Entangled bodies (PC: Paul Spielman. I’m in white-purple stripe)

The dances you bring

Notes on my dancing life

When I was in high school, I was obsessed with learning to breakdance. I got countless bruises and even injuries along the way to master some cool power moves. Breakdance resonated with a phase of my life where I was obsessed with mastery and self-improvement. Life was about making progress.

Thanks goodness I burned out, injured my shoulder (“break” dance, right) and quit. I realized what I loved the most about dance was the sense of togetherness, which the solo pursuit of power moves didn’t satisfy.

Then came Contact Improvisation, a beautiful art form that I started getting into since last year. Contact Improv has no goal, and it requires listening to our body, our partner(s) as well as the floor. Its playful, open and non-goal orientation is vastly different from the mastery attitude of my younger self. Dancing also complements well with my introspective tendency of writing and reading. Very importantly, it teaches me about the pleasure of touch.

I also enjoyed going to Ecstatic Dance, a kind of free flow, expressive dance that often attracts hippies and spiritual tribes, which I love making fun of. Perhaps I do so because I do have some of those hippy spiritual blood in me too. That much for the transformation of this well-schooled, studious Vietnamese kid.

The most surprising part is the encounters I have on the dance floor. One of the extraordinary joy of dancing with this community is how many bodies I get to interact with. When people ask me about the people I meet at dance, I am tempted to describe using the common labels such as ages, sexual orientations, colors, dance backgrounds etc… Because bodies are so lovely, I try to describe in body types too: Lanky, muscular, petite, plump, delicate ones. Some are reserved, some impulsive, some like to be on their own, some found immediate affinity with others.

I remember seeing people on with wheelchairs turning their necks and dancing with their fingers to the music. At that moment, I couldn’t help but marvel at the wonder of the body, that this whole thing can move in its own unique delicacy. People who like to dance and other body-centered practices seem to understand what many of us have got backward: it is not that a person has a body. The body is the person.

The Western world, as the psychologist Ellen Langer quips, operates in the “mind/body unity” theory. Since the two are assumed to be separate, people keep searching for ways to integrate mind and body. The word we use to categorize the world influences the way we move through it. As Ellen pushes further, “it could have been mind, body, and elbow. And then we would have had a different conception of people.” It reminds me of the word “thân tâm” in Vietnamese, which means mind-body-heart. Perhaps they aren’t that separate in the first place and therefore don’t need as much re-integration.

Lots of theoretical work has been done to re-conceptualize the Western person, particularly “Philosophy in the Flesh” by the cognitive scientist George Larkoff. Yet, by and large we still operate as if they are separate. Which is why I want to share with you the dances my body has encountered on the dance floor.

The varieties of dance encounters

Some are simply beautiful. Experienced dancers who have danced with each other for a long time. Technically crisp and sound, they couple into each other into elegant aesthetics.

Some are raw, colliding, borderline playfighting, bumping against each other like joyous billiard balls. Gracefully masculine, these dances stir bold roughness in the tenderest of us.

Some are interesting, unpredictable, sometimes smooth and sometimes disruptive. Each body seamlessly explores the negative space the other creates. One movement flows into the next with unknowable inner logic, leaving delightful surprises along the way.

Some are sweet with slow, sensuous and attentive movements. When bodies hold and are held with care, worries melt away, resistance ceases, and they drop into each other’s warmth like sugar in hot water.

Some are just bodily pleasurable. It barely looks like a dance from the outside, yet between these bodies a conversation is happening, a story unraveling with delicious richness and even oomph. Some bodies just instinctively know to lie on top of one another, sharing the ebbs and flows of the bellies, squeezing and releasing the tension in each limb, toe, rib, neck.

Some are sexually charged from the get go, without even seeing who the other person is. I’ve had several of those dances, sometimes with my eyes closed. It always struck me how the body just knows. Those can be fun to experience, with little expectation yet with much delight.

Moving & grooving at Ecstatic Dance Boston (PC I-Opener dance)

Knowing with the bodies.

We may not know each other by social identity, but our bodies know each other somehow. Some of those bodies are of people older than my mom, some are like my brother’s. I remember joking with a kindred body: “I think we just invented an excuse to justify that our bodies like each other so much”. In dancing, we are making kin.

Once I started learning this language of the body, I am struck by a terrifying question: How do we ever get to know someone without their bodies? Take a moment to picture our government and business leaders in stifling ties and suits. Perhaps our countries and companies will be a lot better off if these leaders could dance with each other before. In moments of big decision, a handshake is not enough. You need the whole body, for the attuned bodies don’t lie.

Dance and the story of self

What about improvised dances that bring so much enjoyment? I think it comes as a release from our obsession with the self. The dancers I’ve met seem like they have accepted themselves in an embodied way, as if they have danced away their self-consciousness.

Once you are on the dance floor, no longer will you think in your head “I don’t know how to move” or “I worry I look awkward” or “That person doesn’t seem like they want to dance with me”. These stories are merely verbal manifestation of what the body has been conditioned with, and you can dance away those stories one movement at a time. What psychologists call “judgment”, dancers call “conditioned body responses”.

The process of opening up starts from the pre-verbal place of bodily knowing and accepting.

Learning to move is about letting the body love the dance and the dancer.

Some people tell me that dance is a way to express themselves. I am not so sure. If dance is a form of self-expression, then I don’t really know who I am.

Moments by moments, movements uncurl themselves out of somewhere. Is it from the music, from muscle memory or from the vibrations of other bodies? Or is it just the body moving for no reason. Maybe it is conversing with the thick Unknown, querying itself into existence.

For me, dance is the body listening to the whispers of space and composing with the rhythms of time. In that sense, there is no dance, there is only dance-with. Dance is not self expression as much as it is self co-creation.


Thank you for reading. If you have enjoyed this post, I’d appreciate a clap and share! Also check out my weekly newsletter, Enzyme for Thought. It is my weekly practice of wondering. In a world of too many “How To”, perhaps what we need is a bit more of “I wonder”. If you resonate, come wander with me there.