I'm a preacher. One of my favourite sermons praises ease and comfort in one's dance, one's body, and one's life. Do less, then less again. Go with the flow, set restrictions free, find peace, find silence, find quiet. Then you achieve enlightenment and win a free lotus trip to Nirvana.
But I love messing with myself, too. One day I told myself, “what happens if you...don't turn your hips in a giro?” You know, because we're "supposed" to turn them in what looks like a big swivelly voluptuous swirl. What if I said, screw that, I'm sticking to my own path?
My body started into autopilot. “No,” I told my hip. “Don't go back. Say no. What if you were having sex?” (If a mechanism is consistent with that Gold Standard, the mechanism is generally good dance technique, and if a mechanism runs counter to it, it is generally bad dance technique.) “Would you turn away?” “No,” admitted my hip, blushing. “I would be reaching toward the other person. And if I felt myself being forcibly turned away, I would still be energetically engaged with the other person.”
“Great,” I told my hip. “Now instead of 'the other person' think about your own line of dance. Hang on to your own line of dance as if nothing short of a miracle could sway you from your path. It's yours. Possess it. Own it. Don't let anyone take it away from you, no matter what.”
I taught my hip to say, “oh yeah? You want me to move? You're gonna have to make me move!” I had spent years learning what I thought I was supposed to do: that a good dancer makes her hips rotate into a turn and holds them still when walking. But what if neither of those things were true? What if hips were elastic rabble-rousers who had to be seduced into doing what you wanted them to do and were constantly reaching for their own unique paths?
I was born with a body that disassociates easily. This is usually considered a good thing. But as I practiced saying “No!” with my hip, some voice from the past drifted back to me saying, “you're over-rotating.” So that was what that meant, and this was the feeling I had to cultivate in order to avoid that. I persevered, waking up to a chewy snappy elastic feeling in my hip as I rebelliously said, “No!” and bit into my line of dance. I heard a recent voice saying, “no te vayas,” and now, on the other side of the looking glass, I got it. I wouldn't go away again.
I had been giving away my hip, and my power, at the end of every giro, and, to a lesser extent, at the end of every step. Every time I did that, I lost energy, I lost control, and I lost a springboard into the next step. I also lost connection with my imaginary partner. You can maintain an elastic dance connection no matter who is facing where, look at salsa dancers, but only if the movement is controlled all the way through. My pelvis and I now had a feisty, chewy new world of control. I could send my pelvis where I was going instead of letting it wander, because now I was in charge of it! ¡Genial!
But if transverse iliac mobility wouldn't instigate a giro, what would? If I replaced passivity and vagueness with activity and control, where was the activity originating?
How many times do I have to remember my psoas? Apparently "millions of times" isn't enough.
We all think we're initiating movement from the tops of our psoases, and we are all probably doing it at least somewhat more than when we began dancing. But recently I got poked in the top of the psoas, “no veo nada acá, no siento nada acá,” and I mentally despaired, thinking, “you don't? Well shit, because I don't either, and...I have no idea how to make a feeling there!” I was still blind. Time to up my game, but despite effort, nothing was happening there....
….And that's how bodies work. No matter how much you want to feel something, you won't feel it until the body is ready, and then it's usually as a response to a "completely different" issue.
So there were my hips looking up at me with big petulant sultry eyes, saying, “if you want me to move, you're gonna have to make me move.” I remembered someone saying he'd had a lesson with Natalya Hills and had been terrified when she just stood in front of him and didn't go anywhere. “You're going to have to make me move,” she said. “....How do I do that?” he asked. “I have no idea,” she said. Oh snap.
So I seduced my own hips, from the top of my psoas down.
“Hey, my psoas starts at a chakra point, which is also the spot that you're supposed to embrace from,” I noted to self (yet again). I imagined the energy of the embrace in my conveniently-located chakra and pouring down my psoas. It felt silky, full of light, and...male. I, who lived for ease, flow, and yin nondoing, was suddenly pushing myself around.
I took my hips in my mental arms and thrust them against a wall and French-kissed them until they succumbed with faint moans.
And...wham. With this new paradigm of no action, reaction suddenly burst onto the scene as a force greater than I. By investing effort in refusing unmotivated action, I created an environment which catalyzed explosive involuntary responses. So now instead of "go-go-go-go-go," I had "silence... ... ...WHAM."
I know which one I prefer.
My whole body was working in tandem, producing a powerful, energy-recycling, keenly directed walk. I had whippy fast giros, I had energy starting at the top of my psoas and draining down the insides of my legs and out into the ground, and best of all...I had a dance that excited me.
With one little observation of a hip, I reclaimed power and control in my life I hadn't even known I was giving away. I literally figured out how to drive my own life along my own path.
But in order to do so, I had to act against deeply ingrained tendencies. I had to create something I've spent a lifetime avoiding: conflict. Electric resistance. Go ahead, measure me in ohms.
We conflict-avoiders have survived for thousands of years by making sure the tribe never fights, and if they have to fight, it's never with us. Submission so automatic it's unconscious is an excellent defence tactic. It keeps heads attached to shoulders and mastodon haunches on trenchers.
But it's not consistent with living an examined, intentional life. Habits feel great, but they're not the most effective way to be who we want to be. What we gain in comfort we lose in power. What we gain in security we lose in control.
Someone reminded me that machines are happiest when doing useful work under load, and people are like that too. Maybe dance was the same (ya think?). I remembered what someone else had said to me in the past: “too much comfort is deadening.” Was I missing half the equation by insisting on ease, nondoing, and peaceful tranquility at all times? Was I valuing yin at the expense of yang? I had been going along in search of a dynamic and actualized balance of forces, an energetic cycle, a heartbeat of prana. Perhaps I could not have these things until I embraced my masculine side. Then there would be something to cycle between.
I realized nobody had told me dance was all serenity and ease, nor that any element that ran counter to serenity and ease was wrong. I had told myself that. My interpretations of Alexander Technique and Gyrotonics made me think that too, but...maybe I was missing something important about dance, and about being human.
Tango comes from many places, and one of those places is knife fights. The movement vocabulary of knife fighters was already in the men who danced. Circling, darting, slashing, on-edge movements that hold life and death in their balance. Tango doesn't come from vegetarian blonde suburbanites whispering “namaste” from their aquamarine yoga mats.
There's nothing “nice” about dance. Nothing sweet, or pretty, or socially appropriate. We graft those words on to it, but at its heart, social dance is human: it's amoral, animalistic, and jam-packed with urges, tendencies, and moments that are absolutely not acceptable dinner conversation.
Maybe there's nothing “nice” about leading an examined, intentional life either. Maybe active conflict, engaged resistance, has to be as much a part of living out loud as all that aquamarine passivity that I had drilled into myself. Maybe I couldn't get where I wanted to go until I encompassed yin and yang of equal vibrancy.
And then I win the lotus trip to Nirvana?
“No” had been the order of the day a lot lately. No, not good enough, No, you haven't earned that, No, you'll have to make me do it. But nice girls don't throw “No” wrenches into society's works like that. Nice girls don't trip up others' lives with their own needs. Where were all these No's coming from?
I had recently said a No that surprised both me and the person I said it to, in a context in which I would have previously expected myself to say Yes. I learned a lot about myself and my values with that No.
A few days later, I said another No, that surprised me, my realtor, and the person who wanted to buy my house. But I didn't care what was a convenient price for her, or what my realtor expected me to do. It wasn't a convenient price for me. I turned it down, even though I'm a woman and women are still expected to shortchange themselves for others' comfort.
She gave me a better price.
The thing about saying No is, every time you say it to prospects that don't work for you, you create a clearer and better-defined space for eventual prospects that do. The trick is learning to live with the truth that making a space for something in your life is not the same as already having that something. You have to learn to see the negative space and be fine with stopping there. Maybe the positive thing comes one day and fills the space, maybe it doesn't. You have to see that a well-organized life with clearly defined spaces is better than a life that's full of a bunch of unconsidered crap.
I realized I had already been taught this lesson, when I was learning to turn down men at milongas. I remember learning: “the power of your Yes is incredible, a man should be full of pride that you're standing up with him. Every time you say No, it gives your Yes more power.”
But it's one thing to say obvious, easy No's. Saying No's that the world assumes will be Yesses, that throw off the social balance, and that require uncomfortable introspective deliberation, is much harder. But these are the magic No's. These are the spell-binder No's that change the world. These are the alchemical No's.
Plain "No" just means no. But "No, not good enough, you're going to have to work harder to convince me and even then I might still turn down your proposal" is a challenge to both you and the world around you. It challenges you to be straight with yourself, to admit what you really want out of life, and to value yourself highly enough to turn down anything that isn't right for you, even if it's only a little bit not right. And it challenges the force/person/world offering you the choice to...bring it. Or go home.
How do you want to live your life? Someone once said to me that there are only ever two choices: "Fuck Yes" or "No." And nothing inbetween. That's scary. It's easier to make lots of little meh Yesses that don't count for much. But every time you say that kind of Yes, you're creating deadening comfort for both yourself and the choice-offerer. Sometimes that's what we want. But that's a missed growth opportunity for everybody. Worse, that's an intentionally rejected growth opportunity.
When we say the alchemical No that's a challenge for everyone to do better, we force the world without and within to evolve into something greater than it is now. We force everyone to look inside and to make active, considered choices that rock the boat.
So say the hard No's. Challenge the world, without and within, to grow. Because no matter how great it is right now, you can help it evolve.
And when the world evolves, present impossibilities morph into future inevitabilities. Miracles happen.
And No turns into Yes.
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