Taking a Sensory Leap

I have a funny relationship with dancing. When I was maybe all of five, I had the sudden urge to be a ballerina. I wanted to dress head-to-toe in baby pink and gently bound across the imaginary stage of our living room's plush carpeting. I wanted to stand en pointe like the little mice in my Angelina Ballerina poster framed, also in pink, over my bed. My parents, ever ready to encourage my curiosities and foster my hobbies, bought me the perfect pale pink leotard, tights, and matching ballet slippers. I tried them on, my shiny hair tossed into a ponytail, and bent and spun the way I imagined real ballet dancers bent and spun. Videos of the time show me stomping and squatting and flinging myself haphazardly across the room, a tiny sensory terror and clearly the opposite of graceful. I loved to hop and jump, and most of these practice runs turned into a kindergarten version of STOMP, sadly minus the metal trashcan lids and drumsticks.

Forever my hero

I was nervous the day of my first ballet class, and I remember tugging on my outfit under a downlight before a sprawling mirror and bar. A larger, older girl sidled up to me. I can't remember what she said, exactly. Kids are cruel and memories are sometimes thankfully short, but I didn't want to go back to ballet class after our run-in. I remember feeling disappointed in myself and in the situation - I was, after all, a very sensitive, very aware kid (see: all of my report cards ever) - yet I continued to plie and curtsey long after the class had ended, having not let go of the dream.

There was the tap-dancing phase, but I never took a class (still something I want to do in adulthood - just call me Ginger Rogers). There was the rhythmic gymnastics phase, which was more ribbons and jump ropes than fancy footwork. There were middle school dances, which, in spite of the late afternoon and the way the lights bounced off of the squeaky cafeteria floor, were filled with my poor attempt at the running man, macarena, and other "classic" 90s dance moves.

We were awesome

Somewhere around age 14, when my anxiety soared and I couldn't make sense of my body or mind and their particular quirks, I stopped dancing. I was so dysregulated at that point and so distressed that I often didn't want to move - life was overwhelming to begin with, what with high school, boyfriends, and homework - why add motion into the mix? Motion was problematic - moving made me feel unbalanced. Moving often came with sounds and sights that I couldn't begin to control. 

I know now that this is a shame. I had such a crucial sensory tool at my disposal and I shrugged it off. My body loves to move because of my need for proprioceptive input, much in the same way I hopped around the house as a little girl. I feel the rhythm of a song at my very core, the beat pulses through me, and it's almost as if the beat and I become one - the beat, when steady, makes me feel regulated. Strange how sound can be so bothersome for me but rhythm can be so powerful. 

Yesterday, to celebrate my 32nd birthday, my husband/handler and I took our first swing dance lesson. A good number of people who know me and about my SPD (and love me regardless of my wiring) asked how I was going to handle the barrage of sound, movement, and lights - and I said that I didn't know. I accounted for the variables in my control, as it's all that I could really do to support my sensory needs: we took a private, late-morning lesson. I googled the studio in advance and I picked a comfortable, fun period outfit. (Much like I described in the post Here I Am (Say Cheese), when I know that I'm going to be photographed, I rise to the occasion - SPD be damned!) 

And then, I (literally) took a leap. 

I find very often in my sensory life that when I account for enough variables, there's really nothing that I can't do. Sure, the room was new and unfamiliar. In the Brooklyn basement of a yoga-studio-meets-hipster-crunchy-granola-cafe, the dimly-lit, low-ceiling space was a welcome surprise. A small Buddha statue peered out from behind candlesticks. A gong stood awkward and silent in the corner. I felt brave enough to take off my blue-tinted glasses and grab the hand of my favorite dance partner. There were times that my brain did it's usual momentary short-circuit-thing and I had to think stop worrying about your body and the ground, you are safe and present even if it doesn't feel that way in this moment, focus on the moves, really get into the twirl, and the anxiety that always accompanies my SPD slowly subsided. We pecked and we turned, I was spun outward and rhythmically stepped my way back to my handler's waiting arms. Yes, I thought, as we rocked back and forth to the beat, I can do this. 

I may never be a prima ballerina - correction, let's get real here: I will never be a prima ballerina, but that is no great loss to anyone but my kindergarten-aged self. I can, however, control the variables and set aside my processing issues sometimes. I can get lost in the pivot of my hips and the glide (ok, stomp) of my feet across the wooden floor; I can feel the rhythm of a bass-line wind its way up my spine and settle somewhere in my chest, near my heart.

It's good to know that I can always swing. 


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