How Dancing Taught Me to Love Myself

There were about twenty of us, gathered in a little fitness room off a side hallway in the Rec Center. We had all picked up a flyer advertising Ballroom Club, had a Wednesday evening free, and decided to come to the callout meeting. College was a time for trying new things, after all.

After welcoming us and thanking us for coming to the callout meeting, the lesson started. Yasha, a tall junior who had been elected to teach the lessons that year, guided us through our first waltz box, and something inside me clicked into place. It felt like I had found something I had been meant for.

Over the next eight years, I would learn ballroom, salsa, tango, and swing. I would compete, dance socially, begin teaching, and become more and more passionate about the art and science of partner dancing. The pursuit changed my personal and professional life more than I could begin to describe in one post, but it seems appropriate to start here: Dancing taught me how to love myself.

Self love and self care were familiar concepts to me, especially with my training as a mental health counselor. But as an often-floundering college student, I felt inundated with articles on why I should love myself more, without any practical advice about how to do that. Partner dancing, and the community that came with it, taught me how to take the first steps and actually practice five components of positive self regard:

1. I learned how to be confident.

Before I started dancing, I had never felt comfortable being the center of attention or trying something unless I was pretty sure I was going to be good at it. I lacked the confidence to be spontaneous, and was afraid of how others would react if I stepped out of my comfort zone – although my own criticism of myself was much harsher than anyone else’s.

Partner dancing bridged the gap for me. There was another person there, which made it a conversation instead of a monologue. I had someone to work with and to focus on, so I could ignore the feeling that other people were watching or critiquing me. I used to joke that I only did partner dancing because “I’m useless by myself!” Gradually, I learned to be bolder and take risks, to take some of the spotlight for myself, and to allow myself to be imperfect.

  1. I learned a new perspective for body image.

Like most young women, I learned early on to be fiercely critical of my body. I held up one unrealistic standard after another, developed an unhealthy relationship with food, and constantly found something to be critical of. When I started dancing, however, I found myself surrounded by artists of all shapes and sizes, exuding confidence and using their bodies to create art.

Dance is perhaps the only art form where the artist physically becomes the work of art itself. I had gone my whole life wanting my body to simply be beautiful, to passively exist according to an ideal in my head. Now, I was taught to use my body to create something beautiful, to become a living piece of art regardless of any perceived flaws or imperfections.

When I watched the dancers I admired the most, their individual body types didn’t matter, because they were creating something breathtaking. I learned to view my body for what it was capable of, rather than what it looked like.

  1. I found a supportive community.

By its very nature, partner dancing cannot be done in isolation. When you join your first class, you are almost immediately paired with another dancer to practice the steps, and then rotated through to try it with a new partner. This helps you learn, but it also breaks down interpersonal barriers in a powerful way.

Dance is a language, and every movement is an act of communication between both partners. In order to dance together, we have to pay attention to each other and coordinate our movements. After dancing with a stranger, I may have to ask their name again, but we have already had a 3 minute conversation, and that is a powerful ice breaker.

There is nothing inherently magical about the dance community. Dancers are just as flawed and human as any other collection of people. However, the nature of partner dancing makes it possible to connect with others in a deeper, more honest way. This opens the door for lasting friendships, real conversations (on and off the floor), and a tight-knit community.

  1. I learned to destigmatize touch.

In American culture, touch is an intimate act, reserved for family members, close friends, and romantic partners. This pressure is somewhat lessened for girls, who are allowed to be platonically affectionate towards girl friends, while boys are expected to only touch their male friends in the context of sports or roughhousing.

In the dance community, this expectation goes out the window. Physical touch is necessary in order for communication, and you quickly learn to experience touch as a non-sensual act. Dancing certainly can be sensual, or romantic, or intimate – but holding someone’s hand, touching someone’s shoulder, or moving into close frame becomes normalized and casual.

The permission to touch, make eye contact, and be close to another person, purely for the joy of moving to music, is deeply humanizing. Our brains are wired to require physical touch; Oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine are all released even with something as simple as holding hands. Learning to embrace and honor my need to connect with other people in a non-sensual way freed me to recognize many of the other emotional needs that dancing satisfies: Movement, expression, creativity, communication, and connection.

  1. I learned how to communicate.

My best friend and I have been dancing together for almost nine years. Once, about thirty seconds into a song, he shifted into open frame and simply asked, “What’s wrong?”

I was taken aback – I’d been having a terrible day, but I was an expert at covering my emotions and most people never noticed when I was stressed. I asked how he knew something was wrong, and he paused for a moment before answering. “Dancing is a language. It’s hard to lie in a language you’re just learning.”

It didn’t take long to learn what he meant. There is something powerful about moving your body to music, and most new dancers don’t realize natural it is to express emotions unconsciously when dancing. Most of us have learned how to wear a mask, but your body doesn’t lie when you’re creating art.

This discovery not only helped me connect with other people, but also gave me insight into my own emotions and how to express them. Increased communication with others almost always leads to better communication with oneself, and having a platform to explore and express those emotions is a critical step on the road to self acceptance.

This February, I hope you take the opportunity to express love: To your family, to your community, to strangers, and to yourself. Human connection is the most beautiful part of life, and there are many ways to connect with those around us. However, if you’ve never tried dancing, I truly believe it can be as transformative for you as it has for me.

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