I have been dancing since I was a toddler. Ballet, tap, modern, jazz, liturgical, cheer, and African dance — I did it all. My body was built to withstand the pain of broken bones, strains, and exhaustion. I was resilient, a fighter.
Then in 2010 and 2014, I was hit with pulmonary embolisms (blood clots on the lungs) which significantly slowed down my stamina and breathing. In the midst of my diagnosis, I tried to keep dancing, even if only minimally, but the combination of these lung traumas and my preexisting chronic illnesses (endometriosis, an undetermined connective tissue condition, and asthma) made it nearly impossible to return to being the dancer I was before. I turned to mindfulness and meditation techniques to regain lung strength. Guided imagery was especially healing and soothing for me over the years, but I still missed being able to sustain my energy in a dance class.
I am a believer that in order to reduce my risk of clotting again and to continue to improve my health, I have to stay in motion. But chronic pain is sometimes debilitating. I have tried to explain the sensations to a few doctors, who have referred me to more doctors. None have been able to pinpoint the cause of the pain. In fact, the advice of doctors only seemed to compound my problems:
“You are obese, so losing some weight may help relieve the pressure on your joints.”
“You should consider customized shoe insoles to improve your gait.”
“Ten thousand steps a day is good, but if you were more physically active, even with your chronic pain, your pain would decrease.”
All of these stabbing comments by providers seemed so insensitive as I was seeking the cause of my pain. The best advice I received was to return to dance specifically. In the spring of 2022, a sports medicine doctor, who tested my nerves for damage, noticed my posture and hip turnout. She mentioned that dance had gotten my body this far and that I should return to see if dance could help me heal. Granted, there was also some gaslighting mixed in there about how my pain was caused by my weight. However, I chose to embrace the goodness and return to dance.
In summer of 2022, after being double vaccinated and boosted, I got COVID-19. I had heard horror stories of asthmatics whose breathing was unbearable during their COVID experience, endometriosis patients whose symptoms were off the charts and unpredictable, and murmurs of possible blood clot risks due to COVID. I spent two full weeks testing positive and terrified that my body would betray me again for any one of these reasons. Despite my frustration and fear, I still dreamed of returning to dance.
For years, I had spent my afternoons freely dancing around my living room, but with the pandemic, that practice slowed — my dance floor became my home office. I knew the physical health benefits of dance but needed to remind myself of the spiritual connection as well. I hoped that this journey would help improve my health physically, as well as help the emotional repercussions of the ongoing trauma from health events through the years.
Putting on Tap Shoes for the First Time in Years
In September 2022, I was nervous but antsy to enter the studio on the first day of class. While looking for a nearby dance studio, a friend told me that her daughter’s dance school also held adult classes. She was also looking for dance classes, so we decided to sign up together. My wife took my “first day of school” photo before I left, and I messaged with the friend who was meeting me there. I admitted my anxieties: that all the women would know each other, be great dancers, and be much more in shape than me. Both my wife and friend reminded me that I was tough enough to handle any of those self-doubts and to remember that I was taking the class for myself and no one else. This was the pep talk I needed to strut in with confidence.
Throughout the first few classes, I vacillated between confidence and self-consciousness. Familiar terms like “shuffle,” “ball change,” and “time step” brought back muscle memories, but my body was not cooperating in the same way it once did. It had been nearly 15 years since I’d been in a tap class; that was a few endometriosis surgeries ago and before either of the pulmonary embolisms. As I recalled movements and shuffled across the floor, I had three key realizations:
- My core is weak — not in the “I wish I had a six-pack” way, but in the “I’ve had five abdominal surgeries” way.
- My breathing is controlled. I did not need my inhaler for classes and I rarely coughed.
- My balance is off because of the nagging pain and weakness in my right thigh, paired with extreme pelvic pain on the left side.
Balancing on the left leg was wobbly, and doing steps that required a lot of force from that leg felt like jelly. But I felt empowered and proud of myself with each shuffle and turn. In my third class, that burning weakness in my right leg was unbearable. I was so distracted by the pain that I was fumbling with movements. I massaged my leg with my go-to CBD/THC topical rubs. I applied Alni Body Care and Sativa Valley salves during breaks and prayed for the topical rub to kick in.
At times I noticed that it was difficult to concentrate on the movements the instructor was giving us, a problem I attributed to memory issues associated with long-haul COVID. In order to succeed in a movement, I had to focus on the names of the movements, stare at myself in the mirror, and concentrate, without applying too much pressure on myself.
Reclaiming My Body
Initially, I had signed up for an eight-week session of classes. And I loved it so much that I plan on continuing with lessons through the winter. I hope to see some improvements in my balance, memory, and pain levels. And even if I don’t notice any improvements, I am proud of challenging myself and feeding my body in a way that’s familiar.
During this adventure back to dance, I am reminded that I am still a dancer — even though I needed a break for a while. I am reminded that despite my pain and setbacks, this body continues to carry me through. I am grateful for whatever movement I am able to do, even on the painful days. I will continue to dance from those painful places. I charge myself, and any former or aspiring dancer, to remember to dance from the places that feel good on any given day. So, if my leg is weak but my arms are feeling strong, I will sway my arms and maybe throw in a shimmy. This body deserves care after all of the trauma she has endured; I will do my best to keep her in motion as best as I can.