Dance for Wellbeing: Improvisation and Experimentation

Tango: Partner Dance

Tango: Partner Dance

Here is another wonderful activity: dance for wellbeing. In this article, if you are not already a dancer, and even if you are, I want to encourage you with getting started and keeping going.

By telling my story, I hope to convey the message that through a process of improvisation and experimentation, you can discover what form of dance for wellbeing to pursue for yourself.  

You’ll agree: Many people love to dance.

It is a very natural human activity.

It gives them joy, companionship, fitness and much else.

However, some people are very disconnected from their bodies and they have accumulated negative experiences that put them in inhibited states where trying new things becomes very difficult.

They have a long list of excuses for not even trying.

But we all have bodies and using them is extremely important for good health.

Maybe there are many ways of using one’s body to oxygenate all your cells, but dance comes on top as the most fun and complete form of physical exercise. Hence, that’s why I strongly recommend you to improvise and experiment towards finding a form of dance for wellbeing.

Introduction

Getting into dance and pursuing dancing were not easy for me.

Really difficult to put it mildly.

To beat that message to a pulp, I give my very long story below.

It reads a bit like a tragicomedy, but it’s my hero’s journey, and I couldn’t have done it any other way. 

But there was a better way, and hopefully my recommendations can be helpful to you.

If you’re just beginning, I recommend you start with dance improvisation, rather than start to learn precise dance steps.

Please check my overview article on creativity for more reasons why improvisation with your body is the better way to start.

I want to tell you my story to plead and inspire you to include dance in your life, if you don’t already.

Let me know your excuses, I will try to help you circumvent them.

Nowadays, dancing is a very important activity for me and for my well-being.

My Story

I was probably autistic as a child, maybe Asperger, though people didn’t speak in such terms in the 70s.

I was very focused on getting good grades and playing with Lego, and I didn’t have friends.

It didn’t help that my dad was an alcoholic, with consequences like bringing a friend home was a source of embarrassment and perhaps risky for safety.

My First Experience: Arthur Murray Dance Studios, 1991

By my late teens I was very depressed and I sought therapy to address my symptoms of anger.

My therapist was a female psychologist at my university and she suggested I try new activities.

One activity she suggested was trying dance.

I was receiving a Canadian science scholarship at the time worth $1000 per year. In previous years, I was spending all the money on physics books.

But that year, I used the money to sign up with Arthur Murray Dance Studios. I picked the program that cost nearly exactly $1000. I was 19 years old.

For that money, I had a package: I had 6 private lessons, a little cassette with music, and access to Friday evening dancing nights.

I suppose there was more included that I don’t recall, because this sounds awefully expensive for a $1000 investment in the early 1990s. Maybe there were group lessons included, but my teacher assessed that I wasn’t fit for attending group lessons, and converted them into a few more private lessons.

Most of it was a dreadful experience.

But let’s start with the positive: I was “dancing” with a girl, my teacher, and I liked the songs on the cassette.

I’d describe them now as a popular and diverse selection of well-known ballroom songs suitable for a wedding, but at the time all the songs were new to me: a different song for each different type of ballroom dance.

And there are lots of ballroom dances: I “learned” the basic steps for waltz, cha-cha, salsa, samba, rumba, foxtrot, tango, mambo, and triple swing.

However, I didn’t really learn anything useful, because rhythm was a big mystery to me. I couldn’t really clap hands with the music, I couldn’t tell at all when the downbeat or strong beat of the music was.

Also I was extremely stiff and anxious, and I couldn’t capture any of the subtleties behind the styles of the various dances.

However the rhythm and stiffness paled in comparison with my biggest problem: complete social awkwardness, reflected by near total speechlessness.

As I approached my last lessons, I was becoming painfully aware that my teacher taught I was a desperate basket case.

A couple of visits to the Friday evening dances put the last nails in the coffin of that first dancing experience.

I was faced with a large crowds of adults 2, 3 or even 4 times my age, who had at least some, and probably a lot, of experience in life and with dancing.

Did I mention I was also a perfectionist? Well, that explains why I felt like an utter failure, unable to learn to dance after a half-dozen lessons and a $1000 investment.

My Second Experience: Group Lessons in Salsa and Swing, 1993

A year elapsed and I was in graduate school in New Jersey.

My anger issues had been addressed in the previous therapy, but I was still depressed.

So I went into therapy again and I was encouraged to experiment some more.

I was also naturally curious, and keen on learning new things.

Trimester after trimester, I signed up for various cheap extracurricular classes.

I remember enjoying some of biofeedback, the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkreis Method, Japanese therapeutic massage, Jiu-Jitsu, yoga, etc.

Slowly, these classes were opening my mind and body up.

I spent a few trimesters with the group dance classes given by a middle-aged couple. I really didn’t like it when the all-sweaty male teacher was taking me apart to teach me how to lead.

I was still extremely shy, couldn’t speak much English, which is not my mother tongue, and the interactions with the female students in the class were very awkward. 

But they were around my age and they were dance beginners too, so I was starting to get and process feedback on how I was doing.

It was difficult: I wanted to persist, but I knew I was bad and I wasn’t keeping up with the pace.

I’d typically attend the first few classes, give up, and show up again at the next trimester where everything would start back from the beginning.

Diversifying Into Many Types of Dancing, 1995-2002

Despite all the perceived humiliation and suffering, there was something I really liked about dancing, about using my body and moving in space.

I was eager to try new activities, I was searching for something I would be really good at.

So I signed up and tried many forms of dances through the cheap classes offered at my universities.

Next I tried Contemporary Dance and quite liked it, until I realized I was completely out of sync with the class and gave up.

By 1995, I had my first girlfriend, who was interested in native American culture.

We attended pow-wows, and trying the rain dance, or some hippie dances, was fun.

From 1996 to 1999, I was a postdoctoral fellow in Santa Barbara, California, which opened many new horizons for me.

One thing that really got my interest for dance through the roof were some performances by the Santa Barbara dance students: they were dancing naked! I was now about 26 yo and single again.

I tried ballet classes, thinking it’d be a great place to meet women, but totally lacked in flexibility or discipline.

I was now able to tell faster how much out of my depth I was.

Ballet: Barre Work

Ballet: Barre Work

I also started enjoying more and more watching professional dance troupes, and I cared less and less whether they were dancing naked or not. I

 was imagining myself doing their movements, at least in my head.

I took private lessons with a Voice Movement Therapy teacher.

This was my first experience with dance (and voice) improvisation.

This was very helpful to me, because I could experiment with movement in a non-judgmental environment.

My teacher was Christa Ray. I could not find her online.

From 1999 to 2002, I was in Austin, Texas, and again I had new opportunities.

This time I tried salsa group lessons again.

I could follow the beginner class and I was not the worst.

I attended my first rock concert, by Moby, and there was a totally new form of dancing for me.

It was a very alien environment for me, not to be encountered again for another 5 years.

Ceroc in London and More Experimentation, 2002-2009

I lived an incredible life in London in my 30s, that included much travel.

I started there with another post-doc appointment, but I had had enough of theoretical physics research, and then for 3 years, I was an investment banker working long hours.

I quit this lifestyle to be an artist for my last two years out of seven in London.

New to London, I joined a couple of organizations for meeting new people through activities.

Eventually, I discovered and stayed with a dance organization that was wonderful for me.

Ceroc London was a large organization, with perhaps 8000 members.

Over several years, I reckon I must have danced with over a thousand different women. I made some friends and even had a girlfriend through it.

Ceroc is short for “C’est le Rock”, i.e. “This is Rock”. It is a simplified form of jive, and a fusion too, as it includes simplified steps from at least salsa, tango, blues and perhaps much else.

Ceroc exists in several English speaking countries besides the UK, especially Australia and Western Canada.

What’s so great about it for men is that it is much easier to learn because the footwork is simplified.

In other words, it doesn’t matter all that much where you step. Well, maybe I’m making it sounds too good to be true.

At some point, I felt I “knew” about 300 different moves in Ceroc, out of a total repertoire of 600 moves.

This was before I got more aware that dancing is not so much about how many moves you know, but how well you do them, and especially how it makes your partner feel.

This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way. I was dancing 2-3 nights per week. 

When I came back home after a few hours of dancing, I was in unpredictable moods.

Sometimes I was ecstatic. Sometimes it was abysmal.

It was disconcerting that despite all my efforts at learning to dance, I could still have terrible nights out.

I was starting to understand why. Of course you can’t make everyone happy. Some women like to dance a certain way, others in a different way.

Basically, my style was to do a lot of stuff, somewhat complicated, and my timing with the music was unreliable, getting much worse with the more complicated steps.

This led me to have what I perceived as good upbeat experiences with mostly beginners who were fit and relaxed, and didn’t care too much about the timing.

About half the women, whether they were beginners or more advanced, were very annoyed at me for not being on the right beats.

The unfit ones could be downright upset at getting all in sweat from too many spins and too much speed.

Some beginners also wanted me to stick to the moves that they already knew.

I was not very flexible to adapt my dancing style to make the other person’s experience a pleasant one. Despite all that, I was able to stay enough with the positives to keep going.

Through that, I enjoyed wearing fun dance clothes, like very baggy ones as was somewhat fashionable at the time.

I also attended a long weekend of dancing in Rye, that was great, and a weeklong dancing vacation in Majorca, that was a disaster. So again it was a mixed bag of experiences.

I left Ceroc behind when I had a Russian girlfriend interested in ballet and figure skating, and we did both together, including watching many great shows at Sadler’s Wells and at the Royal Opera House.

I explain my experience with figure skating here. Some of our favorite dancers at the time were Sylvie Guillem, Carlos Acosta and Akram Khan. Add to that seeing the very charismatic Mikhail Baryshnikov at age 56 at the Barbican, and the “spaghetti man” Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who is still active.

We also took modern dance classes at my Holmes Place Gym in Canary Wharf.

We were learning choreographies inspired by Madonna’s Hung Up and Vogue. We took some group tango classes.

Next we attended Pineapple Studios in Covent Garden for Complete Beginners Jazz Dance.

This studio works at forming professional dancers, so even the complete beginners class was going too fast for me! But I enjoyed it a lot.

I still knew nothing about pop or rock music, so I had to ask the teacher what the songs were.

I can see that my favorite teacher, Karen Estabrook, is still teaching there! She choreographed to songs of Nelly Furtado, the Creeps, Eminem, etc.

Modern or Jazz Dance in a Studio such as Pineapple Studios

Modern or Jazz Dance in a Studio such as Pineapple Studios

After I “retired” from banking, I moved to Richmond and within walking distance of the Royal Gardens at Kew, where I went about twice weekly.

In Richmond, I tried Street Dance and again Modern dance. Again, I realized I couldn’t really follow the class.

Another form of dance improvisation which I did on and off during my years in London, mostly in Greenwich, was the 5 Rhythms.

You might find a group near you.

This was very beneficial to me, allowing me to explore movement freely, under rather loose instructions, and also as part of a group. I highly recommend it.

Back in Montreal, 2009-2019

In 2013, I enrolled into swing group classes at Cats Corner.

I was frustrated I had to restart all over from the beginning, as if I had never danced before.

I found swing to be very difficult and didn’t continue after level 2. A couple of years later, same thing with Jive group classes.

I had also returned to figure skating, which I was enjoying a lot.

I became interested in rock music and I tried the dance club floors, but that was not for me.

I watched some hip-hop and pop dance in the streets, and quite liked it. I tried doing it with basic YouTube tutorials.

Street Dance Example: Breaking

Street Dance Example: Breaking

My dancing experience took a brighter turn in the last two years as I met Lyne.

As a former ice dance champion, she has a natural sense of rhythm and a lot of precision in her dance movements.

As a professional skating coach, she has a dedication to teaching. I’m happy that I’ve become her pet project.

I’ve been progressing a great deal in figure skating, especially in ice dance.

We’ve also taken private dance lessons in triple swing and tango from an excellent teacher that she selected.

Hopefully I can add a couple videos of our dances soon.

It’s thanks to her great patience that I can focus on my errors and correct them.

We also tried the 5 Rhythms improvisation together. We do acroyoga too

It is great to have a partner with a lot of common interests.

For some people, it takes a lot of searching before finding one.

Conclusion

Despite the difficulties and against the odds, I’ve persisted with dancing and I have enjoyed it a lot at times, and especially in the past year.

My main recommendations from experience in light of this long story are:

  • Try to go for mastery of the basics rather than jump ahead and around and try to do too much.
    It’s easier to learn when you’re younger, but you can’t get any younger than you are now.
    So the ideal time to start or continue with doing what you enjoy is NOW.
    To make your life easier, dare to ask for feedback early on.
    Work on correcting your early mistakes before adding more advanced material.
  • Try to find what you really enjoy, and what works for you, and keep searching until you find it.
    For example, if group lessons are not working, then get a private teacher, and if it’s not the right private teacher, choose a different one.
  • I believe confidence comes from competence, and that it’s normal to feel unconfident when one is incompetent.
    It’s better not to fake a false sense of confidence to hide one’s incompetence.
    Rather one should work at improving one’s mistakes and bettering oneself.
    Once one is competent at something, confidence will follow.
  • You might need a bit of help with fitness and diet.
    I’ll add more on these topics eventually, but here are recommendations on having a morning exercise routine and on eating nuts and dried fruits for lunch.
  • Begin with dance improvisation, all by yourself (stay tuned for an article with examples of dance improvisation).
    Once you have a bit of confidence, try a form of group dance improvisation like the 5 Rhythms.
    Wait until you have a bit of confidence with that before joining group classes in a formal dance style.

I’ve mentioned many types of dancing that I tried and there are many more that I didn’t mention.

I attended for example some American or French Canadian line dancing or square dancing events, or other folk dancing of Ireland, Poland, Greece, Mexico, etc.

I’m very interested to hear about your experience with dancing, and if and how my story was inspiring to you.

I also describe in other posts my experience with painting, with figure skating and with music (coming soon). 

I am quite OK with it that I have no chance of being the best in the world at any of these activities, or to make a living from them. [If earning a passive income is important to you, I suggest you check out Wealthy Affiliate! 😉 ]

I have found activities that I enjoy doing without expectations. 

Perhaps these stories show that one can develop beneficial artistic interests even if one does not have a remarkable talent for it early. 

I am never bored, and for all the people in the world who are bored, and there are many, I feel like I have valuable advice:

Pick up some hobbies and keep at them or keep trying new ones until you find something for you!

Please leave questions and comments below. I will do my best to reply soon!

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10 Responses to Dance for Wellbeing: Improvisation and Experimentation

  1. Stella says:

    Dance to me is like jack of many trade. It is use to relieve stress, gain more strength, getting fit, repair emotional sickness, fun-filled etcetera. I love watching dance steps, it serve as a means of catching fun and relieving stress. The worst of it is that, I don’t know how to dance due to my shy nation. I might be guru in dancing but how will I know when I find it so difficult to practice. That’s what I want to work on very soon. This review is very useful because I learn more dance steps from it. 

    • Phil says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience with dance, Stella! Indeed, you might become a guru in dancing if you give it a try, especially by starting with dance improvisation! Cheers, Phil

  2. Andy Zeus Anderson says:

    I love to dance but it has been a few years now as I had a nervous breakdown zap my health both physical and mental. Over the past few years, I gained over 140 pounds and have only in the last year and a half started losing weight again. I would love to find some low impact dance to help in this weight loss, as dance is fun as well as therapeutic and healthy.

  3. Linda says:

    The movement of dancing indeed releases emotions and baggage. I remember when I had a log of it; I was doing kickboxing. However, the question is; how do you remove the origin? One can release the anger but not the rot. One must learn to burn the root of anger so it won’t grow back.

  4. Judy says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post and for sharing your story here. I found it really inspiring and enjoyed reading it a lot! Also found your tips helpful and I would actually consider dance after reading this.

    When you’re first getting started in dance it feels like you have two left feet and it’s very intimidating so the thought of doing more of a freestyle type of dance instead of structured steps is very attractive. Eliminates some the feeling of not being able to do things right. Thanks again and here’s to dance!

  5. Feochadan says:

    Firstly, let me just say that I never would have guessed that you are a Francophone as your English writing skills are superb.  I, on the other hand, initially hail from the very British and up-tight side of the country – British Columbia.  All of the girls around me could dance and look great.  I always felt stiff and described my dancing as me looking like a giraffe on stilts so much of your story resonated with me.  My perfectionist leanings certainly didn’t help things either.

    I also dislike exercise although I have dutifully bought gym memberships and done many different exercise regimes, all the while disliking them.  Dance has always intrigued me and I have taken some courses and I can see where dance would be the PERFECT opportunity to meet people while doing something FUN – even if you aren’t perfect at it.

    I very much enjoyed your conclusion.  You don’t have to be young or particularly fit.  Most importantly, the right time to start is NOW.  I definitely wish there were opportunities for dance classes where I now live but I am now living in a very remote part of NS.

    The best part of this article is how you put yourself out there and voiced many of our own self-criticisms. 

    Keep on writing because you are great at it and keep on dancing because who cares if you are great or not!  Its fun and makes you feel great and that is what counts!

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