still processing, part 2: a tickling moment of feeling free

2023-05-24  giovannisgroom

A second thing I will tell Pauli about is my immersion into the world of contact improv. I was only vaguely familiar with contact improv when I first met Pauli last summer. I had done it once before but in a one-on-one context (not in a group as is most typical). In my relationship with Firas, they introduced contact to me one night as a way for us to communicate with our bodies when we didn’t feel like we had the words to say what we needed to express (what happens when two Leos try dating). Them teaching me contact that night feels like a core memory — if our lives were actually that Pixar movie, Inside Out, the memory would look like a shiny sapphire orb, glowing in the back of my hippocampus, sitting alongside the orb, “baby’s first slow dance, 7th grade, bowl cut.” Firas had come to visit me in Brooklyn and rented an Airbnb a bit further east on Dean Street. I could walk but decided to roller blade, always feeling slightly more myself when being with them. They invited over a few of their other closest people in the city, and we had a decadently autumnal meal (I remember the way the maple glazed itself onto the acorn squash). After everyone had left, we finally had alone time together. It had been almost 18 months since we’d seen each other in person — both a cause of the pandemic and a break up that coincided with it. We sat down on the couch and were talking through what we wanted the week to look like and how it felt being back in the same space. We were both struggling to feel super comfortable being reacquainted with each other and our bodies (we were often cuddling if we were alone). I imagine Firas scanned the room: the Airbnb had a record player with a surround sound system, adjustable warm lighting, and a massive living room. They asked me if we could put on a record and jam (the verb for “doing contact improv;” relevant for later, “jam” is also the noun). As someone who is historically not comfortable in my body, I felt instantly anxious and asked them to explain what to do (one of my deepest surface-level fears is being a bad dancer, especially in a partner dance). They told me that contact is effectively a dance that is the exploration of one’s own body and the other bodies. Physical contact between bodies initiates the dance, and touch and weight-sharing serve as the cues to the improvised movements that come next. It can look as still as people standing shoulder to shoulder slowing rocking side to side and as dynamic as elaborate aerial sequences. There can be music in the from of a subtle, instrumental backdrop, or no music. The main music criteria is that it shouldn’t be central enough to determine the rhythm, how the people move —the music can set a general tone that can shift the pace of the movements, but generally it’s the bodies that determine how and where the dance goes. (I Googled “contact improvisation,” and the first video is a cringey TedTalk, sorry: I elected myself to pick the record — if I was going to make a fool of myself I at least wanted to listen to something I liked. Sifting through the records, most of them seemed like the $1 give-aways you’d find at a garage sale. But then I saw it: a vinyl of the full length song Appalachia Spring by Aaron Copland. I imagine this means nothing to you, at least it didn’t to me until I took at college class (let’s say it was called Music, Materials, and Design), one of those classes that made the whole liberal arts thing feel worth it for a 10 week moment. Each class would start with the professor choosing a song for the class to listen to, the twenty of us gathered on the top floor of the 11-story Logan Arts Center building, views stretching beyond campus to Lake Michigan and even further to the downtown Chicago skyline. A very Bauhaus art vibe, the room was minimalist city, just a grand piano, the walls lined with floor-to-ceiling windows on all sides. For one of the classes, the opening song was Appalachia Spring. Usually the chosen song would last maybe three minutes, but our sneaky prof didn’t tell us that in its full length, Appalachia Spring would go on for nearly 26 minutes. We subsequently spent over half to class in the twists and turns of the orchestral string and horn masterpiece. I either cried then in class or listening to it on my way home (probably both), and surely if Spotify did its yearly Wrapped in 2017, that would have been my número uno. Something about it spoke to me, that moment in my 22-year-old life where the patience of a 26 minute song held me through the rushing impatience of having so many things around me come to an end: college, my first relationship, playing soccer, leaving the only place I ever really lived that wasn’t Alabama. In the Airbnb, I held the vinyl: what an occasion for this little gift to make a cameo again. The beautiful mysteries that felt so quotidian when me and Firas were together. Copland’s epic became my obvious choice of soundtrack, and as we danced, I forgot I wasn’t supposed to know what I was doing, which looking back, I guess is part of the point of contact — to find a flow where you don’t actually make conscious moves, where the bodies do what we often don’t allow them to do in our day to lives: let them listen and move accordingly. I loved it, but me and Firas broke up for good and it was the pandemic so I told myself I’d find contact again, my attempt at being as patient as Appalachia Spring. — — — — — Last summer I was sitting naked with Pauli at what we named Lake Xeon (long live SOPHIE) the next time I heard of contact. They were telling me their plans for Wednesday, which included going to a jam in Berlin. I loved the idea of finally doing contact with a group of people, but I had Wednesday plans to sit naked next to a different lake with Nathalie and then try to sneak into the Shygirl concert at Ber*hain. I told Pauli I would join them if I didn’t get into Shygirl, but spoiler, I got in. Pretty privilege, according to Claudia, and also a really sweet redhead bouncer who shared my big dreams. Even as magical as the concert was, it was sort of sweet to realize I felt the fomo of missing contact in Berlin (and contact with Pauli). So I listened to that, and when making a list of things I wanted to do when I returned to bk, contact made the top spot: - Going to contact jams - Sex work - Shucking oysters (???) - Fresh squeezed OJ - Posting on moodring — — — — Katie calls it queer hive mind when we (faggot people) all have the same thoughts. I’ll call this dance hive mind — me coming back from Berlin last summer and entering Dean house, Alli telling me she wants to try contact improv sometime soon. We both join the contact NYC WhatsApp chat and make a commitment to each other to make the Tuesday beginners class every week. So for the next six months quite consistently (albeit some travel and sickness), we make our way each week to the second floor of a SOHO loft, where a wood dance floor at a live-in artist studio becomes a third place for us. I don’t remember exactly what I expected to learn from contact (I think I just wanted to be a dancer!), but it became clear immediately that contact was going to touch parts of my life that other forms of movement — soccer, swimming, the occasion yoga — weren’t quite reaching. The format of the Tuesday beginners class more so less looks the same, even though each month the instructor rotates. The class starts with an opening ritual, the 20 or so dancers sitting or standing in a circle, usually some part of our bodies touching, linking us physically together. We share names, pronouns, sometimes fears for the upcoming class, sometimes the image of the last animal we interacted with. The ice breaker then evolves into an exercise both preparing the body for physical activity as well as for intimacy. A memorable exercise is walking around the room and asking people to share a dance, and the required script is to say “no,” to practice both receiving and giving rejection and to explore the feelings that then come up. “It’s important we practice not bringing our ego onto the dance floor,” one instructor tells us. I am confronted with the insecurities of why someone doesn’t want to dance with me and the projections of why I don’t want to dance with someone else (the former being helpful to explore through contact, the latter being helpful safety queues but also containing potential limits due to judgement). In moving through these exercises, I realize I have never been in a group setting — let alone a somatic space — that asks its participants to make space for these feelings, to not judge them, and to move through them together in dance. (It made me wonder what soccer would feel like if as we warmed up for a practice, we talked about how the competition triggers anything in us, how to be queer / femme in such a masculine-demanding setting, how to tell someone else any of this. I loved how playing so much queer soccer in NYC challenged me to ask myself these questions privately, but collectively, that space was infrequent at best. Maybe that’s why I left it for dance.) This realization about the collective effervescence of contact comes with both a rush of fear and excitement, reminding me of a Melissa Febos’ essay on attending a cuddle party in Manhattan (recommended by Ash — thank you, my sister). The cuddle party’s goal is to bring people together to access physical touch without the dynamics of power, privilege, race, gender, etc. that are typically inherent (and often end up being barriers) to exploring physical touch. But when Melissa went for her first time, she found it challenging to access the proposed goal: “I feared myself, mistrusted my ability to say no. That was why I had come back.” For me, part of why fearing contact was so easy at first was because I have had such little experience with intentional and reciprocal physical touch in my life so far. The list is short: - Soccer (which has mostly been suppressed homoeroticism and touched initiated by brute impact of force) - Sex (🥴) - Platonic cuddling with the rare friend - The occasional long hug - Being with pets? On October 4th, when Alli and I went to our first contact class, I wrote in my journal: “I feel like I spend so much time / mental energy with my own body that I can’t even focus on listening to someone else’s, which feels so relevant to sex. There’s something also happening with thinking I’m going to hurt someone else with my body? This space is what me and Alli have been looking for. We will be back.” Because touch has been so foreign to me, it started to make sense that in situations where I do have intentional, reciprocal physical touch (especially when it’s prolonged), my attention is overworked, overstimulated. The ego is on blast, and my body can’t either ease into it or listen appropriately to any other bodies. That feels like the origin of the self-consciousness I felt from the first class. The same feelings that have often come up in sex. I thought about all of this, journaled about this, talked about it (mostly with Alli and Ash) with such epiphany. Like the thing that would finally bring me closer to my body and then subsequently the bodies of others would be contact improv (instead of continued efforts at causal sex, trying to cuddle more with friends, sex therapy). So when I picked up Melissa’s book of essays, Girlhood, a few months after starting these classes and read about her experience at the cuddle party, I felt in such accordance with her. At the end of the essay, she brings the reader to her finale: “What is the effect of ignoring your body’s wishes for decades? I suppose that is the premise of this essay, the answer to the question that drove me to write it. Why did I have such a challenging experience at the cuddle party? Because I had so long ignored my body’s wishes that they had become illegible to me.” — — — But I guess I don’t want my own essay to stop there. At our Udon noodle dinner reunion, Pauli shows me a list of jams happening in Berlin this week. Later that night on the toilet, I look into the list. Pauli warned me that there aren’t that many jams that are queer centric. I have never felt that the SOHO classes were ever that straight or even cis, but I keep that in mind as I read the descriptions. I do however come across a class at a studio called The Village that advertises itself as promoting “queer masculinities,” which feels coded for “cis bodied gay men only,” even though the website is waving the trans flag wherever it can. Seeing this, I think again of Melissa Febos. I think of how she felt so magnetized to the cuddle party as a direct result of feeling so repelled by it. How knowing what her body feared was a window into what her body needed to overcome. And when she did go back to the cuddle party a second time, she found such sanctuary when eventually cuddling with a woman named Brenda: “The capaciousness of my interaction with Brenda told me that she recognized the metaphysical boundary between us. She did not rate her own agency over mine, nor was she interested in manipulating or directing me. Brenda was interested in a mutually consensual interaction. My exchange with her clarified how those men had wanted to reach into my space and prob me toward what they wanted, how they valued my interest less than the touch they sought. Misogyny filters so granularly into action … they simply valued their needs over mine.” The obvious synthesis of this quote with wondering whether I should dance with the “queer masculinities” is that I shouldn’t. Why should I trust that a space made by men for men would respect my metaphysical boundary in any way? There’s more to this story, though. It is the next evening, and I’m at a Georgian feast of a dinner with Liam. Liam preps me for a full weekend of partying — the 2CB, the best spots, the tricks to get into Berghain, the dumpling place that’s open all night. I tell Liam I just want a safe and queer dance floor. “No queer masculinities,” I say. Liam tells me about a recurring nightmare he’s been having. He is in Berghain, and when the smoke on the dance floor clears between songs, he realizes it’s just masc, shirtless men around him. He tries to leave, but all the doors that should be exits lead to bathrooms that are mazes. He’s trapped. Not only physically but in the dungeon of the desire that he also has for these men. The femme failure of desiring queer masculinities. I think about how my friend Xacia told me that when she transitioned, she lost her sexual desire for cis men. I poke my fork into the vegetable Khinkali, watching the juices leak out onto the white ceramic plate, the Khinkali changing shape as it drains. I wonder, if poked at, desire is that easy to mold, too. Although Liam’s nightmare is his, not mine, it feels like it’s been my reality, too. How the whole weekend of partying I ended up having, I felt the unkinky bondage to the desire for the shirtless men that were in fact inside Berghain and how unsolvable of a contradiction it is for me: how can I both want a dance floor free of shirtless men but then hope to bent over in the bathroom with a jock-strapped daddy by the end of the night? To want to be free* for me can mean both to be running away from and decisively entangled with men. It is our unfortunate labor, Melissa writes, to have to “uninstall so many of the mechanisms of the patriarchy.” So maybe it’s true that if I want to uninstall the power men have over me, I should poke a bit more and go to the source of it all with the training I’ve been building (a few months of beginners contact classes). — — Monday comes, and I bike over to The Village’s dance studio. I walk in right on time and see eleven cis presenting men mostly in their 50s sitting on couches, chatting in athleisure. I pretend to not feel their eyes on me as we warm up and think it’s odd I actually don’t feel that uncomfortable. But then I think maybe it’s not odd at all. I have practiced saying “no” on a contact dance floor week after week, and then, thanks to my sugar daddy, practiced boundaries specifically with older men. Part of why I am here is because I really am ready for this. The opening ritual is thankfully recited in both German and English. The instructor speaks from what I’ve come to learn is a pretty standard contact script: stay safe, listen to your body and others’, take breaks, leave whenever. But when consent comes up, the script shifts. It went something like this: “We take both pride and pleasure in queering contact improv. Queer men have been told to ignore pleasure for so long. We refuse to do that here. So if pleasure comes up for you, if you feel attracted to your partner, honor that. Communicate that. Don’t be afraid of that. But also, pleasure goes both ways. Your partner must reciprocate that desire for the dance to then become sexual.” On our post class A train rides back to Dean house, Alli and I often discussed the sexual element of contact, especially since we had a shared mutual crush for our first instructor. “What if I get turned on dancing with Chris,” I wondered. Would that fracture some sort of contact code? Would I be excommunicated from the world of dance? Surely not. But after several months of classes, we never had a collective class discussion on how to approach sex in contact. I mostly appreciated that absence. I wondered if we introduced the elephant into the room, would it be impossible to then contain it? Would the marginalized people suffer more and the mechanisms of the patriarchy spoil such a lovely space we’ve created? But in the same part of my brain that tries to center liberation or whatever, I sometimes wanted someone to say exactly what I was hearing at The Village: that our bodies are sexual and it’s maybe confusing and it’s maybe scary and all of that can be okay here. If we are going to do a dance where we ask ourselves to be honest and open with our bodies, isn’t that part of the work we should be doing? Listening to this man preface the class with a sexual disclaimer, I felt both of these perspectives at once: excitement sex wasn’t being ignored and distrust that now sexual advances would be tolerated, and me and the asian femme in the class would be trapped in dynamics we shouldn’t have to face while doing contact. As the introduction ended and the music initiated the start of the jam, I reminded myself of a journal entry I wrote after a contact class in January: “Giving someone access to my body doesn’t mean I have to give them access to sex with my body.” The playlist, a mix of melancholic and dramatic instrumental sounds, moved us towards each other. Like with Firas and many magical moments in SOHO, my body flowed from partner to partner, so connected to feeling and so removed from time. At one point I separated from the dancing and observed the room. There were two men no longer in movement, just cuddling on the floor. I wondered if this is what Melissa felt with Brenda, a collapse of the metaphysical boundaries that allowed these two men to meet in such a peaceful moment. Towards the end of the jam, I shared a very slow dance with a man wearing a shirt with a clichéd English mantra: “Remember that where you are is different than where you are are going.” One time when I was spiraling about not wanting to desire cis men, Rae asked me why I feel like it feels like a problem to me to have that desire. I guess the problem I keep returning to is something that Ash said after reading Girlhood, which is that desiring cis men can so often be wrapped up in the patriarchal expectation to please men, to satisfy them. Not to pursue desire for my own end, but because that’s what is demanded of me for them. I think about this in the context of The Village jam, of wanting to choose to move slowly in contact dance with a cis man because it’s my choice, not because not choosing it leads to an absence of pleasure for him. And how ultimately, this is what it ended up feeling like for me. There was an absence of any sexual intimacy but a real presence of mutually consensual interactions and of physical, artistic intimacy with cis men for probably the first time in my life. I have felt so far from accessing this experience with cis men (especially strangers) that I hadn't really even wished it. I still feel that queer masculinities as a mantra is not for me, not where I will be going. But I do want to experience intimacy and safety and rest in the arms of cis men more in my life. I want to know that I can, a shift from feeling like I should. I can trust my ability to say no, and to go back. The jam ends, and I lace up my shiny white new Sketchers and say “danke schön,” pronouncing it flawlessly. Google Maps says my bike home will be 26 minutes, so I queue Appalachian Spring and bike along the Spree, which would surely be renaturalized soon. — I have spent a lot of time thinking that if I could go back, I would have tried harder, at a younger age, to become a dancer. Invest less in soccer, go to the high school dance team tryouts, move to the music when my body begged for it. What if when I leave Berlin I realize so much of the trip has been exploring dance, a world that was foreign to me a year ago. Will anyone believe me? Will I remember it as that? Maybe what I’m learning looks more like a question: what if I could go forward and become a dancer? And maybe it’s not a question at all but a statement: what if I already have. ~~~ *On the last night of this trip, I bike to Tempelhofer to watch the sunset and pull out the long-awaited zine Meli and Kiek began writing last summer in Berlin and sent to me upon completion. It’s a series exploring bodily and temporary moments of autonomy. In it, they define free(dom) as: “Freedom as in this temporary, tickling moment of feeling free. Not freedom as a point of arrival, not of departure; not a neoliberal, capitalist joke. Rather a feeling, a social material necessity, a longing for autonomy and being; that what has fueled movements of resistance. The word freedom to describe a way of moving and out of being of embracing precise opacity of ephemeral feelings, a fluidity of selves and others, and so supposed contradictions. Freedom, then, as something always relational, embodied, ambiguous, little snippets — light, whole, shattered — of a moment, an opposite temporality.”