Saturday, December 5, 2015

Introducing "The Tango Provocateur"

This is the first in a series of essays about my relationship to embodiment and movement through the unlikely (those of you who know me know how unlikely this is) pursuit of Argentine Tango. Some backstory is necessary for you to appreciate what I've learned from exploring the odd range of activities and circumstances in my life that includes Osteopathy, ice-skating, Continuum Movement, cancer, and tango. The way I encounter all of these things shares a philosophical common ground that applies to everything in my life. In the coming weeks I will be establishing a new blog, to explore this new frontier in my conscious embodiment, specifically in the context of tango. "Bonnie Gintis Health Update" will continue to be a way for me to communicate with you about my health and well-being, and as an exploration of the philosophy of life that has supported my surviving and thriving, even in the face of life-threatening and disabling disease.

On a chilly day in the fall of 1989 shortly after my 33rd birthday I realized that the burden I had been dragging around beneath my head was my body, and I began to suspect that it held wonders. I knew a lot about bodies; after all, I was not just a physician, but an Osteopath. It was convenient and interesting to have a body so nearby, but I tried to not let it get in the way of my life. It invariably did anyway, and did more so as I continued to get older. It even distracted me occasionally with something pleasant or even pleasurable, so when it got my attention that fall day, I chose to listen and follow where it led me.

My body led me to an ice-skating rink in downtown Poughkeepsie, New York. “Learn To Skate” is what the marquee on the front of the building commanded me to pursue, and in a moment of slipping out of character I thought, “that’s a good idea.” I went inside and inquired about how to learn to skate. I was coincidentally just in time for a beginner’s class. They collected seven dollars, asked my shoe size, handed me a pair of navy blue plastic skates and pointed to the far end of the ice, where traffic cones walled off a corridor. I was perplexed about how to get there. I asked if there was there a special walkway for beginners. Could I walk around to a backdoor that would let me in the far side of the rink by the lesson area? When they told me I had to skate to get there, I burst into tears, overwhelmed by the decades of ignored and unresolved fright, fragility, hopelessness, helplessness, and clumsiness of my physically awkward childhood.

I fumbled with my wobbly and extremely uncomfortable blue plastic rental skates. I managed to get them on, and then desperately gripping the railing, shuffled to the lesson area. I arrived red-in-the-face, tears dripping down my cheeks, to meet the instructor and the six other members of my class, all eight to twelve-year-old girls.

Within an hour I could push off with the side of my blade and glide on one foot. I could turn a corner by tilting my outstretched “airplane wing” arms. I realized that if I began gliding in the trajectory of a circle that I ended up spiraling in towards the center. I became fascinated with spiraling and spinning. It felt so good to glide on the ice and move in such unexpected ways that I forgot about being self-conscious. I stopped caring about what my teacher and classmates thought of me and the people watching us from the other side of the traffic cones disappeared.

The friction of a moving blade on the surface of the ice melts a drop of water beneath it. The skate blade sluices across the thin trace created by this freshly melted ice water between the blade and the rink’s frozen surface. The interface of the movement of my body, the blade, the liquid water, and the ice created sacred shapes. My mind quieted and all I could do was feel the emergence of circles and spirals between my body and the frozen water. What had been frozen into my body began to melt and move from me into the ice. I felt my past become the foundation on top of which I skated.

My intellect had objectified my body and walled “it” off from my experience for most of my life. There is no actual “it” in this story. I had fractured myself into pieces, dissociated, and objectified my own body. I’m not sure why I did this, but I trust that there was some good reason for my young survival mechanism to create this strategy and agenda. What once might have helped me get through something difficult was being perpetuated for too long, far beyond its necessity and was now hindering me from experiencing life fully. In moments of bliss on ice, I felt my sensation of embodiment shift back into phase with my sense of wholeness.

I regularly ice skated year-round for about 7 years, until I found myself living too far from ice to rationalize the drive. I became bored with the repetitive nature of the few things I had learned to do while balanced on a blade. Skating was technically so difficult to execute that I rarely felt free to express myself fully without risk of falling. I had reached a plateau of learning and creativity due to some combination of the limits of my free time, my body’s natural limits of strength, balance, and flexibility, and the threshold of my capacity to assimilate any more kinesthetic learning of this particular form. My interest faded, but I still yearned to listen deeply and feel my own movement unfold.  My relationship to my body was only beginning and I needed a new venue to explore embodiment.

This is around the time I met Emilie Conrad, and for those of you who don’t know that story, please read my book! (click here to buy a copy)

Twenty years later, lying in bed with breast cancer eating away at my bones, I did what many dying people do; I pondered my regrets. Astor Piazzola’s “Oblivion” ( could have been the soundtrack of this ordeal. In the early days after my diagnosis, the pain was so excruciating that I could barely breathe. I had to minimize the movements of my inhalation and exhalation. The tumors in my crumbling sternum and ribs wreaked havoc with this primal movement and I learned to adapt by breathing deeply into my belly without moving my chest. 

I silently pondered and surveyed my life. I had no serious regrets, but I wished I had learned to speak another language when I was young enough to have been fluent. Now it was too late and seemed somewhat irrelevant and not worth the energy.

I also wished I had learned to dance with a partner, but no dance ever called out to me. I could never get past the conventional gender roles with which you had to agree to participate. Most ballroom dances seemed exceedingly stiff and structured. Swing dance was too athletic and seemed frivolous. Salsa struck me as too fast and peppy for a zaftig Jewish girl like me. I tried Contact Improvisation, but it frequently led to what felt like a "puppy pile" and a lot of projection of people's needs on other dancers. Argentine Tango is what always got my attention. I found the music deeply moving. It’s probably best that I couldn’t understand Spanish so that I wasn’t turned off by many of the songs that have melodramatic and dated lyrics. Learning this very difficult dance seemed out of my limited reach as I contemplated my cancerous decline.

I told myself that these regrets were not so bad; I had lived a full life and done my best. I had loved well. I hadn’t done too badly in the thinking realm either. I achieved great things in my professional life. I was generous with my friends and family, and cared for other people for a living. It was in the domain of feeling that I had always been challenged. My tendency was to feel too much, too little, or the wrong thing for the situation at hand. Because physical and emotional pain so dominated the feeling realm of my early life I tended to avoid emotions and sensations that might bring my suffering into the forefront of my attention.

Perhaps it was this avoidance that allowed me to miss the growing presence of cancer as it spread. I quickly dismissed this possibility because it only led to more regrets during a time when I was soul-searching to decrease my burden. Why blame myself for the way things are? There's no way of knowing how or why some things happen. I realized that if I was going to make it through this ordeal I had to learn to be in a state of nonjudgmental acceptance without the emotional charge of self-blame. I have spent the past 6 years cultivating this state of acceptance. It has allowed me to live with the presence of cancer in my body without emotionally (and physically) decompensating. This acceptance of the way things are has guided the choices I make and the way I care for myself. Surrender to the course of my life has profoundly deepened my appreciation for each precious moment.

This acceptance has also allowed me to get curious about dancing Argentine Tango. My teacher, Tomás Howlin, likens tango to moving meditation, but points out that in meditation you can sit there sometimes looking as if you are meditating, while actually daydreaming and fooling yourself and others. In tango, if your attentiveness to the moment wavers for a second, the connection with your partner and the music is interrupted and the dance is lost. Tango is meditation with instant feedback. 

Tango requires a willingness to be uncomfortable and has increased my capacity to endure discomfort. This discomfort arises as you see all your habits and ways of being that don’t serve you in this dance where relationship, listening, and connection are foundational. The saying, “wherever you go, there you are” sums it up. All of your habits in relationship, compensations, and avoidances that you’ve made work in the rest of your life, show up as impediments to the dance. And in turn, the dance offers a chance to finally examine and let go of these strategies that don’t really work. The gift of tango is freedom, but you have to climb an extremely steep slope to obtain it.

Tango without courage and vulnerability is nothing but a technical performance, like a movie set that has striking visual effect, but no actual depth. This dance is spontaneous, improvisational, precise, and intimate, an unlikely combination of attributes. It has its awkward and occasionally painful moments, but the rewards make it all worthwhile. There is amazing pleasure in being able to communicate intention and movement and to share creativity within a constantly changing shape of space. Tango offers a way to live with uncertainty and meet the unknown with grace and fluidity. 

Occasionally and usually unexpectedly, a blissful and transcendent dance unfolds. Two dancers seamlessly communicate and respond to each other and the music joins them as a third and equal partner. This joy is the reward for patience, presence, and persistence. I don't mean the kind of transcendence in which you leave your body. What I mean is an embodied transcendence that transforms everything in its path to Grace. 

Osteopathy taught me to listen to and engage with other people's bodies. Ice skating awoke in me the desire to move. Continuum Movement taught me to listen to my own body and my environment, and to explore the mysteries of movement, stillness, breath and health. Cancer teaches me to stay and surrender to the necessity of the moment. Tango combines all this life experience as I learn to listen, to lead, and to follow in new and unexpected ways.

(In the coming weeks, you can find more about embodied tango as a personal and radical political act at