Leaving a Trace of Whimsy

So, I’ve chosen to do something that is intentionally and completely just for me.  As I mentioned briefly before, I am enrolled in the Interplay Life Practice Program this spring.  It’s something that I think would surprise people who don’t know me well or who only see the public persona of “minister.”

Interplay touches some very important parts of my life and passion. I identified as a dancer before anything else I can remember.  I started dance classes when I was just about four years old and immediately fell in love with ballet.  Dance class was a place where I was allowed to be strong, beautiful, graceful, committed, disciplined, and it was all suffused with joy.  Flying through the air in a tour-jete or leaping in a grand jete was like flying under my own power.

There are two stories of my time as a dancer that illustrate the passionate love I had for what I loved to call “the dance.”  The first one happened [edit: I’l have to tell you the second one later, this got way longer than I meant it to be] when I was eight or nine and Up With People came through our small Iowa town.  My dad was a radio guy and his station was sponsoring the show, so I was allowed backstage during the day before the performances. I got to watch full rehearsals, but I also stumbled upon a ballet class being held for the performers.  It was in the gymnasium, and I’d snuck up to the balcony.  But when the class started the music and the instructor’s voice leading the students through plies, adagio, and then the leaps eventually drew me out of the shadows and the teacher noticed me, up in the balcony, dancing along.  He invited me down to participate in the class.  I began dancing along, doing whatever the class did. It only took a few minutes for me to let go of my shy self-consciousness and begin to dance for the joy of it.

At some point–I’d really lost track of time–the instructor suddenly yelled “Stop! Stop! Everybody just stop!”  I was surprised and a little scared.  Then he turned to me and asked me gently if I would continue dancing for the class.  My self-consciousness returned immediately and I shook my head “no” in panic.  He said, “Really, it’s okay. I’ll dance with you. There is something I want the class to see.”  And so we danced, this grown-up man and me, side by side.  Again, my shyness slid away and I danced with joy.  Eventually, the music ended and the instructor thanked me for the dance.  Then he turned to his students and said, “I wanted you to watch because I wanted you to see for yourselves what dance looks like when it is danced from the heart. This child has all the passion you lack.”

I remember being embarrassed then, because being used as an example for the purpose of reprimand was a bit scary for a child in a room full of adults.  But I remember being proud too.  And I remember knowing that he was right–it wasn’t that I was technically perfect or even that I danced better than anyone else in the room–after all, I was a child.  But I truly danced for the joy of it.  And during the hard times in my life, I danced the pain of it.  I may have been a geeky, unpopular kid, but I could dance!  My family may have been full of pain and conflict, but I could go to my room, put Rampal on my record player and dance. For years, dance was the center of my life and when I was dancing, I was unafraid.  When I was dancing, I was happy.

But when I was twelve, things changed.  My parents divorced. My body began to change and I was overwhelmed by experiences of its vulnerability to abuse, sexism, teasing…it wasn’t safe.  My mom and I moved to a new town where I was treated cruelly by the kids that had lived there their whole lives.  A relative began systematically abusing me emotionally and sexually.  The demands of my life and the fact that we lived in a very small town made dance classes impossible for a year.  When I could finally return to the studio and dance again, it wasn’t the same at all.  My body’s angles and balance had changed. I hadn’t practiced for over a year. Gender was being enforced in new ways and ballet seemed suddenly to be about who was prettiest.  It didn’t matter that I was strong or that I danced with my whole heart. When my left hip and knee turned in pathetically while doing a plie in the fourth position, I quit.  I simply walked away from the barre and never went back.  It was over. There was no more joy.

I was twelve then. I’m forty-four now.  For the thirty-two years in-between I almost never danced.  The one exception was in seminary, when I took my first Interplay classes and touched a tiny bit of that joy again and the miracle of my body’s knowing.  It was that class that made it clear to me that I needed to transition.  Listening to my body in that class, I heard its knowing of itself as a transgender man’s body.  I started hormones that June.  During that second adolescence I was just as shy and self-conscious as I was the first time.  I experienced too, the vulnerability of being transgender in this culture–not so long after I transitioned, Matthew Shepard was murdered and I felt in my body the danger of being a gender transgressor.  The only song in my head for months was Melissa Etheridge:

“Scarecrow”

Showers of your crimson blood
Seep into a nation calling up a flood
Of narrow minds who legislate
Thinly veiled intolerance
Bigotry and hate

But they tortured and burned you
They beat you and they tied you
They left you cold and breathing
For love they crucified you

I can’t forget hard as I try
This silhouette against the sky

Scarecrow crying
Waiting to die wondering why
Scarecrow trying
Angels will hold carry your soul away…

And so I did not dance. I learned other ways of touching joy, of knowing myself, of channeling the pain and passion of my life. I became a preacher.  I wrote poetry. I painted.  I took photographs. I began blogging.  But I did not dance.

And then, my last ministry ended abruptly and painfully.  I was blessed to be held together by my partner and the grace of the universe as new opportunities began to unfold.  I found myself heading back to the Bay Area–to Oakland, no less–where Interplay has its headquarters, the Interplayce.  And I remembered.  I remembered that Interplay was healing, powerful, and deep down fun.  And so I made a commitment to go back.  I sent a few emails so that I couldn’t back out and run away.  And a few weeks ago I did it. I went to a class, and then another.  I admitted that I was considering the Life Practice program and the idea was met with pure enthusiasm.

And so I am now a dancer again.  A dancer and singer and storyteller and PLAYer.  And my body had a pretty wonderful secret to tell me, “The joy wasn’t buried very far under the surface.  It’s right there. You can have it again.” And I do.  As weird as I know I must look–an overweight, forty-four year old guy spinning and swinging and playing–I have my joy back.  I don’t care how it looks. A part of me has come home.  Laugh if you want–I am.  Laughing and laughing at this absurd little dance that is my sweet, sweet life.

Oh, and our homework was to accept the gift of a green feather–meant to remind us to leave a trace of whimsy everywhere we go. Not a bad assignment.

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17 thoughts on “Leaving a Trace of Whimsy

  1. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful experience and for giving me hope that I can find and reclaim what I hid so long ago.

  2. Sean,
    Powerful story, and I’m glad you’ve rediscovered Interplay too! The Interplay community was such a support for me, both in Oakland and St. Paul, MN.; it was one place where I could safely come and work out what was going on with me through movement and play. I’m now in an area without such a community, and miss it very much. Best wishes in the Life Practice program!

  3. Sean, How wonderful! Interplay saved me, too! Okay, saved may be strong and very loaded word but it unlocked places well hidden and little exercised for years. I loved the life practice program and I hope to reconnect with Interplayers whenever and wherever I can. Thanks for your sharing and keeping dancing!

  4. Sean, Thank You so much. Your life is a life of hope. I love reading about your history of dancing from the heart and believe that this is what you probably do all of the time- the dance does not die even though we may not be aware of it. Hooray for me that I get to interplay with you!

  5. Dear Sean,

    What an amazing story and told with such passion. Thank you so much for sharing it with the world, so that I too may learn something new. May you always keep dancing!

    —Elizabeth

  6. Sean!!! What a wonderful story full of the joy and hope of the rediscovery of dance. I will dance with you the dance of the big bodies, and hope if you are ever on the East Coast in the Triangle area of North Carolina, you will come and play and celebrate the wonder of dancing bodies with us here.

  7. Thank you for sharing this story — moving and lovely. I’m so glad to be sharing this life practice series with you. Sorry I’ll miss March, but I look forward to more play in April and May.

  8. Dear Sean…

    As an Up With People alum, InterPlayer (and currently life practice program facilitator in Seattle), Director of LGBT org in Colorado Springs, CO the year Matthew Sheppard was killed, and now a new UU minister — there are so many places where your telling here connects with my story. Including the loss of self from family abuse and homophobic trauma in a fundamentalist context.

    I am so glad to hear that you have jumped in and that you are now jumping around again! My entrance into IP was through music — but the story of recovery of artistic voice and body wisdom is familiar…

    Sending much love, my colleague.
    Julia

  9. Yes! InterPlay also helped me reclaim parts of myself I’d neglected or submerged. I now have my voice back, my body (really, for the first time), my love of performance, all the stories I didn’t know that lived in my pores…it is a blessed practice.

    I loved hearing about your life dance, and I hope we get the chance to dance in person one day. Meanwhile, our hearts can connect across space through this amazing practice that we share in common.

    Hooray for InterPlay!!

    Celia
    p.s. (Hey, Matt! We miss you in St. Paul!)

  10. Sean – so wonderful to hear – Interplay has been life saving for me also – never would have made it through seminary without it. You were a gentle and great prof at Starr King – thanks for everything.

  11. Dear Sean,
    Your story touched me deeply and I want you to know that I’m cheering you on as you rediscover the joy of your body and dancing with abandonment and letting your playful spirit soar.
    I often say that InterPlay saved my life. It is wonderful to hear the stories of others who have been so deeply affected.
    Blessings, Peace, and Continued Joy!!!
    Carol

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