Saturday, August 2, 2008

Baby Mama

I came to an empty play room that I was supposed to turn into a dance space. The women I came to work with at the shelter for women and children were not there, but I could here their voices floating in from down the hall. I thought we'd do some breathing first, to center ourselves, and then some stretching, and then some movement games, and of course, by special request of the social worker, some Booty Energy Dance. I rolled over the flow in my mind, finally got my burned CD operating via the DVD player, and was all set. Enter 4 women with newborns, infants, toddlers, strollers, and an exasperated "hmph" as they all sat down. I smiled at them and said hello, introducing myself over chatter that seemed to ignore my presence. What, I wondered, were we going to do?

"Let's all stand up," I offered. Nothing. Blank expressions, an adamant declaration from one sister that she was not going to dance, complaints of tiredness, and curiosity whether this was belly dance and were we going to do downward dog? I said yes to everything, you know me, all dance is one dance! "Sure! We're gonna do it all, so let's all stand in a circle." Still nothing.

Onto introductions then! So I asked who they were and to introduce the babies as well. I was at a loss in terms of what to do. Two mothers were standing, one was cursing out some imaginary foe, and another was fighting with her son over keys. I said, okay, let's start seated then, so we could breathe. The purpose of the breathing is to transition the mind from the activities of the day, the frustrations, the anxieties, and so on, and come into the present moment. Of course, the present moment for these mothers had not miraculously morphed into peace and tranquility upon entering our makeshift dance sanctuary. For a mother with a newborn, her awareness is not on a deep breath, but a little one who depends on her for everything. Even as I struggled to think of what to do to bring unity to our group, I realized I had not only never had to dance with mothers and babies, but an even bigger realization hit me in a new way: I've not yet had to be responsible for anyone's breath but my own. I was suddenly humbled before this group of courageous women, and surrendered to the opportunity to learn from the ones who have the most laborious job of us all.

Every moment was like an unfolding experiment. I literally did not know what to do from moment to moment. Everything I had prepared seemed to not be relevant. A little boy discovers the DVD player, sisters are oooing and aaahing over each other's babies. I began to realize, these "distractions" weren't tangential to the movement, they were the movement. This group's dance had to incorporate all of these elements that I had not initially acknowledged as real factors in these women's lives. There were instances when I thought I had been thrown into a circus without my next queue. And that is how life teaches us new things...right?

So you get the picture that this was not a typical dance workshop, I'm sure. One of the biggest things that threw me off from the start was a sister who was angry about something and cursing out some invisible enemy and threatening to “kill her”. The others kept telling her not to worry, everything would be okay, but I didn’t know what was wrong. Her anger was so intense she refused to participate at all and eventually broke down crying. Pryor to the crying, I was attempting to engage everyone else with movement. I realized we couldn’t move on without acknowledging whatever was wrong, so I stopped the music, and we all gave our attention to her. Someone else who didn’t know what was wrong asked and I finally knew what was wrong: someone on Myspace has posted a comment saying that her baby girl was ugly. It was one of those moments when just when I thought I’d heard it all, I soon realized I hadn’t! It was an incredulous thing—I’m thinking, Are you serious? Myspace! But yes, she was serious, and crying, and hurt. So many things were running through my mind, like how small the world must seem to her because a random comment from someone she will never meet has brought her to death threats. I was baffled, and still aware that I had to be sensitive and not judge her. We had to honor her pain collectively or there’d be no dancing—this much was clear. Everyone hugged her, assured her that her daughter was beautiful, and reminded her that the person on Myspace was a stranger and stupid and to forget them.

While the intensity of her anger saddened me, I was excited to use this as an opportunity to finally center the group. Everyone was quiet, and in a circle, at last! I asked everyone to hold hands and I introduced myself again and explained again that I am here to share some movement. I reiterated that the only way to benefit from this type of exercise was to actually participate. From this point on, we had better synergy and we actually got to the dancing!

The most energetic participant also had a one month old son. She nursed him in between dances and continued to encourage her peers from the sidelines. I showed them one of my favorite booty dances that also works the thighs like you wouldn't believe. One mother asked, "Why the booty?"--my favorite question of course. So we talked about booty power while we danced different booty moves.

After the booty energy we moved onto movement sculptures. One of the most memorable moments was when we made a group movement sculpture for “home”. Movement sculptures is a process where in we embody an idea with our bodies, literally. There are many ways to do this, and I decided to try it a new way since I had a new group. I had everyone draw a square on one side of the paper, and a circle on the other. Inside the circle you write your dream in one or two words, and in the square you write whatever is the biggest obstacle to that dream. For instance, some put lack of money and education in the square, and family or career in the circle. To make the movement sculpture, one person comes to the center and makes a pose with their body to represent the idea on her paper. We start with the obstacle idea. Others who want to support her in the process join the sculpture by representing the same idea in her own way, and attaching some part of her body to the root of the sculpture. After three or four bodies have created the sculpture, the unit takes a collective breath and morphs into the pose for the dream idea that was written in the circle. One by one, we went through the obstacle/dream pose for each person. Then at the end, we did one group pose for the idea of “home”. Everyone was eager to do this because the idea of home is so present and vital for them. I wished I had had a camera to capture their collective bodies in “home.” I was so thrilled; we’d come such a long way from the beginning of the workshop. And even more, I could see they felt empowered by the process of activating their dream of home together.

This workshop was one of the most challenging I ever had to facilitate. I appreciate all the insights I gained from the opportunity to work with these beautiful women. My ideal dance space when sharing a workshop like this would be without the presence of children, because the movement and breath work is an essential part of relaxing the mind and body, and tuning into the self. I would have prepared a mother and child workshop had I realized the strong likelihood the youth would be there. I continue to learn with each opportunity. This workshop opened me up to improving my communication style, resolving issues in the moment, switching gears to better serve surprise circumstances, and of course, remembering to laugh and have fun. If I’m having fun, we’re sure to have a good time. I am always more interested in creating a space where people are laughing, and enjoying themselves. I don’t “teach” dance, I dance with people and each time is different because the people bring new things to the process. This group brought me humility, as I was honored to be in the presence of mothers. Despite whatever course of events landed them in the shelter, they are still mothers, and are to be revered for their love and sacrifice. It was a joy to dance with them all.

More of us should have babies, become mothers, practice loving unconditionally--the world would be a happier place!