Whenever I take personality tests, they always remind me how much I’m a logical thinker. They say I’m best fit to be a mathematician or engineer, and while I have more affinity with the arts than math or the sciences, I can’t argue with that basic observation: I often rely on logic more than feeling with how I process the world. This means it’s easy for me to get stuck in my thoughts—a problem I fight often as a poet. But, in addition to poetry, I’ve learned to use dance to get unstuck, especially throughout my struggles with mental health.
I’ve done a lot of growing through college and beyond to make these parts of myself meet—learning to balance the need for things to make sense with accepting uncertainty, feeling, and intuition. But it’s been a long road. As a freshman in college, for example, my matter-of-fact thinking meant my writing was stiflingly anchored to what’s realistic, what can be understood in a logical way.
Second semester, I was invited to the university’s west coast swing club and thought: why not? I’ll give it a try. As with many student organizations, one of the beautiful things I found was a coming together of people from a variety of fields of study and personality types—a microcosm of how west coast swing includes so many people one might not always expect to be dancers, people like me who found this dance as a creative outlet and helpful supplement to our day-to-day, providing things we sometimes can’t find in other parts of our lives. But as for learning the dance in itself, I enjoyed it largely because I could make sense of the technique; I’d been involved in martial arts for nearly a dozen years and had a pretty good idea of how the body moves. But it became clear that understanding technique could only take me so far.
Eventually, my straightforwardness and sense of logical thinking was stifling my dance, too, just like it was stifling my writing; I couldn’t learn spontaneity simply by making sense of it. As I worked to become comfortable with the improvisational nature of this dance—where technique is a vehicle to communication and on-the-spot creation—I was hit with something else that didn’t make sense to me: depression.
In some ways, being depressed makes a lot of sense: sometimes the world is too heavy, so stress, sadness, and being overwhelmed get the better of us. But having depression is more than just feeling down in response to something negative: even on days that should be great, even when I seemed to have everything that I thought should make me happy, I felt empty and numb. I couldn’t logic myself out of the daily haze and hopelessness, even amid great friends and privilege and time at a college I enjoyed doing the things I loved.
Often this causes people with depression to retreat from the world, their friends, their hobbies, and their social activities; even things I knew should bring me joy simply didn’t anymore. Because of this, my therapist was surprised and excited to hear I was still dancing, even as my depression became crippling in other areas of my life. Me—logical, debilitatingly depressed, way-too-busy college senior with terrible social anxiety was traveling the country to dance in rooms of hundreds of people for weekends at a time. It didn’t make sense.
I think that’s part of why I could still dance through most of my depression. Even when poetry—my primary art—felt empty, dance did not. There’s so much beauty and complexity in poems: an expansive imaginative space using language to explore nuance and pain and voice and so many other things, but at that time in my life I had trouble accessing poetry’s ability to heal. Perhaps part of the difference for me then was this: every word has a meaning, even if that meaning is contextual and fluid and shifting with time and culture and how and when and by whom it’s used. And I was trying to work with words to make sense of things, instead of feel them. (Which, I’ll admit, made for lots of mediocre poetry.)
I was writing and reading poems but was still stuck in my head, but when I danced west coast swing I was forced to be spontaneous and in-the-moment, not only in the imagination but the body. I couldn’t dance and stay stuck in my head at the same time; it wasn’t possible, at least not for long, to be dancing and not feel more than I thought.
I needed to feel two dancers hear and interpret the same music differently; feel 3 am in a packed ballroom when you think you should go to sleep but for a moment the real world doesn’t exist and it’s just dance and music and sweat; feel how the marriage between technique and kinetic knowledge translates into improvisational movement—bodily expressions that don’t always have names. I’ve spent a lot of mental energy thinking about what dictates each exact movement a person makes, but of course there’s no exact explanation for this. And that’s what I needed—this healing joy I could feel but couldn’t quite explain.
When my life got “better” but I didn’t feel any better as a result, I needed something that didn’t really make sense to me to combat how often mental health doesn’t quite make sense, at least not in any simple way—which is part of what makes mental illnesses illnesses and not just easily explainable bouts of bad moods or confusion or any other temporary and easily explainable pattern or behavior. I needed a way to get out of my head, and I did it through getting into the movements of my body.
I never would have thought I’d find west coast swing—that it would become an important part of me, something I’ve enjoyed thoroughly for years, that I compete in and have been hired at events for. And I imagine many people in this community—especially those of us who are introverted and logical and often stuck in our heads—feel similarly: that other people (and maybe even our past selves) didn’t expect us to be here, yet here we are, and we’re better for it. Sometimes, sitting in a ballroom during late-night dancing and seeing so many bodies moving to the same music but each different from each other, seeing the beauty of partnerships and watching the incredible range of interpretations, seeing so many people enjoy something together, feeling tired with sore feet and not enough sleep but feeling simply so glad and grateful—sometimes in these moments it all feels like so much, so overwhelming that I can’t make sense of it except to feel it in the fleeting moment. It was experiences like these that I needed when I was struggling most.
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