I started ballet lessons at the age of three, and by the time I was 13 I was dying to go up on pointe. For those of you who don’t know, this is the glorious transition of a ballerina from ballet slippers to pointe shoes. It didn’t matter to me about the hot, itchy lambs wool that would need to be wrapped around my toes, or that there was a possibility that my feet would become deformed and blistered, or that I would have bunions like my grandmother, or that my toes looked like they were six inches long. I would gaze longingly at the pink satin pointe shoes of the girls that would come in after my class ended, the beautiful ribbons that would decorate their ankles, the exquisite half-moon shapes they would create with the arches of their feet, and how they would twirl on the tips of their toes as if they were suspended on invisible strings. Looking down at my black plastic shoes with the elastic straps across my feet I thought, “This cannot be it.” I kept asking my teacher, “When can I go up on pointe?” She would continually hold me at bay by telling me I simply wasn’t ready yet, until finally she broke the news. “Elizabeth, you’re just too tall to be a dancer.” I believed her, and I quit.
Flash forward to August 2008. I was turning 40 and wanted nothing more than to spend it at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California where I journeyed twice before from Dallas within the previous eight months. Beyond the lush lawn that invited long naps in the sun, the delicious organic food, and the mineral-rich natural hot springs from the Saint Lucia mountains, Esalen had become my spiritual home, a magical retreat, the kind of place where you have to be careful what you wish for because the potency of the land is so ripe with manifestation. The Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls, Moshe Feldenkrais’ somatic method, Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms practice, and Ida Pauline Rolf’s bodywork technique, are only a few of the countless pioneer movements that were nurtured at Esalen, leaving indelible marks on the landscape of human potential. The visionary spirit that lingers in the soil of the grounds is palpable. In considering this significant celebration, it didn’t even matter what workshop I attended, but lo and behold there was a workshop with Spiritweaves, a dance practice lead by the facilitators Anneli and Michael Molin-Skelton. When I called to make the reservation, the woman who took my information asked me if I had ever danced with Anneli and Michael before. I told her no. (I was too big to be a dancer, remember?) She assured me, “They are delightful. Very special. You will love it.” I trusted Esalen, so I went.
I arrived at this dance without expectation, without a deep longing or a thirst to be quenched, not seeking yet another pathway to the truth. As a yogi for 14 years, I didn’t recognize a need for another practice. I simply followed the part of me that loves to dance. I stepped into the container of the dance space and my body instantly began to move. Before my mind could protest, I found myself on the floor rolling my spine and exploring the boundaries of my edges, then up on my feet, running furiously around the room, taking on shapes that were unfamiliar, buoyant, confident, and completely free. We danced for an extended period of time in silence. No prompting, no direction, no urging from Anneli and Michael. Instead they created space, and then held it for us, and allowed us to breathe in it for a while, to explore. The music was impeccable. They weaved in and out of us in their own dance, introducing us to their humility and their vulnerability, and their genuine desire to share their love of this practice with us. Within a very short time, I realized that my identity, my ego, any part of me that clung to my sense of self-importance was absent. The Divine was being expressed in my movements. This was prayer.
From that first experience with Anneli and Michael, I have danced with them time and time again, and each time I do, into their open arms I begin to drop in to greet myself, that familiar face at the window of my soul who often becomes a stranger to me between dances. They keep me safe while I run into the darkness of the secrets that my body has been holding, creating a space where I can be receptive to all that arises without binding me with rules, or tutus, or barre pliés. That darkness, they say, “is just one part of us, and the more we can embrace those parts of ourselves, the more we can be fully self-expressed.” Through their own study of 5Rhythms and Soul Motion practices, they invite us into a seemingly endless repertoire of exercises that evoke transformation and healing, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to articulate the ones that have impacted me the most. So I’ll just share the one that I’ll never forget.
During one of our five-day retreats at Esalen, Anneli and Michael led us through a wave of music that was long and deep. I came to the end of it feeling especially open, and my mind intensely quiet. They invited us to make what they called “soul cards”. Around the room they had placed groupings of magazines, picture books, glue, scissors, X-acto knives, and stacks of five by eight-inch boards made from heavy cardstock. Their guidance was to begin by flipping through the magazines and books, and tear out anything that spoke to us – words, images, colors. They asked us not to intellectualize the experience, or try to analyze why we were attracted to certain things. Instead they gave us permission to let our creativity be expressed in the cards.
That evening we gathered in a circle after Anneli and Michael led us through another wave of music. They asked us to bring one of our soul cards to the circle with us, and explained the nature of the exercise. When we were called (which, by the way, is always a caveat that Anneli and Michael lay down at the beginning of every exercise), we were invited (another caveat) to enter the circle with our soul card, and take a shape that expressed the essence of how the card spoke to us. At that point, we were to be joined in the circle by at least two other dancers who would take on the same shape. From there we were asked to speak the words, “I am the one who…” and then finish the sentence with a word that organically completed it. The direction was to do so, again, without intellectualizing, as raw of an expression as possible.
I was eventually inspired to move to the center of the circle with my soul card. The shape that my body took on was similar to a child’s pose in yoga, hips at the heels, forehead on the floor, shoulders rounded forward, arms draped at my sides, hands near my feet, and palms facing upwards. Michael called several dancers to come out on the floor and take the same shape. Slowly my body began to uncurl, and I started to stand up on my knees with my arms hanging by my side. Out of my mouth came, “I am the one who was left behind.” I stood up a little taller on my knees and my arms raised up over my head, and I screamed, “I am the one who knows that if I’m not perfect, you’ll leave me!” With that, Michael cued the other dancers around me to begin to chant, “I AM NOT PERFECT. I AM NOT PERFECT. I AM NOT PERFECT.” And from there, he said, “Liz, I want you to dance imperfection.” My heart was pounding out of my chest in gripping fear, yet in that instant, I was crisply aware that it was the time to face this demon, to dispel the story that the only way to be worthy was to be perfect. So I let go, in a way that I hadn’t let go before. I stumbled. I was off beat. I didn’t care what it looked like. I let myself be seen by the other dancers and most importantly, by my teachers, the ones who I was certain would disapprove. I allowed the fear of being left behind to move my body and my breath. I loved myself inside this feeling of imperfection. At the end of the dance, I stood at the back of the circle and looked at the other dancers. They stopped chanting. Michael said, “Take a look around. You are not perfect, and they are still here.” I stood there as long as I needed to stand there, and I wept. Too tall to be a dancer? I think not.
To say that their gifts are immeasurable, that their partnership in life is inspiring, that their ability to hold space is impeccable, that their compassion, generosity, and love is boundless, would diminish the gratitude I hold in my heart for their presence in my life. Instead I will merely invite you to dance with Anneli and Michael. In the words of David Whyte, “Sometimes with the bones of the black sticks left when the fire has gone out, someone has written something new in the ashes of your life. You are not leaving. You are arriving.”
Anneli and Michael will be in Dallas August 6th through 8th at the Sammons Center for the Arts. To register, contact Monica Blossom Hochberg at 214/597-6800 and/or visit www.flowetryinmotion.com. For more information about Spiritweaves, visit www.spiritweaves.com.