Learning to trust myself by learning to dance

After a few years of adventuring overseas, I found myself at home in my parents’ house in my hometown in the midst of a tricky divorce. This is not my beautiful life, I often thought in those first months at home. Between working and being a single mom, I needed a little something for myself. So, when I saw the ad for a salsa and bachata dance class being offered in my hometown, I jumped at the opportunity. I love to dance and maybe this would remind me of the life in Bogota I had just vacated.

When I arrived at the class, my visions of my salsa dance class full of other thirty somethings swirling around the dance floor to that inescapable latin beat were dashed. I walked in to find the crowd of mostly retirees. Of course… who else did I think would show up for the local community college not for credit Wednesday night dance class in the suburbs?

My dance partner that first week was a man who seemed to be somewhere in my age bracket, the only other younger person in the room. He told me that he’s been taking dance classes for the past year and he seemed really committed to it. I respected that. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy who was a natural at dance. He was a software engineer and just a little dorky. His image didn’t conjure up smooth moves on the dance floor, at least not in my first impression snap judgment. I appreciated him that night for sticking with me without judgment and unflinchingly continuing to lead even when I bumbled through the steps. I was nervous but it was fun to be out doing something for me and I survived standing face to face with a man I didn’t know.

The second week my dance partner was an Army retiree who said he’s been dancing for sixty years. He repeatedly told me that the instructors would be mad at him if he taught me things that strayed from their instruction. I assured him it would be fine with me. He gave me feedback and encouraged me. I learned that lessons are there for me everywhere and sometimes come from the most unlikely teachers. I left that night charmed and happy.

And then on the third week, I was paired with the instructor. He was the old Arthur Murray type, so I was skeptical at first. But as the class moved on, I came to appreciate that this unlikely character… the skinny older white man with grey hair and a sharp tongue was actually very good at salsa. And very good at teaching the nuances of being a skilled and, dare I say, beautiful salsa dancer.

His teaching style was a bit gruff and consisted of asking questions that we were meant to know the answers to. “Where was I leading you there?” “When you’re off balance, is it to the right or to the left?” “If your dance partner knows 25 moves and you know 3, how many will you be doing?” I hated these questions because they made me nervous. I always felt stupid and on the spot for not knowing the answers that he thought were so obvious. But I also appreciated the individual attention. For there was nothing I wanted more than to be a skilled and beautiful salsa dancer.

He lectured me often on my need to follow, rather than lead. “You can’t anticipate the next move and try to control what’s going to happen next. Your only job is to hold your frame, do your part of the partnership by applying enough pressure through your hand to his so he can feel where you are and you can feel where he’s leading you. You have to get out of your head and just feel.” Story of my life.

It strikes me that years of failed relationships with men and struggles to find my own sense of worth were all coming to a head on the dance floor. If I could learn to stand up tall and hold my space and trust and follow on the dance floor, then just maybe I could learn to do those things in real life.

So I show up every week on Wednesday nights to the fellowship hall in the local Presbyterian Church where my dance partners are older than my parents and come from a generation that still danced socially the kinds of dances that require teaching. They have been oh so patient with my stumbling attempts and eager to teach me what they know. I show up and try again and again and again and I fight the mean voice in my head telling me that I am no good. Every week I move just a little bit in the direction of all of the things I so want in life: Holding my own space in the world confidently, letting go, trusting, being in relationship with other people, and being a beautiful dancer.

These lessons from the dance floor began showing up in my daily life. I have always been prone to trying to overplan and anticipate every detail of my life. Now I find myself in a space where I have very little control over my life circumstances. I am in the throes of finding a new job, figuring out a place to live, finding childcare for my son, and generally re-establishing my life in the U.S. without the partner I’ve had for the past nine years. I desperately want to plan it all out so I get everything I’m looking for and soon. But that just isn’t possible right now. In the past, that would have sent me into a tailspin of worry and needless action. But as the anxiety creeps up on me, I remember my dance instructor and I take a deep breath. I stand up straight and do my best to hand that control back to the universe and follow its lead.

The Quakers have a saying, “a way will open”. My experience on the dance floor is allowing me to relax and be more patient as I wait for the way to reveal itself. This doesn’t mean that I sit back and do nothing. But it does mean that as I wrestle with a job decision I slowly find myself able to get out of my head and stop weighing all of the logistics and listen to my gut instead. When I start to get jittery and want to spend ten more hours searching for apartments on Craigslist or combing Idealist for new job opportunities, I remember my dance partners and bring myself back to the moment. Where is the universe trying to lead me in this moment and how can I enjoy the experience along the way? I can keep up my search for the next right job and housing and childcare without having to have it all figured out right now. And in the meantime, I can enjoy the dance unfolding in front of me.

The class ends in two weeks, but I think I’ll sign up for the next one. I don’t know where it will lead, but hey, that’s not my job to figure out…it’s just my job to follow as gracefully as I can.

Storykeeper: Katherine Douglas

Katie is an educator and a writer. She is the mother of a delightful three-year-old boy who is constantly teaching her how to be a better human being. She has traveled on many continents and is always looking for the next adventure. She appreciates good friends, good food, and dancing and is happy to know that community can be found all around the globe if one is open to it.


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