For the worms: on dance, depression, and small town Vermont

An essay on dancing through numbness.

Illustration by Michael Webster
December 11, 2017

I was in a church basement on Roncesvalles in Toronto when I was asked for the first time: “What does numb feel like? In your body?”

“It feels like nothing,” I answered. “I feel less of everything.”  My pain tolerance had gone up—that was the whole point. I thought about walking back from gym class in the eighth grade when my classmate told me she couldn’t feel her legs; I said mine were hurting and she answered that sometimes numbness was worse. I thought about how when I couldn’t sleep my mom used to say I should tense and then release every muscle in my body until I finally felt myself relax—and I thought about how that never worked; I never knew how to feel that.

A few weeks later, I became infatuated with the expression “opening a can of worms.” I loved the imagery of it, filled with living things that wriggle in all directions with no particular sense of purpose — grimy things that we don’t usually like to think about. I was trying to find my way forwards from a degree I loved but wasn’t sure what to do with. I myself felt like a can of worms: I felt my insides were writhing, and I couldn’t tell which way they were pulling me. I still didn’t know how to feel numbness, really, but I did understand there were things happening I didn’t consciously know about: worms seemed like the only way to express that.

This is when I realized I wasn’t dancing for myself: I was dancing for my worms—the feelings I now knew were there but didn’t know what to do with.

Last November, during my last first semester of university, dancing had been a big part of getting through a mercifully brief but rough bout of depression. The dance classes I was taking were one of few things I was able to make myself do. I’d walk half an hour to the studio and then a half hour back, on multiple occasions through literal snow storms. Then I’d get home and eat an entire loaf of plain bread. I didn’t have the willpower to make a bowl of pasta.

There was something about dancing–the warmth of it, the visceral feeling of it, the unison with the other dancers, the parts of my body I could feel that I hadn’t felt before–that allowed me to feel things. But I didn’t try to figure out why this was.

Then in June, I received a scholarship for a two-month language programme at a ritzy American school where amenities included an entire golf course, a wall-climbing space, at least two different theatres, and most importantly, a studio. It was big, bright, and airy, and filled with natural light for 14 hours a day. It also nearly always went unused—I soon figured out that as long as I got in by 11:30 p.m., it was mine for as long as I wanted it.

I played and danced to everything there, and I watched my own body as it curled around different beats. Invariably, I danced better to tracks I knew inside-out. Sultry beats like the ones from The Internet’s Ego Death elicited a slow, cat-like prowl; psychedelic indie like Glass Animals made me explore the different things I could do with my legs; happy, up-beat funk like Love, Sax and Flashbacks turned me explosive and leap-happy.

It should be said here that I am by no means an excellent dancer: what I lack in technique I lack also in practice, not to mention in strength and flexibility. But now, dancing alone with the luxury of time and space, I understood the perfectionism I had seen in many of my teachers’ choreographies. I could feel how I wanted my body to move, and I struggled to make it do that. Often, I failed altogether.

At the root of my dancing was a physical knowledge of the shape I was trying to make and of the emotion behind it. It was an innate awareness that went beyond just checking in on myself: it was allowing the feelings to surface that I have trouble acknowledging.

This is when I realized I wasn’t dancing for myself: I was dancing for my worms—the feelings I now knew were there but didn’t know what to do with. With no one to watch or hear me, I was free to feel. And, with the help of my speakers, I felt big, I felt often, and I felt hard: it seemed I felt enough to fill the whole studio with movement.

Soon I noticed how my movements changed with my mood. Here, I was isolated from my peers by an enforced language barrier, which amplified the stress of aimlessness: when I felt this, I often folded in on myself, clawing at my own stomach as if I could somehow wrench myself from my own guts. At the same time, in this cloistered idyllic bubble of a school, I had no responsibilities except for the schoolwork, which I enjoyed: when I enjoyed the lightness of this experience, when I felt breezy, I would become liquid and languorous.

If I were to summarize what I learned in this light-filled space in sleepy Vermont, I’d say it helped me find how to itch a scratch I had always felt but never known how to reach. If you can’t give that itch a voice, you may be able to give it your own body. For many who’ve given their lives to music more fully than I have, this may be a platitude. But for me as a writer, who had always learned that you can say anything if you just have the right words, it was no less than revolutionary to understand that worms don’t always need to speak the same language I do.

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