I have worked for years in the dance industry, from performing to teaching to choreography and directing. When my ex husband and I initially separated, I decided to take up a hobby. I also had a mammoth break down but we will skip that part.
Salsa! Something very new to me.
A brief background for context but in any previous relationships I have been in, I have tended to leave my listening skills outside. I could at times be reactive rather than responsive. I believe this was from a place of passion for life and childlike enthusiasm rather than obstinacy but the results are the same. I have in past tried to control a situation because I lacked trust in the other person, personally or in my perception of their ability to manage without my input (Hello inflated sense of ego!) This coupled with a reactive component in another human and we have potential for elemental disaster.
For me I learn best kinaesthetically. I have danced my entire life and any cognitive learning is best solidified through movement. So I went to salsa to learn how to listen, trust and let go.
This proved a challenge to say the least for me. It took a very long time for me to listen, trust, let go and ultimately respond to the stimulus in front of me without focusing on the outcome or perfection.
Fast forward a year or so, a lot of lessons and a lot more practice socially and it would seem I have acquired some listening and responding skills on and off the salsa dance floor.
Last week, after a three minute synergetic dance affair with music, the gentleman I was dancing with, took both my hands in his, looked me square in the eyes and said ‘you are a beautiful and intuitive follower’. Definitely not a reflection of my physical attributes as I had sweat soaked hair stuck to my cheeks and a soggy back from my heavy breast prosthesis from three hours non stop dancing in a club.
The first time I went ‘flat’ to salsa after my surgery apart from assuming that everyone was looking at my hollow chest (they weren’t) I hadn’t really thought about how it would change how I interacted with my lead or more interestingly how they would interact with me.
I went to my usual local club. There were 3 or 4 men that I class as my dance family. These are the men I first learnt to dance with in salsa and I trust them implicitly. During the class the focus was on technical footwork and styling, not feeling. During the social when the lights dimmed and the volume increases I was dancing chest to chest with my brothers. With breasts there is a physical boundary that we all are aware and respectful of. Without breasts it is heart to heart. I can feel the other person’s heart against my chest. Any connection potentially confused for sexual chemistry changes shape because I no longer have mounds above my ribs that are synonymous with sexuality and there is an innate respect for each other's physical space. The immeasurable human connection is not on this earth. I don’t dance close like this with everyone, but those I trust, I trust to hold my vulnerability in their space. I can’t imagine many people are as lucky as me to be surrounded with such acceptance in its raw state.
There is a flip side of being without breasts in these environments, and this is only based on my perception. I was out at a larger club a few weeks later, in a tight dress with my breast forms in, and it was very hot. Near to the end of the night I popped to the bathroom to change out of my sweat drenched dress and into my jeans and a vest to drive home in. Except what was the point in changing clothes but still keeping my soggy bra and heavy prosthesis in? So I took everything off, dried and put clean clothes on. On my way out, a song came on that I didn’t want to waste, so I grabbed my friend and we danced near the edge of the room. Gone was my sexy blue bodycon dress with C cups and heeled shoes, hello white casual vest, jeans and flat winter boots to match my flat chest. The edge of the room is surrounded by benches where people not dancing would sit. Cue some staring, pointing and whispering behind cupped hands from a group of ladies. I don’t know what they were saying but I felt their eyes burning holes in my flat chest. I would probably have stared before as well. I can only imagine what conclusions they were drawing. Maybe they were looking at my very attractive dance partner and my ego had assumed it was me they were watching. Maybe I was subconsciously looking for someone to notice. Either way, we danced and as the music finished I picked up my bag, smiled at them and left on the surface with my head held high.
I recently returned from a four day salsa holiday in Mallorca. I had a ball. I also struggled. I took a pair of boobs with me and had planned to just see how I felt when I got there. I went flat except for one night when I ended up wishing I had gone flat as my ‘active’ prosthesis nearly flew out of my bra and hit my lead on the shoulder.
There are two sides of everything. In public I was dancing all day and night, smiling, carefree, making new friends, flat and proud. In my hotel room when the music had finished and the shoes came off, it was a different picture. Both sides are valid, both are real emotional spaces and both are my truth. Neither side define me but I experience both. The highs I experience when I feel empowered, free and am dancing, also come with lows of disgust of the reality of my mutilated body. The anxiety about how I think I am perceived. Can you see me? Do you see me too much? Isolation, feelings of separation, ego chatter. It is not appropriate (I have learnt from experience) to ‘justify’ why I don’t have breasts to a stranger in a three minute dance, regardless of whether they can physically feel that or not.
It transpired that there would be a charity gala event on behalf of breast cancer support on the last evening of the trip. I stood and gave a speech. (I am omitting a large chunk of the journey that culminated in the final decision to speak but the short story is that I ended up doing it)
This was the first time I had ever spoken publicaly to an audience about my personal experience with cancer, my strength and my hope. I was consumed with fear leading up to this point. Fear of judgement, fear of my experience not being enough, fear of being controversial and upsetting people, triggering people and basically not being brave enough, not to mention the fear of people actually knowing and their reactions. The loudest fear was the fear of regret if I didn’t speak my truth. I live by the mantra; ‘your opinion of me is none of my business’ except this was being invasively challenged now. Did I actually believe that or was I just preaching and trying to sound righteous. I was given an opportunity to expand and expansion can be uncomfortable. When the time came to speak, I was at peace. Of course my adrenal system was firing on all cylinders but I had an inner calm and acceptance because I was not reliant on others to validate my truth. I did not know this until that moment.
I truly believe that if an action has a positive and authentic intention then it will be received that way. If I walked out with love in my heart, I would be met with that and who would turn down potential love from 300 people!?
A real moment of realisation that I was OK, was at the airport on the way home. A few of us were at the gate waiting for our delayed flight and we had some music playing. People I had not danced with over the last few days but whom I recognized. Put a bunch of bored dancers together, with some music, space and an audience and you can guess that they may shake a leg or two. I rolled up my sleeves as it was warm and my lead took this as a sign to take off my hoodie. This was a first for me, totally unexpected and as I was wearing a very unflattering-with or without boobs-tight vest top underneath; fairly exposing. There was also a plane full of passengers watching us dance. This could have caused emotional trauma, humiliation, violation and whatever else I could have chosen to focus on. But we were having such a fun and joyful dance and I chose to finish the song before finding my hoodie and putting it back on. I choose to focus on the joy and freedom whilst acknowledging and validating my other feelings. There are always shadows to the light, as there is light to the shadows. Both valid.
I left Mallorca with tired feet, full heart and a bigger heart. My salsa family has expanded, they have accepted and embraced me in the physical and emotional shape I am today and I couldn’t ask for more.
I may not always choose to dance flat but I am at peace with doing so today.