My first competition of 2020 is officially complete! The Fred Astaire West Coast Dance Championships turned out to be a great way to start the season, though the final steps of the journey to this point were rough.
I had my last lessons on Wednesday. We spent about 15-20 minutes on each dance and then danced two rounds in a row. The rounds went pretty well, but I definitely felt my energy slacking in the second. It didn’t help that it was at the end of a day that started at 5am! Teacher was happy and felt we were ready. I was less confident, but did my best to focus on what went well.
I had trouble sleeping Wednesday night. My head was filling with reasons I wasn’t good enough. By Thursday morning, the anxiety had kicked in full throttle. Well, I suppose I should say moderate throttle. I was still able to go through my morning routine and get to work, but the dread sat heavy on my chest all morning.
The unfortunate thing about anxiety attacks, at least for me, is once one gets going, it’s difficult to stop. I just have to ride it out. I have developed tools over the years to keep them from overwhelming me to the point I can’t function though.
On Thursday, for example, I took several walks outside through the day. I’m lucky to have a job that allows me this flexibility. Walking outside helped disperse some of my nervous energy and provided a break being around other people. Luckily, in the office, my desk is in a cubicle set somewhat apart from others and faces a corner. I chose this location specifically for days like Thursday when I needed some isolation from social interactions in the office. I listened to calming music and controlled my breathing to help with the painful tightness in my chest.
I thought about going home sick, but decided I could stick it out with these tools. By the afternoon, I was exhausted but less anxious (not sure which came first). Once I was home, I prepped what I needed to for the competition the next day and went to bed early. It’s days like this that I’m also very grateful for my two dogs who will gladly tackle me with affection. Puppy kisses can be very effective therapy.
Finally, it’s the big day. While I slept through the night, I felt worn out when I woke up. That’s another unfortunate thing about anxiety – even if I am able to slow it down or shorten its duration, it still takes a physical toll. I experience a similiar effect from migraines. If I catch one early, I can take medicine and prevent it from taking me completely out from the pain, but I still spend the rest of the day tired.
Friday morning, I used some of my other anxiety-management tools. The first one was sticking to a routine. A lot of my anxiety comes from not knowing what to expect, which results in a feeling of not being in control. To counteract this, I employ routine. The morning of competition, the first thing I do after getting up and dressed is do my hair. Grateful again for my boys who don’t need to go outside immediately in the morning. It might make more sense to do my hair later, after things like the morning walk have been taken care of. But this is my way of counteracting another potential anxiety trigger of messing up my hair and running late because of it. I’m not a big hair and makeup girl, so styling my hair beyond running a brush through it is not routine. So I get it out of the way first thing.
Another part of my routine you may have caught on Facebook – painting my nails and livestreaming on The Girl with the Tree Tattoo Facebook page. I can’t remember when I first started doing this, but it’s become a tradition for me. It gives me a chance to sit down and distract myself a little by chatting with my followers.
One more tool I used on Friday morning is something I turn to a lot – doing what I would do if I was feeling like my normal self. If I was feeling like my normal self, I would have been jamming to some fun music to get in the dancing mood. So I turned on a Pandora station with dance party music. I even danced a little as I was getting myself ready. I may not have gotten into the groove much, but I also knew that just moving my body would shift my brain chemistry in a more positive direction. I danced some very unenthusiastic Salsas in my kitchen, but it was still dancing.
All this and I haven’t even gotten to the actual competition yet! I hope this is providing some insight for those reading who also deal with anxiety issues. As you can see, I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve for managing my anxiety. Sometimes I just need one; sometimes I need the whole lot.
Ok, let’s get to the comp!
I arrived at the hotel about two hours before I was supposed to dance, made my way through a confusing parking garage, up one elevator and two escalators until I heard those familiar ballroom sounds. At this point, the anxiety had retreated to below the surface, but I knew it could bubble up at any moment.
That moment came when I entered the ballroom. It was smaller than I was used to and the only seating available was at tables surrounding the dance floor. When I reached the table where Teacher and his other students were already set up, it looked like the table was full. I didn’t see a quiet corner anywhere for me to warm up either. I stood there for a couple minutes and smiled as people greeted me. Finally, I asked where the bathroom was so I could change. Stick to the routine. Normally, after I’ve located where our group is in the ballroom, I leave again to change into my dress.
I fought back some tears in the bathroom due to a sudden anxious surge from my first exposure to the ballroom. It felt chaotic to have no clear place for me to settle. When I returned, I exercised another tool – ask for help. I’ve learned over the years that it’s usually ineffective for me to try to muscle my way through episodes like this by myself or wait for someone to notice that I’m struggling. I need to simply ask for help or support. When I’m honest about how I’m feeling, I’m more likely to get the support I need.
Perfect example was when I reentered the ballroom and greeted Teacher’s wife. I was honest when she asked how I was doing, and she immediately pointed out the practice room that was set up next door. It was just steps away from our table and gloriously quiet. Here was my escape. I felt like I could breathe again.
I was also honest to Teacher about how I was feeling and he showed me where on the heat list he would have a break to warm up with me. So again, asking for help and receiving what I need.
Warming up with Teacher gave me another shot of relief. We talked briefly about what was triggering my anxiety and then did a light round of each dance.
Thinking back now, I realize how much of the competition I missed because I was so focused on managing my anxiety. Usually, after I do my own warmup (another comp day routine) and touch base with Teacher, I will watch the other competitors and cheer people on. I enjoy watching everyone dance and seeing people’s faces light up when they’re truly in the moment. I did watch the dancing, but wasn’t able to connect with it this time.
Now you may be wondering how the heck I was able to dance with all of this going on inside my mind and body. Enter yet another tool. When it is my turn to dance, everything gets set aside except the one or two things I’m supposed to focus on. Teacher and I will decide these things ahead of time. One competition, it was head weight. Another, it was keeping my chest up. Focusing on just one or two things in my dancing, rather than trying to remember everything, keeps the brain quieter. For this competition, it was moving from my core instead of my frame and slowing down (i.e., not rushing through the movement).
The first round went really well, though it was full of amusing little mistakes. I almost started laughing in my Foxtrot because I made the same mistake that I made at Embassy Ball and as it was happening, I thought “aw crap, not again!” The mistake had become a running joke between me and Teacher after Embassy, so it had humor associated with it rather than self-criticism.
Awards came right after that round of single dances, so it didn’t take long for me to find out that I had placed first in all four dances! Granted, I was uncontested, but I was happy to take the stickers anyway.
Getting through the first round was the next step in easing my nerves. The other factor I was dealing with was the fact that this was my first Fred Astaire event, so there wasn’t the usual crowd. I recognized a few people from being connected to them on social media or just because they compete at so many events. And there were a couple people I ran into whom I knew more personally. But the majority were strangers, so I was walking out on a dance floor among a whole lot of unknowns. There was also a hint of the old pressure to prove that I was good enough to be out there showing off a full back tattoo. I did have a very nice older gentleman competitor come up to me to tell me he loved my tattoo. Random compliments always help boost the mood a bit.
The scholarship round went even better. I was actually competing against one other couple this time, so not entirely uncontested. Every dance felt stronger than it did in the single dance round, and I nailed the beginning of my Foxtrot.
In the end, it was a first place kind of day for me! I walked away with a trophy/plaque instead of a check for the first place in the scholarship. It was a funny moment when we were waiting for our results to be called and about 10 seconds after I thought “oh hey, they’re not giving out checks for the scholarships,” Teacher leans over and asks the same thing. We have our priorities clear when it comes to scholarship awards!
As soon as my brain told my body we were done, it started shutting down and I felt exhausted again. All’s well that ends well though! It wasn’t fun leading up to it, but Fred Astaire West Coast Dance Championships ended up being a solid start to my 2020 competition season. It was nice to feel how much stronger I felt on the dance floor compared to Embassy Ball last year AND to see that improvement in the videos too.
The next competition is already looming on the horizon. I just sent my entries in for California Open in the middle of February – less than a month away! I also ran numbers for my third competition of the season. I’m looking to return to the San Francisco Open at the beginning of April. It was my very first competition back in 2014 and I haven’t danced there since. Teacher has a big group going, which makes his expenses less per person.
After that? We’ll just have to wait and see.