Dancing Toward Recovery: How Ballroom Dance is Helping Me Heal from Trauma and Grief

Hector and dance instructor Zana stand before JT Ballroom banner.

“Today’s the big day, first ballroom dance lesson. This is definitely one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever had.” I tap the message into my phone from the backseat of a paratransit car making its way through L.A. on a pleasantly warm June afternoon. Not expecting an immediate answer, I’m startled by the ding from my phone shortly after I hit send. The reply from my friend Heather feels way too perky for my current mood. “Oh, I’m so excited! Make sure to drink plenty of water. She’s gonna make you sweat.” With a roll of my nonexistent eyes, I drop my phone back into my lap, resigned with the fact that I have friends who refuse to join me in wallowing in my misery. Given Heather’s role in landing me in this predicament, I figure the least she could have done was indulge me and my pessimism.

The events that lead to this day started a couple years earlier. Being a survivor of a type of cancer that has the nasty habit of coming back for seconds (or thirds in my case), I was trained from a very young age to be vigilant for any signs of a relapse. When I’m lucky, I can go upwards of four or five years without one of these extremely stressful situations popping up. But in January of 2021, I began what ultimately became a set of three relapse scares, each lasting for about six months, and each starting within weeks of the previous one. This being the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, I essentially went through eighteen months of my physical contact with other humans almost exclusively consisting of doctors digging their fingers into me to feel the masses growing under my skin. By the end of the whirlwind of doctor visits and scans, I was horrified to discover that touch had become something I dreaded.

Fast forward to May of 2023, and I found myself as my friend Maria’s wedding. Wonderful, sweet Maria, who had been little more than an acquaintance when this latest leg in my cancer journey had started, and yet was among the first who rushed in to put out the flaming wreckage that had become my life. As the jazz quartet at the reception started its first song, it occurred to me that Maria would inevitably come over at some point to try and drag me to the dance floor, just as she had done when we first met at an event that happened to have live music. I knew of her deep passion for dance, and knew the least I could do in return for all the love and support she’d provided through my health struggles would be to embarrass myself for a few minutes to make her happy. I used to avoid dance like the plague to begin with, but now just the thought of being that close to someone made me uneasy. I managed to get out of dancing that night, but I added “learning to dance” to the long list of things to do some day that I keep in the back of my head, in hopes of someday making things right for her.

A week later, I sit at a restaurant waiting for Heather, the two of us planning to share lunch before going to support my students at there upcoming recital. I had not yet explained to any of my friends the depth of my new problems with touch. But as she arrives and comes in for the usual greeting hug, it happens. Before my panic begins to rise, I become hyper-aware of her warmth pressed against me, the familiar scent of her shampoo, and the flare of color from her voice as she greets me. For the first time in years, a hug from a loved one feels blissful. I find myself playing that hug back on a loop in my head as I make my way home after the concert, and an unexpected thing happens. I feel a trickle of anger run through me, which turns into a flood of rage as I spend more time dwelling on that moment. I’m furious at everyone and everything that had put me in such a state that a mere hug from a friend had become something I’d started to shy away from. How many hugs had I missed out on over the previous couple years? And how could I have let myself get to the point where I dreaded such a hug when I knew it might be coming?

Days pass as I continue to stew in my anger. I know I am tired of living like this, but don’t have the faintest clue of how to begin to overcome my problem. Then one evening it occurs to me: I might be able to kill two birds with one stone by learning to dance. I’d have a way to repay Maria for all she had done for me, and I’d be forcing myself into a situation where I’d have to relearn that touch is not a strictly medical thing. Given my current mood, this brute force approach feels like the right thing to do, so I start to do some digging on my computer. A couple hours later I’m pacing around my music studio, one hand balled into a fist at my side, the other tightly gripping my phone as I try to work up the courage to call the number for a ballroom dance studio I’d punched in moments earlier. I continue pacing as I make the call, trying to sound calm and casual so that the cheerful sounding receptionist on the other end of the line isn’t tipped off to how big of a nutcase she’s dealing with. Before I know it, I have an appointment, which I then have to sheepishly reschedule during a subsequent call when I realize I’d been so worked up that I’d taken the first appointment offered, without paying attention to my calendar. And with that, I, who have all the coordination and grace of a sleepwalking elephant, and who is so accident-prone that friends have named incidents of easily-avoidable injury after me, am now signed up to try ballroom dance.

Memories of Dance

When I arrive, I’m greeted by one of the instructors who is free to help me fill out some paperwork before I start. I do my best to answer her questions and keep up with her small talk while I try to clamp down on the anxiety I feel building inside of me. Before I know it, another woman joins us, and introduces herself as Zana, my instructor. She asks about my dance experience, and my anxiety is temporarily eased when I can’t help but smile at the memory of the events leading up to my senior prom.

I was a teenager when the reality of my situation as a cancer survivor hit home for me, when I was old enough to truly understand the significance of a recent relapse scare. I’d found refuge among an adolescent survivor support group, and my circle of close friends quickly became both overwhelmingly made up of fellow survivors, and overwhelmingly female given it was the girls who tended to consistently showed up meeting after meeting to talk about feelings. As a blind student, my high school experience was less than ideal, to say the least. So when I was given the choice between going to my high school’s prom or going to a special prom for teen survivors with all my beloved support group friends, my decision was easy. And when all the nagging by my friends to find a date paid off, these ladies were ecstatic at the chance to prepare their little pet dork for his first real date.

The “teach him to dance” part of the prom preparation plan was sprung on me on a rather chilly April evening in the mountains near Santa Barbara, where our support group was taken each year for our annual glamping retreat. One night of the retreat was always dedicated to a dance for the kids, and that year’s sponsor had gone all out, setting up a wonderful party for us in a field near the resort. I was huddled under a canopy, keeping warm with the cup of hot chocolate in my hands, having just escaped my friend Sophie’s latest attempt at her favorite tradition. After learning of my aversion to dance, she would take it upon herself to round up as many girls as she could to physically drag me out onto the dance floor at any group event where one was present. After a few minutes of peace, I was startled when my friend Kate appeared next to me, grabbed my arm and said, “Let’s go.”

After asking what she was up to, she informed me, “You need to know how to slow dance for your date at prom, so we’re going to teach you.” My protests were cut off by her scolding me with the words that’d become the official catchphrase for my pack of makeshift fairy godmothers leading up to prom night. “Stop being difficult. Come on!”

I weighed my options for a moment, and figured I’d have better odds of escaping from Kate alone, instead of facing the wrath of Sophie and her army again. Smelling trouble, the group facilitator intercepted us on the way to the dance floor and asked what was going on.

“we’re teaching Hector how to dance to get him ready for prom!” Kate explained.

Any hope I had of being rescued was shattered by the next words out of the facilitator’s mouth. “Oh! Can I help?”

The fact that there were now medical professionals getting involved in my impromptu dance lesson didn’t seem like a good omen. And yes, that’s professionals, plural. As word got around of what these girls were up to, we were joined by two of the assistant facilitators and the on-site nurse who also wanted in on the action as the night progressed.

The Lesson

Back in the present, we’re out on the studio’s floor and Zana is standing before me, explaining the basic waltz box step. She takes my hands in hers, and I find myself marveling at how warm her skin is. My mind flashes back to the last time I held another person’s hand: a nurse holding her fingers out to me for a grip strength test as I sat in a hospital bed, shivering from a mix of a too-cold room and terror. Those hands had been gloved, cold, impersonal. A stark contrast to those I was holding now.

I’m temporarily distracted by my effort to follow her instructions, but I’m snapped back to thinking of my reason for the lesson when Zana begins to explain what frame is, and how we’ll be holding each other. Now is a good time to share that reason with her. Because a good chemo brain thinks twice before speaking once, I race through the explanation I’d prepared in my head before I share with her why exactly I’m here. But before I can say a word, she is drawing our bodies closer together, placing my right hand at her side, and her left hand at my shoulder. I’m immediately alarmed when I realize her fingers are resting mere inches away from the area where the majority of the masses had been found during the recent relapse scares. I try not to think of how much that spot had been poked and prodded, but I know what comes next. I wait for the acidic bubbles of panic to rise up from my stomach to get lodged in my chest. I wait for my skin to start crawling.

But we start moving, and none of that comes. I’m surprised, but I immediately prepare myself should the usual reaction only be delayed. I fight to keep myself grounded in the moment. I start identifying anything I can that distinguishes the present moment from the sort of touch I have become accustomed to. Colorful music splashes across the ceiling over our heads, nothing like the monotonous droning of a hospital. I take deep breaths, inhaling a subtle scent of shampoo or lotion coming off of Zana. Nothing like the sickening antiseptic smell of a medical facility that can make me gag at the slightest whiff of it. And most importantly, though Zana is touching me, I’m touching her. I’m acutely aware of where she is and how she is moving, and I know there will be no surprises. Nothing like those terrifying moments when my senses are working at max capacity as I desperately try to gauge what’s happening around me as nurses, doctors, and techs do their thing, because I know I can’t trust them to always warn me of what comes next.

As I begin to get the hang of the step, Zana praises me and goes on to explain what a turn is. As she raises our linked hands to begin her rotation under our arms, I hear an echo of a memory from the first adolescent survivor retreat dance I ever attended. “And now we get fancy!” Sophie had cried over the pounding of the music as she raised our hands in that same motion. It’s a voice I haven’t heard since Sophie’s death over five years ago, and I prepare for the lead ball of grief to settle in my stomach with that reminder. But instead I feel a bittersweet smile tugging at my lips as I picture the “I told you so” smugness that would be radiating off of my dear friend had she known the thought that flashed through my mind as I gained my footing: I think I actually like this!

After a while, Zana begins to guide us as we rotate in place. Then we begin dancing our way around the perimeter of the room. I can sense the corners of the small room whirling past us, and I’m giddy with the realization that I’m more nervous about letting a stranger guide me around a room I can’t see than I am about that stranger touching me. As the lesson goes on, words that previously had vague meanings become concrete ideas in my head as I learn what each dance looks like, and I’m mesmerized. Waltz. Tango. Foxtrot. Rumba. And before I know it, the lesson is over.


As I say my goodbyes and settle into the backseat of the paratransit car for the ride home, a million thoughts race through my head. The last eight years had been nothing but a flood of personal tragedies, culminating with the death of my “cancer dog.” My constant companion who came into my life just weeks before the one and only time my cancer actually returned, and who stuck around to give me love and comfort for over eighteen years. By the time I hit rock bottom, I felt like a shell who was merely going through the motions of living. Things had slowly started to improve as some wonderful opportunities came my way through sheer dumb luck, but this was the first time in years that I’ve taken a chance on something, and I’m coming away from it with the feeling of sweet success. I’m emotionally exhausted after the lesson, but beneath that there’s a subtle sense of strength that I could already feel growing. It feels like I’m waking up.

Then I wonder why I waited so long to try this? I think of all the wasted opportunities; all the times I’d turned my friends down when they asked me to dance with them at support group events over the years. Had that all been worth it? At some of the larger events, there was often press in attendance. We’d be the inspirational story splashed across the news the next day, the resilient teens battling for their lives who were celebrating a rare moment of normalcy. As a person with a visible disability, I knew I was a prime target for “inspirational” material. Even today, I still despise being someone’s feel-good material, if that sense of inspiration is coming from the wrong reasons. If I already felt awkward dancing, the thought of that awkwardness being broadcast to the world was enough to keep me firmly planted away from the dance floor. But still, there were plenty situations where I knew no one but my friends were watching, and I had still said no. So many of those friends are dead now, having lost their battles with their own diagnoses. I had never allowed them the pleasure of finally getting to drag me onto the dance floor, and now I never will. I give a heartfelt apology in my head to those who did not live to hear of this day, and make a promise that I will do my best to make it right.

My thoughts stay with my friends, until it feels like a bucket of water has been dumped on my head with a sudden realization. One of the most difficult parts of living through the previous years had been the development of survivor’s guilt. Having already lost several friends by the time I graduated from high school, the stereotypical teenage invincibility had been thoroughly beat out of me. I knew firsthand just how fragile life could be, and the thought that cancer could come back for me at any time had been my guide through life from that point onward. I lived my life with the simple question of “if my cancer were to return, would I be happy knowing I’ve done everything I wanted to?” That philosophy had led me through college pursuing my passion in music despite the warnings that it was an “unemployable field”, and had landed me on a career path that I was happy with. But Various things had shaken me from that perspective, and as my life started to fall apart, I felt guilty for not taking the chances that my friends would never get a chance to take. For not seeking the experiences they would never get to experience. I had forgotten the lesson my friends had taught me: live like your life could end tomorrow. But had I never realized that there was an equally important second part to that lesson?

As the car makes its journey back through Los Angeles, I’m visited by one last ghost of a memory. It was prom night. My date and I had made our way onto the dance floor as they DJ announced the last song of the night. Without either of us saying anything, our movements had slowed to little more than swaying. I felt her pause for a moment, then she held me out at arm’s length. In a voice colored with a smile as bright as the sun, she murmurs just loud enough for it to carry between us, “I’m so happy for us.” We were two teenagers about to jump headfirst into the rest of our lives. I was set to start at my dream college in the fall, and she was preparing to go on a six-month international mission trip of her dreams. Then she drew me in for a tight hug that we held as the last moments of the song washed over us.

I have broken the promise I made in memory of my friends. I have started to take life for granted, and I am not going after all the experiences my friends never got to live. I had taken my plunge into the rest of my life and failed spectacularly. But I’m still alive, and now it is clear that I had missed the second half of the lesson from my friends. I have the privilege of climbing up to take another leap, and now I am determined to make this one count.

I have to suppress a laugh as I get an image in my head of me unknowingly dancing off a cliff during my first ballroom lesson. I am, after all, very accident-prone. But now I’m fully awake, and the water is in sight. My second plunge into the vast ocean that is life has begun. And my message to the moment is clear: Dear life. Here I come. You better be ready for me this time!

A Word of Thanks

I firmly believe it takes a village to create an environment that can inspire and encourage the kind of growth I’ve experienced in the months since my first dance lesson. I wish to thank Zana and all the wonderful instructors and students at JT Ballroom Dance Studio for all their help and guidance as I work toward both restoring my old self and gain some much needed newfound confidence. I consider myself unbelievably lucky to have struck gold on my first attempt at learning dance, and I’m delighted to embrace a dance-filled future with such a welcoming and supportive crowd!

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