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How Breaking My Foot Taught Me How to Walk Like the Man I Want to Be

How I wish my first real tango teacher could see me now! 

“Your hips are all over the place,” he would say. “Salsa hips. They're like spaghetti, they're like jello. I have no idea how you get anywhere.” He would then stagger chaotically across the room, barely able to make it because of his hips squiggling all over the place. Or he would gyrate them in place. “It looks great. But it is not tango.”

I knew this was true, and I knew that I couldn't feel myself doing the dreaded wiggly-hips. I had no basis for comparison. I had no other leading brand to compare myself to. Many other teachers worked on this with me, and they all had their own take on the situation, and they were all correct. But personal experience outside of dance is what teaches me best. This was something I'd been working on ever since I started dancing, and at its best, it was something I could remind myself to do as a learned technique, that took brainpower and niggling reminders.  That's a great first step...but that's not how we own things.

Thank God I broke my foot a couple of weeks ago!

I am currently limited to walking with crutches and to crawling, and they've taught me about dance, philosophy, sex, and life.

We'll start with the crutches.

First I had only one, and that sucked. I felt like an extra out of Les Miz, limping around, my right
armpit and back suffering. But the pain involved in only having one crutch quickly taught me that in order to avoid pain, every step I took had to be an exercise in feeling ground-energy spring up through me and spring me in the direction of my path, and every moment of uprightness had to be a moment of lengthening and expanding my body. Then when I finally got my second crutch, the games began, and I could sproing around and it was, by comparison, great.

I quickly learned that if I let my shoulders collapse around my ears, I would hurt and not get anywhere. I started with the upper body. I thought about my arms and their extensions (the crutches) as forelegs and my hands (also the crutches) as paws that reached deeply into the ground and sproinged me off it. I thought about everything opening up and expanding and using the back upper body as well as the front, as if I were rowing crew. I felt my arms starting at the bottom of my lats down by my spine and growing up from there. Could I do 50% of the crutch walk with the top half of my torso, out of which my arms were extensions?

And then it became an exercise in spinal fluidity. I noticed the sagittally-focussed S-undulations of the spine and knew that they were the real answer to getting where I was going. “Hey, these are like the spiral undulations of a normal walk flattened between two planes,” I thought. “How can I make these undulations smooth and fluid, with no hiccups or awkward bits? How can I spread them out so that the whole spine is doing them in a balanced way and no one part is overcompensating or underworking? How can make my spine walk like a violinist doing circular bowing?”

I was going along working on making each one of my vertebrae do its part in the name of fluidity, like a good little Pilates practitioner.  “The top half of the S is only half,” I realized. “I need to check out what the bottom half is doing.”

It turned out the bottom half was doing a lot. In fact the bottom half was doing a lot more than the top half. “Aha,” I thought. “If I draw attention to the bottom half and make it do the walk, it's harder work for my deep core muscles, but it's much easier on my limbs and joints, I go farther faster, and the spine moves more fluidly. I bet it's just hard work because I'm not used to doing it.”

And here's where it stops being about science and starts being about sex.

“This walking stuff is extremely taxing physically,” I thought. “I'm not going anywhere unless I really, really want to get there. I mean, it needs to be important.  Like....”

I cast around for what was sufficiently important.

“—Like the continued survival of the human race.”

A day or two went by, of me chugging along, working on my spinal S-curves.  And then, huffing and puffing, my body suddenly thought, “you know, I've done this before in a different context.”

It took my brain a minute to catch up with my body's muscle memory. But then... “oh HO!”

I paid closer attention to what the lower half of the S-curve had to do in order for me to get anywhere. It really had to thrust forward into space and mean it, and it took effort. It was not like the usual sensation of moving forward through air. It was as if the air in front of me had substance. Meat. Flesh. It was like I had to thrust forward into a person.

And then I thought of this exchange from Real Genius (also known as “the popcorn movie” or “the movie where Val Kilmer plays a smart person”):

“—Can you hammer a six-inch-spike through a board with your penis?”

“—Not at the moment.”

“—A girl's gotta have her standards.”

And that is exactly the kind of intention, engagement, and focus you have to have if you're
going to get anywhere on crutches. It's way down there in the deep nether regions, it's about as yang as you can get, and it instantly gives you exactly the right kind of pulsating fluidity to minimize wear and tear on the rest of you. The only difference is that at the end, instead of having an orgasm and furthering the human race, you get to go to the grocery store.

I've also been learning a lot, and remembering a lot, by crawling around when I'm at home. There's a learning curve to crawling! It's been a while since I used it as my primary form of locomotion. When I started I was extremely clunky. My knees got sore. I moved like a hurdy-gurdy. Then I started to play with my forepaws, and seeing if I could use them as paws, not hands. (They instantly rebelled and said, “we can't work under these subpar conditions. All these flat smooth surfaces don't give us anything interesting to work with.”  I apologized and made them do it anyway.)

That was important. I did that for a while. Then my knees felt left out. “We are also touching the ground, why can't we be paws too?” So I made my knees and shins be paws too. Then I played Carnival of the Animals with my son, who was starting to crawl around to keep me company. I was a panther and he was a lemur, and he did a very fine job of lifting his tail up exactly like a lemur.

I wondered how four-legged animals maintained their beautiful core support. You don't see many four-legged animals with collapsing shoulders or dumping into their lower backs. But I did not yet know their secret.

I kept crawling around.

I noticed that even with the crawling, I wasn't going anywhere unless I had a damned good reason to do so, and then, when I went, I went. Crawling dictates focus and attention. You don't even have to “try” to focus—you're just not going to get anywhere unless you do! Focus is built into the exercise. Not much spare brain left over for thinking. Also no hands left over for playing with a phone.

Crawling can be hard on the knees, so I had a vested interest in learning to distribute the weight and the effort throughout my whole body. Could I skulk through the jungle as softly and as smoothly as a panther?

And then a couple of days later I met someone, a brand-new person, who didn't even see me crawl, and she looked at me and said I was a panther.

Well it must be true if an outsider can see it and I'm not even crawling, I thought.

Given license-to-panther, I panthed around my apartment and right about the time I was discovering that I could no longer “walk down” the street but I could definitely inseminate the street and that was a great way to get places, I realized that that low-down-deep yang energy was also the motor for crawling! That exact source of everything that I'd been playing with in my dance back when I was still upright, was once again proving its root-of-everythingness. “Make that the thing that's going to the kitchen,” I thought to myself. And suddenly, it was! Suddenly, my core was perfectly and unthinkingly supported, everything moved in fluid harmony, there was no collapsing, and there was no dumping.  Suddenly it was easy.

And suddenly I was moving as if the kitchen were an underage blonde virgin at a cocktail party and I was Dracula. I was not so much “going to the kitchen” as I was closing in on the kitchen in a single-minded seduction mission from which there was no escape. I had spent a considerable amount of time sitting around in the underbrush, lazing in the sun and keeping a steady eye on the kitchen and its promise of things to eat, debating if the kitchen were really worth my time or not, considering the amount of effort required. And then, when I decided, yes, I was going to have myself some kitchen, I attacked. Not with speed or force, but with single-minded feral purpose. I felt the constant pull of that low-down yang energy directing itself very handily toward my destination—and, since I was on all fours, this meant it went all the way up my body and through my head.

Exactly the way it's supposed to when you're dancing.

“This must be what it feels like to have an erection,” I thought. “Only, one that goes up your spine and through your head. It's very hard to think about anything else. Must. Have. Kitchen.

And then I thought about what someone had once told me about the great Osvaldo Zotto.

“Watch how Osvaldo leads Lorena,” he said. “He is not just sticking an inch or two of his dick in her and leading her like that, no,” he said. “He is sticking his dick all the way up inside her, all the way up through to...her mouth! And up out through the top of her head! That is how you must connect. All the way.”

And I knew it was true, but I hadn't personally felt that kind of drive until now. As a woman, yes, I had been in the arms of men who made me shake with desire, but (perhaps because I'm a woman) it wasn't a feeling with linear intention. It was more of an all-encompassing hunger to absorb. Probably not surprising.

But now. I knew. This is what it feels like to have directed desire. To really want your achieved destination and not be able to think about much else until you get it. It's hard to multitask when you're crawling, and the pull of the lower dan-tien toward your target is so great, it does feel like a kind of hunger. And until you get there, it can feel like an ache.

I wondered if testicles ever actually turned blue.

I was also impressed at myself for feeling something so unfancy. I usually have to work really hard to stay out of the cerebral zone, but this is literally grounding. Crutching and crawling are not that special. Not that smarty-pants. They're basic, primal, just-do-it exercises. And for me that's the hardest kind of all.

I still managed to draw the philosophical lesson out of them, though.  “Just look at how these balance the spiritual and the practical side of life!” I thought. “I have to pay just as much attention to prosaic reality as I do my flights of body-nerdiness! And look at how I'm learning how to work less and get more done! And look at me sitting around conserving my energy until something is really worth my while and then pouncing! That sure makes more sense than constantly being set to Pounce Mode, which is exhausting and doesn't seem to get me any more gazelles than this way anyway.”

Just two days after the first brand-new person told me I was a panther, a second person also told me I was a panther! Therefore it must be true. (“Of course I am,” I thought smugly. “A black panther with a silky coat.”  And I mentally washed my fur.) And the thing about panthers is, we spend a lot of time sitting around. Licking blood off our paws, lazing in the sun, napping, staring at flies, and enjoying our effortlessly integrated bodies. But we can snap to action in an instant if necessary. And we watch our prey carefully, gathering ourselves, and waiting for the perfect moment....

And then we pounce.