M y previous experience with practiced movement was with dancing Argentine Tango. I took lessons which taught me how to think about how I was supposed to move. In the beginning I spent many months “actively thinking” about how I should properly respond to my dance partner. There were so many new things I needed to know about how to move; I often felt like my brain was on fire.
Years later I read that when we are learning new movement, reacting to new and inconstant stimuli/touch, our neurons are rapidly firing. We are creating new neural pathways in our brain. Repetition of new motions increase these pathways to enhance how we perform. So my brain was indeed “lit up”. In fact, when we challenge ourselves to learn new and difficult things we increase our brain’s plasticity. I found it interesting that balance, motor skills, and emotional response are regulated by the cerebellum. This is the part of the brain most densely packed with neurons. Eventually, the repeated motions go from being “conscious” to “unconscious”. Everything we learn in life becomes a tool in our brain’s amazing library.
When I began tango, I felt uncomfortable in my femininity. I preferred to dress either male or androgynously. I hated dresses and skirts. They made me feel naked. Men’s wear was my armor. To say I did not conform to the gender norm would be accurate. Tango is like stepping into a time warp back to when gender roles were strictly defined; black and white. I was a fish out of water. My role was to “follow” , walking backwards, and be completely open to a stranger. It is not choreographed, instead it is a flow of action/reaction. I was stiff, and untrusting. You were supposed to wait to be asked to dance. It was frowned on for a woman to ask a man. There was always more women than men, so there was a lot of waiting. I was struggling physically and mentally by something so outside of my wheelhouse. Why was I doing this?
My aha moment came one night when I was frustrated at how forcefully my partner was pushing me. He would ask my body to perform a move, but not wait for me to finish. It was crowded, I was surrounded by the wildly swinging spiked heels of other women, and he was moving so chaotically my legs were tangling. I was afraid I would either be gouged by a kick I couldn’t see to avoid (Remember, all this is backwards.) or I might twist an ankle. I tried to push against his momentum to slow him, he responded with more force and speed. In desperation I submitted completely and pressed my chest into his. And, voila, he slowed. The instant peace that it brought to the dance made me realize that my femininity was not something I should fear. Here, on the dance floor, it had power. I enjoyed dressing up to dance, then just dressing up because I could. I love dressing up now. It feels fun. I prefer dresses and skirts to pants. I like that they flow. People who know me now would never believe I was often called Mister or Sir in the past. I don’t think I could be mistaken for a boy. I used to try and keep my hips from swaying when I walked. I didn’t want to be noticed as a sexual being. Now I don’t think about it. I just am.
Today I am learning another new skill set. I am taking a Combat Pilates class. I had learned that submission is not death from tango. Now I want to experience active, controlled flow. I am back to the drawing board, and my brain is again on fire. ( So are my muscles! Boy am I out of shape.) I am challenged and I am loving it. How will this new set of practiced movements inform me? How will it once again alter how I move in my world? I had a moment that gave me both a hint and inspiration. I was told to started curled on my back in a fetal position roll forward onto my feet with my hands in front of my body at the ready, then roll back down to roll up again. I did as I was instructed, consciously thinking of how I would need to move to achieve this. I did not know the why. I would not have thought to move this way without being told to. Then the instructor explained the movement teaches a way to fall in order to roll back up. As she said this I was in motion and was struck with an awareness so powerful it was like lightening struck. My brain made the connection with my body on how this would give me the ability to defend myself, to escape, to survive. I felt as if a door I had never known was closed was opened to me. I felt so alive. I felt free.