At 6:30, those who had arrived for the beginning formed a circle, hands on each others backs. A woman began to speak into a microphone. Against the music, and in Spanish, I couldn’t catch it all. Just the general ideas: breathing, giving energy, being present.
She told us to divide into pairs, and I found myself face to face with another woman. “Look directly at each other.” We began the rave like that, sinking deep into the eyes of a stranger.
In case you don’t know, eye contact can be terrifying. For this first partner, it was a little too intense. She kept laughing and looking down or away. I tried to hold that, without casting judgment, although I was aware of the uncomfortable space it created between us. I tried to make my face a resting place for her restless, flitting gaze.
We changed partners.
My second partner was brave. Together, we held each other’s gaze without breaking it. “Don’t think about anything” said our instructor (instructor? teacher? guru? fellow human?) “Just see the person sitting across from you.” As the minutes passed, I felt tears coming into my eyes. Almost immediately after, I saw them reflected sympathetically in the eyes of my partner. Similarly, without any intentional effort my face and body arranged themselves to match hers. (Actually, there’s a scientific reason for this. Wikipedia “mirror neurons” when you finish reading)
After minutes of this, of just seeing, we were told to touch our partner, in whatever way we wanted to. Our hands found each other’s shoulders. Others were grasping hands, touching knees, or gently holding faces. I could feel the weight of her arms. I realized we were now smiling. Not embarrassed, deflecting smiles, but expressions of genuine joy in the acts of seeing, and being seen.
We are so rarely allowed the luxury of studying a face. If we took time to do this with every new person we met, the word “ugly” would not exist, at least not in reference to other humans. There is no such thing as “ugly” when you really look. Judgment fades and there is only light and shadow, structure and detail, color, symmetry and asymmetries, humanness.
“Start moving in your way.” The words were like a massage—repetitive, soothing. Telling me to begin by listening. The room was electric, pulsing with energy. I felt as if there were invisible threads connecting me to every person in the room. Each one present and accounted for.
At last we finished and stood up. My partner and I grasped each others arms and smiled and laughed in and said thank you in as many ways as we could. Then we let each other go, and started moving in our ways. The music changed. The dance began.
Since that morning I have not been able to forget the electricity of being touched and seen, so long and so unbreakingly, by another person. I find myself craving a return to that sensation. I imagine I crave it the the way friends who smoke crave nicotine.
Touch and sight. Even before the rave, I was thinking about these things frequently. They have been on my mind almost since arrival.
The fact is that people touch each other much more in Spain than in the U.S. When I first observed classes at Varium, I was taken aback by how much teachers would touch students. Male and female alike would absentminded stroke the hair of the child standing nearby, or place a calming hand on the back of a rowdy kid to quiet them, or engulf someone who had drifted away from the group in a sudden bear hug to scoop them up and carry them back to the group.
But although this surprised me initially I now I find myself doing the same. After for weeks of working with kids at Varium, to touch feels automatic, natural and right. Now, I don’t hesitate to touch. Working in Spanish and Catalá, I often struggle express myself verbally. Touch and eye contact are two most clear and immediate forms of communication that I have at my disposal.
Outside the dance community (which is, granted, more touch-prone than most), it is the same. Parents touch their children more. Couples can get away with PDA of the highest degree. Even strangers can touch each other, for example when trying to pass behind someone on the metro. For example, the waiter at the restaurant where we take the Varium kids for lunch touches me when I am blocking his way in the narrow aisle between the two tables, to let me know he needs to come through. Even the Spanish greeting, two kisses on either side of the face, is closer and more intimate than the American handshake.
Similarly, I have been struck again and again here by how readily people meet each other’s gazes. Not just meet, but welcome, with radiating warmth. I see this a lot at Varium, between students and students, students and teachers, parents and staff. And I see it especially in conversations when people are speaking to each other in Catalá.
In the United States, we train ourselves into isolation. We are taught that it is rude to stare. Our eyes flit from the screen of our smartphones to the floor to avoid being caught on the splinter of another person’s gaze. We teach our children that their personal bubble reaches as far as their fingertips so that we can all keep each other at arm’s length. When we take our change from the cashier at the supermarket, the sudden warmth of their fingers is startling, an unwanted intimacy. A teacher who places his hand on the back of a restless student risks a lawsuit.
So at first it was hard for me to reciprocate, let alone to initiate, these moments of warm human contact. I would feel bashful or nervous and cast my eyes down, or stiffen my muscles. But I have been practicing, these last two months, and I have improved a lot. My skin sings when it is touched. My hands happily assure other people that I see and acknowledge them by finding their shoulders or arms. My eyes seek other eyes like magnets. What I did at the rave was like a marathon, but really I had been training for it ever since my arrival in Spain.
Now, with five days left in Spain, I find myself thinking heavily of my return to American culture, where it seems we are in a perpetual drought of touch, and avoid eye contact when we can. I think it will feel cold, and lonely.
I recognize that there are reasons to take care with these things, perhaps especially with touch. I know that touch, when unwanted, can invade and harm, deeply. Sexual assault and child molestation are devastating. And I know that for children on the autism spectrum, touch is frequently more disturbing than comforting. And I know that everyone has different sensitivities and preferences. And I know to always get consent. And I agree that staring at strangers (and being stared at) is creepy.
But I mourn the degree to which fear of inappropriate touch/gaze has so distorted our perception in the United States that we cannot seem to distinguish the natural from the perverted. I am angry that because of perverts and child molesters should have the power to remove the sense of touch from our schools. Most of all, I think there is enormous capacity for healing in the acts of touching and seeing. I felt that last week. What if every white police officer had to look for five minutes into the eyes of the black man or woman he is facing before he could put his finger to the trigger or his hands to the throat? What if every congressman and woman began the day by sitting and holding the gaze, or the hands, of their political opponents? I think many of our wounds could begin to heal.
This is what I dream about, after a morning surrounded by music and color, movement, touch, and gaze. But the reality is that today, in my country, the language of touch is spoken by few (lovers, mothers, dancers). How I wish that we were more multilingual.