Sammy has been dancing since she could walk. Dance is more than movement for her; it is where she begins to learn who she is, her actions a language of emotion. On weekends, she waacks down the fluorescent streets of San Francisco carrying a boombox backpack named Bennie. Working professionals rove to therhythm behind her for a program called Going on a Dance. It is one of the many programs for her nonprofit called No Mirror Movement. Through dance and nutritional training, dancers become aware of positive body image and mental wellness.
On social media, she posts videos of herself (using her performer name: SammyMac) busting moves on park trails and concrete courts to promote her organization. Waacking is her preferred dance style, because, she says, “it makes me feeljoyful, free, confident, beautiful and in tune with my body. This is why I love it. It felt like it was always inside me and then when I became exposed to the culture and the style it just fit. I've never had that with any other dance style and have trained in many since I could walk. I love its culture of self-love, body acceptance, and authentic expression with no apologies, while simultaneously building community and empowering us all to not just live, but to thrive. It's a style based in social justice since it came from the gay clubs of LA during disco, another reason I love the style. Its roots show the power and importance of using art to change the status quo.”
To an outsider, SammyMac is the image of confidence and energy. But it wasn’t always that way for Sammy, who battled an eating disorder for a decade.
Sammy comes from a long line of dancers and performers on her mom’s side of the family and from a very young age performed in doctors’ office waiting rooms before taking formal classes after school and performing constantly.
“My relationship with dance has always been very complex,” she explained, “because when you get older it starts getting competitive.” As a child she looked forward to dance classes after school and the performances that followed months of dedication and preparation. But when she hit puberty, she started to feel her self-image close in on her and it affected her confidence in dance classes where she compared her body to other dancers in the huge mirrors lining the studio walls.
In a story she wrote on Medium.com, Sammy discusses her disordered eating and exercising habits and how she found the love within herself to heal, “This was the first full year of my life where I did not binge, purge, over exercise, starve myself, count calories, or beat myself up for not ‘being perfect.’ Recovering from a decade long eating disorder -restriction, bulimia, compulsive exercise, binge eating and overall self-hatred - is the greatest accomplishment of my life, and a win that I will no longer apologize for recognizing or for openly talking about.”
At thirteen, Sammy began the destructive habits that would severely impact her mental health during her teenage years and early twenties. She initially suffered from anorexia, which led to binge eating because of starvation. A deep underlying current of self-loathing accompanied her ups and downs of yo-yo dieting and the binge-purge cycle of bulimia, namely through over exercise. In an article she wrote for The Mighty, she explains, “At 24, I hit rock bottom – bingeing to the point of nausea at every meal, avoiding social situations because of being ashamed of how I looked, allowing guys to take advantage of me because I had no self-respect, counting every calorie and every calorie burned, exercising to the point of exhaustion every day and throwing up at least once a week.”
Her life was in a state of turmoil even though she appeared to be doing well professionally. As an undergraduate at UVM, she studied Environmentalism and Dance. Afterwards, when she moved to San Francisco, she was working a 9-5 office job at a nonprofit called Net Impact and professionally dancing during her free time. Dance was never something she could abandon, even though seeing her body in the mirror amplified her insecurities.
She wanted to use dance as a vessel for social change, and her skills learned at Net Impact helped pave the way for her nonprofit.“I would attribute the necessary skill set I now have to start and run a nonprofit from my experience at Net Impact.” At Net Impact, she gave young people the skills and support they needed to positively shape the world through business opportunities and after school activities.Meanwhile,dancing in a company called Funkonometry helped her develop leadership skills, work with groups and manage projects.
Sammy realized she could combine both worlds by educating people about the dangers of eating disorders in dance. No Mirror Movement wouldn’t just promote dance as recreational, it would inspire dancers to learn about mental health, wellness and positive body image while “getting out of the mirror and back into their bodies,” creating activism through dance.
Sammy defines dance activism beautifully, “No Mirror Movement’s mission is to challenge conventional ideas of beauty and health. It is very much a proponent of people thriving in what they are passionate about. When we live in a society with all these social guidelines, there is so much pressure to achieve [professionally] and make a lot of money. Sometimes that works for people and that is great. BUT some people have all these ‘shoulds’.” Such as: I should go to school. I should get an office job that is unsatisfying. I should make a lot of money in order to be successful. “We need to follow our MUSTS in order to contribute to our communities because only then will we be fulfilled.”
The way Sammy sees it, people can only follow their ‘musts’ by practicing self-love and care. No Mirror Movement offers a holistic and healthy environment for dancers to thrive. The main branch includes dance and wellness workshops for all ages, specifically youth. “We are very much about early prevention in schools and studios through the art of dance.” Another secondary branch is a dance company, “a marketing tool to educate, inspire, and engage audiences in these taboo subjects of mental health and hopefully get them involved in our community programs.” The curriculum for the programs includes meditation, proper nutrition (intuitive eating practices), and self-worth workshops where dancers learn to find their own beauty.
Some helpful resources that have structured the wellness workshops for No Mirror Movement include ‘the body positive’ organization which “liberates people from self-hatred to value their beauty and identity” and the book ‘Health at Every Size’ which combines research and psychotherapy to reveal truths about how body image is portrayed through advertising campaigns. For example, the book explains how physicians in the 1980s felt pressure from pharmaceutical corporations to change the range of the ‘average body’ based on no scientific data or evidence. The book also explains the ways in which the idea of hating fat people has been engrained into our culture, the obsession with being thin, and the ways in which fitness and health industries take advantage of our vulnerabilities and prey on our ignorance. In addition to worksheets Sammy has compiled through these resources, she also uses insight gained from her own experience with recovery through NEDA (the National Eating Disorder Association) and the Woodleaf Center in San Francisco.
This past August, Sammy returned to school to become a somatic psychologist. Somatic psychology is a holistic form of therapy that respects and utilizes the powerful connection between body, mind and spirit.
“Therapy helped me tremendously in transforming my life. [I thought] a movement and body oriented approach to therapy would be perfect for dancers and people who have eating disorders because our emotions and potential to fully heal live in the body.”
Once she is a licensed psychologist, she wants to set up a fund that provides affordable therapy to artists. She would work specifically with artists because they are a group that usually cannot afford insurance or aren’t provided insurance through their freelance work. And even with a health insurance plan, therapy often isn’t covered.
SammyMac hopes that the No Mirror Movement will spread across the nation. “We want to have a certification process for instructors and get as many teachers to create healthy environments in their communities as possible. Until we live in a society that teaches love from the inside out, people will continue to succumb to anxiety and depression. Eating disorders do not discriminate based on age, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, race or ethnicity. Hating ourselves and our bodies is a collective trauma and tragedy in our country. It’s something that was learned and can be unlearned.”
To become more involved withNo Mirror Movement,please click here