* My book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America, is on sale for $30 hardcover!
It’s time to write about naked dancing again. I didn’t plan this theme, honest. But the modern dance world keeps pushing me there, with intriguing insights into how we experience our bodies: as women and men, as people of a certain age, and this time, as mothers. Specifically, women who have been pregnant.
Friday night, my husband and I kissed our kids goodnight, gave the sitter some instructions, and hopped in the car to drive a half hour to a different New Jersey suburb. Montclair State University, in the leafy, affluent town of Montclair, has an innovative dance program and a wonderful theater. I anticipated a sophisticated and beautiful performance.
Still, when I go to a concert in the ‘burbs, I expect something tame and mainstream. An artist might claim to “challenge the boundaries,” but they are generally boundaries that were knocked down a few decades ago in nearby New York City, and the artist is tapping at the ancient ruins of walls left partly standing in more conservative quarters.
Not Friday night. Reka Szabo had arrived from Budapest, to show me something I had never seen before. In a piece called Apropos, she chatted with the audience, she “broke the fourth wall,” she dribbled confetti from her pockets as she ran to a fake door at the back of the stage, and repeatedly declined to answer mysterious knocks. She brushed her fake hair while she recited quirky personal ads, until the hair was pulled out and strewn all over the stage, and she appeared bald. (That’s not the new part, yet. I was part of the San Francisco dance scene for quite a while, and I’ve seen a lot of experimental dance theater.)
But then, she walked to the edge of the stage, lifted her shirt and tugged her yoga pants so that we could see her abdomen. A spotlight shone on her belly. And it was the belly of a woman who has been pregnant, the skin that has been stretched taut around a watermelon and then abruptly released.
My friends and I call it the “baby pouch.” After the baby is out, after the pregnancy weight is gone, and the abdominal wall separation has healed, the loose skin remains. A dancer can do as much Pilates as she likes, she can be stronger than ever, with an enviable 6-pack. But the baby pouch is a permanent marker of the incredibly physical labor her body has done, growing a new person.
Szabo placed her hands on her belly in the shape of a heart, pushing the loose skin together and out. And then she performed several minutes of a dance, with just her hands and that loose skin. She made the hand-heart beat, pushing it in and out with incredibly strong and supple abdominal muscles. She made lips that kissed, and lines and whirls that flowed between shapes.
I have to admit, part of me cringed. “Isn’t that going to just make is worse?” I thought. I had accepted my own baby pouch with sad resignation. Two babies had stretched it plenty; I would never deliberately stretch it more.
But at the same time, I felt so proud of her, and myself by extension. She took something most of us try to hide, to pretend never happened, and made a beautiful dance out of it. A dance about love for her daughter, with hearts and kisses. She saw the possibility, and the uniqueness, in her baby pouch. She couldn’t have done that dance until she had carried a baby. It was a defiant choice. Not, “I can dance as well as a young person who hasn’t had babies. I can hide the evidence.” Instead she said, “I can do something you young ones, with your perfect, innocent bodies, cannot do. My love is marked on my body, and I can dance with it. Motherhood has given my body more possibilities.”
I felt it with her. I suddenly saw my body differently. I’ll probably still joke about my “baby pouch,” but I don’t rue it the same way, after that performance. I doubt I’ll emulate her choreography, but now I have a way to see the evidence of my pregnancies as an addition to my body, not a diminishing of it. Not a mark of sacrifice, but a hard-won transformation.
So am I saying exactly the opposite of what I said about Dandelion Dancetheater’s naked piece? After all, I claimed that in that choreography, seeing a variety of nude bodies had showed me that women’s and men’s bodies are not so different after all. But I saw Szabo’s body as marked specifically and irrevocably by motherhood.
This is where the rest of the piece matters. I have highlighted the baby pouch dance, but Szabo contextualized it with many stories and dances about mothering, about creating artistic work, and about being 44 years old. A bit further into the performance, she had taken off all her clothes, and did several minutes of dramatically lit, very intense yoga in the nude. In my eyes, she morphed back and forth between being an incredibly fit 44-year-old dancer-mother and an otherworldly being, writhing somewhere between life and death, awaiting the resurrection that concluded the piece. The loose belly skin meant something one moment, and didn’t the next.
Motherhood is marked on my body. It can matter at one moment, and barely register the next. It is a resource: of experience, of movement quality, of literal physicality. It is mine, to use how I want. We are all movement artists, even if only some of us are professional dancers. My body’s expressive possibilities grow with the years. The pliability and buoyancy of youth are not everything, even for dancers, as Szabo so eloquently demonstrated. For those of us who have borne children, our maternity does not need to be what our bodies are solely or primarily about, but it will always be there for us.
* My book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America, is on sale this month for $30 hardcover, or $19.95 e-book with code HTMP