Dance lessons and social inclusion

I’m fascinated by therapeutic techniques. Walking therapy, writing therapy, gardening therapy, baking therapy, dance therapy, music therapy…All of them have helped me survive and thrive all these years while caregiving for different people. Dance and music are making me realize that singlehood can be a fun, empowering time. Contrary to all the predominantly depressing stereotypes I’ve read about women in mid-life, dancing and playing music has helped me to stay focused, positive, and thrive.

Hard to imagine, but being single is an art and solitude can be a blessing. It certainly frees me up to have more time for myself and reflect on human nature. It sounds selfish. It took me a long time to get here. Even my son screams at me for being an “over-reliable mother” and tells me that I need to do more “self-care” and ease up on the collective care, building communities of action. But mid-life is rewiring my brain: it is forcing me to think about me and not “others”. As a Filipina, for most of my life, I have been other-focused. I was raised not to be selfish and “bourgeoise” (whatever that means) and go overboard with the caregiving.

When I did my Ph.D. oral dissertation exam, one of my advisors commented: “Why on earth are you wasting your youth? Why don’t you do research on dance instead? You’re in your twenties! But instead of having fun, you choose to go to a strongly Islamic province where they will undoubtedly force you to pray five times a day, wear the veil, not drink any alcohol, and on top of it — there is an armed conflict in a region of special military operations. Youth is wasted on the young. If I were you, I’d go to Bali and do research on Balinese dance instead.”

Twenty-seven years ago, I thought she was trying to derail me. The other four advisors didn’t agree with her. But now, I am finally following her advice. I signed-up for my first ballet class and invested on my first ballet shoes. Having been told by my doctor that I need to exercise more if I want to keep my cholesterol down, I took up dance as a hobby. So besides ballet, I signed-up for ballroom dancing and Bollywood dancing. This was all before Covid-19 and protests.

What I learned from Giavanna, my patient ballet teacher, is that I have really bad posture. I tend to stoop, like a hunchback. Most of our exercises were about standing tall, head high, balancing, and strengthening my back and shoulder muscles. I never paid attention to my toes before, but in ballet, we spend a lot of time articulating our toes and balancing, while not forgetting to breathe. This is one of the things that I tend to forget: breathe!

Ballroom dancing is painful, but like the other five to seven (it varied) single women in a group of 45 to 50, 99% of the group being male-female heteronormative couples, I tried to learn something new. The first class on waltz was fascinating as it dawned on us single women that perhaps we were in the wrong class? Hello? The ad said: “Just come, no need for a partner.” But when I got there, it was mostly heterosexual married couples clinging to each other for dear life, afraid that their man would be seduced by one of the single women. When the Instructor tried to tell them to un-couple and mix and mingle, they refused. How do we dance our differences, our social exclusion?

I partnered with one of the single mothers after a rather over-confident man said:

“Oh dear, I guess there are more single women than available men. I am the only man for several of you ladies, so I guess you have to fall-in-line.” Another woman and I looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and said to each other:

“Is he kidding me? No way I’m wasting my time to fall-in-line for this guy. Seriously? Let’s dance together instead.”

Compared to other dances like Bollywood dancing, Women’s Collaborative Dance, Hula, and Tahitian dance, where one can dance alone, ballroom dancing (tango, waltz, cha cha) pairs people up so that one is a “leader” and the other is a “follower”. The Instructor teaches the class dividing the leaders (99% men) from the followers (99% women): the leader drives, sends the signals on where to go, and navigates, while the follower — well…follows. A few times, some of us single women joined the “leaders” group, to experience what the steps feel like. But when I switched roles and partnered with a man, one of the men, who had been taking the class for years and thinks very highly of his dance “expertise”, said to me:

“The problem with you is that you have learned the leader steps, and now you don’t know how to follow. I make the decisions on when to turn, you just follow. And don’t worry about crashing into other people. I know how to drive and navigate.”

Two women friends who often come together to the class (their husbands don’t like dancing), said to me: “Smash the patriarchy. Let’s all go to the leader section just for fun. See what unfolds.” I see this Korean woman, who has become a good friend, in the leaders group, amongst twenty men or so dancing like no one is watching, oblivious to the traditional drama of tango. We learned that we don’t have to stick and get stuck to one role only: that we can switch between different roles: leader, follower, confused, uncertain.

In one class, when I was dancing with my Korean woman friend, the Instructor came and tried to break us up three times: “Can you please break-up and dance with the men?” My female partner replied: “Why are you trying to break us up but not the male-female couples? Why don’t you break them up? What if we were an actual female-female couple? Has that ever occurred to you?”

For comparative analysis, I started going to Bollywood dancing, taught by Khurshid, an Indian-Pakistani classical dancer who focuses on expanding our hand, feet, and hip vocabularies. The class is composed of Nepalese, Pakistani, and Indian women (no men, for various reasons), who are very articulate with their hand movements and culturally nuanced in their knowledge of the differences between Pakistani, Indian, and Nepalese classical dance, syncretized with Bollywood. I am still trying to figure out if it is all women because of “tradition” (female life-space) or because women dancers are merely “entertainment” for the pleasure of men?

Dance and somatic healing is good for one’s soul. I am finally learning the art of being single, enjoying it, and growing my vocabulary and repertoire for effective therapeutic techniques.

Visual storyteller, Southeast Asian historian,