• Eleni Paris

Dancing... in "The Arena"

“YOU …are a dancer! And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”  What? Excuse me? Did I hear you correctly, Laren?


Anytime someone would compliment my dance skills, my response would be, “Thanks. I grew up dancing. I love it!”. But, I never responded with, “Thanks… I am a dancer.” Did I think it?...

Sure, to some degree, but I also associated the word “dancer” with someone who was professionally invested in it, perhaps performing on stage, and focusing on it as part of their career.


My initial private session with my now dance coach, Laren, was very successful.  I attribute that to her knowledge, style of teaching, and her understanding of how I see dance as a form of expression. But when we wrapped up our lesson and she said, “YOU….are a dancer!”, and then reminded me that the teacher-student relationship is a partnership… it started to feel familiar again. I did dance. I danced as a child and as a young adult. I was a dancer… so when did I redefine what a dancer is? I felt as much joy that afternoon as I did when I was younger and I would receive compliments from my dance teachers.



PART ONE: MY DANCE JOURNEY


My dance story may not be that different from the many women who take a break from their love of dance due to having children and/or working. I danced throughout my youth, mainly “jazz” (which during my childhood was a combination of traditional jazz, contemporary dance, and some hip-hop). When I was very young, I started out in ballet like many of us do, but then gravitated toward jazz and stuck with it from then on (like many of us do).


I really took off when our dance studio hired a new teacher named Cindy. We all thought she was so beautiful and such a gifted dancer. But what really impacted me was how she believed in us. She was our cheerleader from the very beginning, and her vision for us included forming a company that would both perform and compete.


Competitions prior to the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance” was a little different than they are now. There was much less acrobatics and gymnastics, and there was more dance that resembled repertoire work. I remember feeling nervous before every moment on stage, but no matter where we placed, we felt celebratory and proud. We had a healthy, competitive spirit without the pressures of today that come with social media and fierce competition. Cindy’s style of teaching and belief in us allowed us to fully enjoy our stage performances. 


As I reflect upon my youth, I realize how much I enjoyed dance with childhood best friends, such as Anna, who was in the jazz class and competition team with me for years. We were at the studio almost daily and ended up working there during high school. And my high school offered a few dance opportunities… I remember when one of our friends choreographed this amazing piece, and how hard we all worked on it to make sure it was the best representation of her vision. I was so impressed with how this choreographer, who was my age, was able to create something of such high quality, and how much we, as a team, did everything we could to perform it to the best of our ability, and represent her piece well. I now know how these moments helped shape who I am today, how I view work, accomplishments, friendships and teamwork. My friends and I did a knockout performance for the rest of high school, which is one of my favorite high school memories, by far.  


Another one of my best friends in my youth was a self-taught dancer. She learned by watching popular music videos from the 80’s and 90’s, which had an abundance of incredible dance choreography. She moved in ways that mesmerized us and could get up on a whim and dance perfectly to any hip-hop song. She always inspired me by her dance talent and she often entertained us during friends and family gatherings. We may not have been aware back then of the power dance has both as a visual art, and as a form of expression.  As an adult who has spent the last year coming back to the dance space, I can now see very clearly how much dance helped my friends and me share something together, encourage each other to create, and celebrate each other’s victories.


And speaking of gatherings, how can I not mention my Greek background? Family gatherings are big in my culture, and so is music and dance. My parents had Greek music playing throughout our house every day, and it was the kind of music that made you want to dance no matter what you were doing. 


Most Greek celebrations, such as baptisms and weddings, include Greek dancing, which may come as no surprise. During many family gatherings, my dad invited a Greek band to our house and we would clear the space to make room for our Greek dancing. Furniture was pushed aside, lamps placed in corners. The space was prepared for dancing and we danced and danced and danced, everyone, for hours! When I visit my hometown in Virginia, we still gather together when we can. Although life seems busier now than it was, we come together still, and we dance. 


I recall during one of my graduate school interviews, one of the faculty asked me to talk about a unique cultural experience in my life and how it would relate to community and relationships. I immediately shared the connection and celebration that takes place during Greek dancing. We are holding hands, dancing the same steps, and celebrating this unique part of our culture. OPA! 


Dance was a large part of my life up to college and I wasn’t ready to stop. I enrolled in a dance course during college and was thrilled when we got an assignment to choreograph our own piece. It is one of my fondest memories as a dancer. I looked forward to working on it and practiced it every day. I was excited for the opportunity to create and express myself through dance. I remember what I wore, and the other students’ reactions. That class solidified my desire to dance for the rest of my life. This class was also where I found my dance style, which is a fusion of  jazz, lyrical, and some modern-contemporary. I wish I had a video clip of what I choreographed now! 


This class was also where I found how dance serves me, as a dancer. This class and this experience was in stark contrast to the dance team they had, which I tried out for, but could barely keep up because the movement was (back then) better suited for someone who was trained in cheerleading. They were perfect for basketball entertainment and their style fit that kind of performance. I loved watching them and enjoyed dancing to hip/hop beats, but my experience during my dance class reinforced how I needed and wanted to move. I was drawn to movement that incorporated more fluidity and emotional expression. I saved my hip-hop moves for the many times a group of us would dance in our dorm hall. Another one of my fondest memories, for sure! 


After college, I stayed connected to dance by finding an adult dance class that I took with my cousin, Stacy (we both loved dancing). I couldn’t wait for that day of the week to attend this class with her. It was very natural for me to include dance in my routine. 


Stacy and I were fortunate to find a good dance teacher who fused traditional jazz with some hip-hop, which was both challenging and fun! After getting married and having children, I still found dance-based fitness classes in gyms (Jazzercise, Dance Jam, Zumba). I took them seriously and attended any class I could, religiously. I NEEDED to dance and move; I WANTED to dance and stay fit; I HAD to dance and express myself. 

PART TWO: RECONNECTING TO AND STUDYING DANCE


One very important experience worth expanding upon is my Dance Jam class I stumbled across when I lived in Arizona.  I was a member at Lifetime Fitness and one day as I was stretching in a group fitness room, I heard music in the room next door. I peeked in and saw a group of women dancing!! I was thinking, “Wait, this is part of our membership? A dance class?” I remember noticing the instructor’s AMAZING dance style and was instantly inspired by her. 


I jumped in right away and attended that class each and every Monday at 11 am. The teacher, Tiffani Bachus, is the 2009 World Fitness Champion of the Fitness America Pageant and we were so blessed to have her as our teacher. So, not only did I go there to release the stress in my life, but I planned to study under her. I wanted to be a dance student and LEARN in conjunction with whatever emotions I wanted to express through movement. Tiffani took the time to break down her choreography into segments that we would practice a lot before moving onto the next set of steps. I took that class and worked with Tiffani for five years, and I know my time with her in that class improved my dance skills tremendously. Thank you, Tiffani! 


By attending Tiffani’s classes regularly and practicing what she taught us, I was able to both enhance my dance skills and feel good about all of my time and effort. Attaining stronger dance skills was a goal I achieved, and it felt like a true victory, but I also gained something that was crucial for my dance journey: Confidence. 


Tiffani’s example and all she instilled in me by her classes allowed me to try things that were a bit more out of my comfort zone. I started a talent show at my church with my teen discussion group and decided it would be powerful if the show would begin by them entering the stage from the back with an opening dance. Although most of them did not have a formal dance background, they agreed and patiently learned the steps I choreographed  to Lady Gaga’s, “Edge of Glory.” The audience, which was mostly comprised of parents, family, and parishioners, were surprised as the lights dimmed, the music started, and the teenagers creatively walked and danced onto the stage. 


I was so proud to see these young ladies express themselves through movement and share this new experience of theirs with their loved ones. Our show ended with another surprise, as Greek music started, they hopped off the stage holding hands and invited the audience to join them around the perimeter of the room…another OPA moment, another wonderful memory, and another experience with dance that was positive for everyone!


When we moved to Florida, I noticed there was a YMCA in the neighborhood where we looked at houses. THAT was a seller for me, and yes, I found a great Zumba class there that I instantly loved and attended regularly.  Although I kept my love for fitness alive by finding dance exercise classes, yoga, and strength workout classes, etc., I started to yearn for something deeper within my own dance world. I had a few pivotal moments that led me to this new stage in my life as, yes … a dancer! I was inspired by watching my daughter, Vasi, in her dance class and I asked about private adult lessons, which led me to Laren. 


As exciting as the prospect of formal dance training could be, I also doubted myself and I hesitated to reach out to her. I found myself asking questions, almost reprimanding myself for such a desire: “Who do you think you are attending dance lessons now? You are a mom and your efforts and financial commitment should mainly be geared toward your children’s talents. Why do you want to take lessons if you will not perform or teach dance? Can you even move the way you did in your twenties or thirties?” Thankfully, my desire to take the next step was stronger than my fears, so I shooed away those thoughts and called Laren. 


Laren was so welcoming and completely understanding of what I was seeking, as her questions prompted me to expand upon my desires and what I envisioned. During our first dance session, I was thanking God for our easy connection. She completely understood what I needed, and wanted, in my dance expression and skills. 


We warmed up with a Contemporary style of stretching and she educated me on why we were moving in those unique ways. She gave me history, background, and lessons on body movement. I couldn’t get enough of this time with her. Then, she choreographed the perfect dance steps for me to beautiful music. All of my fears disappeared and to the one question asking if I could move like I did in my twenties? No…not exactly… but I move with more strength and passion! Something about my maturity and emotional expression has evolved. This is unique to dancing later in life. 


At the same time that I decided to dance, I also signed up for personal training sessions to take my fitness to another level. I feel confident to say that strengthening my muscles via weight training was (and remains to be) critical to moving in certain ways. Some of the moves Laren showed me were doable because of the strength training. Also, I am thankful for Yoga classes because they helped with my flexibility and slower dance movements. It is important to cross-train your body, as dancing involves all facets: cardio, coordination, flexibility, and strength. THEN, you get to add your own artistic and creative expression into the mix!



THE ARENA


Allow me to divert a bit to make a very important connection between dancing and The Arena. When I met with Laren the second time, I shared with her a song I fell in love with called, “The Arena” by Lindsey Sterling. I found this song by accident (or so I thought) on my playlist. My older daughter, Vasi, and I listened to it one day, asked “where did this come from?”, and allowed ourselves to get lost in it’s powerful sound. I would envision myself dancing to it and was eager to share it with Laren.  She immediately showed me how we could transfer the choreography that I learned during our first lesson into the musical composition of “The Arena”. In between sessions, I practiced what we learned, and started choreographing some of my own moves. How liberating!


I am also in a place of my life where I want to heal from many of my life’s stressors, grow from all I am learning, and blossom into the next stage of my life with peace, confidence, and strength. It is hard for me to share my story without mentioning my special needs daughter, Sophia.  


Sophia is cognitively disabled and nonverbal. Almost every breath I take revolves around her world. Navigating life with a special needs child is a unique challenge and although filled with immense blessings, it can feel daunting at times. 


My professional background involves clinical work as a marriage and family therapist, and I worked with many individuals, couples and families along their life’s journey. I always knew that not one person is immune to disappointments, but my path had stumbling blocks that caught me off guard. Even as a solution-oriented thinker, I’ve often been stopped in my tracks, brought to my knees, and dumbfounded. 


One evening, I was watching one of Brenè Brown’s TED Talks on “Vulnerability” and she quoted Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena”: 

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”


I stood straight up from the couch and yelled, “Yes!!” 


Was Brenè’s message for me?? It’s as if she knew about my Arena song….as if she knew what I was going through and needed to hear. It was a moment that brought me clarity, peace, and validation. 


This experience put a stamp on how I needed to pursue my love for dance, and continue working on all the different areas of my life that were suffering from my lack of attention to them. I know that we all need to have positive, healthy, and creative outlets for our life stressors. For me, this is dance, and I am going to dance it all out!


So… if you have contemplated dancing again, but doubt your skills, stage of life, or anything else putting you on pause, I hope you take a literal leap of faith and seek out someone/someplace to cultivate this desire and gift of yours. Adult dance instruction is out there and in demand. It’s not a matter of IF this exists, but WHERE it takes place and IF you will go forth on this journey. 


As I write this, I am still in the midst of working on the choreography of “The Arena” with Laren. She teaches, I follow…and she inspires me, as I come up with my own dance moves. She takes one part of my dance routine and helps me perfect that section, all while keeping it completely ME. 


And as I write this, I’m still healing, growing, blossoming….and of course, dancing…smack in the center of  The Arena.

Eleni Paris has an M.S. from Virginia Tech in Marriage and Family Therapy. She practiced as a licensed clinician and has conducted workshops on relationships, parenting, and personal development. She paused her clinical path to raise her two daughters, one of whom has special needs. She is now a Y coach at the YMCA, combining her love for helping others with her passion for health and fitness. She enjoys reading, writing, gardening, partaking in health and fitness related activities….and dancing! 

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