With each step she took toward her apartment building, Alison Pena’s chest grew tighter until she felt like she could barely breathe. As she stood at the entrance, the memories were too hard to face, and she couldn’t go in. She reached for her phone, called her friend and said, “I’m not doing well, can I please come over to your house?”
“It had been a couple months since my husband of nearly 20 years had passed away, and I was completely devastated,” Alison recalls. “I had fallen into a deep depression, and that day, I couldn’t be alone with my thoughts any longer. I knew I needed to be around friends.
“When I arrived, I could barely speak. I didn’t have the energy to talk about how I was feeling, and I didn’t want to drive myself deeper down into my sadness. My friend talked with me about her life and poured me a cup of tea. I sat on her couch wrapped in a warm blanket — it made all the difference to be around a family and people who cared about me. This was a ‘good’ day. On my worst days, I might walk three blocks in my slippers, and I was constantly losing my keys. I knew I had to get to a better place. I knew something had to change.
“That was four years ago. I felt disconnected from everything. I was overwhelmed with grief, and that made it hard to think, concentrate or remember anything — I’d ask my friends the same questions over and over again. I even placed baskets around my home with energy bars as a visual reminder that I should eat. Insomnia set in, and I was only sleeping for two to four hours a night.
“I was exhausted all the time and didn’t have it in me to interact with people, so I couldn’t continue to work. A friend let me work in her pop-up Halloween store for four hours a day, and when I came home, I’d collapse. I felt like I had gone crazy and I was no longer competent to do anything. People often asked what they could do to help, but I didn’t want anyone to have pity on me. I just wanted my husband back.
“All of my emotions felt like they were stuck, and I knew that exercise could help me move them through and out. So on the days that I could muster up the energy, I tried to walk in nature. I thought a more regular class or routine at the gym might have more of an impact, but the sadness, fear, and anger were so painful that I didn’t want to feel exposed around others.
“Then I remembered a dance class I had taken years ago that I loved. It wasn’t a traditional dance class, and there was live music, which had always made me feel happy. I discovered that one of the instructors, Bernadette Pleasant, had created a new program called Femme! I had seen Bernadette dance before, and I felt so comfortable with her that I knew it would be the right fit.
“Bernadette’s class combines tribal dance with a mix of slow and fast-paced meditative movements and music from two live drummers. There’s no set routine and no right or wrong way to move. I’m an awkward dancer, and at the first class, I didn’t have much confidence. But I quickly got the hang of it. In the class, we focused on dancing through different emotions. For anger, we might dance with short, choppy movements, but joy might be more playful. Moving with the emotions, my mood began to shift.
“At that first class, Bernadette asked me to share the story about my recent loss. Everyone was so open and supportive, and I was surprised to find that I felt comfortable talking. I realized it would help me heal. I cried, but I didn’t mind because I knew the pain could serve a purpose. I immediately knew that it would be possible for me to find joy again.
“I started taking the classes once or twice a month, and at the end of each class, I felt refreshed, relaxed, and energized. The classes were one of the few places that I allowed myself self-care. Previously, anytime I experienced a moment of happiness, I felt like I was betraying my husband. But class felt good without guilt, and after the first few classes, my depression started to lift. I felt lighter each time I went.
“I continue to take Femme! classes online and enjoy every minute of it. I realize now how important a mindbody experience is to your mental health. I’m still expanding my ability to feel joy, and the classes help. Now that I’m no longer suffering with depression, I’m confident in who I am, I’m working again and I even fell in love!”
How Dancing Frees the Mind and Revitalizes the Body
Dancing is just as effective as leading antidepressants at reducing symptoms, according to a Duke University study. “Depression is usually reinforced by ruminating on negative thoughts,” explains Kenneth Wilson, M.D., a professor at Duke University Medical Center, who studies the therapeutic benefits of dance. “It gives you something to focus on, so it’s easier to liberate yourself from your thoughts.”
Dancing that encourages primal movement to connect with your emotions is particularly effective, lowering scores of depression by 43 percent after just one session — plus reducing stress and improving mood. “In my experience, traditional dancing engages me with aspects of myself that are helpful in difficult situations,” says Dr. Wilson. “It connects me with wisdom and helps me see my strengths.”
To get the benefits, try the class that healed Alison Pena: Femme!, a method that combines traditional dance styles from indigenous cultures with meditative movements. You can find live online classes at LiveFemme.com by clicking “Events” or purchase a digital recording of a class for $17. Another option: Look for a class in your area by searching for “tribal dance classes” or “African dance classes” online.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.