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dance hobby hero

Is there something you loved doing as a child that you’ve stopped doing as an adult? Maybe it was playing soccer or singing show tunes or painting trees with Bob Ross. For me it was always dancing. But somewhere between adolescence and becoming a grown-up, my favorite pastime became just that: something I did in a past time. In its place? Overpriced spin classes and apologizing to people for responding late to their emails.

It’s not that I grew up slaving away at ballet or tap. Rather, it’s that dancing was something I was always, just, doing. See, it was the era of MTV, and for a shy homebody growing up in small-town Louisiana, watching Ricky Martin shake his bon bon at the VMAs was more than entertainment. It gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, I could some day be famous, too. It was also a respite from the anxieties of tween-hood. While other kids were preoccupied with dating and collecting first kisses, my best friend Brittany and I were in our own little world, shooting music videos with her mom’s camcorder and practicing for the Backstreet Boys dance-off our radio station was hosting. (Thank God Instagram wasn’t around yet.)

When I left Louisiana abruptly in the middle of eighth grade, I was heartbroken in the all-consuming way you feel at that age. Being separated from Brittany sucked, and coming in as the new kid mid-year to a giant school in Southern California was especially hard. But again, it was dance that saved me—specifically when a popular girl asked me to join her group for the end-of-year talent show. (The awkwardness of 14-year-olds dancing to “Get Ur Freak On” is not lost on me.)

jenny jin dance pull quote

I danced through subsequent moves and well into college: in my a cappella group, in shows, on the stage (or tables) of various bars throughout D.C. Deep down, I still wanted to be a pop star, but by this point, I had met too many talented people to believe I could pursue such a lofty dream. (And this isn’t me feigning modesty—one of the guys I knew went on to win America’s Best Dance Crew. Another toured with J.Lo.) I started diverting my energy toward other, more practical things…like internships…and jobs…and squirreling money away for trips to Harry Potter World.

My friend Katie, whom I met through a cappella, recently confessed this is exactly how she felt about musical theater. “I’ve always loved singing, but I knew I wasn’t going to pursue a career in it,” she told me over sangria. Some of the kids she grew up doing theater with are now Equity actors on Broadway. Her older sister is a drama teacher at a fancy private school. Katie is a UX designer at West Elm—and an extremely talented one at that. Still, she sings often—both in her apartment and at karaoke—because it makes her happy. “I know I’m depressed when I haven’t sung in a while.”

According to Dr. S. Asuim Azizi, chairman of the department of neurology at Temple University’s School of Medicine in Philadelphia, “When people do things that make them feel good, like a hobby, it activates an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens that controls how we feel about life.” In other words, maintaining childhood hobbies quite literally triggers our pleasure centers.

As my 30th birthday approached, I was doing the type of soul searching you tend to do as you age. I was feeling anxious and adrift. Here I was, nearing this “milestone” year and still trying to lose the same ten pounds I’ve chased since high school. Here I was, in a fulfilling eight-year relationship and still no closer to planning a wedding. And here I was, in a job I really enjoyed, still comparing myself to others, who seemed further along in their careers.

On a whim, I signed up for a hip-hop class with a friend. I felt stiff and extremely self-conscious. I was so concentrated on getting the choreography down I didn’t allow myself to just have fun. Where was the confident eight-year-old who put on shows in the living room? Where was the carefree college girl who had a dance-off in the middle of a bus (a bus!) after a night on the town? Was it possible that I had completely outgrown the part of my body that needed to get down?

I decided to try another class. (Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4U” to throw it back to those glory days.) And another. (Beyoncé’s “Grown Woman” because, well, she’s Bey.) Slowly, I started to loosen up and enjoy myself again. And as I found joy through dance, I found peace in my life: It gave me a moment to myself, a break from the constant chatter in my head and an opportunity to reconnect with a body I haven’t been kind to since first growing curves 16 years ago. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert tells a story about a friend of hers who started figure skating again at the age of 40. She says that skating stopped her friend from feeling like “she was nothing more than a consumer, nothing more than the sum of her daily obligations and duties.” Skating made her feel “alive and ageless.”

The other night, I had a bit of trouble falling asleep, so I picked up the nearest book on my nightstand, Anne Lamott’s Almost Everything. I came across the following paragraph, which reminded me of why I need dance in my life: “Play opens the heart and gives us focus, like an abacus did when we were young. Play is play. Play doesn’t have to be or lead to anything else but fun. But what about the bigger things it can give you—the open heart, the happy exhaustion, the present moment, something beyond you…”

Now if you need me, I’ll be over here doing the Cha Cha Slide.

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