A new post! You can find it here.
“Dance is not just one response to the coronavirus, it is an activity that strengthens our ability to respond to the coronavirus.”
A new post! You can find it here.
“Dance is not just one response to the coronavirus, it is an activity that strengthens our ability to respond to the coronavirus.”
A fraught question for many!
In this post I try to sift through some of the tricky issues beginning with the question: Is going vegan the answer to inhumane farming practices?
I suggest that for those concerned with animal and plant well-being (including their own!), the more important question is not what should I eat, but how was it grown and raised?
Some people love to argue. I am not one of them.
Sure, it can be fun to debate a current issue or argue a case in court, but when it comes to personal relationships, I’d rather not. Still, it took years of research, reading, and experience to come to my own sense of how best to avoid an argument with my partner and how best to end it when it occurs.
It comes down to simple principle we share: An argument is not over until we’re grateful that it happened.
When you embrace this idea, and put it into practice, your arguments get shorter, more productive, and further and farther between.
How does it work?
First, there is a category of arguments that happen in relation to facts – what happened and when, who was President during the first World War, or how many states ratified the ERA. This category isn’t even worth arguing about. Look it up.
Other arguments arise in relation to making plans and allocating resources: how to work, play, parent, house-keep, or accomplish a task; what to buy, where to live, how much to save, and when to spend time together; who’s going to do the dishes, and how you’re going to pay the bills.
In these cases, when an argument occurs it’s often not just about the issue. All of these questions can be explored and discussed. However, discussions turn into arguments when one person and maybe both people, want something that they’re not getting – where that something is less tangible, like respect, attention, empathy, or support.
An argument is often not about what you think it’s about. As a result, the way to end the argument is not for one person to win. There is no winning. Rather, the way to end the argument is to be honest with yourself about what you need and willing to listen hard to what the other needs too.
1. Enter an argument with good faith. You have reasons. You have concerns. So does your partner. Be clear. You don’t want to hurt the other person or make the other person feel badly in any way. You want to find a better way forward, together.
2. Don’t attack. It is so easy to let frustration, disappointment, and anger shoot out of us in sniping words intended to sting and provoke. We can’t help it. But the reason we can’t, when we can’t, has less to do with the issue and more with those intangible needs listed above.
3. Be honest. By the time an argument happens, resentment and frustration may have been accumulating for days, weeks, months, even years. Don’t let the resentment snowball. Do yourself and your partner a favor and ask for what you need – not because you’ll get it immediately, but because you’re going to start deceiving yourself and your partner if you’re not honest about it.
It’s tempting to fear that sharing your feelings may provoke your partner into a fight. And it happens. But the reason it happens is not because you shared your feelings, it’s because your partner has feelings to share as well.
4. Leave space for the other to move toward you. Any argument happens because people on both sides care. A person who doesn’t care has no reason to fight. And care is inherently dynamic. Care wants to move to where it is needed. The key, then, is to create space for what the other cares about – listen – and let that care evolve in response to where you are.
5. Be willing to move yourself. You can be right, completely right, 100% right, and still need to move, to listen, to honor, and to respond. Be ready to move because you care about something more than the fact that you are right.
When you argue in these ways, something shifts: an argument becomes an opportunity to learn more about how to be a better and happier partner. It is an opportunity to learn about where you and your partner each feel vulnerable. Insecure. Uncertain. Where we are less than we want ourselves to be.
And the good thing is, we don’t have to “fix” these patterns all at once. We don’t have to suddenly become all-confident, all-knowing, and all-loving. Neither does our partner. To the contrary. The places we are wounded become places we can connect more deeply, as we listen, hold space, and help each other grow.
There are reasons to fight. Fight for your relationship. Fight to be free of fear or judgment or anger. Fight to stay open on all registers to your feelings, needs, and desires – the engines of transformation and growth. Fight to keep love alive.
Fight until you drop into a place of pure gratitude for the other person, who’s here fighting alongside you.
Don’t fight against one another. Fight for what you can create together.
Happy New Year!
Check out my latest post about the value of sleep:
Nice to know that what feels good is good!
When everything hurts, how do you find new moves to make?
I wake up feeling really depressed. My lower right leg is outright aching, as if sirens are sounding in every cell. My hips hurt. My heart hurts. I feel defeated by the silence around the release of my latest project, unloved, unlovable, trying so hard to give a gift, and failing. Why bother? The pain of the world flattens me. I don’t want to do anything except slip back into sleepy oblivion. But I am awake. The rest of my family is still asleep.
I go downstairs, make a fire in the woodstove, have some breakfast, and go outside to feed the chickens and our small calf Cypress. I see the setting moon, the winter blue sky, the grass greenly peeking through crusty snow, and none of it moves me. I want to run. I desperately need to run. But I am afraid – afraid that the pain in my legs and hips will stop me.
Back inside, I settle my right hip on top of a lacrosse ball and roll around so that the ball presses into the surrounding tissue. I gasp with pain. I breathe into it. The ache in my lower leg eases. Maybe there is some hope. I get dressed to run and go outside again. I start to move, slowly at first, pushing through one leg and then the other, hoping and praying that I won’t feel too much pain. I feel OK. It seems like a miracle.
The wind bites my cheeks but the sun beckons me on. I can feel its warmth through my jacket. I pick up the pace a tiny bit. Tension in my chest, that I didn’t know I had, releases. Space to breathe that I had lost returns. In response to these sensations, I take a deep breath and then a deeper breath, and suck in clear, clear air that cuts through the murk in my soul. I let the world exhale me, softly. My shoulders drop an inch. Heat gathers in my belly, rising up my spine. Layers of anxiety, hardened overnight, soften.
I exhale as fully and forcefully as I had drawn the air in, emptying myself out into the trees, brambles, bushes, and bulrushes around me. I let the cleansing cold stream in, pure. Holy. It cools my distress. Churning thighs motor on, pressing me against the wind, as I lean into it. With every footfall, gravity lurches me forward and the earth catches me. Lurch and catch. I throw my bodily self into space and the ground steadies me, guiding me onward. Again. And Again. I think of the dancer Martha Graham: I choose not to fall.
One mile. Two miles. Three. Four. I start sweating. It feels good. Shades fall from my eyes, and I begin to see in such a way that I am touched by what appears to me. By the time I arrive home, I can see that the blue in the sky reaches from the heavens to wrap me in goodness. I can see that the green blades are resilient and upright, adorned and not burdened by ice crystals glowing white. I can see the eyes of our small Cypress, peering out from her fluffy fuzzball face, all ready for winter. Adorable. I can see a perfect round egg, warm in my palm, laid by one of our hens, as a gift left for me. And I thank them all.
I stretch my calves on the steps leading to the door of the house, letting my weight sink my heels down and feeling the delicious release that happens in muscles when the work is done. I put my right leg up on the railing, allowing one hamstring to remember its length. Then the other. My sensory awareness plays along muscle planes that gesture to infinity. Words of Nietzsche come to mind: So what if you have failed? How much is still possible? How much is still possible?
Inside, water from the tap tastes so good. I drink deeply. I cook my one egg. A sweet hunger opens to receive it. I don’t want more, only enough to stay open to this sweetness. More words of Graham come to mind: Stay hungry, and keep eating. And I know. Without the pain in my leg, I wouldn’t have rolled my hips on the ball, and found that release. Without the pain in my heart, I wouldn’t have needed to run so badly. Without a tumultuous, unpredictable, unruly desire to live, where would I be?
I recommit to living my life as a bodily self.
Living life as a bodily self is not easy. To commit to it is to practice paying attention to what you feel – all of it – the pain, the depression, the distress, the longing, the dissatisfaction, the disappointment. The despair. And the fear that these pains of all kinds will prevent you from doing and being and becoming who you are. From giving what you have to give. From achieving all you want to achieve.
But time and again, I have found the reverse is true. The pain that looms as an obstacle and threat is so often the very condition that enables a breakthrough. It’s the wisdom of our vulnerable, relational, empathic bodily selves expressing itself in a way our wayward minds will listen — a wisdom that we can open to receive when we commit to feeling and moving. We can squirm, wiggle, and shake; or dance, play or run, so long as we loosen and expand our mental grip enough to receive what our responsive selves remember. That giving is good. That movements matter. That earth and multitudes of earth’s communities live through us.
We can numb our pain, covering it up with sensory distractions; we can find a pleasant pleasure that fades as soon as we start to wake up. Or we can get ourselves moving, and open up to be healed by the earth of which we are one active, enabling part. We can move into a sensory space where the earth sparks us to respond, coaxing forth a will to create and participate. When the sizzle of sensory awareness crackles, we feel the blast of being alive, grateful for calf eyes and resilient greens; for the planet who pulls us close and presses us up, the forces that move us along, and the currents that breathe us to life. How much is still possible?
Now I feel better.
Check it out on Psychology Today:
American modern dancer Martha Graham claimed that she could tell everything about a dancer by the way he walked across the floor of the studio. Walking – head lifted, chest opened, legs long – revealed a person’s attitude towards life, and whether he greeted life with avidity, stepped tentatively into the unknown, or charged with false bravado against unseen resistance. As Graham intoned, “Movement never lies.”
Recently, in an effort to identify movement patterns in individual humans that are “distinct, detectable, and durable,” a group of French and Australian researchers developed a way to measure the “movement signatures” of eighty healthy men and women. As Gretchen Reynolds reports in this week’s New York Times, the researchers attached electrodes to eight muscles in each participant’s leg, and asked the participants to pedal on a stationary bike, then walk on a treadmill in ninety second intervals of varying intensity, and come back for a second session to repeat the two exercises.
After researchers compiled each participant’s “muscular activation” data, they fed data from the first session into a pattern-learning AI software program. When they gave the computer unspecified muscular activation data, the machine was able to identify the participant to whom the movement patterns belonged 99 percent of the time for data from the first session, and 91 percent for data from the second – data it had never seen.
The researchers interpreted their findings as proof that every human individual has a movement signature – “subtle, interior movement patterns” – that are as singular as a fingerprint and are easily detectable by a machine, even when that machine is given muscular activation data from only eight (out of over six hundred) muscles, recorded in the performance of only two common activities.
As responses to the article confirm, this insight is “old news” to many dancers, athletes, martial artists, and those involved in somatic and alternative movement practices. As Graham observed, even when asked to do the same simple movement, no two humans do it alike. Yet she went further, and claimed that those differences are revelatory. What does a movement signature reveal?
For one, the nature of our bodily selves. The fact that we have a movement signature suggests that our bodies are not biological entities that take shape and then learn to move in idiosyncratic ways. Even Reynolds and the researchers seem to presume as much when they identify the implications of this study: improving sports training; refining robotics, prosthetics, physical therapy and personalized exercise programs; or serving as “coal-mine canaries for disease or injury risk.”
These stated implications presume that a body is a self-enclosed set of genetic instructions that learns to move, even if it does so uniquely. They assume that if we can identify “its” durable print, then “we” can manipulate “it” more effectively.
Yet the implication of having a movement signature is that a body is not a thing that moves, but itself made by movement. Movement is the “stuff” out of which a body is made.
If we have a movement signature at any point in our lives, then we have one from the very beginning – from the moment of conception. That signature goes all the way down. And if it does, then “we,” as clusters of cells, are moving in unique patterns before the shape of our bodily self emerges. As a result, the movement patterns that our cells are making as brain and limbs emerge inevitably influence the development of our material form itself.
In fact, there is new evidence that our brains develop in response to this fetal movement as a way to record it. The movements I make pull my body – my senses, systems, organs, and abilities – into form as memories of what has moved me (e.g., light, sound, touch, rhythm, oxygen, nutrients, water, mother), and as trajectories along which future movements shuttle to new degrees. The twitching of the fetus in the womb, the constant gyrations of infants when awake, and the wiggle and wriggles of toddlers, represent the active matrix of relational movement possibilities that comes into being as the bones and muscles and tactile-kinetic coordination of a specific adult human.
The fact that I have an identifiable movement signature, then, implies that my body itself is a dynamic field of movement potentials. It is (and I am) a bodily self. The bodily self that I am is a record of every movement I have made in relation to every other movement that has made me. It is a record of what happened when I made that movement, and what might happen if I make it again. It is the ever-evolving collection of kinetic templates through which I am always becoming conscious of the world around me and within me; it is the font of possible responses I create.
I see what I see because of the way bouncing light has taught my eyes to move. I grasp what I grasp because of the way objects in gravity have taught my hands to move. I think what I think because I’ve made the bodily movements of reading, studying, rearranging, sorting, comparing. Even movements that might seem inward or hidden, like my thoughts and feelings, stand revealed – for those who know how to discern them – in the way I move.
What this study implies, then, goes beyond the need for individualized physical interventions: Every human person, in order to know and honor herself, would do well to engage in some kind of practice that helps her learn to be a responsible movement-maker. Doing so is a fundamental, enabling condition not only of personal health and well-being, but of the health and well being of social relationships, larger communities, and the earth itself. We need to dance.
If a body is movement all the way down, then the process of learning what it is – who I am, what I can do for others, what hurts and what heals – can not be a process of simply paying mindful attention to “it.” The process of learning who I am is inseparable from the process of my bodily self becoming what it is as “it” moves in ways that evolve me beyond who I was. In other words, I know my bodily self as I exert and release beyond myself, and follow and flow in response.
Dance, for one, is a practice that not only requires such learning, it makes it the focus of the activity. By “dance” here, I am referring to a movement practice that invites us to learn new patterns of bodily movement as a means for expressing ourselves. These patterns may be codified or free form. The bodily movements may be dictated by abstract shapes or inner impulses. What gets expressed in this sense is not an idea or feeling that needs to get out; what gets expressed is a potential for movement-making – a potential for using movement to sense and respond to and thus create and reveal the relationships that make us and the world real.
In dance, the task of learning new patterns of movement is a rhythm the draws on whatever sensory awareness a person has become up to that point. In learning a new movement, a dancer acts and receives. She exerts the energy and effort to mobilize her bodily self, and receives the sensory information that doing so generates in her. With that new sensory awareness, she acts to move again. In this process, a bodily self becomes what it is — capable (or not) of making a set of life-enabling movements in relation to whatever forces, energies, people, environments, or goals move her.
For example, as I move through a leg bend or plie, I receive the sensory information of where in that movement where I am stuck, sore, or held. As I repeat the movement, I allow the sensory awareness of that pain to guide me to make adjustments that release the tension and do not reproduce the pain. As I welcome another round of sensory responses, I adjust again, until I can release fully into a clear arc of movement that strengthens my capacity to move some more. Practicing dance in this way, I can learn to access and align with the healing wisdom of my bodily self.
In this rhythm, a dancer is both agent and recipient; he practices moving intentionally and being moved by his own bodily knowledge. He learns to give himself to the movements of his bodily self, only to have the movement give him back to himself, changed. And the sensory awareness he cultivates gives him a precious resource for moving more consciously in all moments of his life – whether he is eating food, interacting with a furious child, or choosing his life’s work.
A final implication of this study, then, is that dance traditions are rivers of knowledge about how to cultivate effective ways of moving in relation to sources of life-enabling power. Every dance tradition that endures does so in so far as the patterns of movement it guides people to make have served to help at least some people access the power and pleasure of their own movement-making.
Of course, not every dance tradition or technique works for every bodily self. Every style of dancing has its own history, contexts, and aesthetic. Dance itself, like any primary pleasure (such as food, sex, spiritual attainment), can become an object of addiction – an outlet for thwarted desires. Even professional dancers, and especially professional dancers, need to remember to keep cultivating the sensory awareness of their own movement making as a guide, and not get caught up in the pursuit of abstract forms.
However, in so far as we humans exist in the medium of movement making, practices of dancing also offer us one of the best resources we have for cultivating a sense of the value and wisdom of our bodily selves. Through dance, we can learn to discern which styles of dance remain faithful to this wisdom. The challenge is to find an approach that meets your bodily self where you currently are — as the patterns of movement you have created and become — and helps you express your own signature in accord with what heals.
If you can’t find one, invent one.
Graham was a particularly astute observer of kinetic shapes. Rest assured that not everyone has the ability to see a self in a walk. Still, if anyone learns to read your ever-evolving signature, let it be you!
François Hug, Clément Vogel, Kylie Tucker, Sylvain Dorel, Thibault Deschamps, Éric Le Carpentier, and Lilian Lacourpaille. Individuals have unique muscle activation signatures as revealed during gait and pedaling. 14 Oct 2019https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.01101.2018
Reynolds, Gretchen. “Something in the Way We Move: We may each have a movement ‘signature’ that, like our face or fingerprints, is unique to us.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/23/well/move/something-in-the-way-we-move.html?te=1&nl=well&emc=edit_hh_20191024?campaign_id=18&instance_id=13319&segment_id=18180&user_id=0f6fd25a998ff59f1880a7e150a81e21®i_id=47270092. Accessed October 30, 2019.
The central theme in The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new novel about slavery in 19th century Virginia, is easy to grasp: memory is life. In the words of Harriet Tubman, a character in the book: “To forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die… memory is a bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom” [sic]. The corollary of this theme is less accessible: the act of remembering, Harriet insists, is “just like dancing.”
The Water Dancer has a lot to say about how the memory that liberates works. For Harriet, as well as for the novel’s narrator, Hiram (Hi) Walker – a slave, or one of the “Tasked” – the act of remembering feelings and experiences provides a way to access a magical power called Conduction that they can use to move themselves and others from “the coffin” of the South to freedom in the North. It is when Harriet is teaching Hi how to go on this memory trip that she says: “It’s just like dancing.” But how?
The Water Dancer begins a year earlier in the middle of Hi’s second experience of Conduction. He is nineteen, and drowning in a river at night, when he sees a vision of a woman wreathed in blue light, dancing with an earthen jug filled with water on her head. “No matter her high knees, no matter her dips and bends, her splaying arms, the jar stayed fixed on her head like a crown.” He recognizes the water dancer: she is his mother. Her dancing guides him towards the light. He is found on land, two miles away from the river, not knowing how he got there.
Other than this tantalizing vision, Hi cannot remember his mother. When he was nine, his father, the white plantation owner Howell Walker, or the “Quality,” sold his mother Rose, a Tasked, to another of the Quality. When Hi was eleven, his father, appreciating Hi’s otherwise phenomenal memory, invited Hi to work in the big house. Hi learned to read and write, and served as a slave for Hi’s older brother by a different mother. When thinking about his mother, all Hi sees is fog.
Hi cannot remember his mother, and he also doesn’t dance. When his friend Sophie asks if he can, he replies: “Not even a little.” The excuse he gives is that, in this respect, he “favors” his father. Like the Quality, he doesn’t dance. Sophie chides him: “Ain’t about favor, Hi, it’s about doing.”
Later, as the Tasked celebrate the Holidays together and dancing begins, Hi just watches. He notices that the dance begins and blooms “seemingly of its own accord.” A circle forms, and in the middle he sees Sophie, dancing a water dance, “a flurry of limbs, but all under control,” just like his mother in his blue-lit vision. Sophie sees Hi, slides the jug off her head, and gives him a sip. He drinks the whole jug, but still doesn’t dance.
Hi then spends the bulk of the novel gathering the experiences that will enable him to access his memories of his mother and his power to Conduct. He tries to run to freedom and is jailed, chained, molested, tossed in a pit, hunted by night, and finally freed into the care of the Underground. He learns to spy and hide; to forge documents and find friends; to trust and be trusted. He learns that freedom is its own kind of master, requiring his service. He trains as an agent for the Underground. His love for Sophie carries him through, and he vows to save her from slavery, as she has saved him.
As Hi matures through these experiences, he also learns the significance of dance. Dancing is not only what his mother and Aunt Emma did fabulously well when the Tasked would gather together in the woods at the end of the week, far from the eyes of the Quality. Nor is it only what his African grandmother, Santi Bess, did when she led forty-eight Tasked into the River Goose, and disappeared.
As his first contact with the Underground, Corinne Quinn, explains to him: “the most degraded field-hand, on the most miserable plot in Mississippi, [knows] more of the world than any overstuffed, forth-holding American philosophe… And the lords and ladies of our country know this. This is why they are so in thrall of the dance and song of your people. It is an unwritten library stuffed with a knowledge of this tragic world, such that it defies language itself.”
Corrine is Quality. She is also Underground, fighting for freedom. From her vantage point between worlds, Tasked dancing affords insight and wisdom that escapes language. As such, dancing not only appears on par with a written library as equally illuminating, it also reveals the hypocrisy of those who claim exclusive knowledge over others. As Corinne claims: “Power makes slaves of masters, for it cuts them away from the world they claim to comprehend.”
As dance scholar Katrina Hazzard-Gordon explains, in the Yoruban traditions from which many of the Virginian Tasked came, dance is the medium in which people learn about, commune with, and are moved by the spirits or Orisha. Of particular importance to enslaved Africans was Yemaya, the water goddess, Mother of All, Mother of the Ocean where all life begins, and the fierce protector of mothers and children. Dances performed for Yemaya consist of swirling, spiraling movements, like waves snatched by the wind. Water dances.
Yet, Africans relocated to the United States didn’t just bring knowledge of how to do particular steps. They brought knowledge of how to use dancing as a medium for creating relationships with the powerful forces in their lives. Their ability to dance was the primary means left to them for exercising their autonomy and creating a way of life for themselves distinct from that of the slave owners. They not only used familiar patterns as material for communicating in new ways with one another across ethnic and linguistic differences, they evolved new dances. Through dancing, the enslaved had a method for moving with joy in the world they were given. For feeling free. For remaking the world.
Still, Hi can’t dance. Now free, attending a large gathering of people fighting to end the slavery of women, children, Africans and more, he hears the drums and songs of a dance beginning. “I felt them tugging at me, I felt myself swaying in the August heat. It was all too much. I left and went to roam.” The next day he meets Harriet who teaches him that memory is the key to Conduction.
In the end, Sophie is the person who helps Hi understand the significance of the water dance, and thus opens a path to remembering his mother. She tells Hi a story of an African king who took control of the slave ship that was carrying him and his people across the ocean. When the army of Quality approaches, the king tells his people to dance on the water, “to sing and dance as they walked” because “the water-goddess brought ‘em here, and the water goddess would take ‘em back home.” Yemaya. Sophie continued, “And when we dance as we do, with the water balanced on our head, we are giving praise to them who danced on the waves. We have flipped it, you see? As we must do all things, make a way out of what is given… ‘It’s like dancing.’” To flip it. To find a way out. To feel the joy amidst the losses, the freedom in the midst of slavery. To remember it all, and keep dancing.
Hi finally realizes what is keeping him from remembering his mother. “I was too young to survive with the memory.” The memory was too powerful. It would have wrenched him apart and destroyed him. So he had to forget it until he had learned how to “flip it,” how to “stay with the sound” and the story, how to hold open sensory space in his bodily being for accepting both his losses and his loves, his Quality father and his Tasked mother. As he insists, “there is no pure.”
Hi is finally able to embrace “the warmth of the muck… The facing of facts”: he vows to love as his own the child that his father’s brother forced upon Sophie. Only then can he access the memory of his mother, of himself, that enables him to Conduct his first slave to freedom. As he does, he sees people dancing – his mother, his aunt, and many others — and then in chains. “I do believe my mother, my aunt Emma, danced as they did because they knew what good there was could not last.” Hi vows to keep remembering… so that the dance may continue.
The Water Dancer renders vivid the task of remembering slavery for everyone involved, regardless of race. It is not just about recalling life-denying experiences of oppression; it is about staying with the sound of the story; feeling the tug of the drum and moving with it. It is about cultivating the sensory strength to feel the pain as a reason to choose love over anger, vengeance, and pride again and again, in the midst of the muck. It is creative and bodily; it involves discipline and skill. It’s just like dancing.