Parkinson’s, Fear and Transforming Both with Dance

love knows no bounds

Slumped over the steering wheel I wondered “What am I afraid of?”. Not being enough, probably. My year had already been filled with so much loss. Now, having to face my dear friend’s decline due to advanced Parkinson’s seemed more than I could bare.

“What do I want to give my friend?” I thought next. Getting out of the car, I resolved to give her my full attention. I simply wanted to be there for her. Nothing else mattered.

Marguerite’s home nurse greeted me at the door, warning me that she was having a particularly bad day. Approaching her room, my anxiety returned. I ignored it.

She lay on her side, eyes closed, even though she was awake. She seemed uncomfortable. Her nurse shared that she was feeling less pain than earlier that day. Her arms, tucked neatly under her pillow, contrasted with her legs. They moved forward and out in random movements from beneath the bedsheets.

Sitting beside her, I placed my hand on the metal bed rail and stayed there for some time. Her eyes remained closed while the nurse let her know I was at her bedside. Reaching to move a strand of her chestnut gray hair from her forehead, Marguerite opened her eyes and managed a smile.

Taking my hand into hers, she asked me how I was. She then gestured to her CD player, asking me to play something from Cuba. I put on Celia Cruz, one of her favorite singers.

She asked me to dance for her. So I did.

I danced the dance of Oshun, the goddess and archetype of love and the river according to the Afro-Cuban religion, Santeria. Ochun’s movements brought joy in the room. I made large and small movements trying to fill the space with Ochun’s energy, being mindful to not get carried away by the music. Marguerite’s love of dance was so pure, it was as if she were dancing we me.

Half way through the song, Marguerite asked her nurse to help her sit up. As she did, her toes touched the floor. I pulled up a chair and brought Oshun’s dance between us. Random leg movements became deliberate and under her control as she tapped out the song’s rhythm in perfect time. I joined her foot tapping with my own. The nurse joined too, and tapped the rhythm on her lap. We danced together.

Marguerite returned to bed for some much needed rest. Her eyes – full of life. We hugged goodbye and I promised not to wait so long before I returning.

As I drove away, I realized that it’s not whether I believe I’m enough or not enough. It’s in trusting that in focusing on love, the world opens and with it, more courage, more patience, more love. Even in years full of loss.

(Update: So incredibly happy to share that as of the writing of this post, Marguerite’s strength has returned. Miracles really do happen.)

Dance to Listen Better – What I Learned in Cuba

The following post recounts an experience I had during my first of many trips to Cuba from 1999 – 2012.
Dancing Man in Havana“Quiero una cerveza,” I tell the bartender

“Crystal o Bucanero?” he asks.

The two main beers of Cuba, one on the lighter side, the other, slightly more dark. Dame una Crystal,” I say with the pleasure that comes from being able to make a choice uncomplicated by having too many options.

Pouring the beer into a half-chilled glass, I suck it down. It’s a hot day in Havana. Just then an older gentleman approaches from a nearby table. Quieres bailar?” he asks with subdued confidence.

“Gracias, pero no hay musica,” I tell him, looking around the bar then back at him for agreement.

“No importa. Venga,” the gentleman replies, his right arm reaching out towards me.

Josef is a tall slender man, who looks part African and part Asian. He has strong lines on either side of his mouth that deepen when he grins revealing yellow-stained front teeth rimmed with gold. Despite this and the slight reek of cigar smoke, he’s enchanting. “Bueno,” I nod in acceptance.

He takes my hand and escorts me to a spot several feet from the bar then gestures for me to stand beside him. “Mirame, mira mis pies” Josef says, pointing both fingers at my eyes, then back to his feet. Standing with his feet ten inches apart, he leans forward just enough for his arms to dangle free before him. He takes one step to his right then brings his foot back to its original position. Then he takes one step to his left and brings it back.

This is easy – I got this, I think. “Four steps…that’s it?” I say.

I bend my knees and step right, then back to center, left, then back to center, just like he showed me. After a few more attempts, I speed up, making me believe that I’m doing well. Turning back to Josef, in anticipation of his praise, his expression tells me otherwise. Scratching the back of his head with a perplexed look on his face, he taps his chest and tells me I have to listen to the rhythm from inside. Marking each step slowly, he claps out the rhythm, “Uno, dos….(y)…tres-cuatro-cinco; Uno, dos….(y)…tres-cuatro-cinco.”

I recognize it immediately from my Cuban dance class. It’s a rhythm of the clave – two smooth wooden sticks that when played together provide the foundational pattern for Afro-Cuban music.

Closing my eyes, I try to focus on his voice and the rhythm. Clap, clap, (pause) clap-clap- clap. How am I supposed to keep my belly relaxed and my knees bent at the same time? And my feet, it’s as if they have their own brain. (Now I know how men feel about that other body part of theirs.) This should be easy for me, but it’s not. It feels foreign. And what’s up with this should in my mind? No doubt it’s from my identity as a dancer. A dancer with twenty years of experience! But who cares about all that experience if in this moment, I can’t even follow a simple step.

I wish I could do the step the way Joseph’s doing it – on the beat and with total commitment.

Focus. Relax. Listen. I tell myself. Keep it simple. Breath. Move from the breath in sync with the rhythm. That’s the only task.

I look over at Josef, who looks back at me, bending his knees even more, as if to challenge me to do the same.

I focus on my feet; right, then back to the original position, then left, and then back to center. Breath, focus, sink into the rhythm. For a moment my hips, torso and shoulders seem to move in concert and with the least amount of effort.

Lowering myself even closer to the floor to match Josef, my thighs begin to hurt and my legs shake. I look down, lose focus and almost fall over myself. Josef’s elegant and precise movements are beyond reach for now. Our wordless dialogue continues for a moment before I have to stop and rest. Catching my breath, I ask him, “Que hace a un buen bailador?

With a glint of mischief in his eyes, he says, “Tienes que escuchar a Dios,”

 

Note: While the man in this photo is not the actual Josef I danced with (unfortunately, I took no photo), this gentlemen exudes Josef’s joy and warmth.

Falling Off the Beat and Starting Again

A few years ago, I was an avid Salsa and Rumba dancer. I’d go out a few times a week, every week and dance for hours. If you’ve enjoyed partner dancing to live music then you know that it’s one of the best feelings on earth. That joy of feeling into the steps, being in the moment with your partner, and wrapped in powerfully good music.

The satisfaction I had when my partner and I were in sync, but also the frustration wDSC_0625e both felt when we bumped into eachother, or were off-time. But beyond both extremes, being able to re-engage in the dance, and lighten-up inside! What a relief. It could be a metaphor for our quality of attention when working on a given project. When I have an idea and decide start it, but fail to go fully into the implemention or the action of it, or when I start and make great headway, but then get interrupted…it’s unsatisfying. It’s like intending to do a particular dance step, starting it and getting interrupted, or realizing that I’m off the beat. It’s almost painful. I’d argue that it’s even more painful in a work project than in a dance, or some other physical activity, because it’s more difficult to access the joy.

The joy is in the body, not the head. When we work, its all to easy to get into the head. The point is that whether we mess up and fall off the beat or nail the step, there is always the opportunity to re-start, and isn’t that really the best part?