This is a story about a lot of things: jazz dance, adult learning, and how I overcame a serious health issue by finding my inner Tina Turner. One day I might write an autobiography and this is an important chapter in my life. Don’t forget, it’s not only ancestors and history – we genealogists are a part of the story too. The stories that we would most love to know about them are the stories we need to practise telling about ourselves. Here is my story about learning to dance.
The performance: 13 Aug 2022
I finished my dance and walked behind the black curtains, stage right. I was breathless and exhilarated. Replaying the performance in my head, I focused on the cheering and tried to forget the panicky moment I forgot my routine. Looking up at the wings, I tried to snap a mental picture of the moment, a dancer waiting in the wings for her final bow.
Sixteen months ago: 28 Mar 2021
“Can you walk? If you can’t, we can get the stretcher down here,” said the paramedic kneeling beside me. She was wearing both mask and face shield. I was lying on the floor of my office. Everything hurt from my midsection upwards but the worst was the tightness in my chest, left arm, and shoulders. On the front lawn in full view of the neighbours, they loaded me onto a stretcher. The ambulance drove straight to Emergency and I was instantly admitted. That day in the hospital I had the full range of procedures for a suspected heart attack. We were in the middle of a pandemic with the healthcare system strained to breaking, yet here was an entire team ready to save my life. Nurses and doctors visited frequently, donning and removing masks and gowns with each visit. I marvelled at what they were doing with such grace under terrible strain.
I was discharged that night. Sean picked me up, his worry showing in every word and gesture.
Four days later, the cardiologist read my stress test results. “Whatever the issue is,” he said, “it’s not your heart.”
My family doc said, “Do what you need to do to reduce the stress.” He offered medication. This pain in my chest was coming from my heart but it wasn’t a heart attack.
It was stress: too much for too long.
I’d advanced from stress into a full blown panic attack. This didn’t just happen – it was a long time coming.
Two years, five months ago: the pandemic
Managing some level of stress has become as normal to me as breathing. Like everyone, my life changed radically and not for the better in 2020. There were only seventy-five days from January 1st to March 16th – let’s call it Lockdown Day 1 – and the changes hit with stunning force. We did what you did: tried to absorb the million daily shocks and stay one step ahead. Safety became our primary concern (and its sad parent, fear, our constant companion). We used words like fine and coping. We watched healthcare workers and grocery clerks alike struggle to provide essential services. Our city developed a plan to turn the new athletic arena into an overflow morgue. We were far from fine and we hoped it would be over soon. The stress invisibly increased.
People we loved died. I cried for a week.
Everything became political. Vaccines were developed with astonishing international cooperation and speed but not fast enough to outrun the disinformation. Once friendly, real-life neighbours became politicized strangers behind screens. Safety/Fear was everywhere. Friends privately shared their anti-Asian experiences with me and my heart broke with every telling. People crossed the street to avoid Asian faces. Criminals assaulted our elders. Every day got just a little bit harder but I looked at those who had it worse and soldiered on.
This worked really well until it didn’t.
Fifteen months ago
Do what you need to do to reduce the stress. I began to overhaul my life, pandemic notwithstanding. I looked at mental and physical health, nutrition, and sleep. I was confusing satisfaction (I love what I do) with stress-reduction (the invisible toll). There were many stress-reducers missing in this new life, from social interactions to visiting the gym, but the biggest was joy. Covid had stolen my joy. Living safely was a one-way ticket to a grey box of a future.
My coach said, “What brings you joy?” I couldn’t remember.
“Music,” I said, “…and dancing.” I was remembering the Grey’s Anatomy style dance parties in my old house. We didn’t have a TV but we had music.
Dancing. Somewhere inside a tiny voice whispered, Yes to dancing and music.
I finally decided to manage my life the way I would want someone else to manage it: with due care and attention, proper and adequate resources, and the help of professionals. I asked, What would a boss do? and then did it, because we are all the bosses of our own lives. Within a few weeks I had assembled my support team: coach, nutritionist, and therapists for massage, physio, and mental health. I signed up for a Spotify account. I was ready to change.
A turnaround does not come easily. It was expensive and it was necessary. The stresses I’d absorbed – from anti-Asian racism to covid to fear to the increased needs of my parent and community – somehow had to be managed. If joy came with rocking tunes and high heels, all the better. This idea became the Linda Learns to Dance Project.
Two of my friends run dance studios: Caelia and Kailena. I said, “I want you to teach me to dance. I know almost nothing. I’ve done ballroom but all that’s done is teach me to follow someone else’s directions. And I need to pick the music. It’s more than important: it’s essential. Are you in?”
Hell yeah, they both said. And we were off. I did lessons twice a week for months: virtually with Kailena and live with Caelia. I practised at home: bedroom, kitchen, backyard. The first few months were hard. I was carrying extra weight and had no cardio. I almost quit.
I kept a video diary. Here are three images (left to right): 6 May 2021 (eight classes), 8 Jun 2021 (seventeen), 27 Sep 2021 (twenty-five).
In September, I gave up trying to practise at home and booked studio space. Eventually, I needed more live instruction and Kailena became my first cheering section. “I’m so proud of you,” she said.
Caelia coached me until her fall classes began and then I kept going. I practised three times a week for a year.
The unseen essential: massage therapy
Dance is a practise that challenges every part of the body. I am taking on a physical turnaround project. In the past, I’ve allowed pain to derail me and today I live with arthritis. I didn’t know what athletes know: that every level will bring pain and physical therapy is essential for success. I needed an excellent massage therapist who understood my project. At the risk of making him so popular he’ll be too busy to see me, I’d like to tell you about Clay, whose résumé aside from massage includes competing in high level Brazilian jiu jitsu.
I met him on 16 Apr 2021. “I am learning to dance and I am going to break things,” I said, “I am relying on you to fix me so I can keep going.” Clay treats me often, sometimes weekly. During all of those hours, he’s graced me with the benefit of his experiences from training to performing. In return, he has a front row seat to my project and sees the results of his work over time.
A normal session starts like this. Clay (after glancing at my chart): “What are we working on today?”
Me (after a pause): “Today let’s tackle upper back, neck and shoulders. I’m doing this move [I demonstrate] and it’s sticky here [pointing].”
Clay will then explain exactly which bones and muscles he’ll target: the cervical spine’s C5, C6, C7 and the capulae, scalenes, iliocostalis… I let the words flow over me. I am with an expert.
Many people won’t pay for therapy, stingy with themselves in order to be generous with others. It’s only my body. This post shows I’m guilty too. It helps to think of this as a project with the necessary resources. Without resources, a project will fail and I would like to be strong and supple for life. Seeing a good massage therapist over time means I can train, strain, fix, and repeat.
Thank you, Clay.
Nine months ago: 31 Oct 2021
The inner voice said, What if I posted a video of myself dancing for Hallowe’en? I couldn’t believe it. Sure, I’d been dancing for six months but it was a private deal, a gift from me to me. Where did this come from? Regardless, that same small voice said, Come on. Do it. It’ll be fun.
Here is my first dance number, Psy’s Gangnam Style (2012), choreographed by Caelia. This ninety second routine has a limited number of simple moves she chose for me.
Seven months ago: New Year’s Day, 2022
For my next challenge, I found a YouTube dance video that was twice as long and more complicated than Gangnam Style. In addition to dance practise, I added accessories, costume, makeup, and shoes. It was like starring in the school play and Hallowe’en all rolled into one, and it screamed fun. My inner voice became an eight year old who said, More of this please.
I said, Well hello there. Nice to meet you. You can have anything you want.
This is the Bee Gee’s You Should Be Dancing (1976), choreographed by Carrie Mitchell from Beginner Dance Tutorials.
This year: January to August 2022
For my third challenge, I asked Caelia to choreograph a new routine for me. I gave her my wishlist: something with a little Ann Reinking, Bob Fosse, and Chicago the Musical.
Caelia created a new jazz routine with All That Jazz by Liza Minelli. For the next six weeks, she taught me the routine – thirty seconds at a time – until we’d done the entire three minutes. She recorded each segment. My weekly dance regimen became learn, practise, practise, repeat. Then she taught me more: how to walk onstage and offstage, musicality, marking, and timing. I learned things you can’t learn from the internet.
Then she said, “I think you need to perform this piece.”
In front of people?!? I said, ” I don’t think so.”
The eight year old said, Yes! With stage makeup! And maybe a wig! And a fancy costume! And can we go shopping?
Perhaps, I said.
Before the performance
“I need a stage name,” I said to my friends. I had to name this inner voice who’d grown from a whisper to a child to someone newly exciting. I was going onstage with her. She needed a name.
“Your inner Tina Turner,” said Lana.
And like a conjurer’s trick, Inner Tina was there: You got this. Go show them what you can do.
Performance, five minutes later
Emerging from the wings, I lightly ran to the front of the stage to take a bow. The audience roared. My friends sat hollering and clapping, front row centre. Blinded by the lights, I couldn’t see but I could feel the energy. It was just as the dancers had said: What a rush.
Inner Tina said, Yeah girl. Strut that stuff.
I took another bow and joined my fellow performers stage right. At drinks that night, my first bouquet sat beside me, a gift from my squad.
Chapter one of the Linda Learns to Dance Project is done and there have been no panic attacks. What will Chapter Two bring?
Next week: the performance video!
This story shows it is possible to learn to dance regardless of age or previous level of instruction. You don’t have to solo: most beginners experience their first stage with a group. In Saskatoon, Dance Alive Studios (DAS) specializes in adult instruction. The August DAS Showcase happened at The Refinery, Saskatoon, on Saturday, August 13, 2022. More than dance and stress reduction, this experience has healed a part of me I didn’t know was hurt. My inner child has grown from a whisper to an eight year old to a woman whose very name is a fierce battle cry: Tina Turner. My own Inner Tina.
Anne Reinking (1949-2020)
Caelia incorporated one of Anne Reinking’s signature moves into my dance routine. I have loved Anne since seeing All That Jazz (1979), the semi-autobiographical movie about choreographer Bob Fosse. There is a touching scene where Anne performs Everything Old is New Again with twelve year old Erzsebet Foldi, the two playing the roles of girlfriend and daughter, respectively. (Bob forced Anne, his real life girlfriend, to audition to play herself in the movie.) The dance is one of affection and jaw-dropping skills, each dancer a perfect foil to the other. (If you’re curious abut which moves I learned, it’s Anne’s kicks from 1:58-2:02.)
Bob Fosse (1927-87)
More moves were inspired by Bob Fosse’s Rich Man’s Frug from Sweet Charity (1969). Caelia incorporated some of the liquid arm movements and body angles into my piece and coached me patiently on the leaning frame. We eventually modified the moves to be something I could perform in heels without falling over.
Tina Turner (1939-)
Tina Turner is still with us. She was born 26 Nov 1939 in Tennessee. Born Anna Mae Bullock, she suffered family instability and poverty. She worked as a domestic and a nurse’s aid. Anna Mae, eighteen, got her big break as a singer when she grabbed the mic to sing and got Ike Turner’s attention. Little Ann, as she was known, had the foresight to trademark her brand – Tina Turner – before she married Ike Turner in 1962 during the peak of their work together. Tina divorced Ike in 1978. At forty-four, she was a nostalgia act until she recorded the album Private Dancer (1984), which sold twelve million records. Her second ascent to fame has been called “one of the greatest comebacks in music history.” My Inner Tina is Tina at fifty: spike heels, shimmery dress, and those perfect legs in a power stance. Here she is in Steamy Windows (1989). She embodies everything I want to be: ageless, fierce, strong, and with killer dance moves in high heels.
Mentioned above but deserving of a repeat are my teachers, Caelia Gardiner of Dance Alive Studios (DAS), and Kailena Van De Nes of LiveWellWithKV. Take a bow, both of you. Thank yous to my fellow performers from the Showcase: you inspire me to keep going.
This is a huge project where I’ve had help from nearly everyone. Thank you to friends and family for the months of support. Thank you to Sean. Thank you to the therapists I’ve seen on a continual basis for sixteen months, among them Jill, Lil, and of course Clay. Thank you to the team of doctors, headed by my family doc and my rheumatologist who provided exemplary care during a pandemic.
Thank you to Lucienne for advice on costume design. Thank you to the hair, nail, and makeup artists: Meghan, Jocelyne, Mikaela, and Erin. With your help, I looked as good on the outside as I felt on the inside. Lastly, thank you to Selena who somehow knew I’d need glitter powder.