Writers & Readers

Finding Home Again

After years of traumatic rhetoric around body image prevented me from making it to class, virtual classes have brought me back By Emily Pettet
  • Photo courtesy of Pettet

At 2am, the rhythmic sounds of traffic begin slowing down for the day. The trees sway in the glow of the street lights. I open my computer, place it on top of a small bookcase and sign into Instagram. I’m wearing pyjamas and no bra, with bare feet and unwashed hair, and I’m going to take a dance class.

I’m a bit hesitant to do the class because it’s been a while, and I want to be good. I have a deep need to do well, to be able to keep up, to remember the exercises and to look “right” doing it.

Years of traumatic rhetoric around body image and perfection have dulled the pure joy of dancing that I felt in my creative movement classes as a kid. An invisible screen of anxiety has prevented me from making it into a studio consistently. While I’ve had the desire to go, getting there has been the problem, and I haven’t been able to fix it.

When I’m in my kitchen improvising to whatever music is playing on YouTube, I feel a lightness and love for dance that is comfortable and fun. In a structured class, I feel tense and judged. These feelings then inform my movement, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy when I end up losing my balance or falling behind the music.

When the world shut down mid-March, I was apartment-sitting for a friend, newly well after an illness that had me in and out of the hospital all winter with doctors scratching their heads as to the cause. My day job as a receptionist at a gym was put on hold for what they thought would be two weeks, so free time stretched out in front of me. This meant my usual excuse of limited time to get to class was now irrelevant.

I began taking classes on Instagram Live, and it felt different. I was able to show up because I didn’t have to push through a hectic commute to get to a studio, but that wasn’t the only reason. The absence of eyes on me and wall-to-wall mirrors meant I was having more fun. I felt stronger. I tried to resemble the dancer I’ve desired to be: someone who is confident and more centred.

I’ve recently transitioned into doing some Zoom workshops where I can be seen, although I am comforted knowing I can turn my camera off at any time. I still feel some nervousness, but I find my voice is slightly louder. I am less afraid to ask questions, to request a review of the steps, and I don’t instantly apologize if I make a mistake.

In dance classes, prioritizing image and outside approval, especially in a world where racism and misogyny continue to thrive, is not only demeaning but also counterintuitive. When we flip this convention and focus on how an exercise feels rather than how it looks, we become connected to ourselves and the space around us in a way that fosters stability and honesty in a powerful way. As a choreographer and movement director, I know this, yet it took isolation to apply these principles to my own practice as a dancer, bringing me back to class.

When the pandemic is over, I think it’s important that studios continue offering virtual classes. Their impact in terms of accessibility has been special for me, and I hope others have found this as well. If you are considering jumping in, I encourage you to give it a shot as an act of self-love and discovery, to show up as you are and not as others would like you to be.

I’m so grateful that dance classes are becoming a home for me again, a place to connect with and appreciate my body, to live in the moment, to ground myself and feel hope. The shame I had around not showing up has begun to dissipate. If you can relate to my experience, I hope you will forgive yourself too.

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