A Dancer in the Woods

BY KATIE FLASHNER, a.k.a. The Girl with the Tree Tattoo

Note: This essay was first published in Stance on Dance’s spring/summer 2022 print issue. To learn more, visit stanceondance.com/print-publication.

As a dancer, I was committing career suicide. Southern California was full of opportunities to train with champion-level dancers in any of the four ballroom styles. I could compete at multiple prestigious events without ever having to get on a plane. I already had one World Champion title under my belt and was determined to dance away with another one.

Then I decided to move to the opposite corner of the country: Maine, a state where there are no ballroom competitions and barely any studios. Even the franchises have avoided setting up shop in the Pine Tree State.

“Why Maine?” people always ask me. The short answer, I tell them, is “more trees and less people.”

Maine field with forest in the background and blue sky with clouds.

Photo by Katie Flashner

Before the pandemic, I was in high gear preparing for the 2020 competitive season. I was training with my dance coach, who was also my partner in the Pro-Am (Professional-Amateur) circuit, in both the American Smooth and American Rhythm styles (a total of nine different dances). I was also training with a new amateur partner to make our debut on the Am-Am (Amateur-Amateur) circuit in the American Smooth style (four dances). All this training took place during evenings and weekends because I worked full-time during the week for an environmental consulting firm.

My daily life was choreographed to the minute as I tried to balance a full-time job, an ambitious dance journey, a weekly blog, and caring for my two shepherd-husky mixes. Some weeks went better than others.

On March 13, 2020, everything changed. An email from the CEO of my company arrived midday and instructed everyone to go home until further notice. Our offices were shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 15, the next competition on my calendar announced they were canceling the event by order of the county health department. The events fell like dominos after that, as the country went into lockdown.

It was over the summer of 2020 when the idea that it was time to move came to me. For several years, my ballroom dance journey had been the only thing keeping me in Orange County. I wasn’t originally from the OC. I had family and friends all over the country. My work could be done from anywhere. I stayed because that’s where my dance coaches were.

The pause placed on my dance training due to the pandemic gave me the space and time to realize I wasn’t happy where I was. I was productive and even successful, but I wasn’t happy. I lived and worked under a constant layer of stress that was only amplified by the virus. I didn’t realize how much it had affected me until after I moved to Maine and felt the opposite – unburdened contentment.

The time spent away from the dance studio also made me realize that my dance goals were no longer enough of a reason to stay. The world was permanently changed and working toward another World Champion title didn’t feel as important anymore. In this new version of the world, I felt called to explore a greater purpose for my dancing. I felt strongly that whatever that purpose was, Maine was the place I was meant to be.

As I said goodbye to my dance coach, I insisted we would dance together again. The pandemic showed everyone that remote was possible for almost anything, including dance training. I envisioned a future life where I would take weekly lessons via Zoom and then fly across the country every few months for a marathon of in-person lessons. We could even meet at competitions a day early to reconnect and get in some last-minute rehearsals. Long distance partnerships were not unheard of, and we could make it work.

Katie and her partner competing.

Photo by Gary Flashner

Every time the words left my mouth, I secretly doubted them. I wasn’t about to accept that my life as a competitive ballroom dancer was over just because I was moving to the other side of the country. But given the amount of work I had to put in to make my amateur dance career work on the side of my “real life” when I lived in the same county as my dance coach and partner, adding in the long distance and extra travel expenses felt like the final straws that would break me. Thankfully, years of dance and mindset coaching taught me that if I truly want to accomplish something, I can and will make it happen. So as I headed east in a 1996 station wagon packed to the brim, I told myself to just breathe and trust that dance would always be there for me.

My new home in Maine is 120 years old. It stands at the top of a hill surrounded by fields and forest, and it is glorious. I moved in the summer, and for the first couple months, I woke up to birds singing and the sun shining (literally). The stress of living and working in Orange County melted off my tired shoulders and I was finally able to exhale and breathe in fresh air. I was happy, truly.

As a dancer, I knew I wouldn’t stay content to simply exist in this little piece of paradise that was all mine. I needed to move my body and challenge myself. I didn’t know how I was going to make a long-distance dance partnership work, but I wanted to keep my body in dancing shape so it would be ready when I figured it all out.

The transition from a very specific goal-oriented dance path to a broader, exploratory dance path felt like a relief at first. I found a local studio where I could take Zumba and ballet classes. Later, I joined a styling class where we played with swing-inspired routines. I was feeding my inner dancer’s needs for fun, technique, and creativity, and I didn’t have to deal with the stress of preparing for a competition.

At the same time, I missed that feeling of all my hard work coming together, going full out, and leaving everything on the competition dance floor. I missed connecting with my fellow competitors, many of whom I only saw at events, as well as meeting the dancers who followed my blog and found inspiration in my stories. I missed working one-on-one with my dance coaches and celebrating those moments when I discovered a deeper layer to the movement, like another puzzle piece clicking into place in my brain.

Exploration can start to feel aimless and unproductive for someone who is used to always having a specific goal to work toward. I was doing a decent amount of dancing, but some days, I wondered why. Where was the greater purpose?

As events restarted and more and more dancers returned to the competition floor, I watched from social media and grieved for that life. It felt like everyone was moving on without me. At the same time, I loved living in Maine! This place felt more like home than anywhere else I had ever lived, and I had never been happier. It sounds contradictory, but in fact, it’s a great example of Life’s beautiful complexity that inspires so much of art, including dance. Waltz is made up of both rises and falls; we must embrace both in order to move to the music.

Maine woods

Photo by Gary Flashner

The forest behind my house became a favorite place to go for walks with my dogs and gain further perspective on my dance journey. Dancers are often quoted saying things like, “I don’t love to dance. I have to dance.” But as I listened to the wind in the trees, I wondered what my fellow dancers would do if they could never compete or perform again. Would they still dance as much? Would they still train as hard? For a competitive dancer, how important is the aspect of competition to their identity as a dancer?

I felt called to seek out a greater purpose for my dancing, but I couldn’t deny that I was a competitive dancer. I thrived on that floor where all my training and passion came together and was tested. Through the years, I had grown beyond the need to prove myself to the judges in order to feel like a good dancer, but I’ll admit I loved the challenge of performing in front of people who would know if I messed up a step or not. That extra pressure of being watched brought out the side of me who likes showing people just what she can do.

Those walks through the woods helped me realize I also love being able to inspire others by meeting that challenge and staying true to myself at the same time. The dance world is full of pressures to look and behave certain ways. I do not fit the ideal image of a ballroom dancer, but I won a World title anyway.

In Maine, I’m facing a new challenge. How do I continue to grow and thrive in an area with few resources for ballroom dancers? How do I continue to connect with and inspire others when I’m not visible at competitive events?

Part of the answer lies in not restricting the definition of who I am as a dancer and not letting location or event dictate when I can be an inspiration. Yes, I’m a ballroom dancer. Yes, I’m a competitive dancer. That doesn’t mean I can’t also be a ballet dancer or a west coast swing dancer. I’ve had women tell me after Zumba class that they love watching me dance in class, that they feel inspired by the way I move. Did I go into Zumba prepared to perform like I did for a competition? No, of course not, I went to dance off some stress and get a great workout! My inner dancer can’t help but go full out.

Another part of the answer lies in the local community. As I’ve sought out opportunities to dance in my area, I’ve learned there are in fact active dance communities here. They just don’t happen to waltz. There are dance studios who have competitive teams and put on performances multiple times a year. There are social dance groups slowly becoming more active as the impacts of the pandemic ease. Dance is here; it just doesn’t look the same as it did during my life in California.

The final thing I realized in the forest is that I have time. I am not going to reach a point when my identity as a dancer will expire because it’s been too long since I’ve appeared on a stage or at a competition. I do not have to give up on my future as a dancer simply because I moved to an area where dance is less prevalent. I won’t stop being a ballroom dancer because I focus on learning other dance styles that are more readily available to me. Whether I’m surrounded by skyscrapers or towering trees, I am still a dancer and always will be.

Katie in a pink dress with a tree tattoo down her back.

Photo by Gary Flashner

~~

To follow Katie’s dance journey in Maine, go to thegirlwiththetreetattoo.com.

Katie Flashner, a.k.a. The Girl with the Tree Tattoo, is a World Champion ballroom dancer and published author. Since starting her blog in 2015, she has welcomed thousands of visitors who value her openness and willingness to share the good, the bad, and the awkward of her journey while shedding light on the rarely addressed mental and emotional aspects of being a ballroom dancer. Katie currently lives in mid-coast Maine with her two dogs and enjoys watching the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings when she isn’t dancing or writing.

This essay was first printed in Stance on Dance’s spring/summer 2022 print issue. To learn more, visit stanceondance.com/print-publication.

One Response to “A Dancer in the Woods”

  1. Douglas Roth

    I enjoyed reading your story. Learned some things!
    And you’re right: there ARE serious dancers and active dance communities here in Maine. I look forward to witnessing your continued dance journey.

Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS