One winter evening, when I was twenty-six years old and recovering from a long illness, I decided to go out dancing. I could have chosen another form of entertainment, I suppose — a movie or a meal out — but I chose contradancing because it would involve my body more than my mind, and my mind was what had gotten me into trouble.
I’d never been to a contradance before, and I picked one that was held in a Methodist church in Greenwich Village. I entered through a side door and descended a long staircase to a narrow, steamy basement drenched in light and music. Three double rows of people ran the length of the room. They joined hands in lines, slid into circles of four, and then slapped their heels on the hardwood. The band — fiddle, guitar, keyboard, and bass — surprised the dancers with a key change, which made them shout and stamp their feet some more. The hair on the back of my neck lifted.
When the music stopped, I rushed to take my place in the nearest line. A man appeared in front of me, the caller gave directions over a microphone, and the people on my left and my right picked up my hands and led me forward, back, and around in a circle. Then my partner drew my arms toward him and guided me into a spin. It went on this way for several minutes, with people nudging or pushing me into place, and me always one step behind but quick to respond to a pull, or sometimes a yank. After the second or third swing, my partner called out to me over the music, “Lean back! Lean back into my hand!” His hand was on the small of my back. I put my weight against it, and we flew around and around and around. It had been a long time since I’d felt such ease.
A little more than a year earlier, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I’d been sitting at my desk at work when a wave of heat had rolled from my chest to my shoulders. My heart started to race, and my forearms became numb. I steadied myself on the desk and managed to stay conscious while I put on my coat. It was the third time this had happened in two weeks, and I suddenly decided to get some help. Buttoning my coat, I stepped outside into the cold winter air. I had often seen mentally disturbed people on the streets of New York; now I was one of them. I took the subway to 53rd Street, got out, waited my turn at the token booth, and asked the token seller if she knew where I could find a psychiatrist. A short man in a tweed coat overheard me and, in Yiddish-accented English, gave me the address of the psychiatric clinic where his son worked.
It turned out to be not too far from my office. At first the doctor I saw told me I had an anxiety disorder, but three weeks later, when I showed up for my appointment talking about how I was a criminal who should be locked up, she broadened her diagnosis. Besides having panic attacks, I was severely depressed, delusional, and obsessive-compulsive. I started taking copper-colored pills every day and seeing a new psychiatrist twice a week.
Doctor S. was a short, brown-skinned woman with straight black hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wore red lipstick and a white clinician’s jacket, and she hardly spoke. To one early session, I brought a pen drawing I had made of myself in a hospital bed with an IV in my arm. My hands and feet tapered to blunt ends, and from a window next to the bed, two faint lines reached into the room, suggesting a sunbeam. The light, I told Dr. S. as I put the drawing on her desk, stood for my hope. She turned her head in the direction of the drawing but didn’t touch it or even lean forward to see it better. I retrieved the paper, folded it, and put it back in my sketchbook. We weren’t there, I gathered, to look at pictures.
I once read about a woman who conquered depression. She said that it wasn’t the techniques or treatments her doctor used, but the kindness her doctor showed that helped her get better. I wouldn’t describe Dr. S. as especially kind. She displayed little emotion, had me call her “Doctor,” never used my first name, and never smiled. But I didn’t let this deter me. I had already told her some of my most shameful secrets, and she had said she thought I could benefit from seeing her. She was mine; I wasn’t about to let her go.
When, at the contradance in the Methodist church, I heard live bluegrass and Celtic music for the first time, I felt drawn to it as if to a childhood memory. One of the few small pleasures I enjoyed that winter was carrying this music around inside of me, the jigs and reels of country people far from Manhattan. The fiddle tunes were chestnut brown to the city’s black, and I got a little thrill from the juxtaposition. Mostly, though, contradancing stood for my deep yearning for my life to be different.
Before I could make my life different, my medicine had to take effect. Within three weeks, the imipramine had eased my delusions and obsessions, and I felt merely frightened, like a puppy fished out of a raging river. During our appointments, Dr. S. was businesslike, and I was resigned. I did my best to answer her questions — unless she asked about my anger, my sexuality, or my inability to assert myself. At those times I would become weepy and say, “I don’t know,” my thoughts fluttering away like a handkerchief on a breeze. All the nonstop talk began to feel like lengths of fabric unfurled and discarded, unfurled and discarded. But over the weeks I noticed something was missing: the word anger was not even a part of my vocabulary. When I felt the first stirrings of anger, I would say I was “upset.” And when I was upset, I would cry.
My first breakthrough came when Dr. S. asked me about my brothers. In my mind’s eye I saw a hallway from my childhood. I saw myself flat on my back on the salt-and-pepper carpet with one of my brothers straddling me, kneeling on my elbows, and dangling a thick strand of spit toward my face. When Dr. S. asked how this had made me feel, I couldn’t recall having felt anything.
“It makes me mad just hearing about it,” Dr. S. said.
It was as if a door at the end of that hallway had been opened, and I walked to the threshold and peeked in.
When I was six, my father had a fight with his brother and afterward didn’t speak to him for seven years. Another time my father got mad at my grandmother, and they were silent toward each other for a long time, even though she lived with us. This is how I learned to deal with anger and conflict: don’t talk about it; sever the connection. Upon leaving me, an old boyfriend had said that he couldn’t abide the way I wouldn’t talk when I was mad at him. He said I was like someone from a Bergman film who puts on dark robes and walks off down the beach.
When I was a girl, my dog got hit by a car and spent three days under the dining-room table before he finally ventured out on wobbly legs toward his food dish. I started going to the contradances the same way — shakily, hesitantly — and for the same reason: I needed nourishment. I danced two or three times a month, even though it meant a late subway ride home. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I talked with Dr. S. and learned new words, such as anger, and new ideas, such as talking to another person when I felt angry with him or her. On Saturdays I went to the Greenwich Village church and learned how to “progress” and “negotiate a hey,” how to “gypsy” and “balance” and “swing.” I heard old tunes like “Liza Jane,” “June Apple,” and “Rock the Cradle.” I learned the steps to the Petronella, Round the Horn, and Four, Let’s Go. I also learned one of the most important things about contradancing, something my partner had tried to teach me that first night when he’d told me to lean back into his hand: giving weight.
As children, most of us played the game in which two people face each other, grip each other’s wrists, then lean back and spin around in a circle, feet close to the center. The act of leaning back and balancing each other’s weight is what makes you fly around so fast. It’s the same in a contradance: when two or more dancers hold on to each other and lean back slightly, they spin rapidly and in perfect sync. Giving weight is what makes the dance flow and look so effortless. When I failed to give weight, my swings fell apart, my allemandes toppled, and everyone had to work harder to dance with me. One night I danced with a man who failed to give me weight, and I felt as if I were dragging a log across the floor. When neither I nor my partner gave weight, we merely walked around each other. To dance properly you must have an opposing force.
To the church I always wore a white T-shirt and a long, light blue cotton skirt with a drawstring waist. One night my partner pointed to my drawstring and asked, “If I pull on that string, will your skirt fall off?”
Now, my grandmother would have told the man to go straight to hell, but I didn’t tell him that. Nor did I say what I really wanted to say: “I don’t like that question. Don’t ask me that again.” Instead I danced with him but didn’t make eye contact. After the music stopped, I left him without a word, sat on a bench, and cried. It may have been then that I realized relationships were like dancing: if I didn’t speak my mind, if I gave no opposition, the relationship, like the dance, would fall apart.
A dance teacher once told me that when it comes to dancing, you exist only to the extent that you give weight to your partner. I realized that I had never really given weight in my relationships. When it came to relationships, I didn’t exist.
No wonder I was depressed.
Over the course of that winter, something happened to me. I started feeling angry, and recognizing it, and expressing it. And, like any newborn just learning a new skill, I overdid it. I became angry about long-ago events. I became angry about not having been able to get angry in the past. Waves of anger crested and broke, making a mess of my life, strewing foam and flotsam everywhere: I lost a job. I snapped at friends. I wrote bitter letters. My feet pounded the pavement as I walked. And I started to resent Dr. S.’s coolness toward me. At every session I felt as if she were a surgeon probing me with little knives, without anesthetic. I began to have a recurring fantasy about reaching down and grabbing the leg of the table that sat between us and toppling it. I wanted to smash the vase, scatter the tulips, send the Kleenex flying. I wanted to stop seeing her.
One day I entered her office and couldn’t sit down. When she asked me to sit, I refused.
“Stop,” I said. “You’re pushing me too hard.”
It felt as if a flock of birds came streaming out of my chest, making a long, clean line for the window.
When I was ready, I sat down and began to talk.
After that, Dr. S. backed off. Months later she told me she hadn’t planned to goad me into expressing my anger that day, but was glad I had. I was getting better.
Not all my problems disappeared after I stood up to Dr. S., but something changed. My image of her as an unfeeling surgeon was replaced by another image, a dreamlike tableau in which we stood facing the same direction, I a little behind, she a little in front, and she took my arm, or I took hers, and we stepped forward. We inched along this way together, like a person assisting another who is learning to walk. Dr. S. was tough, but she helped me heal when I could not have done it on my own. And despite her coolness, I saw now that she really had been intimate with me, and not indifferent. She’d listened closely to what I said, watching the movements of my eyes and the clenching of the muscles in my face. I saw her watchfulness as a kind of love, and this, too, helped me heal.
I recently visited New York City after many years away. I was walking through Greenwich Village with a friend when, quite by accident, I came upon that Methodist church where I’d gone to dance. I knew it immediately: the brown stone, the buttresses, the rectangular basement windows flush with the sidewalk, the windowsills over which the music had roiled hotly on Saturday nights; and inside, the maple floor where I’d first learned how to give weight, and how not to turn away from a world that was constantly asking me to dance.