I love to dance. I have since I was a child. The dance floor has always been a place where I can easily let everything melt away into a state of unaffected bliss. As I have gotten older, I have found I can connect with that feeling in a club or at a party, but rarely in a class anymore, because too often the focus is on the mirrors, body image and how everyone looks. However, a few years ago my dear friend Anne Van de Water invited me to Zumba class at our local rec center. Given my love of dance, I accepted, but I will not lie about the trepidation I had of finding myself amongst a bunch of women stiffly staring at themselves in a mirror. Josette Tkacik and her Zumba revolution proved me wrong and blew me away. Josette's Zumba class is nothing reminiscent of a local rec center aerobics class or any other dance class I have taken for that matter. You feel as if you are transported to Ibiza. Six days a week, Josette pulls hundreds (yes, hundreds) of people onto her dance floor and leads them through an hour plus of pure joy and complete celebration of life (and it is a most killer workout). She does this with her expressions and a whistle, not a single word is used during class, and there are no mirrors to be found anywhere in the ballroom. Egos and all other life stresses are checked at the door and, honestly, the most diverse group I have seen in Santa Barbara collectively dances their asses off with beaming smiles. What happens in that room is nothing short of magic, but is also purely the result of what Josette has cultivated in her own life. Diagnosed about five years ago with mobility threatening rheumatoid arthritis, a dancer for life, Josette opted not for a hefty pharmaceutical regime, but her own recipe for healing. So instead of leading class with a mic from a wheelchair, she dances her butt off every night in celebration of her own new lease on life. Her beauty, wisdom and joy are contagious. I am grateful for the opportunity to share this Last Cut Conversation.
What is a notable last cut you have made?
Josette: "I find that I have spent so much of my life kind of focused on what everybody expects of me instead of staying true to myself. I know now that love is energy, and I know that we are love so we are energy. And I understand that when we are on a higher vibration and we are true to ourselves and we speak, act and live from a love standpoint, we are at the highest vibration we can be. We all know what that feels like. It feels like bliss and it feels like joy and it feels like laughter. So my last cut, and this is recently within the last couple of months, is a commitment to start my day up and stay as high as I can unconditionally, not letting any of those other conditions affect me. So if there is a lot of traffic, I kind of figure out a way to make it funny. So if I am late, it’s funny. Being unconditional with staying at a higher vibration has been the last major last cut."
It can be challenging to stay there when you are out in the world and not everyone is making the same choice to keep it high. How does that work?
"That is where I come back to unconditional. When you are living in a house, there are all these conditions. There is all of this stuff with conditions. For me, unconditional is that it doesn’t matter what everybody else is doing. The only thing I can control is my own vibration. If I stay high, they will eventually come to meet me, but I can’t help anybody else if I go down to where they are. That is where I realized that to be the best in my own life-the best person, best wife, best mother- I have to stay up here so I can keep it up here."
How did you arrive at such a clear awareness of how you want to live?
"That is easy. Everything got just about taken away. Everything. Everything. Everything. And I know you can relate to this. My body didn’t belong to me for a period of time. I was in so much pain. I couldn’t open a jar because my wrists were like baseballs. Having RA [rheumatoid arthritis], and I feel like this is so old news at this point, but for me that was the full paradigm shift. Little reminders. Little reminders. “Oh, you’re not listening.” So the universe just went, “Boom! Listen!” Everything that I identified with was gone. I couldn’t wear a pair of heels. I couldn’t even brush my teeth because my elbow didn’t work. I couldn’t hug my son, which was the worst. I couldn’t lift him. And I started to ask myself, “Ok, is this is really it?” I wasn’t dying, but it felt like I was because I didn’t have use of a body to walk around in.
So, you start to go, “Well, now, how did you use the time that you had and was it worth it?” Because then you start really realizing, we are here for a short period of time and then you think of all the stupid dramas and the stupid fights and the energy that was put in stupid places that become so irrelevant when all you want to do is hug your son. So, that for me was the shift, sitting in pain, being told, “You are going to lose at least 15 years of your life because of the pharmaceuticals. That’s the average loss when you are on the three drugs (the biologics for RA). You reduce your life span by about 15 years. That was the one choice. Well, they didn’t give me any other choice. And that was me going, “Oh whoa, whoa, whoa…this is more than a wake up call. This is the end. You aren’t going to be able to wear high heels anymore and you aren’t going to be able to dance anymore.”
That was the beginning of the journey. I was looking at my son and saying, “Why do I now feel like I am more and you are more than what everybody is telling me we are? And why do I not want to believe what they are telling me even though I am in this situation and dealing with it?” So that was the start to dig deeper and ask questions, ask more of myself. There are a few things that I absolutely know and I know we are all a lot more than we allow ourselves to be. It’s true. I start to worry that people have told this story enough and it is great that people are inspired, but the closed mindedness in the medical community around this was [astounding]. There was a voice inside that said, “There is something more.” Then I realized that there is something more inside all of us, and it is all energy based.
For me, my clear path [forward] was my son. There was no doubt. To everybody else I could disappear. Goodbye. I looked at him and thought, “He is going to have to be pushing me around in a wheelchair. No, no, no.” I wanted him to dance with me. I wanted to dance with him when he got married. I had to be at a playground. He was 2. There was no way I could not conceive of it. My heart could not conceive of it, and that is really where love can move mountains."
How did you arrive at this place today where you are on stage leading hundreds of people in ecstatic Zumba dance and joy 6 days a week? You aren’t in a wheelchair and you are not on any meds. How did you do it?
"It was a long journey. It was the first year, maybe 20 hours in bed [a day], because it was so painful. My husband was here, taking care of our son, and we were getting financial help from family. We were borrowing money to pay the rent, and we sold pretty much every piece of jewelry, including family heirlooms, to put food on the table. The whole while I am still here going, “I have to do this. I have to do this. I have to do this.” But there would be these moments where I would feel better and I wouldn’t feel so sick and it wouldn’t hurt so badly. I thought something is going on, something is happening. With RA it’s the mornings that are really, really bad. I never wanted to go to sleep because I was so afraid of waking up in the morning. Your neck. You can’t move and it hurts. The first movement is so painful.
But I remember the first morning when I woke up and there was nothing. Nothing was swollen. I jumped out of out of bed and started jumping up and down. I was screaming, “It’s gone! It’s gone! It’s gone!” The first thing I did was to call the Arthritis Foundation and I called the doctors. I left messages for the doctors and when the Arthritis Foundation called me back, I said, “I did this. I did this and it’s gone. I don’t have any symptoms and you told me this couldn’t happen.” They said, “Well you have a temporary remission and those don’t usually last for more than two months so just don’t get too excited.”
That was four and a half years ago. I still call them, but now they won’t talk to me. They won’t talk to me. But anyways, the long story short is the journey was there, but at every tier, there was more of a purpose and more of a focus. More of a focus and maybe that’s where the pain fine tunes you, because it fine tunes your focus and you don’t mess with the small stuff. And what is that Chicken Soup Book? Everything is small stuff. Everything is small stuff and now I know that I can dance and I can share that elation and that life passion and that energy and that vibration with as many people as I can and then I can come home and play with my son and hug my husband and be happy, because that is all that matters.
I feel really strong but it is funny now with all the attention with Zumba. Everybody asks, “What has a 47 year old mom got on a 19-year old hip hop dancer from Juilliard? How is it that all these people are coming to you?” They have to understand energy and they have to understand there is a reason we are all here. All I do is I just set myself on a high vibration. That is all I do. I just bring people up and that is the feeling. For me what I think happens in that class is that people are reminded who they are supposed to be and have a feeling of this joy that is supposed to be what life is all about. Martha Graham said, “People will always remember how you make them feel.” That’s so true."
"It is kind of funny because I studied theater. I was meant to be an artist, an actress, a dancer. I never in my wildest dreams… I mean, I knew I was supposed to be on stage making people feel something. I knew that was my calling. There was a video of when I was three that I would be dancing on the stage in front of people when they asked me what I want to be when I grow up, but it was never in the context it is. No and thank god it is what it is now, because it is so much more meaningful. That is how wonderful life and love and the universe is…when you become true to yourself, you are handed the things that you thought you wanted, but in a way… for me now I don’t care anymore. I can move. I am here and I am with my son. I am happy and healthy and everything else is just fluff and stuff.'”
What’s the best part of being on this side of the two last cuts of your journey? What is the best part of being you in this moment?
"The freedom of unconditionality. Is that a word? For me when I stopped blaming everybody else for what I was going through, when I stopped telling my husband you did that and it hurt me, when I stopped putting everybody else responsible for my joy and started being the creator of my own joy, there is such an immense freedom and liberation and truth and ultimately love for myself. I think that is the hardest thing to allow all that love and unconditionality to happen to yourself and giving it to yourself and being open to taking care of yourself in that way. Yeah, there’s always going to be people out there that are going to do things that you don’t want. You have to get to a point where, not that you’re resilient, because I still get hurt, but I understand that I can always go, “It’s alright. I can take care of myself.” It’s not a bitter place. It is a place of loving. It is a freedom to not ever point the finger and take responsibility for your own life and joy. It is huge and I am enjoying it."
I was going to ask you what you would say to your son about what you wish you had known then that you know now, but what would you say to yourself at his age (age seven)?
"I don’t think at seven yet I was too jaded about what people told me I should be. If I could meet myself at 7, I would probably grab my shoulders and shake me really hard and tell me, “You are absolutely right. Listen to your soul. Don’t stop and block everybody else out. Just do your thing. Don’t listen to what some people will say.” I was terrible at so many things and those stigmas stick with you your whole life, and little by little, it breaks you down. I knew I wanted to dance so why the hell did I even go to school? I still wonder. People lose themselves. You lose yourself in trying to be what you are told you are supposed to be.”
Hopefully, now the message is “Don’t get taken off your path so far.” Because you’ll get a reminder and, if you don’t listen to the reminder, you’ll get a bigger reminder. And if you don’t listen to the bigger reminder, it’ll smack you upside your head. And if you don’t listen to that, you know, you’ll be lying down in a hospital. It will keep getting you until it gets your attention. I believe that’s what the universe does. It just got my attention. Maybe yours too.'”
What’s most true to you?
"Love. Easy. Love. It’s the only thing that is, that we are, that everybody is. Simple."