I dance for joy: on dancing with chronic illness
Reviewed By: Open Floor International
Open Floor International
Language availability: English
Lindy Armah is an Open Floor teacher in training from London. She has been living with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.), a long-term, neurological condition that causes symptoms affecting many body systems, for 20 years. M.E. affects an estimated 17 million people worldwide. Here she tells us about her experience of dancing with chronic illness.
I’ve always danced. I did years of African and Arabic dance before discovering the 5RhythmsⓇ. But only one year in I crashed and was diagnosed with M.E. I had to stop completely as any kind of movement could make things worse so I had to be very careful. It was a miserable time. It was so hard not being able to dance, I hated it.
It was a terrible time… but a rich time too. I had to go inwards and listen to myself at a very deep level. My mind became very active. My imagination and my creativity fired up. I made up stories, imagined colours…I went to all sorts of places in the stillness of my body.
After a year, I felt able to start dancing again. I built it up very slowly and with a lot of listening to what was going on in my body. I had to learn how to be with the music. African dance really helped with this. People think it’s all about moving around wildly but it’s actually a very contained movement where you don’t allow the drums to dance you… you dance the drums.
I started by just allowing the 4×4 beat to go through my body, feeling each beat land inside me. Then I experimented with walking. Just walking. Very slowly.
Eventually I was able to add a bit more movement. It took a couple of years… I literally had to learn how to dance all over again. It was so different from the way I’d danced before! I had to keep on reminding myself that I didn’t need to make it look good or get it right.
I’ve been doing this for 15 years now and it’s made a huge difference. I really inhabit my body nowadays and emotionally I’m in a much better place, I feel like I’m able to follow myself, be with whatever is happening in my body much more than before. It’s not something you decide to do…it’s not in your head…this is all about being in your body and what it can do rather than what you want it to do.
I decided to train as an Open Floor teacher because it’s flexible and more accessible for me as a dancer. It feels like a mature practice. There’s a lot of wisdom in the curriculum and I think this comes from the Dynamic Governance model which draws on the collective wisdom of all the wonderful teachers who got together to create it. There’s a greater level of political and social awareness. Society treats people with disabilities in a certain way and Open Floor opens up the conversation. It feels very inclusive. The way they use the chairs on the dance floor really symbolises all of this. It can open up so many doors… for so many people!
I was a bit worried about the training and how I’d manage myself during the 10 day workshop. But the facilitators were amazing and they helped me to prepare really well. They shared their own stories of illness and injury and reassured me that the best I could do was good enough. They really gave me permission to listen to my needs – even if that meant lying on a mattress all day, and then going to bed early instead of staying up to socialise with the others. And I really needed that because on some days I was so tired I could barely speak! Having the mattress on the dance floor made a huge difference.
I have come away from the training with many gifts and insights. I love the way we are taught to build up resilience rather than going for broke which is what I have experienced in other dance practices. I am building mind-body-spirit intelligence…and learning to love myself from the inside.
The training was exhausting on so many levels but I loved every minute of it. It’s hard staying connected to others in group when you’re lying there. I waited too long to go from standing to sitting or lying down. Next time, I’ll make sure I use the mattress or the chair, before I get to my limit, so I can pace myself better.
I’ll also keep on reminding myself what Kathy Altman said in one of the sessions about movement being inherent in the body. “We move with every heartbeat… with every breath. We don’t have to be moving on the outside in order to be moving.”
I’ve also realised that I need to let people know that I have M.E. and ask for what I need…so that they have a sense of what it’s like for me. And that just because it looks like I’m lying there doing nothing, I’m actually just as engaged as they are. It’s important to me that others feel they can be themselves and that they don’t have to act differently. I’m really happy that people want to come and dance or sit next to me and, sometimes, I need to not move at all. I want to articulate this more clearly so other dancers understand that my behaviour isn’t personal…that it’s not about anyone else, just me.
I found the Core Movement Resources very helpful, especially Ground and Pause. I learned that Pausing isn’t about stopping, it’s about allowing myself to just be with it. Like noticing frustration and letting it out…then getting on with it. With Grounding it’s about drawing energy from the ground through my body so that I’m not holding myself up only with my own resources. I am supported by the ground too. It turns it into so much more than dance. It becomes a meditation…a practice for life!
What I’ve learned will stand me in good stead as a teacher. I know that dancing doesn’t necessarily look sweet and pretty. I appreciate that all human beings can join in in their own particular way. I want to teach people to dance for joy. I only have x number of years on this planet and joy might not change my health, but it helps me feel alive. So I dance for joy.
If you’d like to find out more about M.E. I highly reccomend Unrest, a documentary by Jennifer Brea which is currently being shown in many countries and has received much critical acclaim.
words by Audrey Boss
Photography by Andrea Angela Klötzing and Catherine McConkie
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