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Opinion: Dance!

How getting into the groove gets you out of your head.
Image by Wejdan al Balushi
Dancing may feel intimidating or vulnerable, but it can have profound effects on your self-esteem.

It was the first day of dance rehearsal and I looked at the line of dancers in front of me ready to strut across the floor.

“All right everyone, let’s start with sassy walks!” 

My stomach lurched. I shifted awkwardly in the third row, dreading the inevitable moment when I would put myself and my now-threatened masculinity on display. 

Before coming to the University of Minnesota, I had only danced within the confines of my childhood bedroom. In a leap far outside my comfort zone, I joined the Dance Collective, a studio-style dance club open to students of all skill levels. 

It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

As I walked across the floor during that first rehearsal, I tried to sway my hips a bit but couldn’t get my arms to move away from my sides. My face flushed red with embarrassment. I wanted to move like everyone else but felt too restrained by what I deemed appropriate for my male body. 

Cheng Xiong, a technical director of the dance program at the University, said he recognizes the struggles of men who feel out of place in dance communities, even though he grew up dancing.

“There are still a lot of people who are stuck in the past of, ‘Men don’t do that. Men should not be like this. Men should not be like that,’” Xiong said. “No man is alone in these things that they question and challenge or feel embarrassed about.”

Xiong said to lean into the discomfort and see where it goes. 

My sassy walk may not have impressed RuPaul, but I made it to the other side of the room without fleeing to the bathroom in shame. As the semester continued, I pushed myself at every rehearsal to make my movements more expressive. Eventually, I began to feel comfortable with the choreography.

“What truly matters is how you feel and how you want to feel,” Xiong said. “At the end of the day, you are your main character. Focus on that to drive yourself to be expressive and do what you want to do, whether it’s uncomfortable or whether it’s comfortable.”

By leaning into my discomfort, what began as an opportunity to dance to the fantastically absurd “Judas” by Lady Gaga also became a way to boost my self-confidence. After a few months, I evolved from a stiff and awkward newbie to a stuff-strutting stage performer at the end-of-semester showcase. 

Dance became so fun that I stopped caring about my appearance and focused instead on the exciting new ways I could move my body.

But joining the Dance Collective did more than unbind me from traditional views of masculinity. It taught me how dance can serve as a form of self-exploration, community building and joy.

Zoe Grubbs, a retired marketing and advertising professional who lives near the Twin Cities, said dance has revolutionized how she views movement and physical fitness.

Grubbs used to rely on conventional gym routines for exercise until she started taking yoga classes. She eventually discovered “ecstatic dance,” a free-form meditation practice where a community comes together and moves in rhythm with music. Talking is often prohibited, as participants rely on their bodies and shared energy to communicate.

“What mattered was that I could be with my breath and I could follow movement as it made sense to me in that moment, regardless of what everybody else was doing,” Grubbs said. “My thinking brain kind of shut down and my creative brain opened up and I was connected with my body and I was connected with the music and I was connected with the flow.”

Grubbs is transgender and said dance helped her feel accepted and validated her gender identity when she transitioned.

“When you share an energetic space on the dance floor with somebody, and that little moment of magic happens with the music and the movement and the colors and everything else happening around you, you feel seen,” Grubbs said. 

While attending an ecstatic dance program remains unchecked on my Minneapolis bucket list, I too have witnessed the power of dancing with other people. Whether starting an impromptu dance-off at a basement show or doing a little jig in front of Coffman Union with my friends after class, I’ve learned that humans don’t always need words to connect. 

Dance can also be a powerful way to connect with yourself.

“A lot of people are taught that meditation is a thing that monks do where you sit without moving for hours upon hours upon hours and do everything you can to keep your mind still, which in a way is kind of antithetical to the way the body and the mind are built,” Grubbs said. “I see dance as the opposite of that. It’s basically saying, ‘I can be in meditation any time.’”

Simply paying attention to how my body wants to move instead of how it should move allows me to connect with my physical self and literally shake away stress. Boosting my mood and preparing myself for the day ahead is often as simple as dancing to one song before I leave for class. 

But don’t just take it from me. If you want to liberate your body, you’ve got to move it. 

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  • Cather Ine
    Apr 12, 2024 at 7:28 pm

    It can be so hard to get the nerve to get out of your own way and dance! It’s so important to move when you feel the music. Love the article Huppke! I too hope you get to ecstatic dance sometime….

  • JC Hagvik
    Apr 12, 2024 at 10:50 am

    Wow – great piece, Leo!
    You are an inspiration, so wonderful that you are encouraging others to open up to the possibilities of moving to music.
    Love how you spread the joy around!

  • Zeo Zuppke
    Apr 11, 2024 at 9:03 pm

    Mr. Huppke, this article moved me to tears!!! I too wish to move my body, but I fear shame. You have opened my eyes to the possibilities, GRACIAS LEO!!!! This one reminds me of a salsa salad.