Contact Improv: a study in touch and consent

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Contact Improvisation Trio Dojo Florence

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go to a contact improv lesson and jam, something I haven’t done in years. For the uninitiated, contact improvisation is a style of dance characterized by the words in its name: the dance is unchoreographed and improvisational, and the dancer strives to stay in contact with one or more other dancers the entire time. The results of this, over the two hours I was there, were profound for my embodiment work, for my sense of self in connection with others, and for my thinking around consent.

I have never been much of a dancer. In fact, I was extremely clumsy and out of touch with my body when I was younger; I remember at one point the humiliation of having to take remedial gym class. I dropped out of ballet when I was four because pointing my toes caused my feet to cramp horribly, and I was the only girl I knew of who couldn’t do a cartwheel. (Still can’t.) Over the years I gradually got more comfortable in my body, learned more of what it could do, and how to push it to do things it couldn’t yet. We had to take credits in dance in my college theatre program, and though it never emerged as a primary talent, I got by well enough.

Later, I discovered things like Journey Dance and contact improv and other outgrowths of the modern dance and meditation movements. Dances where what you looked like wasn’t as important as how you felt, where whatever  movements you made were accepted. Contact, though, remained something I dipped a toe into, and then out again, and yesterday, I was reminded of the why of that particular struggle.

Contact improv is intimate. Potently so. It invites the dancer to connect with another body, in a way that our society has few outlets for. I have always looked on with envy at people who are comfortable cuddling with friends, being in close contact casually, enjoying the simple warmth and pleasure of it. As an only child in a repressed family, it never felt like I was allowed to have that. And we Americans don’t touch each other very much anyway, as I’ve often bemoaned. Men in particular have few avenues for touch that don’t also involve sex. The rise of professional cuddling, cuddle parties, expanding bodywork modalities, and so on are a testament to this: people know they need non-sexual touch, and they know they aren’t getting it.

In this age of #metoo, touch has become an even hotter point of contention than it was just two years ago. Consent – that paramount prerequisite for a healthy sexual society – has been shown to be utterly broken, and we are undergoing a transformation as a society that must start from square one: this cultural moment requires that we return to the first principles of using our words, respecting each other’s space, and assuming nothing. Sadly, while this is utterly necessary, it also isolates us from the opportunity of human touch even more – until and unless we learn better.

I teach consent workshops, and part of my framework for them involves inviting people into their bodily sensations, the way things other than their prefrontal lobes experience ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ My focus has largely been around helping people identify and communicate their ‘no’ sooner and more easily, because of my strong belief that without the availability of ‘no,’ there cannot be a true ‘yes.’ And as a person heavily invested in a healthy and fulfilling sexuality, helping people find their ‘yes’ is my truest goal.

Ultimately, I would love for the majority of humans to be able to navigate consent using so much more than just words. For men especially to be able to read the subtle signals that tell them something is wrong and they should stop, ask, step back. For women and nonbinary people especially to have more access to their words in a way that feels safe for them and doesn’t carry unacceptable consequences. For consent to be – as it were – a dance between people, a series of negotiations that is alive and continually evolving.

Contact improv, as currently practiced, invites that kind of communication by its very nature. When it’s working well, it feels like an intimate conversation: will you dance with me? yes? let’s move this way. will you support this? no? I’ll go this way then. sure, I can lift you. now let’s go to the floor. here comes someone else. can they join? yes? now we’re all here. who’s leading? who knows. this is fun. thank you! i’m going to go now. It’s a flowing, changing, present way of being with others. The thing I noticed more often than anything else was spontaneous laughter: not the embarrassed laughter of discomfort, though some of us were shy and there was some of that. Most of the laughter was surprise, joy, delight. The laughter of this feels good! that was unexpected! I haven’t done this since I was five. The profound rest of laying your head in the crook of an unfamiliar, but supporting, shoulder. The joy and silliness of moving in close contact with one person, only to see another face appear on the floor, moving between one of the dancer’s legs. The places where, as the faciliator taught in the first few minutes, you can find that sense of “ahhhh.”

Naturally, with this kind of contact in a society that’s touch-sick, there is a lot of potential for error. I understand that there have been consent issues and a reevaluation of consent culture within the dance community, and it sounds like that is ongoing. Though I did not encounter it directly, it is very easy to imagine people taking advantage in a culture that’s not only permissive but predicated on assumed consent for touch. In my experience yesterday, I found it welcoming and playful and lovely: at one point, I was stretching on my own when one of the more experienced women came over and started imitating my movements next to me; next thing I knew we were hip to hip, and starting doing funky stretches together. There were a few words exchanged, and smiles and inquiring eyes, and we were off to the races. After a while we spun apart and went to move with others, or alone. Another time I was lying on the floor, and the facilitator leaned over to look at my face upside down, smiling happily at me and saying, “Hellooooo.” I laughed, then sat up, which put my back to him; he didn’t approach further until I’d gotten up and turned around and made clear with eye contact that sure, I’ll dance some with you. But I can see a person making it creepy at the drop of a hat, and the ongoing ‘yes’ of the space being violated by someone pushing themselves on someone.

But that ongoing ‘yes’ was fascinating to me, and felt almost miraculous: what if, I thought, we could exist like that as humans? We used to, I’m fairly sure. Touch was a larger part of our communicative vocabulary, and still is in many cultures. But because the structures of power and the culture of shame has made touch toxic for so many for so long, it’s an uphill battle to even think about exploring it.

There’s good reason for this: as I’ve learned in so many contexts now, touch is a powerful form of communication: much more direct, deeply-reaching, and potent than speech. A single touch can bring comfort, pain, safety, violation, belonging or alienation. And the touch I experienced at this single improv jam reached through to my core: I felt more alive, more vulnerable, more connected, more part of the human family – and it happened almost instantly.

What kind of world would it be, I wondered, if people touched each other like this, all the time? Would people not, overall, be more attuned to when touch is wanted, when it isn’t, and how to communicate that? What would it be like when someone did take advantage, violate someone – or miss a cue and make a mistake? How much easier would it be to tell the difference? How much less frequently might it happen – and how much more quickly could it be caught and dealt with in a compassionate way?

A lot of thoughts from a single event. One thing I do know: I plan to go back. And hopefully, someday, participate in Touch & Play – a gathering that seems to be looking at all of these questions very closely.

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Somebody Hold Me

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There’s a wonderful Kickstarter coming to a close today for a book called Somebody Hold Me. Epiphany Jordan (great name, right?) and her crew in Austin have started a touch practice, allowing people who don’t have enough contact in their lives to experience non-sexual, loving, and playful touch. I’m a big fan of this, as you can well imagine.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/somebodyholdme/somebody-hold-me/widget/video.html

There aren’t nearly enough people out there working on this problem of modern life: that touch, outside of a sexual context, is absent from many lives. The research keeps stacking up showing that the need for human touch is profound, and that it continues throughout life.

The Kickstarter just funded, which pleases me, but go and check out the work that Jordan is doing to help people receive the touch they need – and if you feel so moved, make a pledge! Nothing like taking a project well over goal to show how critical an issue is.

Big men do cry – and it saves lives

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No man is an island

We’re guarded. We’re fearful. We’re so angry at each other because we don’t see each other, really.

-Roger Fox, son of Rick Fox, asset manager for Shell’s Ursa deep-water oil rig

Though much has changed in recent times, the message that “boys don’t cry” is still powerful in the lives of men. But in a story reported by Invisibilia, some of the toughest men of all – oil rig workers – received an intensive course in vulnerability. The fascinating part is why.

Claire Nuer, a leadership consultant, teamed up with Rick Fox, an asset leader for a deep water rig for Shell, to get the men that would work there in better touch with their feelings. As the men – and therefore the company culture – transformed, Shell’s accident rate dropped by 84%.

As Nuer had predicted, training these men to be open and vulnerable helped them communicate better, ask for help more often, and not try to do things alone out of pride or over-inflated self-reliance. “Part of safety in an environment like that is being able to admit mistakes and being open to learning — to say, ‘I need help, I can’t lift this thing by myself, I’m not sure how to read this meter,'” says Robin Ely, who wrote about this in the Harvard Business Review. “That alone is about being vulnerable.”

The process was far from painless. I was deeply moved reading about these men’s experiences – the toughness that was instilled in them, the hardships they experienced growing up, and the ways this work transformed their relationship with their families and with themselves.

Tommy Chreene, who had a tough reputation, broke down and wept before the group as he talked about his son’s terminal illness. “I was weeping like a baby,” he says. “And nobody ever come to me and said, ‘Aw, you big crybaby.’ “

Fox himself transformed his relationship with his son, Roger, before putting Nuer’s work into motion with his staff.

I’m so grateful my son did not have to wait till he was 40-something years old to have the experience of being able to question his own habits and his own way of thinking about things,” Fox says. “My son is a beautiful human being, and I cannot get enough of being around him.

I am constantly amazed by how much more we can achieve, and how much stronger we are, when we are vulnerable than when we are closed off. Thanks to one of my clients, a man among many dealing with old messages around toughness and self-reliance, for pointing me at this article.

“Exhaustion is the body working to find comfort in a discomforting world.”

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Two days ago, when I heard of the mass shooting in Orlando that has since then been an unavoidable theme in every waking moment of my life, my first response was that shot to the heart, punch in the chest sensation that then slowly seeps down into my stomach. The horror, dread, rage and sadness the news sparked in me slid down and settled like an unwelcome houseguest, and as with such a houseguest, I quickly became inured, complacent. Numb.

So many deaths and terrible acts have happened in the past few years. I’ve written here about the difficulty of facing the reality of such atrocities more than once, and found myself, after Sunday morning, again thinking about how to address this kind of event. This one, in particular, hits close to home: I identify with queer community enough to think of this crime as a strike against my larger sense of family. Yet I still cannot summon the pain and anger that are required to take action. In the face of such things, numbness – exhaustion, resignation – is one of the only tolerable responses available.

An article from Medium this morning, called “Against Numbness,” says many of the things I cannot say myself today. “Exhaustion is sensible,” writes Emma Roller, “it makes perfect sense. Exhaustion is your mind shielding your body from succumbing to a deeper horror, adrenaline numbing your pain.” Enough work with trauma – my own and clients’ – has taught me this: our bodies are very good at helping us manage overwhelming feelings by suppressing them. When our bodies are in a state of injury or illness profound enough that the pain signals are no longer of use as an alarm system to let us know we need help, our bodies go into shock. When an event happens that is so unthinkable that the emotions around it threaten to destroy us, we also say that we are “in shock.” When the trauma is repeated so often that the body no longer believes there is a safe place it can go to, the shock becomes embedded, becomes numbness.

As a nation, at this point, I believe that we are in this state. The same way that we all stared at our TV screens, transfixed, watching the planes slam into the Twin Towers over and over in 2001, we now refresh our Facebook pages, looking for more reactions to the news, more stories, more details. It is a deeply human response: looking for knowledge, for connection, for something to make sense of the senseless. But in practice it becomes an act of numbing, of self-soothing. It makes us feel like we’re doing something, when in reality we feel helpless. This, too, is extremely natural. But as Roller reminds me this morning, “Your exhaustion — your questioning if the pain is worth the gain — is the most effective tool the status quo has in its toolbox.” She closes with an imprecation to remember, and suggests a way forward out of our feelings of helplessness:

Lean into your pain. Don’t neglect it. Remember the feeling of numbness, but don’t succumb to it. The victims and their friends and families deserve not to be forgotten. The news cycle will wash over their stories, but you can choose not to abandon them. Be vigilant with your own feelings — not just for the victims, but for yourself. Never accept that this is how we have to live in America today.

I don’t know if I’m strong enough, on this day, to do this. But I like having it here as a reminder. As my partner goes to work at his queer-community-related job, where they have posted a security guard and locked the doors; as I resist the urge to refresh my Facebook page; as I go through the daily motions of my own life and try not to succumb to the fear that someone I love may be next, I will return to this. I will try to let my body move the pain of this instead of holding it, to feel the loss instead of shrugging it off, to move through exhaustion into action.

“So sometimes I need to be reminded that my body is mine.”

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Today’s post comes from Return the Gayze, a blog I was alerted to by a Facebook post linked to me by a friend in a private message…you know how it goes. However I stumbled across it, I needed to share it with you.

The post is about massage, about pain, about buried trauma, about what we can offer one another as healer and client, as survivor and witness, as human beings who are made for touch.

Susan tells me that her job as a masseuse is not necessarily to get rid of the pain, but rather to bear witness to it. To recognize it. To affirm it. She says that we live in a country — a world — that teaches us at every level that our hurt is a story we made up. And we internalize that to our core and write it into every muscle in our body. “I am wrong, I am wrong, I am wrong.” She says that sometimes acknowledgment can be its own sort of antidote. That sometimes people just need to hear that what happened to them was not their fault. That people tend to know what is best for themselves, they’ve just been told over and over again that they don’t.

Read the whole thing, by Alok Vaid-Menon, here.

May’s newsletter

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If you haven’t joined my mailing list yet…you should! I’ve started issuing monthly newsletters again, and I just put out May’s. In addition, you can keep up with blog updates, be apprised of my workshops and other Synergy-related events in the area, and get great pictures like this one, from my own back yard:

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I mean, now that’s a tulip.

Happy May, everyone!

The Body Keeps the Score – but we knew that

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18693771Yesterday I finished Bessel van der Kolk’s monumental work, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. This book, the result of more than three decades of research, direct service, and tireless curiosity by this Dutch psychiatrist, tracks the development of the profession’s understanding (or more often, lack of understanding) of post-traumatic stress. The most important piece for me: that the effective treatment of trauma requires not just a top-down approach (i.e., the use of talk therapy or other language and mind-based techniques), but a bottom-up approach as well. In short, the traumatized person needs healing that addresses their bodies as well as their minds.

Van der Kolk covers many bottom-up approaches, including yoga, theater, body psychotherapies like Somatic Experiencing, and even massage, and delves into the neuroscience, clinical data, and long-term outcomes of how it all works. The book is a tremendous win for bodymind modalities like Rubenfeld Synergy, which works with gentle touch and movement to help clients reconnect with their bodies and access the memories, emotions, and stories that live there. But it’s also a validation for me of the practices I’ve been doing with my more traumatized clients.

For those who suffer from the common long-term effects of PTSD, getting into your body is no mean feat. Dissociation – the sense of “leaving your body,” even to the point of feeling like you’re observing it from the outside – can happen easily; I’ve seen a few clients who “zone out” or dissociate merely from being asked to pay attention to their feet. Numbing, another common symptom, means such clients often can’t feel their body much at all – nor the emotions connected to it. For people who have flashbacks and experience what happened to them not as a story that happened long ago, but as an immediate, present, and intensely terrifying series of sensory impressions, anything that gets them in touch with their bodies too quickly – such as touch – is out of the question.

Among the multitudinous pearls of wisdom I got from this book was a word for what I do when this is the case: pendulation. Taken from Peter Levine, Dr. van der Kolk’s friend and colleague who developed Somatic Experiencing, pendulation refers to helping a traumatized person dip a toe, as it were, in and out of the intensity of memory. By guiding the client toward the experience that needs integration, then backing away from it before their tolerance runs out, a practitioner can help a traumatized person gradually approach and come to befriend previously intolerable feelings.

So if you come to me with a trauma history, I might keep us in chairs for a while rather than going to the table right away. I might ask you to pay attention to your breath, but might back off even from that if I sense that you’re starting to feel anxious or “leaving the room.” It’s a delicate balance, but little by little, we get back in touch with ourselves, and regain the strength, as van der Kolk repeatedly says, “to know what we know and feel what we feel.”

 

 

Embodied Consent returns to Bound in Boston

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I am pleased to announce that on Saturday, March 19, I will once again be teaching my class on Embodied Consent, this time at the much larger Bound in Boston convention in Norwood, MA!

I’m excited to be doing this again, not least because I was specially asked to, which feels amazing. Secondly, though, I’m psyched to have another crack at this class, so I can revise and relax into it and really make it sing. I’m excited to maybe have more people in the room (this convention is about four times the size of Wicked Women), and to give them more of a chance to explore and share their experiences, and less of me yapping at them.

Tickets are on sale now, and the full schedule is going live soon. I hope you’ll join us!

New Year’s Evolutions

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Stars over time, by Zach Dischner via Flickr

I’ve talked in this space about moving from habit to choice, and how Rubenfeld Synergy and other mindfulness work helps to stop ourselves before we engage in an old habit, and have the option to do something else.

But if we are, as the man said, what we repeatedly do, then habits are what most profoundly shape us. At this time of year when there is a lot of pressure to “start fresh” with New Year’s resolutions, fraught with unrealistic fitness goals and promises we rarely manage to maintain past February, it’s important to look at how move from from habit, to choice, to better habits, in a way that is not doomed to failure.

Try this experiment this year: instead of making New Year’s resolutions like “get in shape,” “finish my novel,” and “call my mother more often,” consider making a single, specific habit-changing move each month. Establishing a new habit – or breaking an old one – takes time; the 21-day number turns out to be a myth, but doing something for many days in a row does help cement it. Starting on my birthday this year, I managed to establish a daily meditation practice after years of struggling. I even took off for the week of Christmas, and have gotten back on it again without any trouble.

How did I do it? Not by promising myself a 20 minute session every day. I got a meditation timer app for my phone, chose a pleasant sounding chime, set up a place to do it where I’d be comfortable, and pledged five minutes a day, preferably in the morning right when I wake up.

It worked, because the goal was specific, achievable, and not too time-consuming. Doing just five minutes meant that it wasn’t much time out of my day, so I didn’t have to really “set aside time” for it. (Now that I’m up to 7 minutes, I feel like a champ!) Doing it in the morning means I roll out of bed, brush my teeth, and light my candle, and though I’m barely awake I’m awake enough to sit still for five minutes, and then I feel the accomplishment of having done it. Doing it every day…makes it into a new habit, one that’s peaceful, good for me, and expandable. (I’m planning to go up to 10 minutes soon.)

You’re going to be much more successful, for example, if you decide to, say, not eat after 8pm for a month, or change out your lunchtime bag of chips for an apple, than if you decide to “change your diet.” Small, specific changes, sustained over a period, tend to accumulate.

So enjoy your New Year’s celebrations! Do whatever you do, make toasts, and make resolutions if that’s your thing. (I’ll be doing it. It’s a habit. 😉 But this year, see if lasting change is possible. Start small. Listen to your body. And hey, let me know how it goes.

Happy New Year, everyone.

The Christmas miracle of expectations

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Image by Kate Brady via Flickr

It’s Christmas Eve today, for those who celebrate the holiday, and at this time of year, there’s often talk of miracles. I don’t generally go in for that sort of thing, but I do go in for wonder, curiosity, and the excitement that discoveries having nothing to do with the supernatural can bring. This week, in a season when expectations can have an awful lot of power, I want to draw your attention to an episode of Invisibilia, a show that investigates the invisible forces that shape our lives.

In this episode, titled “How To Become Batman,” our hosts follow a man who has been blind since the age of three, who nonetheless learned to ride a bike and indeed navigates the world just as a sighted person would. It’s his belief that the way sighted people treat the blind – they ways in which they expect blind people to be helpless – take away an incredible amount of functionality they could have if they were shown alternatives.

The section that really caught my attention was the opening, in which they introduce the idea of how profoundly expectations affect outcomes.

It starts with an experiment with rats, in which a scientist labeled basically identical rats as smart or stupid, then let lab techs work with them on mazes. To a rat, the ones the people thought were smart performed much better than the “stupid” ones. The subconscious ways in which the techs touched the rats, as well as what they expected from the rats given their beliefs about the rats’ abilities, changed the way the rats behaved.

It’s obvious if you think about it: workers, children, athletes, soldiers, anyone moving under someone else’s authority – the degree to which they excel can vary wildly depending on what those authority figures – bosses, parents, coaches, officers – expect from them. Over time, negativity from those who “handle” us the way those lab techs handled the rats can leave us unmotivated, unfulfilled, even disabled. But when we offer encouragement, belief, and support for others’ efforts, it’s amazing what we can achieve.

Whether you celebrate or not, I wish encouragement, hope, and support to you in the new year.