Body at War, Body at Peace

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Fragments of a Conversation

Body at War

I can't remember a time when my body was not on guard. Ready to decide - stay and fight or run away. My secret daily routines as a child included having a bag packed at all times. Scanning every building for places to hide. At a very young age, I knew if I were running from someone, don't go up, don't go into rooms with no exit or window, don't get trapped. This isn't the sort of information a child should have to know, is it? I don't even remember where or how I learned it. I just knew I always had to have a plan. If I couldn't make myself safe, I could make myself ready. I lived in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Arizona, Massachusetts, and finally landed in Texas. Every place I lived, until I moved in with my husband, I had a bag packed. Every time we moved, I made plans for where I would need to go. 

Even now, when I walk into a room, I note the easiest exits, the paths of least resistance, in case I need to leave quickly. I never unlearned the habit. When was the last time I actually had to do that? I can't remember. I've never been safer or had circumstances like these, where I should feel so content and secure, before.  I feel safe at home, safe with my husband - but especially in public, the habits remain.

When my doctor asked me how long it had been since I'd had a solid week of good sleep, I couldn't remember. It hasn't been months or years - it's been a couple of decades. When did I last have surgery? I slept a lot then, I told him. That's not what he meant. I don't know then, I said, I'm an insomniac. It doesn't feel like my mind is ever entirely at rest. Even when I'm exhausted, I still try to function in my half-awake state, holding conversations, getting ready for work - only truly waking up some time later wondering how I'd gotten my clothes on, checked my messages and managed to make coffee, while apparently still sleeping.

Now I have to question the consequences of living so many years ready to fight, or ready to run.

My recent diagnosis has me wondering if the effect of a lifetime spent looking for a fight, has left my body with no other way to behave. An auto-immune disorder means my body is essentially at war with itself. Is my body tearing itself apart looking for a threat that doesn't exist? My doctor is trying to trace the battle lines for clues - why are these muscles being affected, and not those. Why the muscles, but not the joints?

More questions from my doctor. "Do you meditate?" (Yes.) "Do you practice yoga?" (Yes.)  "When are you most relaxed?"

"When do you feel safe?"

Body at Peace

"When I dance."

"So you relax when you dance? What is that like?"

"How much time have you got?" I ask. He shrugs and leans forward. On my phone, I show him a video of me dancing with Mr. X at Copa. It is clearly not what he expected to see. No gymnastics, no jumping or kicking. Just walking.

I tell him, it's not relaxed in some passive, nap-like way. I don't know. Can you relax actively? He shrugs.

Cradled against a man's chest, listening to the music through his body, breathing in the smell of his cologne, I can feel safe. I don't know what combination of factors creates that alchemy, but it works. I listen to his breathing, a few breaths go by, and we're in synch. If we pay attention, we can feel a little of each other's history in the way we move, in the tiny ways we adjust to each other. It's different every time.

It's not just that being held that way feels good - of course it does, I don't think that really surprises anyone. But for me, for someone to make the effort, and to put in the energy, to make me feel safe, to make me feel like something precious in his arms - to put his embrace before the steps he wants to dance - that makes me feel safe.

Safe enough to stop running. Safe enough to stop fighting.

I can surrender.

"I prefer to explore the most intimate moments, the smaller, crystallized details we all hinge our lives on."
Poet Rita Dove


ghost said...

"Fear exists to warn of you danger, not to make you afraid."

I have a profound respect and fondness for the part of me that that you're describing. The part that still checks for concealed weapons when I meet someone in a milonga. The part that reacts when someone tugs my ponytail from behind.

I followed a very wise piece of advice a long time ago. As soon as you can, get yourself out of those situations and never go back. Ok sometimes I run through hell for friends, but I know I'm not staying, just providing cover fire and medical support.

My advice is to make peace with that part of you. In a profound way that's not your fault, it's been abused. There's more to the animal side of us than fight or flight. But when we get stuck in certain situations it's easy for that to become what it's about. Imagine a puppy that grows up living in perpetual fear and violence :(

Dancing works - it's lets your inner animal be at peace and "talk" to other people's inner animals in a postive happy way. I find staring at skies and walking through parks helps too.

I think of that part of me as an old batterred wolf, that mostly naps in the shadows just next to the sunlight by a stand of old oaks. Every now and then an ear will perk up or an eye will open. But mostly he sleeps or we run together through parks and milongas.

But never try to get rid of that part of you. It's there for a reason and it's kept you alive. Now it's up to you to give it a happy life.

One thing that's hard to put into words but is invaluable in tango is this. The animal part of you *knows*. Dance with someone on the same wavelength and worthy of trust and your animals will connect in a profound way that leaves all the teachnique classes in the world for dust.

As a friend of mine reminds me
"Breathe and take it easy"

perri iezzoni said...

You are not alone. I often feel the same way. It is tango. It has taken over all my normal motivators:sex drive, career, parenting. I am still moved by those things but not like I was before. Like you, now, I only relax doing tango. Good Luck.

Marika said...

(Cross posted on FB and G+)

I left work around 5:00 pm, went to eat dinner and got home about half an hour ago. In that span of time, I received 18 emails about my last post. Holy macaroni!

Five of them were showing support generally (thank you), twelve of them were sharing their own war stories (thank you for trusting me with your stories) and one of them was this:

"I hope you know almost no one will ask you to dance now, except the ones who feel sorry for you. You carry way too much baggage in to this dance. Nobody wants to know this much about anyone they dance with."

That was the entire message, and I've left off the author because it doesn't really matter.

To your points:

1. No one will dance with me except for the ones who feel sorry for me. There are several men who dance with me who already know my story, so this changes nothing with them. Do they dance with me out of pity? It doesn't feel like that to me. Maybe they do - if they do, they hide it well from me. To those who didn't know before and this is their first hearing of it, we'll see.

2. I carry too much baggage into the dance. Yeah, I've heard that before. We all come to tango for different things. Here's the important thing - I'm just the one who's talking about it - I'm by no means the only one. I wrote this post because there are a half a dozen dancers I know who can't write about it, but wish they could. Who are afraid of looking weak, of looking needy, of looking fragile, or crazy. So I speak up because I can - I already have the outlet with this blog, so I use it. I'm not speaking for them - their stories are their own. But we have enough in common that they've encouraged me to write this on their behalf.

Here's another tidbit you might not have considered ... They're not all women. Women aren't the only ones looking for solace in the embrace. We write about it more often but there are many walking wounded on the pista - on both sides of the embrace.

3. Nobody really wants to know.

(Grandma, this is probably when you should stop reading. It'll save you the call later complaining about my bad language.)

//begin rant//

To point #3: Too fucking bad.

I'm a dancer and a blogger, and this is what I do. People keeping quiet gets people hurt. The bad news is, or I should the worse news is, there are an awful damn lot of us carrying these stories around, wondering if we're ever going to be done paying the price for the past. Wondering how long our bodies are going to keep score. And also wondering, in nearly constant astonishment, how the hell tango manages to ease this pain. We can't explain it to each other, to our doctors, or to ourselves. But it's a bloody-fucking-miracle, and we're going to rejoice in that mystery as long as we can.

//end rant//

Let's look at some numbers.

'One out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.' How many women are in your tango community? At your milongas? If you're a leader, how many women do you dance with in a night?

'About 3% of American men — or 1 in 33 — have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.' How many men are in your tango community? (More statistics can be found here:

Sexual assault is only one category of trauma. 'An estimated 5% of Americans – that’s 11.2 million people – have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at any given time' - from any number of traumatic experiences. (

This matters. Whether you are leading or following, the person in your arms is a human being and comes with a history. Some need more care and tenderness than others during the very brief time we share the embrace.

Marika said...

@Ghost - Thank you for your comment - it's more reassuring than you I can tell you. And this:

"Dance with someone on the same wavelength and worthy of trust and your animals will connect in a profound way that leaves all the technique classes in the world for dust."

is so dead on - I want to write a separate post just about that. But since it took me 3 weeks to get that last post out, it may be a little while. ;-)

Kirra said...

As the person responsible for creating a safe and comforting place for people to learn; I need to, once in awhile, weed out the energy vipers and the bad apples.

This is tango not cha-cha. We all carry baggage, small and large - it's called LIFE. We dig into that baggage and use it to connect, feel, surrender, expand, improve.

In regards to Point #3: People don't want to know... Don't think your authentic partners don't already know, they know. They can feel it (which is a good thing). They can also feel surface, flitty, shitty, diva, arrogant energy too. Guess who they will choose to dance with?

Good for you, Mari. Keep talking.

Dieudonne said...

"I hope you know almost no one will ask you to dance now, except the ones who feel sorry for you. You carry way too much baggage in to this dance. Nobody wants to know this much about anyone they dance with."
We are lining up to ask her to dance, except the nights aren't long enough. What an idiotic thing to say, what do you think we dance for? What do you think we want from woman when we hold her in our arms? So you are going to dance with the part of the person that you choose, and throw the rest away, is that it? Well then go dance ball room, and be at liberty to fake it.

No need to explain anything to such a "comedian", this person does not seem to get it at all. This is why I believe that duelling should be reinstated. :-)

Cinderella said...

'to make me feel like something precious in his arms (...) - that makes me feel safe.

Safe enough to stop running. Safe enough to stop fighting.

I can surrender.'

Thank you, Mari. I prefectly understand what you mean. I find the same in dancing - after having searched for so long in the wrong places...

Ghost said...

Most welcome. I'm profoundly grateful to the people who showed me that way to look at things.

You asked is it possible to relax actively? The answer is definitely yes. Tai chi is the obvious example.

Looking forward to that post :)

One other thing. This is why I have such an extreme reaction to trolls. They wander around ripping into people with no idea whatsoever of the pain and injuries that person may have. And then you meet them in the Real World and they go "Oh it's just words on the net right? Doesn't mean anything". Grrr. The stats you listed are horrifying and as you know there's a whole load more of other painful things a scarily high number of people go through :( There's a line from Beverly Hills 90210 "He's been through a lot of pain in his life and there's absolutely no good reason for you to add to it".

Sure there will be some people who won't want to dance with you because of this; there will also be people who won't want to dance with you because you're not blonde, 18, a nuevo dancer etc etc. But to say no-one will dance with you. Well I'd upset you grandma if I said what I think about the stupidity of that statement....

Marika said...

@Perri - Thank you for your encouragement and your comment.

@Kirra - Thank you for your thoughts on this, and for the reminder that many of my partners already knew - and knew a great deal before I said a word about it. Some of them have similar struggles or know women that do, and they know the telltale physical signs. You're right, it shows in our dance - how could it not?

@Dieudonne - As always, thank you for your encouraging words here, *and* on the pista. It's not the first time this person as written similar words to me (always in email, never commenting publicly for some reason.) This time I felt it was important to share because I wasn't just writing this for myself. We share so much in the embrace and it's naive to think at least some people we dance with, don't notice.

perri iezzoni said...

You're welcome, Mari. Finding someone brave enough to post their honest thoughts is so refreshing. There are so many people out there pretending to be true tango connoisseurs, it makes me sick. I encounter these people all the time. They are always ready to pounce on you anytime they sense weakness. They do this because they are insecure. You are better than them so don't feel obliged to respond, it only encourages them.

Elizabeth Brinton said...

The person who made the negative comment shows how little they know about the essential nature of tango. It came about in a time of displacement and loss. Has he no ability to hear the sound? The words? For myself, it is very much about trust, and community. Well, that is one more person you don't need in yours. Sometimes it takes awhile to know. Who REALLY is there for you? Sorry to your grandmother, but fuck em.

Marika said...

@Cindarella - I think there are so many dancers that have a similar story. Thank you for sharing your comment.

@Elizabeth - thank you for commenting - so far my grandmother has not complained about my language. :D When I think of how many people have told me what brought them to the dance, and many of these are dancers who've been dancing a decade or more, it just confirms how very different Argentine tango is from other dances - in what draws us in, and what keeps us coming back for more.

Cinderella said...

Revisiting this post makes me even more aware of how much I'm moved by what you all have said.
However, I wonder why it's comparatively easy for so many of us to relax, to feel safe and to surrender, when we dance in close embrace. Compared to other forms of 'togetherness', of 'sharing something', I mean. I wonder if it's because we needn't speak, because we needn't tell our stories using words and are still able to tell them, because we needn't take over responsibilty for what comes, when the tanda is over?
Perhaps we can only feel that safe for a short time, as long as a tanda lasts?
Ghost said: 'There's more to the animal side of us than fight or flight.'
I liked that. I guess we need to find that 'more', even if we are not dancing. That's difficult, but I hope that what we experience, when we are dancing, will help us.

Stefanie said...


Thank you for this powerful and moving post. Dance is so healing, isn't it? The title stuck me, because I worte a similar post, though from a different perspective just last week - Guerra O Paz - and although my war with self looks differently, I think it is something we all struggle with internally to one degree or another. I questioned whether I was approaching my dancing, and subsequently also my life, as a war, ready for a fight, or with peace. Through dancing, I reailze that peace is one possibility - one possibility that often doesn't get chosen because of automatic past programming. What a journey it is to be a dancer! Thank you again for this heartfelt post and for sharing of yourself. I'm excited to stay tuned and learn more. -Stefanie