This weekend I will be dancing. A lot. You probably won’t hear from me, and I may have to miss my Monday posts as well because I’ll be really tired. I am VERY EXCITED. Last night was the beginning of my magical dance weekend, and it was composed of three hours on a paddle boat on the Mississippi, dancing to live music. Mm mm good. But beyond just waxing rhapsodic about swing dancing (which I can do if anyone wants me to. Anyone?), I do actually have some thoughts about dancing, mindfulness, mental health, and eating disorders.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m in DBT therapy, and one of the elements of this therapy is mindfulness. We’re working on this piece right now in class, and so I’ve been practicing the skills of mindfulness: these are observing, describing, and participating. This may seem easy, but it’s not. First, observing is about noticing, about not missing what’s going on around you. Describing is about adding words to it, and simply saying what’s going on. Participating is the most difficult, because it’s about working yourself in to a situation without forcing it, without overthinking it. It’s the point in dancing where you are dancing without worrying or self-judging or analyzing, but simply dancing. Each of these three skills should be carried out non-judgmentally, one-mindfully, and effectively. This is about being fully present in the moment, about looking at facts rather than judgments, and about doing what you need to do in order to achieve your goals.
Last night I did a lot of practicing of these skills. In one dance in particular, later in the evening when I was getting tired, I high-school styled it up with my boyfriend (aaaaw yeah slow-dancing). I let the sounds around me happen without engaging with them. I let myself trust my body and his body, and let myself feel all of the movements he was making, and feel where my own weight was completely. I observed all of the sensations, and yet was entirely present and participating. Throughout the night, I found myself having to purposefully work to be non-judgmental as well as effective. The space was cramped (we were on a boat) and there was carpet, not a dance floor, so I absolutely was not dancing my best. But at some point in the night I made my peace with that, and I found myself much happier for it. I stopped judging whether I was following well, whether I was making a good impression on the out of towners, whether I was having awkward or awesome dances. Instead, I tried to figure out how to achieve my goal: have fun and relax. I did that by simply being where I was and doing what I was doing.
Dancing to me is the essence of mindfulness. You cannot dance properly without the right balance of observing and participating. There is always some element of your brain that’s going, making sure your body is listening, making sure you’re aware of those around you, however you always have to be fully present, participating, and one-mindful. You can only be doing one thing while you dance and that’s dancing. The moment your mind starts to wander you’re screwed. And yet you’re always aware of how to make your movements more effective. You’re always striving to get better and reach some goal. The balance of this is that you have to remain non-judgmental, both towards yourself and your partner. When the voice in your brain starts telling you that you’ve screwed up or starts making nasty comments about your partner, all your effectiveness, one-mindfulness, ability to participate, dancing ability, and joy in dancing dissipate. I mean IMMEDIATELY.
Because of this ability of dance to promote mindfulness, I think it’s a good practice for everyone to try at least a few times. It’s one of the few things that really forces you to be mindful (even without your consent sometimes). But there’s another element of this mindfulness of dancing that has struck me lately, particularly this morning when I ran across this article. It describes a study in which anorexia patients were treated with dance therapy. Now I’m most familiar with eating disorders and the symptoms and problems of eating disorders, however I suspect that anorexia patients are not the only people in our society who have some difficulties connecting with their bodies, feeling comfortable using their whole bodies, touching others and being touched, trusting someone else with their body, accepting the weight and size and reality of their body, or moving sensually. Because of these things, this kind of treatment could be extremely beneficial for all sorts of people, but again, I’ll be focusing on eating disorders because it’s what I’m familiar with.
Overall the study wasn’t horribly conclusive (it was small), but it did suggest that over time the patients became more comfortable with their bodies. Now I can speak from experience and say with absolute certainty that if it weren’t for dancing I would have nowhere near the awareness of my body that I do, the sense of identity with my body that I do, the ability to try new movements with my body, or the comfort that I’m gaining with trusting others while I dance. I still have a long ways to go in terms of these things, but every time I dance, and particularly every time I dance mindfully, I can feel myself gaining these skills.
There is an element of contradiction in having an eating disorder, which is that the only connection with your body that you’ve allowed yourself is exercise, however you have to learn how to connect to your body again and one of the best ways to do that is movement. That movement has the potential to lead back into exercise and the disease, or it has the potential to help improve your life. The difference is the mindfulness. The difference is whether you allow yourself to observe what your body is doing, how it’s moving, and to simply participate in it. When we dance, if we resist what is happening, we are resisting our own bodies, our own momentum. If we trust what is happening, we learn that our body can be trusted.
Another interesting element of dancing is that it can allow you to be sensual and connected with your body without being sexual. For many people sexuality is scary. It is not the best place to start with trusting your body and becoming comfortable in your body. It’s more vulnerable than we’re comfortable with. However our society is not very good at non-sexual touching, or trusting someone with your body in a non-sexual manner. Again, this is all about mindfulness. It’s about participating without judgment. When you judge something, you are taking the facts and adding something to them: either good or bad, some sort of conclusion. A touch is just a touch. Someone’s hand on your back is just someone’s hand on your back. In the context of larger society, touch means a lot more. In dance-land, that’s all it has to mean. You are allowed to safely be non-judgmental.
All of this comes with the caveat of dancing in a safe space. Some places are not safe. Some places have creepers, people who will cop a feel, people who will dance forcefully and painfully with you. But when you dance in a place with people you trust to treat your body respectfully, you can gain a great deal of self-knowledge, particularly about how your body moves, how you relate to your body, and how your body relates to others. From personal experience, this can be integral to reconnecting with your body and moving forward in treatment. But it can also be beneficial for anyone who wants to learn how to be more present in each moment, who wants to be less judgmental, and who wants to practice being mindful in context. It’s a wonderful way to practice letting thoughts go and refocusing your mind on the task at hand so as to be able to participate.