Reflections on dance and mental health

Emma Brooks dancing salsa
Photo by Kouamé from the Dancefloor school

10 minute read

As some of you may know, when I’m not sitting behind a desk as a marketeer or communications professional, I’m most likely to be found dancing. It’s my number one passion, and a huge part of my identity.

Over the past year I have gone through a journey, developing as a dancer. I started to realize a lot of the mental barriers I had, and codes that had been passed on to me over the years that were holding me back. A lot of this has got me thinking about how mental health relates to dance or vice versa, and I wanted to share this journey as I think people will be able to relate.

Starting to realize my limiting beliefs

The journey started last September (2018) when I started waacking. The most important message that was communicated to me and that I learned through this dance style was one of empowerment and acceptance. And bloody hell was that liberating!

From the very first class, I remember that even though I had no idea what I was doing I was encouraged to embrace that. Our teacher said “no one knows what the hell they’re doing when they’re freestyling, that’s the point. So just go with it”. I also remember her telling us that we really had to believe in what we were doing and sell it. So for example, even if you were doing a weird move where you felt like a chicken and it made no sense, you just had to believe in it and act like it was intentional.

Of course in the beginning it’s super awkward. You’re standing there dancing a style you’ve never danced before, thinking “what the hell am I doing” and feeling a bit ridiculous. But this is where the magic starts to happen and when you start to become (even more) aware of your brain and the stupid thoughts it’s telling you (or at least I did). I could suddenly see more clearly:

  • The pressure I constantly put on myself
    • Nothing was ever “good enough” or “it should be better”
  • How I compare myself to others and that it inhibits me in my dance
    • “This person is soooo good, I want to be as good as them but it will take me forever.”
  • How I was imagining what people might be thinking about me without even knowing
  • How I was afraid of being judged for everything I did

It was really eye-opening! I’ve always put myself under pressure (still do) but I began to realize how much that was preventing me from being free. And in dance what I’m really seeking is that freedom of expression and enjoying the art – because that’s what I am there for, not to feel inhibited or stressed out. That was one of the first revelations I had about my mind and my relationship with dance.

The second great thing that came from the waacking class (also the waacking and Native Moons communities) was a feeling of support and encouragement. In class when freestyling or doing excerises in pairs, the students were really supportive, smiling, and sometimes shouting words of encouragement. This was the first time I had experienced this in my lifetime of dancing.

It was extremely liberating and empowering because even though I was struggling with a sense of ridicule, their encouragement made me feel like it was ok – that it didn’t matter. It made me feel like I was just being me, in the moment, expressing myself. And isn’t that what dance is supposed to be?

Exploring thought patterns from the past

As I started to become more aware of these limiting beliefs, I began to think about where they had come from and how I ended up with them. That’s where it became even more interesting.

  • Ballet – This was my first dance, I started as a child. It struck me not so long ago that it is such a codified dance! When I was little I dreamt of being a ballerina but in ballet everything has to be done to perfection.

It’s extremely tough and there is no room for “freestyle”. Not to mention that ballet has its roots in France and Russia so a lot of these ballet teachers are very strict! When you come form that background, you’ve been conditioned for years to do and perform things exactly as told. And while I have the utmost respect for ballet dancers, well… to put it plainly that shit is going to leave some scars!

  • French culture. French culture is very much about being very good or the best, or else you get left behind. In school it’s certainly like that, if you can’t keep up with the top of the class, you’re wasting everyone’s time. This puts you under pressure to do well as a kid, and focuses on performance. And while I’m no psychologist, I’m pretty sure this mentality and these codes get passed on to all sorts of environments including dance/the arts. I certainly feel affected by this, and have no doubt it impacted my self-confidence in dance.
  • udgement/competition in class. It’s inevitable that things will get a bit competitive, especially as kids or teenagers. You often want – or perhaps are even encouraged – to outperform other kids. When I danced ballet the good roles in performances were handed out to the best dancers – needless to say, that doesn’t help. And often, due to this competitive nature, you feel judged, or you are actively judging others (the French culture is also pretty judgemental). Most classes I’ve attended were quite “serious” and closed. Therefore you didn’t really feel comfortable dancing in front of others. As an adult the fear of being judged got worse for me, especially as I started trying new styles. When I started dancehall I was 25 in a class full of 16 year olds. I felt so out of place not to mention that was my first urban dance style so I felt suuuuper awkward trying to dance and embrace the more grounded movements.
  • Comparing yourself to others. This is possibly the worst one. We all compare ourselves to others, but if you are feeling insecure you start thinking things like “I look stupid doing this” or “this is not my style – I’m not as good as this person who is naturally talented” or “look at that person, they make it look so easy”. Then you start getting frustrated and put additional pressure on yourself. I particularly struggled with dancehall in the beginning as it felt very unnatural to me. I still felt too “classical” and ridiculous in this urban style. In addition, our teacher kept telling us that 90% of the dance was pure attitude and I felt I just couldn’t embrace it. I also struggled to embrace my femininity in salsa, feeling a bit ridiculous when adopting the poses.
  • Teachers and schools. Some teachers make dancing really serious. They will tell you how difficult things are, or how hard it’s going to be. They might put you under pressure to work hard, or they might not easily compliment you on your progress. Or – they might be so good they intimidate you, that was certainly the case for me 😅. I can think of several people I took classes/danced with who impressed me a bit, which meant I felt uncomfortable and not able to let go.

Applying these learnings to the present

There’s no doubt that operating in an environment that feels open, accepting and free has made a huge difference. Of course the changes I’ve experienced didn’t happened in a vacuum. They came into my life at the right time, when I was ready to hear the message. I’ve also been on my own journey of personal development, which is no doubt why I’m more able to embrace these learnings. Here’s how I’m applying them in my dancing today.

  • Feeling more comfortable in my dance. Overall I just care a lot less about what I might look like or what people might think. I still care about being a “good dancer” (whatever that means) but I’m much less focused on the outside and more focused on just…
  • Enjoying myself. I love dancing and I love the music. Those of you who dance with me will know: some songs make my lose my mind! 🤯 So I just want to go crazy and lose myself in those moments. For example – now I can dance house when I go clubbing. That might not sound like anything, but my first edition of Summer Dance Forever I spent entirely on the sidelines watching because I was too shy to dance. And that’s insane because the atmosphere there is something else!
  • More freedom. Kinda goes with both of the above. I feel more free to experiment, try new things, look “silly” or to fail. Of course sometimes I get too stuck in my mind and can’t fully let go, but I just have to keep on practising.
  • Embracing my femininity. Just because we’re women doesn’t mean we are naturally able to tap into our femininity when we dance and that it’s comfortable for us. In salsa, there is a lot of styling and times when you need to be comfortable acting more sensually, or even holding a pose. I used to know how to do it but feel really awkward. Thanks to waacking, which also has a lot to do with interpretation and “theatrics” (punking) I’ve gotten more in touch with that side and it’s allowed me to feel more comfortable in “owning” my movements.
  • Letting go of barriers. I’ve been learning (and still in the process) to let go of all these negative thoughts and limiting beliefs. In one of my Instagram posts I said that until recently I wasn’t comfortable calling myself a dancer, but why not? It’s who I am. I’m learning to let go of the “not good enough”, “I can’t do it”, “I wish I was better”, “I’ll never be that good” and be more in the moment.

External perceptions of you vs. your own

Last but not least I want to finish this long blog post by talking about external perceptions. It’s funny because as much as we can doubt ourselves and have our insecurities, others think we’re at the top of our game and super comfortable. Someone once said they thought it was easy for me to post videos of myself dancing because they perceive me to be comfortable and confident, but the reality is – I hate it every single time. 😅

Same for a friend of mine who is a super talented dancer and very fit – her students think nothing is hard for her and she’s just naturally talented. In a way, they have put her on a pedestal above them, without realizing she has her own struggles.

But I was particularly moved by this post I saw by a young dancer called “Kevin Paradox” (you should read the description)

View this post on Instagram

My very first battle in 3 years. ⁣ Many know I have been struggling with my physical health for a long time now. Sadly this post is not a confirmation that I am healthy and 'back' to battles now. ⁣ ⁣ However there was a important reason to why I participated and I want to share it with ya'll. ⁣ ⁣ The hardest part of my journey has not been dealing with the physical limitations but more so my mental health. ⁣ ⁣ I had 3 mental blocks I was struggling with:⁣ 1. Seeing myself as a shadow of my past. ⁣ Instead of taking myself as I am now, I've for a long time experienced myself as weaker, broken version of myself. With that making everything I was doing and creating not 'good enough'. ⁣ ⁣ 2. Expectations of my friends and supporters. ⁣ Though always meant in good energy, it was hard to feel like I had to live up to everyones expectation. 'I cannot wait for Paradox his return' became a omen to me. 'I cannot return if it is not better' was my flawed thought. Because I believed that the person they wanted to come back was not me anymore. ⁣ ⁣ 3. I was not ready, not healthy.⁣ With the injury still being apparent in my daily life. Even walking and standing for longer times have become a struggle. This really messed with my mind. If I cannot stand healthy, what business do I have in participating in dance battles. ⁣ ⁣ Last month marks one of the most difficult and life changing months of my life. A change of trajectory that I never ever thought would happen. And with my whole spirit and soul in confusion over my health, relationships and dreams in life. I decided to take back the one thing that has been mine for all my life. My dance/life. ⁣ ⁣ It was time to participate not for a comeback. Not for a win. But to express my human experience and become a active liver again. ⁣ ⁣ So my goal for this years summer dance was to:⁣ Not let any setback numb my heART, not let this injury define my power to express and share, not let anyone control my path through expectation, it is my journey, my story and therefore you are the reader of this book not the writer.⁣ And give myself the freedom to be flawed and take back my life with both hands.⁣ ⁣ Yours sincerely, A Human Enso

A post shared by ʸᵒᵘⁿᵍ ᴿᴱᴹᵇʳᵃⁿᵈ / 𝑨 𝑯𝒖𝒎𝒂𝒏 𝑬𝒏𝒔ō (@kevin_paradox) on

It was a strong reminder for me that even the best dancers are going through shit that we’re not even aware of. It’s not healthy to put others on a pedestal when we don’t know their lives and their journeys. As artists we can’t put ourselves under pressure by comparing ourselves to others. But similarly, society can’t have such high expectations of artists (of all types) without having an understanding of the challenges it poses.

Even those who are born with talent work to perfect it. And as artists, I believe that our creativity and our expression are deeply tied to our selves, who we are as people, our identity. It’s raw, and it takes strength to tap into that.

So the essence of this is: we’re all struggling one way or another. But we can overcome it by supporting each other. By creating a safe space for people to develop and train. By becoming aware of – and embracing our limiting beliefs, so we can better seperate ourselves from them.

What’s your journey been with dance? Please share in the comments, I’d love to hear other stories.

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Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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