Our Bodies Don't Lie
I can still remember the first time I saw her dance. She stepped so lightly across the ballroom floor that she most closely resembled a mythical creature playing in the clouds. The refinement of her art was praxis for the soul; and on that day the muses, the humans, and all the gods stopped to observe her. Her students knew what they were watching, but I could not grasp the minutia –I simply stood there and marveled.
Amber began dancing at the age of 11 and turned pro at 18. Her father was a recreational ballroom dancer and took her along one evening. The irony there becomes rich as Amber tells me, “When I was 14, my parents moved and left me with my older sister who was 21 at the time. She was a great sister, but she wasn’t a parent. There really wasn’t anyone home so I was left to feed myself, clothe myself, and get myself to school. On days I didn’t want to go home, I would take the bus to the studio, which was over an hour each way, and just hang out. I could do my homework there. I felt safe. Sometimes I would do a class, sometimes I wouldn’t. But I stayed there as late as I could.”
Amber’s parents had overextended themselves financially in the restaurant business, and one day they had to start over. They didn’t abandon Amber in dramatic fashion, by moving across the country or disappearing without a trace, but they certainly drew a distinct line just shy of her heart by moving an hour north and telling their daughter that she had to stay behind. On weekends, Amber would take the train to her parents’ new neighborhood. She would spend all weekend working double shifts at the new restaurant in order to have money for the week, then go back home, all alone, to face the week at school.
The dance studio became her haven, perhaps as a pseudo-family in the beginning; but then it became apparent that young Amber had a gift the world needed to see. Amber smiles, giggles, and laughs throughout this entire interview, even at the heaviest of moments; but it’s not a synthetic laughter meant to mollify. This woman is genuinely at peace with herself, and she tells me she had plenty of help along the way. When her teacher tried to send a letter home with young Amber, one which explained to her parents what a talented child they had and to urge them to invest in dance competitions, Amber simply shrugged and said, “That’s not going to happen.” Weeks later her teacher had collaborated with others in the studio, and they presented Amber with a dazzling ballroom gown, covered in sequins, along with entry fees for three upcoming competitions. She has plenty of similar examples of kindness extended to her throughout her life and tells me, “I’m very sensitive to the things that are good in this world.”
“How do you feel about your parents?”
“My parents were great in one respect, in the fact that they loved us deeply; and even when I lived with my sister, I never felt like my parents didn’t love me. But I know my parents weren’t able to talk about anything difficult, or deep, so they just didn’t know how to have a genuine discussion. My mom utilized denial to respond to anything that was uncomfortable or unexpected. I don’t feel my parents necessarily damaged us actively, but it was more of the emotional neglect. It was the absence that was damaging.”
Amber became a world-class, professional ballroom dancer, then went on to quickly check the next box she assumed was on her to-do list. She married at the age of 23 without ever having discussed the struggles of wedlock that some people hide in lieu of decorum or guise. “All I saw was everyone happy, so when I was in a marriage where we weren’t happy I thought we were failing.” They divorced after only 3 years. “That failure meant a lot, because marriage is important to me as an institution and as a personal promise.”
Within the failure, there were secrets. From the secrets came spores of shame. And it was an infestation of shame that led Amber to search her soul, to ask inexorable questions of herself, and begin walking the arduous path of self-discovery. “The last three months of my marriage I was cheating on him, and I rationalized it because he was cheating on me, too. That was probably the worst thing I kept hidden. That’s the thing that broke me, because it’s such a terrible act -- betrayal.”
I nod in silence.
“I think the pathway out of that shame was very difficult, but I didn’t have a choice. I had to change. There was no way I could feel that way again. There was no way I could hurt someone that way again. It’s different when you hurt yourself. Somehow we can hurt ourselves just fine.”
Indeed we can. Amber tried one of my old strategies to relieve the self-loathing. She numbed herself to septic levels with a surfeit of narcotics. “There was one night I was in the bathroom throwing up. I had done way too much of everything I could ingest that day. As I was lying there, crying, there was a voice in my head that said, “You like yourself so much more than this. Why are you doing this?”
Failure. Shame. Drugs. Crying on the bathroom floor. Her stomach pumping itself clean of poison. Her soul trying to do the same. Something was opening. An uncomfortable merger was happening. Following her divorce and the attempts to avoid the pain, Amber started having honest conversations for the very first time. “Up until then I just practiced what my mom had taught me, which was avoidance. Since then, it has been a constant transformation.”
These days Amber is a podcast junkie, but back then she ingested information any way she could. Not only did she read voraciously, but she also dove into a variety of self-help CDs and began seeing a therapist regularly. She started asking herself, “What has to change in me to change my behavior? Because will power alone isn’t going to do it. It’s one important component, but it’s not the only thing.”
“After the divorce I was really pissed off, because all my patterns from the past hit me. And I realized that wasn’t just who I was. That was something I learned, which meant I could unlearn it. I was angry for a really long time, but that eventually passed. I’ve taken full responsibility as an adult. I can’t blame my parents for what I choose to do now. I think I used that as an excuse for a long time. I had a window to blame my parents, but then I had to take responsibility for continuing to run that program.”
Loops, narratives, and programs. How many expired talk tracks have I been running on, and when will I have the courage to do what she has done?
Amber claims that therapy was a key ingredient in her healing, because it was the first time someone sat with her, offered a safe space, and allowed her to open up. Ah yes, compassionate conversation. Not the kind where someone is merely waiting for their chance to speak or to offer their opinion on what to do with your life, but a version of silence and deep listening that seems to have gone nearly extinct. There is a mutation of conversation in our world that turns everything into a problem needing to be resolved. There are people who cannot help but interject with advice when someone is trying to purge a sensitive story, and the most detrimental component is deep conviction in their actions because they anchor in the pretense of benevolence. The do-gooders, who passively judge by boxing up the problems of others, only serve to continue the silence.
The other way to ensure silence from the next generation is for our wounded youth to have some interaction with the tough love folks. You know the rap: Life is a bitch. Don’t think about these useless emotions. Just forget about them and get back to real life, back to work. Get busy with something productive, because life will beat you down. So you need to prepare for the coming winter. This silence that has been passed down through the generations, this resistance to the gross emotions we all share, this eschewing of the essence of the human experience, this avoidance of shame in favor of material progress, financial stability, and unchallenged tradition – this is the epidemic of our time.
“At 30 my identity shifted into being more of a teacher. Until then, I associated my identity as a dancer even though I was teaching at the same time. When I look back, I see that early on I was more of a drill instructor than anything else. Later it shifted to teaching PEOPLE how to dance, and that meant they had a history, problems, direction, budget, and family. After that I really started pouring my heart into my students.”
Amber explains to me the microcosm that is ballroom dancing. I chuckle and shake my head as she speaks, as I absorb the greatest analogy for life I have ever heard. Amber tells me that she usually spends a couple of years mainly focusing on technique, “But then, at some point, it becomes more about them as people. How are they interacting in their partnership? It’s ballroom dancing, so it’s basically a relationship all the time. After practicing for years, it’s not that their technique is flawed, it’s that their view of themselves is lacking.”
“How do you mean?”
“One of the partner issues is people not knowing how to express things they are unhappy with, or discomfort, in a healthy way. Either they don’t discuss it at all and it festers, or they’re very aggressive about it. And the partner usually has a different method of communication. So that ends up being the growth in a dancing couple, not technique, but the ability to communicate and grow as people together. Our bodies don’t lie. So if you’re dancing with someone and they’re mad, you can feel that because you’re touching them. They can have a serene look on their face or say words to the contrary; but when you’re touching them, you can feel the truth. For example, if my partner is pulling on me, then what is my thought? He’s off balance and needs help, or he’s a jackass. This is the key to being a good partner. Are these thoughts being communicated, and how are you conveying your message?”
I quickly flash through all the times I have silently scolded former lovers as Amber continues to thread her story.
“Past communication they get to a point in dancing where they need to have an opinion. You have to decide, at some point, what your purpose is. What part of you are you trying to express through this medium? If you can’t answer that, then your technique is useless. It’s like giving someone a dictionary. All the words are in there, but they have to write their own story.”
An explosion goes off at some ice-covered peak in my mind, and an avalanche is tumbling through me. There are moments when I hear an allegory that is so obviously true for the totality of my life, so intuitively settling, that I just nod like a fool, with wide eyes and slightly parted lips. It feels not as if I have learned something new, but rather that I have remembered an ancient wisdom from the time of my ancestors’ ancestors; a primordial canon, a process that does not involve struggle or excessive effort, a mental state in which my actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the flow of life, but that I allowed to be forgotten somewhere I can’t quite pinpoint.
Amber’s next chapter may be the most difficult. She has been teaching dance for over twenty years, yet she is considering the possibility of letting it go. At the age of 40ish and newly married, she and her husband are trying to get pregnant. If she does become pregnant, then that will be her focus. “Because at this stage in my life, I’m not willing to spend time on things that aren’t my calling. There was this pastor I once knew, and he gave a whole sermon on the difference between a need and a calling. That really resonated with me. The last few years I’ve been saying no a lot more because of this idea. A silly example is Green Peace guys. Yes, I want to save the polar bears, but that is just not my calling. When it comes to my teaching, I’ve been all-in for so long that I need to figure out how dancing stays in my life – if it stays in my life. If I can figure out how to be a complete parent, wife, and dance teacher, then great; but if not, then it will be a sad loss. But that’s the choice.”
“Do you have hope for the world today?”
“I’m not sure if I have hope for the future, but I’ll fight for it anyway. I know I have to work toward a better end, and the outcome will be whatever it will be. Even if you told me the outcome won’t work, I would still work.”
“What are we doing wrong?”
“I think a lot of people are trying to leave behind a legacy that’s shallow instead of leaving behind an Earth that works. I think if people shifted to leaving behind an Earth that works, then everything would change. We need to leave behind a culture that’s healthy for generations to come instead of thinking about making as much money as we can, or needing to feel better, or more special, than the people around us. There is a collective consciousness that seems to be growing, and I think that will be our only hope – if people can tap into that. But it’s hard -- hard for us, hard for me and my ego.”
“What do you do to take care of yourself?”
“At night I go through this imagery. I think about every person I interacted with, from the first to the last, and I cut that energy like scissors. I literally think about a line of energy between us, and it doesn’t matter if our interaction was negative or positive. This includes people I sent texts to, emails, anybody who I exchanged energy with, because I don’t want to carry that with me into sleep. Also, I leave my phone in the kitchen and turn off notifications at night, all of them, so if a text comes in it doesn’t chime until I turn it back on. When I respond, I do so with 100% attention and intention. I get a solid hour of reading or journaling in bed before sleep, and I don’t take my phone into my bedroom at night for the same reason I wouldn’t keep a box of cookies on my nightstand.”
“How is your relationship with your parents today?”
“I feel my parents aren’t going to change so just accepting that has helped a lot. But it also means that they are not in my life because their behavior is damaging to me. Maybe I’m overly sensitive to it but, nonetheless, it’s damaging to me. So I don’t see them very much. But at least the resentment and anger has gone away. “
“Have you ever been assaulted?”
Amber pauses for a moment, and I watch her smile, which has been steady for the past hour, recede enough to make me become aware of my breathing.
“No, I haven’t, which is interesting because I was exposed to it as a child. When I was young, I remember seeing my father force himself on one of my nannies. Then, as an adult, we learned my older sister, who is my half sister, was sexually assaulted by my dad, which, in hindsight, answers so many questions about my messed up family. When I talked to him about it as an adult, he burst into tears and confessed he had witnessed his mother being raped as a child.”
Without needing to go on any further, I completely understand the convoluted dynamics of reconciling with her family by stepping boldly into her own self-awareness. It can be terrifying to go your own way. Sometimes our karma gets passed down to us through our lineage, and our destiny is to be the generation who doesn’t continue the tradition. Sometimes the greatest lessons our parents give us are examples of what not to do.
“When was the last time you really cried?”
“Geez. I can’t even remember. I feel so fortunate these days. So loved. My life is so good right now, but I know I can’t get attached to it. I just want to be open to everything that comes.”
I chuckle a bit as I get swept up in her enthusiasm for life.
“What’s your favorite part?”
“I met the man of my dreams. He is the kindest, most generous man I know. He’s the best man I’ve ever met. I feel like I’m prepared to start something deeply important, to take on one challenge at a time, to be open, and to offer 100% of myself to my calling, whatever that turns out to be next.”
If ever I have met a woman who stands as an example of the virtue I hope to see in this world, Amber is it. She has a natural synergy between working toward a better future and not running away from an uncomfortable past. She constantly jokes about the level of madness she continues to experience in her head, but she is a bright example of a woman who has made it on her own, who continues to work on herself, who bares her soul, and now stands willing to let go of a piece of her old identity, not as a form of appeasement or docility, but as an act of devotion to a higher calling – the calling of humanity. She reminds me of a Tibetan Buddhist art form known as sand mandalas. After taking great care to produce a beautiful piece of art with colored sand, the monks will ceremonially destroy the work as a testament to the ephemerality of life.
Amber may have once been a world-class dancer, and I was certainly moved when I had the chance to watch her perform, but the heaviest impression I carried away was from watching the interaction between her and her students. Her students’ faces were glowing with gratitude, and bodies don’t lie. Amber has put in a prodigious amount of effort into being a fully dedicated teacher of human souls – souls who happen to enjoy ballroom dancing. I am eager to see what she can do for the next generation.