When I first stepped into a ballroom dance class, I was pushing 40 years old, depressed to the point of despair, delirious with insomnia, and feeling insane from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I didn’t know a soul in the class or a pattern in the dance and I didn’t have the right shoes. What I did have was a burning desire to escape the suffering of my mind.
Controlled by PTSD symptoms, my life had withered. I was without a profession, relationship, or meaningful purpose. I left the house only when necessary and rarely socialized. Recovery efforts had brought more fear and anguish than healing. I was quickly losing hope that I could survive the constant psychological pain when some small inner voice spoke: You need to feel the opposite of all this pain. You need to feel joy.
In response, I launched a quest to experience joy (no matter how briefly) at least once a day. I knew that I felt joyful when I danced, so I signed up for dance classes every night of the week.
When I took a deep breath, straightened my posture, and walked into my first salsa class, I had no idea that I was about to find exactly what I needed to deliver me from the pain of the past and into a present and future that I love.
Learning to Be Present, Connect, and Trust
Thanks to PTSD, I’d perfected the art of living a life apart. Dance, however, demanded that I release these coping mechanisms.
Face to face, partnered with a stranger, I learned that if I had any hope of coordinating how I heard the beat, interpreted my partner’s lead, and skillfully executed a move, I had to stay present. I had to connect to and trust myself and my partner.
In a jumble of missteps, apologies, and clumsiness, I miserably failed at all of this in my first class. There was, however, a positive outcome: Despite the many embarrassing moments, some part of me was having fun.
This long-forgotten self wanted to transcend my herky-jerky PTSD-influenced life. She wanted to be wrapped in the flow of notes, instruments, and creative patterns — and I loved her for it. By the end of class, I was hooked.
At home I practiced patterns in the living room and on the pavement outside at night. I listened to salsa music incessantly, trying to hear the beat and match it to steps.
Slowly, through hours of classes and practice, my dancing improved. I learned from repeated experience that I could trust my body to follow my mind and that my mind could stay present and create an organic flow of movement.
I found a consistent dance partner with whom I felt comfortable enough to be myself. He was kind, accomplished, and encouraging, which let me develop a safe space of experimentation. More than anything, I started allowing myself to get used to having a good time. I started sleeping more, crying less, and waking up each morning looking forward to something for the first time in almost three decades.
Soon, I heard myself laugh at mistakes in class and whoop at flawlessly executed patterns. The icy terrain of PTSD began to thaw, and inside myself I found a verdant landscape of hope, belief, and possibility that made me feel courageous. I returned to PTSD recovery with increased energy, engagement, and determination. This time I succeeded.
By the time my 40th birthday rolled around I was 100 percent free of PTSD symptoms. Throughout the final, difficult process of making peace with the past, dance sustained me with a life-affirming connection to joy in the present. That connection — to life, myself, purpose, and passion — helped me renegotiate a vision of myself.
I transformed my survivor identity into a woman who is happy, healthy, and giving back. Years have passed. Though I continue to change and grow, one thing remains the same: Dancing sets my soul free. That life-affirming part of me now sits at the center of who I am. What a glorious guide she turned out to be.