Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Kelly Atkins, Dancer & Instructor, Tells Her Story

Life has a way of teaching you to dance with it or be dragged along...

Something happened to me last November, something that so pushed my edges of sanity I was literally swept off my feet and not in a pleasant lovey-dovey dance-y kind of way. I've taught dance in the Sarasota community for over 15 years and previous to that taught traditional fitness for another 13 years. I've danced thru moving to a new city, being married and divorced, and married again. I've danced thru two pregnancies and natural births, raising my children. I've seen my husband through “breaks” in his reality as he struggled with mental illness. I've danced thru many “leaps of faith” including leaving a company I represented for 13 years and starting out on my own as founder of Kai ( www.kaimoves.com ) a dance-based creative movement class that blends authentic movement with simple choreography. 

Dancing through these life changing events was meaningful and I have to say having DANCE as a constant to check in with myself was imperative to moving ahead in my life. My regular classes were my anchors when life around me was changing so fast and I found myself struggling to see the direction things were moving. Then this last November I began to experience panic attacks. Out of nowhere, in the middle of the night at 3:00 a.m. or simply driving the kids to get groceries, I would feel my heart start to race and my breath increase in short gasps. A feeling of fear would grip my heart and I would have to immediately stop whatever I was doing to try to slow it down. The attacks were coming 3-4 times a week in November. The causes were obvious. A combination of menopause hormones in flux, the end of a 6-month romance that ended in a sudden perceived betrayal, and the simultaneous ending of my 12-year marriage all conspired to disorient me.

Suddenly thoughts of darkness started to seep in and I began to wonder if I'd be able to take care of my kids, keep my business going, function enough to just get through each day. I started with writing LIKE CRAZY -- expressing every crazy thought, every emotion and weeding through the random chaos to get to some logic and comfort under the spinning of my mind. The digging in unearthed fruitful life-changing wisdom. I dove in fully, kept digging and found remnants of a teenage girl who was scared, alone, and reacting to life with a variety of tactics that simply didn't work anymore....and yet I didn't want to bury her....No WAY. A larger part of me knew it was more about integrating and soothing, maybe self-mothering would be a term. I recognized that current events were having me relive past trauma and go into a space of reactivity. Knowledge is power so I kept digging.

Each time I danced Kai I knew I felt better, I felt a deep inner peace and openness that helped me to breathe deeper, more naturally. The students whom I've watched and supported thru the years completely “got” the space I was in as their teacher and I felt cocooned. I didn't have to tell the group what was happening, it was just a knowing. The community had become sensate and wise enough that they knew, and they supported me deeply. There was one class I walked in and gulped out “ today we will focus on breath” before snorting out the ugly cry and just dissolving it into the dance that needed to move me. No one asked me what it was, they just knew I could dance thru it and that every dance isn't the “happy one” even if it does feel so good to release years of grief.

Another class felt like my inner teenager was pissed off. Every movement of my arms created lines and boundaries as a fierce warning that needed to be voiced NOW, after years of pushing it down in an effort to be loved by another. Ugh, I feel sad and embarrassed saying that, but it's true. The shame and self-judgment only made things worse. This was a new dance for me and I knew resisting it wouldn't help, and I knew I couldn't do it alone. I reached out and received…

Thru my years in dance I've made the deepest and most heart felt connections to amazingly talented people. I made appointments with my therapist, a coach who has taken my trainings, with healer friends who offered everything from shamanic ritual to essential oils and meditations. I scheduled private yoga with a gifted teacher and I attended yoga religiously. I kept writing, kept reaching, stayed with it. I took Spanish lessons to get my mind off things and to develop my voice more. I began painting and slowly, ever so slowly I regained some focus and perspective. I started with goals around eating, drinking water, daily meditation, vitamins, yoga and dancing every day. 

One particular yoga class I remember telling my teacher how I felt a panic attack coming on very subtly as I simply lifted my left arm and reached across my body. Somehow in this awareness my heart rate slowed down, and that was the last sign of the attacks. I danced in my backyard going thru the wild mix of emotions that had brewed during the storm of panic... loss, disbelief, loneliness, fear, abandonment, betrayal, anger, rage and more. I allowed them to move my body and I videoed it. I shared it with trusted friends who witnessed. A close dancing friend said, “ bring in more of that anger...try that.” It was good advice, he could see where I repressed it in my body but only spoke about it in my writing. I didn't want sympathy, but I wanted how broken I was to be seen. I wanted to share my healing path. Something inside me guided me to go thru it, not avoid it. To be real, authentic and that included the extreme vulnerability of being seen this way. I knew in some way it'd make me able to help others better - once I was better.

Each day I felt a little more whole though I wondered if I would smile again as even the muscles of my face had changed. It took effort to smile and I could not pretend something I wasn't feeling. I cut my long blonde hair to a short boy cut and dyed it red. I wanted to be changed from it all, an energetic clearing on every level. As I look back now, I realize the many gifts and wisdom I received from “dancing with” what I was experiencing versus pushing it down, ignoring, or toughing it out and not letting the feelings move. I was able to heal some very old patterns that were lurking under the surface in how I related to people, how I showed up in relationship, and in how I attracted and picked the people I allowed into my life and heart.

I am louder, stronger, more direct and still have that angry inner teenager as my backup who has taught me that saying “f*** off” is sometimes the most brave, heartfelt truth and clearest expression of a feeling. It's also a great and sometimes needed boundary of saying “yes” to self-love and “no” to anything that feels other. I've learned how to love and be gentle authentically. 

"Life as a dance" is a philosophy I teach Kai teachers-in-training. It's a practice of looking at the cycles, stages, and events that life offers and finding a way to dance with it all. To engage with life and view it all as one big spiral that we can harmonize and dance with rather than avoid. On the dance floor it's a practice of inviting the body's impulses, emotions, dreams and thoughts. We allow it to have it's expression and movement, witnessing from a place of non-judgment. It's a meditation of noticing what the body gravitates too and letting it unfold. 

Most often when we dance we “think” our way into steps, patterns, and trying to find the “socially acceptable” way of moving. Other times the patterns are so encoded within us we just move like we do in life with armor and robotic movements. "Life as a dance" is more conscious and allows one to soften into what is happening, looking at your dance as a microcosm of what is happening outside the dance room in life. In this dance room I can explore and peel off the layers of training, fear, pain, or disconnect, revealing a vulnerable yet strong core that feels so good, strangely ancient, and yet is new.... new, fierce, creative, and edgy. It's in this dance room that I get to change and grow. 

Witnessed by community with love and awareness, I found my new feet and now stand in a deeper, wider space of self than I did before. I'm more open and available and present. This is dance medicine at it's best and I am so grateful.  

This is Week 14 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Kelly's story today! To see a video of Kelly dancing Kai, go to: http://youtu.be/_1WJCIiSO5g and visit her website.