Before I was ready for therapy, I had ballet. To be clear, dancing came with difficulty for me. But the experience—with the right teacher—was deeply healing. The thing that helped me start to unite my mind with my body was my teacher's unique use of language, of words, matched with the movement.
I had tried dancing before but it never worked out. After my first class as a kid, it was reported to my mother that I was disruptive. For years my wild woman antics were a family joke. I returned to ballet as a young teenager, then again after college, trying three or four different teachers. But my body would not do what I wanted it to do.
I had a history of childhood sexual abuse that haunted me. None of my first memories of my body were consensual and I was plagued by the residual pain.
A main result was that my body would not obey my mind. In dance class, I could see the teacher demonstrate a tendu, and I understood it intellectually. But when the music began, I couldn't do it. My leg would attempt to go in the prescribed direction but would make new shapes, coming off the ground, the foot curving in strange ways.
This was at the barre, with one hand to hold me still. In the center with no stabilizing source I was unmoored. The other students in class would end up on the right side of the room and somehow I had moved to the left. Many teachers slowed the movements down for me into micro steps. But the connection between my understanding and my ability to move with accuracy just couldn't be made.
To what degree I was naturally a klutz and to what degree my lack of coordination could be attributed to my violation, I don't know.
Connecting movement with language helped the author feel whole. Photo by Matthew Murphy for Pointe.
It was by luck that at 23 I finally found the right teacher. Three times a week I would walk up a steep and narrow stairway, just like the song from A Chorus Line, into the Joffrey Ballet School in Greenwich Village. The school was very modest—a few empty studios, a couple of old benches in the lobby and no air conditioning in the summer. But for me this was where my healing began.
In this class, the instructor, Dena Moss, not only demonstrated the physicality of the movements, but put language to every single one. For tendus she gave explicit instructions to press the ball of the foot into the floor while sliding it into a pointed shape and keeping the heel lifted forward. Once the music began she kept speaking. The words were simple, "And point, and point, and point, and point, and plié and relevé and turn around...." This was repeated for every combination in a 90-minute class.
I had always loved language. Reading words, writing them, hearing them spoken in other languages. They were my comfort zone.
So hearing the words spoken out loud by my instructor, I was finally able to move my body where it was supposed to go. I hadn't thought this was a possibility for me. I learned to repeat the teacher's words in my head when I practiced outside of class. Matching the movement with language became a meditation in connecting my mind with my body, a meditation in embodiment. It was a whole new experience in a body I'd felt disconnected from for so long.
I remember leaving class, walking down the stairs, and feeling every part of my body like I never had before. I'd lift my foot to take a step down, feel the ball of the leg swing in the hip socket, feel the knee hinge swing, feel muscles stretching. It was like living inside of a new vessel.
When my Facebook feed started filling with stories of #metoo last year, I felt two things: 1) relief that we were finally talking about gender violence and 2) wonder over how all of these people would find their way to healing. How many ways are there to heal? And how many of those who were hurt would actually be able to take the next step in addressing their trauma?
It took another five years after I started dancing regularly to tell my version of #metoo. But for me, the marriage of movement and words that I experienced in ballet was a vital first step. It allowed me to experience my body, my mind, my physicality and my imagination as one united instrument. After so many hours of practicing a connection between my mind and body, ballet cracked open a cosmic egg that let me be my whole self again.