BY KATIE HARRISON; PHOTOS BY GARY FLASHNER
It’s incredible to look back at the past three years and see how much ballroom dancing has changed me. It didn’t take long for ballroom to take over my life. If you would have told me in 2011 that I would spend thousands of dollars a year to get dressed up in a sparkly pink dress and be covered in an absurd amount of makeup and hairspray in order to compete in ballroom dance, I would have laughed. If you would have told me at the end of 2012, less than a year after starting ballroom dance lessons, that I would be on a stage performing my very first showcase routine, I would have scoffed and said, “Yeah, right!” But I also would have secretly hoped you were telling the truth.
Ever since I gave up dancing as a child after my family moved across country and I was too scared to start at a new studio, I yearned to get back to dance. I loved musicals and watching great stars like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire dance across a floor with their leading ladies. I wanted to be one of those ladies.
But as an adolescent, fear always won out and kept me from saying anything to my parents or looking into dance classes. By the time I was in college, I assumed it was too late to start pursuing something like ballet. All of the great dancers danced before they could walk, right? I couldn’t do crazy things like a split or hold my leg over my head. I wasn’t a “dancer.” But the desire to dance wouldn’t go away.
Then came ballroom. I was 29 years old on my first private lesson, and one of the youngest students in the studio! The majority were in their 40s or 50s, some even past 70. And we were all dancers. Ballroom was how I was going to make up for giving up on my dancing dreams all those years ago.
My dancing has focused on the American styles of ballroom: rhythm and smooth. I danced with my first teacher for about eight months and started off learning the American rhythm style, which consists of cha cha, rumba, east coast swing, bolero and mambo. Once I switched to my current teacher, we focused on the smooth dances: waltz, tango, foxtrot and Viennese waltz.
As fun as ballroom dancing is, it has made a very serious impact on my life. Deeply buried fears and doubts were brought to the surface. Fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, self-doubt, self-criticism, anxiety and lack of self-confidence – all of these demons came out to play. I thought I was just learning to dance, but I ended up also needing to learn to be vulnerable, to trust and to let go of the control once in a while.
Ballroom is unique in the dance world because it is one of only a few dance forms always danced with a partner. There may be some steps that are danced separately, but you always come back to your partner. There is a great amount of trust involved in a ballroom partnership. The physical contact alone can be unnerving, especially when it’s full-body contact like in the smooth dances, but it is necessary to be able to dance with your partner successfully. I still struggle with the trust factor. I don’t like to depend on others, but I have to in ballroom.
In April 2014, I entered my first pro-am competition, in which students dance with their teachers and compete against other student-teacher couples. It took my ballroom journey to a whole new level. I was paying to be judged. It was an unusual move for someone constantly struggling with the idea that she was “good enough.” But I wanted to push myself. I wasn’t going to let fear and doubt control my decisions anymore. I’ve entered three other competitions since and, to my surprise, my teacher and I have been quite successful, winning first place in the majority of events we have entered. Still, the demons harass me. They haven’t stopped me yet though.
Ballroom dancing has turned into an incredible journey of self-discovery. I have learned more about myself in the last three years than in the previous decade. As a result of my demons being brought to the surface, I have been able to face them and grow stronger and more confident. I walk taller now, even measuring an inch taller at my doctor’s office!
I encourage everyone to try ballroom dancing because anyone can do it! You don’t need to be flexible or strong or young to start; you just need to have the courage to try something new. And a bag of money. I won’t lie; ballroom can get very expensive very quickly! If you decide to dive in any deeper than simply learning a few steps to dance at weddings, the costs add up. I started calling myself “ballroom poor” when I realized I wouldn’t need to watch my budget so carefully if I wasn’t feeding my ballroom addiction. But I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I am so grateful to have found this amazing art/sport and for the chances it has given me to discover who I really am and what I am capable of. I can’t wait to see where it leads me next.
Katie Harrison is known as the Girl with the Tree Tattoo because of the tree of life tattoo that covers her entire back. She has been taking ballroom dancing lessons since December 2012 and competing in pro-am ballroom competitions since April 2014. Katie started her blog, the Girl with the Tree Tattoo, as a way to share her experiences as an amateur ballroom dancer and connect with other dancers and people in general who are pursuing a passion.