A close friend once diagnosed me accurately as a “head person”. My inclination is to spend a lot of time in my mind, and not much time in my body. In late 2009, that same close friend convinced me to fly to California for the San Diego Fusion Exchange, a multi-disciplinary weekend of dancing: Three full days of classes, and then three nights of dancing well into the wee hours with not quite enough sleep in between.
It was just the prescription I needed. I spent that weekend paying full attention to my body: what felt good, what didn’t, what movement was possible, what wasn’t, where was I sensitive and why? This was the first time I had really paid attention to my body in my adult life, and the experience was life-changing.
I want to use that word again: “Attention”. Attention is where our consciousness is pointing, and my sickness — being a head person — was to be far too focussed on my mind at the expense of my body. So, when I pointed my attention at my body, a whole world opened up to me. For the first time, I learned what it really feels like to be balanced on my feet. And then I learned that I wasn’t really all that balanced — there were subtleties in my posture that I’d never noticed before. Balance wasn’t the only thing either — I was developing this body-awareness in parts of my body I had never noticed before.
One particularly vivid lesson stands out: African Dance. By the beginning of Saturday, I had been wearing my brand new, slightly-too-small dance shoes on slightly-too-hard floors for most of the previous day and night. I was aware of my body, and it wasn’t happy. The muscles in my legs were knotted into hard cords, and there wasn’t much flexibility in my back. This was my condition when I dragged myself into the reception hall that had been converted into a dance floor for the class. The floor was concrete under an unsprung layer of hardwood — not an ideal surface for day-long physical activity.
This is what African Dance looks like. Note the heavy stomping and energetic torso movement. It’s a workout.
The class was one of the most energetic I’d taken; African Dance is intensely physical. But, it wasn’t physicality that we were being taught. It was energy. I was holding back at this point; I was tired and sore. The instructor noticed this. And he told me to put more of myself into it, to throw myself into the dance. The important thing wasn’t to get the steps right or to look good. The important thing was to give all of myself to the dance, to commit every joule of energy in my body to expressing the rhythm of the drumming. It was about throwing as much raw bodily power into the movements as possible.
Coming away from the class, I noticed something strange. All of my aches and pains from before had completely disappeared. I had gone in exhausted, worked harder than I had worked in any other class on a hard concrete floor, and I came out energized and ready to face anything.
At the time, I wasn’t really sure what I’d learned in the class. I knew I felt better, but I was at a loss to describe what skills, if any, I had learned. The practical intricacies of dips and dance steps, the arcane knowledge of how to move seemed more real to me. It was only after much head-person pondering and reflection that I realized just how important that experience was.
What I’d learned was how to be in my body and what that does for me as a person. I said before that I’d learned to pay attention to my body, but this was more than that. This wasn’t just paying attention to my body; it was paying attention with my body; it was moving my centre of consciousness from my brain into my gut so I could experience my physical existence directly and viscerally.
The disappearance of my sore muscles was the most immediate effect of being in my body, but I’ve come to realize that full effects are much more far reaching. When I’m in my body, I’m more confident, I’m nicer, I’m more sociable, and more sensitive. I make better judgements. I am happier, more generous, kinder, and more loving. I experience the world more fully and can offer it more of myself in return.
All of those effects sound magical. They are not. All of them have a similar cause: When I’m in my body, I am literally more connected to the rest of the world. My body is my connection to reality, and when I’m not in my body, I’m not in reality either. And that is the sickness that my friend diagnosed: Being blind to reality. All of the positive effects come about because things go wrong a lot less when you are taking reality into account.
So, being in my body is important. But, my life didn’t change because I suddenly discovered that being in touch with reality was a good thing; I knew that already. When I say dance changed my life, it’s because I learned how to be in my body, not why it is important to be there. And that lesson is simple: you throw yourself into it. You dive into it with all the energy you can muster and don’t hold back. You face the world by jumping into it with abandon. And that is what I’ve been doing ever since.