What Dancing Taught Me About Life

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Swing dancing changed my life.

I first fell in love with it in 1998, when I decided to try something new. I loved dancing and had studied ballet, flamenco, jazz, salsa, tango. My dad taught my siblings and I how to dance the Irish jig on the braided living room rug when we were kids.

I was looking for a style of dancing that I could practice, for fun, with others. A girlfriend took me out swing dancing one night. What a kick!

Literally, twirling and kicking my way around the floor, I was hooked. High energy dancing to big band music, spinning from one man’s arms right into another’s —- I loved it!

I met my ex-husband while out dancing. He was from out of town and was showing off his flashy moves. Soon we were dating, then teaching together.

More time went by and we somehow became the “dancing king and queen” of Albany, NY — teaching hundreds of students a year, performing to crowds large and small at all kinds of gigs, even dancing on local TV.

Miraculously, we were getting paid to do this fun thing we loved to do!

We had become “lindy hoppers.” Lindy hop for those who don’t know yet is the granddaddy of all swing dances. It is an improvisational partnered dance that originated in the African-American community in the ballrooms of Harlem in the 1920s.

Lindy hop is beautiful, sexy, jazzy. And not the easiest dance to learn! I was so used to picking up every dance style I’d ever tried instantaneously.

Lindy hop had a learning curve. I’d watched the nation’s top dancers perform back in 1998 and thought I should be able to dance like them right away. Ha!

It was a struggle in the beginning. My body wouldn’t always do what I willed it to do. I was learning new “steps” and more importantly learning to really connect with a partner, feel his lead on the dance floor. This meant letting go of my own need to control.

Dancing was a great cure for a lifelong perfectionist like me. I was used to having creative control. As a writer, I get to revise my work.

There is no chance to “revise” what you do on the dance floor. Each dance is created spontaneously in the moment. You have to just get out there, give it the best you’ve got, have some fun, and move on to the next dance.

Like my Buddhist studies, dancing taught me to:

  1. Be present in the moment.
  2. Let go of the need to control.
  3. Be surprised by life.
  4. Be grateful.

Dancing brings me extraordinary joy. As I work on my first book, I’m reminded how important it is to do what brings us joy. I’m committed to go out dancing at least one night this week.

What could you do this week to bring more joy back into your life?

What has learning a new skill in your life taught you?

Lisa

 

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Lisa is a freelance writer, consultant and life coach. She has her BA in English and Creative Writing from Princeton and her MPA from Harvard. Lisa recently finished the first draft of her book manuscript, Burning Down the House. Her dream is to publish this first book and teach the world how to discover their hidden joy. Her post day is Tuesday.
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Latest posts by Lisa Powell, Get Happy (see all)

  • Deany Brady

    After being in seclusion for three months, I was most pleasantly surprised to open my computer today and find this very interesting article about dancing. It solidifies my innermost feeling that we need to find our freedom and lending the body to dance movements is one of the oldest and still the best way to kick ourselves from our often self-imposed bondage.

    Lisa, your article evokes happy and light, harmonious thoughts inspiring me.

    Deany Brady

    Great writing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

  • Kim, the traveler

    Dancing is such a great way to express yourself. Even if you’re not a dancer, you can pretend you are at dance classes. Nobody cares! I need to get back to Zumba.

  • Well here you get to talk to ALL of us ;) (all 8 women and everyone else reading this/living our dreams) which is fun… Love to hear from you here!

    Sorry that it was a bum week… we all have those sometimes… Remember to focus on the JOY that does surprise you.

    It’s funny I actually wonder sometimes if we all do (or don’t?) have the same definition of joy, or what it means to people… which is why I shared mine… Joy (finding it, creating it, sharing it!) is a central purpose in my life. I like to encourage others to “find their joy,” something like “following your bliss,” I suppose… ;)

    I just think that en-joy-ing life ;) is one of the reasons we’re here… besides all the lessons we are here to learn – Loving each other (how to do that!) is the biggest one I think.

    There Lisa’s two cents life philosophy ;)

    Hugs!
    Lisa

    p.s. my life mission centers on service and joy – giving back as much as possible to the world while having the most possible fun. :-) Works for me!!!

  • Rachel

    Ha, I knew what you meant Lisa (about joy.) My issue at the time of writing was just… “I can’t think of a darn thing I can do to plan joy, because I’m just too grumpy!” Being open to it if it surprises me is about it this week. But it’s nice to be able to sit and think how commonly that actually happens. At the moment, maybe “talking” to you is what I can do :)

  • Hey Rachel all great thoughts and insights – I love reading your contributions here. You help me clarify my own thoughts and learn new things as well.

    Let me explain what I meant by joy here because it can have a number of definitions… I like the Merriam-Webster definition of joy as ” a source or cause of delight.” So, the little unexpected moments in our days can be a source of joy too (a gorgeous sunny day, a phone call from a long-lost friend, a hug, a free piece of chocolate at the bank ;) whatever!). I do like the idea, in my own life, of also committing to doing activities that I know tend to bring me joy – like dancing. Odds are when I go I’m going to have a good time, even if I started out in a bad mood. For me it’s important to treat myself to doing the things that over time have really made me happy. Dancing is one of them.

    I love what you said about dance as a conversation – love that way of looking at it. You’re so right – dancers have such different ways of expressing themselves, and it’s an art to mirror and match that lead style and also express our own personality in the dance. It is a whole ‘nother level of communication. Lovely to think of it that way.

    Anyways love hearing from you here… Thanks as always for your thoughts Rachel!

  • Rachel

    “What could you do this week to bring more joy back into your life?”

    That’s a tough question. Sometimes I think that when I pursue “joy” too vigorously, I just end up disappointed. It seems like the best moments are the little, unexpected things. Then again… some of the surprises are pay-off from the dogged pursuit, just when I least expect it. Like the good dances I had a couple weeks back, when I didn’t plan to dance at all. Those dances could never have been so nice without the months of classes, and the men wouldn’t have known to ask me to dance, if they hadn’t seen me out dancing week after week.

    “What has learning a new skill in your life taught you?”

    Every new skill seems to teach me I had capabilities I hadn’t before realized. You mentioned learning to connect with a partner. One of the best things about partner dance (and swing in particular — since there’s so much room for variation) is how you get to know various dancers in a way that transcends words. Each leader has a different feel, and looks for different things from his partner. The improvisational nature of swing add so much to that. Some leaders love to see you take a few beats and introduce something new and unexpected, even if it means interruption, and some can respond to it in new and fun ways. Others are very structured, and it’s such a challenge to find a way of expressing yourself that fits the music and doesn’t disturb their lead.

    I struggle so much with verbal conversation — I love having this alternate way to “talk” to people.

  • Julita, these are wise words: “I think doing what we enjoy is the fountain of youth!” I swear it is why most of my dancer friends look AT LEAST 10 years younger than they are. Dancing is our joy and keeps us young. :-)

    So glad you found some inspiration in today’s post… I try to remember those four rules every day and to “go with the flow” of life and celebrate whatever is happening in my life… Not always easy right??? Yet somehow it seems that in the end everything happens for a reason – things always seem to work out for the best – so I trust in that even when things seem to be falling apart. Life has a way of mapping out in the end.

    I think the most important of those two for me are to “be present in the moment” – vs. ALWAYS worrying about the past or future (easy to do! and then we miss the now!) and being grateful. Really no matter what is happening in our lives now we can always find SOMETHING to be grateful for – even if it’s just being alive, healthy and breathing (hey that is something!). :-)

    Cath it’s my joy to be part of THIS and that is thanks to YOU my dear. And I’m so happy that I helped inspire you to start dancing again! Love that! We all need to do things regularly that bring us joy and help us keep our youthful spirit intact, always. I truly believe that. Life is about the joy, too (not just the challenges – always mountains to climb, right? Might as well enjoy life too!).

    xoxo
    Lisa

  • Catherine, Site Admin

    Just checking in on our passionate redhead during crazy times at Heather’s. I love that you dance too and it inspired me to return to dancing – NO WHERE near your level.

    ;-)

    Thank you for being Lisa and being the breath of fresh air that you are.

    Hugs,
    Cath

  • Julita

    Lisa,

    I think doing what we enjoy is the fountain of youth!

    what do I enjoy doing? as you guessed it, I am looking forward to the new ski season and my new skis. I have been very careful since my car accident in 2005, but now I feel like I can finally go back to skiing black diamonds. not that I have a choice as both of my girls are skiing only expert slopes now!

    as I said before and will say it again, I MUST see you dance! but it looks like you enjoy dancing only with a partner. do you ever go out just to have fun dancing in a group of friends?

    what do I enjoy?

    as a middle aged woman, I enjoy it when my house is clean, when all the laundry is done and put away, when I have NOTHING to do, so I guess I enjoy doing nothing. just having free time to relax on my computer reading your blog, :)

    I will try to follow your 4 steps:

    Be present in the moment.
    Let go of the need to control.
    Be surprised by life.
    Be grateful.

    I will try to live in the moment, and not keep dreaming of my graduate school and great career which may or may not happen.

    I will realize that I can not control everything in my life, and that sometimes I will even make mistakes.

    I will try to enjoy all those surprises life throws my way.

    and I will try to pray more and be grateful for my health and my loving family and friends like YOU.

    God Bless,
    J.

  • My friend Rich’s take-away from this (posted on Facebook): “Lindyhop as metaphor for Buddhism.”

    Totally. Dance was the first real “meditative practice” for me that helped me to quiet my crazy-monkey-mind, as we Buddhists say ;) and to drop into my body. Be present.

    I’ll forever be grateful for that. Plus dancing is just fun as all get-out. :-)

  • Thanks Veronica! Dancing and writing are my two greatest passions… Have loved doing both since I was a girl. Get out there on your bike – great way to enjoy the beautiful California landscape as well! :-)

    Dancing has taught me sooo much and perhaps even more importantly reconnects me regularly to my joy – and to an extraordinary community of people. I’m so blessed to know so many beautiful creative people around the world who happen to be dancers….

    Love to hear what others have learned from their passions.

  • Veronica

    Good morning Lisa,
    What a talent you have for writing. Your passion is all over the page. You help motivate me, thank you.
    A new skill? Humm….perfecting my bike riding, would be learning a new skill. good idea thanks.

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