Damselling

This weekend is a great one for dancing but something happened that was worrying and needs to be discussed.

Now I’ve mentioned that there are a lot of things about dancing that are triggering for me. Going outside for one. Letting people touch me. Talking to people. Dancing with people. Now those are normal things that stress me an okay amount.

If its a good night and I’m in high spirits, a couple laps to my car and I’m good to go. I can shake off or at least postpone an anxiety attack. Ever so often, though, someone will do something that triggers something OTHER than my agoraphobia, and that’s when we have a problem.

Once upon a time I was a battered woman. I don’t mean to belittle anyone else who might have a similar experience by being so flip about it here, but that’s how I manage to get by it every day. Brush it off. Move forward. Live in the now.

Sometimes in the now, though, people grab you unnecessarily hard by the upper arm. Sometimes in dancing they might jerk you into weird positions to get leverage. Some Leads (not all, and certainly in my opinion not GOOD Leads) who are at a certain skill level will swing less experienced dancers around like a rag doll, mistaking puppetry for a firm lead.

This happened this weekend.

Now I’m still new at Blues and social dancing in general, so I’ve had my share of men (and I don’t say this to be gender biased, women do lead as well, it’s just that I’ve never been rag-dolled by a woman, so I say men)  toss me around like this instead of just leading me. If you’ve never danced before, the best analogy I can make is to compare it to leading a child (or anyone really) by the hand. You can hold their hand and walk in whatever direction you want and they will be able to toddle along after you; if they want to go slow or fast or walk alongside you or behind you they can do it. You’re both connected and going the same way, they just have some amount of independence.

Someone rag-dolling you is like jerking a child by the hand; it’s putting force behind the guidance. Like jerking a kid out of the street or frog marching them out of a store post or mid-tantrum. They don’t have an option. Their pace and direction are set through force and momentum. There’s less ‘give’ in the guiding hand and with the wrong attitude it can turn into something quite different. Something threatening.

In dance when you are being rag-dolled by someone threatening, it’s bad.

For me, it’s often traumatic.

Now, this weekend a man asked me to dance. I don’t recall his name. We’re going to call him Meathead. He walks up and asks me to dance, stretches out his hand and I smile, hop up, acquiesce, the whole nine. He’s not much taller than me, would be slight of build, but the way his tee shirt falls you can tell he’s actually pretty muscular. He’s handsome, I suppose, objectively speaking, though his nose is a bit crooked (found out later it’d been broken fighting).

His smile may have been crooked as well. But who knows. That’s probably some sort of bias I’ve tacked on subconsciously in hindsight.

One bar in to the dance it was clear he has an elevated level of skill. Two bars and I accepted I was going to get jerked around if I didn’t take some initiative.

So I took some initiative. He jerked my hand into an awkward position to try to muscle me through a step and I snaked under and stepped behind him. I dropped his hand and circled him with a cheeky smile.

He snatched me back to him and fairly crushed me to his chest. He then used his knees to knock my legs wider apart and then forced a sort of jerky side to side action that I suppose would have looked seductive and serpentine if I hadn’t just been deliberately thrown off balance and allowed no space to follow willingly or add my own style.

The next time he turned me, I slipped him again and that was the last time I had my freedom. He snagged me by the wrist instead of the hand and yanked, saying “C’mere” with this sick smile. He crushed my chest back into his and I could feel his fingertips hook up UNDER the cup of my shoulder blade, digging into my back. The fingers of his other hand dug between the delicate bones in the back of my hand. His thumb pinched mine, deliberately gripping too tightly for me to slip away again. “You have to do what I want: I’m Lead.”

When he turned me after that he would grab my elbow or force my arm around to his other hand behind me.

Being pinned is triggering for me. Fingers digging into my torso is triggering. The lazy, arrogant, self-satisfied way he was looking at me was triggering. It was proprietary. Smug and later this unhurried sort of lust.

I mentioned after he dipped me, too fast because everything he did was force and momentum, that dips worry me. He laughed and started doing them on purpose. Faster and harder and lower to the ground.

The worst was when he deliberately swept my legs and tripped me into a dip.He mouthed “sorry” after he did it but it was a leg sweep; clean and intentional. I flew towards the floor and he caught me just in time, but the momentum meant the arm/shoulder he grabbed, and then my spine at the point he snagged around my waist protested (and had my chiropractor asking questions). My hair brushed the floor. My hair is bobbed.

At the end of the song, he ordered me to dance with him again. There was no way to say no without causing a scene. And at that point I had shrunk into the far corner of my mind where I peer out and look for a coward’s exit, or some way to de-escalate or make him lose interest.

I spent another song trying not to twist an ankle and keep from giving him another opportunity to deliberately trip me. I tried again and again to make eye contact with Kay and a male friend of ours in the corner. Help me, help me, help me. A mantra in my mind in time to whatever song played.

He was talking, too. I was having that tunnel moment in panic where everything’s weird and you can hear your pulse and all the words sound like they’re in slow motion or under water.

Things I remember:

He said that I’m strong, and that most guys don’t like that, but he does. “You’re strong here… and here and in your legs…” Digging his fingers into my upper back, then stroking the back of a finger down the line between my ribs and over my stomach, drawing up just before my navel. It’s not an overtly inappropriate touch, but still intimate and it makes me feel dirty. He repeated that I’m strong a lot of times.

He said he used to do martial arts. “Now instead of beating people up, I dance with them.” It was a joke but it had an edge to it. When he said this, I had a flash of heat followed by a chill that hurt my skin followed by a rush of fear sweat that soaked my dress. He then said he traded getting sweated on by men for getting sweated on by women, which he doesn’t mind. He actually kind of likes it.

“I really, kind of like it.” His face went into my hair and his breath touched my ear. “Really…. kind of…. like it.” It dwindled into more of a growl than words.

At this point I was nauseous from anxiety, dizzy and sore from being jerked around to hard and fast. I wanted to go home, or lock myself in the bathroom for a while and cry on the floor. I wanted someone to rescue me but also didn’t want anyone to see me unable to take care of myself.

All things end, though. If you wait long enough. When the song ended. I let the fear slide off my face. I made myself take my teeth out of my cheek and lower lip. I gave him a tight, fake smile, and an empty gaze. I thanked him quickly, spun a quick about-face, and beelined to the corner with my friends.

Now, I didn’t let it ruin my evening, but it needed to be addressed.

 

It doesn’t happen often, and for the most part the Blues scene is a safe, nonthreatening, environment but things like this do happen and not just to me. It happens outside of the Blues scene as well. There are men out there that use public situations and social norms to prey on women while everyone watches.

I read an article on how we’re conditioned to “de-escalate” situations instead of calling people on their BS. I’m certainly guilty of it, but it’s a complex thing.

I thought of 3 different ways I could have hurt the Meathead to get him off me. I almost hit him when he was in my ear about liking sweat but I didn’t. I dug my nails into the palm of the hand resting on his shoulder, I bit my lip. I didn’t hurt him.

I AM strong in ways he wouldn’t understand. I have a lot of self control. But I also am weak, I’d rather de-escalate than drag other people into my drama.  Or make him angry and have him follow me to my car when there are less witnesses around.

It was less risky to just swallow the fear and be afraid for a few minutes.

I wanted help, but I didn’t want help. I looked for anyone to come save me, but when someone said I should bring it up publicly, I said I didn’t want to be a damsel.

And I don’t. I want to save my own goddamn self.

But sometimes I don’t know if I can.

Its a very confusing thing.

And scary.

Fortunately, Meathead didn’t ruin my night. Like every other injury dealt me by idiot men my hyperextended elbow will heal and my chiropractor knocked everything else back into place today.

And if nothing else, it made me appreciate every other dance all the more.

Two of which were with the Viking.

But that’s another story, one that has no business sharing space with a post on anxiety and panic.

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The Perfect Dance

I had an epiphany Sunday, driving home alone at 2 in the morning after a night of Blues dancing.

I had the perfect dance.

That wasn’t the epiphany.

In almost the same moment I thought I had the perfect dance it struck me that the perfect dance wasn’t perfect.

But it was.

And not just because it was with the Viking of a man who so enchanted me the time before.

The dance was sublime in ways I would have sworn only happened in literature. It was intricate, it was joyous, raucous, sensuous, it meant everything and nothing. It was in turn light, fun, playful: clapping with the beat, call-response movements, disconnected hands, taunting steps.

We’re following the lead-er, the lead-er, the lead-er… 

A heartbeat later it was serious: deeply grounded synchronized steps, lunging surges of movement, an embrace so closed our arms could have completely circled each other. His arm around my waist. My weight giving him leverage for a sliding pivot, his weight buoying me up and back towards the mirrored wall of the dance hall. His arm dragging mine ’round his neck. Serious. Intimate. Breathless.

There is no way to describe the heady feeling of giving in to the dizzyness that comes from being spun like a top between two large, warm hands.

I learned to spot a turn as a baby ballerina. Eighteen years practice and in the space of a breath I somehow lost the crack in the mirror that staved off the dizzyness. Somewhere in the shifting momentum, spinning faster, faster, again and again, I let go. My head spun and I embraced the maelstrom.

Blues is nothing like Ballet.

Ballet puts no one between you and the hardwood.

The Viking will not let me fall. It is a truth spoken with simple matter-of-fact confidence.

I’ve had dances with equally experienced leads, where I executed equally fast, equally complicated movements but felt like some sort of clumsy puppet, tossed around like a rag doll. Drowning, casting about for any way to steady myself. This was not the same.

It was intuitive. My feet fell into a seamless grapevine, my hips snapped around exactly the right way without more than a shift in the incline of my Lead’s body. He lunged and my spine bowed, a perfect arc over his arm until my ribs protested the bands of their cage, trying to loose my heart and lungs. The mirrored wall reflected me suspended there, draped like silk over his arm.

With every other Lead I have a moment where I know I’m about to be dipped (you should always know, or they’re doing it wrong). I have a moment of doubt chased with the acceptance that I may very well be seconds away from a concussion and trip to the ER. With anyone but the Viking I am just waiting for the fall.

He won’t let me fall.

This instinctive trust both unnerves me and frees me while dancing with him.

So there is the fairy tale end of things.

It was perfect.

But I stumbled.

I’m still a beginner at best. I don’t know all the fancy footwork. I don’t know any tricks. There were shuffled steps, turns I interpreted incorrectly, a moment where I laughed in self deprecation at how UTTERLY lost I was in some intricate movement he tried and admitted “I have no idea what we’re doing.”

The dance was still perfect. I messed up right and left, and it was perfect.

In the classes I took with Jo a while back, an instructor talked about dancing “on the same level.” At the time I asked how to communicate that you can’t dance on the level of someone with 11 years experience. How to say “I suck” with your dancing so you don’t wind up getting flung around.

They said to get heavier. Resist and slow things down. Dance deliberately at your own level until your Lead catches on.

Screw that.

Inherently the Viking is on a level head and shoulders above mine. He was dancing at his level, but in a way that encouraged me to rise to meet him.  I don’t feel like he was dumbing himself down for me. I went with it, I matched his intensity and pace and just interpreted in the best way I could. I feel like I DID dance at my level, but I also danced above it.

Intuition took care of the rest.

So despite a lot of missteps and nervous laughter, it wound up being a truly singular moment.

The perfect dance was not made perfect by somehow magically knowing the choreography: that’s never going to happen. Social dancing is not choreographed. Like blues music its made mostly of improvisation.

I cling to control, safety, staying inside the lines. It seems to be why I struggle with Blues. I have to let go, and in this one dance I may have found the key.

The perfect dance became what it was because despite the VAST expanse between my own Blues experience and that of my Lead, (and I state this as the same simple truth as “he will not let me fall”) he ENCOURAGED me. Like the rest of what he did in the dance, there were no words, nothing overt telling me what to do, the encouragement was just there.

He’s never said “I won’t let you fall” or “don’t worry” or “let me show you” or “like this” but its there. Without thinking I respond and the dance that results is electric. Transcendent.

And now I’m in trouble because I thought the Viking was handsome and likable BEFORE I discovered this weird intuitive dance connection.

Its also a good thing this is anonymous because this whole “dance zen” vibe I’ve got going on would earn me some SERIOUS eye rolls.

I Like Your Puffy Sleeves

Oh-kay, folks, I think we need a palate cleanser after that last one. Not that you read it. But if you did. Here comes the ginger.

I went Blues dancing last night (shocking).

I took my two roommates with and so besides being worried for myself and finding my chill all night I was also worried that they wouldn’t have a good time. Kay was my main concern. She is taller than me (I’m practically a giraffe) and thinks she’s way more socially awkward than she is. Dee, our other roommate, is teeny and walks around a little dreamily sometimes, as if everything is in a soft, warm, focus for her. They’re both uber Jesus-y and Kay is more self conscious than me in a lot of ways. We ran last so they almost missed the pre-dance class and neither of them have dance experience. As I was taking their things so they could run to the class and I could get everything settled and catch up if there was time, the first person to talk to me through the door was rude… Just the stuff of nightmares.

However, despite the choppy takeoff, they both LOVED IT. The night wound up being very fun for everyone involved. Kay got asked to dance more than I did and I think I’ve finally convinced her that there are actually tall, manly, men out there in the dating pool (and that some of them dance). Dee almost never made it off the floor, she was a huge hit with one of the choosier regulars and just about everyone else.

Jo, my usual partner in Blues-related-crime, came later after a friend’s wedding. A girl we met from our out of town Dance Weekend came later. I don’t understand how this “SQUAD” thing the kids are talking about nowadays works, but guys, I think we were Squad (squadding? on squad? squad fleek? seriously, someone explain this to me)!

Now, somewhere in the night it occurred to me (possibly as I was eyeing the lead I’ve developed a ridiculous crush on after literally being introduced to him once back when I first started Blues dancing in a “notice me, Senpai!” sort of way) that Blues dance events are basically Junior High dances with grown ups.

No one really knows what to wear. The events are generally Dry, though a lot of times you get a whiff of malt liquor from a passing Starbucks cup. The music is ALL over the map. Girls (and by girls I mean me and Blues Squad) wind up in the corner giggling about boys or eyeing the cool kids (pro level dancers) with longing. If two equally shy kids wind up dancing, they just rock from side to side in awkward circles with plenty of room for Jesus between them and its all but impossible for me not to quote Napoleon Dynamite.

Its ballroom, sort of, but also not.

I love it is what I’m saying. Also, possibly, Senpai.

Who asked me to dance.

Twice.

And according to Dee attempted making contact a third time before he was swept away by another dancer.

But that’s definitely not what made my night.

Nope.

Even if it was, that’s a story for another day.

The moral of this story is that Blues Dancing is like middle school dancing if middle schoolers knew how to dance without jamming their crotches into people’s butts unannounced.

Or something like that.