At Kalakshetra this week, news broke about sexual harassment complaints, potentially due process not being followed, and institutional collusion in suppressing complaints. I responded so unusually angrily, that it was time for another edition of “unfinished business”.
This time, from when the world of dance was my entire world.
I went pro at age 15. Seeing the disconnect between the craft and the reasons for press attention, I decided to fly under the radar on dance till I was older. Around this time, some “well-intentioned” people told me that to grow in the space, it was normal to sleep with the Ministry people and other folks with contacts. Yep, this was someone’s idea of appropriate messaging to a minor.
While there were the odd safe teachers, the space of performing arts at any stage above “student” was scary and toxic. When there wasn’t blatant sexism, there was at least casual bullying. So, I scooted to a conventional career. It felt safer.
After a tenuous connection as a teacher, my decision to shut down the dance career in my 20s felt very logical. I recall not feeling sad about letting go of this constant companion. It was a source of discipline that helped body mind and spirit, and letting go of it felt too easy.
Only in the wake of this news did I realise that all those years ago, I executed a perfect cut and run. While the cut on the wound site looks clean, even years later, no/ little healing has taken place. Fear has taken over the reins of the space pain should’ve occupied, and that drives the train.
How has this shown up elsewhere? At work, I systemically shut down any chance for being visible. While my work speaks for me, I actively dropped out of all chances to be visible to a larger audience. I resolutely supported others, which was a perfectly acceptable alternative and everyone won. Except me. To date, if I have to share a platform with someone, I’m unnecessarily self-effacing about it.
For 25+ years, I have been equating all visibility with a threat to physical safety. Riven by fear, I have dispersed in the wind in order to escape being seen. This is what an unhealed wound does. It makes unconnected things associated with this wound, creates unrealistic binaries (Ex. fame bad, hiding good) and hardcodes fear.
It isn’t unfair to ask, “But that was a long time ago. You’ve been an adult for longer than not. Why are you still there?” I’m responding to all threats, even tiny ones, from the mind of that agency-lacking 15 year old, and responding with the same magnified fear and the same fight/ flight/ freeze state. Articulating and realising these ways of being takes time, thinking and significant psychological safety.
The case for mental wellness support: This realisation is happening because of 2+ years of work on articulating fears and understanding the language of boundaries. It would not have come, had I only read, say, Terri Cole. I love her, but her workshop on boundaries has done more for me than the book has. There is something about many hours of applied, directed learning) While understanding can come from reading books (It’s one of my favourite things, and an actual constant companion, so saying this actually hurts). To understand the geography of impact, the compass of next steps and the map of progress, the mind needs a cartographer. Objective supervision and being held accountable week after week are more valuable than theory.
So, what am I saying? If you have people, especially women, in your life that look like they are not being all kinds of amazing that they clearly have the potential to be, let them know (gently) and they are selling themselves short. Be specific about the where and what. If they are key to your life, help them to the stage where they find competent help. Step aside and watch them bloom.