Dancing with Depression

What does depression look like? It looks like me.

Those of you who read this blog or come to my classes and workshops might see me as an accomplished dancer and teacher. I’ve got impressive academic credentials: BA from an Ivy League university, language immersion and travel experience, a professional background in following political developments in the Middle East, a fricking Masters degree in dance. I’m one of a handful of dancers to have completed the Salimpour School’s rigorous training and teaching program. I’ve co-authored two books, and edited a third.

I assure you, though, it’s not all sequins and glitter.

Throughout it all, I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety. I’ve had depression since my senior year of high school and anxiety for far longer.

In an effort to help destigmatize these common ailments, I’m coming out and saying it: I have Depression and Anxiety with a capital D and capital A.

dancing dance depression belly dance mental health anxiety abigail keyes asharah

Depression on the Daily

Every day, a little demon tugs at my ankles. It looks up at me with its sad, droopy face and tells me everything that could go wrong. It reminds of how I haven’t done enough. How what I do won’t be enough. How what I teach won’t matter. That no one will hire me next year. That my next blog post will be a flop. That, really, no one really cares all that much, and I’m just disappointing everyone. That I’m letting everyone down. That at the end of the day, I’m a hypocrite.

The demon is a never-ending fear of failure, nipping at my heels.

And every day, I struggle against it. Every day, the inertia makes everything I do far more difficult than it should. Sometimes that creeps into every day activities, like going to the Post Office or the grocery store. Depression is a weight around my ankles, telling me that everything sucks.

That doesn’t even include Depression’s nasty little partner: Anxiety.

Anxiety and Inertia

When I was growing up in the 1980s, most of the adults around me didn’t understand that childhood anxiety is a thing. So, they told me not to cry, or worse, got upset with me when I did. I was “too sensitive,” and I needed to learn not to care so much. Um… OK. As you can imagine, that didn’t work so well. In fact, it just made me feel more like I was doing something wrong. The curse of the Child Perfectionist is to never feel Good Enough. To always feel a persistent sense of impending failure.

But it took me a while to realize that that anxiety was a thing that I had. I always felt like it happened to other people.

When I was 28, I was officially diagnosed with depression. My doctor realized that I had come in to see her every November for at least 5 years in a row. I officially had Seasonal Affective Disorder with very real physical symptoms. And that year, my body just gave up. I couldn’t really eat anything without feeling like I had to vomit. I felt like I had a perpetual fever. I couldn’t concentrate, and I was completely on edge while simultaneously feeling exhausted. In addition to the SAD, I had run myself ragged: creating my instructional DVD, taking redeye flights back and forth from Washington DC to San Francisco, teaching 5 classes a week, and working a full-time job with the US Government.

My doctor prescribed an SSRI (citalopram) and Xanax. I honestly didn’t understand why she thought Xanax would help me. While I took the SSRI, I never once opened the bottle of Xanax. Of course, now I know why she wanted me to take it.

Today, chronic, low-level anxiety manifests as not wanting to open my email because a writing client might be mad at me. Or avoiding a phone call because I’m worried I’ll say something stupid. That I’ll disappoint people who rely on me.

On harder days, it becomes physical. I feel an electric buzz in my limbs, and my digestion revolts and food makes me feel nauseated. Everything makes me want to scream and cry. I feel like I want to crawl out of my own skin. My body never really recovered from its freak-out in 2008.

Keeping Up Appearances

When I tell my friends that I have depression and anxiety, I feel like they don’t believe me. “You do so much!” they say, or “But you’re so on top of everything.” It’s true, I do a lot, but I hardly think I do more than anyone else.

And while I have been able to change many of the circumstances that exacerbated my depression in the past—a job that didn’t suit me, an abusive marriage, being far from my family—it still sits there, waiting. It’s a bit like a less cute and more vicious version of Fizzgig from The Dark Crystal.

Some days are good and others not so much. But I push through, because I must.

Dancing Away the Demons

One thing consistently fends off the darkness: Dance.

I know that if I go and take class, the depression demon will back off.

After I teach a class, the anxiety imp retreats just a bit.

When I move my body to music, I settle into a flow, and the rest of the world falls away, if even for a moment, and the demons aren’t fast enough to get me when I’m moving.

And when I’m in the momentum of teaching, the monsters aren’t fast enough to catch me.

The exchange of movement, energy, and rhythm make the world fall away, and for a brief moment I find respite from the darkness. And in these challenging political times, this refuge is invaluable.

Knowing that the darkness permeable, that it is vulnerable to the light of community and movement fuels the flame of hope and persistence in me. It makes me stronger. It inspires me to bring this light to others every day.

We Are Not Alone

If you are one of the millions of people who also struggle against the demons of depression and anxiety, I hope that you can find some peace knowing that you aren’t alone. More and more people are speaking up about their experiences. More people are sharing their stories. We can dissolve the isolation one story at a time.

Remember… Your depression and anxiety do not make you weak. That you make it through every day shows how strong and resilient you are. That vicious voice in your head might tell you that you are failing, but if you keep going, even if only a little bit each day, you are a warrior.

I’ve been lucky to be able to manage my depression and anxiety relatively well through self-awareness and changing my circumstances. I’ve stopped taking the SSRIs, but there’s nothing wrong with taking them either. I took them at a time when I really needed them, and quit when it was time to move on. That isn’t always possible for some of us… and if medication is helping you get through your days, that’s fantastic. Sometimes our brains and bodies just need a little help.

And for you, the dance floor might offer a brief sanctuary from the demons. A place to work on your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. Where you can grow strong and fierce. Where others are rooting for you. Where you can be your best possible self, and let the world fall away.

Let the dance studio be a refuge, where you can leave your demons at the door.

If you liked this post, consider buying me a coffee.


Hi! I'm Abby!

Welcome to my blog!

Here you’ll find my thoughts on everything from history and culture, to fusion and hybridity, to performance and training tips. I’m passionate about excellence, curiosity, and education in dance… in the studio and beyond.

In addition to holding Level 5 (Teaching Certification) in the Salimpour Formats, I also have an MA in Dance Studies at Mills College.

While belly dance and its related forms are my first love, I also teach American Modern Dance History at Mills College.

As director of the Salimpour School Berkeley, I hold weekly community belly dance classes in Berkeley, California.


Join My Newsletter

Liked this post?

4 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for sharing. This post resonates with much of my experience with SAD and what dance has done for me – it saved me too. 💛💛💛

  2. Thanks for posting this! It really resonates with me and I am totally right there with you. It’s nice to know I’m not alone 💗 and have validation from someone whom I know, respect and whose life has similar aspects.

  3. Dear Abigail,

    I want to thank you for you insightful article on dance and depression. It was a brave thing to do and your sharing has already helped many. Depression, especially among successful people, must not be hidden in the back of the closet. We just lost 2 incredibly gifted and talented people to depression, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. (Kate’s condition may actually have been bipolarity, what used to be called “manic/depression”.) We need to understand it and learn how we can take action to reduce symptoms. You have contributed much through your personal sharing because of your position and your obvious success. It means all the more to all of us because of that. Thank you.

    (By the way, I come from NYC and lived in Manhattan while working successfully on Wall Street for 10 years in the 1960s and 70s. All us female executives (few and far between) had psychologists. It was de rigor to visit your shrink twice a week. I now realize that we all needed that just to deal with being successful as a woman in the business world. Is there a relationship between being a woman, success and depression?)

    My current work has revolved around helping those older improve their balance and prevent having falls. While working in this field for 20 years, I found that depression along with fear and anxiety were common components of decline in quality of life of our older years. I have written about all these forms in a number of articles. I will include links at the end of my post.

    There were several points I wanted to make to you.

    1) The first is that many, many commonly prescribed and over the counter drugs cause depression as a side effect. I include a list of those drugs in an article I wrote last month on Chronic Depression. Some of the common ones: all statins, anti anxiety medication like Ativan and Valium, steroids, opiods, Ritalin and many others.

    2) Another important step to take is to drink more water. Dehydration masks as depression.

    3) And the third and most important of all solutions is to move. That’s why dance helps so much. Inactivity is depression’s handmaiden.

    CHRONIC DEPRESSION: Includes list of drugs that can cause it:

    FEAR, ANXIETY, DEPRESSION: How they are different. Steps to take for each:

    HOW TO STOP PANIC ATTACKS (I wrote this one after the North Bay fires. We live very near Coffey Park): Help for attacks in progress and ways to reduce chronic anxiety:

    This is a really long post. Please feel free to edit as you wish. Thank you again for your contribution. Stay balanced. Stay active. Stay grounded. I wish you much good will and success for you for the future.

    Vanessa Kettler (Samra El Helwa)
    Salimpour student 1994-2000

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You Might Also Like...