In 2019, I signed up for adult tap-dancing class at a local dance studio. I had taken jazz dance when I was a kid, and while my mother told me I was talented, I was a C average. No shame in that. Even as a kid I knew I was not great. It didn’t matter that much to me. What mattered was I loved dance. I loved rehearsals, watching myself in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, exploring how I could make my body move and shape. I also loved watching other dancers, especially my teachers. They were so in control, their limbs extending into geometric shapes with a flexibility that allowed their bodies to bend into forms both graceful and strange. When I managed to catch a glimpse of my reflection in the studio mirrors, I did not see my flat feet with little arch and zero turn-out. I did not bother with the reality of my short legs, nor my lack of balance and flexibility. What I saw was my body in movement. I saw a dancer.
Here is a quick sketch of my life in 2019. I am working fulltime in social work and co-parenting a preschooler. My partner and I have been in a relationship for just shy of 20 years. I am a homeowner. I am slowly, painfully paying down student loan debt from grad school while simultaneously paying into my retirement fund. I have hit my middle life stride. If I were to catch a glimpse of my reflection at this time of my life, who would I see? I see someone who is doing the best they can, each day. I see someone with head bent on tasks, marching in lockstep to the 9-5 rhythm of daily life. I see someone who doesn’t bother looking up at their reflection in order to notice how little resemblance their life has to what they imagined all those years ago, spinning across a floor in tights, arms akimbo. Somewhere along the way to this part of my life, I lost track of that tiny dancer.
To be fair, I am not painting a nuanced picture of this period of my life. Yes, the tempo of my life was and remains steady, but I don’t want to dismiss this as a glum or stunted period. As I did in 2019, I love my work, I love being a parent and partner, and since I am human, I love homeostasis. Taken from a neurobiological perspective, human beings crave homeostasis. The term homeostasis was first introduced by Claude Bernard, a French Physiologist in 1865, and later developed by American Physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon. Cannon coined the term “fight or flight response” in his popular book titled The Wisdom of the Body, first published in 1932. According to this research, our internal systems are governed by a biological drive towards balance. This is an intricate and complex process that occurs below our consciousness, where the brain and nervous system work together to monitor even the most subtle shifts in our internal state and then signal a response to ensure we maintain equilibrium. To put it simply, homeostasis is the state of safety and connection; it is how we survive.
So now you may be thinking, what does this have to do with adult tap dancing? The answer to that lies in both our biological drive for homeostasis and its twin, our biological drive for novelty. Yep, you heard me, our ability to maintain safety and connection, our window to survival through homeostasis, has an important counterweight- novelty. What is balance without counterbalance? Even at a young age we seek to interact with new stimulation and new experiences. Our curiosity is how we learn and grow; it is our curiosity that drives our evolution as a species- how we learned to eat certain foods and later to grow them, invent new tools and innovate ways to improve them. Brain research shows that when we respond to new stimuli, we are rewarded with dopamine, making us feel good, which of course drives us to find new stimuli, because who doesn’t want to feel good? Putting it simply, novelty is just as much an instrument to our survival as is homeostasis.
Back to adult tap dancing. It was a gradual recognition, a lengthy process of at first identifying and then listening to signs and signals from my body, that something was missing. Have you ever found something you didn’t even know you had lost? Maybe you flipped open a dog-eared copy of your favorite book, and there, nestled between the pages, is a flier to a Bikini Kill show, circa 1991 (holler to my riot grrrl readers!). Or that single sock you found, lying stuck between the washer and dryer. That moment of recognition can feel so satisfying- like coming back into balance, an equilibrium. And while you didn’t even know you had lost sight of that sock or that memory, once you find it, it feels like coming home to yourself. The signals I began listening to in 2019 felt like a deep fatigue, and a restlessness. I was experiencing an inertia that affected multiple domains of my life- my relationships, my work, my physical, mental and emotional health- all felt heavy and burdened. At the time, I couldn’t make sense of this ambiguous feeling. Everything was fine; there were no high, highs and no low, lows, and yet, my body was trying to tell me I needed to regain balance, something to uplift the drag. If coasting in neutral was the imbalance, here was novelty to help tip the scales.
At last, we have made it to the part of my story where I strapped on my teenage niece’s used tap shoes and entered a new, stimulating chapter of my life. And folks, it was exhilarating, and oh, so very awkward. I challenged every part of myself: the part that wants to be an expert and struggles to be the learner, the part that feels exquisite joy from moving my body and exquisite pain from not being enough (skilled enough, creative enough, talented enough). For 8 weeks I learned to shuffle-toe-step across a wooden floor, my reflection staring back at me, and it was just what my body asked for, and what I needed to come back home to myself. I gained strength, flexibility, coordination, but even more importantly, I gained a deeper sense of safety and connection. As those 8 weeks came to a close, I joined my class for a performance at a club in downtown Asheville. We danced on a stage, under bright lights, and in front of a crowd of friends, family, and strangers. As I looked out into the audience, I felt scared and nervous, but I also felt open, present, and ready. This is novelty and homeostasis at work, blending our need for balance with our need to learn, adapt, and create. Allowing us to preserve our safety and connection but not sacrifice our ability to challenge and grow. That final night on stage, that tiny dancer joined me, and rather than dismissing the middle life, steadfast, consistent part of me- we simply joined hands and danced our butts off! I wonder if this inspires you to reconnect with your own version of a tiny dancer, to novelty and curiosity? It doesn’t mean you have to put on tights or dance on a stage. The idea is to try something new to you, challenging your routines and habits, and stimulating your creativity and adaptability. Here are a few simple ways to get started:
- Take a walk in a new neighborhood or a park you’ve never visited
- Add a new step to your evening routine (for example a bath instead of a shower)
- Learn to crochet (finger knitting is even easier and just as fun!)
- Visit your local animal shelter and make new furry friends (bonus challenge if you adopt!)
- Reward yourself (I love the idea of rewarding myself with naps or idle time to daydream)
- Take yourself out on a date (I especially love solo dinner dates, and solo movie dates, too!)
- Change up your style (thrifting clothes can be a fun, affordable, environmentally friendly way to play with new colors and add new dimension to your wardrobe)
- Chop off your hair (Alternative: temporary or semi-permanent, eco conscious hair dyes on the market that don’t cost a lot)
- Wake up early to see the sun rise
- Write a poem or start a painting
Whatever you choose to do, I hope you find the challenge you need to restore the balance you crave.