Letting go of control and being present in my physical body does not come easily to me. So it was a surprise when I got completely, totally addicted to salsa dancing during law school. A dozen years ago, I was with friends at a restaurant in Iowa City on a Saturday night. The small dance floor at the opposite end of the room started to fill up with people as the Latin music cast a spell. I couldn’t bear to sit. I watched from the edge of the dance floor with a huge grin on my face. Pretty soon someone pulled me in and patiently showed me steps. I had NO IDEA what I was doing, but I didn’t care! I was hooked.
Throughout that spring and summer, I took every opportunity to learn more. On study breaks, I watched YouTube videos over and over on the computer monitor hogging my desk, practicing the steps and dissecting the turns. I found a free weekly class in the university gym on Sunday nights. I started driving north to a Marion bar on Wednesdays where the DJ taught basics before the floor grew packed with people— all sizes, ages, abilities, backgrounds. On Saturday nights, I went back to the restaurant where it all began. The dancing didn’t start until late, 9 or 10 PM. So I’d study, put on a pretty skirt and high-heeled sandals and smile my face off. I quickly learned that was the ticket to endless partners— a simple way to make myself approachable and broadcast the pure joy I felt.
I started to recognize regulars who attended the same events I did, but we mostly didn’t know each other outside this world. I’ll never forget one guy who was my favorite cha cha partner. I don’t—
“Mom, can you put this on?” My five-year-old hands me a Margaret Tiger stuffy and a too-small doll dress. I do my best.
“Can you find my Barbie’s shoes?” The floor of the toy room is barely visible.
“Play? Hi. Hi. HI!” The toddler waves her figurine at me, increasingly insistent.
I explain—again. I’m trying to write something important to me. Can they please let me be for ten minutes?
“That’s mine! Mom, Violet hit me.”
“Mommy. Show? [Peppa] Pig?
“Do you know where my animals are that I can draw on and wash?” The five-year-old again.
God, I hate that thing. Who thought it was a good idea to create a working miniature bathtub/shower toy that gets filled with murky, marker-y water and splashes everywhere? I know exactly where it is—too high for anyone to reach, but apparently not dark enough to forget.
“I’ll look for it later, OK, Lulu? I don’t want to deal with the mess right now,” I tell her.
“Please? I just need you to get it down. I’ll clean it up.” Uh-huh. Just like the last time. I explain that I want her to learn awareness, to notice that if someone is intent on finishing something, she can be patient for a little bit. “Sure, Mom.”
Great. I take a breath and start writing again. Thirty seconds later. “Excuse me?”
I lose it. This has been non-stop for the last half hour or so. Lately, I have been overworked and underslept and deeply craving creative time. I’ve only been away for a few nights total since becoming a mom in 2011, the last in 2016. I am desperate for a break, even if it’s just this morning. They have a house full of things to entertain themselves. I pay attention. I take care of them. I’m a good mom. (Whatever that means.) This is not a huge ask on my part.
I yell. I shriek. “Fine! I guess I don’t get to do anything I want—EVER. My existence is to serve. I forgot. Let’s go do everything you guys want to do because I don’t matter!”
It was not a proud moment, but I won’t deny it. I rage clean the kitchen, accidentally breaking a plate in the sink. I slam that awful toy on the bar. (To her credit, Lulu did clean it up after.)
I dump mountains of laundry on the living room floor and begin sorting, oddly satisfied to hurl tiny, sparkly, pink clothes in various piles. Tears replace my anger. I notice a patch of sunlight on the carpet and curl into it, crying.
I can feel my old players on the sidelines—Shame, Guilt, Unworthiness, Failure. They’re waiting to join the game, but I won’t let them. I try to see from the viewpoint of my higher self, choosing to stay conscious in the healing exploding through me this morning.
“How can I change this story?” I ask myself. I know I need and want to apologize to my kids—and I will. I wasn’t fair to them. But later. Right now, I need to talk to myself. I find that part of me, drenched in sadness over the sacrifices of motherhood and feeling squeezed, like no part of my existence is for me anymore. “That’s not true,” I tell her. “I see you. I feel you.”
I begin to have an image of my spirit. That part of me who connected with freedom and flow and surrender to joy through salsa dancing is still there. She hasn’t left. I start to realize I haven’t gone backwards at all. I haven’t lost anything.
The me who questions whether she has the right to live FOR HERSELF? Well, she’s always been there, too. But when I was single and carefree (yes, law school is 100% carefree by comparison), that part of me was asleep. I think back on experiences of my family culture and religion growing up, the ways I was programmed to subordinate myself for the good of the whole.
I’m glad I’m awake now.
I acknowledge that I chose my exact life circumstances, right in this moment, as a springboard to witness and heal what’s surfacing. I see my spirit glowing from the center and expanding outward. As my spirit grows and reaches various layers of restrictive shells (illusions, really), I feel the pain of crashing into them. Because of the crash, the original source of the barrier is activated SO THAT I CAN SEE IT AND FEEL IT AND HEAL IT. I am doing the work I wanted to do in this lifetime. I forgive myself, the barrier cracks and I expand again.
I’m still raw, but I can engage now. I help my Lulu make scrambled eggs and butter toast. She gets ready for preschool. I give her a hug and apologize. I tell her it wasn’t her fault. “That’s OK, Mom.” She hugs me back, and I know she believes me. I believe her, too.
My old salsa partners said I was fun to dance with because I was a good follower. I never felt any hierarchy or subordination—the simple fact was someone had to lead. That didn’t lessen my participation or enjoyment. Even when I didn’t know the steps, every part of me thrilled to the movement. Dancing with a good lead helped me bypass my analytical brain and act instinctively, automatically integrating cues like a gentle move of the wrist to indicate a certain turn. If I tried to think it out, fumbles ensued.
Reflecting on all this now, I can see parallels with my parenting journey. I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s a lot of work. There are always new steps to practice and the music keeps changing, but the joy is always available. It flows better when I just let go, never doubting that I am an equal partner in the dance. Sometimes I lead and sometimes I follow, but I always matter. In the dance of motherhood, I exist for myself, too.
P.S. I met my husband that salsa summer of 2007! It played a role in our courtship, and we included a salsa lesson for our guests during our wedding weekend. Of course, there’s about a billion parallels between dancing and marriage, too.