Summer of Salsa

The Summer seems to be a time of anniversaries/reminders for me. Some positive, some less-so. In fact, as the London 2012 Olympics are about to start it prompts me to reflect on how things have changed since the Beijing Olympics of 2008.

In the Summer of 2008 I remember watching hours of Olympic sport, not because I was a fanatic, but because I was a patient on a Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and not allowed access to any of my possessions due to the level of risk I was at. I don’t remember any key events of that Olympics, I suspect while I was watching I wasn’t really taking much of it in.

In the Summer of 2009 I was still an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital, as I had been for 16 months at this point, but now on an acute ward on 1-1 observations. I was considering, reluctantly, transfer to a residential therapeutic community (TC).

In the Summer of 2010 I was nearing the end of my TC admission, I had spent 8 months as an inpatient and was finding my feet in the real world. As part of this I embarked on salsa classes to help build up social contacts in the new area I was living in.

In the Summer of 2011 I had completed an Access to Higher Education Diploma, to help get me back into the world of academia and had built up a great network of friends, as well as enjoying salsa dancing and voluntary work.

Now, in the Summer of 2012, I’ve completed my first year at university and loved my first practice placement.

Anyway, after that nice little timeline I’ll get onto the main point of this post, salsa! As a self-confessed #OTgeek the other incredibly meaningful occupation in my life is salsa dancing. Consequently I was thrilled to see on Ruby Wax’s Mad Confessions ( ) that salsa features as an activity for people receiving treatment at The Priory. During an OT intervention when I was in the TC the idea of finding leisure occupations that would be meaningful and also not self-defeating (as many exercise/sporting occupations had been for me) came up. The OT and I felt that I needed to explore a hobby that could be fun and that would help me make friends in the area I was living. As a child I had done some ballet and modern dance and really quite enjoyed it, but I was wary of this type of activity for someone who had a slightly shaky body image. I did some research and found a local streetdance class and decided to attend. While I enjoyed the class I found that most of the participants were 16-18 years old, despite it being an adult class. I then decided to try salsa, simply because there seemed to be a multitude of classes and I believed I was likely to find a wider age range of participants.

I picked a local salsa class that seemed to have a good structure format and a separate class for those who were attending their first class. While I was nervous about attending the first experience went well. The format was as I expected and being in a separate class was really helpful as it reduced the number of social interactions I needed to have.

The first few months were probably a little challenging and I don’t seem to have the energy (or possibly the desire) to reflect in detail on that but I will summarise in terms of the benefits and challenges I experienced as I started.


  • Enabled me to explore my identity as someone who was functioning and competent.
  • Helped me develop a healthy body image and discover how to use my body in a good way, rather than abuse it.
  • The structure of classes meant that the occupation was the main focus, taking the pressure off the social interactions and allowing me to increase my confidence with those, little by little.
  • It’s fun! Still after some really special nights I’ll find that I have such a buzz that it can be hard to wind down.
  • It doesn’t feel like exercise, therefore I get to be active without it slipping into eating disordered behaviour.
  • It’s difficult, so I don’t get bored and have to work hard to improve.


  • I did find it very hard to dance with, and be in close proximity to, lots of men. Often I wonder why I picked this sort of activity but I know it’s been a useful challenge to work through in therapy.
  • At the start I was still a member of the TC, inevitably small talk usually got onto questions about where I worked/what I did during the day and I found these awkward. It was so much easier several months later when I could say ‘I’m a student’
  • You get hot! I still wear long sleeves when I dance as I don’t feel comfortable with people, perhaps, making snap judgements about my arms. While I now do many other activities in short sleeves I don’t feel comfortable doing it at salsa, perhaps because it would involve ‘coming out’ to so many people who have known me for some time.
  • As mentioned in another blog post, wearing nice, feminine clothes was almost traumatic at times.

As time has gone on I am so much more comfortable in the salsa scene and have made some incredible friends. Including some close friends who I can rely on for support, should I ever need it. It has also brought great opportunities. In the past year I’ve attended salsa congresses and danced at lovely venues like the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. I’ve also recently joined a performance team, that will mean I get to perform all over the country, and even abroad. I don’t think I could ever have imagined that my first class would lead to my current situation.

I do believe that salsa has a very important role in keeping me recovered. It gives me energy and enthusiasm for life and has increased my confidence in so many areas. Many of the skills I developed through salsa have been transferable to other occupations.

While on placement I reflected on how easy I found it to build therapeutic relationships quickly. Much of this I attribute to salsa. Every time I dance with someone, myself and my partner has to work collaboratively, adjusting to each other’s strengths and weaknesses, to make the dance work. I also have got more comfortable chatting to and working with such a variety of people, and even getting on with those whose behaviour/manner I find difficult.

So yes, for me dancing and really participating (in terms of the DBT mindfulness skill, ‘participate’) in salsa helps my sense of self and is now an integral part of my identity. I think part of the value of salsa for my recovery was that while it linked to areas I had previous experience of, ie. a dance class, it was not something that had any real connections to difficult stages in my life.