From Trauma to Dance

From Trauma to Dance: Unveiling the Weight Within

“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” James Baldwin

Participating in Diavolo Dance Company’s Veteran Project was a transformative journey. While I anticipated the presence of trauma, I was not surprised by the profound depth and intensity of the experiences shared. What caught me off guard was the powerful somatic experience I went through during the weekend workshop. It was a profound exploration that surpassed my expectations.

I was uncertain whether my application would find acceptance. While I am a veteran, my service belonged to the Israeli Defense Force as a paratrooper from 1978 to 1981, not the US military. What I did know was that my battle with PTSD began long before my military tenure, perhaps from the very day I entered this world.

My parents, survivors of the Holocaust, had narrowly escaped the clutches of death, only to mourn the loss of their firstborn son to illness mere months before my arrival. The torment of agony, grief, loss, anger, and fear enveloped me from the outset. When I dance, it is not I who seize control, but rather the demons within who command my every movement. They grip me tightly, their influence reaching far beyond my conscious will. They entangle themselves in the very essence of my being, dictating the steps, the rhythm, and the intensity.

At that moment, I am but a vessel, surrendered to their dark dance. They trace their origins far beyond my time in the military, which has only compounded them a bit more. They have never departed. They linger, a constant presence in my life. But it is I who has undergone a transformation. I have become aware, embracing their existence and accepting the weight they bear. And in this newfound understanding, I have discovered a remarkable truth: something greater exists, a force that can sustain me amidst it all. I name it Love.

Saturday morning, the day began with a circle formation and a microphone in hand. The group consisted of four veterans and six professional dancers, The Civilians. Leading the session was Jacques Heim, Diavolo’s Founder and Creative Director. Also present were France, Jacques’ assistant, and Moses, who skillfully controlled the editing keyboard. We were asked to introduce ourselves by name, military branch and share a personal story.

At that moment, uncertainty flooded my mind, unsure which story to share and how exposed to be. The all-too-familiar grip of anxiety tightened its hold, as it often does in public speaking situations. Nevertheless, I reminded myself of the numerous occasions in the past few decades when I engaged in talking to trusted strangers, baring my most vulnerable self. With this in mind, I resolved to maintain a steady voice and take the plunge.

I decided to narrate the trajectory of my relationship with dance, intertwining it with significant milestones from my life. Ultimately, I aimed to convey where I stand today in relation to dance.

Then, the physical aspect commenced and continued unabated until late Sunday evening. Diavolo Dance Company defies the conventions of a typical dance company, as their repertoire combines dance, gymnastics, and acrobatics, always performed atop or within large-scale apparatus such as towering slides, spinning wheels, or enclosing cages. It’s no wonder Jacques, having directed one of Cirque du Soleil’s shows in Las Vegas, brings his expertise to this dynamic ensemble.

Observing the inner workings of a Dance Company proved captivating. Following the warm-up session, the initial focus was on mastering Diavolo’s “vocabulary,” a unique language of movement. Mastery of various flips on the floor and inside the aluminum cage was essential before progressing to the rehearsal stage, where Jacques would orchestrate our dance.

Initially, I felt agile, flexible, and strong, effortlessly concluding my flips with spontaneous gestures dictated by my body. It was as if my extended hand might have signaled, “I am here, ready for whatever comes next,” or was I in some imaginary martial art move – I don’t know! I listened intently to my physique’s non-verbal wisdom rather than my mind’s chatter.

However, the weight of a turkey sandwich consumed during lunch and the strenuous physical effort weighed heavily upon me, causing profuse sweating and overwhelming exhaustion to take hold. Or maybe it was way more than the physical; after all, I was there to process the score my body is keeping deep down.

I excused myself, needing to find a place to lie down. Surrendering to exhaustion, I drifted off to sleep, recognizing that my body desperately required rest.

Francisco Marcus Castillo, a veteran and fellow dancer with whom I have attended numerous 5Rhythms dance sessions with our teacher Jo Cobbett over the past decade, was also present at the workshop.

Despite our interactions being limited to simple greetings and occasional small talk, our connection on the dance floor has been profound. We deeply understand each other’s dance vocabulary, allowing us to effortlessly blend our movements and create something truly meaningful and authentic.

In those moments, we synchronize our steps and flow together before venturing into our separate odysseys. These voyages often lead me to a realm of introspection, where I am compelled to shut my eyes and plunge into the depths of my being.

Yet, there are also occasions when I am stirred to interact with the vibrant energy of fellow souls who exude a magnetic and alluring aura, evoking feelings of solace, acceptance, and sanctuary.

After my rest, still groggy and not at my peak, I rejoined the rehearsal. The day was waning, and the afternoon session neared its end.

Jacques outlined his vision for the next part of the session in his usual precision – a dance duet with Francisco inside the towering aluminum cage, eight feet in all dimensions. He wanted us to improvise, to explore the vast expanse of the cage together.

It was the first time I heard my voice narrating my story. Moses skillfully edited it into a concise two-minute piece. A profound stirring welled up within me as I listened to myself recount the tale of fire, delving deep into the core of my anguish.

My eyes grew moist, and my body trembled, profoundly moved by this raw manifestation of my innermost emotions.

With trepidation nestled within, I placed my trust in Francisco, assured that greatness would ensue. I closed my eyes and surrendered to my energies and the music, allowing them to carry me. I was heavy yet fluid in slow lyrical motions. I felt the anguish and, at the same time, the triumph. The specifics evade my recollection, but one memory remains etched: we concluded the piece, standing face to face, Francisco poised in salute while I assumed the humble posture of Namaste. Then, I melted. Gratefully I was also being held. There was a lot of love in the studio.

The drive home tested my mettle as I veered off course, drawing honks and vulgar gestures from a fellow driver. I was unsettled. Before I departed, Jacques inquired multiple times, “Will you be returning tomorrow?” I responded with a solid affirmative, “Yes,” although I had reservations. I had to remind  myself numerous times, “The only way out is through!”

Sunday’s day-long session revolved around the pursuit of integration, culminating in a state of readiness for our upcoming performance, where our invited loved ones and friends would bear witness. Jacques meticulously tailored each veteran’s movements, spending hours crafting our individual pieces alongside the civilian participants. During this time, I took the opportunity to rest and observe the intricate process unfold before my eyes.

I must applaud Jacques for his exceptional choreographic work. Each piece masterfully captured the essence of our personal narratives, delving into the depths of our characters and the unique ways in which we navigate the world. Sarah’s performance portrayed the tough resilience born from enduring trauma and the relentless fight for survival. Anthony emanated unyielding determination, his every movement a testament to his unwavering spirit. Francisco, with playful grace, displayed the vitality of a youthful acrobat.

And as for me, I found myself confined – a tender dancer trapped within a cage of emotions. The choreography beautifully encapsulated this sentiment, conveying the complex emotions and the yearning for liberation that resides within me.

The crew impressed me; their dedication and support were evident throughout the day. France and the lead dancers stood out, particularly during the demanding task of synchronizing narration, music, and dance. They rallied together, giving their utmost to assist; it was remarkable to watch. Especially as fatigue set in and we raced against time before the evening performance. Their actions spoke volumes about their deep respect and admiration for Jacques.

Dancing in the presence of an audience, no matter how modest, presented an uncharted and eagerly embraced test. Never before had I ventured into such territory. To perform is to surrender yourself entirely to your audience, baring your soul for all to see. Your body becomes a canvas for their emotions and fantasies – a screen where their desires, anxieties, and aspirations take shape.

It was frightening. It necessitated a deep inhalation. Upon sharing my thoughts, Mimi, one of the company’s lead dancers, responded with a simple statement, “All they want is to love you.” Such words ignited a profound introspection, prompting me to ponder the origin and responsibility of this intricate enigma, discerning no culprit but myself.

As Monday evening descended, just before surrendering to slumber, my mind envisioned the various movements left untaken. Soon, my thoughts transitioned to grand visions of crafting a complete dance performance centered around a subject deeply etched in the collective consciousness – intergenerational trauma.

It is high time, I surmise, to bring this profound matter into the realm of dance, becoming an integral part of the discourse on trauma and its intersection with the realms of art and history, casting light on the depths of human suffering. Though aware of the impossibility of achieving this alone, a glimmer of hope flickers within me, for at long last, I have chanced upon the purpose I have tirelessly sought.

May 2023