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.