Get Up and Dance: AEPL 2015 Conference Reflection

Only five minutes into the opening plenary and my body is rejoicing. Dick Graves and Sherry Swain have coaxed AEPL members to their feet, first to participate in a freestyle dance and then to join a partner dance to Janis Joplin’s soulful singing of “Bobby McGee.” There is neither talking nor formal introduction. Just full body participation.

“Yes,” my own body sings along with Janis, “Feeling good is good enough for me too!”

What a way to open a conference. What other academic conference recognizes and engages bodies on their own terms, frees them from verbally argumentative minds, opens them to childlike encounter with other bodies, and gives them the time, space, and permission to feel good for a moment? What other academic conference invites members from the outset to fully inhabit their bodies?

An AEPL conference is never about sitting long hours on one’s bum listening to talking heads with overactive brains holding forth from session to session. How quickly the bones and muscles weary of the mental toil, clever arguments, and ceaseless talking and sitting. How stiff the body grows from neglect, a stiffness that begins quietly in the hamstrings, spreads like a poison to the lower back, grips the neck and shoulders, and culminates in a full-body protest. And the body is right to protest its marginalization and non-participation. At AEPL, though, the body in all of its mammalian glory is unashamedly welcome. At what other conference can one feel perfectly natural about appearing in yoga attire before colleagues for two full conference days in order to explore the pedagogical possibilities of breath and movement for the writing classroom? At what other conference in our discipline does body/heart matter as much as mind/intellect, doing as much as thinking?

Each morning, before the scheduled sessions, Carly Sachs and D’vorah Kost led yoga practice in the Fireside Room at Deer Ridge Lodge. Standing in mountain pose in the early morning hours amid the peaks of the Rockies, I relished the effortlessness of finding the pose and embodying the qualities of the mountain: stability, majesty and rootedness. The gifts of this pose do not come as freely when I practice it on the great rolling plains of Kansas where I make my home. It was as if a special grace were upon us in that mountain place.

One description in the conference schedule that captured my eye was D’vorah Kost’s HeartBrain workshop. It promised, through sound, story, movement, and play, to lead participants to a “deeper embodiment and expression of self and community.” A tall promise indeed and one that did not disappoint. By the end of the workshop, I had descended into a depth where emotional life, spirit, and bodily being run together. Under D’vorah’s guidance, words like “trust” and “letting go,” “connection” and “nonresistance to what is,” became lived experiences in the body. And while I cannot speak for others, I sense that some of them felt this too.

I offer the following snapshot: The afternoon is warm. A dozen or so of us abandon our sandals and sneakers to the perimeter of the Fireside Room and throw open the windows to allow the breeze to stream through. (We could not know then that we were abandoning more than our shoes—we were abandoning the goal-seeking self, the ceaseless mind, and the limits these impose on what we can experience.) D’vorah begins by easing our awareness back into the body, inviting us to stretch, shake, walk, twist, breathe, bend, and self-massage. Within minutes, my own body is awake to its life. My jaw is soft, hips open, shoulders relaxed, and my breathing slow and deep. Sometimes in pairs, other times in a group, we create body movements and sculptures suggested by words like “HeartBrain” or “green.” At one point, we even build a 12-person body sculpture. It is our task to discover through the body what the term “HeartBrain” means. Nobody shrinks from the touch of the other, as D’vorah has opened a free and friendly space for connection and is tending it. Everyone in the room seems to be absorbed in the present moment with the intensity and focus of a child at play.

One activity involves arranging ourselves in pairs, with one person assuming the role of the sighted partner and the other the role of the non-sighted. We are to walk around the room and after some moments exchange roles. At first, everyone clumps together in the middle of the space. We are stiff and tentative, the sighted person steering the wrist or lower back of the blind person like a tugboat pushing a barge down a narrow channel crowded with other barges. Very clumsy we appear in this navigation as we squeeze by one another. Then we exchange roles, then partners, and do it again, each time easing up on the tightness, all the while unaware of the trust that swells silently beneath us and that will carry us out to sea.

And out to sea we go. At some point, we slip through the cramped channel and whirl out into the deeps. Gone are the barges and tugboats, replaced by nimble human bodies. The bodily movements and expressions become as countless as the waves. What a thing of beauty it is to observe bodies cresting in rhythm and diversity. D’vorah instructs us to choose a role and remain in it for several cycles. I choose the role of not seeing, so I stop and stand, alone and vulnerable, waiting for a guide to appear, my hands thrust out and palms stretched open. The helplessness and uncertainty I feel ignites a surprising memory, an ancient fear recorded in the cells of my body. Am I all alone? Will I be forsaken here? A guide appears— Man? Woman? Other? (I cannot tell)–grazing his/her fingertips across my palms and down the length of my fingers until all fingertips kiss and hands fold together. Warm that touch feels. Whose is it? I wonder. And then the one with warm touch presses my hands to sides and sweeps them high above both of our heads, as if tracing the arcing path of the moon. It feels liberating to allow this stretch, so I consent to be led in dance, and the wondrous gliding and twirling begins, my arms, hands, and fingertips, following my guide’s swirling movements, the long arcs, the proliferating circles and spirals. Then feet consent and join in the dance too, waltzing along down a winding staircase around the fixed center of my trustworthy guide. And he or she (who is this anyways?) is dipping and turning, and I follow, pirouetting. Where did I learn to pirouette like this? And who is this artist holding me? And why do I feel myself falling into a reassuring vastness where everything is perfectly and deliciously out of my control?

It is a sweet mystery this mountain dancing with friends. They too appear to be absorbed in the concrete immediacy of the moment, and later I would wonder if they found the dance to be full of everything they needed: love, trust, connection, and the full body awareness of being held and supported in a sweet mystery. Later I would recollect in tranquility the bodily sensations of being chosen, led, and held in dance by a Beloved, stripped free of the compulsion to interfere with or control. Whatever neurons were firing together during that dance, I knew I wanted them, needed them, to wire together permanently, so I sat in silence remembering and soaking in those bodily feelings, lingering in the aura of the awareness they brought.

D’vorah handed us an unexpected gift that afternoon, a full body awareness, a grounded intuitive knowledge of trust and letting go, of being done unto, an enlarging encounter with life. I may never again meet the partner with whom I shared that dance (or the other partners who came and went), but the twelve of us know we shared an intimate and childlike hour. As for myself, I know that something wondrous found and held me in that hour and showed me who I am and what life is. And that does not happen at just any conference.

Fittingly, the conference ended as it had begun: in dance. Yvonne Siu-Runyan led us in the hula, but by this time, I had drunk the sangria and my higher faculties were sufficiently dulled. I do remember the energy of the hula though, the celebration and the friendship, and how we carried these energies off to the local cowboy bar where we drank and laughed and danced some more …and how Bruce bought me a glass of sweet red wine… and how D’vorah and I sat shoulder to shoulder in a parked car talking into the night about the things that matter to a woman in the second half of life. But I won’t tell here of these moments of old friendships resumed and new ones begun, for they are too numerous to report. This too is what happens at AEPL.

It feels good to begin an academic conference in the body and to stay in it clear through to the end. I could have written here of the many intellectual takeaways from the conference, but I will leave that to others. Instead I offer this snapshot of one deeply gratified body.

Dance much. Love much.

Marguerite Regan, Newman University

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