When the Body Answers Back

We know our stories are trapped in our bodies. We know we use our bodies to express personal perspectives within our stories. But what about when the body needs to do the speaking?

When I was living in NYC, one of my favorite classes was that of Alexandra Beller. She started each class with us laying on our backs, talking us through our bodies, giving us permission to let go of whatever we had been trudging through prior to class and to simply be before she invited us to move.

It never failed, each and every time I would get a lump in my throat, tears would stream from my eyes, and it seemed to come from nowhere. As I described in my post about David Howard’s class, here I was accepted as a person and then supported as a dancer. It was empowering, complex, surprising, and thought-provoking. Over ten years later, I am still thinking about it.

Over the years, I have had students go through similar experiences in my own class. This summer, I have finally had that feeling again in my practice of Bikram yoga.

Interestingly, this topic keeps coming up as I communicate with people from all over the dance map.

It makes me think the conversation needs to be opened.

In grad school, one area of my research was how organized movement curricula can help alleviate symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This, for me, was a brief and shallow advance into the world of research but the topic keeps cropping up in everything else I research and in all facets of my teaching- embodied learning for at-risk students, learning styles and methods for delivering information in a dance classroom, and more.

Without going into too much personal detail, I have experienced many traumas (death of a parent, being in NYC on 9/11, several robberies,….) and I have been conscious of how my body has felt and how my dancing has been impacted as a result of events. Things have helped and hindered along the way but nothing has had the profound effect for me as I have encountered this summer.

Through movement and possibly related to certain environmental conditions, I have felt the ‘baggage’ I have been carrying for years shift and eventually be left behind. Not all of it, but a substantial amount.

I have acknowledged the unevenness of sides of my body- in feeling like I am laying on an incline while in reality laying on flat ground, in sensing complete relaxation on the left side of my body while the right side is tense literally from the top of my head to the toes, even in wanting to cry but only on the right side of my face.

My head has flooded with thoughts that I have not allowed myself to entertain and in the next posture those thoughts flooded out.

I have felt the front of my body roar like a lion and I have cried, and cried, and cried- not in sadness but in release.

My body, mind, and spirit feel stronger than…..well, maybe ever.

In the reading I have done in recent weeks, I am suspecting that this breakthrough is, naturally, because I am ready. However, the environmental conditions of the yoga experience might also be important in my case. Namely, the heat.

Bikram as I understand, is the original hot yoga and all of this- the heat, the focus on my own practice and not that of my students, and the dedicated time to myself-  has returned me to when I was dancing intensely, in hot studios, sweating immensely, and so on. For me, living in NYC and dancing my way through the summer, all of this is relevant to conditions not directly relating to trauma but surrounding the trauma. It has taken me back to the time and not the event. And dance, the technical practice and focus on my progress and process, has been consistent in the time of all other traumas.

None of this has been easy, but it has been necessary. Due to the conversations I have had with others over the last few weeks, I feel prompted to share this in the spirit of “you are not alone”.

My experiences have been dependent upon my interactions with Alexandra Beller, Trent McEntire, and the instructors of Bikram Yoga Capital Area, as well as everyone else that has shaped my life’s path in movement and stillness.

For all those that have had similar experiences or may in the future- keep moving. May you find your own guides, maybe even in the most unexpected of people or situations. At any rate, I hope you find your release.

The Body, Part I: A Passion Observed

Woman watches a stage full of eccentricly collected performers saturated in power, expression, individuality, character, and grace.

Instead of seeing each detail, woman feels her way through the action, the story, the statement.  The experience transcends vision, permeates the body, infects the core, stops and starts the beating heart.

Unable to speak, tears brimming, woman witnesses the creator take the stage and command his dancers to proceed, recede, bow, and exit.  The show is over.  The impression made, is not.

Eleven or so months later, woman watches the creator’s intensity as he feels his way through the exerpt of this powerful work as he is recognized with one of the nation’s highest artistic award, the Kennedy Center Honor.  As soon as the movement begins, tears start streaming down her face.  She immediately re-enters the “place” she was in when watching this moment of this piece live, but this time there are pregnancy hormones to contend with, accounting for her tear soaked shirt.  The man is Bill T. Jones. The woman, of course, is me. The piece was Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray. 

I first considered calling this piece, “The One” but I thought that might not sit that well with my husband, although he is fully aware and supportive of my feelings for Bill T. Jones.  So maybe, “The Other One.”  Or, “The First One” since I did discover Bill T. before Scott D.  Nah,…better to preserve feelings and marital bliss.  (Honey, you’re the real deal.)

Bill T. Jones changed my life.  I had appreciated his work upon introduction through a 20th century dance history course.  But it was watching the PBS Bill Moyers documentary about Still/Here in a Senior Seminar class that really rocked my dance existence.   Bill T. Jones scared me in the most exciting and positive way.  His work spoke to me aesthetically, but more importantly demonstrated the power of physical, non-verbal communication and the responsibility of the dance artist to guide others through this process.  I became very aware of my comfort in pretty, visually interesting but “safe in meaning” movement.

Still/Here, Jones’ work referencing terminal illness, struck/strikes a personal chord for me.  My mother passed away at the age of 48; when I was 13.  She had severe asthma and emphysema and in the years she was ill, I remember the frustration she could not verbally express. Language simply didn’t cover it.  While her body would not have been helpful, she was winded after walking from one end of our small ranch-styled house to the other, I can’t help but think structured movement in a contained way, may have offered some form of emotional relief.

As an adult, I realize that dance may not have served as an outlet for her, but it certainly did for me.  I have always easily recognized that dance has been my constant.  In a life full of change and multiple directions, dance has always been there.

As a dancer, I am familiar with muscle memory and the ability of the body to recall movement.  After researching the role of the body in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (and the success of using structured movement experiences to alleviate the physical symptoms of PTSD) I also understand the ability of the body to recall emotion.  Having these two elements present themselves through two bodies over the same experience, was striking to me.  In watching the Kennedy Center Honors, I had an emotional recall response while watching Bill T. Jones have a physical recall response to the performance of his dancers.  Once again, I am reminded of the power of dance.  I am aware of the prism that dance provides: opportunities to see, to feel, to consider, to live.

In a recent interview with Tom Ashbrook of NPR’s On Point, Bill T. Jones discusses briefly the state of our current union, citing his feeling that we are in “an undeclared civil war” with no clear boundaries or sides.  I agree.  Often in the last few weeks/months, I have felt the world has lost its mind.  Much of what my husband and I count on- in our community, in our careers, and in our consciences- seems under attack.  Our perceived road to stability never felt fully paved, but feels more and more like a dirt road filling with potholes.  Maybe those pregnancy hormones are getting to me again, but this is certainly an interesting and sometimes disconcerting time to live.

Ironically, in some ways, this brings me back to my constant:  dance.  For the first time, perhaps ever, dance has not been the first constant in my life.  Over the last two years as my career has suffered some bullets, as programs or hours have been re-organized offering a sense of instability and related anxiety.  But, in hearing Bill T. Jones express in words how our current world relates to the dance he created about our world’s past, I am comforted if not encouraged.  He articulated physically and verbally, my emotion.  He found the language I was seeking. It explains my response when seeing the work live, and again on TV.  Once again, the power of dance prevails.  This time, however, it didn’t have to be my physical body in control in order to make peace.  It was done through bodies I’ve never met but understand on an intrinsic level.  Bill T. Jones continues to change my perspective and thus change my life.