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Dance in the Spirit Journal

Volume 1, Number 2 - November 15, 2018

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Volume 1, Number 2

Find what you Love

Audrey Ferber  earned a Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in English and Theatre from San Francisco State University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. Her essays have appeared in the Cimarron Review, and Lilith Magazine as well as other highly regarded and reputable craft publications. She is a member of the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto, and an instructor at UC Berkeley, Extension.

The Healing Dance

Dr. Doris-Owanda Johnson, or Dr. Doris, has performed and studied dance in the U.S., Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Cuba and France. She has been passionately involved in West African dance for the past 30+ years, and has taught West Afr​ican dance at UCLA and other locations for over two decades. She also performs professionally and gives workshops on the healing aspects of dance and movement. 

It was midnight in Mexico, the band was packing up its instruments, and the couples still dancing bachata to the DJ were slowing down, peeling apart, and drifting back to their seats. I left the terrace bar with a friend and stopped by the restroom on the way out to wipe my damp face and neck. My hair and fluttery dress looked like I’d taken a shower and dressed without toweling off: A glowing, middle-aged mess. It had been a breathtaking night, twirling salsa under the stars, cathedral looming overhead, rhythms running through my body, my partners assured, friendly, and playful.

I ran into the bandleader on the sidewalk and thanked him. “Super padre,” I said, really great. There’s nothing better than a band with a crisp, Afro-inspired drummer, a bass player making love to the strings, and a Cuban pianist who can work himself into a Chucho Valdez kind of frenzy.

Ustedes son Cubanos, no?” I asked, meaning we both know only Cubans can play like that. The bandleader nodded and broke into a wide smile. “I like the way you dance,” he said. “You dance with all your heart.”

For a moment, the bandleader had glimpsed the body I felt I inhabited, not the one I imagined people around me had always viewed. He saw a dancer, not an overweight, middle-aged gringa sitting on the sidelines, sipping her mezcal margarita, glancing hopefully at any man who might want to take her for a spin.

I’ve never had a dancer’s lithe form or natural grace, and so for many years my dancer’s spirit, too, was buried deep. When I danced, it was usually in private, to release tensions welling up inside my body, anxious energies bursting into the safe confines of rhythm. Or I would be at a party, my self-consciousness smothered by a few drinks or puffs of weed or the anonymity of a writhing crowd, abandoning myself to the music. I took plenty of dance classes but was never entirely present, too distracted by the image in the mirror that I judged harshly, comparing it to the leaner, lighter bodies around me. I would stand in the back and move along to what was easy, enjoying the music and the light-hearted groove, but rarely taking the risk of getting outside the perverse comfort of my self-criticism.

But here in middle age, I was trying to unearth the dancer in me, as a kind of last-ditch attempt to reclaim a body that had always been judged—by myself and many others—as heavy and wrong. After fifty years, I had lumbered my way to a clear understanding that one of the things I love most in life is to dance, it has been medicine for my body and spirit, but I had not given it the respect and discipline that it, nor I, deserved. Middle age is a time when your body can—and will—decline, becoming stiff and sore, losing nimbleness and speed, but it’s also a time when you are still young and alive enough to inhabit it with energy and intention, to keep building strength and skill as a fortress against eventual deterioration. At 55, it was time to let the dancer out, to tame her and take her seriously, even if nobody noticed, before it was too late. And so I was out dancing salsa. The bandleader opened his long arms wide. He wasn’t afraid of sweaty hugs with strangers. I pressed my slick cheek against his and gave him a kiss. “Gracias,” I said.

I started dancing when I was five years old. I grew up in the suburbs, where ballet was on the list of activities girls had to try–swimming, piano, ice skating, tennis–to see if they had any talent anywhere. Like most little girls back then, I was fascinated with the delicate fairy world of pink tutus and toe shoes. I had a music box with a ballerina that twirled on one tiny pink slipper; I wanted to be tiny and pink, too, pirouetting in a froth of tulle.

Mom took me to a special ballet store to buy a pair of flat black slippers, a pink leotard, and tights. I pulled my fine hair into a thumb-sized bun on the top of my head and leaped and spun around the back yard until I was dizzy. I couldn’t wait for my first lesson.

She drove me to the ballet class on the other side of town. The studio was sleek, with wooden floors, mirrors, and a shiny black piano. The pianist, a woman who looked older than my mom, could play anything, like magic. The teacher was tall and bony, with a strained smile that pulled at the cords in her neck. She lined us up at the barre to practice first position, fourth position, and exotic-sounding moves like pliés, relevés, and tendus. I counted un, deux, trois out loud and tried to move my body exactly as the teacher instructed. I longed to break away from the barre to sashay and spin around the room on my own.


Dance in the Spirit Journal

Hello my fellow dance lovers,

I am honored to bring you this issue of Dance in the Spirit Journal. In it you will find two very poignant essays that share how dance heals and expands one’s view of themselves and their world.

First, we have the privilege of hearing from Dr. Doris Owanda Johnson, who shares her experience with dance as she overcame the effects of childhood traumas, to find self-esteem and hope, along with a way to engage community through West African Dance. She takes us on a journey that spans the globe, and returns as a practitioner, healer, and avid dance enthusiast. Her story is one that shows us that dance has untold and unlimited power.

Audrey Ferber, MFA shares with us next. Her journey takes us through the aftermath of grief and loss, and the circuitous path she traveled to learn that dance can awaken self acceptance and healing, and give us new confidences that were secretly residing in our souls.

As I always say, dance is a Life Force that operates on and through us. Please, find a quiet place to sit and read and savor these heart felt and intimate experiences of sacred dance.

With gratitude, love and light, warm bows,

With love and light,

Carla Stalling Walter, PhD

Dance in the Spirit