**with editing, suggestions and direction from John Rettig who’s love and support helped me through the challenges of this writing process**
“The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.” - Confucius
I’ve been a dancer my whole life. Being raised in a family of dancers, the art of dancing and my identity as a dancer has been directly tied to my identity. Which, fortunately, has continued to evolve as I mature, grow and adapt into the various roles dancing provides. I always felt lucky and slightly guilty that I stumbled into a deep and intense passion at a young age due to it also being my mother’s way of life and career path. As a child, and a daughter, I didn’t realize that she was so much more than a great dancer and effective dance teacher. She had a way of demonstrating and communicating the importance of not only refined technique and artistry but also a sense of finding self value, building character, and living compassionately. I’m just now at a stage in my career and dance identity that I am beginning to fully comprehend the greatness of this gift she passed on to me as well as each and every one of her students.
I decided I wanted to pursue a professional dance career around the 8th grade. My directions wavered slightly in high school as other hobbies, social life, and a newfound interest in boys became a momentary distraction — however, a three month stint of mono left me realizing what I missed most: dancing. At 18, I packed up my life, and current understanding of identity and moved to Pittsburgh to begin a rigorous four years of dance training at a renowned arts (and specifically prestigious dance) college, a personal achievement I had been working diligently towards for several years. It was here at Point Park that dance became something I had to fight for, work hard for, and continuously prove and re-prove myself as “good enough”, whereas previously I found dance to come rather naturally to me. It was easy to begin relentless comparisons of myself to others and negative self talk seeped it’s way unknowingly into the depths of my mind. Throughout this training I lost myself, found myself, and changed myself countless times, both mentally and physically. All of the important lessons I learned through my formative years of dance were still there, but buried under insecurity, masked by arrogance, the desire for a shot in the spotlight dance could bring a person, and a motivation to create movement on myself and others for approval rather than for the betterment of myself and those around me.
Since my late teens, I have had mental health issues, primarily caused from depression. In my 20’s, this unrecognized, and therefore untreated illness became exacerbated and life threatening. Dance has always been a mirror of my current mental state and a way to build natural endorphins, pump up serotonin, and release dopamine which helps keep me healthy. When I stopped having the desire to dance, teach, and choreograph is when I knew my mental health was at its scariest point. In my mid twenties I not only lost myself to egotism with my arrogance masking my insecurities, but I lost myself when I was unable to cope with trauma. The ins and outs of how these traumas came to be are not nearly as important as how I learned to dig deep and ask for help to climb out of a very personal dark rock bottom, but I will briefly touch on it to provide an example of how one can stumble upon life’s altering circumstances.
I am overly aware of my privileges in life to a point that having mental illness and poor coping skills stemming from trauma can often create guilt for me. I do believe everyone experiences trauma in life and everyone handles these traumas differently and I was under the false impression that because I was “raised well” I should react well to adversity. In my early 20’s I had just about every advantage possible in this society. I was supported both emotionally and financially, loved and endlessly cared for (and I still very much am). However, the misconception is that these very fortunate attributes to my life did not mean that I was or am immune to hurt, fear, anger, depression, anxiety, addiction or PTSD symptoms.
At the age of 24, I was already in a fairly dysfunctional long term relationship and did not realize the slow deterioration of self that was occurring, but it was a terrifying event with a trusted friend that was my mental health demise. After having two glasses of wine with this friend who was a male co-worker and someone I considered a “big brother” figure, I endured an evening of drug induced loss of consciousness (I was not aware of being given this drug) and seven hours of extreme violation. I had told my boyfriend at 12:02am that I’d be home in 10 minutes and at 7:37am I woke up in a strange apartment bruised, bleeding, confused and terrified beyond my comprehension. I rushed home to find an angry, hurt, screaming and violent boyfriend. That is where I encountered my 2nd forced violation in a 12 hour time span. I am not including this for pity or for validation that my poor coping skills were warranted. I’m sharing this because it’s far too common, and in my experience, not shared enough in an open, accepting and understanding way with those that could benefit from hearing about how toxic relationships can change and utterly uproot someone, even if they think they’re strong, capable, and able to leave the relationship at any time of their choosing. It happens too often and I know I am not the only person who has found her brain, heart, and self worth completely fragmented after an assault of any degree. It’s also a testament to the amount of healing I’ve endured and that the human being is capable of as this is the one story of my life I will most often shy away from. To this day, it still brings a deep sense of shame, self-blame, self-hatred and an overwhelming urge to vomit every time I think about it — even 8 years later.
As a dancer, I no longer trusted or valued my body. Looking at myself in the mirror was a challenge but I was surrounded by them for work, eight hours a day. After my horrific night of abuse and violation, I continued to be in a relationship that tore down the minute shreds of dignity I had left and I found myself turning to incredibly unhealthy and harmful means of coping. The goal was to be numb enough to do my daily tasks. Whether it was by means of extreme emotional avoidance, withdrawing from friends or self medicating, I was determined to eliminate this experience and it’s emotional baggage from my memory. Life became so dull and meaningless and I no longer found joy in much of anything. I isolated myself from people who loved me and wanted to help, and found comfort in a dirty, dingy, harmful lifestyle that I felt reflected my true worth at that time. I would go to bed every night hoping that I wouldn't wake up the next day and would spend the next whole day in bed trying to will myself to sleep until it was time to go to work.
At this point in my life two things were reflected through my art and dancer identity. I started losing motivation within the dance company I was co-directing/choreographing with a dear friend. Not only because I had caused so much damage to the important connections and friendships I had made with those people, but because creating art is nearly impossible to do and not at all meaningful when your survival instinct is to disconnect from emotions and reality. However, working with students at the studio I was teaching at was a saving grace. I found unconditional love, acceptance, respect and innocence every time I walked through the doors. Although choreography wasn’t coming from a deep sense of meaning to my soul, the students gave me purpose enough to create works based off of their greatness. This was when I realized how mutually beneficial and therapeutic being an arts educator can be. Upon instilling value, worth, self-care and self love into my students through dance, I began to remember the lessons I learned from my mother. I suddenly started to have a desire to improve my life.
This spawned a decision to move home with my mom in an effort to get back the life I finally realized I deserved. It was and has been a recovery process full of ups and down for both myself and my loved ones, which still includes days of isolation and depression. When I asked my family for help, for support, for love and they were eager to give it. They supported me emotionally and financially to receive the proper mental healthcare I needed. It has been three years since asking for the help of trusted loved ones and I literally owe my life to that decision. For this and their continued support, I am eternally grateful.
I currently still have symptoms of PTSD, including panic and anxiety attacks, flashbacks, night terrors, social anxiety, crippling fear of new places and new people but I am tirelessly working to accept, improve, and better myself. Some days suck. I’m learning that it’s ok to sit still in progress. Recovery and healing are not linear. Some days are really freakin’ amazing. I’m learning to be far more gracious for those days.
My current identity in the realm of dance is far more curious and exploratory. Not necessarily with creating new steps, but with merging virtuous movement with depth, honesty, humanity, and spirit. Instead of fabricating an image to portray on a stage, I’m trying to just put my body, life, and experience into movement and then encourage the dancers to put their body, life and experience into it as well. It has become my very best and affective means of coping. It has also become less of my personal identity allowing me enough distance from it to become a more genuine and less desperate artist.
I began creating “Last Night I Heard Everything In Slow Motion” in September of 2017 as an attempt to explore grief, loss, and heartbreak with my students. I shared with them an experience of losing one of my best friends and how surreal the initial moment of first hearing the news was. Time seemed to slow down, space seemed to shrink, and I felt stuck in a single place where the floor kept getting ripped out from under me just to rebuild itself in time to be ripped out again. I had lost all control of my reality, and it caused a great deal of pain and panic. We ended up exploring a lot more than grief. Anxiety became a driving force in this piece. The idea of feeling so out of control and helpless in a single moment that the only means of relief is to try and break out of your own skin. The importance of connection to one’s self and other people. The complexities of dynamic relationship where the navigation of love isn’t black or white, right or wrong. The startling truth that sometimes the one who knocks us down is the very person to pick us back up, and sometimes that person is ourselves. It was an experiment in vulnerability: how paralyzing the grip of fear, hurt, loss, and grief in our hearts can be, and how quick we can change our physical and emotional direction. It was incredibly cathartic, eye opening, and therapeutic. I found myself getting back in touch with parts of myself I had abandoned, and got to know my students to great depths through their movement choices. I would also like to mention that these dancers are ages 14-18. They are brilliant. Their ability to grasp, retain, and push themselves through these concepts continuously blew me away. They continue to make me a better teacher and choreographer, and they continue to help keep me healthy. I am forever grateful for the role the art of dance has played in my life as a mental health tool, a means of connecting with others through creation and performance, and the power of passing on such a meaningful art form.