Finding Joy in the Storm

I have an actual dance event to share with you today! Saturday was the in-person showcase for the Fred Astaire Los Angeles Region, and I performed in a group number to Cell Block Tango from Chicago. It was the first time I’ve performed at an in-person event in 13 months (last time was competing at the 2020 California Open). It was also the first time I’ve been around more than a handful of people in a year.

My anxiety had been acting up all week. If my social anxiety was around a 4 or 5 preparing for a competition before COVID, the pandemic amplified it up to an 11+. Not only am I naturally uncomfortable in large crowds of people, now I had to deal with the fact that any one of those people could be carrying a new deadly virus. I did my best to manage my anxiety with things like exercise, meditation and an extra glass or three of wine (disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and these tools should not be considered official medical advice).

Saturday morning, we had a final rehearsal at the studio. I arrived at the studio early and meditated in my car before finally joining the group inside. My mantra for the day was “I’m going to crush this routine and then go home.” The stage at the showcase was going to be smaller than the space we used for filming our routine for the studio’s virtual showcase, so we reviewed the adjustments we would need to make. Unfortunately, there would be no chance to rehearse the routine on the actual stage.

One of the wonderful things about my dance family is I don’t need to say I’m fine when I’m most definitely not fine. You know how in an office setting, when you arrive in the morning and someone says “good morning, how are you?”, the standard acceptable answer is “good” or “fine” because your average coworker doesn’t want to have to stop what they’re doing to find out how you’re really doing? Well, when I walk in the studio, if I’m having a rough day, I feel welcomed to say “I’m having a rough day.” Which I was on Saturday, so that’s what I said and it was accepted (as opposed to being told all the reasons I shouldn’t feel bad, as if feeling bad was the wrong answer). Honestly, that acceptance alone makes the anxiety a little more bearable.

The showcase itself was being held in the parking garage attached to the host studio’s building. I think it was supposed to count as being more outside, but considering the garage was underground and the space we were in was basically enclosed…

Anyway! When I first walked in, I found myself backstage near the dressing rooms. One look at that tiny space crammed with dancers and I knew I made the right decision to put my costume on at home and just layer over it for the drive. I was starting to feel a little lost and already thinking about going back to sit in my car when Teacher’s wife appeared. She immediately took me down a hallway to show me an empty lobby space that led outside. This was my escape route/quiet space should I need it.

I was planning on leaving right after we performed, but it turned out that our number was at the very end of the show. So I guess I was staying for the whole thing! We were able to at least mark where we would set up on the stage before the show started. They had some chairs set up in the backstage area for people to sit, and there was also a performer’s sitting area set up in the audience area so dancers could watch the other numbers. Two of the ladies in my Cell Block Tango group took this nervous little bird under their wings and sat with me in the performers’ area while we waited for the show to start. I tried not to think about all the people with their masks off while they snacked on popcorn.

Under normal pre-pandemic circumstances, I would have settled in once the show started. The first number was to the song “Any Way You Want It,” and as a fan of 80s music, I should have been singing and dancing in my seat. Instead, I started to have a panic attack. I think it was the sudden surge of stimuli – the music, the lights, the people cheering – that sent me over the edge. I think I got through one verse before I made a beeline for that empty lobby. It’s funny the things that go through my head; as I was rushing down the hallway, all I could think was “don’t cry too hard, you’ll ruin your makeup!” I managed to keep my makeup intact and calm myself during the next few numbers.

I returned in time to see the first number from our studio perform. It was a group number to “One” from A Chorus Line. Something about seeing dancers I knew on stage helped settle me a bit.

I avoided additional panic attacks and was able to watch most of the show. I took another break in that lobby about halfway through. Two other ladies from Cell Block Tango were going over their steps, so I joined in. It was a welcome distraction and helped me focus on the only reason for being there.

Finally, it was our turn to perform. I channeled my Pop character and danced. Being on stage with the group I’ve been rehearsing with for months including Teacher and Teacher’s wife, I felt safe. I felt the joy of performing again! I forgot the difference a live audience makes. There is an exchange of energy between audience and performer that heightens the experience for everyone. In a day full of anxiety, I was able to find a few minutes of joy. I didn’t originally sign up for the in-person showcase, just the virtual one, because of all the reasons that were triggering my anxiety. The studio wasn’t able to get a replacement for me though, and I didn’t want to prevent the rest of the group from performing. So I decided to take one for the team, as it were. I was grateful that I was able to connect with that joy for myself too.

There was one last task after our performance – curtain call. Everyone was called on stage to take a final bow. My Cell Block Tango ladies surrounded me and held my hands while we waited to be called because they knew the idea of crowding onto a stage was triggering my flight response. They kept me in their bubble on stage too while we clapped and acknowledged everyone involved in making the showcase a success. I love my dance family.

A dinner was being served after the show, but I wasn’t staying. I pulled on my layers over my costume, said a few goodbyes and heartfelt thank-yous to my group, and headed out.

By the time I got home, I felt worn out physically and mentally. But I did it! I survived my first in-person event since the pandemic. I’ll feel a lot better about doing another one after I get vaccinated, but in the meantime, I’m counting my blessings that I had the support I needed to get me through the anxiety storm and reach those few minutes of joy on stage.

Shout out to my dance family for making sure I had an escape, for sitting with me, for holding my hand, for helping me focus, and just overall letting me know I wasn’t alone.


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