As follow-up to their joint interview in April, I had asked Elizabeth Thomson and Nicholas Barkley if they would be willing to do individual interviews and share more of how ballroom has impacted their lives. Liz shared her struggles with PTSD and how ballroom brought her back to life in May. Now, we get to hear from Nick!
In the year or so that I’ve known Mr. Barkley, one thing I could count on is that he was always busy. So finding a time to sit down and chat took some doing. We had to reschedule a couple times, but in the end, we made it happen. I’m glad we did because I think this is the first time that a male ballroom dancer has been featured on this blog!
The last decade was by no means an easy one for Nick, but you wouldn’t know it when talking to him. He’s quiet for the most part, but loves cracking jokes. You don’t see the depression or anxiety that he’s had to learn to manage. Humor is a great tool for doing just that.
Nick joined the Marines in June 2007, right after graduating high school. It was never a question, he told me. His grandfather and brother had been Marines, and he was always interested in following suit. His time as a Marine took him across the country and around the world. After attending school for the infantry and top-level security, Nick served as part of a presidential security team, guarding both President Bush and President Obama. He then deployed to Asia for approximately six months, during which time, he worked and trained as part of a raid company. His home was the ship he travelled on; he slept in a “coffin,” a bunk bed only slightly longer and wider than he was. When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March 2011 and caused a nuclear power plant meltdown, Nick’s ship responded.
Nick was back home in the States for only a few weeks when word came that a sister unit in Afghanistan had taken heavy casualties and they were looking for combat replacements. Nick volunteered and took on another four-month tour, in one of the most dangerous places in the world at that time.
After Afghanistan, Nick was reaching the end of his time with the Marines and was considering his options. He could reenlist or use some connections to get into security contracting. But then on his way home from Afghanistan, Nick received word that his father had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
He was able to go home to Montana and spend a few weeks with his dad, but then Nick had to return to California to finish his time with the Marine Corps. He left the Corps in March 2012 and decided to go to school.
School was hard. To say that Nick was dealing with a lot is the understatement of the year. Between dealing with what he experienced during his deployments, having to adjust to civilian life, and seeing his father in pain and being unable to do anything to help him, it should come as no surprise that Nick had difficulty focusing in class. He had also been drinking a lot since returning to the States. Alcohol became an escape from the depression, anxiety and general stress that plagued him. But then came dance.
I did swing dancing in high school, joined the swing club the first year they had it. So when I got back from Afghanistan, I thought I can either spend all my money on booze or I can do something else. I can try and be somewhat constructive. [I thought] maybe I’ll start dancing again. I went originally [to a dance studio] just to swing dance but then I learned the other dances and got super addicted. And of course, there was all the beautiful women. Plus, the studio is almost like a little family and a home away from home.
Dance was helping to keep Nick from crawling too far into the liquor bottle.
Then his father passed away in May 2012, only a few months after he had gotten out of the Corps. After completing a dance showcase commitment, Nick put his goals on hold to move back to Montana and be with his mom. He stayed for a year before returning to California.
Although he wanted to be there for his family, he didn’t have a positive outlet like dance in Montana. Alcohol was the alternative escape.
After returning to California, Nick was living and working in Bakersfield for a time and commuting down to Orange County for dance lessons on the weekends (3 to 4 hour drive, depending on traffic). And yes, still drinking. Finally, he made the move to Orange County. As ballroom worked its magic on him, Nick recognized how unhealthy the drinking was making him. During his year in Montana, he had gained almost 50 pounds. But the more he danced, the less he felt the urge to drink.
Dance was a really good outlet. I don’t know where I’d be without it, truth be told.
The competition bug had also gotten a hold of Nick and working toward competition goals also motivated him to stop drinking altogether and get healthy. He went all in to better himself. In the last few years, Nick stopped drinking, returned to school, improved his diet and committed himself to strict workout and dance practice routines. He’s competed successfully in Latin, Standard and Smooth as a pro-am student, and as you know, he now competes in Smooth with his amateur partner Liz.
I always ask my interviewees if there is a specific aspect of ballroom dancing that attracted them to it.
Part of it for me was having a social group outside of the Marine Corp. Then of course, there’s the beautiful women. But I really got hooked when I went to my first competition, which was CalOpen, and watched my then instructor compete and absolutely destroy the field with [her partner]. That really got me going and got me to enter my first comp.
Although he still deals with depression and anxiety and finds himself in a funk now and then, Nick credits ballroom dancing with making it easier to cope. He said dance was really the only reason he ended up moving back to California after his year in Montana.
[Ballroom dancing helped me] lose weight, and it’s a way to express yourself. Music is therapeutic in its own right but then moving with it… I just can’t stop dancing.
Lessons really help [with the depression]. You’re really focused and you’re getting the full attention of someone else who is helping you to become better.
Nick is a model example of how hard work and dedication to a passion or goal can improve one’s life. The inner demons don’t go away, but that commitment to bettering one’s self forces them to be quiet. It’s not an easy path. Just having depression and anxiety kills your energy and motivation, so living with those demons, I mean really and truly living, can feel like an insurmountable task. But people like Nick are successful at it every day.
I think Nick’s final message contains the key for anyone else out there who is reading this and wrestling with their own demons:
You should always be hungry. Don’t be afraid to go after what you really love and want to do. You can always find a way to be successful at it. Do everything you can to surround yourself with positive influences and good people. Surround yourself with people with the lifestyle that you want to have.
I’ll add my own small piece of advice to that: just start. It doesn’t have to be big or dramatic. Just one small step toward a better life is all you need. Then you take one more step and you’ll soon find that you have energy to take a bigger step. Before you know it, you’re like Nick who’s so busy following his passions, he barely has time to sit down for his interview!
I’m glad he was able to share his story with us, and I hope it inspired you. As always, happy dancing!