How the Practice of Dance Keeps My Anxious Thoughts Grounded
I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been told to at least attempt the practice of meditation whenever I was suffering from anxious, toxic thoughts, or even more typically, when these thoughts kept me up at night. Insomnia is no fun, but struggling to keep my thoughts completely still felt even worse than getting only two hours of sleep a night. My racing mind and, even worse, constantly fidgeting body would rather run a marathon than attempt to entirely put my mind and body to rest (and for the record, I despise running).
Yet, I soon realized that maybe the only way to deal with my jittery self that I couldn’t seem to control was to embrace the need to move, and, well, move. Being able to take charge of my movement and to carry complete agency over my body felt far more empowering than lacking this control when I couldn’t keep it still. Maybe it’s my Gemini sun placement, or, more realistically, my constant need to be doing something at all times, but finding an outlet to use this pent up energy in a productive manner transformed my anxious thoughts into methods to create art.
What is this kind of movement, you might ask?
It’s contemporary dance, a style I’ve been practicing for most of my life but have just started using as a therapeutic outlet. While this form of therapy was not intentional, as deciding to start dancing again in college was only out of my nostalgic love for the style, I soon realized that I always looked forward to my late rehearsals due to the emotional release I found through the movement, and that when I went on breaks from dance, my anxiety was worse than ever. Was getting even just an hour to forget my worries, ranging from personal to global, by literally dancing my problems away the key to all my issues? Maybe it’s not a permanent cure, but it did feel like an effective method to cope with both my mind and body that never know when to simply relax, especially when I still continue to loathe every other form of exercise out there.
Transforming Dance’s Limitations to Agents of Empowerment
Growing up, I would spend my evenings at dance rehearsal, wearing restricting attire, learning the strict practice of ballet. This would continue through my middle and high school career, where I soon learned to hate dancing the style because of all its rules—a perfect turnout, impeccable posture, even a tight bun that wouldn’t budge and tights with no runs and a leotard that matched everyone else’s. Now, I also recognize its problematic nature regarding idealized bodies, aka stick thin and white, and deeply entrenched heteronormativity. Such a beautiful art I have admired my entire life became the root of my insecurities, where I would let one criticism on my incorrect shoulder placement ruin my entire week. These insecurities began to slip away, however, as I was introduced to a more modern style that took ballet’s foundation but threw its immense amount of limitations in the trash, creating an art that finally allowed myself to dance without the heavy weight of criticism resting on my shoulders. This discovery made me officially say goodbye to ballet after my last performance as Sugar Plum Fairy in my high school studio’s Nutcracker and reenter a contemporary practice in college. Through my recent, contemporary-only endeavors, I felt more empowered with my body’s ability to move than I’d ever felt in years.
Meditation and Its Ability to Move
As I continue to use dance as my personalized form of meditation, even though it appears to be the opposite of its mainstream forms, I discovered that movement meditation exists, and that non-dancers can easily practice this form without having prior experience. The types of movement seen in this practice can range from a variety of levels, and there are several classes that focus on this approach. Tai chi and qigong appear to be the most popular, where research states that these Chinese practices can reduce anxiety and even help with physical pain. The two focus on combining breathing with gentle movement, a method that makes it possible to have complete agency over what your body does. Ecstatic dance is a less ancient practice that focuses more on energetic movement but that is literally all about taking control over your body and letting go of insecurities surrounding movement. And to get even more in a yogi mindset, balancing your chakras through movement can lead to strong emotional releases—my mom, a former yoga teacher, always says that opening her hips releases pent-up emotions, even making her and her students shed tears. So, was my use of dance for personal, anxiety-reducing reasons more impactful than simply enjoying the practice? It sure felt like it, especially after understanding that people who do not have a background in dance, or even those who are not able-bodied, can use the art in similar ways through these yoga and meditation techniques. I then reflected on my own practice, understanding the ways that postmodern dance grounded me just like opening chakras can balance a person, physically and emotionally.
Bodily Control through Postmodern Dance
While older styles of dance focus on doing exactly what an instructor choreographs, this newer form of dance has more freedom, allowing dancers to interpret movements in their own ways that feel right with their bodies. In my rehearsals, although I still follow a choreographer’s instruction, I typically have the ability to move my own body the way I want it to move, whether the choreographer asks us to improvise or we are free to dance a piece of choreography in a variety of ways. I took this new notion I had never experienced with dance in the past and allowed it to be my own emotional outlet—if I couldn’t control my anxious thoughts, at least I could control how my body was moving. While any exercise class can do the same, I not only hated every mainstream workout class I have attended, but I also find the creative artform of dance to be why I keep coming back to it. Not only do I get an emotional release due to the literal movement of my body, I also always feel a creative release, one that I constantly am searching for (the Gemini in me comes out, once again). Whenever I’m in the dance studio, I finally feel grounded, both physically and creatively, and I find the art to be even more useful when feelings of detachment take over my mind and even body. As many forms of yoga act as a way to connect the mind, body, and soul, dance felt like this facilitator for me, especially when movement held some sort of narrative, where I could connect a current personal struggle to that assigned narrative, or simply make my own narrative when needed.
But at the end of the day, it always comes down to agency. In today’s era, womxn, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, the disabled, and other marginalized groups lack this bodily agency in different ways, whether through not being able to access reproductive healthcare or being stigmatized into certain restricting boxes based on an identity. When it feels impossible to find any sense of autonomy, dance, or any kind of movement meditation, can free us and our bodies to new levels. And this agency is only increased when you are able to use the movement for whichever reason you need at that moment in time—a means to feel grounded, a way to forget about your other stresses and lose yourself in dance, or even an emotional practice that transforms negative thoughts into a beautiful art. Maybe this was about way more than simply coping with a racing mind; it also allows myself to feel like my own, autonomous person who can take control of her life, even if for only two hours a night.
About the Author
Natalie Geisel is in her third year at The George Washington University studying women’s, gender, and sexuality studies with a minor in communication. Her love of writing sprouted from starting her fashion blog in high school, and her current written work spans from topics such as style, LGBTQ+ content, and music. She is interested in intersecting gender and sexuality into the world of wellness, hoping to add a queer voice to its editorial side. When she’s not writing, she spends her spare time at dance rehearsal, attending local indie shows in the DC area, or finding the best cafes that serve oat milk. She’s passionate about inclusive sex education and sustainable fashion and thinks everyone should be, too.