Fragmented Beginnings

I was an unusually shy child when I was small. Heightened fears about expressing myself to people in particular settings would sneak up from out of nowhere and paralyze me with an oddly unexpected nonverbal immobility. My first ever recital and performance was when I was four years old as a culmination of my year of Suzuki violin study. To this day my dad chuckles when telling the story of the way I froze and went into a robotic autopilot arm motion as if to appear like I was playing along with everyone else that afternoon. True stage fright snuck up on me and crippled my connection to all the study and preparation I had had that year, and I stood and stared like a doe in headlights, incapacitated and unable to process any thoughtful recall about how to make music on the violin. It was as if part of myself flew off to some far off place, so that I could survive whatever treacherous fate might befall me while standing before strangers, and perhaps worse, people who knew me and might make me wrong for a missed note. I have many stories like this one, and when I share this fact of having been painfully shy with people who know me well today, they rarely believe me. Probably because I have spent my entire life engaging in activities and careers that quite specifically demand that I gather up all of my wits and inner fortitude, and that force me to express myself wholly and completely, in as skillful and integrated a way as humanly possible to ensure success. Dancing, singing, acting, higher education, classroom teaching, yoga teaching, public speaking, and writing are as self-expressed as it can get, and yet I once could barely mutter comprehensible sounds when I felt on “display” before others.

My Body’s Role in My Path Towards Integration 

It is as if my higher self knew in advance that I would need to get over this stifling shyness as soon as possible because life would demand my voice and truth one day. I’m certain my spirit guides, my ancestors, and the Goddess all conspired to ensure I stayed on a liberating path despite my compulsion to remain silent or small in. I started to perceive a connection between my body and my sense of power as early as four years old. I was enrolled by my mother in a “pre-ballet” class. When hopping, leaping, and frolicking to the rhythms and melodies of the classical ballet records that my teacher played, I found joy and freedom. Yet towards the end of class, there was something about doing the “allegro” section of class (bigger jumps and faster paced combinations) that would totally freak me out. I have such a clear memory of feeling overcome by the scale of the movement, the strength of my own legs, and how much power I had all of a sudden. I felt out of control somehow and grew self-conscious as I sensed the gathering sets of eyes on my body and the moves it made from parents who’d arrived to pick up their children, my teacher, and my fellow mini-dancers. I can remember feeling vulnerable and exposed, and consumed with the knowing that my body drew attention so direct and palpable that it seemed I could cut it with a knife. Over the years, I would make attempts to leave class early with the hopes of avoiding these stares, but my request was usually unmet. Naming my anxiety, articulating the complexity of my feelings, that were surely tied to my body being black, vital and powerful and what it signifies to feel under the white gaze of my ballet studio community, and making all this clear to whomever was scheduled to pick me up did not come as easily at four-years old as it does today.

Finding the Sacred through Physical Form

Over the years, my relationship to dance and movement has certainly evolved. While when young dance classes were an opportunity to develop physical intelligence, as I got older, dance classes became a time to develop refined technique, physical strength and stamina and the ability to imitate with precision a combination or performance piece according to the specifications of a dance teacher or choreographer. However when I started practicing yoga, my body became a resource for my wellbeing. After stressful days as a school teacher, I would go to a yoga class and shift my internal state with breath and posture and focused attention. This movement revelation birthed a new dimension in my dance performance as I discovered that the breath and attention taught to me in yoga when brought to my dance provided me an opportunity to express things with my body that were too big, too profound, too complicated or nuanced for speech alone. Through dance, as Ntozake Shange famously said, “i found god in myself, and i loved her. i loved her fiercely.” To this day, sometimes when I drop into a dance class, I end up in the back of the class weeping (as inconspicuously as possible). I do not weep because I am sad, but rather I weep with gratitude, and to release all the things that have gone unsaid, have not been given space to be heard, acknowledged, and mourned from this life and from the lives of those who came before me. Dance has become a tool to connect to the sacred through physical form.

It was many years later, when watching a dance performance by Urban Bush Women with autobiographical text by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar dubbed on top of the music when her words, “I danced to keep from crying,” were like a window into my own experience of dance. I saw that dance gave me an opportunity to move in ways that told story, mine or that of another, but always reflecting the universal experience of being human in an often harsh world. As a child who suffered fiercely from anxiety, if I hadn’t had movement to channel my earliest overwhelming emotions, who knows what antics I would have demonstrated in order to communicate my suffering. My dad would often remark about how hard it was for me to sit still for as many as a mere five minutes. And how could I when life was full of so many insensible occurrences day in and day out?

All Behavior is Communicating an Unmet Need

Needless to say, my body has become a very powerful resource to transform anxiety into a state of peace, or at best to express an exquisite human tale or sentiment. As a retired dancer, it is notable that in the last year I have been to more dance classes than I have been to in the previous six combined. Making space for dance in my busy schedule had fallen by the wayside over the years, but 2018 was in many ways like a dance renaissance for me. There is some vast need within me that dance helps me to meet of late. I am deeply grateful to have the kind of intimate relationship with my body such that I’m now wise enough to heed its call to be heard. When I dance lately, I leave it all on the floor, every last bit of whatever the hell crazy-making event occurred in politics, with law enforcement, with black and brown people, with children, with women, or my relationships or romantic life. I jump, leap, fly, roll, stretch, contract, hold, and turn like you would not believe. And I do it all with way more confidence and emotional, physical, spiritual and mental access and self-actualization than I ever have before. It is revelatory, really. Having joined a fancy gym this past fall with fitness classes that kick my ass every time that are completely transforming my relationship to my body’s power and strength for the first time in ages helps, too. What is most thrilling about this bodily awakening I’m witnessing in myself is observing how completely at home I am with what my body has to “say”. The adolescent dancer I once was who worried about “getting it right” is long gone. My complex human elements find a way to be fully integrated, connected to and finally released through dance.

A Vessel for Truth 

What I’m discovering is that my body never lies, and it never did. It has always held within it the truth of my being, and that is not limited to merely blood and bone. Learning to listen to what she has to tell me has taken a lifetime to discern and continues to be a practice, but yoga and all the varying modalities I’ve explored as tools to express myself support this process, for sure. As a yoga and mindfulness educator, I am often struck by how much I can learn about a student by watching her or him move, by observing how a student uses or relates to what is occurring in his or her body. As a practitioner of yoga and mindfulness, I know well that there are thousands of ways to listen to my body: touch, smell, sight, sound, taste and energetic perception are merely the tip of the iceberg for the unfathomable depths of intricacy our bodies foretell about the human experience. May 2019 be a year of exploring the body as a vessel of truth, leading us to more authentic self-discovery and self-expression for years to come.