A pretty, tall blonde walked into tap class for the sixth class of a ten week session. She was wearing a worn pair of tap shoes, which had one very long shoelace looped around one of the soles of her leather tap-shoes. “Hi. I’m Julie, the instructor. Welcome to class. You’ve tapped before, right?” I asked. “Hello. I’m Claudia.” She responded. “No, this is my first time attempting to tap dance.” I looked down at her tap shoes with a perplexed expression. “These were my mom’s. They’re a little bit big on me,” she answered quickly. She then swallowed and continued, “She’s been dead two weeks.”
Claudia later explained that her mom loved tap dancing, and Claudia was coming to class to feel connected to her mom. She wanted to experience a joy that her mom had felt, and she wanted to fill her mom’s shoes…literally. Claudia decided to take some private lessons with another student, Ruthie. Ruthie then decided to invite her daughter, Allyson, who was home for the holidays, to the lesson. So, Ruthie and her daughter Allyson and Claudia attended a semi-private lesson together. During this lesson, I couldn’t help but feel like I was teaching two mother-daughter sets. There was Allyson with her mom Ruthie, and then there was Claudia wearing her mom’s shoes. If ghosts exist, I was sure that her mom wouldn’t miss this! Her baby girl, although all grown up, was making her first tap sounds with her feet. I imagined her mom there, cheering her on and going down the floor tapping along side of her.
Around the same time that Claudia started taking tap lessons, I started hearing student after student tell me that they were grieving the loss of a loved one. One salsa student, Ron, had an interesting tattoo on his forearm. When I asked him what it meant, he told me, “It’s the voice print of my deceased son’s laugh overlaying a heart beat…Think of it as a version of laugh, love, live.” Ron said that he hadn’t felt the same elation as he had been feeling in dance class in the three years since the passing of his son. “Dancing at the studio feels like home – a family of friends. It’s easy, fun, and happy. It’s the music, the movement, and the connectedness which was missing in my life.”
Another Latin dance student, Denise, sat on the red couch at the studio during a salsa party and told me that she was so glad she had come to the party because if she hadn’t, she would be sitting at home crying about her late husband. Here is what she had to say about how dance has helped her through her grieving process:
“After losing my husband, I felt the entire world had crumbled under me and that I would never be the same. I had lost the love of my life, my best friend, the father of my children and a person who was the most humble, kind and loving person’s I had ever met. For the most part, grief made me feel like I had a hole in my chest that was empty in the place that kept me alive, ‘my heart.’ I was convinced I would never laugh again.
Everyone kept saying, you have to find ‘a new normal.’ If I heard that one more time, I wanted to scream, ‘life will never be normal again!!!’ I tried grief groups, grief counseling, being more active in my community, going to the gym, swimming more, and even lost one hundred pounds in the process! It seemed like I still could not find ‘me.’
My husband and I always loved dancing at parties and I always wanted to learn to salsa dance. So one morning, I woke up and said, ‘just do it.’ I went to the internet and found Salsa In The Suburbs. I called Julie, who patiently listened to my story and the universe was working in my favor as a beginners’ class had started that week. I was apprehensive, wondering if this would be a successful venture and would I be the only person there ‘alone.’ Julie assured me that I can do it and I will never be alone. That same day I had a private lesson with Shauna and a group Beginner class with Rob and Ryan. I was really comfortable and was actually laughing.
Everyone was so friendly; Julie and the instructors are supportive and from the very first day have provided encouragement making me feel that it is ok to make mistakes as it is part of learning. I started going to the parties and making new friends. I even show off my videos of me dancing to my family and friends who don’t know Latin dancing but they do know of all the sadness I displayed after the loss of my husband. My family was so happy to see me laughing and engaged in something to make me happy.
Through private lessons, group classes and even dance bootcamps, I have completed both Beginner Salsa and Bachata, and now take Intermediate classes! I have even challenged myself and have gone to a lively Salsa club!
My journey in finding the new me, has been transformed with learning Latin dancing. While at times, I am not patient with myself, the support that I have with my new family of friends at Salsa in the Suburbs and the fun with dancing has been an integral part of my new life. I encourage anyone who has suffered a loss, to never give in to sadness and to find something that makes you happy. While life will never be the same because losing a loved one is traumatic, our loved ones would not ever want us to give up and live a life of sadness but would much rather see us dance!!!!
Another one of my tap students, Regina, comes to class each week and thanks me for her “grief therapy.” After class one day she told me that she was so grateful for that hour of class because it was just the escape she needed. The following day would be the anniversary of the day she buried her daughter. I asked her if we could sit down for an interview and here it is:
- Can you tell me about your loss? I have lost three prominent family members: my mother and father were both deceased by the time I was 18 and I lost by sixteen year old daughter.
- What brought you to dance? Music and dance are universal languages. I have been dancing since childhood. When you hear music, the mind and body flow emotionally, psychologically and socially to different outlets.
- What classes did you start taking and which ones are you taking now? I started with Salsa and am currently attending my 10th month of tap. I had tried aerobics and Zumba, but was not interested in those exercise programs. However, tap has the same characteristics that aerobics and Zumba have, but with one huge difference: You have musical instruments on the bottom of your soles. Also, another added feature is that you are banging your inner emotional frustrations out on the floor and it’s expected. No one knows what is pent up within; however, you are releasing that emotion.
- What are your dance goals? I would like to achieve all styles of Latin Dances. An additional achievement is to stay fit, both physically and mentally.
- How has the community at Salsa in the Suburbs helped you on your journey? You are able to meet many different people of all ages and cultural backgrounds.
- What advice would you give someone who has recently experienced a loss? First and foremost, take care of yourself the first three years of a loss. Each year there is a different level of despair. Find what you are passionate about and set a goal!
Grief has recently become a very present and common topic in my day to day work. Whereas I had noticed other trends and many reasons why people would dance before, this topic has recently started to come up so often that I started to wonder if dance could be a leading way to help people deal and cope with grief and loss. So, I decided to share this story in hopes that it can reach other people who are dealing with grief, and possibly open their eyes to a new outlet or coping method, if and when they feel ready of course.