Down and Left

Dance, It's Personal, Laughter, Reflection, Uncategorized

I’m a social dancer, have been for 10 years or so.  My go-to is salsa, but I dance all the latin dances (street style, not ballroom), a smidge of tango, a whisper of east coast swing, and a generous, juicy dollop of blues.  As most women do, I started by learning to follow.  As most women don’t, I got bored with following and learned to lead.  Actually, blues dancing taught me that if you don’t want to miss out on half of all the great dancers, you better learn to lead.

The experimental, fluid nature of blues dancing lends itself well to lead-swapping, so I spent several years learning how to connect, and lead all different types of movement. This has served me well in all my dancing, but especially bachata.  Bachata, for me, has more room to experiment and play, so that’s what I do.  I stay loosely within the choreography, but enjoy experimenting, playing, and seeing what my lead (or follow) will do next.

But I digress.

Tonight, Wednesday, was bachata night at the main local spot.  I rarely go out during the week, but I was able to go out tonight and it was one of the best dance nights I’ve had in months.  Months and months.  Why was tonight so special?  Because not only did I get probably a dozen great dances (as a lead and follow), I got to pass along an excellent piece of advice a friend gave me several years ago.  Ready?

Stop looking down.

If you’re a social dancer, you know what I’m talking about.  You’ve done it, you’ve danced with people who do it, we’re all guilty.  We get into the music and we find ourselves looking down and slightly left – maybe at our feet.  That’s the position our eyes take when we’re remembering feeling, smelling, tasting – anything kinesthetic.  It’s a comfy place – we’re jamming out, our body is moving, and our eyes are probably glazed, down and left.  But there’s something off about that whole scene, my dancing peeps probably already know – there is no way to connect with your dance partner if your eyes are pointed at the floor.

And the whole point of social dancing is to connect to someone else, through a shared experience of music and movement.  That WILL NEVER HAPPEN if we don’t stop looking down.  Looking down also means our energy is directed into the ground – not up or forward or out or around – down into the earth.  The earth doesn’t mind, but our dancing and our ability to connect suffer from our narrow range of focus.

So among many other lovely moments, I had the opportunity to do something I rarely do on the dance floor – I gave some advice.  I gave it in the form of compliment and a request (you have a beautiful smile.  if you dance with me, I’d love it if you’d look up and share that smile with me) or something like that.  Then, I made it into a private joke.  If he looked down too long, I’d find a way to trail my fingers into his line of sight and up popped his eyes – big smile and dimple at the ready.  Lavish compliments, big smiles and laughter, flirting and keeping the eye contact – all wonderful tools that everyone thoroughly enjoys.

I am so grateful.  He is a dancer of enormous talent and potential, still young, and I’m so grateful he was willing and eager to listen, and to push himself out of that comfy spot.  Each time we danced, it got better.  He admitted it felt awkward, but that’s what happens when you’re doing something different that’s going to change your dance life – it’s awkward for a while and then it settles and the world unfolds again.

When dancing as a follow, it is always a risk to ask a lead to do something different.  Leading on the social floor is so hard, and it’s ridiculously easy to accidentally crush someone’s confidence.  On the floor, I make a practice of staying away from anything that seems like teaching or coaching, but sometimes, it’s the right thing to do.  One of the biggest joys of being part of the dance scene for such a long time is seeing different dancers grow and progress and change over the years.  Knowing that my support and encouragement has been part of that process is icing on the cake.

So get those eyes up, people, up and forward – 1 2 3, 5 6 7!

 

 

Graduation Day

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

This is a long post, but Graduation for my students is a complex, rich experience and deserves significant reflection.

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I find that I am often befuddled when people remark, with surprise, on the poise, clarity, and eloquence of my students. I am befuddled until I remember that they don’t see them as I do. They may have only seen them, for years, in their darkest places of mind and body. They likely have never seen them at their best as mature adult women. And that’s what I see from the beginning – I see not only the possibility, but the reality. I see it and I hold it for them, until they can see it and hold it for themselves. Graduation is an opportunity for their friends and family to see that person, to see the person I see.

The three months leading up to the big day are often the most stressful for me. We’re not only trying to finish all the coursework, I have to oversee the planning and creation of whatever decorations they want, handle all the security/event details, and begin the process of recruiting a new class.  All those things combine into a slow-cooking stew of tedious detail, frustration, an ongoing effort to maintain patience and find ways to keep myself healthy and sane.

By far, the biggest source of stress is the students.  By the time we’re planning graduation, they’ve been in the program for about 12 months.  They’re tired, ready to be done, and starting to hit the “ending is in sight and holy shit, what next?!” phase.  There’s a real risk of self-sabotage for some – I lost one this year just six weeks before she would have finished.  There is a lot of fear of transition and change – of endings, a new routine, different supervisors and co-workers.  They’ve built a strong, safe community in this room and there are no guarantees about what they’ll face elsewhere.

I am able to help a few get other positions, program graduates are usually in high demand.  They’ve proven themselves trustworthy and reliable, and they have good, solid transferable skills.  Some stay with me as clerks (three or four usually), some are going to treatment or are releasing in the next few months, so they take whatever jobs they can get.  But even with all their learning, support, and new skills, they are aflutter with nerves, and with good reason.

For most of them, this is their first significant accomplishment.  Ever.

You read that right – most of them have never completed anything important, or even truly given anything a focused, concentrated effort.  Some have – there are a few high school completers (they all have at least a GED), fewer still who have some college success.  Most have held crap jobs off and on, but few have held legitimate jobs outside of fast food, waitressing, or low-level service work.  The majority of them have survived however they could – all types of illegitimate goods and services, prostitution, theft/burglary/robbery, gambling – you name it, they’ve done it.

Completing this program, for them, is a statement to themselves and their families that they are doing everything they can to leave that world behind.  This may be the best they’re going to be for a while, and they have every right to be proud, accomplished, nervous, and afraid.  None of us ever knows when we are going to fall short of our expectations of ourselves.  We are rarely prepared to fail – especially on a grand scale, and we spend far more time punishing ourselves for our failures than anyone else ever would.

But for women (and men) who have been incarcerated, the fear of failure exists at a whole new level.  Until this moment, their lives are a testament to failure, and society incessantly reminds them of those failures. They have failed as daughters, women, wives, sisters, mothers, employees, citizens, lovers, and humans.  They have wreaked havoc on themselves and those they love, extending that damage far and wide to innocent bystanders, property, businesses, and the community. Incarceration is the ultimate symbol of failure, one that seems impossible to ever shed.

Because they have done so much damage to their relationships, success in prison often comes with a price.  Families, full of rage and pain, demand that they live in a state of constant self-punishment.  “Why are you smiling in that picture?! Are you happy to be in prison?” they ask.  Or “Why should we come to graduation? You want us to be proud that the only place you can finish something is in prison?” Or “We won’t bring your children, they don’t deserve to see you locked up” and innumerable other thoughtlessly cruel statements.

I don’t hold judgment on these families.  While they all have their own broken dynamics, it is impossible to deny these women have done great harm.  While the family itself may have put the girlchild’s feet on the wrong path, the choices were ultimately her own, even if they all pay the price.  It’s not my place to say that a family shouldn’t be angry, ashamed, disappointed, broken-hearted, they have a right to feel however they feel. But the weight of all that pain and anger is a heavy burden for my students to bear, and adds to their already extraordinary levels of anxiety, heightening their fear of failing yet again.

I had a student collapse in my office sobbing, in part because she was ashamed at the pride she felt in herself for completing the program.  She cried and cried while she tried to reconcile her feelings and her desire for her family to celebrate her success.  How much worse to fail again after such a glowing, exciting success? How much worse to let yourself and your family down again, after making such a concerted effort to create a different life?

The risk they take in claiming success, in attempting to trust themselves again, is enormous, as is the amount of courage necessary to take such a risk.

In this program, inside these walls, they are at the top of the heap.  They are in a position of privilege, they have credibility, they have the trust of staff and security, they trust themselves, they can see and measure their success and accomplishments, and their confidence grows.  But once they leave, they go right back to the bottom, and that plummeting drop is enough to drain the courage out of anyone.

They are now faced with freedom of choice and action, they have to pick up the burdens of daily living, supporting themselves and their children, finding healthcare and childcare, and often dealing with aging or sick relatives.  They are expected to make amends for their past sins, make endless reparations, and successfully navigate the roadblocks and obstacles society puts in place for those with a criminal background.

Their successes inside the walls become meaningless to everyone but them.

And that’s the ultimate fear:  that it wasn’t real, that they haven’t truly changed, that they won’t be able to hold onto this new self.  It’s hard enough to carry a strong sense of self-worth and pride, even harder with the weighty legal and personal burden of past mistakes. What if they can’t do it?  What if they can’t maintain their sense of self-worth and dignity?  What if all they are is what they’ve always heard?  What if the new person they’ve struggled so hard to become is just a mirage, with no lasting substance?

None of these questions have answers because the answers are different for every student, for every human being. These questions aren’t even specific to them, although they take on particular weight for this population.  These are questions we ask ourselves, all the time, or should be asking.  “Am I good person? Am I a person I can be proud of?  Am I making the best decision for myself and others?”

That they now not only ask, but care deeply about the answer is one sign of fundamental, personal change.  If they can keep asking the question and caring about the answer, that’s as good as most of the rest of us, and better than some. That’s the weight of graduation day for us – a symbol of accomplishment that simultaneously carries enormous risk and hope.  It is worth the work, though, for them to experience themselves as successful, proud, confident, intelligent, and valuable, for as long as possible, and to share that new self with their families.

It is a new path forward for all of them, a chance to walk forward together, in a different direction.

Milestoning

It's Personal, Novelicious, Uncategorized, Writing

Today is…important, I think.  I sent the first 4000 words of my novel to my first readers.  I’ve sent bits and pieces to folks over the last few months, but this is a solid, cohesive chunk of the book.  I know, in my mind, that this is a “big deal,” but the feelings probably won’t set in until I hear back from…The Readers.

I suppose what I’m thinking is normal.  That I wrote too much, was rambling and chaotic, pedantic and pontificating, and generally couldn’t organize one spoon in an empty drawer. The piece that gnaws at me most is that I’m not writing a purely academic piece or doing a literature review, but it would be easy to fall into that trap.  It would be easy to drop into academic mode, but it wouldn’t be good.  And, ultimately, I would be bored.

But putting forth an idea grown out of my own brain, with no formal research or literature propping it up is scary.  I worry if it’s already out there somewhere, or if it’s just pure bullshit.  The people I’ve shown it to so far love it and believe it’s important, and I do too. I feel pretty satisfied so far – I think I’ve done a far job for a first pass.  But the sense of urgency is strong and now that I have a sense of the process, I’m impatient to keep moving.