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Tap dancing and my improved relationship with exercise

When does a joy become a pain? How does something we love turn into something we dread? Why can something so helpful become risky? These are some of the questions I faced when my relationship with exercise and food took a turn for the worse. Growing up, I had a fairly active and constantly busy lifestyle. Whilst team sports may not have been my skill set, various other sports structured my evenings and weekends.


Throughout childhood, I tap danced through all 14 years of school, progressing through the grades and growing in confidence, learning to improve my visual form and rhythm. I enjoyed picking up other activities during those years, like ballet, sailing and gymnastics, however it was the complexity of tap and the mixture of combining sight, sound and feel that captured my attention.


Person sitting down with tap shoes on, metal taps visible
Photo by Fabian Schneider on Unsplash

Whilst I loved dancing, and the feeling of becoming a slightly more confident, slightly braver version of myself was great, it was not perfect.


As school pressures and exams grew, so did the need to be as productive with all my time, in terms of achievement. Music and dance lessons became focussed on the next grades and certificates, how good it would look on university applications and the like. As this focus grew, my love for the dance shrunk. There simply wasn’t space, or so it seemed, to just enjoy the creative freedom and the appreciate the ability to do so, when I should be working hard. You can read my first blog about recognising good mental health and this challenge.


Amidst this, I am grateful for where I learned to dance, as it was not always adorned by floor-to-ceiling mirrors, as good as they are for perfecting our form, nor was there an exceptional pressure on our body image, shape or size.


Photo by Jess Zoerb on Unsplash

At the time, I don’t think I could articulate it, but at least subconsciously, I worried less about my body when turning up to tap class compared to ballet or gymnastics. That’s not to say I didn’t worry, and I objectively had poor body image, as a continuum from low confidence and self-esteem, so it just felt normal, as unfortunately is the case for many.


Fast forward to my first year at university, where a perfect storm meant in addition to living with anxiety and depression, I developed anorexia. There’s more you can read on InSPIre the Mind about eating disorders in university students and myths around eating disorders.


A variety of factors meant I’d long grown out of the habit of exercising because I enjoyed it, and hadn’t recognised the benefit it had on my mental health, at least before I developed an unhelpful relationship with it.


Time spent outside of my studies needed to feel productive, where again productive had a very strict, achievement focussed definition. Recharging, resting or taking a break from the ongoing treadmill of pressure didn’t feel possible. Additionally, I’d lost the capacity to exercise in a helpful way, so I didn’t benefit from it, and both mentally and physically it was quite detrimental.


After a period of standstill with my poor mental health, I gradually started to recover with regard to my eating disorder, to the point where it’s now part of my story, and I have a mindful perspective, no longer dictating my every move. It took some time to both physically return to exercise where I was out of practise and form, and mentally to develop the strength to approach exercise helpfully. As the noise of my eating disorder reduced, and separate anxieties and ruminations shrunk, the capacity to recognise new observations about the mental benefits of exercise increased.


I re-introduced exercise socially, picking activities I could do with friends, especially those who cared for my context and did not entertain diet-culture ideas. This social support helped transform the way I saw exercise, once I had the capacity to. Although, until relatively recently, I had never returned to activities I’d loved growing up, as life had moved on since being away at university.


A park with people running together
Photo by Chanan Greenblatt on Unsplash

Over 6 years since I had my last tap dancing lesson after school, I moved to where I am now in London, where I’m finishing my MSc Psychiatric Research at KCL and working in mental health clinical research. Quite wonderfully, my friend who I danced with throughout school was nearby, so we both fetched our tap shoes and tried out a class.


Words can’t quite describe feeling of that incredibly surreal moment. We were both a little nervous, being years out of practise, and the class was a challenging level. But those nerves were far outweighed by the odd perception of hearing the music, trying to think about the steps, but realising our feet were just moving, almost by their own accord! To dance so freely, both in physical movement and mentally, was incredible. Emotionally, I was in awe of the joy I felt, even exceeding that of when I first learned to dance, back when life was simpler.


Now equipped with more understanding of my mental health, with acceptance (not shame) of my changing relationship with exercise, and with greater abundance of truly good experiences, my relationship with exercise is more fulfilling than ever.

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