Back on Their Feet: Women Find Hope, Healing and Happiness on the Dance Floor

A sign posted in Bloomfield Hills’ Fred Astaire Dance Studio shows an inspiring quote. “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

Since their husbands died, three metro Detroit women – Michelle Allen, Uda Shallop and Barb Stawick – have taken the life philosophy to heart. All have found increased emotional and physical wellness, as well as a community of strength and support, on the dance floor. 

Moving Through Grief

0891 Dancing InsetThe three were among those assembled at the studio for a recent three-hour boot camp with Tony Dovolani of “Dancing with the Stars.” “How many of you love music?” the dance pro asked at the start of the class. All hands shot up. “I’m going to make you part of the music,” he promised, as a large, silvery disco ball twinkled and turned overhead. Soon, everyone was shuffling side to side, giggling and swiveling their hips in time to the music.

Shallop (in green), who began dancing socially when her husband was alive, was just one of the many enthusiastic students. “He was a great dancer, and I really enjoyed it,” she says of her late husband, who passed away in 2007. 

She started dance classes in 2015 and found that dance was one of the few things that made her feel strong and happy. She was also pleased to see that the extra activity helped her stay in shape and keep her weight in check. “If you don’t do anything, you tend to put on a few,” she says. 

Today, the Bloomfield Hills resident still dances five or six days a week and even participates in competitions. She says dancing has given her newfound self-confidence. “It’s a great feeling when I finally figure out what the right step is and can do it. Dancing has changed my life, all for the better,” she says. “I started living again – not just existing.” 

Allen (above in stripes), of Grosse Pointe Park, says she became interested in ballroom dancing as a child watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies but didn’t start ballroom dancing until her late 30s. It was something she and her first husband did together.

When he passed away in 2012, Allen stopped dancing for almost two years. Eventually, a friend encouraged Allen to attend a senior ballroom class, but she showed up on the wrong day.

Serendipitously, she struck up a conversation with another student, a widower whose wife had passed away a few months after Allen’s husband. 

“We exchanged phone numbers, he called that evening and the next day we met for coffee,” Allen says. “He took my hand, kissed me on the cheek and we couldn’t stop smiling.” 

Allen says dancing has brought her many things, including “an overall feeling of physical strength and emotional contentment.” It also brought her something totally unexpected: “I gained a wonderful husband to enjoy life with again,” she says. Today, she dances at least once a week and looks forward to her favorites: the waltz and the bolero.

Newfound Confidence 

In 2014, Stawick was dealt two devastating blows: her son and husband both passed away. In the aftermath, the Bloomfield resident decided to take up dancing. “I wanted to do something that would bring me joy,” she says. “I was anxious at first, but the teachers and students were so welcoming and fun.” 

Today, she participates in five weekly group classes, as well as a variety of individual lessons, listing waltz, East Coast swing and the hustle among her favorite dances.  

Stawick says dancing has brought much to her life, including “joy, freedom, confidence, poise and drama.”

It has also brought new friends “that I would never have met outside of dance, the confidence to perform in an activity that I would not have thought possible years before and great health benefits, including keeping my weight down and strengthening my legs,” she says. “Physically, I am in far better shape and condition than I was 20 years ago.”

All three women say lessons have inspired them to be more active and try new things other than dance. “I started working with a trainer,” Stawick adds. 

She encourages others who have lived through loss to take risks. “Life is too short to not go out and experience new and rewarding activities,” she says.

Allen agrees, and says that dancing has helped her enjoy living again. “You can’t dance and not smile,” she says. “It just makes you happy.” 

0891 Member Exclusive Type
HAP members can get 50 percent off of the introductory dance package at Fred Astaire Dance Studio. Learn more about discounts here.

Looking Forward  

People cope with grief in different ways, says Buff Donovan, HAP’s director of behavioral health. “It’s an individual process,” she says. “There are no rules or timetables. The most important thing is to give yourself permission to grieve.” 

Classes, such as dancing and other exercise, can help the healing process. “There’s the social connection but also the feel-good endorphins that activity brings,” she says. Not a dancer? No sweat; find something that interests you. 

“You have to create your own life and rebuild,” Donovan says. “Find something that brings you joy.”

Categories: Get Healthy, Get Moving