‘The “feel” in my skin and the “feeling” in my mind’
I’m beginning to feel claustrophobic. I’ve been sandwiched between three other bodies for some time now. It could be 5 minutes, it could be half an hour, I’m really not sure. In this state of constant touch and constant motion, rolling over each other, I find it easier not to think. Not to examine too closely what is going on, but just focus on sensation. I will myself into a kind of trance, because if I dwell on what is happening between me and these strangers I start attaching meaning where there is none.
All that matters in this moment is the connection between bodies. My cheek brushes up against someone’s head of hair, my foot pokes the tense muscle of someone’s thigh. My elbow collides with the hard floor, while my soft tummy meets the sharp edge of someone’s shoulder blade. A drip of someone else’s sweat lands on my skin. I keep my eyes closed and hope that I don’t connect with another person’s intimate body parts. Arms, legs, face, head, hands, feet, back, stomach, these are all safe areas. Chest and groin, not so much.
While it might sound like I’m describing some debauched bacchanalian gathering, I’m actually recalling a run-of-the-mill dance class in south London. The organisation Independent Dance (ID), in Elephant & Castle, specialises in embodied movement practices and every week day it offers professional dancers a morning class led by a teacher specialising in somatics, which is to say improvised movement led by sensations in the body. These classes vary in style and substance. Not all of them involve rolling over each other’s bodies, otherwise known in the dance world as ‘contact improvisation’, but in almost every class we use hands-on touch in one way or another.
“Contact Improvisation is a dance form, originated by American choreographer Steve Paxton in 1972, based on the communication between two or more moving bodies that are in physical contact and their combined relationship to the physical laws that govern their motion — gravity, momentum, inertia… Contact improvisations are spontaneous physical dialogues that range from stillness to highly energetic exchanges. Alertness is developed in order to work in an energetic state of physical disorientation, trusting in one’s basic survival instincts.” (Caught Falling by Nancy Stark Smith and David Koteen)
When I started my Creative Practice MFA at Trinity Laban, I threw myself into the deep end of two different approaches to dance. One being a formal training, where I attended contemporary technique classes for a year and a half. The other being somatic practice, where I attended classes at ID that invited me to freely improvise movement through responding to given imagery and to sensations in my body. I say, ‘freely improvise’, but at the start I couldn’t do anything freely, such was my physical inhibition.
I embarked on this postgraduate programme in 2017 with the ambition of bringing my whole body to my artwork. I imagined myself throwing paint around large pieces of paper with full physical abandonment. I wanted to feel free. But what I discovered, almost immediately, was that my body was not free, it was locked into itself.
I had always thought of myself as a dancer, but in reality I’d done nothing more with that idea than enthusiastically take up space on a few disco podiums in my late teens and early twenties. Disappointingly, but entirely unsurprisingly, entering the world of dance at the age of 40, without any background training, does not automatically liberate one’s body into self-expression.
Throughout my time at Trinity Laban I found I had to work hard on my interior monologue. My wily self-saboteur tried to convince me daily that I was just not capable of doing what was being asked of me. Very quickly I realised physical self-expression is as much an emotional journey as a physical one. In fact, I devised my master’s showcase performance and wrote my thesis about the nature of self-limiting beliefs in the act of creating performance art. In summary, the battle I was facing was more in my mind than in my body.
Through persistently working through my mental resistance, I got to a point during my training where I could stay in the state of constant physical contact for quite some time. I was slowly building up my tolerance for touch. But, such was the newness of contact improvisation to me, I kept reaching a point where I became overwhelmed by the intimacy and stimulation. I needed to escape the tangle of bodies.
The following excerpt from Nancy Henley’s book Body Politics gives an insight into my lack of familiarity with touch, which relates not just to personal circumstance and upbringing, but also to the wider British culture of non-touch.
‘Since touching is in a sense an invasion of one’s personal space, we see the parallel in the amount of touching deemed appropriate in different cultures; Americans (like the English from whom many of us are descended) are very un-touching people. An anecdote by Jourard illustrates the point very well:
“I watched pairs of people engaged in conversation in coffee shops in San Juan (Puerto Rico), London, Paris and Gainsville (Florida), counting the number of times that one person touched another at one table during a one hour sitting. The “scores” were, for San Juan, 180; for Paris 110, for London, 0; ad for Gainesville, 2.’ Jourard, 1964.”’ (Nancy Henley’s Body Politics, p.100)
During two years of work at Trinity Laban I developed a new sensitivity in my body that allowed me to enjoy improvised movement and even the intense body contact work. I came to appreciate the ways in which hands-on work calmed my nervous system — it was therapeutic.
I remember one class where we sat on the floor with a partner in an embrace and rocked each other back and forth for about half an hour. It was one of the most soothing experiences of my life. It wasn’t until after we were done rocking that I got to introduce myself to my ‘dance partner’ and say hello properly. This quality of touch, of holding a stranger’s body with care and attention, without any sexual impulse, is one of the great revelations of my adult life.
As I wrote in my previous essay, I arrived at the connected oases of Trinity Laban and Independent Dance from a desert of physical detachment where, in my day to day life, I hardly had any tactile contact with people, other than hugging my friends. Not being in a romantic partnership, not being a parent, and not yet knowing about somatic practice at ID, had severely limited my possibilities for human touch.
Now, in quarantine, not able to attend morning class, I’m returned to the desert once again. But, thankfully, I’m not the same person I was before. I have a treasure trove of embodied knowledge that I carry within me. My body remembers all the sensations it has gathered over the last few years and I can call on different techniques I’ve learned.
However, I know I need to be intentional about touch. If I spend a day caught up in the news and endlessly scrolling social media, moving a single finger tip across the non-varying silky screen, I feel myself begin to dissolve. I am no longer a whole person, I have no body. I am just an anxious, whirring mind on a hamster wheel going nowhere. These words from Eve Ensler’s recent Guardian article on touch, absolutely rang true to me.
“How do we live with this unbearable skin hunger? …After a day of wanting to reach through the screen, the void, the isolation, to feel a heart beating, take someone’s hand, breathe with another’s breath, I can feel myself begin to disappear.”
Despite regularly overdosing on screen time, I’m thankful for the teachers delivering classes online. Olive Bieringa’s Body-Mind Centering (BMC) classes allow me to use touch as a form of sensing the internal systems of the body. I can recall the self-massage techniques, combing the surface of my limbs with my fingertips, that I was taught at ID. I can shake my body along with choreographers like Ryan Heffington on Instagram live streams. All these activities bring the sense of connection and touch into my world without another human anywhere near me.
Every week I witness friends developing new ways of feeling physically connected. When greeting a friend on Zoom the other day I did my now familiar motion of miming a hug, where I spread my arms out, pretending to encircle the person opposite me who’s not physically present, leaving a large hole where my friend should be.
I saw my friend on the screen shake her head at me and with a smile she pressed a palm to either side of her face. She beckoned me to do the same. This was not a Munchian emoji horror scream, but a very gentle cupping of each cheek with curved hands.
Without any words, this holding of my own face, mirroring my friend holding her face, felt more like a hug than my arms attempting to wrap themselves around emptiness. Immediately, I was reminded that I don’t need to try and capture what is not there. I don’t need to grasp at thin air. I can touch my own face and know that I am held.
This face holding gesture immediately brought a flood of loving memories to mind, from paternal affection, to platonic devotion, to romantic desire. In one gesture all of these images became present to me, layering one on top of the other like a palimpsest comforter.
I will sign off with these eloquent thoughts on the connection between touch and emotion from Deane Juhan’s book Job’s Body, a handbook for bodywork.
‘We can never touch just one thing; we always touch two at the same instant, an object and ourselves, and it is in the simultaneous interplay between these two contiguities that the internal sense of self — different from both the collection of body parts and collections of external objects — is encountered.
That is to say, my tactile surface is not only the interface between my body and the world , it is the interface between my thought processes and my physical existence as well. By rubbing up against the world, I define myself to myself.
The “feel” in my skin and the “feeling” in my mind, what I “feel” and how I “feel” about it, become so confounded and ambiguous that my internal “feelings” can alter what my skin “feels” just as powerfully as particular sensations can shift my internal states.
It is not too much to say that the sensory activity of the skin is a major element in the development of disposition and behaviour, an element with enough sophistication and plasticity to account for wide divergences of experience and observation.’ (Deane Juhan, Job’s Body, p. 34)
Stay in touch,
Note from a friend on touch, memory and emotion, 22.04.20:
“I made an interesting connection between my current embroidery and how I would comfort myself, through stroking the embroidery (white work — mainly satin stitches) on my pillow case from baby till a tweeny, whilst sucking my thumb (stopped that around 6–7). I could only have one type of pillowcase, and I would stroke it with the top of my hand, palms up. The silky smooth texture of the yarn contrasted the dry yet soft cotton canvas, and then there were holes, sort of lace work, that would create yet a sensation. Like a soft snowy landscape of peaks and valleys.”