I Struggled To Accept My Postpartum Body. Then An Unexpected New Hobby Changed Everything.
For most of my adult life, National Tap Dance Day, which passed recently, would have garnered about as much attention from me as National Ballpoint Pen Day. This year, however, that has changed: I am part of the Mondays at 2 p.m. absolute beginner adult tap dancing crew at the Mid-Westchester Jewish Community Center, and I have never felt like more of a badass.
But my drive to tap was born out of a dark place. Following the birth of my second baby in April 2021, I developed postpartum depression. PPD is a complex hormonal and environmental beast that’s often misunderstood. For me, it was a combination of moving to the suburbs after spending my entire adult life living in cities, exacerbated by the stress and isolation of the pandemic, and work pressure that had me taking a call literally the same hour that my daughter entered the world.
Add a dash of new parent sleep deprivation to fuel the hormonal fire ― I was completely unmoored.
While I was able to get through these more severe feelings with a therapist, I still struggled on a daily ― OK, hourly ― basis to accept my postpartum body. (The constant barrage of Facebook ads selling me ways to “Eliminate that abdominal shelf!” didn’t help.)
My history as a ballet dancer also exacerbated the issue. I was on a pre-professional track in ballet from ages 5-18, which meant that at one point as a teenager in the late 90s/early 2000s, I attended up to six classes a week, foregoing many of the other pleasures of adolescence in pursuit of my dancing dreams.
And while I didn’t fully recognize it at the time, I was also spending six days a week learning to believe that my body was not good enough ― not strong enough, not graceful enough, not turned out enough, not focused enough and certainly not thin enough.
The entire time I danced, I probably never broke 110 pounds at 5 feet 4 inches tall, and still, with my “curves” (i.e., human woman hips and breasts that required more support than a training bra), there was no way my body would be acceptable to professional dance companies ― or so I was warned by well-meaning teachers.
I decided to quit on the day a fellow dancer commented in the dressing room that I “looked surprisingly good in street clothes.” I could finally see after over a decade of dancing that my love for ballet was not enough to justify the daily blows to my self-worth.
It may seem counterintuitive that to redefine your relationship with your body you would return to the activity that tainted that relationship in the first place, but it turns out dancing ― and specifically tap dancing ― is exactly what I needed to start and deepen that process of reconnection.
Over the last five to 10 years, ballet dancers have become much more vocal about the need for body inclusivity in their artform, but I’ve yet to see a major company like NYCB or ABT feature more than the occasional, token dancer who doesn’t fit ballet’s limited narrative of dancers as thin and white.
Tap dancing, on the other hand, is one of the few western dance styles that doesn’t have a culture of weight stigma or ageism ― some of the greatest professional tap dancers started as adults and were still in their prime of dancing well into their 80s.
And so, when I saw that my local JCC was offering a class (in-person, not on friggin’ Zoom!), and that it was a class for the most clueless of beginners, I jumped at the opportunity.
At our first class, there was an instant sense of comradery. The dancers ranged in age from 30 to 70, but despite our varying life experiences and generational perspectives, we all knew jack-shit about tap dancing.
As an absolute beginner, I felt a wonderful permission to fail that didn’t exist in ballet or motherhood. Of course, in both ballet and motherhood you make mistakes constantly (my daughter is chewing on an iPhone charger as I write), but mistakes in those arenas are often accompanied by a deep sense of shame, or at least the expectation of self-beratement.
But for at least one hour a week in tap class, I had permission to be terrible. And with that permission, I found that instead of obsessing over how I looked in the mirror, or whether I was meeting some unattainable standard, I was focusing on how it actually felt to dance.
First, I felt grateful just to have gotten out of my house for an activity that didn’t involve Peppa Pig. I made this class a non-negotiable part of my week, something we rarely do as mothers (putting ourselves first), or even generally as people (recognizing the importance of prioritizing joyful movement for our emotional and physical health).
It felt especially healing to connect with the same group of women ― hereafter referred to as the “tap crew” ― on a weekly basis. I relished walking into a room of people who understood that I was in an exhausting stage of life with a toddler and a baby, and who made me feel like a badass for just showing up.
Not only were we all hungry for this IRL connection after COVID, but with the busy, burnout lifestyles most of my millennial friends lead, this was also the only place I could come where no one would be distracted. (There’s no time to check your phone when you’re drilling the Maxi Ford to Bandstand Boogie.)
Loneliness often sets in for new parents because the relationship is so one-sided when your kids are very young, but with the tap crew I could share something with a group that was meaningful to all of us. Moreover, these ladies were fearless, ready to look silly while trying something new and always happy to offer their fellow tappers unconditional support instead of seeing our dancing through the prism of competition.
I also started to marvel at how my body ― in its current shape and size ― could move after two pregnancies and two years of staying confined. (My main source of physical activity during the pandemic was Cloroxing groceries and attempting to diaper children who had no interest in being diapered.)
Since tap emphasizes expressing emotion and character through rhythmic sounds, I wasn’t as fixated on the visual, so it allowed me to develop better interoceptive awareness. Instead of constantly worrying about how I looked to others, my internal monologue went something like “Am I breathing through this shuffle ball change? Ah, let me try to swing that rhythm a little bit more” and “Holy smokes, did all of our feet really just make collective music out of nothing?!”
In ballet, I was usually trying to blend in with the corps de ballet, and in a solo, take up space in a very cautious, deliberate, graceful way. In tap, there are times for precision, but you are often encouraged to just feel the music and relax into the steps (a move called “The Goofus” comes to mind), and you can generally be as loud as you like.
Indeed, one of the most challenging and liberating aspects of tap for me was learning to take up more space and make more sound.
In a couple of months, I’d say I went from “absolute beginner” to “still pretty amateur,” but how I viewed my body began to change. I have an unfortunate wall-to-wall mirror in my bathroom, where I could ruminate over stretch marks or crane my neck to investigate back fat rolls.
But now, whenever I noticed the negative self-talk surfacing, I literally announce to my reflection: “Hey lady, you birthed two 10-pound babies, and you still have the energy to do THIS,” followed by a series of kick-ass buffalo steps over to my morning shower.
At the time, my infant daughter was obsessed with shoes ― throwing them, biting them, offering a pair of fragrant tennis sneakers to anyone passing by our hall closet ― and my tap shoes were no exception. As I watched this little Carrie Bradshaw/Shirley Temple slam my taps into the new hardwood floors with gleeful abandon, I became acutely aware that to her, the body was just an instrument to explore and control the world, and it brought her nothing but joy.
I pledged that I would try to have the same attitude and continue to model that perspective for my daughter as she grew and became more self-aware.
Of course, tap hasn’t magically cured me of body shame. I recognize this is something I will be negotiating for a long time, because no matter what inner work I do, we live in a culture obsessed with dieting, promoting unnatural thinness and conflating body size with morality and health.
But in returning to dance, I’ve also figured out that my tap crew, my friends and my family ― especially my children ― don’t give a flying fuck about what the scale says. And while I’m inordinately proud of the fact that I can now Shim Sham on demand, the realization that I am more than a body, that what I think, what I have to say and the relationships I nurture are what define the core of who I am, has been the most badass part of it all.