“Dance is the hidden language of the soul” ― Martha Graham
I’ve always felt my most vibrant, most creatively free and most beautiful when I am dancing. But I never truly understood the healing power of dance until later in life when I turned to dance movement to rebuild my body, mend a broken heart and reclaim my creative energy.
“It’s the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance.” ― Xiaolu Guo
As a young girl I trained first in ballet, then modern and jazz. I was a somewhat ugly duckling, lacking in the “cute category” and taunted by male classmates. But when I was on a stage performing, I felt like a swan. My first “beautiful moment” was coming out for my curtain call in a bright pink tutu at the age of six after my debut as Trixie in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Chattanooga Little Theater. My father, Mel, stood at the footlights to present me with two bouquets. I opened my arms, took a deep curtsy and gathered my flowers. That night taught me I was destined for center stage, not the sidelines.
In the 1960s I frugged and boogaloed to television’s “Shindig” and “Hullabaloo” with my baby sitters when my parents went out for the night. I idolized Nancy Sinatra and practiced dancing like Nancy in front of my relection in large living room windor wearing my go go boots and mini skirt. I fell in love with Tom Jones and danced to “Delilah” and was thrilled to be able to see him on stage in Nashville with all the women tossing bras at him.
At age 12 I begged and finally convinced my mother to let me take ballroom dancing classes at Mrs. Howell’s Dance Studio where I learned to Box Step, Fox Trot, Waltz…and kiss a boy after class. I strapped on heels, wrapped silk scarves around my neck and gyrated and Hustled to Donna Summer and Kool and the Gang in the 1970s. My high school classmates and I expended our pent up adolescent energy bobbing and bumping hips to Soul Train. I performed in my local high school dance troupe, Terpsichord, and tried my hand at choregraphy.
“Life is sweet when you pay attention. When it doesn’t seem sweet, put a sticker on your nose and do a funky dance.” ― Whitney Scott
Soul Train clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hk681TTujUo
In college I donned a hat and practiced jaunty hip juts and palmed the air in the manner of choreographer Bob Fosse. At school dances we performed the Carolina Shag. My heart lept when I first saw “A Chorus Line” and “Pippen” (the original) on Broadway, I watched the movie “The Turning Point” with Mikhail Baryshnikov over and over.
The ugly duckling blossomed, but my legs and body shape were never right for dancing professionally. Eventually after college my ballet slippers and jazz shoes were donated to Goodwill, and my dancing was mainly at friends’ weddings or forays into New York City’s club scene, such as The Surf Club or Millennium.
And then for many years the dance music slowed down as my business pace sped up. The only rhythm in my life seemed to be the steady pulse of work and running my agency. We tap danced our way through client presentations and did victory dances each time we won accounts. Working with my clients was a different kind of dance where every move needed to be calculated and purposed.
I danced again, happily, at my wedding in New Orleans in 2007. David and I carefully curated the playlist of songs with New Orleans music we both love so much along with a mix of popular tunes. The playlist included two songs that meant more to me than I ever would realize at the time: “The Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “The Tennessee Waltz,” songs of my birthplace. These songs were the last two dances I had with my father when he was alive.
I turned to dance to heal my body and spirit after losing my father and my breasts, both to cancer in the same year. My weakened arms could not lift anything. My body ached. But I managed to move my limbs to the slow beat of music. I started with careful, supervised movements to build strength in my core and arms and then turned to more active free flowing movements to maintain energy and stamina. And I grew stronger until I finally healed my broken wings and heart. Lately I have turned to Zumba and ballet which force me to concentrate and follow specific movements; two disciplines I have had to relearn.
Today, I take dance breaks during the day to counter the stiffness of sitting at the computer, lingering neuropathy in my arms and stress. On weekends, my husband and I crank up the music only audible to us and the legions of trees surrounding our house. I freestyle dance to my heart’s content, and grab my husband to join me. I don’t share a stage. No one can judge me. I am free to move as please.
Every day brings a chance for you to draw in a breath, kick off your shoes, and dance.” – Oprah Winfrey
Studies have shown that steady daily exercise has marked health benefits to women, reducing the risk of certain cancers, heart disease, obesity and other ailments and disease. Dancing has been one of my most enjoyable and easy forms of exercise; in fact, it’s almost too enjoyable to call it “exercise.”
The healing power of dance was brought to my attention with these three examples:
Breast cancer patient Deb Cohan leads a flash mob dance in the operating room just prior to her double mastectomy. Talk about a stress buster! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNSCrA6rbJ4
In my book, “Getting Things Off My Chest: A Survivor’s Guide to Staying Fearless and Fabulous in the Face of Breast Cancer,” I interview exercise physiologist and dance educator Dr, Martha Eddy, who created Moving for Life, an aerobic movement program incorporating dance to help women recover from breast cancer. The program is free for women and a offers companion video, Dance to Recovery. http://www.movingforlife.org
My esteemed PR industry colleague, Patrice Tanaka, documented how ballrom dancing helped lift her spirits, change her outlook and reclaim her life in her book, “Becoming Ginger Rogers.” Today, Patrice is not only a women to reckon with in the public relations world but also on the dance world as a competitive ballroom dancer. This is an inspirational book on many levels,
Last night I curled up and watched “Dirty Dancing” and “Grease,” two of my favorite nostalgia dance movies that really get me hopping. It was a Saturday dance-athon on television, and I was alone. I got up and started to dance in front of the TV. My audience was my dog, Sazerac. It is simply impossible to stand on the sidelines and watch when there is room to dance and express yourself. Patrick Swazye said it, and I will rephrase it, “No one puts Melanie in the corner.”
“Dirty Dancing” clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypKSbnYOrwE
Pehaps if members of the U.S, Congress loosened up and listened to the words of the French actor and playwright Molière, our government would run more efficiently. “All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of the great leaders have arisen merely from a lack of skill at dancing.” A Congressional Flash Mob anyone?
So the next time you feel stuck inside, stick out your legs and lift your arms. Turn on some music; open up your shoulders, tuck in your stomach, toss back your head and sway your hips. And move to your heart’s content.
“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche