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Using Dance to Cultivate Self-Love

A dance instructor shares tips to foster mental wellness

The concept of self-love is not novel; however, it has gained popularity in recent years. We live in an era in which people are finally realizing that cultivating love within us is key in being able to love and be loved by others. While it can certainly be challenging, it is an empowering and worthwhile practice, especially as it relates to improvements in mental health. I have utilized the Self-Love Workbook in my private practice for years and have seen how this investment often serves as a cornerstone for transitioning from struggling with mental illness to thriving with mental wellness. Individuals who hone their self-love often experience benefits such as improved confidence, motivation, and happiness as well as decreased anxiety, depression, and suicidality.

One of the many tricky aspects of self-love is inherent to the term: It pertains to the self. What self-love looks like for me may not be what it looks like for you. The increasing popularity of self-love has been helpful in highlighting the concept, but the trend is that we often explore self-love as it relates to mental health, and therefore, suggested strategies parallel common methods within the scope of counseling and psychology (e.g., meditation, gratitude, reframing). In this series of posts, I am exploring creative methods of fostering self-love through interviews with experts in their respective fields including a deeper reflection on how to draw on their creative strategies to cultivate self-love.

Photo used with permsion from Omika Jikaria
Source: Photo used with permsion from Omika Jikaria

Below is my chat with Omika JIkaria, a dancer, choreographer, and management consultant. Jikaria has trained in dance since age 3, and utilizes dance as a tool for self-expression, stress management, and community building. With her sisters, she is a co-founder of Jikaria Sisters, a multimedia arts and lifestyle brand based in New York City, with a global reach of 700,000 subscribers across social-media platforms. Jikaria is passionate about making tools for self-awareness more accessible and commonplace.

Can you share a little about your mental wellness journey?

Growing up in an Indian American context, mental health wasn’t really talked about. I only started thinking about it in high school. I felt anxious often but didn’t have the vocabulary or tools to think about it: I thought that was how things were. During college, I was coming out of a bad relationship and looking to focus on myself. I wanted to focus on healing and self-awareness. I started practicing yoga and thinking about my health and wellness more. Yoga introduced me to meditation. I also valued a scientific perspective, so I looked to neuroscience to understand how to self-soothe.

What does self-love mean to you?

Self-love is being present with my needs and desires, and then honoring them. I think that takes a lot of different forms. It starts with being self-aware of what's going on and acknowledging it. It includes defining boundaries for myself, and then also for others in my life. It’s considering what is or is not serving me right now and how that may impact a relationship or situation.

I think at first when I was exploring the space I thought of it very much as, "OK I have to do this much yoga to meditate this much.” After a while you learn that there's time and space for routines, but that's not really it anymore for me. A huge part of my life is now being true with myself and being present with that honesty.

How does this show up in your experiences as a dancer?

I have danced my whole life. I wasn’t dancing as much in college, and that was also when I felt least connected to myself. Over the course of my life, I have experienced changes that have caused my experiences to shift. After college I returned to dance by becoming a dance fitness instructor, then I trained semi-professionally in salsa, and now dance commonly emerges for me on social media. Self-love is honoring where I am and allowing dance to evolve with me. I am learning to flow with the creative energy that I want to cultivate. In dance, you make the space for creativity and self-love and it will emerge as it is supposed to.

What can people take from your field to improve their self-love and well-being?

Lean into it if it feels true to you. If you feel called to it, go for it. It’s also okay if you don’t; there is another creative medium that may work for you. For example, I don’t feel called to sports, so I simply don’t pursue it. That’s okay.

Tune into your senses. Dance is a big part of my mood-boosting, because it’s an opportunity for me to get out of my head and release. My energy shifts from my mind to my senses into a physical space in which I can really immerse in presence. Notice what you feel in your body instead of thinking of what is happening. Partnered dancing, following a choreographer, or intuitive improvisation are ways to tune into the present.

Use dance as a catalyst for connection. Throughout my life, dance has been a great way to find community by meeting like-minded people. I've moved a lot of places and dance has been a way for me to connect to people in new places. It’s also a great way to learn about other cultures and traditions.

For people who are busy and are trying to make dance a part of their lives I think one thing that could be helpful would be to sign up for a class. This serves as an accountability method. The presence and connection to other people can help you to show up for yourself. For example, a benefit of salsa dancing is that there are often social events with great people and great music for you to just let go.

More from Shainna Ali Ph.D., LMHC, NCC
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