Dancing Without Mirrors (Or, How I Learned to See In the Dark)
It all began when I was living in Springfield - a city in southwest Missouri, USA. I was working as a cook in a health food store when one of my coworkers told me about a dance studio that she'd visited. "It's unlike any other dance studio you'll ever go to," she said. "There are candles and lanterns - the room is dark and small - there are no mirrors or fluorescent lights. And she teaches you how to pole dance."
I was immediately intrigued. I'd been looking to try something new, but what my coworker was saying seemed counter-intuitive: how could I learn to dance if I couldn't see myself in a mirror? How would I know I was doing it "right"?
Let me say that I come from a background in dance performance. As a child, I learned ballet - standing in a line along the bar - black leotard, pink tights, and small pink shoes trying to move in synch with my classmates. I danced for seven years, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not get my body to do exactly what the others did.
I stared desperately at the mirror. I was a head taller than most of my classmates, broad-shouldered, slow and slightly awkward. As I got older - and puberty hit me before anyone else - I became the biggest in the class, with a distended belly, budding breasts and dark, Mediterranean hair sprouting over every inch of my body. Everything about me was at odds with the lithe, blonde, Anglo-Saxon bodies of my classmates.
There was a constant comparison between my image in the mirror and what I saw in the others: "why is my torso so square, instead of long and thin? why can't I move as quickly as she does? why is the angle of my wrist so wrong, not graceful or dainty?" What little joy I found in dance was dwarfed by a rigid attention to detail and my growing feelings of failure.
When I hit young adulthood, this extended into all aspects of my life: academics, social circles, family dynamics. My life was a daily exercise in comparison: how my (literal and figurative) reflection in the mirror lacked, was not measuring up, to what I saw around me in my classmates, the media, and even my family.
I don't think I'm alone in this. As humans, we seem hard-wired for comparison - and the idea of sameness appeals to us as a herd species. But the shame that often accompanies those comparisons is debilitating, especially for a young person trying to figure out where they fit in the world without the tools for seeing themselves clearly.
Fast forward to 25 years old, in Missouri, and I was feeling insecure in my body and my life. I had been doing therapy, writing in my journal, and building new and meaningful friendships. I had discovered a refuge in the sensuality of herbs and started my path towards herbalism. But I was still hungry all the time, looking at myself with judgment in the mirror and feeling distaste for what I saw. So I went to my first pole dance class hoping that I could at least learn to be more sexy.
Just like my coworker had told me, there were no mirrors. In that particular pole studio, the emphasis was on self-expression - not appearances or performance for an audience. Technique and safety were important, but our focus was on sensation and feeling, not what we looked like. After I had been dancing there for a year or so, my teacher introduced us to solo freestyle. After the day's lesson, we would spend the final portion of the class dancing freestyle, one at a time, in front of each other.
I've written already about the way that experience changed my relationship with hunger and desire. But it also opened me up to a new way of seeing.
At first, I was terrified: this was worse than watching myself dance in front of a mirror! Now, everyone else was watching me, too! But my teacher and my classmates did not judge or critique or tell me what I could have done better. Instead, they acted as loving mirrors - reflecting encouragement and offering praise for my unique self-expression. They told me how a particular spin held a lot of power or the way my body made gorgeous patterns on the floor.
But more importantly, they asked me how I felt during the dance. The emphasis was on my internal experience: the sensations and emotions of my body. Did I like the way the song inspired me to move faster or slower? How did it feel when I tried a new combo that I'd never done in a freestyle before? Did I release and express what was inside my heart that day? I was learning to bear witness to my own body, to see my sensed experience as just as important - if not more important - than how it looked to an outside observer.
This is revolutionary, especially if you think about how we are raised by society (especially the media) to view ourselves from the outside, like another person would. Instead, I was learning to see myself from the inside: to be my own mirror.
I also watched my classmates dance, learning to witness them as loving friends, instead of judging their abilities or style. Sameness was not important - we did not need to mold, shape or change our movements to match each other. Instead, we just allowed our own bodies to tell our own stories. And we cheered each other on.
Navigating the Dark
Because of this, when I dance, I usually do it with my eyes closed. The lights are low, if not completely turned off, and I direct my focus inward: to the sensations of my body. I enter an altered state of consciousness, where all of my senses are heightened, and I freestyle - allowing my body to move with the music in whichever way I want - sometimes incorporating pole moves and spins, but not consciously worrying about what it looks like to an audience (regardless if I'm alone or freestyle dancing in front of my friends).
In this way, I've learned to move around in the dark oblivion of introspection. Even when it's a new space and my eyes are closed, I move with all of my senses, intuitively measuring distances between my limbs and the wall or the pole. It seems as if I can literally see in the dark, my body navigating through space with clarity and direction.
I have become fascinated with this practice of seeing in the dark: dancing through space (and its twin, moving through daily life) with self-trust and intuition. And these themes - of mirroring, of descent into darkness - have become important themes in my writing, my ceremonies, and my work.
With the Lights On
When I left Springfield and moved to Athens a few years ago, I began dancing at a more conventional pole studio. Wall-to-wall mirrors greeted me with every class. I watched myself warm up; I watched myself practice; I watched myself dance choreographies.
I'd be lying if I said it was easy to re-enter a mirrored dance world. All of my childhood memories of ballet were triggered. Some days I am still critical - of my shape, my size, my lack of ability. I have been dancing for years, but I still cannot do some basic tricks, and my disappointment at the person in the mirror often makes me give up before I even begin.
But most days I am surprised and pleased with what I see in the mirror. (Two weeks ago I could not get my leg this high! A month ago, that spin did not look as confident!). I enjoy seeing myself in the mirror in a way that I did not think was ever possible - and I think that is because I learned to see myself clearly in the dark, first.
Seeing in the dark: A dance Playlist
I've created a short dance music playlist, inspired by this post. If you're interested in experimenting, turn off all the lights and press play - see what kinds of things your body wants to do in the dark.