50: The Dance

50: The Dance

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

The Dance

Dancing with the feet is one thing, but dancing with the heart is another.

~Author Unknown

Yellow light from the windows of the ballroom on the second floor of the Lenox Community Center pierced the cold darkness. I hurried down the street toward the sounds of the music from the contra dance band playing inside. I felt a sense of anticipation and joy for the dance and then the familiar, sinking question gnawed at my heart—would I be able to do it?

Contra dancing had long been my passion. It is a type of New England folk dance set to lively Anglo-Celtic music played by a live band. It provides a positive social environment, wonderful exercise, and an evening’s entertainment all rolled up in one. The dance is arranged in long lines of paired couples, each progressing to dance with another couple as the figure is completed. By the time each specific dance is over, one will have danced with many smiling people. At the end, you thank your current partner and find another partner for the next dance! A “caller” announces the moves. The caller teaches the dance and then gives cues during the first segments of the particular dance. But soon folks realize they are dancing without the caller’s voice, responding as one to the joyful beat of the music. For me, a night of contra dance was a perfect evening.

Until I sustained a traumatic brain injury, that is. My life changed in an instant, the instant that my head came in contact with a metal doorjamb. It was simple enough: I was going to a meeting with colleagues and the pavement in front of the door was uneven. Life as I knew it was over.

For a few years after my TBI, contra dancing was not even in my awareness. It seemed that I had forgotten the joy of dance. I was more focused on relearning the basic activities of daily living. At first, I was simply determined to get back to my beloved profession of nursing. I had no ability to self-observe and see what was obvious to the people who really knew me. I was a different person. I was lucky enough to look the same and could fool most people who didn’t really know me. In fact, I could even fool myself. It took several years to get to the point of beginning to understand what happened to my brain on that November day.

About two years after my TBI, I found myself back at the contra dance. I sat and watched the dancers. The music was too loud and the movement made me dizzy. There was too much going on there, too much stimulation. My brain was not able to process all that was happening around me. Unable to tolerate it, I sadly went home. Many months later, I went again, and this time I tried to dance. For a gal who was used to dancing every dance, one dance was enough, but it was a start. I was beginning to find my dancing feet again.

The more I learned about the journey of recovery from TBI, the better able I was to come up with some strategies. A rested brain is essential. I had to take a nap before going to the dance. It was not necessary to dance every dance; pacing was important. Keeping well hydrated was also critical. Taking a break from the stimulation by going outside into the quiet darkness and letting my brain “reboot” was helpful. Most importantly, recognizing when I was “finished” and going home was not a failure, it was another success in embracing my “new normal.”

That Saturday evening, I decided to take a break and sat out a dance. I watched the dancers in the lines before me, and found my attention drawn to a slender woman with short salt and pepper hair. She had a different way of dancing. Her moves were very angular and brisk and her face showed great concentration on what she was doing. What she lacked in agility and grace, she made up for in determination and spirit. If she stumbled, she got back into the line and kept dancing. It was obvious to me that she was an experienced dancer, despite her challenges.

I found my way to her at the intermission and introduced myself. “I am so moved by your love of dance and your courage,” I said. She introduced herself as Jenn. We spoke for a few minutes. Then, I listened with fascination as she shared her own TBI story.

“When I was a high school senior, I suffered a traumatic brain injury. My first memory after my accident was waking up two months later in a hospital bed in Woburn, Massachusetts. I was apparently in a rehabilitation hospital teaching my body how to live again.

“I loved to contra dance, but at that point, I could hardly stand, let alone dance. After about four months, my dad took me to a monthly contra dance to watch. I sat on the stage with the band and followed the dancers with my eyes. After a year, I was sort of waltzing again. After about two years, I went to a small contra dance in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. I knew everyone there: the caller, the musicians and most of the dancers. Toward the end of the evening, the caller called ‘Money Musk.’ The musicians played the tune slowly, and the dancers helped me dance my first contra dance since the accident. That moment filled me with such joy and sense of accomplishment that from then on you couldn’t stop my dancing!

“My dancing ability now depends on many factors: how tired I am, how fast the music is, what the dance is, and who is in the contra line. The dancers who know me know how to dance with me, but a lot of the new dancers aren’t quite sure what to do when they reach me in line. I, however, just kind of bull my way through and eventually I’ll reach someone who knows me and I can ‘regroup’ and dance on!”

• • •

That night, I found a new teacher, a new guide in my recovery from TBI. I learned how important it is to rediscover those things, like music and dance, which are truly meaningful in life, those things that feed the soul. I learned that I needed to trust those around me: professionals, family and friends alike, my “dancers in the line” to provide the structure and feedback needed to refine the new me. I learned the importance of finding strategies to allow for my challenges and provide the possibility of success in trying different activities after TBI. I learned that taking a well-considered leap of faith is important, that I do not want to have fear of failure define me on this journey. I learned that life is seldom all or nothing . . . that I do not have to dance every dance . . . that joy is not dependent upon perfection. And I learned that I can indeed do it, not perhaps in the way that I had done it before, but I can do it!

On a cold Saturday night, in a little New England town, two women met by chance at a contra dance. They shared their experience, courage and hope, by both words and example. On this journey of recovery from traumatic brain injury, it is a wonderful thing to “dance like no one is watching.” In fact, it is true of life in general. Dare to find your joy . . . and keep dancing, no matter what your dance might be!

~Helen Reid Stewart

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