I started dancing in highschool. You have to understand that I have absolutely no talent for dance. None. I have no natural sense of rhythm, no innate connection to my body, nothing about dancing is easy or natural to me. Now imagine high school and the dances there. I felt awkward and gangly and did not enjoy myself in the slightest, but I still wanted to go to them and impress my dates. Thus, in my junior year, when a teacher started a swing dance club it seemed like a good idea. Here was a dance that was supposedly very cool (you must remember this was at the height of the neo-swing craze of the late nineties) and with specific moves that I could learn. I wouldn't have to think about the dance, I could just do it. I signed up.
The club was terrible. The teacher was absolutely convinced she was going to take a bunch of kids who'd never danced before and have them ready for a silver-level competition by the end of the year. The first meeting there were forty of us. The second had twenty. The third ten. By the fifth meeting there were only six people remaining, two of whom had been doing swing for six years. I stuck it out two months, never had any fun, and quit. Dancing just wasn't something people like me got to do.
At the beginning of my sophomore year of college I started dating Jessa. Regardless of how I feel about her now, I was very much in love with her back then and wanted to make her happy, so when Justin started organizing trips to go dancing in Madison and Jessa said she wanted to go dancing, I went with. The little bit of swing I could remember, despite being terrible, seemed to content her. When Darrah started running ballroom dances at Beloit we'd go to them, take the basic lesson before each dance (or more likely, because Jessa was always running late, Felicity would give us the basics when we arrived forty-five minutes late into the hour-long lesson), and dance for a couple hours before heading home. I didn't enjoy these dances - I still felt awkward and uncomfortable because I didn't know what I was doing - but once again they made her happy. The next year we took the ballroom dance course. That made things a little better, though dancing was still something I tolerated rather than enjoyed.
Eventually, in March of my first senior year, Jessa and I broke up. I figured that was the end of my dancing. It had always been something I did for other people and now there was no one to do it for. Or so I thought. That summer Reed asked me to go swing dancing with her in Philadelphia. Due to a huge crush on her I accepted.
Something happened that night. I danced with Reed, yes, but it wasn't any more or less enjoyable than before; our dance styles were just too different (I have a very loose, improvisational style, she has a very tight style based on form. Hers is very well suited to competition and I wasn't sure how to work with that). I did, however, dance with a number of other people and found people whose dance styles complemented my own. That was the difference. Most of the time when I was with Jessa I'd never danced with anyone else. I'd learned how to dance with her but never how to just dance. Suddenly I was finding partners I was comfortable with, who I could move with, who I could explore the dance with and explore movement with. It was a radical shift unlike anything I'd experienced before. This was fun.
That same summer I also began pursuing aikido independently (Jessa had also been my first sensei). While aikido was not better, per se, without her (she remains one of the best aikido senseis I've ever had) it was continuing to explore my body. I made a great breakthrough in my aikido only two days after making a great breakthrough with my dancing. That is not a coincidence. I was learning movement, I was learning my body.
And in the end, that is the greatest gift I have gotten from dancing. I have learned how my body works, how it moves. Last year when you complimented me on my posture it was a big deal to me as it meant the physical improvement I was receiving from dance and martial arts was becoming manifest in my everyday actions, in something as simple as how I walked. Growing up I'd always believed that some people were physical and some people were mental but you couldn't do both. Dancing helped me cross that line and enjoy my body as nothing ever had before.