When I was growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, dance programs in the public schools did not exist. Luckily, I had ample art and music experiences at school, and the natural world to spur connection and introspection in my soul. Another twist of good fortune was the arrival of two principal dancers from the Joffrey Ballet, Robert Estner and Charthel Arthur. They settled in Grand Rapids back in the 1980’s and shifted my world into one of geometry, drama, and discovery. The Estners’ landing and establishment of the Summerfest School only mattered to me because I had access to this experience. I benefited from parents who put a premium on arts education. No matter how much they spent, or how that compares to the money I have earned as a professional dancer, they have seen their investment returned. Thank you for letting me bloom, Mom and Dad, even if I’ve taken my own sweet time about it.
As I mature into my 30’s, I feel that I may finally understand the value of these gifts I have been given. I have learned to embrace the joy and playfulness that is an essential part of my nature, allowing me to finally relax a bit. These days, I’m happiest when I can spend hours at a time moving, dancing, and taking care of my body. In the studio, I can laugh at myself, find inspiration in another dancer, and plot my growth even when I seem to be stuck in a technical rut. Dance has become my heart’s song, but this was not always true. Once I transitioned into adolescence, I adopted a sense of obligation about dancing. Unlike someone who just danced for release, I used to stress perfection over feeling and sacrificed genuine expression for the sake of competition. Even if I was dancing in a group, I was pained by what I perceived as my many shortcomings in comparison to others. In short, I forgot to enjoy myself. Negative self-talk prevented me from grasping what dance was all about.
As a young classical ballet dancer, I would go to the studio 30-45 minutes early each day and coax my body through a series of static stretches. During class, I was unforgiving of any memory lapses, perceived weight gain, technical mistakes, or a lack of flexibility when compared to my peers. I was my own worst critic, as most of us are, but my commitment to self-derogation was peerless among peers. In contrast, I received a pretty balanced amount of critical feedback and praise from my teachers. I certainly would not point the finger at them for my lack of internal confidence. Instead of self-trust, I dwelt in self-disgust. Any sense of spontaneity or risk-taking was banished. One summer, at the age of 16, I was awarded a full scholarship to study at the School of the Milwaukee Ballet. Perhaps it’s not a mystery why I was cast in what I termed “the reject piece” at the end of the term. If the law of attraction has any truth, I guess my negative thought patterns really brought about what I was asking for. Besides, I bet the piece was never really as “embarassing” as I once thought.
When I was in tap class or singing in choir, I got caught up in the spirit of expression. In ballet class, stress over my body distracted me from finding that flow of energy. Still, there was something intangible about dance that I could never manage to disown. Something transcendent that existed within dance and movement. Somewhere within myself, there was a spark of love and a recognition of my own inherent goodness.
Dance is exactly what healed me, when I finally allowed it to. After taking a partial hiatus from dance and selecting to major in social sciences during my undergraduate years, I moved to New York City. I had the guidance of talented dance instructors, but exploring the club scene was probably most important for me in terms of self-liberation. I would dance for hours under strobe lights, feeling the energy of the crowd, and riding the beats. Pointe shoes and a ram-rod spine began to fall out of favor in my personal aesthetic.
When I started to recognize dance as cultural expression and a means of preserving history, another level of reality hit me. It was about me, and not about me. I could engage with the world through dance. I studied hip hop, which led me to African dance, which led me to studies in the Dunham Technique and Anusara Yoga.
Access to dance lessons got me started on my path, and becoming a teacher brought me back full-circle. It is my privilege to practice love in the service of a new generation.
I now find myself in Phoenix, Arizona, where I have manifested a dream come true. In my new professional role, I am building a program in dance education at Grand Canyon University. I am continuously receiving gifts and working harder than ever before, poised to continue my work. Dance is a process of affirmation and self-love, centering me over my feet and rooting me from within. That’s what I wish to share most.
Here is a video that underscores a philosophy of self-love, in a manner that I could not have expressed any better. Chuck Davis, Director of the African American Dance Ensemble, speaks here after receiving an honorary degree from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.