I truly do believe that Amy and I were guided to connect here in LA by some unseen, intelligent life force. Her yoga classes kept my body and spirit integrated throughout my intense graduate school years. Post-degree, I completed her yoga teacher training in 2014, and her empowerment coaching certification in 2016. Each of these intensive learning experiences with Amy, without question, made me a more courageous, creative, and compassionate person.
It is not a big mystery why the following role is less celebrated in social dance communities and why followership is obscured in the business world. It’s because the concept of “following” lies on the subjective, internally-referenced, physically-based pole of human experience, what we have collectively termed The Feminine. This pole is grounded in, among other things, feelings and emotions, touch, nature, the home, creativity and art. In contrast, the masculine pole is generally organized around the intellect and analytical thought, the external world, science, work, industry, and vision. Because we currently live in a patriarchal system, anything on the feminine side of the spectrum is considered inferior to or property of the masculine.
We may never achieve a perfect balance of these two ways of being in the world, but historically, efforts to move toward balance have improved the health and well-being of Earth’s entire ecosystem, including the lives of humans. That large numbers of men continue to perpetrate violence against women, nature, and their own emotions indicates, to me, that we are far from balance. To shift the momentum, even just a little bit, steady effort is required, just like steering a ship in the storm. And we need all hands on deck.
The first step of any change is awareness. By awareness I don’t mean just our own private memories, which our minds tend to twist, edit, and rationalize in all sorts of surprising ways. I mean externalized, public awareness, which moves the raw experience out of our bodies and into words and dialogue, where it can be named and acknowledged.
The recent #MeToo social media trend is part of this externalizing step. Those who claim this kind of sharing is pointless may be missing the point. Of course sharing “Me too” is not a complete solution in itself, but it is an important part of the solution. It’s the awareness part, and awareness means we are going to feel emotions through our own memories and through hearing the stories of others. Remember, feelings are labeled “feminine,” and we’ve all been trained to dismiss and ignore those. Maybe that's why some of us think this is pointless? Both women and men need to let emotions be what they are, especially men, for whom it may be harder, but we’ll get to that later.
I also believe that we need to proactively re-envision masculinity and femininity, but we can’t do that if we don’t acknowledge where we are first. And here we are, with memories of harm and violation. With feelings of shame, rage, and God knows what else. Me too.
In addition to allowing our feelings to move through us, the awareness raising of #MeToo creates solidarity, acceptance, and belonging through a sense of shared experience. These social forces are what make us feel worthy, remind us that we have a right to defend ourselves in the first place, whether with a strong word or a precise strike to the throat. #MeToo helps to place the responsibility for harm where it belongs, on the side of the perpetrator.
Sharing is a fundamental method of healing and integration for human beings, and integration must happen if we want to change the system we are all living in, even just a little bit. The most extraordinary example of integration I can think of is the following TED talk by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger. If you don’t know it, listen and prepare to have your mind blown.
From awareness, our work actually gets harder, but also more exciting, because shifting our definitions of masculinity and femininity shakes the very foundation of who we think we are, our individual “selves.” Personally, I find the roles of leading and following, borrowed from both social dance and the business world, to be immensely valuable in exploring more expansive meanings for the terms masculine and feminine, male and female.
Because the task is so immense, I try to think of this work as a lifelong journey, one that has so far led me to explore various therapeutic techniques, yoga and meditation, and life coaching. In retrospect, I can even see now how my career as an improvisational dance artist was, on some level, a way of teaching myself about healthy relationship. Reflecting on both my training and my social experiences over the past two decades, I have some thoughts about how to support change in this area, but like all experiments, it is a work in progress. I share it here to contribute to the conversation.
I think that women must look deeply within themselves and ask what it is that they truly want on all levels, professionally, personally, sexually and otherwise. We must learn to step further and further away from the passive role we have been cast in and speak these desires out loud, at least to one person at a time, and take action toward attaining them. The vast majority of women in my leading (dance) classes note how unfamiliar, thrilling, and socially difficult it is for them to do this, to clearly indicate their wishes to another person. Men also struggle with this, of course, but among my dance students, anyway, the struggle seems to be more on the level of physical coordination, not social inhibition.
Passivity is like an excessive condition of following, too much “receiving.” The limit of what we can take keeps lengthening, until the point of death. Again, blame for assault or abuse lies squarely with the perpetrator, and the excess following state (in this context, passivity) has been trained into many of us through social cues regardless of what our actual life experience has or has not been. To the extent that we live on the far end of that spectrum, we can help ourselves by balancing our way of being with small drops of leading energy, or masculine energy. This leading energy helps us sets boundaries, makes choices, set the tone of a conversation. It shifts the pattern of passivity toward the pattern of empowerment. Women don’t become like men when they do these things, they just become healthier women.
I myself work on this daily, not so much in dance anymore, where I have gotten quite good at it, but in my life, and it is shocking to me how challenging it can be sometimes. Mostly, the difficulty takes the form of a combination of shame and inner critique that prevents me from speaking what I want out loud, or from taking action that might bring me closer to it. Money, sex, a cheeseburger, it doesn't matter, really. Am I allowed to have it? Do I deserve it? Will it hurt anyone if I get it? Obviously, all humans experience this, not just women, but I’m labeling it as a masculine, or leading, quality, because I think the framework is helpful in this context. We have to name and go after what we want regardless of what other people think about it.
When I do know what I want and I say it or take some action toward it, I feel the same way I do when I’m choreographing a performance, or painting in my tiny, home studio. That is, I feel so completely myself that whether I’m male or female or something else is entirely irrelevant. I mean, I don’t forget, but it’s not the primary thing that’s defining “me.” I could say I’m in creative flow, or I’m expressing myself, or I’ve synchronized my inner and outer experience. Peak experiences in art, family, and athletics are common places to hear descriptions of this type of flow. I think we all know what it is.
The question I’m more and more interested in is how can we get there in our everyday interactions with one another. How can we acknowledge our sex and gender realities while staying connected to this deeper core of who we are – the part of us that emerges in the creative flow state. Feminism has done much to shift women away from the passive role and toward a more integrated role, but we need to address both ends of the spectrum if we want balance, and that brings us to men.
Obviously, I am not a man, but because I know that lead and follow cannot be separated, and that they rise or fall together, I suggest here that men must also look deeply within themselves and learn not to identify desires, but to experience the depth of their own emotion. I believe that as we women are training ourselves to know and speak what we want clearly, men must learn the complementary skill, to tolerate and allow the internal experience of emotional feeling. Rage, shame, and disappointment may appear, as well as delight and affection.
In this path of integration, men shift away from a pattern of entitlement (excessive leading) to a pattern of responsibility. Entitlement is the polar opposite of passivity. Not only do we want something, we take it by manipulation or force. Entitlement says there’s no situation in which it is ok not to get what we want, so we use various degrees of aggression to secure it. Maybe we fear social ostracization if we don’t get it, or maybe there are far more dire, imagined consequences if we don’t get it. Perhaps we feel our very survival is at stake. Whatever the reason, men (and all of us, but mostly men) need to examine what these are and fully own the feelings that accompany them.
Practicing responsibility does not abandon personal desires and the pursuit of them, but rather re-aligns speech and action with core values such as respect and equality. Our sense of self does not collapse if we do not get what we want, nor will men become like women if they feel emotion. On the contrary, they learn patience, non-attachment, flexibility, contentment, clarity, gratitude. Men become healthier men.
I imagine that incorporating this “following,” or feminine way of being, into a masculine self might even be more challenging than it is for women to identify and speak their desires in the world. After all, as a culture, we’ve been immersed in the masculine way of doing things or a long time. Many women are already very good at it.
Nevertheless, change is always possible. And really, what other choice to we have? As a starting point check out this great article on nurturing as a masculine quality.
Everyone: Top Three Practices for Change
1. Mindfulness Meditation – Headspace or similar apps make it easy with short guided recordings. In my experience, meditation is not about finding bliss, though in time it can feel relaxing and peaceful. For our purposes, I recommend it as a way to train your awareness to recognize and tolerate thoughts and feelings, to understand that "you" are not your thoughts or feelings, that you can choose. Remember, change starts with awareness.
2. Self-Care – Do whatever puts you into the zone of creative flow, even if it’s 10 minutes a day. Exercise, take a walk, eat, doodle, nap, get a massage, cook. Self-care is a radical act in a culture that perpetuates self-loathing. You have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can help the person next to you.
3. Journaling - Writing is a fantastic way to externalize thoughts and emotions, especially if you feel confused about either, or have trouble articulating them. The privacy of a journal allows the freedom of no censorship - write exactly what you are thinking and feeling, write letters you'll never send, write your deepest secrets, and then set it all on fire if you want, or use it as a reference in your own process.
Let's keep the conversation going. Respectful comments welcome.
I ran my first mile this week, without stopping to rest. I did it in around 9.5 minutes. I know, one mile may not seem like much, but I have had a huge internal block around running for many years, and 2017, I decided, was the year to figure out what this obstacle was about. The self-defeating loop in my mind went something like this:
“You should be a fit enough person to go running, but you aren’t. Your cardio-vascular system is weak, so don’t try running because you will fail immediately and everyone will know that you’re out of shape.”
Once I had articulated all of this (and more) in my journal, I saw that I had a shame pattern around being “out of shape,” with my standard being, basically, a trained athlete. So if I couldn’t run like a trained athlete, I was a failure. Where did this standard come from? I don’t know. Blame the media. The idea of running also brought up unexpected self-consciousness around my body image. As a life-long dancer, I have worked through many insecurities over the years, gradually accepting and embracing what my body can and cannot do, how it looks and doesn’t look, what kinds of clothes and costumes I feel strong and free wearing. But running tripped me up. I felt unattractive and overweight, even though I normally feel confident in my body.
Naming this shame pattern on paper was emotionally uncomfortable. It felt terrible to have those feelings in me and to know that I had held onto them for so long. The closer I got to the idea of running, the stronger the feelings of shame. But because I work as a life coach now, I couldn't ignore this – I knew that these feelings were not going anywhere until I moved them through my body, until I literally ran them out of my system. Conveniently, there was an old pair of Nike’s in the back of the closet. I still needed help though, to get out the door wearing them.
My partner, Isaac, is not only unafraid of running but in fact does it on a regular basis. He is also very encouraging, but what I needed him to do in this case was not so much encourage me, but silently run next to me. He agreed to be my accountability buddy and running partner twice a week. (Free coach tip: If you are finding it difficult to get yourself to do something, no matter what it is, I highly recommend this simple and elegant strategy).
I also turned to the internet and learned the very specific difference between aerobic exercise (running) and anaerobic exercise (dancing). I have danced my entire life, which means my body is trained for short sustained bursts of intense effort. I’m actually quite good at sprinting, which, like dance, is anaerobic. My muscles are fairly strong. But an aerobic activity like distance running requires elevated levels of oxygen, and my body is not trained for that. When I run, my lungs give out long before my legs.
So like most things, I needed to accept these facts about myself rather than judge them in order to overcome this hurdle. Understanding technically where I was helped, and Isaac’s presence on those first few runs reminded me that I was accepted by him, weak lungs and all, and that made it easier for me to practice self-acceptance as we ran for 2 minutes, walked for 1 minute, ran for 3 minutes, walked for 2 minutes, along the beach path. (Tip for athletic partners of reluctant runners: wear a 20 lb weight vest to keep things interesting).
So, in the beginning, it was really, really awful. I had trouble breathing the entire time, I felt vaguely nauseous, and my diaphragm hurt. I was sweaty, and I dislike being sweaty (a lot). What I realized pretty quickly was that this was that, like sitting meditation, I needed a focal point. My mind was having an argument with itself in fast-forward: “What are you doing? Stop running. No, we said we were going to do this. Are you crazy? We can’t breathe! But we’re on the beach and it’s beautiful. Stop this madness now! I’m doing this so we can be healthy. You suck at this. Find something else to be healthy. No, we’re doing this. I hate this. I know.”
No doubt all runners have experienced similar internal shouting matches. My strategy, borrowed from meditation, was to stare at a distant object like a sign or a palm tree and repeat a two-syllable mantra in my mind, something like “in, out” that I could link to my labored breathing. Soon, I realized that rather than tolerating the emotional discomfort of shame around running, I had shifted to tolerating the the physical discomfort of running itself.
As we gradually increased the intervals (run 5 minutes, rest 2 minutes, run 7 minutes, rest 3 minutes), I began to wonder about parallels between emotional and physical discomfort. For example, both running on a track and running my own business require stamina, taking breaks, pushing myself, and most of all being ok with feeling uncomfortable.
I have acquired a few small bits of technique in my stride, and can now run an entire mile, rest for several minutes, then run another mile. It still doesn’t feel good, but I struggle less to breathe and recover more quickly. And most importantly, I don’t feel the shame around running anymore. I no longer think that I’ve failed before I’ve even started because I’m not already good at something I’ve never done before. My body trusts my mind more now, and the inner dialogue has shifted from panic to patience. I have experienced the joyful surprise of achieving something I believed impossible.
What I am becoming curious about, now that I have made running part of my routine, is how a practice of tolerating physical discomfort (for me, running) might translate back into more mental/emotional challenges of being self-employed and keeping space in my life for artwork. Here are three classic coaching strategies that have really crystallized for me through my running practice:
1. Don’t Think, Just Do. There is no greater way to experience this, for me, than running. When I’m sitting in meditation, there is no dramatic consequence if my mind wanders. I just let the thought go and return to focus on my breath. But on the track, if I start over-analyzing how I feel, or considering whether this was a good idea in the first place, my whole body struggles. Keeping focused on the palm tree is the way to instantly find some degree of ease in what I am doing. Since the body and the mind are one, I believe that this must also be true when I’m not running. Don’t question too much who will read the article or whether this is the best use of your time. Just write the article.
2. Avoid Distraction. Similarly, If I look left or right when I’m running, I struggle. If I change my posture at all, or watch people shaking their towels out on the beach, running gets harder. When I’m sitting at my desk, the distractions come in the form of social media, email, and text. These things not only slow down my work just like changes in posture slow down my running, but they also make me a less effective writer, worker, teacher, and CEO of “Sharna Fabiano Inc.” (not a real company). The quality and quantity of my work suffers. I need to be disciplined about screening out distractions. If I can run a mile, I can turn off the wifi.
3. Stay With It. In only 30 days, I went from running 2 minutes to running 10 minutes. I did not enjoy the process, and truthfully, I do not enjoy it now either. But I enjoy the fact that I have accomplished this goal, that on some level, I do feel that have gained some amount of cardio-vascular strength and will gain more over time. Oddly, my body has even begun to crave running. Right now, I am also at the beginning of several new projects in my professional and artistic life. They all feel wobbly and I am frequently tempted to give up on them. But I won’t, and running has given me a clear and concrete reminder that when you stick with things, they do indeed, inevitably, grow stronger.
Runners out there, what has your running taught you? Leave your stories in the comments!
Just after the New Year, I started taking classes in self-defense, or as Isaac calls it, "ass-kicking." Studying a martial art has long been on my personal “to do” list, and for a variety of reasons now seemed like a good time. It’s refreshing, if humbling, to be a beginner again, to try on new movement patterns, and to leverage weight and momentum in new ways. The system I’m learning, Sanuces Ryu, combines techniques from various traditions but defines itself as a street fighting form of jujitsu.
I’m ok with blocking, but I discovered quickly that I have a hard time with strikes of any kind. It’s something that I struggle with in every class, this hesitation to hit another person. Not that we hit hard, but still, the intention to cause harm, even in self-defense, feels profoundly wrong to me. I was beginning to worry that my survival instinct was forever lost under many layers of non-confrontational, “good girl” programming.
But last week, another white belt helped me change my perspective by suggesting, “Don’t think that it’s the person you’re striking, but the dark energy.” My interpretation of this rather mystical advice is that rather than inflicting harm for harm’s sake, my task is to prevent an action or behavior that is dangerous. In other words, if someone attempts an assault in the street (harm for harm’s sake), my training could enable me to stop it.
To be fair, said training would, ideally, inflict damage on the perpetrator of an assault. Still, this change of framing helped me a lot. As I’ve discovered over and over again in dance, yoga, and improvisation, the focus of my intention fundamentally changes my experience. Instead of hurting my partner, I focused on establishing a clear boundary, and was then able to commit more fully to the drills and to finally stop holding my breath.
Because it’s so much on my mind lately, I can’t help but apply this re-framing to our current political situation. It’s becoming clearer by the hour that this is not about party values anymore, but rather about real dysfunction within our government. The question that looms large is how long will we allow the dysfunction to continue? When will we draw the proverbial line in the sand?
As much as any of us may dislike (or like) the President himself, he is not the point. The point is that questionable executive orders are being issued and extreme right policies are being written into law. There are ethical violations that need a strong defense. For me, it is easier to fight when I remember the point is to stop harm from being done, not for my party or my candidate to win over another. I don’t care about winning. I care about stopping the damage.
So when I read the news now, I do my best to screen out language that attacks individual people, and to focus instead on information about actual deeds, events, or legislation, and then I look for ways I can address those concrete things.
What do you consider worth defending, and how to you do it? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
My partner Isaac and I recently celebrated ten adventurous years together. This is a wonderful, lovely thing, but it’s a thing that I sometimes remember would not have been ok before 1967, the year the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of justice and equality in the legendary case of Loving vs Virginia.
Isaac and I are an "inter-racial" couple, and we have spent ample time discussing race identity in our time together. Lately, though, we’ve been discussing it more. For himself, Isaac prefers the term bi-ethnic. His father is from Nigeria, but Isaac himself grew up with his white American mother and half-siblings in Denver, Colorado, listening to the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and Queen. His perspective is unusual, and his insights around interpersonal communication and social bias, in particular, seem to me rather important these days. Talking with him has informed my thinking about listening, empathy, and community.
The following is a transcribed and edited interview that took place at our dining room table:
Sharna: Isaac, can you summarize your thoughts on interacting with new people and strangers, especially if we consider them to be different from us in some way?
Isaac: I think we all have social bias inherent in our being, and it’s one of the first things that is triggered when we interact with someone else. Social bias can be positive or negative. As soon as you see another person, you have some sort of idea of who you think they are. Understanding and accepting that we all have this impulse is important because it gives us a chance to separate the image we have of the person [in our minds] from the real person that’s standing in front of us.
S: Can you explain a little more what you mean about separating the ‘image’ from the ‘real?’ I feel like that is really critical.
I: There’s always a difference between the image of the person in your mind and the person that is actually in front of you. Say you meet someone who looks to be of Latin American decent based on their coloring. The assumptions held about that person will be different from individual to individual. You might assume they speak Spanish, or that they don’t speak English well. You might assume that they are an immigrant, that they are lazy, that they are free-loading. That is a stereotypical image that you may have. The problem is that if you don’t recognize that image as a social bias, then even if that person tells you that they grew up in Ohio and recently got a PhD in social psychology, I don’t think your original image will change very much.
S: So, not even hearing real facts from the person’s own mouth can change the false image?
I: Generally, no. If you think a person is intelligent, you’ll really only listen for things that confirm that. If you believe, say, that women are NOT intelligent, then no matter what a woman says or does, you’ll make up things to justify your belief. Similarly, if you believe black men are gang members, then it doesn’t matter their level of education or courteous actions, you’ll still see them as dangerous, violent, bad guys.
Ok, pause. There is now a whole field of research, of course, that has come to the same conclusion that Isaac has about social bias, including the famous Harvard Implicit Bias Test. I was curious, though, how he had learned this through his own life experience, so I asked him about that, too:
I: I grew up in a white middle class environment, but I was not white and our family was not middle class. Starting in middle school, all of my peer interactions involved me explaining myself as NOT a drug dealer, NOT a gang member, and NOT having natural ability at sports. When we played Star Trek on the playground, I could never be the captain; I was always the Klingon. I don’t think any of us made these decisions consciously; it just seemed like we all knew that was the way it was supposed to be.
I didn’t understand the difference between me and the other kids for a while. I only knew that there WAS a difference. We grew up watching the same TV shows, playing on the same playground, attending the same schools, sitting in the same classes. I think once I realized that the difference was skin color, and noticed the way that they were treated and the way that I was treated, that’s when I started paying more attention to TV shows, movies, and different kinds of music.
In movies, for example, I noticed that there was rarely someone who was black, and if they were black, they were the first person to die in a shootout. Which was horrible, but it gave me a possible understanding of how other people viewed me, and once I understood that, I started really thinking about how perceptions of me had been formed long before I even said anything.
One of the many things I admire about Isaac is his ability to not take things personally. How many of us would gladly give up a few years of our lives to have this super power? Isaac can talk to just about anyone: Hollywood celebrities, far-right conservatives, homeless folks, church ladies, academics, construction workers, and performance artists. I was curious if this skill was related to his early observations of patently false racial assumptions:
I: I think I try to keep in mind that anything in your past can lead you anywhere. It is possible that the homeless person on the street was once a multi-million dollar tycoon that made a bunch of money in the dot.com boom and for some reason lost it all. That’s a possibility. Just like the person who is a million dollar tycoon could have grown up on the street. There’s no reason that these things are not possible. So I generally go into a conversation looking for information that contradicts any social bias that I might have.
S: Would you say part of your strategy is a habit of checking your own social bias?
I: I think those judgments that I have happen so quickly and strongly that they seem to be built in. The only way to deal with that is to recognize that it is happening and to take steps to manage it. When you see someone, you make assumptions about that person, but those assumptions are almost never true. So it’s always more beneficial to figure out who the person is and if they mean you harm or don’t mean you harm and the only way to do that is to interact with them.
I think currently the line that we are all still getting is that if you are not a white Christian, you’re bad, and that is scary because that is absolutely not true and as the diversity of the country grows we need to figure out how to interact with people who don’t look like us, who don’t sound like us, who don’t talk like us, and figure out how to get to know them, which is the part that we are missing.
S: Ok, but how do we get to know each other if we all have social bias?
I: My general strategy is to say something that is a fairly common stereotype about myself. I am 6’2”, fairly athletic, and a black man. So I make a joke like, “I almost got drafted for the NBA but they couldn’t teach me how to shoot a basket.” Usually I can gauge the other person’s reaction, whether they are remotely open to the idea that the reality of who I am might be different from that stereotype. If they do laugh, then I might mention some kind of open-ended stereotype about them.
S: So you make jokes about stereotypes on both sides?
I: Yes, the most far-fetched stereotypes possible. If they are Asian American, I might ask them if they know kung-fu. I think this opens up the possibility for me and the other person to get to know each other. I don’t play basketball, you don’t know kung-fu, so what DO you like, what DO you know, what DO you do, where did you grow up, who are you as a person?
I actually end up asking the same question a number of times because at first, people filter through their own biases. When *I* initially ask people about things they’re interested in, it’s generally listening to rap music or playing sports, but that may not be the things they are most interested in, they are just showing what they think I want to see or trying to gain social capital with me, which is ridiculous. So over time I ask similar questions and I start to get more personal information.
I also think it’s important that I try to be truthful and honest straight from the get-go, which sometimes shocks people just right out of the gate. When people say “How are you doing today,” if I’m having a shitty day I usually say something like “You know, I’m not having a great day or things aren’t that great.” People are caught off guard because that’s not the proper response. You’re supposed to just say, “I’m fine how are you?” Then, sometimes they ask follow-up questions like, “Well, what’s not going well?” and that puts me in a position where I can share something more about myself. That gives us more to talk about.
- - -
Listening to Isaac’s story, his insight seems so clear, his turnaround rather incredible. As a recipient of continuous and flagrant racial bias, he developed an anti-bias approach to communication. Excluded from any existing racial group, he became radically inclusive of others.
Although he admits that calling stereotypes out on the carpet can sometimes backfire, his conviction that there is always more to every person than what meets the eye guides all of his interactions. Perhaps not many of us would argue with that premise; however, recognizing truth in the abstract is one thing, putting it into practice is quite another, and that is what I think is truly remarkable and worth underscoring here. Isaac doesn’t pretend anyone is immune from social bias, even himself. It’s his full acceptance of bias in the first place that allows him to shift it, one conversation at a time.
Knowing the bias is there, Isaac looks for ways to sidestep it by telling jokes, asking personal questions, and sharing his own stories. His way of engaging with people increases the chances of a human connection being made, and that connection short-circuits social bias. It’s what allows us to hear each other, to feel we belong together, that we’re on the same team.
As we witness a “connection crisis” in our country right now, and worldwide, I personally feel challenged to go beyond what is comfortable in rethinking what connection means to me, what community means to me. How can I connect authentically with those who seem, at first, different? Those who seem, at first, to not understand me, to disagree with me, who resent me, even? These are not idle questions, but urgent ones. We need lots of creative and diverse answers to them. Please leave yours in the comments.
I am blessed and proud to live in a beautifully diverse community in Long Beach, CA. Diversity, however, sometimes pushes ugliness to the surface.
Today, I dashed to the post office in between (miraculously) rain showers. On my way home, a fabulously dressed black woman steps out of a shop, glances upward, and says "It's going to rain again? Hell no!" It was hilarious. I giggled. Then a small, shuffling white man shouts from across the street "Use proper English, black *W%)@%," and various other horrible racist epithets. I froze for a few seconds, then walked slowly back toward the woman. As the exchange ended, a few young Latina women nearby said "Just ignore him." All I could think to say was "Ma’am, I'm with you." She smiled and said “Thanks, baby.” I thought about the women’s march on Saturday, and about what the simple actions of walking and standing can convey. Literally, where and when we walk and stand matters.
Anyway, I don't want to give the impression that I did anything particularly good or heroic. I didn’t. And this woman was in no way "victimized." She yelled “Hell no” about six more times. She did not appear to be intimidated, and she was smiling when I left.
But that is just the beginning of this story. I continued my walk home. As I turned a corner, the same man was there, walking the same direction down the sidewalk. I walked two blocks trailing slightly behind. It was very easy to hate him, to envision punching him in the face, to rehearse in my head the brilliant lecture dismantling all of his absurd, despicable beliefs. But then I thought about this insightful article, which explains how mundane, in-person contact was the only thing that, in the end, could turn the tides under Hugo Chávez’ militant dictatorship in Venezuela. I thought about listening, about radical compassion.
We stopped to cross the street. I’m right next to him now, and he’s still mumbling “black this, black that” under his breath. And I do something I would never have done before the 2016 US election. I turn and ask him what only another white person can safely ask this man: "Why don't you like black people?"
It felt very odd to ask this question, like I was violating some deep moral law. The very existence of the sentence is offensive, and it tasted foul as it left my mouth. And, significantly, the 2 seconds of time that it took for me to speak it aloud felt SO MUCH HARDER than getting up at 7am on a Saturday, sitting on the train for an hour, and walking slowly with 750,000 other happy people on a sunny morning in Los Angeles for twelve blocks. This two-second question was a whole different category of hard.
Yet, the question came out. It traveled at the speed of sound through the few feet of air space between us. And the man’s response, initially, was the type of racist propaganda regurgitation that you might expect: “They’re uneducated and don't know how to speak proper English and don’t respect America, blah, blah, blah.” But then he said this: “I have a BA in journalism and I’m homeless.” I didn’t get a chance to ask any more questions. We were on the other side of the street by then and he wandered into a Rite-Aid on the other side.
Now, based on that statement you might rightly argue, “He's educated. All the more reason he should know that what he is saying is ridiculous.” Journalism, of all things: a field devoted to investigation, to facts. It just made the whole episode even more ironic.
BUT, when he told me he was homeless, something clicked in my head and in my heart. This man was struggling. Things were tough for him. He actually needs help. To be clear, there is nothing in this world that can excuse this man's behavior. It is wrong in every possible way. AND, simultaneously, he is a human being who has lost something, and whom, perhaps, the system has failed in some way. I don’t know and I'll probably never know his story. But, for a few hot seconds, I was able to hold these two truths in my awareness at the same time, and honestly, I no longer wanted to beat his head against a wall. I really didn’t. I actually wanted to find out what had happened to him; maybe, even, to invite him over for dinner to meet the intelligent, charming black man who is my husband. If I see him around the neighborhood again, maybe I will.
What might happen if we started listening in unexpected places? If you’re white, where can you use your “skin privilege” to ask questions and listen where others cannot? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
As a choreographer, I study how movement creates meaning, not only narrative meaning, but personal and political meaning as well. When I embrace a partner on the dance floor, I choose to transmit openness, trust, and acceptance. This choice impacts the shape of my step, the quality of my stillness, and the visual representation of what I am doing for all who are watching. When I embrace people who represent a variety of genders, orientations and ethnic and cultural backgrounds, tango becomes, in my view, politically significant because it enacts inclusive values. The tango community is far from perfect in this respect, but it nevertheless provides a small arena in which to practice physicalizing values in public.
But even in private, as I move through the actions of writing at my desk, scanning the news, and walking to the post office on a mild sunny day in Southern California, I give form and weight to the creative, reflective values that I cultivate. But, sometimes our actions are less mundane. Something or someone pushes us to move in more extreme and unanticipated ways. For example, last week I sprinted across a coffee shop to pull my bicycle out of a would-be-thief’s hands. That certainly wasn’t on my agenda, and I had no idea I would respond with that particular sequence of improvised "steps." I learned something about myself that day, and it reminded me that every action, whether on the dance floor, on the couch, or on the sidewalk, concretizes beliefs into physical reality. Moving communicates. Moving makes real. Moving shows you who you are.
On January 21, I will join the Women’s March LA, one of nearly 300 sister marches organized in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. I have been thinking a lot about the act of marching in this context: what I want my march to express, what I want it to be. The female leaders of this event have published a platform that declares the march to be a broad stand for human rights and social justice. I believe in this platform. I want full and unequivocal civil rights, including reproductive rights, to be a reality in my home, my community, my country, my world. I will stand and walk for those things next Saturday, and perhaps on other days as well.
On a stage, unison movement amplifies meaning. Sixteen dancers jumping usually creates a bigger effect than one dancer jumping. If one woman leads on the dance floor, it’s easy to dismiss her, but as soon as eight or ten do it, female leading is normal. That’s reality transformed through movement.
In the marches next Saturday, hundreds of thousands will walk in unison as a living breathing reality of the following tenet: “Women’s Rights are Human Rights and Human Rights are Women’s Rights.” For the length of the event, this truth will live in our collective body, and afterward, it will not be able to be un-lived. On the contrary, it will have been seeded firmly into our consciousness through the act of intentional movement, and from there it must, though we don’t know yet how or when, grow gradually around us into words, meetings, laws, institutions, and traditions. This phenomenon appears in performance theory as a mechanism for connecting with an audience, in yoga philosophy and empowerment coaching as a means for engineering individual life changes. When applied in the public sphere, it is called activism.
When I visualize the Women's March as a long dance unfolding over years and decades, even centuries, I find what can be rare in these times: motivation. I’m grateful for that insight, and for the opportunity to participate in such a grand "performance:" the dance of democracy. In this spirit, we follow a long and fierce tradition of those who have literally walked before us in order to bring new worlds into being. Thank you Martin Luther King. Thank you Rosa Parks. Thank you John Lewis.
What do you stand for? Leave your stories in the comments.
Anyone who has ever moved house knows the distinct unease of that particular transition: the peeling away and packaging up of all that is familiar, the extended in-between moment of blank walls and disarray, and then, finally, the tentative sending down of new roots to re-create multiple layers of home, center, and self.
My recent move from Los Angeles to Long Beach, though welcome and much anticipated, was a challenging one for me. It was drawn out over several weeks, and it triggered deep fears of losing control and of financial insecurity. I’m slowly learning to accept these specters as old crazy relatives who come to visit from time to time, but I still wince at their sudden and unexpected jabs. I also felt incredibly grateful for help offered freely by friends in the area. I am at the tail end of the process now, urging my selective memory to re-stitch these events in a soft palette, but a few dots on the timeline still stand out clearly.
First, there was the initial search for a new place, which brought with it a heightened awareness of having and lack. I confronted my own level of discomfort with certain sizes, shapes, and conditions of apartments while simultaneously feeling ashamed of having greater means than so many others. I struggled, and continue to struggle, to accept the paradox of my own desires for beauty, safety, and space alongside the reality of unequal access to those very things, both locally and globally. My feelings, themselves, are indulgent though, and do not make the world better for anyone. The freedom and possibility I wish for myself I also wish for others, and I am slowly learning to accept that those twin wishes must move forward together, or not at all. In other words, I can’t actually do any lasting good in the world if I neglect or deny my own longings, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of affluence.
Once the new lease was signed, the packing began. In a mythic sense, the home represents the self, and as I filled boxes, lifted down paintings, and disassembled furniture, I felt the whole process like a slow evaporation of my identity. Who was I now, without these things? As the pile grew in the center of the room, I hated the weightiness of the stuff and wanted it gone. At the same time, I felt invisible without it, and resented that too. “I am not a pile of things!” a part of me cried out. The other part, though, mourned the loss. Where is my spatula, my desk, my sweater, where am I in this world? It seems melodramatic, but on a primitive level, this is indeed how I know who I am, by creating a microcosm that changes very little from day to day. I am the person who sleeps in this bed, eats at this table, writes at this desk.
As we returned our old apartment to a neutral, empty state, I felt, to my surprise, sadness. It was not a reluctance to leave the neighborhood or the city itself, but rather a subtler whisper of existential grief. Whatever concept of my life I had held there in mind, heart, and body was rapidly floating away like smoke. The disoriented “I” standing in the doorway watched that West LA life go, climbed into a truck, and drove south.
You might assume this story ends happily and, ultimately, it does, but the final stage of moving has not been a piece of cake. For me, it is unfolding as a series of tentative steps that reveal either a new delight (who knew lining a old dresser with paisley paper could be so satisfying?) or an old panic button (why does a mop cost $9???).
The truth is that I absolutely LOVE our new place, and daily meditation and writing does much to even out the waves of thrill and distress that accompany any transition. Mostly, I feel astonished at our good fortune in landing upon such a charming spot. Built as a single-family house in 1908, the structure was converted into a duplex sometime later. We have the entire first floor, complete with wrap-around sun porch, stained glass windows, original crown moldings, and a dedicated office. It feels expansive and a little intimidating, but I am excited by the prospect of growing into it on all levels.
I’ve made a personal commitment to beauty in this house, which is something I deeply wish to be present both in my performance work and in my teaching. My new home is training ground to practice cultivating and expressing that quality, so that I can more firmly support it for others as well.
What is important to you about your physical home? And how does it inform who you are? Please share your stories in the comments.
“Life as an art and art as a game – an action for its own sake, without thought of gain or loss, praise or blame, is the key, then, to the turning of living itself into a yoga, and art into the means to such a life.” - Joseph Campbell
I’m visiting Colorado this week, both to teach tango and to study Thai yoga healing work. Given the dual nature of my visit, the links between art, yoga, and life in this quotation caught my attention as I wandered into a bookstore in downtown Boulder. I admit that, as a dancer, I mentally substituted, “Life as a dance…” as I read this sentence a few more times, and it got me thinking about the common threads between my ongoing explorations of tango and yoga. Both continue to offer me profound lessons in connection in slightly different ways. In the tango, two individuals form an improvised partnership that can often feel like one body. In yoga, a kind of partnership unfolds within a single person, between the spirit self and the everyday self, and these can sometime feel like two separate entities.
So, under the larger umbrella of partnering, tango and yoga have been passing one another along my neurological pathways for many years. Sometimes they’ve exchanged furtive glances, and sometimes they’ve high-fived, but at this point, I definitely see some clear parallels! My focus as a tango dancer has shifted over time from the beauty of movement patterns toward the invisible nuances of relating. Similarly, my study of yoga has expanded from anatomy and posture to include more subtle practices of awareness. You might say I’ve recognized the yoga in my dancing, or discovered the dance that is yoga.
Nowadays, whether I’m social dancing or stretching or stirring oatmeal for breakfast, I find that the question of where to place my attention is usually the most crucial one, and that such choices have very tangible effects on my experience in any given moment. Author James Redfield coined the phrase, “where attention goes energy flows.” The word energy can be a little hard to pin down, but I know for certain that if I deliberately focus on being receptive and curious, for example, then my dancing (and my breakfast, too!) tends to feel more and more delightful.
As Campbell implies, when I consider potential “gain or loss, praise or blame” in any situation, or otherwise compare my personal desires to external standards, I feel worried and nervous. This is a “garbage in, garbage out” system. And as funny as it may sound, I really can see this playing out in something as mundane as breakfast. “Is this oatmeal the healthy kind? Should I have honey on it? What about raisins, do they have too much fructose? Maybe I should buy a blender and have green smoothies instead.” My mind moves quickly and is never far from the panic button.
Instead, if I manage to change the channel and make a conscious, internally-sourced intention (I am going to enjoy eating this oatmeal!), then the anxiety fades very quickly. I’m left to enjoy the delicious warmth and sweetness of my breakfast!
As a social dancer, it’s easy to be distracted by either imagined or real opinions of others, and when that happens, the downward spiral is swift and sure. I get nervous, avoid people, and am generally unable to enjoy dancing, the very thing I came for. So, my practice in that environment is to choose to focus on the kind of experience I want to be having (fun, inspired, creative, accepting). If I notice that focus drifting, I go to the bathroom or step outside to “reset.”
And so, wherever I am, I do my best to “dance” between intention and experience. I notice that when my focus is strong, all of the habitual judgments I make about myself both as an artist and as a person (better/worse, success/failure, right/wrong) suddenly become irrelevant. Instead of the panic button, I hit the release valve. These moments are sometimes fleeting, but I find them to be liberating on multiple levels.
My challenge to you for this week is to set a Daily Intention:
First thing in the morning, take one minute to choose an intention for the day. It can be simple: calm, curious, flowing, anything that appeals to you. Breathe it in and notice how it feels in your system. Acknowledge any shifts, even subtle ones, throughout the day.
If you are a social dancer, try this the next time you go out dancing! You can even order your very own set of Tango Intentions, a deck of 52 cards with single words you can use to focus when dancing or practicing.