Dance, Dance, Revolution

Years ago, the gender studies program at my university hosted a Latin American female hip hop group, who gave a roundtable on women and rap in Latin America on campus, and then a live concert.  The roundtable was great, but I’ll never, to the day I die, forget the excruciatingly painful sight of my colleagues and me attempting to “dance” at that (spectacular) hip hop concert in that conference hall on campus.  I love to dance, but in that context, I could barely move.  Stiff, self-conscious, repressed… We were a group of people who existed entirely in our brains.  There was no conceivable space to “let go,” or “move” or “feel.” When we were asked to, by the performers we’d allowed into that space, it produced a horrifying degree of total cognitive dissonance. We shuffled about miserably, avoiding each others’ eyes.

That concert stays in my mind, a decade later, as the thing that I find most soul-crushing about the academy.  It’s not that the academy is a place that prioritizes mental or cognitive work that is the problem.  It’s that it prioritizes that to the exclusion of all else.

When we leave the academy, recovering our bodies and spirits is the first order of business.  But of course, even those who are still inside (ha!) might want to do that as well.

For the last three years I’ve been dancing with a group of women in Eugene who take classes from two particular teachers, Cynthia Valentine Healey and Shelly Galvin [see their bios below!]

We do all kinds of dance in these classes–hip hop, Latin, African, and burlesque, to name a few.  Here is a burlesque night at Shelley’s class.  In the front row, I’m on the left, Shelley is in the middle, and Cynthia is on the right.

How great is this, seriously?

This isn’t the first time I’ve danced; in fact, I took dance classes for about twelve years when young–mostly ballet and modern dance. I even went to dance camp!  But I never went on to do any performing. I didn’t expect to ever go back to a dance class again, actually–i thought it was a thing you do as a kid. I wasn’t drawn to it the way I was to intellectual work.

But for some reason, about three years ago I tried out a zumba class at the YMCA, attracted by the booming hip hop I’d hear on my way to swim or work out.  I was instantly hooked.  After about a year I got into the classes I go to now, and truly I’m not exaggerating when I say they are the centerpiece of my week.  Cynthia and Shelly are best friends, and fierce in their commitment to the power of dance to empower and heal both individuals and the world. It inspires all their work, and it inspires us.  They’ve gathered a passionate following among a group of us who have become essential community to one another.

This is class last week. In the front row again (I like being in front- I’m sure that surprises you) I’m on the right, Shelly is in the middle, and on the left is Jess, who owns and runs one of the top yoga studios in Eugene.

Dance has given me back to myself.  It’s endorphin-pumping fun, it’s exercise, it keeps me fit, it lifts my depression, and opens up my heart. It’s given me new friends and ways to reconnect with old friends, including a former tenured UO colleague who is one of the regulars.  And the way we do it, it’s pretty raunchy.  And I love that – the raunchier the choreography the happier I am!

What dance does for me is exorcise the remnants of academic repression from my body and spirit.

There are a surprising number of Ph.D.s and other hyper-educated sorts who come.  The other day, in Cynthia’s class, I realized I was in the front row with 2 other Ph.D.s, a JD, and an MD.  Cynthia is herself a Ph.D. (Psychology, now in private practice), and she and I have talked a lot about the mind-body disconnect of the academy, and what it takes to heal from it.

Here is Cynthia, in a video collage she and Shelly made to share their dance empowerment vision.  All of her choreography is original and may soon be licensed!  For a lot of us, it’s like church (and I say that as a Jew).

(I don’t have any videos of me dancing in Cynthia’s class.  But if you watch to the end of this video you’ll see another bit from one of Shelly’s classes. I’m in the back).

I’ve wanted to share my dancing here on the blog for awhile, because I have become such a proselytizer for self-care for academic women.  Self-care that goes beyond saying no to committee work and speaking up in negotiations and lowering your standards on the housework — although these are all essential.  This is self-care that actually nurtures you and build you up and reintegrates your mind and your body and your soul.

Everybody has their own thing– it might be running, or art, or music, or yoga, or knitting, or walking, or meditation or a hundred other possibilities.  They’re all good. For me, it’s dance.  If you’re still looking for something for yourself, I encourage you to try dance.  There is somebody in your town teaching it, and you’ll be amazed at what it does for you.  But do something.  For your own sake and everybody else’s.

Shelly Galvin

Shelly Galvin

Shelly Galvin is Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for tech education firm, CBT Nuggets, based in Eugene, Oregon. Shelly’s passion and life’s work is to develop, build capacity and further the success of global humanitarian efforts. Along with CBT Nuggets, Shelly is pioneering a revolutionary and exemplary philanthropy program, stay tuned!

Dr. Healey

Dr. Healey

Cynthia Valentine Healey is the founder and creative director of Dance Empowered, a dance fusion fitness experience. Having studied numerous dance genres throughout her life, Cynthia leads dancers of all ages and abilities through high energy choreography paired to evocative and carefully chosen music from around the world. In addition to Dance Empowered classes, Cynthia also has a private practice as a holistic psychologist where she integrates evidence-based intervention approaches with mindfulness and energy medicine. Cynthia is also the lead singer for the band Concrete Loveseat.

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Dance, Dance, Revolution — 11 Comments

  1. Loved reading this! I’m in the academia outside the US. There is no tenure-track system where I live. But it’s similar: publish publish publish, a lot of time in class preparation. My self care is tarot, swimming, and recently I entered a jewelry class. I’ve never tried dancing, but after reading this post, I certainly want to try it out.

  2. Thank you for writing this post and encouraging a healthy hobby! I have been dancing hip hop for a few years. My classes each week were what kept me away from a nervous breakdown when I was in academe, which I left last year.

  3. Appreciate this post. Certainly agree that finding some form of body/mind-integrating activity–preferably a joyful one–is very positive for desk-bound academics. Also agree that dance is incredibly empowering and definitely builds community. I teach vernacular music and dance and have used participatory dancing with all kinds of clienteles; I think it’s legit to describe as one of humans’ oldest and most effective team-building activities.

  4. Hi Dr. Karen,
    I recently (as in…last week) defended my dissertation. I purchased your book on amazon last month and I can’t even begin to tell you how much it is transforming my life! My poor husband (a non-academic) has been subjected to many “readings” from your book followed with my 15 minute soap-box speech about how much I agree with you and how refreshing it is to hear someone opening up about these issues in academia.

    While looking at your website today I stumbled across this post. I was drawn in by the subject of “Mental Health and Academia”. I’ve struggled with depression for the past 10 years (strong family history) and I know that some of my experiences in this doctoral program that have had a profoundly negative impact on my depression.

    I just wanted to let you know that your book, your blog and really, your story are an inspiration! Thank you for having the courage to do what you do.

    • Thank you, Danielle! Congratulations on your Ph.D., and best of luck moving forward. I am going to write more about mental health issues, and my struggles with depression, in the coming year. Stay tuned!

  5. Dear Karen,
    I’ve been following your blog since the later stages of my PhD, through a postdoc and in current negotiations for a teaching-focused TT job.
    This post is uplifting and important. So important!! It reminds me a little of the first part of Ann Cvetkovich’s book (Depression: A Public Feeling). North American academia is not a place where it is easy to have a body, let alone to be joyful. The disconnection from our bodies can be pretty extreme, and there are few role models to support alternative visions–particularly among women faculty, for many reasons you have discussed elsewhere. It is always a gamble to write about this problem from a relatively precarious position. Thanks for continuing to make space for this.
    For years in the PhD I was experiencing chronic pain related to computer (over)use. The material I work on is also deeply traumatising. I had supportive people around me, but it was still challenging to accept and to communicate that this combination of physical pain and emotional distress was not merely an “excuse” for not producing writing more quickly. I was considering dropping out, which I agree is a fine option, but also felt a strong political obligation to see this research through.
    A dancer friend finally convinced me to come to her pilates mat class. There I found a loose, laid-back community (mostly women, mostly older than me), and a new source of knowledge about my body and how to sustain myself as a many-faceted human being. When I read that your dance class is the anchor of your week, I felt like someone was describing my own life. It is not an overstatement to say that committing to one hour of mild pilates per week was one of the main reasons I got to where I am today. I don’t mean just sustaining my body and preventing chronic pain. Taking some small steps to say no to the ableism I had normalised about academic culture made it possible for me to work towards a more life-affirming path in general. Among other things, it helped me understand that being capable of producing high quality research does not automatically mean I should pursue an intense, all-or-nothing R1 type career. I respect this path, but don’t share the value system that implies other academic work is worth less than research at prestigious institutions. I’m sorry it took me so long to work out how this should inform my career direction. The conviction that self and collective care matter deeply helped me to be more honest about where I could truly see myself making a contribution while also living and sustaining others.

    Inside and outside academia, best of luck to everyone engaging in this ongoing struggle. Karen, thanks again and always for your frank advice and reflections. Keep dancing!

  6. Thanks for this post! I am sure that the only way I survived the academic job market was through the stress-relieving, adrenaline pumping, moves of that Zumba class I found at my local gym. I never knew the names or motivations of most of those ladies but dancing with them helped me bring my body back into my mind and vice versa. I am not in my first year of a tenure-track position in a new town and having just faced the first round of what looks like a grueling and cruel tenure process and guess what I am going to do rather than work on my tenure dossier…. find a good dance class so I can survive the next phase!

    Thanks again! Your blog is so incredibly helpful and hopeful!

    • Edit: I am now in the my first year… I did manage to land a position, making sure I had a good dance session before and after every job letter, interview, etc.

  7. I love this! I am an artist/writer finishing my Ph.d, and considering I’m a Gemini maybe this is is why it’s taken me so long to finish but I a a dancer I dance hula belly dance tango perhaps my unabashed sexy femininity is one reason why academics don’t take me seriously but to my own self be true I am brilliant as Paglua as sensual as Marilyn don’t hate me for being beautiful hey The Academy needs more people like me let’s start a revolution!

  8. Pingback: #MakeupMonday: Skin Care as Coping Mechanism and Catalyst | The Professor Is In

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