Originally published on StartAgain Media
“Dance is the hidden language of the soul.” –Martha Graham
How could I not love an experience that is tagged as “Ditch the workout, join the party?” Zumba® fitness, which claims to offer just that, is wildly popular, packing classes at gyms and studios around the western world. When I first heard about Zumba® several years ago, I was naturally very intrigued. I danced throughout my childhood, although as an adult, I was seeking a dance form that would not require a partner, contained minimal risk of injury, and promoted no expectations of perfection or precision. I popped into my first class in 2008 and could barely tolerate it; in fact, I left early. It bothered me that I had such a visceral reaction to being in a Zumba® class. I loved to ballroom dance, and there are so many elements of a Latin dance within the Zumba® structure. After several attempts to get through a single Zumba® class over the years it finally dawned on me that the structure is what I resent, especially at this stage of my life.
There is something very unappealing to me about being lined up like soldiers falling in line, trying to keep up with a high-energy instructor. I have several good friends who teach Zumba® and emphasize that the point is not to keep up, but to “do your best” and “have fun.” Yet there always seems to be this implied goal of one day being able to keep up with the drill sergeant. As a trained dancer in several forms, including ice dancing, I’ve taken more than my share of dance classes where learning the foundational steps in order to create a beautiful work of art is the primary objective. Looking back on my younger days, it was the experience of dancing around the house with no particular aim, or going into my parents basement to dance out these magical stories flowing from my own creative self that most resonate with me. From my earliest days, freestyle was my calling! I appreciate this training as something that worked for me well in my youth. As an adult who has finally claimed my birthright to be myself, I’ve learned not to torture myself with precision in the pursuit of my personal art. So why would I subject myself to a dance class experience that drives me crazy?
On the other side of this coin, there is my friend Brandy, who is well aware of my disdain for Zumba® and similar fall-in-line-behind-the-leader dance forms. Brandy has come to several of my Dancing Mindfulness classes over the last few years, and they are not really for her. One day she shared with me, “Why you can’t stand Zumba® is the reason I like it; you are given something specific to do. With Dancing Mindfulness, I’m lost when you tell me to find my own movement.” Her comment made me realize how our respective personalities gravitated to the dance practices that best fit us. Brandy is the first to tell you that, in life, she needs specific guidance; I am one who tends to take it into account but ultimately I’m the free-spirit blowing in the wind who follows my intuition more than my intellect. I am not insinuating that Brandy or those like her are somehow inferior to me for needing more directive and regimented approaches to life. On the contrary, there are times in my life when it would be easier if I could just fall in line, keep my mouth shut, and listen to directives. The nature of my personality has made it very difficult, for instance, to work for someone else. In 2008 I began working as an independent contractor, a vocational state that allows me to flourish. It would be extremely difficult and spirit crushing for me to return to taking direct order from others in one 40-hour-a-week setting, yet there are times when I wish I just could just change who I am for the sake of having a more routine life. And having that wish granted would be an insult to a value I regard so highly: genuineness.
To quote the well-worn cliché, it takes all types to make the world go around. There are so many dance forms, variations of dance, other movement practices, and combinations to accommodate our diversity. It is not lost on me that some people shudder when they’re exposed to Dancing Mindfulness, a practice that is very free-form, go-with-the-flow, and somatically introspective the same way that I cringe during Zumba®. Your reaction to a certain dance form teaches you about yourself and it is a powerful lesson that you can tap into and use for your own growth at any time in your life. This reaction is an amazing gift, if you choose to see it that way. Even if you are blocking yourself off from dancing or moving altogether, therein lays an opportunity to compassionately, non-judgmentally ask yourself, “What is this really about?”
What I call “dance personality” does not have to be a black-or-white distinction; such polarities are rarely optimal in life. Even though I have settled into my free form conscious dance practices as most genuine for me at this time in my life, and Brandy is best described as someone who dances best when there is structure involved, there are people who fall in the middle. In fact, my most recent attempt at Zumba® came last week when I went out to support Kelsey Evans, a Dancing Mindfulness facilitator who is also a registered Zumba® instructor. Kelsey teaches both Dancing Mindfulness and Zumba® and I wanted to take a class with her. It’s beautiful to see how Kelsey can resonate with both forms, a trait that I believe is indicative of her beautifully flexible and multi-faceted nature. Taking steps outside of one’s comfort zone is a value that I routinely teach in Dancing Mindfulness. I find it very important to practice what I preach by attending some classes in both dance forms and yoga styles that aren’t optimally me, while not judging myself too harshly or labeling myself as a failure if I can’t keep up or tolerate a whole class (physically or emotionally). What was interesting about this most recent Zumba® experience is that while I could keep up physically, it felt a lot harder to do so because I was being guided in movements that did not feel genuine in my body at a certain time (I often feel the same way in Vinyasa yoga classes). As a result, the class felt like it took forever and it was an exercise in torture as opposed to a fun experience. For me, with Dancing Mindfulness, I can be practicing for three hours and it feels like 20 minutes, or practicing for 20 minutes and it feels like three hours.
Geneen Roth, one of my favorite writers on food and body image, routinely teaches that if you are engaging in movement just for the sake of working out, you are setting yourself up to fail. Rather, she advises that we find forms of exercise that we genuinely enjoy doing. For me, Dancing Mindfulness or other conscious dance forms fit the bill. Dancing Mindfulness is a practice that I can engage in where clock time stops. For people like Brandy it is Zumba®, for you it may be finding the dance in the flow of your Vinyasa practice, or challenging yourself to master steps on the ice or on a ballroom. Maybe for you, it’s a combination of these forms, and if so, that is beautiful! It is beautiful because it is you. Find the movement practice that is genuine for you and refrain from judging yourself if thoughts are creeping in about what you should be doing instead.
Dr. Jamie Marich
Curator of the Dancing Mindfulness expressive arts blog: a celebration of mindfully-inspired, multi-modal creativity