Sunday, June 5, 2011

Body Language, or, How Dancing Is the Opposite of Autism

We've all read a million and one articles that are like "YOU SHOULD MAKE EYE CONTACT" and "DO NOT CROSS YOUR ARMS YOU WILL LOOK ANGRY" but this is something slightly different!  This is even beyond the fact that your kneeache tells you it's going to rain tomorrow.  As per usual, I noticed something I completely loved and it reminded me of something vaguely related. 

Something that stuck with me after play therapy with autistic preschoolers was the idea of "body."  The language used was always very careful to distinguish a person from his body -- for symbolic purposes as well as literal, practical ones.  "Mitchell, tell Alice you don't want her touching your body."  "Peyton, how is your body feeling?"  ("Crazy!!!")  We were attuned to the needs of each individual's body -- for instance, if the child('s body) felt threatened by hallways and other open spaces (Alice) or needed vestibular input, ie, squeezes, firm hugs, or bouncing (Graciela) in order to be regulated.  It brought a reality to the phrase "uncomfortable in one's own skin" that I could have never considered without experience with little ones with autism!  The communication associated with these principles astounded me for a very long time.  To think that a mysterious sensation in one's body needed closer boundaries or even pressure in order not to go completely haywire was so strangely validating to the human condition!  Unfortunately, in these examples, the body was communicating its needs because frequently they weren't met -- how can we know unless through frustrating experience that Zahara would only calm down in a pogo swing? 

In loving a flagrantly opposing means for body language, I decided to get hooked on So You Think You Can Dance this year.  I consider myself a dancer -- a very niche dancer, but a dancer all the same -- and more importantly, I love dance as an idea and I love even more to watch people dance.  And I did get really into American Idol last year and found out I cry at the drop of a hat on these shows (seriously; I cry when people do really well, when they win their ticket or whatever, when they cry, when their family hugs them, when they win but don't have any family or friends there to hug them, when they win but don't have any family or friends there to hug them but then they call out to the lounge outside auditions "Quick! Someone come be my family!" and a herd of strangers run to hug them and jump and celebrate, etc).  Put all that together and I knew I would have the best time watching this show.  And I have.

My favorite part of these two shows, even more than the dances or songs, is when people are told they're moving on to whatever next round -- and they celebrate.  Somehow.  Many cry, many laugh, many are in disbelief, many have that face where they look like they're hardly reacting at all but really they're taking it the most humbly and joyously.  I cry love when the contestants hurdle over various stages or stairs or equipment to hug the judges -- but far and away, the best reactions are from the dancers who dance in celebration.  That's what they do!  In an uncannily similar way to children with autism except with the exact opposite need, their bodies are overcome with a sensation that they can't get out and they don't know what to do with.  Both populations are unaccustomed to using words to express emotions, both understand an ethereal component of existence, not by choice.  Both experience feelings, states of being that transcend language -- but sadly, it frequently manifests in a negative way for autistic children, often involving angry tears, flight, or physical harm.  In stark contrast, for these winning dancers, this overwhelming urge happens to be a happy one!  We should all be so lucky that our speechless moments are due to joy.  As sad as I am for the helpless communication these children must employ, I am equally delighted at these winning dancers.  With conventional communication insufficient, they naturally default to what they do best: when they hear the good news, they dance!  Some leap.  Some jump, spin, kick, dougie, etc.  But the way they move is always tinged with dance, and that the joy inherent in that makes me tear up too. 

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