Sometimes I do feel like there is a god. And not the kind that rewards you for being good with eternal life, or punishes you for being bad or not following his rules. The god I sense, on occasion, is far subtler than that. The god I sense seems to inhabit the smallest places, the most fleeting and transient. The god I sense does not exist within any gender or frame of thought or belief system—those are all human endeavors, and they don’t apply to rest of the universe. And the universe, as we know, is vast, is dark and spacious and largely invisible to us. The god I sense makes no promises of eternity, nor of damnation. But this god does promise a sort of karma, in that everything you do or think or feel creates movement, tiny or immense, that moves everything else around you. And as movement often does, it returns to where it started—to you.
I think sometimes life can feel utterly senseless. Life can feel like opening up a brand new puzzle and dumping the pieces on a big table only to realize someone down at the puzzle packaging plant f*cked up. They put the pieces to several different puzzles all in one bag even though the box has a neat and pretty picture on it. No amount of intelligence or finesse will get those pieces to fit together, to make any sort of sense or resemble anything beautiful, let alone the image on the box. And so you mope around through a sea of unfriendly and seemingly disparate cardboard cutouts and wonder what the hell you’re supposed to do with this mess, what on earth to make of it. And then one day everything seems to shift—the pieces don’t all magically fit together, but the mess makes sense. The mess can, suddenly, be pieced together in its own way, and it can be beautiful, and it can contain rhythm and logic all its own. Had the person at the puzzle packing plant done his or her job well, our own experience would be a lot less interesting. It would be, in my opinion, a little too easy. But I do tend to prefer difficult things.
Recently, a few people have told me I was “good at dancing”. That I have a natural sense of rhythm and movement, a gracefulness. I always deny this. I try to insist upon them that that’s not exactly the case. I first insist that I’m average, at best, and that whoever is leading me makes a huge difference in my ability to appear “good”. Then, I try to tell them that, for most of my life, I have felt rather awkward and alien in my own body, like I wasn’t exactly sure if it was even mine, if it belonged to me at all. That everything they see me do on the dance floor now had to be assiduously learned. Sometimes I tell them that that disassociation began to evaporate when I moved to Ecuador seven years ago. And I’m still not exactly sure why—but when I lived there, whether it was the dense heat, the weight of the air, the tropical music, the inherent risk in everything, or simply the distance between myself and everything I’d ever known, I felt different. It felt as if there was a cord between my own navel and the fiery core of our planet. The ground held my feet a little more firmly, and everything was saturated with rhythm, even the breeze. I could not help but to inhabit my body more honestly and deeply.
When I lived in Ecuador, I finally started learning how to dance. Ever since I’d been little, I sensed that I could be a decent dancer, but I was too afraid to try, to sink deeply enough into my own skin to move it with any real conviction. But in Ecuador, things were different, the earth’s pull on me was at once tighter and also more liquid; at times it almost seemed I had no choice. I had to learn to dance. My friend G was my first teacher when we went out dancing at clubs, M, another friend, also helped me learn, as did months of classes in a basement studio in Urdesa, on the west side of Guayaquil. Years later, at a bizarre club surrounded by metal bars, in the company of my best friend, Emily, in a small town in the Dominican Republic, I asked a man to teach me how to dance bachata. Everything that I’ve learned since has been in classes and on dance floors here in the United States, and I’ve probably learned a lot more in this country, honestly, than anywhere else.
But it doesn’t seem to matter much. Latin dancing, it seems, is my body’s way of remembering that I was there. And not just for a little while, but for a long time. Long enough that the changes that country initiated within me were not fleeting but deeply permanent.
I ran into an acquaintance while out latin dancing on Friday night. She insisted that I looked good out there, that I looked like I knew what I was doing. I confessed my utter lack of confidence, but also said that at a certain point, I’d just stopped caring. The thrill that comes with moving across the floor whilst stitched into the rhythm of any particular song simply supplanted, for me, any associated fear or feeling of stupidity. I noticed while dancing that night that my face was stretched into a wide smile for almost the entire evening.
The following morning, a Saturday, I attended what you could call “beginning modern dance” for adults. At one point our instructor had one woman demonstrate moving across the floor. He reiterated not that she’d gotten the footwork down perfectly, but that she captured the feeling.
“You have to learn to let go,” he said. “You might feel silly, you might even look silly, but it doesn’t matter.”
I understood, even if I couldn’t exactly execute. Dancing well doesn’t come purely from technical mastery. Technical mastery alone is often stiff, and rather boring. This applies in other art forms as well-painting, writing, whatever. I also realized, acutely, why I was there, in that class, and it wasn’t to become a masterful dancer.
Over the past few years, my body has incurred various damages and insults and reels of bad news that I hadn’t known how to make sense of, let alone heal. Whatever friendly tether Ecuador had helped form between my mind and my body was cut loose—I could still feel myself deeply, but always with an edge of anger, of disappointment, of fear and most severely, of insufficiency. I tried everything, from yoga to meditation to soccer, but that sense of disconnect, of utter disappointment for the physical vessel I’d been given, only intensified.
Friday night, as the evening was closing, I danced with a man who I vaguely remember dancing with about three years ago. I remember him because he introduced me to the word “amazeballs”. He’s a very good dancer, which I recognized made me more stiff in my movements—I tend to dance better with men who aren’t so flashy, I’m less intimidated and thus more grounded as I move across the floor. Well, this guy sensed it, too.
“Loosen up, girl! Stop thinking about it so much,” he said in a friendly voice. I smiled and let out a small laugh. Sensing that he was safe, not a creep who had any kind of unfavorable intentions, I closed my eyes and let him pull me closer, against his body. Almost immediately, I felt a shift. Not only could I feel his movements more easily, but I could follow them with my own, even if I didn’t know what he wasn’t going to do, or even if I didn’t have any experience with the particular move or turn he was about to send us into. Almost immediately, he sensed it, too.
“There we go,” he said, “I felt that change! You’re a good follower.”
I laughed. “No, I’m not,” I responded. “I had to learn. I tend to push back too much.”
“But I like that,” he said. “That pushback makes it easier for me to do more with you.” He showed me how I could push against his shoulder as well, simultaneously distancing us and deepening our connection. It held us apart a bit, but it also enabled me to feel and respond to his movements more acutely. It lead me to think about one man I’d danced with months ago, and how much fun I’d had. Even back then, before I had the right understanding for it, I knew it had been so much fun largely because of the physical tension between us. If he excelled at anything in particular, it was using his wrists and fingers as if they were incredibly taut rubber bands, creating a sort of bounce, an invisible force between us. He initiated massive movements with nothing more than the flexion of two fingers. Had I been loose, had I not pushed and pulled back with my own fingers and wrists, it would have been a mess. It wouldn’t have looked like anything, and I probably would have fallen over or backward. Definitely below my typically average performance.
A couple of weeks ago my Saturday morning dance instructor was out of town. Our substitute teacher was a beautiful woman with long braids and a sort of ownership of her body I thought I could only dream of. She moved across the floor like silk, but also didn’t lack a single ounce of structure or confidence. I thought her body must be a perfect dancer’s body. Open and strong but loose in all the right ways. But it wasn’t. She confessed, during warm up, her lack of turnout, her limited range of motion in both her hips and her spine. I didn’t understand; where, then, did all of this confidence come from? Why wasn’t she ashamed of those things, like I was?
In the elevator after class, I pressed her a little further, and confessed that my hips were uncooperative in the same way. She told me she’d previously tried to make her body do things that didn’t work in its favor and that she’d had to get surgery as a consequence. As she walked off the elevator, she turned part way and said to me: “You gotta learn to love the body.”
The body. Not your body, her body, or my body. The body.
This past Saturday, I was confused about how to do a particular jump in class. I asked my teacher to show me how to do it.
“I can show you how I do it,” he said, “but you gotta learn how to do it on your own. I can’t teach you how to move your body. What things means for my body or yours might be very different.”
Once again, I understood. I closed my eyes and jumped, probably looking like a fool. I jumped and I jumped and I jumped.
After, my teacher and I had a good laugh when he told me I needed to keep my head down because I’d looked like “some kind of creature” jumping like that. I jumped again. And got it right, kind of.
Can I love the body? The body I was given: the one with ever-present lower back problems and slippery discs, with stiff knees, with hips that don’t open the way I wish they could, that don’t allow me to do yoga poses and dance movements I wish I could. The one that an ex-boyfriend thought was worthy of repeatedly insulting (he has since apologized, but that doesn’t just undo what was done). The body that’s at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer. The one that doctors examine and inspect with images and machinery and hands and wands twice a year every year for rogue, misbehaving cells. The one that doctors remind me, twice a year, I can alter to lower my cancer risk. The one that I’m not sure I want to alter, even if it means lower risk. The one I have so many questions and uncertainties about. Can I love it? Can I own it and inhabit it deeply? Can I be proud of what it can do, rather than scornful of what it cannot? Can I forgive it for the inherent risks it imposes upon me, for the unpleasant decisions it will force me to someday make?
The answer is on the dance floor, at least for me, even though I’ll never be a professional or serious or “very good” dancer. The answer is in my ability to let go, whenever I find the perfect combination of courage and carelessness necessary to do so. The answer is in moving across the floor according to feeling, perhaps looking like a fool, and not giving a damn. The answer is in owning how I move, however it might look to someone else. The answer is also in how I cannot move, where my range and abilities end. The answer is in making a mistake and not apologizing profusely, to my dance partner, my dance teacher, or even to myself (and perhaps instead laughing). The answer is in finding confidence in how I move, even if I have to feign it or talk myself into it at first, even if on the inside, I feel I might die of embarrassment. No amount of yoga or meditating or exercising without any dance will ever get me there. To dance is the only way to arrive, even if it comes and goes in my life, and however long it ends up taking.
My life is a constellation or nothing, it seems. Every element must be participate to make the picture materialize. I can’t neglect any aspect of it, any single point of light. I must be the teacher who gives all and I must also be the artist who wants to just take it all in. I must exercise for my health, but I also must do yoga and dance for my heart and spirit. I must spend days surrounded by trees, and I must spend days indoors staring at my computer or notebook, reflecting and writing. I must be utterly alone, and also deeply connected. I must at times be professional and well-spoken, and at other times, wildly inappropriate. I must at times be completely empty, wholly vacated, and at other times, completely filled, overflowing. I must do and be all of these things, all of the time, in order to make sense of the pieces of the puzzle, in order to understand how they’re beautiful, how they’re uniquely mine, and also worthy of pride and joy.
I must also keep looking for god, whatever it is, that thing that exists within the smallest and shortest of spaces, but that speaks so loudly when I listen intently, when I do what is true and right for me. I must listen and try to understand the jumble of messages, the words and ways and odd, timely responses. They ways I move through the world and the ways it all comes rushing back to me. Other answers to other questions reside there.
Palo santo is still burned in my apartment, on occasion, because I want to remember what the Ecuadorian coast smelled like. And I still dance because I remember what Ecuador really and truly gave me—not merely memories along a tropical coastline, but an intimate physical connection to this earth, to this body I was given… even if I am still working on truly understanding and appreciating it. Everything is participate. I am a constellation, or nothing at all.
(Wiki image of Mary Wigwam, at top of post.)