The dance workout that helped me break out of a fitness rut and reconnect with my ballet past
“You have to go,” my friend texted me. “It was like that scene in Center Stage.”
She was referencing the 2000 teen dance flick—specifically the part when Jody, our protagonist struggling to keep up with the advanced technique expected at a prestigious ballet school, breaks away from the strict program one night to attend a jazz class at another dance studio in the city. Free from classical ballet’s regimented structure and the stuffy teachers who criticize her body’s capabilities, Jody excels. She becomes one with the Red Hot Chili Peppers version of a Stevie Wonder hit and remembers that she is, in fact, good at dancing.
My friend recalled this iconic moment in early aughts cinema because she’d gone to a place called Dance Church.
Founded by dancer and choreographer Kate Wallich in 2010, Dance Church is a nonprofit organization that hosts weekly “all-abilities” movement classes in cities across the country. Originating in Seattle, Wallich started Dance Church to challenge the exclusivity of the contemporary dance scene. Dance Magazine reported on her motivation earlier this year, writing that “[other] dancers were the only ones who came to class or performances… so [Wallich] made a bold decision: She opened up her Sunday morning company class to, well, anyone.”
The result is essentially a dance party led by classically trained dancers who offer some gentle guidance to their students and intersperse cardio exercises throughout the class. The music—often a mix of Beyoncé, Missy Elliott, Robyn, The Weather Girls, Beastie Boys, Whitney Houston, Rihanna, etc.—won’t stop playing for an hour and a half. Students are given the option to move independently or follow the teacher’s suggestions. Unlike the appearance-focused classes found at most professional studios, Dance Church’s environment, with its dim lighting and covered-up mirrors, lends itself to the liberating tenet of “dance like no one is watching.” Stephanie Zaletel, founder of Los Angeles-based dance company szalt and a teacher at Dance Church, tells me, “You can take the class at whatever pace or energy level you’d like. There is no ‘front’ [of the class], no mirrors, no ‘steps’ [to follow]—just pure movement, and embracing and trusting your own authenticity.”
Somehow, it’s simultaneously perfect for folks who’ve never executed an eight-count in their lives, former dancers reconnecting with the art form, and professional dancers aching for a less structured class.
I was never a professional dancer, but I had trained in dance for most of my life. I never auditioned for a prestigious summer program, but I did study with a teacher formerly of the Paris Opera Ballet for about 25 hours a week after high school. Eventually, though, I prioritized my academic aspirations and understood that, like Jody in Center Stage, my body would never achieve certain technical standards because my skeleton wasn’t built that way. I shifted directions and went to college. I took dance classes on campus when my schedule allowed. I never thought of it as fitness; I just loved music. I didn’t consider that spending hours on focused physical activity every week of my life for 18 years might have shaped me into someone who needs an exercise routine to protect my mental health.
Then I had a stroke when I was 23 on an otherwise normal day. It damaged my cerebellum enough to erase my sense of equilibrium. Doctors didn’t know why my healthy body had suddenly turned on me, but they did know I’d have to relearn how to walk. Thanks to intensive physical therapy, I was walking—even running—on my own again within a year. Coincidentally, physical therapists told me that my ballet discipline must have factored into why I retrained my body so much faster than my prognosis claimed I could. But that didn’t matter to me—I’d already decided I wouldn’t go to dance class again. Being able to walk isn’t the same as stepping into an arabesque en pointe; I didn’t want to find out what I’d lost.
That was six years ago. The half-decade since was marked by heightened anxiety, futile attempts at stress management, and my gradual realization that a years-long practice had been abruptly eliminated from my life and never replaced. Exercise, a constant that my days—even my most overwhelming days—had been structured around, was gone. Dance is exercise, after all, even if that’s not how I’d categorized it for myself. And exercise has proven mental health benefits, including but not limited to temporarily shutting off the part of my mind that worries, distracting me long enough to understand that Earth keeps spinning whether or not I find something to panic about.
I told myself that a fitness schedule was how I could access this therapy again. But I wasn’t willing to return to dance class. So first I tried to adopt the personality of one who goes to the gym. Treadmills are decent, but I seemed to be allergic to any piece of equipment that required moving my upper body. Being limited to a jaunt on a conveyor belt got old. Next I thought I’d try being someone who wears athleisure and runs around her neighborhood. Loved the athleisure, wasn’t into the rest of it. My knees weren’t fond of the concrete I jogged on, and my thoughts became more anxious when I was alone with them on early evening runs. Most of all, I missed having a teacher. I missed being able to laugh with other panting people. I missed clapping at the end.
I thought yoga could help me find the group energy I longed for, but I never found the carefree mentality that dance had afforded me. The clear-headedness my classmates achieved while posing in shavasana was out of my reach. Instead, I spent class obsessively wondering if yoga would bring back my litheness so I could dance again.
After more than a year of avoiding my secret desire to stand at a barre, a friend encouraged me to join her at a ballet class for beginners. I nervously prepared to dance at a level that I’d once considered a “warmup” at a studio I’d once frequented. When the piano music began, my own muscle memory surprised me. Yes, my body was newly stiff, but nothing felt foreign in my bones—until I had to leave the safety of the barre. Students were instructed to do a series of tour jeté across the floor—a moment in each ballet class when I used to feel euphoric, superhuman. I brushed my leg forward, extending behind my knee, pointing my toes, rising through my standing leg until I had jumped into the air, then tried to pivot my hips and switch my legs like a scissor. But there was a thud. My body was wooden, heavy, weighed down by the reality of a compromised cerebellum. I was too blindsided to cry about it. I found what I’d lost. I didn’t need to find more.
My defeat that day didn’t stop my longing for the structure, escape, and physical exertion of ballet, so throughout the years I alternated between half-hearted treadmill sessions at the gym and evenings of “going for runs” in its place. I couldn’t stick to any kind of routine. My inability to focus overwhelmed me and spilled into other parts of my life; my anxiety was left unchecked. A coworker called it a “fitness rut.” I was certainly in a rut, but it was about more than that. I needed to reconnect with the version of myself who moved to music without thinking, even if my body wasn’t the same.
Then, a few months ago, my friend texted me about the dance class that felt like that scene in Center Stage. I’d thought I was still shaken by my failed return to dance those years ago, but I learned the words “center” and “stage” were apparently the salves I needed for my nerves. That, and her description of the class as so bustling that no one notices anybody else. “Dance spaces can sometimes be an intimidating place for people to enter or re-enter,” Zaletel agrees. “Dance Church is an inviting, positive, safe, cleansing space to reset the body and mind.”
So on a Sunday morning at 10 a.m., I walked through the back entrance of a ballet studio to find a packed, dimly lit room of students waiting for class to begin. A disco ball hung from the ceiling, a black curtain covered a wall-length mirror, and a teacher explained the rules: No talking, but you can (and should) sing along. The music will never stop, but your pace is your own. Respect other students’ space, and “say ‘yes’ to your choices.” “It is so rewarding to see participants lose themselves in the energy of the entire room,” Zaletel shares. “Saying ‘yes’ to their choices [in movement] and the choices of their neighbors.”
The purpose of the first song is to “find your body” and move naturally, waking up your muscles and entering the right headspace for a demanding class. During my first morning at Dance Church, I accessed freedom in my body that I thought had been permanently stripped by a traumatic brain injury. Because I got to control how I moved in class, rather than try and keep up with challenging technique, I only had to confront my body’s capabilities—not its newly disappointing relationship with gravity. As the teacher suggested more intensive and creative steps with each song on the playlist, I felt the serotonin-infused physical exhaustion I’d denied myself for six years.
Since this re-introduction to the dance community, to exercise, and to my own ability, I try to go to Dance Church multiple times a week. I’ve even felt comfortable enough to attend classical ballet classes again—but only if they’re the hour-long classes that don’t go beyond barre combinations. Still, by allowing myself to behave like a dancer, I’ve given myself back the anchor that had kept my anxiety at bay via a scheduled routine, creative expression, stress release, and physical fitness. I can still easily feel overwhelmed by a lack of focus at times—to the point of feeling paralyzed by inaction—but now I can at least look to Sunday mornings for guaranteed relief and a clear head.
There’s a moment in each Dance Church that leaves me feeling euphoric—like leaps in ballet class once could. It happens about an hour into each class, to a song that is especially climactic. The instructor gestures for the students to gather around them in the center of the studio. Huddled in a circle, sweaty and catching our breath, we put our arms around each other, do squats to the rhythm, and sing along. Then, after a few eight-counts, the instructor says to “let it go,” the circle breaks apart, and we move individually in whatever way feels right. Last week, the song was 1998’s “Believe” by Cher, and as I rushed towards the formation in the middle of the room, I remembered another scene in Center Stage; a ballet teacher addresses a dejected Eva (Zoe Saldana) in one of the school’s studios. She rests her hand on the barre, turns to Eva, and says, “If you come back here, you’ll be home.” As Cher’s angelic auto-tune crooned through the speakers and I bounced in time with 25 sweaty strangers, I realized that your home can change.