From pole dancing to polka, dance is therapy for these Sonoma County residents
Under purple lights at Rohnert Park’s Bastet Dance Fitness, Catherine Chatman wraps her leg around a pole and spins gracefully to a Beyoncé song.
Chatman, 68, is strong and she’s focused. She laughs as she misses a move, and she tries again. She’s not here for perfection; Chatman is seeking something else.
“Dance saved me so many times,” said Chatman, who has practiced pole dancing for exercise and fun for eight years. “It’s brought me so much joy. It’s healing.”
Shannon Bronson, a yoga instructor in San Francisco, agreed that dance is inherently healing. She studies somatic therapy, which uses techniques like dance and breathing exercises to release pent-up tension, improving emotional and physical well-being.
“The act of movement and making art is healing in itself,” Bronson said. “Movement is healing for our nervous systems.”
The two women are among local dance and fitness devotees who are turning to alternative dance styles to feel empowered and confident, and to heal.
Chatman, who has taught fitness dance classes for 24 years in Oregon and California, said dance has comforted her through all of life’s changes — after her father’s death when she was just 26, through a divorce and during stressful times at work.
“It’s like breathing. I can’t imagine not dancing,” Chatman said. “I’ve shown up to class in a funk, but then I’ll feel better. It’s better than therapy.”
Place of encouragement
At Bastet Dance Fitness, which opened in September 2017, women twirl barefoot around shiny poles. The classes are open to people of all genders, but are predominantly populated by women. They climb up, slide down and try again when they miss a step. They boldly flip their hair, giggle and encourage each other with an occasional “You got this, girl!”
Yes, this is a place to learn new moves. There are classes in pole dancing, chair dancing and yes, even butt-shaking, hip-thrusting twerking.
But for many dancers at the studio, it’s more than learning new steps. Here is a community where participants can express themselves and let go of their burdens.
“Dance gives me a taste of what freedom feels like,” said Crystal Knight, a 31-year-old Bastet instructor. “This place creates a sense of freedom for us when the world doesn’t give us that.”
The idea that movement and exercise can benefit our mental state is well-established, but dancing may have found its moment with a broader audience now, given our current cultural emphasis on body positivity and self-care.
“Pole dancing makes me feel strong and powerful — and sexy,” Chatman said. “It’s not easy to come by when you’re older. It’s rocked my world and made me young — young in spirit, young in body and mind.”
At Artaluma, a multidisciplinary creativity space in Petaluma that opened in January, a class called Dance Jam lets adults tap into a childlike mindset, that carefree attitude we lose as we age.
“Adults need to play, move their bodies and use their imaginations,” said Elizabeth McKoy, owner of Artaluma. “Play is so important. It’s how we heal and maintain our mental health.”
Inside the dimly lit studio, 10 women stood in a circle in the beginning of a Dance Jam class. With eyes closed, they waved their hands softly in the air while others rolled back their shoulders to warm up.
“Close your eyes. Allow the music to guide you,” McKoy said as the Kiki Dee Band’s upbeat “I've Got The Music In Me” played.
“Don’t worry, no one here is watching,” she added. “Let your body move the way it wants to.”
McKoy demonstrated simple choreography including country music’s shuffle step and the polka step. Then she called out dance moves as participants followed and danced around the room while adding their own styles, sometimes making silly faces at each other.
“Now, I want you all to look at the person next to you with the silliest face. It’s OK to get weird!” McKoy shouted.
By the end, participants had laughed a lot, broken a sweat and completed the class with savasana, a meditative yoga posture.
“The point is pulling the essence of the music into the heart of the dancer,” McKoy said of her class. “Come as you are. You can be as silly and as weird as you want. It’s a judgment-free zone. We get to play.”
One regular Dance Jam attendee said she found her passion for dance when she was a teen. She grew up in Massachusetts and was a “groupie sister,” dancing with her friends to her brother’s rock ’n’ roll band.
“It feels good to move your body and have the freedom to move the way you want,” said Linda St. Andrew, 65, who lives in Petaluma. “It’s not a typical class; there’s freedom to do your own thing. It’s like when you’re riding a bike — it gives you a similar sense of youthfulness.”
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