I have been a competitor since the age of four. My
father saw Nadia Comanechi in the 1976 Olympics, and
decided that I would be a gymnast. After 11 years of
following his dream and not my own, I did the
unthinkable. I quit. However, I did not quit until I
had an alternate plan in place. I became a diver. As a
diver, I showed tremendous promise, qualifying for the
national competition just six months after I began
diving. Having such success so early on made me crave
more success, and I got very caught up in the outcome.
But I never got the chance to see how far I could take
it. At the age of 16, I developed Hodgkin's disease, a
form of lymphatic cancer. One of the side effects of
chemotherapy was avascular necrosis of the femoral
head. In plain English, my hip collapsed and needed
surgery. That was the end of my diving career.
After that, I took a brief hiatus from competitive athletics, but it always felt like something was missing. My whole life changed on the day that my husband and I saw a flier hanging in the lobby of our apartment building. That flier advertised the Carnegie Mellon Ballroom Dance Club. Since our first date was at a dance club, and since my childhood ambition was to become a choreographer, it seemed a natural fit. For the first year, we had fun just dancing and sharing a hobby together. Then we entered our first competition. On that day, I knew that I had finally found the thing to fill the tremendous void in my life that my illness and injury took away from me. Gymnastics was about doing what I was told, and diving was about the trying to meet externally imposed demands. Ballroom dancing was about me; it was about merging the process and the outcome.
I have given much thought to the question of what it is about dance that has finally made my life complete again. The answer is complex. The first, and most obvious answer is that it has given me a competitive outlet again. I enjoy competing because it is about who is the best dancer on that day. Everything else that came before does not matter. It is about living in the moment. When you have faced a serious illness, you learn to live in the moment more than you ever did before, and competition really fosters that attitude. Although I enjoy the competition aspects of ballroom dance, dancing is so much more to me than a simple competitive outlet.
In analyzing the things that have been important parts of my life, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that the aesthetic component is very important to me. Spending time trying to perfect something as beautiful and graceful as ballroom dance makes me feel beautiful, too. It forces me to dig deep inside myself to bring out that inner grace and beauty that I never knew I had, much in the same way that being sick forces you to draw on resources that you never knew you had. Dancing, just like being sick, requires a certain amount of self-reflection. You need to figure out what it is about yourself that allows you to get the job done.
Although I enjoy the competitive and the aesthetic components of dance, both of these things imply that the best thing about dance is the end product . putting your best looking moves out to be judged by the world. Although I thoroughly enjoy both of those aspects of dance, I think that putting all of the emphasis on the outcome misses the very best thing about dancing, or just about anything in life-the process. Dancing allows you to feel like you are accomplishing something tangible, however small, every time you get on the floor. With dancing, you can actually watch the process unfold. You can see and feel improvement as long as you work at it. Although the end result can be wonderful and beautiful and graceful, it is the process of getting there... all of the awkward intermediate stages with progress every step of the way, forcing yourself to try all different kinds of things until you figure out what works and what does not, that I enjoy most. Through all of my trials, tribulations, illnesses, injuries, and experiences, I have learned one very important thing. Find something that you love and throw yourself into it whole-heartedly. For me that thing is dance. I will continue to dance as long as my body allows me to do so. Dancing is the thing in life that gives me the most joy, and life is too short not to enjoy it.
Joelle Suchy Escoffery, Ph.D.