Here's How I Learned to Love Dancing Again as an Adult

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I caught the dance bug at a very early age and enrolled in a competitive training program as a child. Dance was my life; it was where I spent every evening, Saturday mornings and during competition season, most weekends were entirely dedicated to dance.

My passion for dance was so great I would choreograph dances in my bedroom which soon evolved to choreographing routines in the studio at my local gym. I was transported by dance. Able to express my deepest, most complex emotions without using words… only movement.

I was hooked on constantly challenging myself and pushing my boundaries. I loved the endorphin rush of being on stage. Before my first solo performance (11 years old), I was overcome with nerves and felt like I was going to be sick. It took every ounce of courage I had to walk out on that stage and perform in front of the audience. When I finished my routine I felt a huge sense of accomplishment. I knew the next time I would face the spotlight I would be brave.

While dance was one of the greatest gifts of my life, it has also presented massive challenges. The other side (or you might say the ugly side) of dance life was being in an atmosphere of judgement, constant competition, cliques, struggle, perfectionism, and an underlying sense of not being good enough.

The pressure to be the best and to be flawless was intense. To win trophies you had to be perfect. To secure the professional dance gig you had to not only have the best technique and personal style, but you also had to have the right “look.” I was always told to work hard and push my physical limits because somewhere someone else was working even harder than you.

As I grew up and my dancing evolved I soon realized I was rarely ever the best dancer in the room. I was not the teacher’s favorite. I was not the dancer who took home 1st place. I didn’t have the best extensions. I didn’t leap the highest and I couldn’t execute the most pirouettes. I auditioned for scholarships but didn’t make the cut. I had my wins for sure (like the first time I made company at my local studio!) and those felt amazing, but the voice of “I’m not good enough” became louder.

As with many dancers, the struggle with my body image began in the studio, constantly comparing myself to others and wishing I was different. This evolved to disordered eating and being in an endless battle with myself, my body, and food. I learned to hate the skin I was in. I held an “ideal” body image of what a professional dancer looked like and I never measured up.

As a dance major in college I was told to take the stairs, not the elevator. I got a B- on my weight (yes, we got graded on our weight). As a professional dancer on a cruise ship I signed a contract saying I would not gain weight otherwise I may lose my job (the costumes must fit, after all). While performing in a professional dance company in Chicago, we had weekly weigh-ins and could lose our jobs if we went above a certain number. Soon my weight was symbolic of my hirability as a dancer but more than that, it was my identity.

I’m happy to say that, in many ways, the dance world has evolved over the past 20 years and it’s now way more common to see curvy women on stage and shaking it on Instagram. AMEN for that! After years of therapy and self-discovery, I have made it to the other side of the pressures of the dance world and, you know what? My fire and deep passion for dance is as strong as ever! Dance is still my number one way of creating art and expressing what can’t be fully articulated in words.

Now, I am the owner of an adult dance and yoga studio in Denver and my goal is to offer a judgement free, body positive zone where people can come and be fully supported on their journey.

In order to enjoy dance as an almost-40-year-old woman, I have had to let go of many of the storylines that were fed to me as a child. I see this in many of my adult dancers now that walk into Passion Force for class. They too have to unlearn past patterns that may be holding them back.

Adult Dancers - check yourself. Here are some things that have helped me walk back in the studio as a grown up and thrive:

1. Stop chasing perfection.

Perfection doesn’t exist and chasing it is a total waste of time and energy. There’s no room for perfection in an adult dance class (or anywhere really?). When that inner critic comes up your mind shuts down (forget about trying to remember the choreography!) and JOY has left the building. Remember why you are here. To Dance! Can you allow yourself the freedom to ENJOY the experience of dancing?

2. Adjust your expectations.

I speak from experience in saying that my almost 40-year-old body can’t jump as high as I did when I was in high school. My turns are nowhere near as clean and my leg doesn’t go as high when I battement. But you know what? That’s OKAY! I am no longer fighting for professional dance gigs. You are not auditioning to be on MTV (is that still a thing now?). You can stop worrying about other people’s opinions! You are an adult! You do you sister!

3. The competition is over.

Good vibes only! You are no longer vying for the trophy or for your parents approval. Set yourself free! We are all on the same team and there is only room for encouragement and cheering each other on. High fives all around! One of my favorite quotes is: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” by Ian Maclaren. The dance studio is a place to be authentically and unapologetically yourself. Find spaces where you feel accepted and loved.

4. Dance from your heart.

Dance from your heart and don’t let your weight, facility, flexibility or technique stop you from moving to the sound of the music. Yes, you can improve and yes you can get better but as an adult dancer, my end game is ENJOYMENT. Pure play.

5. Embrace the importance of self-care.

This body is the only one I get and it’s time to stop wasting time in a dysfunctional relationship with it. Therapy, Journaling, Friends, Nutritionists, Hikes, Fresh Air, Throwing your scale in the trash… it’s all here to help you forge a path of body acceptance and love. My biggest breakthrough was when I stopped worrying about the number on the scale and started paying attention to how I felt. How was my energy level? Was I showing up for myself each day and living my life with intention instead of on auto-pilot?

6. Effort is still required.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard an adult dancer take ONE dance class and tell me they are not that good at dancing, I would be rich. My question to you is this - did you learn how to walk in a day? Do you learn how to read after one lesson in school? Did you learn how to drive in that first awkward lesson with your dad in your elementary school parking lot? NO! So why would dancing be any different? It takes repeated effort to get better. It takes coming to class each week to get good at remembering and retaining choreography. Effort is still required but isn’t that part of the fun? Show up. Be consistent. Be dedicated. You will reap the rewards and if your endgame is enjoyment, you will stay motivated.

7. Find your tribe.

Make an effort to connect with your fellow adult dancers. Stick around after class to connect. I have found that dancing past the comforts (or discomforts) of our childhood studios takes guts. It feels good to know that we are not alone in hearing the call to move our bodies and express from within.

8. Show up.

Show up, work hard, give your personal best and let all that other shit go. And at the end of the day - Practice GRATITUDE.

Elizabeth Marberry