MORE Magazine - A Cure for Shame
By Jan Jarboe Russell | MORE Magazine :: November, 2008
"I felt certain that I would bend stiffly and sway as if stricken. But when the music began, I let my legs go loose and dropped my shoulders, and in that moment, the skeleton in the closet, the one I had buried in childhood, came alive. By the end of that first class, I was tired and shiny with sweat but I felt the hum of happiness, and I knew: This is for me."
Jan Jarboe Russell, Author of "Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson"
Jan Jarboe Russell spent her life loathing her body. Then she discovered the physical – and sacred – power of dance. Download the article or read the text below for the full story.
I grew up in a Southern Baptist home where dancing was prohibited. In the winter of 1957, I was 6 years old, one of those kids CBS tried to protect by shooting Elvis Presley only from the waist up for fear that the sight of his gyrating pelvis on The Ed Sullivan Show would overstimulate what were euphemistically called our physical impulses. CBS need not have worried about me. Preacher after preacher had told me that my body was a vessel for the glory of God. I believed them, and I came to see my body as something to be despised, a mere suitcase that carried my brain, my spirit -- and all my dangerous emotions.
I remember a Friday night in sixth grade when most of my friends went to the Methodist church for a sock hop. I spent the evening on the back porch, staring at the stars and begging God to let me live my life free of bodily concerns. Instead of feeling deprived, I felt morally superior.
Today I look back at that overly pious 13-year-old who longed for a disembodied life, and I think: Be careful what you pray for. The year after the sock hop, I was unprepared when one hot afternoon I started my menstrual cycle. The sight of my blood was terrifying. I thought I was dying. My mother assured me I was not, but her explanation was not comforting. "Every month?" I asked plaintively. "This thing will happen to me every month?" Now my body was unfathomable.
As a young woman, I avoided not only unpleasant sensations, such as jittery nerves from too much caffeine, but also pleasurable ones -- even those as simple as deep, slow breaths. Denied the respect it deserved, my body slowly extracted its own revenge -- mysterious aches and pains, a punitive relationship to food, cyclical dieting, shame about sex, and constant weariness.
I married at 30, and not long after that my gynecologist discovered large fibroid tumors in my uterus. Five surgeries later, I came to terms with the fact that I would be unable to bear children -- or, at least, I intellectually came to terms with it. My husband and I adopted a baby girl in 1984 and a boy in 1987. I have loved my life as a mother. But secretly, I felt branded by the harsh biblical term for infertile women: barren.
My husband and I split up shortly before my 43rd birthday. Deep in a post-divorce funk, I complained to my friend Naomi Shihab Nye, who is a poet, about feeling depressed and out of sorts. Naomi invited me to try Nia, a type of exercise that incorporates jazz, modern, and Duncan (spontaneous) dance, along with yoga moves and blocks and kicks from martial arts. "I think I love Nia so much because I feel my body and spirit humming together in harmony," Naomi told me. "Nia always clicks my heart right back into my body and makes my body snap back to happiness. There's a fluency in it that feels like language, like silence, like music, like breath."
Just before this conversation, I'd had a dream in which I was standing in front of a dark closet. I opened the door and found a skeleton inside. To my surprise, the skeleton was shimmying and shaking like a very happy hula girl. So when Naomi made her suggestion, I was open to it.
Waiting for my first class to start, I looked around and saw a lot of middle-aged women, none of them ideal physical specimens and a few as ungainly as I was. Instantly I relaxed, thankful that this would not be a competition. The teacher said that dance is one of the few tangible ways we can change our mood and improve ourselves. Then she added, "Only those who need this work are driven to it."
I felt certain that I would bend stiffly and sway as if stricken. But when the music began, I let my legs go loose and dropped my shoulders, and in that moment, the skeleton in the closet, the one I had buried in childhood, came alive. By the end of that first class, I was tired and shiny with sweat, but I felt the hum of happiness, and I knew: This is for me.
Instead of working out to burn calories and physically exhaust myself, I started moving for sheer pleasure. The process of physical and emotional self-discovery, of surrendering my masochistic, shame-filled attitude about my body, had begun.
Initially, dancing an hour a day seemed impossible in terms of my schedule. But I soon saw it differently: It's because I'm so busy that I need the daily commitment to my own movement. Eventually I lost 15 pounds, but not by depriving myself. Food became a source of nourishment instead of something to fear. My stamina increased. I slept soundly at night. My resting heart rate went from 75 beats a minute to 65.
I also overcame a strong resistance to making noise. I'd felt foolish shouting "Hey!" or "Hah!" while kicking and throwing punches. Then I recognized that I was scared of the sound of my own voice resonating through my body. Now these exclamations feel explosive and powerful. The physical expression of any emotion -- sadness or elation, anxiety or tranquility -- is my way of staying close to my heart.
After dancing for five years, I became certified to teach Nia. I've continued my training, all the way to a black belt, and I lead three classes a week.
Last year Prissy Atherton, one of my longtime students, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at age 65. Prissy was one of those beautiful, well-mannered women, with a cap of gray hair and neutral polish on her nails. Prior to her illness, she'd danced to maintain her good looks. When I went to visit her, Prissy said that even though she was weak, she still danced a little at home every day. "I feel myself gently leaving," she told me. "My body is so vulnerable. Moving is precious to me."
I confided to Prissy that as a 13-year-old I'd believed a lie: that my body was inherently flawed. Now I understand that underneath the fear of my basic physical needs was an interior deadness, a terrifying lake of lifelessness that was the primary source of my misery. It was death in all its forms that I feared. The simple truth is that it is physically impossible to feel dead while moving.
Prissy was a believer, a spiritual woman. That day we talked about the need to create our own ordinary sacraments in daily life. One definition of a sacrament is that it is a physical reality through which the divine makes its presence felt. The need for communion with what's holy seems to be essential to us humans. Our brains and body are hardwired for it. Much of our yearning for material things is a disguised form of hunger for this contact with the numinous. Through dance, I make this connection. In the end, I dance to heal an old religious wound, to experience the pleasure of moving as a sacred act, not something shameful. I dance to free myself from the sin of not dancing.
A month or so before she died, I arranged for Prissy to go to the Nia studio after hours. She was in a wheelchair by then, but she rolled it onto the floor and let her feet, hands, and head move freely, allowing what Prissy called her life force to express itself. I was not there to witness it, but the name of the room where we do Nia is Laughter, and Prissy later assured me that laughter had been part of her final dance. "Thank you," she said a few days later. "It was a blast."
Jan Jarboe Russell is the author of "Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson." She teaches Nia at the Synergy Studio in San Antonio, Texas.