Copenhagen-based embodied psychology coach Olga Skalska turns to dance in difficult times.
Photographs: Laura Iona V - Copenhagen Photo Experience
Text: Sarah Redohl
"When was the last time you danced?" Olga Skalska's answer will almost always be "today." Before our interview, she turned up a tribal beats playlist and danced around her Valby apartment for 10 minutes. "I was anxious to tell my story," she said, "so I had to connect with my body before I could connect with you."
Olga, an Embodied Psychology Coach, based in Copenhagen, solves her problems through dance every day. Whether to clear her head, combat anxiety, or process complex feelings, she's discovered moving her body helps her move through her emotions.
Dance means more than fun and fitness for Olga. It's a form of self-expression, of therapy, of freedom.
That's why she called the coaching practice she launched in March 2019 Move & Grow. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Olga has offered online coaching to individuals and teams and live-streamed dance classes following the World Groove Movement's interactive group dance method.
Although Olga is a talented dancer - expressive, rhythmic, smooth - she said getting here was anything but smooth: "Life's shown me it's a bumpy road."
Dance to your own rhythm
When Olga's mother walked her to her first day of school in Kielce, Poland, Olga already knew she wanted to live abroad. "I told her the most important thing I wanted to learn was English," she said, "because I knew I wasn't going to live in Poland when I grew up."
Nestled among the Holy Cross Mountains' hills and forests, Kielce is a city of about 200,000 inhabitants in south-central Poland. Despite its Baroque architecture and ample green space, Olga said the town is often recognised abroad only for its Łomża Vive Kielce handball team, a regular competitor of the European Handball Federation Champions League. "That, or they've stopped at the McDonalds in Kielce on their drive between Warsaw and Krakow," she added with a laugh.
When she was a child, Olga loved watching videos from other cultures - especially dance styles from around the world. She remembers her older brothers filling her family's apartment with hip hop, electronic, and pop music. "When I was about 10, my friends asked me to teach them how to dance," she recalled. "I couldn't teach them because I didn't know how to dance, I just danced."
Olga's passion and natural talent encouraged her to try dance classes, but she always found herself disappointed. "My body never wanted to follow the steps," she said. So, she told her friends this: listen to your body, listen to the music, connect with the beat, and then move to it. She was following the Groove Method before she'd ever learned it existed.
When Olga left Kielce to study at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw, she brought dance with her. "I was always the first one on the dance floor at the club," she said. Warsaw, known for its lively club scene, became her dance floor.
"I was clubbing, drinking, and staying up late as a way to release this energy. I didn't know how to cope with it in a healthy way back then," she said. "People would tell me I had this madness; I was all over the place on the dance floor."
In search of self
Although Olga knew she wanted to study psychology since she was a child - people often commented on her tendency to listen and offer insightful advice beyond her years - her time at university was exhausting.
"I felt so much pressure to be perfect," she said. "I had high standards for myself and others. Whenever I or someone else would fall short, I would flip out." Olga's perfectionism was a trauma response from her childhood, rooted in her family dynamics' dysfunctional patterns.
"Growing up in a chaotic environment can lead to perfectionism because as a child you highly depend on others, so as an adult you crave control over everything: yourself, your work, other people, peoples' perception of you, your emotions," Olga said. There was no room for perceived weakness in her family; sadness was usually expressed with anger. Emotions, she added, were meant to be repressed. "It's very addicting to try to find peace through control."
"Denmark offered me freedom to be myself. Freedom, is one of my core values. Maybe part of it is coming from Poland, where historically we didn’t have much freedom, and we really had to fight for it." - Olga Skalska
And that's precisely what Olga did. In 2015, she finished her master's degree in psychology while also working full-time, but she was anxious, stressed, and exhausted. Olga decided to quit her corporate job in Warsaw and bought a one-way ticket to Ibiza, Spain.
"It was hard to make that change because a lot of people had opinions about what I should do, and I didn't know if I could trust myself enough to go for it," she said. Her decision to trust herself paid off. After landing in Spain, she almost immediately found a job - "just like that," Olga said, with a snap of her fingers.
When she was accepted into the service management programme at Copenhagen Business Academy, which she'd only applied to upon the suggestion of a friend in the programme, Olga had already begun building a life in Spain and establishing trust in her own decisions. Olga figured the programme was "one more option, one more door to open." Again, she jumped.
"People told me I was going backwards," she said. After all, she already had credentials, experience, and a promising career. 'Why would you give that up?' people asked her. But Olga knew what she needed better than anyone else. She wanted to discover the life that was right for her. "I knew it was too early for me to settle on a fixed lifestyle."
By the time Olga finished her programme in 2017, she'd gravitated back to old patterns: "I fell into what I was good at: hustling mode and proving myself." She decided to return to Spain, giving herself the space to meet new people, improve her Spanish, and reconnect with dancing.
She soon discovered the missing piece between her psychology profession and her passion for dance when she was introduced to the Groove Method at a networking event. When she discovered that the very next Groove training was in Copenhagen, only two blocks from her apartment, she was sold.
Happy feet, healthy mind
"You’re not here to impress anyone, not even yourself,” began Olga’s Groove trainer back in Copenhagen. Groove is about expressing oneself, not impressing anyone. “I immediately thought, ‘What am I even doing here then?’” Olga recalled.
Performing and proving herself was her default response, only this time she recognised it and took action. She started therapy to begin healing from the generational trauma she carried with her from Poland. She began embodying the Groove philosophy of expression and authenticity. And she began to realise how her discontent and desire to escape to Spain were because her life felt inauthentic. “I was ticking off a checklist of all the things I should be for the validation of others.”
With Groove, she was being her authentic self, expressing her emotions, and seeking validation from within for the first time. She had also found what had been missing from her training in psychology. “Dancing had always been my biggest passion, but I didn’t know how to connect it to my interest in helping people,” she said. “The body and spirit had always been missing from my training in psychology.”
That’s why Olga’s Move & Grow methodology, derived from her personal experiences, focuses on counselling, embodiment, and coaching to integrate mind, body, and spirit for a holistic approach to wellbeing.
Although Olga had to heal from her past to get where she is today - and sometimes that’s necessary - her approach aims to help people who “face some challenges that don’t necessarily require a clinical diagnosis.” She considers herself more of a coach than a psychologist, preferring to focus on her clients’ present and future rather than the past. However, she does use therapeutic tools to help her clients' process suppressed emotions and events from the past.
“Most people only address mental health when they are in a deep crisis, completely unaware of how their current self-worth issues and lack of confidence or self-trust influence their lives,” she said. “My goal is to empower people to take care of their mental and physical state and live more fulfilled lives.”
After reconnecting with her own values, Olga began to realise what kept pulling her back to Denmark. She shared many of the values she witnessed in Danish culture, such as trust, equality, teamwork, and freedom. “I want to be in a society that cultivates the values I have,” she said. “When I started thinking in that way, I realised Denmark was the right place for me.”
At Copenhagen Business Academy, Olga appreciated how professors asked students to call them by name and approach them if they needed help. She’d drink alongside classmates and professors alike at ‘Friday Bar’ pop-ups on campus. This was very different from the student-teacher division she had experienced in Poland. She also preferred Denmark’s collaborative approach to schoolwork rather than the competitive one to which she was accustomed. For someone who always felt the need to be the best, this was the healthier option.
She also felt Denmark offered her the freedom to be herself. Freedom, she said, is one of her core values. “Maybe part of it is coming from Poland, where historically we didn’t have much freedom, and we really had to fight for it,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I tried not to be myself for so long that now I always want to be my true self.” Olga’s desire for freedom ultimately encouraged her to start her own brand, one that expresses her personal and professional experience and personality.
The dancing portion of Olga’s practice aims to connect people with their bodies while teaching them to express their emotions and break free from fear of judgment. For her Groove classes, she strives for a mix of music genres to get everyone out of their comfort zone.
“I might start with a meditative song and then hop into cha-cha, pop, tribal, or electronic, then move into rock where people can work through some anger and then tango to express some attitude before finishing off with something gentle to ease the class into stillness,” she said. However, she realises each person’s response to music is personal: “Sometimes I’ll play a happy song in class, and a student will cry because they are processing something other than what you might expect.”
In her own practice, Olga opts for upbeat music when she needs to shake off stress, meditative music to self-soothe, and instrumental when she’s processing. Often, dance is the answer. Sometimes - even for Olga - it’s not.
A few days before our interview, she was feeling grief that no amount of dancing could cure. She took a walk in Valby Park - no music, no podcasts, no agenda - and sat down on a park bench. After doing some breathwork, she came to realise the cause of her grief.
“I’m so far from home, and it’s been so long since I’ve seen my family and friends in Poland,” she said. “It’s taken a toll on me, and I needed to make space for that. We all have needs right now that can’t be met, but we can still healthily grieve them. We have to recognise those emotions so we can self-soothe and self-regulate.”
Although Olga misses her friends and family in Poland, it has only made her cherish her most recent trip home all the more. The last time Olga visited Kielce, three generations of her family gathered at her aunt’s house and openly discussed long-held emotions. “It’s like we were building a sisterhood,” Olga said.
“We realised we’re all facing the same issues as a result of this generational trauma,” she added. A number of her family members have since started their own paths toward self-discovery and healing. “When one person begins to heal, it creates a ripple effect.”
It has indeed been a bumpy, winding road - from Poland to Spain to Denmark, then back to Spain and back to Denmark - but it’s been worth it. Olga has found a way to help people through psychology and dance; she has better, deeper relationships with family and friends near and far; and she has a better relationship with herself.
True freedom, she has come to realise, is the ability to feel at home in her own heart. “If I can’t feel at home there, I won’t feel at home anywhere."
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