Dance Can Teach Us the Power of Presence

Photo by Katho Mutodo on

When I first came to dance, even as a little girl taking some ballet classes, I didn’t know that I was so in my head.

I was thinking a lot- about where this foot went, and what angle to bend that arm, and where to place my body in relation to another fellow dancer beside me.

No wonder I gave up ballet somewhere around 10 years old.

As an adult, I was so excited to find partner dance. Salsa was the place I started first. I thought, this is it! I will finally be able to learn to move as elegantly and fluidly, and with the charisma of the dancers I was admiring for most of my life. Those beautiful dancers on stages and even on social dance floors. I couldn’t wait to learn how to ‘be like’ them.

So I took classes, and more classes. Really working out the steps in my head, and figuring out the timing and even the styling like it was mathematics. Though I was ‘learning to dance’, so to speak, my dancing felt and looked so robotic compared to the dancers next to me. I couldn’t understand how we all started in beginner classes at the same time, and I felt like I was putting more time into extra lessons. But my fellow students next to me very quickly became more flowing and free and fun on the dance floor, while I felt clumsy and stiff and like I had turned dancing into a science.

Well, I had. Because I had put it all in my head, as if I could work it all out with my mind. And one day, a partner I was dancing with said, “What are you thinking about?” right in the middle of our dance.

What? I wasn’t thinking about anything, I tried to convince both of us. But right then, I realized he was right. How did he know?

As if reading my mind, he said, “I can feel it. I can hear it.” For a second, I feared he could literally hear the specifics of my thoughts. But then I relaxed a little when I realized he meant that he could just hear THAT I was thinking, not the actual details. Phewff.

But why was I thinking? Wait, aren’t we always thinking? Because his pointing out that he could feel it in me, made me recognize that yes, my mind is often racing with thoughts about yesterday and last year, and also those things I need to do tomorrow, and next week. And this dancing thing was so new to me- so, of course I am thinking- about the tips that my instructors had given me- where to put my weight, how light or how much connection to give, where to look, and which direction my hips should be in comparison to my upper body. How could I not?

Through dance, I learned that you can’t do both at the same time. I mean, you can’t think about the past and future, while also being present. And without presence, I was missing out a lot of what I needed to improve my dancing, to really dance. And to really live!

Dance became one of the best places for me to learn this because dance doesn’t give you enough time to think. You can’t really do it without presence, unless you want it to look messy or hesitant, held back and disconnected. I didn’t know how disconnected I looked or was until I started dancing. And then I realized THAT was the real problem.

You could know all the steps, and have learned a million moves, but you still will look… like you’re somewhere else. Because I was! I was in the past or future, or worried about what my partner would think or do next. None of that was honouring the moment, none of it was feeling what was actually happening in front of me.

My body might have been in front of my partner, in a dance studio or on a social dance floor, but my mind was somewhere else- worrying about the past, or feeling anxious about the future, trying to guess what will come next, and missing out on the here and now.

It started to hit me that THAT’S what the dancers I admired had. Sure, they took care of their bodies, and were fit and fast and practised a lot. But that ;je ne sais quoi; that they had, that I couldn’t figure out at first- it was PRESENCE. And I don’t mean the kind that says look at me, I’m here! I don’t mean the kind that just takes up a lot of space and makes themselves known. But the kind that says I am in this moment- all of me- my mind, body and spirit. And I feel it, and I can’t help but to share it with you.

That’s the power of presence. It doesn’t have to try. It doesn’t have to think. It actually can’t think. It can’t stress or worry or anticipate. Real dancing, the connected, aligned kind, doesn’t give you time for it. It just IS.

Once this realization became more fully known to me, me and presence became inseparable. And the beautifful thing was that when we weren’t, when we had moments of separation, I was aware of it. And I could find my way back to it through some key practices I had learned through dance:

Breath. Just to breathe. Take in a few deep breaths. And remind myself that I am here- in my body. And we need to work together to feel the here. To be here now.To acknowledge and appreciate it.

Use my senses- look at what is around me exactly in that moment. What do I see? What can I feel? What do I hear or smell or taste or touch? Sometimes, it was just the sound of an air conditioner. But that was enough to bring me back to presence. Sometimes, it was my partner’s heartbeat or my own. Sometimes, it was the feel of my hand in his, or his embrace along my back. And sometimes, it was just me and my feet, my shoes, being held by the dance floor. That was enough to bring me back to presence. To remind me to take in what was happening now. It didn’t take much. It doesn’t take much. But the result always would astound me.

With more presence, I was able to respond to the slightest touch or initiation from the lead, without hesitation. I would use my arm styling in a way that felt natural and intentional because it came from inside me, instead of being mechanical or planned out too far ahead of time.

I would smile, and feel alive, and catch someone watching on the sidelines, smiling at me, as if I had now become the one who could give off that energy that I had been admiring in others. It wasn’t about me or them. There was no separation. It wasn’t about my mind or my body. They were there together. Fully aligned. And that felt amazing.

Presence became everything. It is everything. I just didn’t know how to feel it or access it or get in touch with it until dance brought me to it, until dance helped me find it.

With presence, there is less worry, and more trust, not just on the dance floor but in life. I can move through the world with awe at the universe. Everything around me feels alive and fresh and is different everytime I pass it. Nothing gets taken for granted, and I can even pick up on the signs from the universe that let me know I am exactly where I am meant to be, signs I would have missed out on when I was out of presence.

I don’t know how I lived any other way. But when I do find myself going away from presence- due to fear, or stress or doubt or even daily news, the muscle memory that dance has taught me kicks in a lot quicker. The reminder to just be. To feel the cool breeze blowing through my balcony doors, to hear the barking of a dog in the distance, to see my finger tips dancing across the keyboard, and to feel my chest rise and fall in gratitude at the being here now.

2 thoughts on “Dance Can Teach Us the Power of Presence

  1. I can totally relate to this feeling—of being so engrossed in your craft that you forget about the endless worries you typically carry around in your head. It’s a privilege to find the things that work for us. Loved this post. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you for your comment. I am now following your site too. I love how writing can connect us this way. And I am really enjoying your posts as well. Keep writing, and… pantsing. Haha! 😉 I have left a comment on your site.

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