I Could Wrestle with my Disability, but I Think I’ll Dance Instead
This post is the inaugural essay in an occasional series we’re calling Clio Gets Personal, a special and infrequent departure from our typical historical and cultural criticism featuring more intimate stories.
A year and a half ago, I gained a permanent dance partner. That’s what I’ve decided. That’s how I need to think about the damage to my visual field from an unfortunate multiple sclerosis flare-up.
If I were a filmmaker, I’d show my dance partner as one of the monsters from a Hayao Miyazaki animated movie. My monster is big and bulky and squishy and always there, pressed awkwardly up against my left side. Everything I see on the left side of my visual field, in both eyes, is hazy and squashed, and some is obscured altogether. When I try to look at someone through the monster’s mass, that person’s face is melting. One eye is an inch below where it should be, and that side of the person’s mouth smears into his chin. The distortion is different at the bottom. The monster must be giving me a hug, because he presses everything from the bottom of that side upward and toward the center, so my blurry left hand is closer to my face than it ought to be.
The monster means well. I think his name is Irwin. He’s a giant toddler who insists on standing right between my feet, sharing my center of gravity and clinging to my leg. He won’t let go. I guess he doesn’t know what to do without me.
Like a toddler, he keeps almost knocking me over by accident. When I walk, it feels like he’s always chasing me from the left side, eating the sidewalk just as I’m about to put my feet down. I’m left handed, and when I chop vegetables he keeps jostling the blade, so I’m not sure where it will land.
I realized recently that I have been responding in all the natural ways I reacted to my kids as they got bigger but still wanted to be attached to me. I stiffen and brace against the pressure, to keep from being knocked down. I hang on tight to the knife and press deliberately to be more certain where it will fall. When I get tired of resisting, I allow myself to be pushed, running away from the pressure by taking an odd angle across the sidewalk, or defensively startling away from Penn Station pedestrians who surprise me by coming up suddenly on my left side. When it’s all too much, I try to hide from it altogether, turning my head and looking at my feet to navigate, tucking the left side of my vision away like tucking a toddler into a stroller. Sometimes it’s easier to walk with a known encumbrance than a confusing and unpredictable one.
Irwin is different than a child, though. He won’t grow up. On the other hand, maybe he can be trained. I used to tease my kids sometimes when they were directly underfoot, by putting an elbow on their heads and threatening to lean on them like a café counter if they insisted on sharing my personal space. I knew my kids would laugh and pull away. Irwin is steady. When I lean my attention into him, he doesn’t leave. Maybe we can establish a partnership, me and Irwin.
We need to figure something out, because right now he’s hurting my body. My back, my neck, my knee. It’s painful to be bracing against an invisible monster every time I open my eyes. This is not sustainable.
I think I need to teach Irwin to be a good dance partner. Not ballroom dance, because I’m not willing to let him lead, and I’m pretty sure he’s not planning to let me lead either. Not ballet, since neither of us is up for heavy lifting. We’re going to practice contact improvisation. We’ll be laid-back hippies together.
Contact Improv is far more about doing than performing, though experienced improvisers can be gorgeous to watch. The premise is that two dancers relax, release, and open themselves to the feeling of the floor, the air, and the touch and weight of themselves and the other dancer. They allow movement to happen to them. The impulse for a movement is vague and indeterminate, not located clearly in the will of one person or the other. The dance sustains itself with momentum and the natural movement of breath. It is not effortful, though it can appear quite athletic.
Contact Improv developed as an “alternative” dance form in colleges in the 1970s. Its practitioners resisted the idea that dancers needed many years of technical training to perform. Anyone could try Contact, if they were willing to relax, go with the flow, and explore the body’s natural ability to dance. It was part of a larger dance-world exploration of “natural” movement in the 1960s and 1970s, which was in turn part of a wider cultural embrace of ways of living deemed to be more in tune with nature. Like many cultural products of that era, it could be naïve in its idealism, but it generated plenty of hopeful inspiration.
If Irwin and I are going to dance, I need to relax and open myself to all sensations, even the ones from a Miyazaki monster that only I can see. Irwin is always relaxed and responsive, but he likes to chase me, and I get tense. I need to release into him to feel where he’s going. Then we have a chance at finding the dynamic stability that characterizes great Contact Improv.
It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But I’m not losing my marbles, even if I can see monsters the rest of you can’t. Metaphors are powerful. Good dance teachers know that the right metaphor can abruptly fix a student’s movement patterns. When I lean my attention into Irwin, with a little weight into my left elbow, I get the same result as when I try walking with my eyes shut on a smooth stretch of sidewalk. My left ribcage releases down, my left shoulder falls into place, and I can breathe better. I walk straight forward, not skittering off to the right, not so tempted to raise my left forearm in the defensive posture my body knows from years of capoeira practice. If I acknowledge Irwin, I can find stability, and regain a certain freedom in my movement. It’s an oddball and idiosyncratic solution to a visual impairment, I know. But it’s suited to me and my situation.
My metaphor. My monster. My dance partner. My disability.
Cynthia J. Novack. Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture. University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
Hayao Miyazaki. Spirited Away. 2001.
Hayao Miyazaki. My Neighbor Totoro. 1988.
Lara Freidenfelds is a historian of health, reproduction, and parenting in America. She is the author of The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy: a History of Miscarriage in America and The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. Sign up for her newsletter and find links to her op-eds and blog essays at www.larafreidenfelds.com.