Today’s post is a little different from the usual. In honor of this year’s “Spirit Season,” Get On the Floor Dance Co. (where Anthony and I take ballroom lessons) has challenged its students to write their most creative and inspiring essays on how ballroom has changed their lives. I’m sitting at an airport in Denver after an intensive women’s retreat, and I felt it appropriate to post my entry on the blog. (Warning — it is lengthy.) The idea is to make my story as “interactive” as possible through multimedia through the Web. Enjoy!
When I was 19, I had a stroke.
I was helicoptered in to the hospital, where a neurosurgery team would open up my skull to relieve the pressure building up on my brain. The stroke had been caused by a massive bleed from an arteriovenous malformation, a tangled mass of artery and veins — something I’d never known I’d had until it nearly killed me that day.
When I awoke from the coma after surgery, perhaps two weeks later, half of my body was completely paralyzed. It was as though someone had drawn a perfect line down from head to toe, declaring the right side normal and the left side utterly useless. It was just dead weight for about a month, when I started getting movement back.
This story could go on for pages, so for brevity’s sake (and levity’s), we’ll skip to the part where I was able to finally go home after two and a half months of living in the bubble of the hospital, where everyone understood what I’d gone through and would do anything to help me.
After two brain surgeries and tons of physical rehab, I was able to go home with a quad cane, a custom-made ankle brace, and a pair of gym shoes. Recovery was slow, and I felt isolated — thanks to the loving care of my parents, I wasn’t completely alone, but suddenly, I found myself at not even 20 and having to learn how to do everything — and I really mean everything, because so much of what we do involves both sides of the body — and accepting that my relationship to my body was forever changed.
Had you asked me at age 18 how it might feel to suddenly lose function of half my body, I wouldn’t have given it much thought. I’d have said, “I donno, it would kind of suck to have to use a wheelchair.”
I would later find myself envying a girl I met who used a wheelchair because she was able to wear heels.
But it wasn’t just that it “kind of sucked” to go from bedridden to sitting in a wheelchair with a helmet because I was missing a part of my skull, and then upgrade to using a quad cane, then a normal cane. It was that I felt my body, the one I had used all my life to run, climb the walls, and dance, had betrayed me.
When I was 23, I had the most devastating heartbreak of my life — a betrayal of the faith I had had in my relationship with a guy who I realized only years later was emotionally abusive to me because I had not set the right boundaries that would tell him a) it was not okay to make me feel inconvenient because of my disability and b) that he was not entitled to try to change who I was.
To better illustrate the extent of the latter issue, there was a day that I had a seizure in his arms because he had made me stop taking my medication due to it “giving me bad breath.”
Setting the right boundaries is a skill mastered only by those who love themselves enough to do so. My self-image by this time was not recovered enough — plus, I had the immature, needy quality many young girls approach boys with — and together, this created a poison that would erode the relationship. We were only together for a little over six months, but the story continued for another two and a half years. It never would have lasted so long if I hadn’t insisted that he was my soulmate, that he was all I needed to be happy. (The lesson here was that as long as I tried to pull him towards me, the farther he would run away.)
I finally made the life-saving choice to let him go on a fateful day where I realized I couldn’t spend the rest of my life toiling over someone who didn’t appreciate or honor me and forced me to apologize for my conditions. (Not only the physical one, but the fundamental condition of being myself, as well.) It was a completely one-sided abomination of a “relationship,” and after three years of thinking of nothing but him, I made the shift.
I was free.
The Universe, in its perfect wisdom, had handed me on a silver plate another person, the one you all know now as Anthony, not too long before I liberated myself . . . It whispered to me gently, “When you’re ready.”
We were only friends first because I had been so entangled in my ex’s energy, but soon after I made the shift, our love story began — slowly but surely, as I opened up to the possibility of letting another man into my heart.
When I was five, all I wanted to do was take ballet. My father wouldn’t let me, claiming that if I did, I would build “muscular thighs.” (Joke’s on him!)
Instead, my mom signed me up for Chinese cultural dance, which I did for several years. I relished being on stage and in my body.
In later years, I made the spirit squad at school, which was a combination of cheerleading and dance. My favorite part was always the halftime dances.
In high school, I was also involved in our drama club, where I was invariably cast as a dancer for the musicals I was in: a tornado and Jitterbug dancer in The Wizard of Oz and an Indian dancer for Peter Pan.
As a freshman at U of I, I took my friends dancing at the High Dive virtually every week, as I loved to dance, even if I had barely had any formal training. When music played, it moved me, and I was confident in my body. I was never sick growing up, and I had tons of energy — my body was something I could always trust.
Before I worked at a boudoir photography studio, I was a client there first. I’d won the door prize at one of their open houses and scored a free boudoir session out of it!
I was nervous about whether I’d be able to pose properly for my photoshoot because I knew the posing was difficult for everyone. Let alone me, with half a weakened body — and throwing in a pair of stilettos? Fuggedaboudit!
Thanks to the photographer’s patience and help, though, the shoot was a success. I felt so excited about the experience and what it did for me, a young stroke survivor, that she pretty much hired me on the spot. Together, we created the concept of the Women of Strength series for her blog, and I of course featured myself as the first story.*
So I had experienced firsthand the empowerment that was celebrating my body in a feminine way. At the beginning of 2014, I decided to explore this concept deeper and started my journey into the “Red Tent Revival,” a revolutionary movement into understanding and implementing femininity, which involves channeling all the energy we cultivate every day in a hypermasculine world down into our body and making it a celebration of our birthright as women. I subsequently joined its leader as one of her lifelong mentees!
Feminine movement is about curves and undulations, about the senses. It’s about being, about surrender — things many women today have forgotten or lost touch with.
Without going into too much detail, the Red Tent and its partner programs, the Pleasure Tribe and R.E.D. Sisterhood, deeply explore the nuances of reclaiming feminine energy and self-love. Rather than concentrate on getting things done, staying in our heads, or stagnation, feminine energy is about movement and just “being.” It’s also about connecting to the masculine in a synergistic way, partnering with it so that the doing masculine can lead — and the feminine can (safely) surrender, and follow.
It’s also about reclaiming an ancient lost power — well explained by Sheila Kelley (who was incidentally interviewed within the Tribe):
If her claim that the new wave of feminism can be found on a stripper pole shocks and disturbs you, that is exactly the point. In ancient times, fertility dances performed by groups of only women were a celebration of what fed the community — and it eventually evolved into what is striptease today.
It is only in an energetically imbalanced society that the celebration of the nurturing force that gives life to the people themselves is warped into a highly stigmatized, condemned thing. It’s a damn shame, and leaders like Sheila Kelley, who brings the art of sensual dance and femininity into everyday women, piss a lot of people off. Because what they don’t get is that the feminine is as important as the masculine, and because they think if it seems a bit sexy, it can’t possibly be empowering.
This is SO far from the truth.
Remember when I said my body was something I could always trust? After the stroke, I shut it down and told it I couldn’t dance in public.
Because my left side was always still so weak, I was rarely ever moved by music anymore. Dance disappeared from my life because I was filled with a sense of shame. Though the stroke had not been my fault, I responded to my body’s betrayal by disconnecting from it. My mind was still intact and sharp as it once was, which only gave me more reason to stay safe inside of it. Like, all the time.
I didn’t realize at the time that anything was missing, but my life without dance is an inauthentic one. It was a lifestyle of fear and self-judgment, as though I had snatched back a gift I’d had to offer the world and buried it deep for none to see. It was an apology for something I could not have been to blame for.
I disconnected from dance for about eight years. Finally, a friend of mine who’s also a dancer invited me to go to a Zumba class with her.
Resistance flared. I couldn’t go to a dance class — in public! What if I couldn’t keep up? What if my ankle gave out?
But then these questions which stemmed from fear gave way to slightly more empowering ones: What if I simply let the instructor know that I had special needs and asked her to modify?
I felt a little excited, yet nervous, to go to class with her. But if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that the little steps just outside my comfort zone are the only ones that will grow me, so I sucked it up, put on my dance pants and my old jazz sneakers and went to Zumba.
It liberated me.
I’d locked up a sleeping goddess inside me for eight years and she’d finally woken up! I realized quickly that no one in the class was watching me; they were too busy worrying about themselves. And, in a slightly self-satisfied way, I also noticed I still had a better sense of rhythm than a lot of the other students.
It was a challenge, to be sure. I really had to work to keep up, and in the end I never spoke a word to the instructor. Even though my dancing was no doubt strange, I still did it as though no one was watching — because it wasn’t about external feedback. It was about what I felt in my body. About not apologizing for it not being pretty, but enjoying the experience regardless.
I became quickly addicted, and then added hip hop classes, which greatly reminded me of old spirit squad days (without the pom-pons.)
At 18, my friend Kevin and I decided to take some group salsa classes. We started out in Grant Park in a massive, sweaty Chicago SummerDance setting. We then upgraded to group lessons at a restaurant every week for the rest of the season — but we never became actually good, because we merely learned steps, and not the actual nuances of ballroom. I didn’t take anything away from the lessons besides the basic step, and I only ever would use it today in Zumba where a partner doesn’t exist.
Now that it’s been over 10 years since the stroke, I’m pretty functional. I still can’t run or do many things with both hands, but on a good day, I can usually fool the layman into thinking I’m a perfectly able-bodied woman. But I work with a personal trainer, do yoga, and gym it up often to build up strength in my body (Zumba and hip hop included). It’s continual rehab because the brain needs constant stimulation in order to rewire itself, and as certain movements get easier, I have to challenge myself some more.
Since that summer with Kevin, I hadn’t given ballroom dance another thought — until fate moved its hand yet again and I won another door prize: an intro lesson with Get On the Floor!
“It’s weird staring into your eyes,” I told Anthony at the intro lesson. It was the first time I’d held eye contact with him for such a loooong time. It felt awkward. And since Anthony had had zero experience with ballroom dance prior to this point, and I’d had virtually none in the realm of partnering with someone in dance, our movements were stiff and contrived. I also found it impossible to dance and talk at the same time — it required too much concentration.
Anthony and I had been together for three years at that point, and I was eager to create a “thing.” Something that was uniquely ours that we could practice together and maybe even become known for among our friends and family. He was a little less excited about it than I was, but that was typical. (He is the skeptical one of the two of us, anyway.)
Not to mention, I had learned that ballroom dance could be a really effective way to train the brain in a physical therapy aspect — because it requires responding to a lead or anticipating your partner’s next move, it stimulates those neuropathways in a way unlike much else. Not surprisingly, months of lessons later, I found my ability to walk backwards to be drastically improved — all that backward reaching in the follow had trained me!
We opted to sign on for a bronze program of lessons; we’d chosen to learn the art of swing, tango, foxtrot (Anthony’s favorite), salsa, cha-cha, and rhumba. I’d particularly wanted to try rhumba because I had learned about the flirtatious “conversation” in the dance from Chen Lizra:
As we journeyed on with our ballroom practice, Anthony and I really jumped in headfirst. Our goal, besides deepening our connection and trying something new, was to become proficient at social dancing. We began setting out on nights on the town with the sole purpose of dancing. These events began with shy, clumsy series of basic steps and a lot of lurking around the refreshment table, but now, we “get on the floor” with eagerness — even if we don’t remember some of our latest moves.
I hadn’t gone out in the pursuit of dancing the night away since my freshman year of university, back in 2002!
Slowly, slowly, I began to feel what it meant to follow Anthony’s lead. On occasion, I would be invited to dance with Get On the Floor’s Steve and find that he could somewhat smoothly lead me to do steps I hadn’t yet learned!
This, my friends, is feminine energy. I am finally able to surrender enough and allow my masculine lead to guide, protect (against others, poles, walls, etc.), and inspire movement in me.
Not to mention, I have an extensive collection of high heels I still can’t wear — my ankle strength is still questionable at best, and I really felt like that extension of my feminine style expression had been cut off from me. The moment I found out there was a pair of (ugly, but functional) Latin heeled practice shoes that I could actually dance in was a proud one. Seriously! I even considered buying a second pair just for the everyday.
Our lessons really hit a turning point when Anthony and I decided to move in together in March of this year. Our relationship had truly become one based in trust, safety, and growth together, much the opposite of any other romance I’ve ever had, and it was a huge milestone for both of us.
I really felt compelled to share the experience of dance with our loved ones, and I proposed that Get On the Floor lead a group lesson at our housewarming. As a little treat and challenge for ourselves, I also suggested we put together a short, intermediate salsa routine to perform for our guests. (I will post the recording of us from the party as soon as his mother gives us the file.)
As Anthony held me in frame the day of our party, I could sense that he was really nervous.
Rather than letting the pressure of all the attention affect my energy, though, I was surprisingly able to just look straight into his eyes and anchor myself there. I remained present as I followed his lead — which, due to nerves, wasn’t completely true to the choreographed routine we’d practiced. But it was okay.
Do you know what this meant? I had grounded into my own body, surrendered control, and allowed my man to take me on a little journey. It was such a unique and symbolic way for us to start our new life together in our new home; at the moment of our performance, as far as I was concerned, it was just Anthony and me. I had grown into the surrender, too, of holding eye contact without discomfort. I was home in more ways than one.
I gave in to the moment and set an example for our friends and family. If I, with my broken body, could use ballroom dance to channel my energy from headspace to core and feet, and connect through eye contact and touch, then so could they. It didn’t have to be pretty, and I’m sure it was far from it, but the fact that we did it was a huge thing in itself. Remember when I wouldn’t even dance for myself? Let alone in public? What a long way I’d come.
The next step — quite the challenge — will be for me to learn to style the way we dance and give our dance partnership (and probably also our real life one) the juiciness that draws all the attention to what I’m doing. The female half of the ballroom is meant to sparkle, to command the attention in the same way that the male counterpart commands the direction of the dance.
Draw attention?! The idea terrifies me. But bring it on.
To our healing,