It’s been a while. For most of us, we’re still grappling with the effects of COVID-19 on our communities. My own city is still in lockdown; I’ve barely danced for a year. That year has given me a lot of time to reflect on both how dance has been an important and fulfilling part of my life – but also the parts of me that have suffered or been exacerbated by the pressures I put myself under within the context of social dance. This reflection has led me to a conclusion that may strike some as controversial:
Dance is not therapy.
Therapy vs Therapeutic
When I say that dance is not therapy, I do not mean that it can’t have great, positive, and even healing effects on people. What I mean is that it is not a substitute for actual therapy. If you carry the burden of mental illness, dance alone does not have the power to solve the issue. It may disguise, hide, push away, or salve some of the pain, but it will not fix it. I know this because I have lived it – and seen others live it.
I have struggled with depression since my early teenage years. Without getting too deep into the details, I had a fairly tough time with serious bullying and a very difficult family. I coped by establishing a strong network of friends, and throwing myself into a cycle of perpetual busyness. I found value through proficiency and intelligence.
And then, I found beautiful, expressive social dancing. Salsa, at first. Then, West Coast Swing and Brazilian Zouk. I started in a very small local scene; I became one of the strongest dancers there. I felt at home when I walked into the monthly social. Being seen as a “good” dancer fed my need to be proficient. Similarly, engaging with the community fed my need to stay too busy to sit alone with myself.
Perhaps you can see where this is going.
Ten Years Later
Ten(ish) years into dancing, COVID-19 brought things to a screeching halt. At the time, I was teaching three nights a week, running an event, working on this blog, working professionally full time, and travelling. I was busy beyond belief and “successful” within dance. But yet, it was also a time where I was very rapidly backsliding in my own mental health and feeling worse about my place in dance than I ever had.
The Deceiving High
A short time after I started dancing, I was an overconfident dancer. I felt I was fantastic; I didn’t yet know enough to know that I was very beginner. That period of 1-2 years was the most blissfully happy of my dancing years. It made me fall in love with dance, but it also made me reliant on dance for getting the “good” feelings as many parts of my life languished in unhappiness.
I was dancing at least five nights a week. I started the beginnings of this blog to manage all my opinions and ideas. I was beginning to train more seriously, and to set my sights on teaching and organizing. I treated dance as my therapy to escape all the things I didn’t want to deal with.
That’s when I hit my first big plateau.
After the first plateau, I went through many more cycles of feeling great – followed by periods of feeling terrible. I’d find myself unable to enjoy some events or dances one week because of my self-consciousness. The next, I’d be in the zone, feeling invincible. Over time, the ‘down’ periods became more frequent than the “in the zone” periods. I grappled with intense feelings of imposter syndrome and loneliness. I also started developing issues I’d never had before dance, including self-consciousness about my body. Those periods also reflected on my out-of-dance life.
Ebbs and Flows
In the decade I had been dancing, I never once sought help for my mental health. It waxed and waned from time to time – often tied to how I felt about my dancing and contributions to the dance community. As most serious dancers can tell you, that is a very, very dangerous path. After all, we have plateaus and backslides; we have off nights and on nights. We have nights where we’re never asked to dance – and others where we never get to sit down.
The ebb and flow of confidence is the nature of dance, but if we’re using social dance as a stand-in for therapy, it becomes a problematic thing for our mental health. It translates from dance-as-a-fun-thing to dance-as-a-measure-of-self-worth. A bad dance can haunt you for ages; thinking you gave a lacklustre dance to someone you admire can be crippling. Imposter syndrome sets in. And, at some point, you catch an unkind word about your dancing that bottoms out your confidence even more.
Very often, the effects of this can be even more severe if you take on a role like teaching. After all, it’s very difficult to present yourself as someone who knows things when you struggle with feeling terrible about the very thing you’re supposed to teach. And, sometimes this leads to overcompensation in other areas: constant critique of others; being the loudest voice to try to show your worth; being scared to take classes for fear of being exposed.
For many who find themselves in that position, it’s because dance became their only therapy. And ultimately, it is not enough to address the festering wounds of mental illness, trauma, or low self-worth. It doesn’t give you coping mechanisms and strategies. In fact, if you were already vulnerable, it can make those vulnerabilities even worse.
If you find yourself caught in the grips of an unhealthy relationship with dance, it is a good idea to seek help from outside. Enter therapy. Talk to your family physician. Get Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In some cases, even a prescription medication can help. I wish I could give concrete strategies, but I’m not a therapist (as much as we might joke that dance instructors are like therapists).
Getting proper help has multiple benefits. First, it can help you feel better – both inside and out of your relationship with dance. Second, mentally healthy people tend to have easier relationships with fellow dancers. After all, someone who feels comfortable and secure is less likely to shut down or lash out at feedback, and is also in a better position to do things like set boundaries and communicate their wants and needs.
Unfortunately, many of us live in places where “real” therapy is difficult to access or expensive. But, you may be able to find books, webinars, or other low-cost resources where you are. For example, this is a list of some in Canada. Here is another page that has some potential resources in the USA.
You Deserve a Positive Dance Life
When we suffer mentally, it causes dance to lose some of its power as a positive force in our lives. It is amazing when dance can be therapeutic, but it cannot cure us long-term. We deserve more from something that is supposed to be a hobby or a passion. Our dance communities also thrive more when we can give them a healthier us. While they are wonderful safety nets when we’re down, they’re not designed to be the sole support network.
So, if you’re struggling, don’t follow my ten-year plan. Make one that addresses your mental and emotional needs in a holistic way. Dance can be a great, supportive addition to that – but it shouldn’t be the entirety of that support. Develop a healthy self that includes dance, and you will have a happy dance life. Develop a dance life to cover for an unhappy self, and dance will eventually cease being the happy place.
Stay safe and well, and see you on the other side of this pandemic.