Return to site

The Beast with Two Backs

“Sometimes you have to go a long way out of your way in order to come back a short distance correctly.” (Edward Albee) …. “Sometimes?” Always! It's how I learn. My most recent discovery is no exception.

I've had a lot of ideas floating around in the hopper lately, getting ready to tell me something. For instance, my son was showing me what dance is when you take all the hormones out of the equation (plus I've had a cold for a while and that changes things). “This is movement without sex in it,” my body mulled over. “It's fun. And cozy. And...intriguingly relaxing.” —Whatever else sex is, it's an excited state of being, and as such, it's a kind of stress. What if we had all the relaxing togetherness it can provide without the stress?

And I was playing the Goldberg Variations and feeling that  there was a tango lesson in them, perhaps the way my right hand was the woman and my left hand was the man, distinct harmonizing personalities with the melody and counterpoint woven between them, but the right more melodic and the left more rhythmic. Separate things, but part of the same organism, playing one piece of music by providing interlocking pieces of the puzzle.

And I've been lying on the ground a lot with my feet on the wall, trying to feel the energy in my back open up. I don't know if it is or not, but I do know it's been shifting my dance focus. I was also lucky enough to dance with a very good dancer lately with whom I was acutely aware of the energy of the hand on my back—he wasn't leading me with it à la Missé, but I felt the hand feeling my back and transmitting buckets of information. “Maybe my back is getting more sensitive,” I hoped. It felt the hand in return, with thousands of teeny back-fingers. “Ooo, feely feely feely!” My back was holding hands with the hand.

And I've been thinking about Beginner Mind. That same dancer said, “tango is eternal. We are all always beginners.” And after the knee-jerk, “ah, how true,” thought (and a little “he's just saying that to make me feel better”), I decided I had not thought through what Beginner Mind meant to me right now, because I wasn't finding the truth in the statement. Yes, every time we open a door we discover another thousand, and every time we level up we find ourselves back at the beginning, but then we look at all the civilians we left behind and think, smugly, “yeah, I'm just a beginner, but they're really beginners.” And I knew if I was assigning levels at all, I wasn't getting the point of Beginner Mind. So what was it?

With all this roiling around in my conscience, I was once again lying on my back on the floor with my feet against a wall, feeling my energy open up and deleting memory-hogging videos of tango demonstrations off my phone. But why delete when you can watch, so, I lay there watching all those lovely dancers doing their thing, and I thought, “damn, I've been focussing on the wrong part of the dance! I've been watching the wrong part of these peoples' bodies! The legs are nothing. The legs are not the dance. The legs are just what hold you up, and maybe you have some fun with them for shits and giggles. The embrace is the dance.”

Aha. I watched all 22 videos and blocked the legs from view. The whole dance was right there! All the energy, emotion, and communication, without the distraction of legs. I saw the dancers' internal dance more powerfully. Maybe because I was lying on my back, I noticed how much the dancers' backs were doing energetically. Muscularly, physically, nothing at all. But they were crackling force-fields of communication, moving through space like one thing.

Then I went dancing and it all came together. We feel safe when we embrace because our squashy bits are protected on the inside of the embrace and our two bony spines face out to the dangerous world. I thought of a National Geographic photo I'd seen of a kind of fish that swims in a spherical school to avoid predators (“of course,” I'd thought, “everybody wants to be the inside fish, and centripetal force forms a perfect sphere”). I saw in my mind's eye an adorable, furry little round mammal. Since the words “kewpie” and “gerbil” are already taken, I'll call it the Tango Beastie.

This Tango Beastie is a sweet thing. It has two backs, one in the back and one in the front, to keep its soft, pink, vulnerable inside safe from the world. It has one pair of eyes that face where it's going, and one vestigial pair for decoration. It has four legs and two pelvises. It is not very smart. It is a pacific, wide-eyed, innocent critter that means no harm. It explores with the delicate curiosity and fresh playfulness of a kitten, as it roams over savannahs and meadows. Ooh, what's this over here, what's this, sniff these flowers, stalk these grasshoppers, slink through this grass, feel this nice breeze on my pelt. Since it knows its pink parts are safe and protected, it is very relaxed and calm. It moves by floating at a consistent level above the ground. Its legs flow under it like heavy ribbons, and sometimes it likes to have fun by playing clever little leg games with itself.

The Tango Beastie lives in a special world. There are sabre-toothed tigers in the outside world, so the Tango Beastie's preferred habitat is Milonga. Because there is a special magical gate at the entrance to Milonga, and over the gate is written “lasciate ogni tigre, voi ch'intrate.” (My apologies to Dante) No sabre-toothed tigers allowed in here! The gate is covered with a magical powder that kills them upon impact. Tango Beastie, here in Milonga you are safe. You have no predators. You can relax. Milonga is almost perfect, it has almost everything the Beastie likes best. The Beastie flourishes best in comfort, so Milonga is generally reasonably warm, and has nice lighting, and places to rest, and little snacks, and lots of other friendly Beasties to roll around with (the Beastie occasionally wishes it had a few bean bags or couches, and perhaps a safety-pin and band-aid dispenser, but that's real life for you). But the best part of Milonga, that calms down the Beastie most and slows its heart rate no matter what may be going on in the Beastie's little primitive brain, is the music. Milonga is full of sound that's just right for producing the physiological effects of relaxation in Tango Beasties, and it has just the right amount of order and variation, simplicity and complexity, to bring about the peaceful and focussed attentiveness that is the Tango Beastie's favourite state of mind for its gambols. The music is the Beastie's favourite plaything and omnipresent best friend. The Beastie can't imagine a world without music in it any more than we can imagine a world without air in it.

The Beastie moves rather carefully, because of an intriguing evolutionary feature: it is combinatoric. It comes in separate pieces that have to be united. So it is always paying attention to its most fragile part, the point of demarcation, lest it hurt itself doing the Beastie equivalent of spraining an ankle. And some match-ups make it feel happier and more like itself than others. The Beastie lives for peaceful happiness. That's why it never sets foot in that scary, cold, poorly lit Outside World where snacks don't grow on trees and there isn't always a seat available for relieving tired paws.

I'd been so aware of the danger of tango can be that I hadn't appreciated its safety. Here we are safe. Outside that gate, all hell can break loose, but it can't touch us here. And when we're a two-backed Tango Beastie, we can finally be calm, because no sabre-toothed tigers can get at our soft pink insides. Ahh. Feel your pelt settling down already? —I finally understood what someone was getting at when they said, “imagine you're looking for my [ ] with your [ ].” The Beastie doesn't like excitement, it likes calm, and that comes from the soothing security of having the softest and pinkest bits of itself thoroughly out of reach of sharp pointy teeth.

I'd been so aware of my role in the couple and what I was doing, that I hadn't ever changed pronouns. It's not about you and me, it's about us, if you can think of that plural pronoun as a new kind of singular. We're drifting over the meadow this way, maybe because we see an interesting bug, and while we're heading over there, we might take a moment to play a fun little joke with our four legs. —Once you think of the Tango Beastie and not “you” and “me,” the embrace changes. Do you really call it love when it's yourself? Do you “love” your own leg or shoulder? Sure. But not the way you “love” someone else. So this is what they mean by “one man, four legs.” The Tango Beastie may wrap its arms around its own shoulders or its backbelly, but it's out of love for itself, not out of desire for another. There is no other.

Once I started thinking of “us” as “me,” my dance changed. That's me, that's my shoulder I'm putting my hand on, that's my leg, I'm doing this with my hips and this with my other hips, and I'm looking out over the terrain as I float through the daisies. As a lady, the notion of finally being able to “see” where I'm going was very exciting. But the most exciting thing was that I started to feel the other person's body as my own. Just the first step into that, but it was a start. I felt like I had twice the usual amount of body, and sure, the extra one was sending distinctly less information to my brain, but there was some. I felt sensation coming from my additional body pretty much the way I felt it coming from the one I was used to. It made me realize that how we process physical stimuli is just a neural construction that can be altered. We can feel things in body parts that we theoretically shouldn't be able to feel things in. Like phantom limbs. Except that feeling an itch on a shin you no longer have is a residual mental pattern and feeling your foot touch the floor when it's actually someone else's foot is a learned one. But if paraplegics can learn to move computer cursors with their minds, we can certainly learn to process what goes on in someone else's body as if it were our own, especially as they're practically telling us already. Crazy shit. But “there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Shakespeare)

Thinking of all that especially important soft pink stuff as all mine changed how I handled connection, contrabody, and maintaining the embrace. It took me several steps away from “thinking” and into the besought realm of “feeling.” You don't think about living in your own body, you do it instinctively. The Tango Beastie never thinks about being careful with the part where one of its pieces stops and the other begins, it just does it automatically because that's how its body works. If you had a hurt foot you would automatically baby it and favour the other leg. And knowing my other furry spine was protecting me from tigers helped me relax on a primitive level. And thinking that those other hips and legs were my legs stopped me from rushing or overthinking my leg movements, because we don't have to “listen to” or “think about” what our own legs are doing. Because we already know. And if we already know, it's like we're motivating the movement ourselves, so we certainly don't have to “think about” what reciprocating movement we need to do with our other legs, because it just happens.

Beginner Mind is an animal's mind.  It senses and perceives without intellectualizing.  It leaves information unpasteurized and unprocessed.  It is what's deep inside all of our brains, it's limbic and primal and really interested in soft pink stuff and sabre-toothed tigers and snacks and really doesn't care tuppence for abstract ideas like five-year-plans or taxes or whether your foot should be over here or over there to do a nice back sacada.  We are all beginners because we are all mammals and the bulk of our brainpower really is devoted to Beginner Mind stuff.  We only use a tiny percentage to process the glossy stuff that we think makes up Civilization.

Fortunately during that revelatory milonga I wasn't thinking about any of that glossy stuff. My Beginner Mind was feeling how snuggly and nice it is to be part of a Tango Beastie, and since I was part of One Thing, I (finally, a little bit, it's a start) moved like One Thing. Aha.

Better Days, Eddie Vedder