Earlier this year, I went on a vacation that was designed to push me beyond my known boundaries of my self concept. I have envisioned myself as a strong independent woman. I identify as a self sufficient person. But I am not sure if I am strong enough in other ways. So I went because I wanted to know: Who am I other than a strong, independent woman? 

The vacation was a retreat called Dance Beyond, held at the Eagle’s Nest, a retreat center near San Marcos La Laguna in Guatemala. People from all over the world converged for a week of ecstatic dance, yoga, and self exploration. I arrived there, wondering if I would fit in. I knew a few faces from New York City—where I go regularly to do ecstatic dance—but I didn’t “know” know anyone who was in Guatemala.

The structure of the retreat helped guide us in our self exploration. We were asked: Who am I? Who am I in relation to others? Who am I in relation to community? I instantly hit some shit: I was uncomfortable. I felt out of place. I was surprised that I felt out of place in a community that encouraged acceptance. I showed up at a place where no one knew me well and I was afraid of not being accepted. This is not the way a strong, independent woman would think. Who was I, then?

The week progressed. I was taken aback by the realization that we all had arrived with such high levels of personal risk: we all risked venturing farther away from our known and comfortable concepts of self. I realized how special the community was.

The retreat facilitators encouraged us to move in rhythm on and off the dance floor. Respond to each other as if in a dance. Respect each others’ journey of self exploration that was happening. Could I dance beyond the strong, independent woman self concept? Could I dance with anyone at all? That is, if I wasn’t feeling strong and independent, who am I? I felt frozen with the questions in my mind. I felt stiff in my body. I felt cut off from others by being cut off from different selves in me. So I resolved to just continue to show up mentally and ground any physical sensations by sending them out through my feet back to the earth.

When I had danced at events before the retreat, I usually danced alone. It’s how I was used to dancing.

But–

as I moved and grooved to the smoove beats by the banging DJs spinning global bass and dreamy electronica on the stage overlooking Lake Atitlan, I started to feel soft in my body. I learned that I liked learning to dance with others.

I embodied those feelings into words, finding language to say that I am strong enough to survive as an independent woman in the world, but what I need is the ability to be soft as an independent woman in the world. I realized that having a need for emotional self sufficiency was in direct conflict with my need to take social risks.

I realized the challenge I had to dance out was this: let myself be something I don’t feel like I am. Allow the conversation to happen. Be comfortable when I am not comfortable. Let that conversation happen in movementThe dancing at the retreat became my space to explore where I open up, and become soft, and where I keep the boundaries, and stay a little hard, so I didn’t lose myself. This movement conversation was so revealing to me: I listened to my body. I learned that when I move to respond, to meet someone else, I make graceful movements. I feel soft. And no one knew the difference (or judged me) like I do–when I wasn’t graceful. Or “right.” Or comfortable. And none of that was “wrong.” It’s like in a performance, when you make a mistake and you realize it but no one in the audience knows.  So I started to let the judgment go.

And when I danced there in Guatemala, sometimes by myself, sometimes engaging others, I was able to stay out of my mind (which would start to think Am I doing this right? Should I be dancing like this? Are they going to accept me?). As the week went on, I couldn’t stop dancing. The group couldn’t stop dancing. Whether it was at a restaurant in town, or doing dishes, or at the airport at the very end: We couldn’t stop dancing with each other. We moved as individuals and as a community that had, over the course of a week, was instant and eternal. We all took the personal risk to dance beyond.

Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? It’s one question, but I have three answers: I am an independent woman who is softly strong and brutally soft at the same time. I am truly myself when I show up for myself. I am a person who can chose who I want to be and dance through the world the way I want to dance.