Tuesday, October 28, 2008

King of Kingz...

I love dancing with black men. Well, if you know me by now, then you know I love dancing with everyone. Of course, there's nothing like stumbling into a substance abuse recovery program only to find there are no women present today at group. Hmmm, I thought, stunned at the luminous masculinity prostrated before me, this is going to be a group like no other.

Do you need a visual? Use your imagination and in a big pot stir in a few characters from the tv show The Wire, mix in the location like the small, cramped, dingy doctor's office on the Westbank of Post-Katrina New Orleans, and add to it the anticipation and anxiety of a waiting room in a paternity test clinic. This is our sanctuary today. Its gray walls and boxey cave is a step up from the green dungeon downstairs...but still, we'll have to really surrender to the movement to penetrate the dismal environment of recovery.

By now, we'd been coming to facilitate a creative writing, spoken word and movement workshop for about 7 months with an either co-ed group or women's group. Today's all-male ensemble is completely throwing me off. So much so that I do not hear the dramatically loud brother greet us: "Peace my QUEENS!" In one ear and out the other, all I am doing is counting them and rapidly reconfiguring all that I had loosely planned for today's movement. I believe that I can dance with anyone--the breath being the first dance, the movement is inherently inevitable. But just like everyone needs to eat for nourishment, we can't all eat the same things. My challenge in the moment was to quickly reorient my plan to eliminate all excuses one might create in order to not partipate.

"Excuse me! Oh...oh I guess you deaf or something--I said 'Peace My QUEENZ!'" I turn to face a tall, very brown-skinned, bald man with eyes big enough for two moons. He is beautiful and radiant and loud...did I mention that?

"Hello...yes, thank you," I stammer out, just hearing him for the first time.

"Oh, they gonna dance," Dominic, who remembers us from previous groups, says with an exasperation, slapping his leg like he just missed the last bus home.

"We're gonna dance--" I begin to correct the misinterpretation that we're going to dance for them--but I'm too late, Anthony has already made the leap.

"What! Dancers! Like a lap dance--" Anthony bellows out.

"No! It's not like that!" Dominic attempts to clarify but Anthony is well into his fantasy.

"No, WE are going to dance together," I reemphasize. "There'll be no lap dancing!" Of course, I am baffled: WHY ON EARTH would anyone possibly think that his drug treatment facility ordered lap dancers?!?!? This moment definitely gets recorded in the "wildest most triflingnest things I've heard while dancing" archives.

When it's time for me to lead the movement, I have still not figured out how we will spend our one hour. All I immediately know is that we must at least all be standing. Trying to incite movement from a reluctant, seated group is as effective as boiling water without turning on the burner. We are already in a circle when we rise and the first thing that comes to me is to do a "we're not really dancing" activity. A "we're not really dancing" activity is like sneaking the vegetables into the spaghetti.

We're going to make a collective rhythm. Everyone adds a beat or sound into the circle one-by-one until we have one groove session going. Some laugh; they think this is silly, but at least it's not some complicated dance step. Some make a small beat that's barely audible even unto themselves. The men pick and prod at each other, joking and teasing and sometimes making references to their former lives as drug dealers and users. Some encourage the shy ones to be louder. All dart their eyes from brother to brother to unlikely sister-facilitator, asking the same question, What is this?

As the sound makes its way around the circle from hands to chests to feet to mouths, I am aware of all my judgements, stereotypes, and assumptions that I am making about my group. On some level, I am open to them like I am with any workshop, approaching these men with the same freshness and infinite possibilities that I would with my charter school students or the women at church. But on a very real, I-won't-lie-to-you level, I am assessing them and everything they say critically. I am making assumptions about how they feel about me as a woman leading them. I am conscious of my clothing, grateful that I'm dressed like a pink and purple nun in a pretty dress that is loose with adinkra symbols today and opted out of my tight jeans. I am engaging with them as if there's no possible way they could be attracted to me or sexually interested in me--even though the lap dance comment has already ousted that illusion.

As they speak and ask me questions, I am conscious of my language and the words I use to talk about our dancing. I don't want to sound like I'm talking over them or use terms like "movement vocabulary" that have limited relevance to all of us. I am checking out their clothes, who has cell phones, who has teeth, who sits straight in the chair, who fidgits, who moves his chair further out of the circle. All of these things flow in and out of my head, as if factoring them in boils down to the perfect dance activity that will accomodate this diverse group. Inside my brain is frying over these details, but if you were watching me, you'd think I was as cool as a polar bear's toe nail. (A very dear one gave me that corny analogy and I couldn't resist throwing it into this article...haha.)
How am I so cool? Despite all my assumptions and judgements, at my core I really do believe that we're all dancing beings. I see every human being as a person to dance with. And my mission in life is really to dance with as many people as possible on the planet. As such, I never pass up an opportunity to dance with another person, no matter his story, his background, his anything. I trust there's a magical healing moment in each dance I share and the only way to experience the healing is to be present with the opportunity.

Now that I've gained the trust of the group, I feel myself more in tune with the flow, and less concerned about whether or not they'll participate. In truth, they were all already dancing with me and following along with me. It's like when you need to get a car moving that's been stuck and you push and push until it rolls on its own--you can't stop it to see if it's really moving, you gotta just let it go.

That's how we are now in the group. I am tired of the circle formation, and so lately I've been experimenting with other spatial arrangements during workshops. My latest fascination: the Soultrain Line. While we did do the Soul Train line at the jail with the women the previous week, I am not feeling like it'd be a good move here. These brothers are still warming up to me. Instead, I have them pick a partner in the opposite line so that we can play Mirrors. Each person takes turns being the leader and the follower, dancing to the music I've turned on.

Participating and observing is hilarious, beautiful, and emotionally moving all at the same time. It's rare that we come together as community and dance. But especially today with so much violence and despair saturating the lives of black men, it's powerful to see these brothers choosing--even if only for this one hour--to share in a collective, creatively-stimulated healing space together.

There is so much intimacy generated in dancing together. Even without physical contact--and there was NO physical contact in this workshop for a number of possible reasons to consider (like notions of accepted masculinity, homophobia, unresolved traumas around physical violation, limited exposure/experience with touch, and the list goes on)--a lot of energy still exchanges between us. Eye contact communicates so much. My awareness is split between my partner and the group as I make mental notes of how everyone's responding to each other. Some pairs are really into each other's dance. Others are less comfortable looking at each other and focus more on making jokes about their peers. Some pairs take turns leading each other in side-to-side steps. Others create pseudo-competions and challenge their partners to complex twists and squats, as if preparing for the 5K marathon.

I am in love now. That's another way of saying, we're in the Love-Joy now. This is the moment, ripe with infinite potential. That magical portal that opens when we're all dancing together. When even I, as the facilitator with my supposed role, release all expectations and celebrate in the miracle that a room full of African-descended men in a drug rehab center Baltimore (which has got to be one of the most challenging cities to have to live and successfully recover from addiction) are finding home, love, and power in each others dance. This is historical, this is healing, this is groundbreaking--can someone call CNN and FOx and all the other naysayers? This is the transformational work that turns our forgotten communities around. The intimate, moment-by-moment gestures of love coded as dance, or as laughter, or simply as a smile is the cleansing. Self-determination: This is the proper way to flush out old wounds that have festered for too long, covered over prematurely with the bandaids, "increased police presence," and failed welfare programs and "poverty reduction" campaigns. Dance is one of those ways of life that activates the individual as the facilitator of his own change, his own healing. Moving our bodies, little by little, has a profound impact on how we move along the paths we choose in life. It is no coincidence that ancient rituals of humanity across the globe dance through the processes of life. So too, must we all dance through our recovery, drug addiction or otherwise.

This dance is prosperity building, abundance affirming, a guided meditation of love in motion. Whenever I have the chance to dance with black men and boys in our communities, I am extremely sensitive to the reality that for some of them, I am the only woman who has shown them real love in a long time, possibly ever. I am not cursing them out, hitting them, accusing them, or abusing them. I am only asking them to love themselves as much as I already love them.

There is a drought of love in the consciousness of many, and for me, blessed I am to have grown up with lots of love in a supportive community, I know it's my responsibility to pour love where the hearts have run dry. Yes, truly, this is all our responsibility, and I have merely tapped into my method through movement. I wish we could dance all day this day. It's always like this for me; I never want to leave my Love-Joy. I have everyone dancing, even the loud one expecting to be entertained has contributed to the circle, finally. But still, I have to trust that the love we generated today will feed all our seeds. I must have faith in the this because the dance will always move me on.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Underbelly

Yes, I dance. Sometimes I dance less frequently than I want to. For whatever reason, I may feel blah, I may feel tired, I may feel funky. It's all real. There are times when I am not dancing at the vibrational frequency I believe fully activates the Love-Joy. It is in these moments that the reserve energy of all the dance I've done motivates me. It's like looking in the fridge for frozen stew when you don't feel like cooking or you didn't grow enough greens. You usually don't want the stew, but it's food, right? It's sustenance.

Such is the mood I've found myself in this October. Deeply introspective, in my head way too much, pondering the body movement, but nevertheless not moving my self. I'm confessing to you great world of humanity, fellow light beings, I have been dancing on a low vibration. Sometimes I judge this decision of mine, and others I think about what I have been able to do and feel and learn in this low frequency of movement. I call this phase "the underbelly," because it infuses my dance evolution just as much as the extroverted manifestations of my creative power.

This may shock a few, but it's true, sometimes I do sit still. Well, actually, I don't sit still, I fidgit, find other projects to start (like ressurrecting my sewing machine...yaaay!). In the meantime of my personal dance-meter's volume turning down, I still wind up sharing the movement with others--teaching and facilitating, etc. I wonder at this, you know? Like I share dance from the reserve-Binah sometimes. Is this okay? Should I only share the freshly prepared Binah, or can't humanity get something from thawed-out creative energy stored up for just this occassion?

These are the ponderings that come at times like when a friend of mine asks last-minute to co-lead a poetry and movement workshop with her at Howard University. I say sure and meet her there for the evening session. A group of about 20 students, mostly undergrad, are in quiet circles doing a quiet icebreaker. At the time I arrive, I am exhausted from bus and metro hopping all day, stuffed from so-so Jamaican (supposedly) vegetarian take-out, and clueless as to what the group is meeting about.

I decide to sit, and listen. It's the African Student Union and they're meeting as a part of a week-long series of events committed to raising awareness about the wars and human displacement in the Congo. Chi, my friend, begins talking them about five elements of hip-hop after the introductions, and then turns the group over to me. Hip-hop...hmmm, not my likely starting point but when they throw you the ball, you gotta run with it.

I gather the lot of students in a circle. This takes way too long. How much time it takes a group to make a circle often indicates the energy level I'm working with. Because I'm so tired, working on that reserve-Binah, I have to psyche myself out. I have to have enough energy for me and all 20 of us, whether they give it out or not. I have to dance from the position that we're all energetically activating space together, else I'd be too sleepy to dance with myself.

This "fake-out" is common. I would have added "unfortunately," but there are no unfortunate realities of the dance. Each frequency of movement from the breath to the levitated spin is welcome and sacred. Sometimes this is where we are, and we have to just be here. So anyway, pretending that there's more energy present than apparent is how I'm steadily awakening this group. We do a machine-sound-movement icebreaker that's fun and easy for anyone, whether you want to be dancing or not. We do some breathing, we play another game that gets us out of the circle and into the vast space of the room.

Afterwards, I grab my "magic scarf" from a big bag of thrift store goodies (I am so in love with recycled threads!). I tell them we'll take turns throwing the magic scarf to each other, and whoever has the scarf leads the dance. I play some Fela music and the leader rotates around the circle. Some make us dip side to side, others pull movement from the cannon of retro pop-culture, some use this chance to make us all do something big with our arms. All the flavors are different, and enjoyable in their own ways.

I make sure everyone has had a chance to be the leader. By then time is up for us, and we scatter back to our seats. I wander around looking for water because I have to share a piece for the open mic. I have no idea what I'm going to do. Usually the "it" comes upon me, and I'm ready to dance. I don't perform, I share. What am I sharing--that'll be born in the moment.

I decide to do "noise dance." Noise dance was born three years ago when my dear sister Samaa and I had to dance for a world peace gathering in Takoma Park. The "audience" (and I use that word loosely and only for quick familiarity) makes sounds; they are the paint. And the movers, the dancers in the space, are the canvas through on which the sounds inspire movement. Because the theme is about the Congo, I ask them all to make sounds drawn from their awareness and sensitivity around the things we know other people are experiencing in the Congo: the war, poverty, fighting, fear...whatever stimulation will bring forth the paint for my bodily canvas.

I invite them to make noise while I dance. Chi makes some noise with her mouth. A guy on the first row taps his feet and it's barely audible. The rest of the crowd is quiet, with big eyes and I keep dancing but I'm already running on "E", dancing with them from the Underbelly. I really need their energy, their noise. So I do something I never do--I stop dancing and call for "MORE NOISE PLEASE!" Out of breath for real, panting, and a lil' demanding, I implore them to really make noise, to scream, to put their heart in it, to imagine all the sounds you might be hearing were you in the Congo yourself.

Round two is much better. I swing my body through their sounds, catching his howl and their claps. In an instant we have ecstatic praise and pain all manifesting visually on my body. The energy raised, I move us into the next part of our dance. Now that we've raised the spirit of what's problematic in the Congo, let us use our collective energy to reimagine our world with more movement.

"Who has a word or an idea of something they think is needed to heal the situation in the Congo, and around the world for that matter," I ask. Silence at first, and then someone calls out "Understanding." Great! I think, I ask him to come forward. Chad is reluctant but his peers encourage him to come up, laughing at him because they think he's on "the spot."

I explain to everyone that we're going to make a movement sculpture for "understanding" and collectively energize the change we want to see in the world. I ask Chad to pose as "understanding." He clasps his hands in front of him, looking like a preacher whose frozen in space on the pulpit. I join his sculpture by touching his shoulder as I reach up and into the beyond. From my sculpture space I tell them all one by one to join in. Once hesitant students are now eager to fit in to our understanding movement prayer. Only a few people sit out, the MC takes pictures of us. I feel the excitement of the group; "what's next" they're wondering. I am relieved, this is it, I'm thinking.

"Without moving," I tell them, "look around and see what other parts of our sculpture look like. Now let's take a few breaths together to energize our vision of understanding." We do this and there's a stillness that descends on what was once restless. We all say "Understanding" together before taking a collective inhale and unwinding as we exhale.

Part of me wants to stay and dance more. They're all ready for the next thing. But of course, my physical body is eager to pass the torch to the next presenter because I am litterally spent. Dancing in the underbelly brings blessings all the same, I just have to be even more mindful of proper rest and nutrition, else I'll deplete the reserves before I build them back up.