Last night was one of my most favourite nights of the year.
Every year, on the eve of International Women’s Day, Dandelion Dance™ hosts a special event highlighting the voices, views and creations of girls and young women from a diverse cross-section of Ottawa’s community. And every year, I have an opportunity to share with the audience why my career pivot (which still confounds many, I know!) has largely focused on stewarding the sustainable expansion of this groundbreaking leadership program for girls.
For many of you, it is no surprise that I am an advocate for girls’ and women’s rights, and a proud feminist. It is also not a surprise to many that I thrive in leadership roles when I am driven by the opportunity to create real, meaningful change in the world. And still others of you have always known that I have a love for big picture thinking about systems change, strategic planning, and facilitating meaningful conversations.
And yet – many people are stumped by my decision to co-lead Dandelion Dance™, alongside the organization’s ingenious founder, Hannah Beach. In fact, a friend once called me and asked, truly confused: “So …. you’re teaching dance classes now?”
I had to laugh. No, not at all. My role at Dandelion is very much focused on the organization’s growth and financial sustainability. But it is time for me to address that question that lingers in many people’s minds: “Why dance? What does that have to do with leadership?” There are actually many ways that I could answer this question, all rooted in my own personal experience and personal stories. And here is the story that I chose to share last night:
“Thank you so much to all of you for being here tonight! I love seeing so many new and also familiar faces in the crowd.
Here’s the answer: The way we feel and move in our bodies profoundly affects the way that we interact with the rest of the world, whether we are conscious of it or not. Here’s how I know this, personally.
Many of you know that I am from out west. I was born in Vancouver and raised in Calgary, and lived there until I was 24.
Since then, I’ve lived in many places around the world, and I’ve settled into calling Ottawa my home. But there is one place out west that holds special significance for me – Tunnel Mountain, in Banff, Alberta.
If you have ever hiked to the summit of Tunnel Mountain, you know that it is one of those trails that is steep, but doable for most people. But I didn’t always know that.
The first time I attempted to hike to the top of Tunnel Mountain, I was pretty young – about 18. At that time, I’d say that I was about the same size that I am today. But at that point in my life, I was so defensive about my body, after having been bullied about it for years. I was easily embarrassed about not being as fast as friends of mine who could make it up that mountain in less than an hour. So the first time I tried, I was struggling. I could barely breathe. I felt humiliated and I was sure everyone was judging me. And I also believed there was no way that I could do it.
I could not bear being so vulnerable in front of so many people. I also couldn’t ask anyone in my group to slow down for just a minute, so I could catch my breath and keep going. I didn’t have the courage to do that.
So what did I do? I made an excuse about a bum knee and I stopped. I hiked back down the mountain to the parking lot by myself and waited until my friends finished. I felt so ashamed of myself.
A few years later, I tried again, this time after having lost a significant amount of weight. I was spending a lot of time at the gym. I was still never going to be one of those trail runners that is out there everyday, but I made it to the top. And it felt amazing. And I realized, for the first time in my life, just how much I loved the great outdoors. Imagine that – I’d lived in Calgary for most of my life, seeing the silhouette of the majestic Rocky Mountains from my very own home, but I was about 22 or so before I realized how much I really loved the mountains.
Now, fast forward to more than 15 years later, to present day. At this stage in my life, I have re-gained a whole bunch of weight. I am, physically, almost back where I was when I was 18 years old, and attempting to scale my personal Everest.
Last summer, my boyfriend and I were in Calgary for a family wedding. And I was totally compelled to attempt Tunnel Mountain again. I was really nervous that I wouldn’t be able to make it, knowing that I had put back on all of this weight. And I had never huffed and puffed my way up a trail like that before with my boyfriend. There’s a part of me that only ever wants to do things like that alone in case I fail, so that I can keep that failure private. Truthfully, I was terrified to do this. But I had to try.
So off we went. It was exhausting. From the very start of the trailhead, I was pooped. But this time, I wasn’t so stuck in my head, worrying about what everyone else thought, and how I looked. Instead, I was paying attention to my body. I knew that I could do it, if I just gave my body a chance. So if I needed to stop and breathe, I did. And then I would keep going. This time, I had the courage to be vulnerable enough to say “Hang on a second; I need a moment to catch my breath.”
And so we made it up to the top and had a snack, and we hung out with a chipmunk and enjoyed the awesome scenery. It is a precious memory for me.
You heard Hannah [Dandelion’s Founder and my counterpart in leading the organization] say earlier that 6 out of 10 girls stop doing something they LOVE in adolescence because of anxiety over their appearance. I was one of those girls, well beyond my childhood and my teenage years. I’m not anymore (well, for the most part!). But I know that if I had had access to a program like Dandelion’s when I was a kid – one that gave me the opportunity to move my body in a safe space with other girls, and allow others to watch me revel in the different ways that I could move –
I would have made it to the top of Tunnel Mountain when I first attempted it that day when I was 18. Not necessarily because my body would have been very different than it actually was at that time – but because I would not have felt that shame over my body, and I would have had the courage to be vulnerable enough to say, “Hey, can you wait for me?”
And what’s more – if my friends had also been a part of Dandelion when they were girls, they would probably have already recognized that it was more important to keep the group together, and they would have adjusted their pace so that I wouldn’t have felt so self-conscious.
When our community comes together to support Dandelion, what we are all doing, together, is helping more girls to have the courage to be vulnerable to do more things that are not always easy or comfortable. This is especially the case when it comes to physical activities that involve moving their bodies, given how difficult it can sometimes be in this world for girls to feel they are “on display.” And I know that if our community sticks together, we can keep our organization strong so that it is here for all girls and young women for a very long time – hopefully forever!
I know this deep in my body. I know this in my bones. And I think that you all do too.
Thank you for allowing me to share this story with all of you. And thank you again for being here tonight. We are all so grateful to every one of you.