Guest Blog: Dancing to my own rhythm by Anna Viney
Footloose. Jump Around. Livin’ on a Prayer. Not just classic old school tracks, but songs guaranteed to get me on the dancefloor.
I wasn’t much of a dancer growing up, I was much too shy and far too anxious. My mum stopped me going to classes when I was around eight because I just sobbed my heart out before going in.
Now, aged 31, dance means the absolute world to me, whether that's performing for an audience or just throwing some shapes to Kenny Loggins at a party.
I was raised as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons as they are more widely known. I was born into the church which means I was in the religion from the day I was born.
The church has a lot of rules to follow and I was never happy or comfortable within it. However, being raised in the religion, their beliefs were taught to me as fact which made for some rather torturous teenage years wondering why I couldn’t just fit in and made any thought of leaving almost impossible to contemplate. The idea was confusing and terrifying.
Growing up in Mormonism was like living in a bubble and it made the outside world feel pretty unfamiliar and threatening. Church rules meant I didn’t drink or smoke, I adhered to a modest dress code, I didn’t swear, drink tea or coffee, there was no sex before marriage or dating until you were 16 and almost all of my social interactions were with other church members at church functions.
We were told we should not go where the spirit could not reside which ruled out pubs and clubs and other places my peers who weren't Mormon would frequent, and this meant that although I had and still have some wonderful friends outside of church I could never fully immerse myself in those friendships because I couldn’t join in with what they were doing.
The culture created within Mormonism is very much geared, whether intentionally or not, to keep you within the church.
So when I made the clear decision to leave at 23, I felt incredibly free and yet completely adrift in a new environment that I was now allowed to embrace but was really scared to do so. Although I had left the church, the teachings and the consequences of not following them still rang loudly in my mind.
I spent a year really questioning whether I wanted to remain a Mormon because I knew if I left I wanted to make a clean cut with as little doubt as possible. At that time I was living abroad and me and a couple of friends had planned to try a BodyPump class. We ended up running so late we switched plans last minute and went to a local dance studio for a swing dancing class instead.
I'd never done anything like it before, but I'd always loved the music and the era and we had a really great night. I had no idea at the time just how much that decision would impact my life and support me in my journey out of church, a journey which lasted much longer than I imagined it would.
I continued to go to classes and when I eventually left the church I started to train as a dance teacher and got a job there full-time. I learned so many different styles-Tango, Swing, Blues, Foxtrot, Salsa to name just a few- I couldn’t soak it in fast enough.
I had left most, if not all, of my social network behind at church, not because people shunned me for my choice to exit, but because once you stop going to church activities and choose to live a different lifestyle you naturally drift apart. I was in a country that was not my home, but instead of feeling alone I found myself surrounded by the warmest and most open community I had ever been a part of.
They didn’t care what I believed, they didn’t judge me for how I dressed or chose to live, they welcomed everyone with open arms and I did the same for them. It was an incredibly special place and it quickly became my second home, more than my second home in fact because I definitely spent way more time there than I did in my house.
In church there were specific rules around dancing which mostly amounted to not dancing too close (leave room for the Book of Mormon) and not dancing provocatively. I knew people that had been separated on the dancefloor because they were in too close proximity or dancing in a way that was deemed inappropriate. Even after we reached 18 our dances were still chaperoned, though perhaps a little more loosely.
The church also had a dress code which tended to impact women far more than men, I certainly felt that what I wore was more heavily policed than the boys. The dress code was meant to ensure that we remained modest and this translated to nothing above the knee, nothing low cut and nothing that showed off my shoulders so sleeveless was out of the question despite the boys being allowed to walk around topless on hot days.
My body felt like a separate entity to me, something I was more keenly aware of once I left my religion.
Watching others dance and learning how to myself encouraged me to focus directly on my physical self. I learned it was ok to be sexy or provocative if I wanted to be, in fact I could express whatever emotion I wanted to through dance and it wasn’t wrong or dangerous, it was beautiful.
I got to know every single part of my body intimately, how it moved, how it worked, how it responded to others and as I embraced it I felt my mental health and my confidence soar. At that time I struggled to talk about what I was going through because I didn’t have the emotional intelligence to recognise how I was feeling, but with dance it didn’t matter because I didn’t need words. I found a way to express my emotions physically until a time came when I was able to process them emotionally and verbally. Each different style brought out a different piece of my personality and with every step I learned a little bit more about who I was.
Being a part of that dance community taught me the value of pushing outside of my comfort zone. I was surrounded by examples of strong and wonderful women who knew themselves deeply and I learnt that being a woman could mean whatever I wanted it to mean, which was a new concept for me.
I created long-lasting friendships that were vital to helping me and that endure to this day even though I find myself halfway across the world from them.
I do a lot less dancing now (unless you count in my kitchen) and though it sometimes makes me sad, knowing it is there for me to come back to wherever I am living or whatever I am doing brings me comfort. And that in itself taught me an important lesson - sometimes you find things just as you need them and that doesn’t mean you will need them forever, it is ok to move on, to branch out and explore other facets of who you are, because life is fluid and sometimes letting go is part of the process.
As a Mormon, my body wasn’t mine, it belonged to my religion. Rules created by men told me what I was allowed to do with my body and that disconnected me from it. Dance reunited us and in that reunion, I found something unexpected and unfamiliar - joy.
For over twenty years I was taught to trust in God, to believe that the meaning of life will be revealed to us in the fullness of time, but sitting here divorced from that, just as Anna who has no idea what she believes and isn’t that an exciting freedom to have, I know the meaning of my own life. Help others where I can, try to do no harm, be open and most importantly be happy.
I am not sure I would know that or be here, right where I am supposed to be, if I hadn’t walked into that swing class.
I found my tribe, I found my joy and I found myself.