June 3, 2013

My Dance Teacher Helps Me Find My Feet. ~ Yali Szulanski


The teacher-student connection helps me heal.

“How many of you are new to my class?”

A smattering of apprehensive hands go up, accompanied by expressions of shy curiosity. We turn around to look at the new students—their feet crossed and eyes darting, wondering how they can escape this new-found spotlight.

Irena, my dance teacher, quickly makes her analysis and instructs them to stand in a place where they can see her and follow her movements. She playfully warns,

“This class is challenging. You will benefit only if you stay connected—to me, to yourself, and to the movements.”

I watch them as they move closer to the center, fidgeting. I envy them, for they have no idea what incredible journey they are about to embark on. Irena teaches Zumba, but her classes are so much more than that. She is a dancer by nature: training, talent, heart and spirit. Dance is not only her craft, it is her soul. Zumba, as she says, is her way of sharing her passion with the world.

The first class was an accident and a gift from the universe. I was in a very tenuous recovery, fighting daily not to relapse into my eating disorder.

I had decided to give “this Zumba thing” a shot and I was on the last class of a new student special. Irena walked in to substitute for the teacher who was normally there for that hour. On that day, with my hand raised as a new student, I was curious and a little bit shy.

All it took was for her to turn on the music—her passion blazed through the studio and lifted all our spirits with it. My soul, finally, could breathe.

In the eight months since, I have attended Irena’s classes on a regular basis. At times, I have even taken more than one per day. What I quickly discovered is that Irena’s classes challenge more than just my body and my less than coordinated ability as a dancer. They challenge my heart, my mind and they present me with the greatest challenge of my life: to be able to take these classes, I have to really heal.

In the first couple of months, I went to class while still dealing with eating disorder symptoms.

Sometimes, her class was the only moment of the day where I wouldn’t be stuck in the binge/purge cycle. Even though my body struggled, her energy, her passion and her words kept me coming back. After a class where I felt particularly despondent, Irena approached me and said the words that would spark our healing teacher-student relationship:

“I can see that your mind is holding you back. Your body wants to move, to be free. Let it. Whatever is in there, just tell it to leave you alone.”

Then and there I understood that healing could and would happen for me through her classes. At first, I felt a little intimidated by her power and force in the class. I wanted to know what I could do to improve, but a voice in in my head doubted if I ever would.

This was the same voice that would come home with me and convince me that I am worthless; that I deserve to be in pain and that I will never heal. Irena was more than happy to share her wisdom, her journey and her passion for helping her students heal and grow stronger. She said to me,

“You are disconnected from your own rhythm, and that keeps you from connecting to the music. Find the beat first, then your feet, then your arms, then the form—that is your task for 2013.”

It is a task that I have taken to heart and I am happy to say that I do keep improving as I find myself stronger and more present in my body. Irena teaches with a professional and disciplined energy and creates a space for me to face my fears, my struggles and yes, even let them go. She teaches that we can visualize our bodies doing what we want them to do.

“Your bodies remember more than you do. You have to just let it go and trust that your body can do it.

See the muscle that you are working, tell it ‘I want you to do this now,’ and you’ll see: wow, amazing, it will do it. That’s how you’ll get it! That’s how you’ll connect!”

The lessons I have learned about myself through Irena’s classes have translated far beyond the studio walls.

From infusing my own teaching with more presence and confidence, to allowing me the simple peace of existing in my body, it doesn’t matter what I look like, as long as I’m trying my best.

In class, Irena sees everything. From the amount of effort someone puts in, to a shoelace that is untied in the back and to the emotional state of each of her students. When I ask her what I need to work on, she is able reflect beyond the surface of what I need bodily, but also what I need to see in myself.

“Watch your posture. Dance isn’t just moving, it’s moving with confidence. Sometimes you look like you’re moving with shame. Hold yourself up and strong—break through that.”

It is a rare gem to find a teacher who’s willing to connect with you on a personal level and genuinely hears what you’re working through in their class.

My connection to Irena has been the turning point in my healing. When I tell her that she has literally saved my life, she says,

“You did that. I only opened the door”

There are days where I still walk into class feeling afraid, sad and apprehensive and leave feeling stronger, happier and more whole. The battles that I fight with my mind and the awkwardness that I feel in my body dissipate and I am able to take in the strength and beauty of Irena’s lessons.

In the end, I find my inner calm and the knowing that even if it gets tough and I am struggling, I can work through it. I can find strength in it, I can make it and I can heal. Now, five full months into active and consecutive recovery, I’m grateful for the healing that I have found through my connection with Irena, who not only inspires me, but who truly guides and motivates me to find my strength.

I often find that I am repeating her class mantra to myself even during the day:

“Good job, breathe, keep marching, moving on.”


Yali Szulanski is a writer, teacher, and speaker living in New York, New York. She can be found helping people access their voice through writing, discovering her strength and healing in the boxing gym and dance studio. You can follow her journey of healing and find more information about classes with Irena on her blog. She can also be found on yaliszulanski.com or on Facebook.


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Assistant ed: Catherine Monkman


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