night, I went out salsa dancing again at new place with new teachers. The class broke down the basics in a different way, and I got to dance with some partners who I clicked with. I didn’t mean to stay out late, but I wound up dancing ’till midnight, which meant bedtime at 1 a.m.

Not too bad, except that I had to get up at 6:3 0 a.m. for work. And, that night I had longstanding plans for a friend’s birthday for some all-night drinks and dancing at the Cat Club for 80’s night. We had a blast dancing our butts off until the bouncers kicked us out – and I got home at 3 a.m.

The combination of physical exertion and minimal sleep caught up with me that weekend. I got a cold (fever, sore throat, etc) which was followed by a week or so of congestion and a dry, hacking cough. It took me a while to feel like a normal person again.

All of this was an obvious reminder to me to take care of my body. It’s OK to be in my 30s, in love with dancing, and willing to squeeze it in between normal work and family obligations. It’s OK to have late nights. But I have to remember that I need to rest after exertion – especially if I’ve lost sleep. Otherwise, I’ll suffer – both from being sick and missing out on more dancing!

Today, I exercised for the first time since that dance-crazy week by taking a Zumba class. I decided to consciously give myself some rest (instead of lazing around watching Hulu, playing on my iPad, or stressing about my holiday to-do list). I’m actually surprised by how much I conked out! I hadn’t realized how tired I was until I gave myself the space to rest.

Now I’m awake, about to re-energize a bit with some Rooibos Chai, and writing this post 🙂

Maybe it’s a good reminder to you too. Do you overdo it sometimes and forget to create time and space to rest? I think we all need that – especially with the holidays coming up.

Here’s to good sleep, lots of dancing and plenty of health and energy this winter!