“The body says what words cannot.” — Martha Graham
I dance to the KC and the Sunshine Band 8-track in the living room of our trailer house. “Shake, shake, shake…shake, shake, shake….shake your boobies, shake your boobies,” I sing, misunderstanding the lyrics. As a five year old, boobies make more sense to me than booties. The only booties I know are baby booties for my new little sister, brought home mere months ago from the adoption agency. She laughs and burbles and shakes her arms at me as I sing and dance. I spin circles in the space between our father’s recliner and our couch, until I fall over into an altered state of consciousness. Spinning seems to generate gravity, leaves me feeling connected to the earth even as the walls around me tilt. It’s a feeling I’ll pursue again many years later on the Gravitron carnival ride at state fairs.
Sometimes I fall into the couch, petting the brown velour nap while the fluid in my inner ear keeps swirling, the couch where my parents read me The Chosen Baby by Valentina Pavlovna Wasson. It was the first and only childhood book that attempted to explain adoption to me, and I would read it to my sister even before I could actually read, telling the story by the pictures I had studied closely. “We were chosen,” I told my sister. I parroted what would become a theme in adoption literature: we were special precisely because we were selected. No one spoke of the prequel to the story: to be chosen, you first had to be abandoned. I never learned that narrative in words. But I felt it in my body.
“Dance is for everybody. I believe that the dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.” – Alvin Ailey
I beg my parents to sign me up for dance lessons. Every year, my father’s cousin mails us a box of hand-me-down clothing their daughter had outgrown. Included in this treasure this time is a dance leotard. Not a swimsuit, but an actual leotard, with sleeves and a pair of matching leg warmers. I pull the taut black fabric over tights, tug the leg warmers over my calves. I throw winter coat and boots on and run the two hundred yards from our trailer to my grandparents’ farmhouse, prying open the double pocket doors to their formal living room and popping a cassette of the Boston Pops into their stereo. Not Arthur Fiedler but John Williams conducting the 1980 That’s Entertainment album. I feel my heartbeat change with the final movement of “Send in the Clowns,” the unified power, the controlled swell.
We can’t afford dance lessons – neither the cost of gas to drive the forty miles round trip for each lesson, let alone the cost of the lessons themselves. But every year I will wait for that box from my East Coast cousin, littering our living room with its contents until I find the dancewear. And then one fateful year my unknown genetics outpace my cousin’s. She is four years older than me, but her Armenian genes set the full stop of her height at five-foot-four. I continue to grow, and my parents stash the boxes in my grandparents’ attic until their contents might fit my sister. I never own another leotard.
“You were once wild here. Don’t let them tame you.” – Isadora Duncan
North of the trailer house, beyond the garden, beyond the hackberry tree, beyond the brooder house that hasn’t seen baby chicks in the better part of a decade: a series of cattle pens. They are the heart of our yard, four corrals with swinging gates between them, valves to shunt cattle between one chamber and the next. The herd, kept close to home through the cold winter, will be divided today. The younger mothers will spend summer close to home; veteran mothers will be moved to pastures miles to the south and west.
My father persuades a regular crew of men – other farmers, cowboys, friends and neighbors – to help. We funnel the mother cows through the alley, a roughly four foot wide lane flanked by a six foot tall wooden fence. A kind of capillary, the alley: a place to make an exchange of materials. My job is to climb the fence and apply the liquid insecticide that protects the cattle from lice, flies, mosquitoes, and ticks. I shuffle my way down a line of one-by-fours, careful to avoid the rotting sections and random nails extruding themselves. I stop before the scapula of each cow, leaning over the top of the fence to ladle a cup of “pour on” chemicals across their backs. They stand in single file, nose to tail, raising their heads to bawl for their babies, their thick blue and pink tongues reaching as they call, both searching and summoning. The cowboys follow behind me or race ahead with syringes full of dewormer and vaccines. At twelve years old, I learn the difference between subcutaneous and intramuscular injections.
When each batch of mothers has been inoculated, we release them into one of the corrals and shift responsibilities. My father assigns us our stations. We are either gatekeepers or sorters. The three gatekeepers are stationed at the gates of individual corrals, each corral representing a different pasture. The sorters wander into the fray of cattle, pulling each cow away from the herd and shunting her toward the correct gate. My father calls out ear tag numbers and directions in Bingo-like fashion. “B42. West!” which means the sorters find B42 and drive her toward the corral that holds the cows meant for the west pasture.
I like to think of the sorters as dancers. Dancing with the cattle is one of my favorite things to do, second perhaps only to climbing the stack of hay bales on the west end of the corral to serenade the cows with Broadway show tunes. Les Miserable is my favorite; it is not clear what they enjoy most.
I love the way my body feels when I dance with a cow, the connection between me and her. I speak to her with my body. If I move in front of her right shoulder, she moves left. If I move closer to her body, she moves more quickly. The invisible perimeters of her body are like my own; unseen but pliable, dynamic. Much later in life, I’ll learn from animal science scholars the words for this magic: flight zones, pressure zones, points of balance. But before I know what these things are called, before I understand the physiology and anatomy underpinning the rules of this dance, I can feel it in my body, the way the cow and I are connected by some invisible string.
Unfortunately, I am not often allowed this role. I am a gatekeeper, not a dancer. A swinger of metal, waiting for my pasture name to be called. “West!” my dad shouts, and I open the gate with a small jeté. The hinges squeal. Some of the men my father assigned as sorters use rough language and whips, their voices raised. I silently judge them. I know I could move that cow without a tool in hand, without even speaking.
“We have the capacity to receive messages from the stars and the songs of the night winds.” – Ruth St. Denis
I’m in our capital city for a University Extension-sponsored weekend, including a dance class. We’re learning the Texas Two-step, me and the boys and girls of the plains.
“Quick-quick-slow-slow, quick-quick-slow-slow,” the instructor says, the hands of some Lincoln County farm boy sweating at my waist.
If you stay, you’ll marry a farmer and this is the dance you’ll do, a voice only I can hear whispers.
It isn’t the future I want. There are parts of me scattered beyond the imaginary lines that form the borders of our western state, pieces of me I must hunt down and find. Quick-quick.
“The most essential thing in dance discipline is devotion.” — Merce Cunningham
You and I in your basement room. Your new stereo. You play Eric Clapton, your newest CD. My darling, you look wonderful tonight. We are dancing. Two eighteen year olds swaying in a bedroom, stars visible from the garden level window, above the cornfields. The room is woodsy, paneled, dark. Do I remember antlers on the wall? You hold me. We dance. Just dance. We are so happy to simply be holding each other and moving to the music.
I know nothing of your pain. I know nothing of how you feel growing up without a father. But, actually…don’t I? I am growing up both with and without a father: a visible legal father, and an invisible biological father. We don’t talk about that in my house any more than you talk about your absent father in yours.
No matter what, we pledge when we break up, we invite each other to our weddings.
“I am living my dream to live in the same home site of my ancestors. I can literally feel my ancestors dancing when there is a ceremony going on.” –Anne Marie Sayers
As I cross the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Oakland, driving home from the twenty-second annual Reclaiming Spiral Dance, I conjure my ancestors. I’m still high on the ritual magic of thousands of witches gathered to honor the dead and celebrate rebirth. I’d held hands with the witches who flanked me. We moved counter-clockwise, in grapevine step, until the leader circled tight into the center and switched directions, moving clockwise. Every dancer came face to face with every other dancer. I’m 26 years old and still struggling with my right to “take up space” in the world, but tonight, in that spiral, I took it.
I think of the names of the beloved dead read at the ceremony and grieve the fact that I don’t know the names of my biological ancestors. So on this driving, crossing this bridge, I sense into the connection to the women in my biological maternal line, to our shared family legacy. My biological mother and grandmother made different choices than me, one choosing to marry after becoming pregnant, one giving up her child for adoption, and me, keeping my daughter and raising her as single mother, each of us responding to different societal pressures. By the time I reach Yerba Buena Island, I think how strange it is we carry on our family karma even when separated. I wonder what that might mean for my four-year-old daughter. How will she contribute to the narrative?
At home, I read a letter from my birth mother. It’s been two years since I made contact with her, and we’ve been writing. “My ancestry is a mixed bag,” she writes. “My family is the ‘melting pot’ personified. Large amounts of German, English, Scot with smaller amounts of Irish, Italian, and possibly African (no one will talk about it).” She knows nothing about my biological father’s ancestry. They only met that one night, New Year’s Eve 1974.
“There’s nothing wrong with fear; the only mistake is to let it stop you in your tracks.” — Twyla Tharp
Two years after attending my first multi-night, all-night alchemical fire circle, a substance-free, transformative ritual derived from western mystery traditions, I am on the volunteer staff for producing one in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.
The main festival-goers disperse Monday morning. Between the glow of dawn and the creeping shadows of dusk, a significant change occurs in the mountains. The main festival over, only a small tribe of movers and shakers stay for another three days of drumming, dancing, transformation. We’re in the afterglow.
Past midnight, I enter the circle, buzzing with the same sensation I always feel right before a summer thunderstorm: electrified, scared, and excited. Around me walk ritualists in costume, but in the firelight, in the night, with the primal drumbeats echoing through the forest, they are archetypes: Fear, Love, Desire, Jealously, Anger, Joy.
Fear approaches me. “May I dance with you?”
There is something sensual about it, the moment tinged with innuendo, but not sexual. How far will I go, I wonder, to be honest with myself? This is a place to speak only truth. It is arousing.
“Yes.” We take a few steps together, the drums low and slow, the notes of an accordion stepping up my spine from the shadows, hoisting each hair on my back upward.
“You are not afraid?” Fear asks.
I pause. Am I? Although I feel that ionic tingling of a storm, something big on the horizon, I feel quite safe, protected even.
“No. I am not afraid.”
Fear seems momentarily surprised, then recovers by asking, “What relationship do you have with your fear?”
“I don’t know,” I say, surprised. “I really don’t know.”
“I suspect we’ll meet again,” Fear chuckles and rolls back behind me to flirt with another.
In this space, people come together and fall apart and come together again. Close to the fire, we dance fast, frenetically even. Further out, we rattle and walk. Even further out, we stand and rattle. Stand and sing. There is no time, but a rhythm of joining and parting, creating and destroying. I see my best friend across the fire, throw her a smile. She is luminescent, sparkling with blue and lavender. I feel joy and surprise to see her, as if I’ve forgotten she exists for a moment, and now feel gratitude and wonderment fresh again that she is alive, that she shares this earth with me.
The song ends. The frenetic dancers disperse. I breathe, the hard breaths of exertion mixed with smoke from the fire. The fire always challenges my lungs. I sweat. I walk. My friend – I’ll call him Drummer – finds me. He’s adopted, too. We walk and rattle together, hand in hand.
Something shifts. I feel an anticipation, my heart speeding up. Something big is coming. I feel it vibrating off Drummer. He enters the seed space, the sweet V shape in front of the drummers where dancers and singers offer their pulsations and ululations to the drummers. I let go of his hand, waiting, not going far. I pace nearby. Suddenly I’m anxious as a mother. I’ve felt this way with my daughter before she performs, a sudden clenching of the heart. Will she be okay? Will her offering be accepted? I feel this same sensation with Drummer, now. He enters the center. I follow. There is an invisible cord between us; I have to follow.
I don’t know it at the time, but I am shielding him. I am creating an energetic barrier to make sure he says what he has come to say. I also don’t know how much the moment will become about me, how he becomes the key to my transformation.
He stops, whips his head up and looks around the circle.
“I wanna know: who feels the fucking killing rage?!”
His words are an assault on the circle. I cringe as I hear heckles from the happy shiny tribe members who want no pin to puncture their happy balloons. Does he know how he pushes away? Yes, I think. He knows, but he doesn’t have any other way to express this piece of himself. I know this, too. I know this strangulation inside that must be exiled by any means possible. Just get it out of my body, and I’ll be okay. Damage control will come later; I simply can’t hold it in any longer.
“I want to know,” he yells, louder this time. “Who feels the fucking.killING.RAGE?”
People don’t want to hear. The words make them uncomfortable.
We are, after all, a peaceful, loving tribe – right? This is a time before the phrase toxic positivity. Like so many dysfunctional families, when things are good, we’re golden. When things are bad, we’re lead. It’s why we’re here – for the alchemy – but most of us would rather pose as gold when we’re still pyrite.
I feel my own anger rising. I know what they don’t know. I know Drummer. I know that he is making an offering, a sacred offering. His presentation is uncomfortable, but I know without a doubt that it is indeed a sacred offering. There will be women who will later say his anger brought up memories of abuse. There will be people who claim the circle is no place for psychotherapy. Drummer himself will feel drawn into a familiar pattern – rejection because nobody can handle his true feelings, rejection because the community is unable to hold a container for his feelings.
He is hanging out there, emotionally naked, in the seed space. In this instance, I know what to do. I don’t even think about it, just step into the space, in my own trance.
“I feel a rage,” I say quietly, the words out of my mouth before I mean to claim them. And then, in a rush, I am shouting. “I feel a rage!” The anxiety, the heart pounding, the fear was a premonition of this moment. I am about to own my rage.
“I feel the rage of a motherless child!” I command, my voice now low but authoritative. It is a truth and a not-truth at the same time, a koan, a riddle. What has two mothers and also no mothers at all?
“Stop me if you dare,” I growl, speeding up around the fire, pointing to the circle of people around me, challenging each face to look away. “You will see me. You will see the rage of one who was abandoned, left without a mother for five weeks. You will feel the broken-hearted anguish of one ripped from all that was warm and safe and good.”
The energy is swirling. I am moving it. They are mine, transfixed, and I will not let them go. They will hear.
“You will feel the years upon years of silent rage, of tucking anger away and stuffing it down so far because no one knows how to speak this.”
The drum begins a rhythm. Something inside me dares to look up, a small piece of a girl with her head between her knees, frightened to say all that needs to be said. A drum? For this? My offering is accepted? That girl is quickly eclipsed by Anger, who demands to be heard. I have become the archetype.
I speak and walk the circle, yelling, looking out to the people, looking at them square in the eyes. My voice fills the bowl of land where this fire has been lit for five years running. Shadows from the fire make room for my voice, fleeing to the hillside where several pairs of people have stopped in the descent to the fire to witness me pop. I am clear, articulate. In the moment, I feel as if I’m doing this work for Drummer, too. The rattle husks a heartbeat.
“What does the baby do with her rage when she cries for her mother and the mother doesn’t come? How do you stuff that away? What do you do with that kind of rage? How do you eat it?” I ask the circle, desperate.
And for a moment, silence. And then, from the perimeter, a single voice: “Feed it to the fire!”
“Feed it to the fire!” the rest responded in riotous voices. “Feed it to the FIRE!”
I dance then, a frenzied, wild thing, and it looks nothing like a Texas Two-step.
“The way I look at a musical, you are commenting on the human condition no matter what you do. A musical may be light and frivolous, but by its very nature, it makes some kind of social comment.” – Gene Kelly
I am cold-calling my biological father. He doesn’t know he is my father; my birth mother never told him she was pregnant. A year ago, the case worker for the adoption agency had recommended I ask my birth mother to call him. “It’s usually best,” she says on the phone “for the birth mother to deliver the news. She can provide the context.”
I ask my birth mother every three months for a year if she’ll do it. She says she will, that she just needs to work up the courage, but after a year I know she won’t, so I take matters into my own hands.
I call him, this stranger the adoption agency has found for me.
“Do you remember the M— family from Omaha?” I open, sure he will recognize the name since my birth mom knew his siblings. Actually, I’m banking on this detail, haven’t even considered he might not remember the surname.
“No, doesn’t ring a bell,” he replies.
I proceed to reconstruct the events of New Year’s Eve 1974 to him, the events preceding my conception as relayed to me by my birth mother. His memory is foggy, and I can’t blame him. We agree to take a DNA test, exchange email addresses, and he closes by saying, “Well, you’ve given me a lot to think about.”
Afterward, I email him a picture of me. Many years later his wife, a woman for whom the English language grants me no title, will say “As soon as I saw that picture, I said, ‘We’re not going to need a DNA test.’”
But we got one. To be sure.
The night of that phone conversation, I go to 80’s night at the downtown Bricktop Bar and Nightclub with a friend of mine. We’re both in a community theatre production of Footloose. I’m playing Ren’s mother, the mother of a boy who has been abandoned by his father. My friend and I dance all night to 80’s songs, but I wish it was 70’s night, that I could embody the music that was the soundtrack to my conception.
“I don’t remember not dancing. When I realized I was alive and these were my parents, and I could walk and talk, I could dance.” – Gregory Hines
I’m browsing through the continuing education catalogue for the college where I work. I see a ballroom dance class being offered, which starts tonight. I’ve been married for two weeks. I text my new husband and ask if he wants me to sign us up. He answers, “Not no, but hell no.” Ouch. I know the dancing reminds him of a past love, a past betrayal. In my head, though, I think about how he danced with me at the DelRay back in March. He said it was fun then. I battle the voice in my head that says once I’m married I’m trapped, trapped with a man who isn’t who he pretended to be.
Anyway, I expect all love to end in loss.
“To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.” — Agnes de Mille
At age 42, I take up Zumba. My local Cincinnati YMCA offers classes two to three times a week. I love it. I feel alive. I feel sexy and vibrant, larger than myself. I don’t care what I look like in the mirror at the front of the room. I close my eyes when I can and just feel.
Dance changes my heartbeat yet again, like it did in my grandparent’s living room so many years ago. It begins in early December, after a Zumba class, an hour after returning home. I sit breathless on the couch, the skipping and dancing in my heart not painful, but uncomfortable. I am light-headed with it, unable to catch my breath.
At first, it happens every once in a while, but almost always after Zumba. I see my cardiologist and he orders all the requisite tests for the scary heart-blockage kinds of the things that skipped beats presage. And then it happens more often, more severely. It takes my breath away, makes me dizzy. My primary care doctor orders a Holter Monitor test and advises me to go to the emergency room if they get worse, and they do…so I do. I am diagnosed with premature ventricular contractions, or PVCs, an extra electrical impulse generating in one of the cardiac ventricles, the two lower chambers of my heart. That extra impulse arrives early, before the next normal heartbeat has a chance to occur. An impatient heart. Quick-slow, slow-quick.
I am no stranger to heart problems. I was born with a hole in my heart, a patent foramen ovale. This fetal opening between the upper chambers of the heart is meant to detour a baby’s blood away from the lungs and send oxygen from the mother’s placenta straight to the fetal brain. Normally, the opening closes shortly after birth, but it is estimated that between twenty and twenty-five percent of healthy adults are left with a congenital heart defect. Most experience few symptoms. For those that do, the impacts range from inconvenient to life-altering. Migraines. Arrhythmias. Strokes. I had all three.
The hole in my heart was the only souvenir I carried from my time with my birth mother. I was placed in foster care while my adoptive parents, waiting eagerly to bring me home, were told that I was being held in observation for a possible heart problem. Five weeks later, they were told I was fine, and I went home with them. They were given no records defining or explaining the mysterious heart problem or what tests were completed. They were given no follow-up instructions. Whatever had been hypothesized, tested, and diagnosed was written on fogged glass, wiped away the moment I was strapped into an infant seat in a car with Frontier County plates, and given a name other than flesh and blood. Sometimes I imagine I remember the cold metal diaphragm of a stethoscope on my infant sternum. I wonder about the doctor who tucked its tips into his ears, what weighed on his conscience as he listened to the heartbeat of a state ward.
“I have no desire to prove anything by dancing…I just dance.” — Fred Astaire,
My husband and I purchase an 1885 farmhouse on five acres of land in rural Ohio. We are farmers, sort of, joking about the ten-thousand head of livestock we own when we start our first beehive. On a hot July night, in the luxurious privacy of a wooded property set back from the road, I dance naked under the moonlight. It’s a fragmented thing, not at all graceful, the choreography of this 46 year old body, all its scars and medical implants, its bone spurs and fraying tendons, its arthritic joints. I dance slowly, carefully, slow-slow, not quick-quick, so as to not aggravate my heart, which is finicky but well-behaved as long as I listen to it. It’s patched, too, the hole in my heart closed with a septal occluder, a tiny disc of nitinol wire mesh and polyester fabric – like the polyester of a leotard – now grown over with new cardiac tissue.
Five months later my husband will join me on the original hardwood farmhouse floor for our Yule ceremony. We’ll put our intentions for the coming year into seeds of corn we have grown and harvested, and then we ourselves will dance like seeds unfurling, first as individuals reaching toward the sun, and then twining our arms around each other like the tendrils of peas and cucumbers we grow in our garden. We will dance together: not a yes, but a hell yes.
But for now, the great bear twirling above me in the sky, I dance with myself. I have danced around abandonment my whole life, but tonight…tonight I consider what it means to dance with it. Which is to say I get to pursue it in Sadie Hawkins fashion. Which is to say I get to lead. Which is to say I will no longer conjugate the narrative of my body to match any subject other than me. Which is to say the infinitive form can never be abandoned.