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What It Was Like Taking Dance Lessons With Cerebral Palsy

When my boyfriend suggested signing us up for a dance lesson at the local dance studio, I felt hesitant. Aside from just under two years of ballet lessons as a child, I’ve never danced — and for good reason. I’m not a good dancer, and I worried my disability could easily prevent me from being able to learn the steps at all.

I told him that dancing sounded awesome and that I was excited to try it out — but I felt full of anxiety. Despite my boyfriend’s insistence that he’s a “bad dancer” and his life philosophy that trying new things is usually either a whole lot of fun or a funny story, I was reluctant to believe that taking a dance lesson together would end up OK. Visions of being rejected from my junior high school’s play on account of my dubious dancing abilities played in my head for days on end, and I envisioned our dance lesson culminating in a dramatic movie-style breakup.

Boyfriend: “I love you, Kelly — I really do — but I can’t do this anymore.”

Me: “You don’t even need to explain it — it was the dancing, wasn’t it?”

Boyfriend, carefully skirting the question: “I’m sorry, I just… think I need to go.”

Me: “Babe, no, don’t walk away. I can change! I promise! The dance instructor said I’ll get better!”

(Ex)Boyfriend: “This just… doesn’t feel right anymore. Bye, babe.”

Me: Incomprehensible sobbing.

When I wasn’t imagining the demise of my relationship, I was recalling every episode of “Dancing With the Stars” I’d ever seen. The celebrities always looked like they were doing amazingly, and then Len Goodman would kill the mood by giving them a “five” or a “six” for their performance. Then, the celebs and their partners — still with sweat beading from their foreheads — would dejectedly walk offstage so that another (un)lucky couple could take their place on the dance floor.

(I think it’s fair to say that my rejection from the seventh grade play did a number on my self-esteem.)

Our dance lesson crept closer, and I tried to appear excited about it — all the while secretly hoping it would get canceled. The week of the lesson, I took extra care to notice how my body was feeling. Was my throat scratchy? Was my nose runnier than usual? The answer was “no,” so I mentally scanned my body for signs of pain, fatigue, and muscle tightness. I wasn’t in pain, I was no less fatigued than usual, and my muscles were as tight as they always had been — but not unbearably so. We were going to dance.

That night, my boyfriend and I shared our hopes for our dance lesson over dinner. His excitement was rubbing off on me, but I was still anxious that my cerebral palsy would prevent me from successfully learning to dance. I tried to keep an open mind, though. This could be fun. 

We rushed into the dance studio — past a group of intimidating, skilled-looking dancers — into the reception room. A few minutes later, we met our dance instructor, who seemed bubbly and sweet. When we were talking with her, my boyfriend made it clear that neither of us had any dance experience — and we were both self-proclaimed “bad dancers.” I began to feel relieved.

Shockingly, my anxiety dissipated as we began dancing. As we learned the merengue — which basically involves marching to the beat of a song — I realized that I was dancing, and it even felt easy for me. Somehow, our instructor was able to cram three or four dance styles into our 30-minute lesson and still teach us the basic steps — all the while praising us and making us feel successful. We were both impressed.

After the lesson, my boyfriend and I were bubbling over with excitement as we recounted our dance experience. 

“I loved dancing with you,” he said.

“You’re a great dance partner,” I responded. “Tonight was really fun!”

As the words escaped my lips, I couldn’t believe what I was saying. I genuinely enjoyed dancing, and my boyfriend did too. Instead of dance lessons breaking us apart, they bonded us further — and we both felt a new sense of passion blossom.

We loved our first dance lesson so much that we signed up for more — and just over two months after our first lesson, “dance night” remains one of our favorite days of the week. Our instructors have encouraged us every step of the way, and every week, we see ourselves improve. The steps have gotten a bit more challenging for me as we progress, but they’re far from unmanageable, and I’ve felt my body become stronger over time. I love dancing hand-in-hand with my boyfriend, and I also love that I’ve found a way to move that feels comfortable to me after years of internalized ableism and a struggle with compulsive exercise.

When I dance, I don’t feel “confined” like I feared I would — I feel free. I’m forever thankful that I decided to toss away my self-doubt and dance with my disability instead of fighting against it.

Getty Image by Westend61

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