This past Sunday afternoon, I did something that I would have said was nearly impossible: I danced for two full hours in a fast-paced Bollywood dance workshop.
Twenty years ago, that wouldn’t have seemed like a big deal. Even ten years ago I might have thought I was up for it. But my health has been such a challenge lately that I figured the best case scenario would have found me seated at the back of the studio for the duration, watching and taking notes.
I used to be a dancer. I grew up dancing, actually, and I seemed to always be involved with something rhythmic—taking classes, joining my school’s dance theater, and later taking up belly dance as an adult, which involved more classes, joining two different performance troupes, and even appearing in a music video:
Yep. See that belly dancer in the Dave Matthews Band’s video of Stay? That’s yours truly.
(There’s one shot that’s all me, but if you also look to the right of the parade float/bandstand in several shots early in the video, you’ll spot me. Also, mad props to Ezibu Muntu, the dance troupe that performed so joyfully during that shoot—especially my friend, Carey Mitchell, who’s in the white shirt and navy bandana.)
That was 1998. Not longer after, my health came crashing down around me. To be fair, I also made a cross-country move and couldn’t find a place to fit my cabaret/fusion style into the tribal dance that’s very big on the West Coast. The point is, I didn’t mean to stop dancing. I didn’t want to stop dancing. But it was something that happened out of necessity because I simply couldn’t do it anymore. I’ve wanted to get back to it ever since, but I just couldn’t seem to make it happen.
It was a bit of a surprise a couple of weeks ago when I was notified that I’d won a ticket to a dance workshop of my choice in the JamBallah Northwest belly dance festival here in Portland—courtesy of Happy Hips. I signed up for the Bollywood class without really thinking about what would be required of my body.
And then we found ourselves in a heat wave, one which was really knocking me sideways. I was already in pain with the continued daily migraines, and the heat was exacerbating both that condition and the other symptoms of dysautonomia. I wasn’t doing well at all. I contacted the festival organizer to inquire after air conditioning and whether there would be somewhere for me to sit or lie down if I got really sick. Pretty much up until the time I left the house to head into town for the workshop, I was considering pulling out. I didn’t feel good and I didn’t think I could do it.
But then I met the other students and the instructor. And the music was playing. And I felt that familiar pull of rhythm and movement.
I don’t want to give the impression that I was suddenly healed and the class was easy and now everything’s fixed, because that’s not what happened. That class was hard. The warm up alone nearly broke me, but I got stubborn and stuck with it. (As my new friend Sharron commented, “Your body remembers.”) Every time we took a break from learning what was a complicated choreography for Bhangra and Bollywood newbies, I wanted to simply sit down and give my heart and lungs a break. I was having some trouble breathing and my heart was pounding. My legs felt like rubberized jelly. I looked in the mirror maybe twenty minutes into the class and saw that my face was already bright red. So I stopped looking in the mirror.
The choreography was fun, even if it was physically challenging. I wanted to learn the rest of it, so I pushed myself to remain upright. Sections with double-time footwork confused us all on the count, but somehow I managed to get it. We were dancing and jumping and laughing at our mistakes and with the joy of the stories that the movements were telling. I partnered with a lovely woman who had bright enthusiasm and an infectious smile and I didn’t want to leave her hanging without a partner if I chose to take a break. So I kept going. I kept hydrated—which was hugely instrumental to my participation as the temperature rose inside the studio. I focused on the blue water and the shining sun in the Hinglish lyrics and the comfort of moving my body to match the music. My FitBit later told me my heart rate got up into the low 160s during the class, and I was hardly surprised.
And then, it was over. Two full hours had passed, and I had danced the entire time. We had a brief cool down and meditation at the end of the workshop, and it was in those moments that I had a stunning revelation: While I’d been dancing, I hadn’t felt any headache pain. I actually burst into tears over that on the way home. To me, the experience had been nothing short of a miracle. I’d danced—really danced, danced hard, getting sticky with rivers of sweat—for the first time in about 15 years.
Whether the dance scared the pain away for those two hours, or whether the workshop simply distracted me from the constant migraine (more likely), the result was the same: I’d had a brief respite, and I’d had an incredible amount of fun.
Of course, the pain came flooding back shortly after class, and my muscles were screaming at me all that evening, swimming in lactic acid. I was very tired and I didn’t have an appetite, which was no small concern. I’ve been stretching and hiking more than normal in the two days since, trying to convince my muscles to stop being sore and to stop making it so difficult to go up and down the stairs or sometimes even to walk down the hallway.
Sure, now I’m looking around for dance classes, though I’ve not yet found anything that’s both close to my home and not tribal. Don’t get me wrong: tribal is lovely, but it’s not me. Maybe I’ll end up picking up some hip hop or more Bollywood to further augment my fusion style. Maybe I’ll find a cabaret class—or better yet, a performing troupe—nearby. Or maybe I’ll just dance more on my own at home (when the temperatures cool down). I don’t know that I’ll be able to immediately replicate the Sunday Afternoon Bollywood Miracle, but that two-hour workshop has given me hope that I might yet come back from this downward spiral of yuck.
A previous version of this post identified the music video as coming out in 1999, which is incorrect. My memory is just not what it used to be.
Creative Commons photo: “Holland Dance Festival 2009 – Dansparade” by Maurice.