Dancing My Way Back to Me

Read this reflective narrative about freestyle dancing.

Dancing in a room full of strangers might sound intimidating, but for Jennon, it was freeing. When she first moved into her Chicago apartment, she felt a little lost and unsure of her place. Fast forward years later, and she’s still returning to the dance studio that helped her break free.

I didn’t realize how much I love to dance until I found myself in a dark studio with 20 women I didn’t know, belting out a pop diva’s latest Top 40 song and feeling absolutely free. 

“Absolutely free” sounds hyperbolic, but the truth is that outside the occasional wedding and girls’ nights, finding an opportunity to lose oneself on a dance floor — meaning dancing for the pure, unbridled joy of moving your body — doesn’t happen often … unless you seek it out. 

Like many twentysomethings, I lost hours on Saturday nights standing in 20-degree weather waiting to pay an exorbitant cover charge for admission into a sweaty club. Inside was a sticky mob of bodies crashing into each other to the thumping bass as we sipped warm beer, guarded our purses and coats, and fended off overeager dudes. Those are the early adulthood nights that lose their novelty as you begin to value comfort over cool. 

I took classes — ballet, Zumba, hip hop — in the spirit of fitness and fun, but having a choreographed and structured program isn’t the same as freestyle body movement. In fitness dance classes, the focus is on form and repetition and ostensibly, “getting fit”— exercising your body so that it becomes leaner, stronger, harder, smaller, sexier. There’s a place for that kind of regimented exercise but there’s also value in letting your body move as it feels, to ride the soundwave of a great song with your eyes closed and your feet light on the ground, your head empty of any distracting thoughts. To paraphrase Men Without Hats, when you can dance how you want to, you can leave your cares behind. 

I first learned about Dance Dance Party Party on a blog of a woman I didn’t know but felt a kinship with because she seemed to be living the life I wanted. I had moved into my studio apartment in the city and wasn’t sure of my place, both in the world and in the existential sense of the quarter life crisis. Dancing with no agenda, in comfortable clothes, with women only (no creepers!), and for just $5, felt both kooky and maybe exactly what I needed. 

DDPP was (and still is) a bi-weekly ladies-only freestyle dance party that has only three rules: no boys, no booze, and no judgments — of yourself or others. It happens on Wednesdays and Sundays in an unassuming small dance studio accessible via alley. It’s not a dance class, as there is no choreography or expected form to follow, and doesn’t have that sleazy film of a meat-market club. The “no judgments” motto is both forgiveness and permission to not care at all about what others think. 

I lurked on the DDPP website, followed their social media, gave thumbs up to playlists and regularly scratched “DDPP?” into my calendar with blind optimism. It took a year of wistfully wondering to actually show up one day. A friendly woman welcomed me as she plugged in Party City disco lights; another smiled at me as she positioned fans in the corners. Within a few minutes, the lights were cut, the disco beams bounced off the mirrored walls, and the room filled with women ready to bust a move. 

The women running the party explained the rules: don’t hurt yourself, no judgments, and most of all, no talking allowed. By letting only the sounds of the music fill the space, there are no worries about who might be talking about your dance moves. Did it feel weird to be dancing in a room of strangers in the middle of a Sunday? Yes. Did that stop anyone? No way. The unrestrained enthusiasm for dancing took over and for the next sixty minutes, it was a free-for-all of pure joy. Bodies moved, celebratory sing-alongs were encouraged, each dancer confidently taking up their space to jump, jive, shimmy and shake to each song. 

That first time I went, I closed my eyes and faced the wall, self-conscious and awkward. By the third song, I was facing the untamed group, belting out Whitney or Beyonce or Michael Jackson or Outkast and letting my body follow suit. After the first DDPP, I returned again and again and again. Soon enough, I noticed how much clearer my thoughts were, how much stronger my muscles felt, how much more confident and aware of my body and its abilities were, especially in how I moved — not just in DDPP but in the world. At weddings, I now commanded the dance floor because I was inadvertently practicing twice a week on taking up space and enjoying myself. I found new songs from the DJs’ playlists, I bonded with a diverse group of women who treated DDPP as exercise, as therapy, as catharsis, as community, as self-care, as natural caffeine, as confidence booster, as all of that and more. I felt comfortable in my skin in a way that I hadn’t in a very long time. 

I’m not a great dancer but that doesn’t matter anymore. Because what I lack in talent, I make up for with enthusiasm and appreciation for all my body can do. I showed up to dance when I was let go from my job. I showed up to dance when I was at a crossroads in my relationships. I showed up to dance when I was grappling with big decisions and issues. I showed up to dance when I felt overtired, overworked, underappreciated, untethered, unhappy. I also danced on bright summery days, and through two pregnancies, several Chicago winters, and countless ho-hum days that went from nondescript to buoyant, joyful, enlightening. Turns out, the best balm is an hour spent losing yourself in the music, the moment and you own it, and you never want to let that go (thanks, Eminem).

Be in the know with Grotto