“And I grew strong and I learned how to get along… I will survive”
(from “I Will Survive,” sung by Gloria Gaynor, lyrics by written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris)
I’ve been learning, once again, to dance. It hasn’t been as easy. My body isn’t as willing to move in new ways as it once was. But I persist because dancing has health benefits, and whether my body balks a bit or not, it’s about giving up or “just” surviving, whether it’s serious illness, injury, or other life challenges we’re dealing with. Survival, I’ve come to realize, is synonymous with learning.
As many of you were, my parents enrolled me in a variety of extracurricular activities a child. Given my mother’s observation that I was destined to be tall, she quickly made certain clumsiness would not accompany my growth surges. First, I took ballet classes, outfitted with pink ballet slippers and a leotard and, once a week, pointing my toes and learning the fundamentals of the classical dance form. That was followed by acrobatics, tap and ballroom dance as I began to grow taller. Despite all that, around 7th grade my awkwardness surfaced. It was less about the dance steps and more about the fact I towered over most of the boys in my classes. (Try dancing a box step with your knees bent the entire time.) Nevertheless, I persisted, enrolling in square dance, folk and ballroom classes in college, but my height was bothersome once again. There were never enough men enrolled in the classes, and that meant I was assigned to dance the part of the male partner. (To this day, I tend to avoid ballroom style dancing, unable to be led easily by any partner.)
I gave up on dance altogether save for the social dancing we did to seventies rock and roll music at parties until my daughters’ grew into their teenage years. As my mother had done for me, I enrolled them in jazz and ballet classes. But I was so enthused by their jazz dance routines, I decided to sign up for an adult class in jazz dance, dancing during the entire time I was completing my doctoral degree, and even performing in the dance show the following year with my two daughters. I danced with more enthusiasm, perhaps, than talent, but dance was invigorating, fun and a great way to diminish the stress of graduate school. Besides, I kept fit, agile and energetic.
Enter the decades of career building, a few half-hearted attempts to take dance classes that never seemed to measure up to the ones I did during graduate school, and the inevitable fact of aging. I didn’t seem to move as freely as I once had. Was it the class or the pupil? The latter wasn’t something I wanted to consider, so gradually, dance fell by the wayside. My daughters were married, having children, and I was nose-deep in a stressful career. Instead, I tried exercising at the gym, taking T’ai Chi and Pilates classes. Each had benefits but none were as fun as dance had been for me. I lost interest and didn’t sustain any of those activities for more than a year or two.
Fast forward to this past year. I was completely sidelined by an injured knee and Achilles tendonitis, and it made me cranky, mildly depressed and discouraged. Stiffness, pain and embarrassment about moving like an old woman were constant companions. I hated that my body hurt and how uncomfortable it was to move, much less easily or quickly, abilities I’d long taken for granted. Worse, I am a heart failure patient, and a regimen of regular physical activity is necessary for improved heart functioning. But it hurt to walk or climb stairs. I felt trapped by my bodily ailments.. Weeks of pain turned into two, then three months, until, after a frank discussion with my cardiologist, I’d had to act. I got a referral to a sports medicine physician, physiotherapist and Pilates instructor, donned ankle braces and used up numerous rolls of athletic tape and began walking as much as I could stand. Then in February, when a friend invited me to join a group called “The Vintage Dancers”, I jumped, well actually, I limped, at the chance.
“Vintage,” as you might expect, meant the dancers were of my age group and older, but it did not mean the class moved at a slower pace. At the first class I attended, I was left in the dust by an energetic and enthusiastic group of women dancers, some of whom had recently recovered from hip replacement surgery or other bodily ailments. Yet despite the dancing I’d once done well, I kept beginning on the wrong foot or chasséing in the opposite direction as everyone else. More than once, I stepped to the sidelines to catch my breath!
The whole experience was not just comic, it was humbling. I’ve never been a patient beginner—I have a perfectionist streak that inevitably invades any new learning—but my clumsy first attempts at dancing again it got me to thinking about how age, serious illness, or any major life transition requires we learn—even relearn—different ways of being, including skills we once took for granted. We’re resilient beings, yes, but coming to terms with altered bodies and imperfect selves demands we re-evaluate who we are now vs. who we might have been at an earlier time. The image we once held of our younger, healthier selves) is challenged. We’re forced to recognize that we may have limitations–physical pain, issues of stamina, agility or even memory–ones we naively believed would never belong to us. Those complaints and ailments belonged to other people, right? Wrong.
Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go. ― (May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude)
What is surviving about, really? It’s about learning to deal with and overcome–to the best of our ability–the impact of aging, injuries, surgeries or treatment regimens and the negative impact on our bodies and minds. It’s acceptance our lives have changed, and we must continue to learn new ways of being and living. The ground beneath our feet might seem uncertain, or we’re aware that the steps we used to take with assurance now feel clumsy and tentative,but surviving doesn’t mean giving up. It means learning other ways of being, remaining as active and engaged with living as we can–even if, sometimes, the new learning isn’t always easy or pleasant. It’s a bit like standing in the front row of a dance class, as I did, as the only newcomer in the group, trying to understand and mimic the movements everyone else seems to know by heart. We feel like beginners, and we feel awkward and uncertain. I know that’s how I’ve felt–but after that discussion with my cardiologist several weeks ago , and I shook myself out of the doldrums and got busy living.
No matter how old you are,
it helps to be young
when you’re coming to life,
(Joy Ladin, “Survival Guide,” in: The Future Is Trying to Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems 2017)
Life is more than just surviving. It’s thriving, enjoying, contributing, and living as fully as we possibly can. Whether cancer, the effects of aging, major surgeries, or unexpected life transitions, we have to remind ourselves that we’ve proven, again and again, that we can adjust to life’s challenges and move on. Our lives change in subtle and not so subtle ways year after year, but we learn the new movements, necessary strategies and behaviors, and little by little, we again embrace the life before us–new, different, and ours.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
(From: “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver)
- Thinking about your own life, how would you define “survival?”
- Describe a time when life knocked you down. What kept you going? What helped you survive?
- Write about what it was like was to find your footing on uncertain ground and not only to survive but thrive and embrace the new life before you.