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Life is a Contact Improv a post by Ava Riby-Williams

The joys of supporting, being supported... and the potential unseen pitfalls of the patriarchy?

Men: do you struggle to let yourself be held and supported? Is this a symptom of the patriarchy, which creates an impenetrable, yet self-destructing, toxic masculinity? Apologies for the heavy start there...

I went to a dance class today and it evolved into a contact improvisation session. I actually went to a similar session last week at a different place in London. In both sessions there was a focus on reciprocity, which felt like a tonic to bring me into the sacred and powerful present:

we are seen,

we are felt,

we are in relation

and we are responded to.

I am not a dancer by profession. I rarely go to classes, but I often shake in the kitchen, wriggle on train platforms and marvel at the joy of being able to express and release with this body. It strikes me that Contact Improv and the kind of Contemporary Dance that I’ve experienced are pathways to exiting the gift shop of the mind and having a conversation with bodies: with hearts.

In life we lean on each other. There’s no use denying that we require the support and energy of each others to grow, to work and play. Before the food that I eat gets to my plate, it has been through so many hands and lives. Before I reach work in the morning, my own life has been in the hands of my bus driver, or the many drivers on the road as I cycle past. My teachers support me in my teaching of others. We all lean in order to live.

In both of the Contact Improv sessions that I’ve been to in the last week or so, we moved in partners; leaning, falling, rolling, supporting each other. There’s a level of surrender required. A decision to not decide.

I’m going to be in this moment with you, even though neither of us know what it’s going to look like, and I’m going to try to meet you as an equal, with no objective to solely lead or solely follow. It’s going to be an energy conversation.

To bend and recline on someone’s back with arms open wide made me feel like I was flying. In those moments, it was as if I had chosen to fling all of my fears out into the wind and dance like The Fool on the clifftop of life. When one person decides to “take hold of the reigns” to make sure that there are no slip ups or no stumbles, ensuring that both people stick to their “roles” in the dance, the thing is suddenly wooden. We slide our hands against the grain. Splintered, there is an element of play and connection between us which is lost.

As I improvised with different partners in the sessions, I noticed that in my partnering with different men, I felt an unwillingness from them for our body weights to equally meet and a sense of performance in constantly acting as the weight bearer.

It frustrated me.

We’re playing a game and you won’t play! I thought to myself.

Is it because you think me weak and incapable of supporting you?

Why is it that you’re so used to the idea of me falling and needing support, but you don’t want to receive support yourself?

To hold someone’s body weight in the improv, where you’re usually either near or on the ground, in constant and mindful contact, it’s not brute strength required for the person acting as support in any given moment. Even when the “fly” is fully reclining on the “base’s” back, it’s a balancing of weight, a stacking of bones and leaning into trust...I wanted to offer that experience to all of my partners and I felt it was a shame that the men I worked with were not open to feeling that. It made me feel (forgive me if this seems like an over-reaction) unworthy and a bit useless.

Imagine that I open up to you about an issue I’m facing because I feel that there is a certain amount of trust built between us. Next week, you open up to me about your own journey as a result of my faith in your ability to hold space for my own opening, and so our relation continues to deepen. You support me, and I support you. It is our holding of one another which allows us to actually be more free from our own struggles and isolated hardship. It actually feels good for me to be able to support you in this way because I’ve experienced how valuable support can be. As long as I feel that my boundaries are being honoured and you’re not expecting me to consistently carry your whole body weight, I feel a certain fulfilment of our connection and confirmation of my own worth in offering my help and having it received...I guess this need for my own worth to be confirmed by someone else is also partly my own story that I must delve into more deeply. Nevertheless, these sentiments unfolded with all of the bodies in today’s dance class for me, and I was amazed at how it mirrored what I’m learning about courage and vulnerability at the mo from Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly.

In my life so far on multiple occasions, I am lucky enough to have been a grateful recipient of support: emotional, moral, energetic and financial. But even in receiving this support, at times I’ve felt shame: shame at not having been able to “do it on my own”. On some occasions, whilst receiving support from my Dad in particular, I have internalised deep shame as a result of observing his unwillingness to actually accept support himself, whilst being such a supportive bedrock of my childhood. “It must be a sign of weakness” I thought to myself. “If I need support it must mean that I’m not as brave, not as note-worthy because I have needed someone to lean on”.

Maybe this is a way in which men suffer from the cultural expectations which are put upon them to be strong, to “have their shit together”, and never to falter: they are less likely to experience the joy of surrender and the delicacy of response that is unattached to outcome.

I know that falling, and being vulnerable is scary for everyone. I definitely also fear that I might slip, say something wrong, lose love and even land on my face. What I wish for everyone, men included, is for us to see falling as a passage to learning, and leaning not as a weakness, but as a prerequisite for finding a sense of belonging and connection.

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