Notes on Practice: My Private Sadness

November 10, 2014 - Meghan LeBorious

Tammy’s “Faint of Heart” Heartbeat workshop took place over three days at the Martha Graham Dance Studio in the West Village. I arrived preoccupied, as I’d been mentally tangling with a sticky interpersonal issue throughout the afternoon. After organizing my things in the female dancers’ locker area, I stepped into the big, open room, and instantly forgot my pressing dilemma. Once inside, I crossed another threshold by stepping up onto the welcoming sprung floor. People were more or less evenly distributed throughout the space, prone with closed or averted eyes, moving slowly. Instead of finding space on the floor to stretch and unfurl as is often my inclination, my spine moved quickly into Flowing—curling and undulating the rest of me. I took tiny steps, in deference to the many quiet bodies around me, noticing the movement in my released spine as it rose up from subtle connections of all the parts of my feet with the floor.

5Rhythms is articulated through a series of “maps” that Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhythms practice, laid out. The first map is the Waves map, which is the foundational practice, and is concerned with the investigation of each of the 5Rhythms—Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness. The Heartbeat map comes next; and is a way to investigate emotional experience. This was my third Heartbeat workshop, and my second Heartbeat workshop with Tammy.

I wasn’t able to attend the last day of the workshop because I attended, instead, a wake for my sister, Courtney’s, best friend, Lisa. She and Courtney were close friends since childhood; and Courtney stayed close to her as she moved painfully through the process of dying. Lisa was 38 years old, and left a seven-year-old son behind.

I was at Courtney’s house just moments after she got the news that Lisa had passed. She had called to ask my opinion about whether she should go to Lisa’s immediately after receiving an alarming text from Lisa’s fiancé. She also wanted to alert me that I might need to pick up Simon (my son) who was sleeping over at her house that night. I decided to go to her in either case, and was there within five minutes. During that time, she received the call. When I walked in, she was coiled sideways on a barrel shaped chair, rocking, sobbing quietly, keening at moments, and clutching the phone while she talked with another close friend who wailed audibly.

That first night, I moved with great freedom. It is absolutely amazing to me that I can spend countless hours dancing and still, again and again, find new ways to move. My spine was very released and I found a lot of my gestures ending with looking up, often arcing back and raising my hands above my head.

Tammy led us through an exercise called a “body parts meditation.” Next, she told us to take a partner and to take turns with one person doing the body parts meditation while the other witnessed them. After each took a turn witnessing, the mover then told the other what she felt during the exercise, and the witness described what she saw. I went first. My partner was a dancer who I have developed a relationship with over many years. I closed my eyes for most of the exercise and moved with inspired focus. At the end, I stood facing my friend. I said, “I was really into moving my spine—like twisting and curving and undulating. I was thinking about how unbelievable it is, all the infinite ways of articulating the spine.” I also said, “There is a spot in my neck that I can’t really get into. I noticed that it correlates with my sore right shoulder and inflexible right shoulder blade.”

She said, “First, I want to say that I love your dance.” It made me feel happy to hear that, celebrated, in a way. “I’m always happy when you are in the room. You really did seem to be moving from the spine, from the heart. It is like your entire rhythm is heartbeat, like it’s inside your bones. It gets a little heavy at times, and then light again, but it is always from the heart.” I loved her poetic words. It was magic to be seen so tenderly. After her dance, I said, “There is something frontal that your arms do, sort of straightforward. Maybe it is offering? Your elbows are very flexible and willing to go along with whatever your shoulders decide is happening. There is also a kind of integration to the way you move, and you are very planar and diagonal, somehow.”

We had another group talk at the end of the night, and it seemed people had endless comments. Although many were insightful, I was nervous that we went 20 minutes over. I gathered my things and went into the blustery night without even pausing to change out of my cold, sweaty clothes so I wouldn’t arrive home too late.

On Saturday, we started fresh. For me, it was another beautiful wave—characterized by a fluid spine, creative engagement and new discoveries. I began with dramatic balancing stretches and found my way quickly into unbridled movement. A plaintive, tonal opening song by FC/Kahuna included the lyric, “Don’t think about…all those things you…fear. Just be glad to be here.” I sobbed raggedly as I moved, grounded firmly, yet drawing everything up, toward heaven, my eyes half closed, finding inexplicable movements as the music moved into Stillness. Grief—both for Lisa and for other lost friends—found its shapes with my body.

After Saturday’s first wave, we gathered together to talk and Tammy opened the floor. After a couple of comments, she encouraged us to try to stay involved with what we were actually feeling physically—at least for now—and to avoid analyzing the feelings or considering the many metaphors that arise. She explained that the work we do in the territory described by the Heartbeat map is specifically about the infinite aspects of how we feel. This proved to be too much for us, collectively. Another hand went up and shared a story about childhood, and another, a personal insight.

Today, Lisa’s minister, Pastor Bessy, lead the service at the funeral home. She emphasized again and again, the many accomplishments of Lisa’s short life, and the many people she had loved well. My sister and another friend stood at the podium to share their own experiences. Courtney’s words were very moving. She was humble; and she grounded her words in lived experience. She quoted from letters she had received from Lisa; and she included many of the people in attendance in her generous reflections.

Next, Tammy assigned an exercise that involved firmly clasping a partner’s arm, then reflecting on what arose. My first partner had piercing blue eyes, and I moved slightly forward as she touched my arm. At once, I felt like laughing. With the second partner for the clasping exercise, when I stood in front of her and looked into her eyes, I felt such a surge of tenderness that I almost began to cry. When she clasped my arm, I felt solidly grounded and did not react aversively at all, nor did I dig in or resist the movement.

Later, again seated and discussing our felt experiences as a group, my second partner shared her thoughts. She first said that when she came to face me, she felt I was someone she could trust, partly because I am short (yes, short!). She went on to say that with her first partner, she had a key insight that when she was clasped, her neck went into a sharp sideways jolt. She felt like she was always supposed to be moving forward and accomplishing things, and this was her learned way of resisting. She shared that she’d had chronic neck pain for years and hadn’t realized that this action was the root of the neck pain. When she came to be partnered with me, I went first. She felt like my response to being clasped was to surrender forward, like an undulating wave. She decided to try on her perception of my approach, and again had a key insight.

These words, too, made my impressionable ears happy. I reflected on the fact that upon entering Friday, I was embroiled in my own thoughts about a difficult interpersonal situation, but that I let it go. And not just for the moment, and not that I am just going to walk away. Rather, that I will act as skillfully as can, and will employ all the passion and vision that I possess, but that, on some level, I have surrendered. I cannot control the situation, and whether I like it or not, it will unfold as it unfolds. No need to be preoccupied, since it won’t change the outcome. After my partner spoke, I experienced this little moment of gratitude. It seemed, at least for that moment, that after eight years of devoted practice, I was finally beginning to see a tiny bit of progress. I don’t think anyone in my life ten years ago would have observed an epic, graceful forward surrender, for example. Quite the contrary. Maybe there is hope for me after all!

The thing about Lisa dying—my private sadness—is that I wish I had loved her better. Things haven’t always been easy with my sister, and although I was occasionally invited to be part of their close circle, I chose instead to protect myself and to remain apart.

On Saturday at the workshop we worked extensively with fear. At the end of the day, I shared that I wouldn’t be able to attend Sunday’s session, and thanked Tammy and my fellow dancers in a breathy rush for their many beautiful offerings—my palms pressed together like a prayer as I spoke. I chose to offer my own insight (not limiting my comments to how I was feeling), that it is a very worthwhile project, working with fear. “Tomorrow I have to attend a funeral,” I said, “Not only does fear hold us back from fully living. But fear also holds us back from fully loving the people we love, and we really need to realize that they won’t be here forever. And neither will we.”

Tammy designed an exercise that involved encountering another dancer as “fear” with different variables. A dancer who was new to me touched me while my back was turned, caressing me at length. I was furious. I even thought about sharing publicly that if we don’t already have a relationship that includes touch, I would appreciate if people would make eye contact and see if I am really receptive to being touched before they touch me.

I danced with a very close friend at length—a dance of fear and reticence and the sharp edges that fear engenders, each of us with, at once, our hearts at stake. This dance continued in three major movements during the course of the day, finding us together in conclusion, linked in wordless honesty.

After so much strenuous dancing and so much sobbing, I needed to spend lunch reflecting and writing. The workshop producers had laid out tea and snacks for us, and I gratefully helped myself to an apple, some chips and a thick rectangle of dark chocolate before venturing outside.

Outside, I plodded along, dazed. After several blocks of aimless walking, hoping to find a comfortable place for tea, I settled on a deli and planned to sit in the cold on an outdoor bench across the street. Inside, I encountered the same dancer who made me angry by caressing my back. I found her manner off-putting; and I squirmed, wanting to be alone during lunch and hoping she would not ask to join me.

After lunch, we danced yet another beautiful wave. Tammy was extremely bouncy in Lyrical as she stepped away from the music-generating computer and moved around the room; and I cheered inside to see her so apparently happy.

Tammy asked us to take a partner, which, as always, means to turn to the person closest to you without thinking about it. My partner happened to be the very same person I saw in the deli, the very same person I was angry at for caressing my back when I didn’t want to be touched. Of course. How could it be otherwise? We were instructed to face each other. Then, she explained that one person would keep asking the other, “What do you fear?” I answered first, while my partner asked the question. I only remember a few of my responses, but without any warning, my answers veered into past life experiences. I took a sharp in-breath, alarmed by the sudden intensity, and let loose a shuddering sob. When it was her turn to answer the question, “What do you fear?” I realized that she and I had a lot in common, that she suffers, and that she is just trying to be happy, like everyone else in the world. By the end of the exercise, my irritation with her had dissolved completely.

Next, we used the same format for the question, “What makes you angry?” Remarkably, I had a hard time calling up sources of anger and kept finding myself silent and shrugging. When I do experience anger, it is so red-hot, so urgent, so dense, so intense…yet I couldn’t recall much at all. “When people try to team with me against other people,” I said. “When I get a parking ticket.” “When someone tries to round me off for their own understanding,” I continued. “When I burn the food.”

Shortly, I found myself in a dance exploring the gestures of Yes and the gestures of No with a friend, T. T. and I have totally different ways of relating to the beat in a given song, but in the Yes/No dance we were more in sync than we ever have been before.

I encountered T. again later but during the same wave. I had told her about Lisa during the lunch break; and when she looked into my eyes I felt totally seen, then felt a rush of sorrow. We fell into an emotional dance and gently held hands and spun each other as we moved through the wave of emotion. I passed through another episode of sobbing, finding myself cleaner and more empty after every round.

The thing is that if you are blessed to love a lot of people, and you manage to stay alive for a certain number of years, then there is no doubt that you will experience a lot of grief. When I experience grief again, it charges up all the burning embers of grief that lay scattered through my psyche. I was crying not only for Lisa, but for all of the friends I’ve lost.

I had no idea how much I loved my friend, Howard, for example, until I lost him. On a white day in early November, I was teaching then-infant Simon how to dance to the flights of soaring and arcing flocks of city pigeons when I got a call telling me that Howard had died. I was instantly ravaged with grief. Perhaps it was a dream, but two days after Howard died, he came to Tammy’s daytime Thursday class. Not knowing what else to do, I offered to loan him my body, so he could move and physically process this most difficult of experiences. He was grief-stricken, and accepted my offer. (That was the first time that I danced the grief of a spirit.)

This reverberation often angers the people for whom the grief is most immediate, in this case my sister, another close friend of Lisa’s, and Lisa’s closest family. For them, there is no once-removed, it is just the full intensity of final and irreversible loss.

Later in the afternoon, Tammy instructed us to make a big circle and we took turns dancing in the middle. I did not feel moved initially, but after the second Chaos song, I wanted to be in the middle. Several people beat me to it, however, and I hung back. I jumped as soon as a person left the middle and didn’t realize for several seconds that another friend had already entered the circle, too. I bowed and started to back away to give her the space, and in the process we began to interact. Tammy instructed us to go with it, and to turn it into a couple’s dance. My friend and I became emphatic, dancing Yes/No according to our instructions, dramatically recoiling to the floor and sailing around one another in circles. I literally lost my balance and found myself flat on my back. For a couple of seconds I surrendered, throwing my hands up and smiling in a snow angel pose before I bounded back up onto my feet and back into the dance. Many other couples took their turns; and I was awed by the creativity and specificity of the many displays.

By the end of the day I felt wrung-out and fully-open. I found myself in the third phase of a dance that went on all day with the first friend I mentioned, moving un-self-consciously and with patient reverence as the dance paused momentarily at day’s end.

I left this writing to attend to other urgencies, thinking I was in the middle of the story and that I would return to the writing as soon as possible. I realize now as I re-read it that I reached the end quite suddenly, without realizing it. Thank God I held nothing back in the telling, and that my heart danced me completely. I can only hope that I may say the same for my life.

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