In one week, my impromptu online Latin dance class gained 400 members.
For 35 minutes, a diverse collective of women sign in from around the world. Stephanie from Dallas shares photographs of her sons dancing. Martha from Mexico dances with her 80-year old mother. Lauren in Italy comments on how thankful she is for the idea—she currently lives under lockdown.
I start dancing and forget that I am worried about daily news reports. I roll my shoulders to the rhythm, move my hips to let go of fear. This is a place where Spanglish instructions feel natural and music is the common language. We dance to salsa, reggaetón, and other genres that remind us of loved ones far away.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought our online communities into new focus—work obligations, family connections, and artistic collaborations. The women in my class all joined for deeply personal reasons. Some are here to maintain their fitness routines. Some are here to share an activity with those they love. Some, to be part of a community in the middle of isolation.
For me, it’s a space to self-regulate through motion. As a Latina immigrant who has battled anxiety and depression for most of my adult life, facing a situation like this is not a simple task.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Latinx communities are similarly exposed to mental illness as the general population but the disparities exist in access to treatment and quality of the treatment received. Our experiences with mental health are influenced by inequality and cultural stigma. Many times, shame comes from cultural or religious beliefs, where mental health issues are seen as non-existent or prayer appears as the only viable treatment.
Many people in my community only acknowledge mental illness when someone as popular as J Balvin speaks openly about the issue. We do not talk about it in fear of being seen as a failure. We are taught to pretend everything is great. We are taught not to inconvenience others.
Even during this time of crisis, it has been hard to talk to my family about my fears of going to the grocery store, or not being able to return to my classroom in Dallas. They make the effort to listen, but we are divided by a border and a reality. Living in Mexico, they were exposed to a different view on COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing was seen as an exaggeration. The Mexican president told people to keep going out until he said it was time to stay home.
It took them weeks to understand my concern.
After my school closed, I started waking up in the middle of the night with stomachaches and sweaty hands. My anxiety appears in the form of questions that can’t be answered: How do I fit into this online world? What does my community need? How does this change my purpose?
For me, staying healthy means following a purpose. It means staying active.
It means dance.
I am a certified Zumba instructor. Though I haven’t taught in a long time, I decided to give it a chance. I asked in a few online Facebook groups if anyone was interested in joining a Latin dance class as a way to exercise during the quarantine. Then I went back to sleep.
I woke up to 200 likes and comments from women interested in joining. Ten times as many people signed up for an online class than I’ve ever had in person.
I created a live dance Facebook group, and the next day, I did something that I never thought I could do: I shared a dance session from my living room in Dallas. Women in Mexico, Ecuador, Italy, and across the U.S. joined me in a space where the conversation did not involve a pandemic and concern was expressed through movement.
During those 35 minutes, I focused on what was in my control.
I focused on dancing to strengthen my community.
Why are we so eager to be part of a group? We need to maintain our sense of belonging. As the virus has spread across the world, we’ve discussed the adaptation of social relations, work, and education. But many of us have left out our social connections.
Creating online groups where people support each other is crucial to the mental health of our communities.
We have entered a new era with no borders or divisions, where an online Latin dance class has become a space to look forward to. Whether it is my family, friends in Mexico or other countries, or even my students in Dallas, we are united by an appreciation of collectiveness.
I have a new purpose in creating joy and being present for those who join me on the other side of the screen. At the end of the first class, a woman shared an image of her daughter and son dancing and it made me reflect on our comunidad. We follow the examples of artists who transform pain into art.
In our second live class, I included music by J Balvin to remember that I am not alone. Leading an online community reminds me that even during a global pandemic, I am not my mental health issues.
I am the way I respond.
Alejandra Ramos Gómez is an artivist, poet, Dual Language Gifted and Talented educator, and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.