Returning to Joy

From the time I was a little girl dance has been in my heart and soul. At the age of four, I started my first ballet class. I remember my parents bringing me into the room and standing by the door to watch me take my place at the bar. We lived in San Francisco at the time, just a few blocks away from the studio. I remember the smell of the old wooden floors, the creaking that they’d make when I stepped over certain panels as I’d make my way across the floor. Even at this young age, I knew I loved whatever this was.

Throughout my childhood, dance was my best friend. When I was in ballet class, I felt like nothing else mattered. School, homework, playing with friends – all important, but dance was better because I would fully lose myself in it. I loved the discpline – leotards only in certain colors that denoted what level I was at, the belt around my waist to monitor the slightest movement of my hips, my hair in a bun so tight that my eyes and head would slightly ache by the end of class. Then there was the mirror. A girl’s best friend and worst enemy. The mirror was my guide providing continuous feedback and positive reinforcement that I was very good at executing each movement and transitioning from one to the next. It was also a measurement tool where I learned how to compare myself to other girls judging how good they were, how they looked, hoping I wouldn’t be the one to make a mistake to be seen by everyone in the reflection. Looking back, I realize how wonderful it was to be so joyous about something in my childhood, but also how much this environment molded my way of being in the world.

In high school the older sister of my high school friend passed away on a trip to Disneyland with her family. She was visiting and on break from her prestigious position with the Boston Ballet. She died from an apparent heart attack related to her low body weight. This turned my world upside down. How could this artform that had shaped who I was, taken the life of the most talented and beautiful dancer I had known? That summer a special aired on 20/20 revealing the heartbreaching details of her untimely death and her family’s plea for the ballet world to take note about the unrealistic pressures they put on their dancers to be thin and perfect.

Throughout most of my 20s I took ballet and jazz classes. I still held on to the idea that I was a dancer even though in my heart I knew I would never dance professionally. As I struggled to keep up with girls in their teens who had near perfect extensions, I would catch a glimpse of myself in my old friend the mirror. My legs wobbled and my hips hurt. One day in class, the image in the mirror became clear to me. I wasn’t happy doing this anymore. The reflection that had once given me so much validation, confidence, and joy was now telling me “It’s over. You are not a dancer.”

Thanks to theater, in my late 20s, I was ready to dance again, but under the guise of acting. I learned that dance opened doors for me that would have been otherwise closed. I began a new courtship with dance realizing that the strong foundation I had developed from all of those years of ballet helped me in so many ways. I felt my confidence returning. I would dance only if I was in a show because now I could be an ‘actor with a dance background’. No pressure.

Fast forward to the present. I’m 37 now and this past month I have returned to dance. No theatrical performances, just me, the studio, and my old reflective friend. I am opening myself up to learning dance all over again in a new way – with creativity and curiousity even trying new forms of dance like Nia, Belly Dancing, and Zumba. I am no longer judging myself or others in the mirror. I am dancing to feel my body, mind, and soul connect in a wonderful space, I am dancing to return to my roots, I am dancing to feel joy. It makes me sad to think that this part of myself has been alive for all these years within me waiting to be discovered again and how easily I had forgotton about it. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to let go of the past and walk through a new door. Now that I’ve walked through that threshold, I won’t be turning back. There are many things that I do well, there are many things that bring me joy, but none as much as dance. A teacher said to me after class yesterday “You looked really, really happy.”  I think I have returned to joy