By: Katie Flashner, The Girl with the Tree Tattoo
It feels almost cliche to write that we’re living in unprecedented times. The world has been turned upside down and inside out. The future is uncertain. Life will never be the same.
All of that you know. You know how disruptive and devastating this pandemic has been to the world, including our beloved dance communities. Events have been cancelled. Studios have closed, some permanently. Not ones to back down from a challenge, dancers responded in full force, moving their classes and workshops online to keep us all connected and moving.
A silver lining to the pandemic was the new opportunities for us to learn from dancers we’ve never had the chance to work with before. In my corner of the dance world, ballroom dance, virtual classes were being taught by top professional dancers whom you’d never normally get the chance to learn from because they spent their time travelling around the world to various competitions and other events. Digital dancing opened the doors to new perspectives on technique, choreography, musicality, etc.
And yet, instead of taking advantage of the new wealth of knowledge and experience opened up to me, I spent the first couple months of lockdown rewatching my movie collection. I Zumba’d in my living room for the first week in an effort to keep my body moving, but my knees couldn’t take the strain from dancing on carpet. My heart wasn’t really in it anyway.
I was a dancer who didn’t feel like dancing.
Even after my own ballroom coach started offering online group classes, I was reluctant to join at first. Like so many others, I was grieving a tremendous loss – the loss of my reality as I knew it. That reality included hours spent in the dance studio training and practicing with my coach, my dance partner or just on my own. I was at the beginning of what would have been the biggest competitive season of my amateur career. My ballroom blog, The Girl with the Tree Tattoo, was growing and I was beginning to expand beyond ballroom to bring my message to other dance communities. Big things were happening. I felt more aligned with my dance journey than ever before.
And then it all went away.
I was one of the lucky ones. I’m a hardcore introvert, so staying home alone with my two dogs was just fine with me. My day job can be done from anywhere and the company has had enough work to keep me going full-time. I’m able to get all of my groceries delivered, so the only time I need to leave my apartment is to walk my fur babies. I’ve even been able to pay down some extra credit card debt because the money isn’t going toward dance lessons and competitions.
So physically, financially, logistically, I was in a good position. Mentally and emotionally, I was struggling. I was a dancer who didn’t feel like dancing. I watched others’ enthusiasm on social media over the newly available dance workshops and classes and felt overwhelmed. After I worked so hard, I questioned what it was all for and how or why I was to move forward. Maybe this was the end of dance for me.
The questioning, the overwhelmed feelings, the reluctance to join in – all of these were symptoms of my depression and anxiety being triggered by the severe disruption to my reality and the grief over the loss of that reality.
I’ve always found that dance has been a great therapy for my depression and anxiety. Multiple studies have shown that rhythmical movement to music has significantly positive effects on both physical and mental health.
We often dance to escape our troubles. Whatever is making us feel sad or mad or scared, we can channel that emotion into our dancing and find relief. Our troubles can be dropped temporarily while we dance. But if our troubles follow us onto the dance floor, the positive effects can be blocked or diminished.
There is no escape from this pandemic and its wide range of impacts. Even now, almost four months since everything shut down in my area, I must weigh new risks to myself and others as I slowly return to the dance studio, recently reopened for private lessons. I grapple with how to feel free in my dancing while keeping my respiratory droplets contained behind my face mask.
As I’ve processed what’s happened and continues to happen to the world, and dealt with the accompanying depression and anxiety symptoms, I’ve come to realize that there was an imaginary bubble around the dance world that we believed kept us separate from the “real world.” When Life got us down, we danced. When Life threw new challenges at us, we danced. When Life seemed to want to tear us apart, we danced. No matter what was happening in the “real world,” dance provided an escape into another reality. Sure, we had our own drama, but it was dance drama.
That bubble was destroyed by COVID-19. Dance is not an escape from reality anymore. In the past, if you were feeling a little under the weather, of course you would still show up to class. Now, you have to consider if you’re carrying an infectious and potentially lethal virus that you can easily pass on to your fellow dancers.
As artists and dancers, we are experts at adaptation and improvisation. What I’m personally working on next as a dancer is integration. The bubble is gone. There is no more “dance life” and “real life.” There is just my life as a whole. By moving toward integration instead of compartmentalization, the feeling that there is a giant hole left where my dance life used to be fades. Dance can’t be removed from my life because it is included in the whole. How it appears may shift and change, but it is always there.
I need dance in my life, just like I’m sure you do. Dance is still the best therapy for my depression and anxiety. I didn’t find what I needed in those countless online classes though. The dance I needed was found in lying still while playing soft music and letting myself dance in my head. It was found in flexing and pointing my feet or stretching my arms and fingers toward the ceiling while I watched a movie, just to feel the muscles and joints working. It was found in playing with my dogs, as we jumped, twirled and chased each other around the apartment. And yes, I definitely found it again in the dance studio when I returned.
There is a rhythm to everything in Life. As dancers, we know this and yet I think we can forget it when we’re not in our officially designated dance space. What this pandemic is teaching me is that I can connect to my dance in more ways than I permitted myself to in the past. I can access the therapeutic qualities of dance outside of actual dancing. The result, as I’ve observed it so far, is when I do actually dance, I feel stronger, more grounded and more balanced in my movement. I can more fully integrate myself into the dance because I don’t need it to act as an escape conduit from one world into another. The worlds are one and the same.
About the Author:
Katie Flashner, a.k.a. The Girl with the Tree Tattoo, is a ballroom dancer and blogger. Her mission is to inspire and motivate dancers to take ownership of their dance journeys, so they can connect with who they truly are and perform with greater confidence and joy.
Katie has been studying ballroom dance since 2012 and has successfully competed as an amateur ballroom dancer since 2014, most recently winning the World Champion title in American Smooth. Since starting her blog in 2015, Katie has welcomed thousands of visitors who value her openness and willingness to share the good, the bad, and the awkward of her journey while shedding light on the rarely addressed mental and emotional aspects of being a ballroom dancer.
In addition to writing on her blog, Katie regularly contributes articles to FloDance and Sheer Dance magazine. She has also been featured in DanceBeat magazine, Dancesport Place, Dance Comp Review, Dance Advantage, and American Dancer magazine, among others. Her latest book, The Solo Practice Guide for Ballroom Dancing, received over 4 stars in Amazon reviews.
Katie lives in Orange County, California with her two dogs and enjoys watching the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings when she isn’t dancing or writing.