Ballet was spiritual exercise and a form of prayer that steadied her.
- Posted on Jul 30, 2018
Saturday night in the emergency room. I lay in a curtained cubicle on a gurney, gasping for breath, my whole body trembling, my heart racing so frantically I thought it was about to give out. Why wasn’t anyone helping me? I’d been here almost five hours already. The nurse had told me they were waiting for test results. Wasn’t it obvious? I was having a heart attack.
Please, Lord, don’t let me die, I begged. I have to take care of Bruce. He needs me.
I tried to block out the smell of disinfectant. The incessant beeping of monitors. The squawking of the PA system, paging doctors for everyone but me. I looked at my husband, sitting beside me. Bruce was so sick, so weak, from lung cancer and chemo. He shouldn’t even be here in the ER with me, exposed to germs. As if he could sense my fear, he squeezed my hand.
A doctor poked his head into the cubicle. Finally! He came in and stood next to me, drawing the curtain.
“I have good news,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with your heart. You’re having a panic attack.” He glanced at my chart. “Not surprising, given the stress you’ve been under.”
But how was that going to change? My life wasn’t getting any easier. “What can I do?” I said. “My husband needs me.”
“I understand,” the doctor said. He scrawled out a prescription and ripped it from his pad. “Here’s some medication you can take for anxiety. But really, you can’t help your husband if you don’t take care of yourself. That means getting enough sleep.” He studied my gaunt frame. “And proper nutrition. Most of all, you need to exercise.”
Like jogging? Lifting weights? No way. I used to go to the gym. In fact, I used to be a dancer. But now? I was worn out. I could barely make it up a flight of stairs. Slowly I shook my head.
“I’m serious,” the doctor said. “Exercise will help manage the stress. Don’t put this off.”
I took the scrip and eased myself off the gurney. There had to be some other solution. I couldn’t fit exercise into my life. Caring for Bruce took all my time and energy. He was all I thought about. All I prayed about. But the sicker Bruce got, the farther God seemed.
The month before, Bruce had finished his latest round of chemo. Soon he would begin radiation. He’d been so positive, so strong through it all, but the cancer and the treatments had taken their toll. On both of us. On good days we took walks or drove to the beach and watched the waves roll in. But mostly we sat together in the living room and watched TV. I gave him his medicine, so many different pills and dosages I’d had to make a chart to keep them straight. I constantly worried I’d mix them up. I’d stopped bothering to do my makeup or my hair or change out of my sweats. I had no appetite. I couldn’t sleep. At night I lay awake and listened for Bruce’s breathing, terrified that he wouldn’t make it till morning.
Now I took Bruce’s arm and we shuffled to the car. I felt such a heaviness pressing down on me that I could hardly urge my legs forward.
“You used to like the gym,” Bruce said. “There’s no reason you couldn’t go back. I’d be okay on my own for a couple of hours.”
“Honestly, just the idea is exhausting,” I said. “I’ll be fine. I don’t want you worrying about me.”
Sunday morning Bruce was still tired from my ER scare. I tucked him back in bed after breakfast. I didn’t want to go to church. But something made me take a shower, put on nice clothes and drive over there.
I collapsed into a seat in the back row. When the music started, I tried to sing, but the words wouldn’t come. Overwhelmed, I bowed my head. Lord, where are you? I feel so alone. It’s as if I can’t find you anymore.
“Up! Up! Everyone on your feet,” one of the music directors called from the stage, waving her arms. How could I stand when I could barely keep my head up? Even with the medication the doctor had prescribed I hadn’t slept.
The keyboard player leaped up. “Dance before the Lord!” he shouted.
Dance as worship? I’d never heard that before, and I’d had years of dance training. My dream as a girl had been to become a ballerina. I’d been good but not good enough, and I’d quit ballet, crushed. I thought I’d left dance behind long ago, but the words pierced my soul.
Dance before the Lord.
Slowly, as if I were being pulled up, I rose. I swayed to the music. My arms lifted, my feet moving to the beat. My body was infused with an energy I hadn’t had in months. My heart was pounding, not from anxiety but from exhilaration! Dance is exercise. Maybe I can try that.
Back home I got on the computer and searched for a dance studio. There was one nearby, offering adult ballet classes on Wednesdays.
That Wednesday afternoon I set Bruce’s pills out in the order he needed to take them in. Made sure he was comfortable. Put the TV remote on the end table near him. “I’m fine,” he said, giving me a big, reassuring smile. “Have fun at ballet.”
The studio was in a run-down industrial area, but inside it was spacious, filled with light. The polished floor shone. Mirrors lined one long wall, just like at my old ballet academy. The instructor said hello and asked me to take a place at the barre for warm-ups.
She lifted her leg slightly, her foot arched, toe pointed. I followed her lead. Our arms swept overhead, then fanned out, palms up. It felt relaxing, familiar. I can do this, I thought.
We stepped away from the barre and moved to floor work. Pirouettes. I did one shakily, then attempted a second and nearly toppled over. The instructor hurried to my side. “Sorry…my balance and timing are totally off,” I gasped. “I never should have tried this.”
“No, don’t give up.” She put her arm around me. “Maybe our praise class would be better.”
“It’s a kind of interpretive dance. Soft movement but full of emotion. A lot of churches are using it as part of their services,” she said. “We call it dancing for the Lord.”
It was the same thing I’d heard at church. Only now the phrase sounded like a personal invitation.
From the first lesson the simple movements and soothing music touched something deep inside me. I left each class more relaxed. Stronger. And not just physically. My life no longer felt unmanageable. I could sleep through the night. I still worried about Bruce but it didn’t consume me. I was better able to care for him. Maybe dance, for me, was spiritual exercise too. Not only praise but also a form of prayer that steadied me.
One day after class I twirled across the tiled floor of our family room to show Bruce what I was learning. “Hon, that’s beautiful,” he said, a proud smile spreading across his face. “You should dance at church.”
I stopped mid-step. Dance in praise and celebration in front of the whole congregation? It seemed absurd, wrong somehow, with everything Bruce and I were going through. What would people think?
“I’m not sure I’m ready for that,” I said.
Bruce didn’t say anything more, but once he’d given me the idea, it wouldn’t leave me, like some song I couldn’t get out of my head.
One Sunday I asked the music directors what they thought. “When could you do it?” was all they wanted to know.
A month later, on a warm spring morning, I stood alone before the entire church, arms at my sides, head bowed. Soft music filled the sanctuary. I looked up, toward heaven, and spun across the stage, the white chiffon of my dress swirling around my feet.
“Come to the Father…” were the words of the song. I raised my arms, held them aloft, gracefully stretched them upward, reaching out.
I felt a warmth encircle me as if in response. When I could not find the Lord, he had found me. I wasn’t dancing alone.
This story first appeared in the July 2013 issue of Guideposts magazine.