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First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by Adam De Souza

After all the waiting and the hype, in mid-April I finally received my first dose of the vaccine against COVID-19 – Moderna. Since when did I pay attention to the manufacturer of a vaccine? Were those tears of relief rising in me at this small modicum of protection as I bared my arm for the jab?

Did I feel different that evening? Maybe there was a very slight twinge in my arm. What did I do? Did I apply ice? Pop a Tylenol? Hydrate with a glass of water? No, none of that. I cranked up the music and danced – with abandon, with joy and with relief.

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What is a 66-year-old woman doing dancing to the point of euphoria, by herself? This is what I have been doing my entire life.

I have danced in moments of joy, but also of stress, anxiety and captivity. For me, it is a ritual, a release, even a form of self-medication.

There was no real structure or formality to my dancing: no lessons, competitions or prizes. Growing up, my family was always moving from one military base to another and there was never the time nor inclination to enroll me in many extracurricular classes of any type. There was a year of ballet lessons when we made the long drive from the army base of Shilo, Man., to the city of Brandon. I remember almost nothing of that experience, apart from the delicious smell of my pale pink leather ballet shoes, a stern lady with a grey bun and a Russian accent who barked orders at me, and our interminable drives through blinding Prairie snowstorms. The malted milks I enjoyed after class were memorable.

As an only child, I spent hours dancing alone, when not reading on my bed. I would crank up the Telefunken console that my dad had brought back from a posting in Germany and played and replayed my favourite songs – the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’; Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Were Made for Walkin’; and Barry McGuire’s gloomy Eve of Destruction, a prescient song for our current times.

I learned to dance in captivity. At Chatelard School, my strict British all-girls boarding school in the Swiss mountains, we teenage inmates threw off our mouse-brown uniforms and danced our little hearts out, barefoot in our nighties to Let it Be, The Age of Aquarius and anything and everything by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Being against every rule, I was then sent to stare at a spot in the dark hallway, shivering in the same white nightie.

What is it about the relief that there might be an end to the COVID-19 confinement that would prompt me to dance? It has always been at those moments of maximum anxiety, stress and confinement that I turned to dance.

After years of failed treatment, when a close relative was finally admitted to a psychiatric hospital, I danced all night from the sheer release of tension and fear.

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In the 2019 film Jojo Rabbit – a devoted Hitler youth member finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in the attic. He befriends her and asks her the first thing she will do when she regains her freedom. Her immediate answer is: “Dance!”

For me, dance is a release, a liberation, a joy, self-medication, self-expression. It was more a solo event and men often told me I had a tendency to lead – not a compliment, I assumed. For me, dance was always about losing myself in a feeling of liberation and euphoria, where I would crumple down exhausted like some sort of mad, whirling Turkish dervish.

I look back on the role that Zumba played in hauling me through sad times. It gave me the strength and courage to leave a marriage. When my father was dying of cancer, the pain was so great that I cried through the classes, barely able to follow the instructor. As my brow furrowed and my weight dropped during those last few years in my job, I upped my Zumba activity to a frenzy that pulled me out of my funk and steeled me for those final days before early retirement. It also led to leg injuries from overexertion.

But there was also joy: my Jimmy Choos danced with me at my daughter’s wedding. I boogied to live music with my partner Ted at his pre-COVID birthday party, and there was that fabulous New Year’s Eve in Paris where we danced on the tables as the chef and other kitchen staff beat time on their copper pots.

Virginia Woolf wrote: “Dance music stirs some barbaric instinct – you forget centuries of civilization in a second, and yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling around the room … It is as though some swift current of water swept you along with it.”

I know this feeling and have felt this many times in my life, never more so than in Morocco while hiking through the Atlas Mountains when I danced with the Berbers. Our little band of five hikers stayed in a home provided by Abdullah, the “chef du village” of Azilal.

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They provided a feast for us, followed by dancing in traditional Berber garb. They loaned us glittery silken finery and placed heavy silver on my forehead. And then we were up, men and women dancing languidly in separate circles. As I danced with them, chanting and calling, I began to lose myself to the music of the oud and other instruments.

I was pushed to the middle of the circle to join a young Berber woman. As the music took control of me, I feared nothing and I moved to rhythms I had never felt before.

And then it was over as suddenly as it began. The woman who danced with Berbers was transformed into a sober Cinderella once again. It was a feeling I will never forget. Virginia Woolf might have been pleased.

But whether wild dervish, cavorting schoolgirl or Zumba dancing queen, I know what I will be doing on the evening of my second dose of the vaccine. Like the girl in Jojo Rabbit, I will dance!

Carol Sutherland-Brown lives in Ottawa.

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