Christmas morning. I don’t usually have Sundays free and our family holiday celebrations lean nontraditional, so I’d come to a special ecstatic dance celebration and brought my 9-year-old daughter with me. As the music started and people all around us began to flow and move, I reached out to touch her hand. As if she’d been doing it for years, she shifted into a beautiful contact improv flow with me, rolling her arm down and across mine as she beamed love and radiance right into my heart.
This child brings up so many feelings in me as I watch her grow.
On many occasions at ecstatic dance, I’ve looked around the room and been overwhelmed by the beauty of the dancers and their joyful embodiment. When delight, peace, and ease are conditioned out of many of our bodily relationships through past traumas, body issues, or simply living in a disembodied or misembodied culture, feeling comfortable in our own skins is simultaneously an intentional act of cultural resistance and a profound act of self-care and self-love. Being present in the ecstatic dance space with lovely people moving confidently in fluid, sensual, emphatic, and silly ways fills my heart to overflowing on any given dance day.
Being present in that space with my daughter, looking around the room and imagining what it must look like through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl, gave it a whole new hue of meaning. People danced alone or with partners, men danced with men and women with women, all without shame over their bodies or feelings. The occasional dancer who slipped off to sit on the periphery, nursing tears that flow in the way holidays bring for some, was joined, held, hugged, cried with. My little girl danced with joyful abandon surrounded by men and women of all ages and shapes, present in their bodies and feelings, moving in ways that felt good, glowing with presence and the freedom of acceptance.
And yet the tears reveal that the ability to be fully present in our bodies and feelings is not always fostered in our families of origin and childhood communities. Those whose bodies fail to fit the normative center of standard acceptability, whether through appearance, size, or disability, may be too timid to claim the full freedom of embodiment in the face of cultural messages that equate diversity or limits with imperfection. Disability theologian Deborah Creamer, even as she points out that not all limits are advantageous, highlights the spiritual benefits of a model that accepts diversity of bodily limitations as normal and part of divine complexity: “The limits model demands that we reject unrealistic ideals or illusions of perfection, recognizing that such images lead to unproductive and dangerous dualisms.” Divine omnipresence, by nature of its all-containing expansiveness, necessarily contains diversity, limitations, and imperfection as part of its perfection. This is not a sign of our brokenness, but of our unity.
Theologian Nancy Cardoso Pereira has explored the ways in which the commodification of sexuality disconnects us from our bodies: “Alienation is not negation of the body, but an expropriation of sensuality and the erotic to the service of the appropriation of the product.” Capitalist co-optation of pleasure and bodies into markets of exchange reduces the body to its trade value, and the historical cramming of the untamed erotic into legalistic, medical, and psychological discourses reduces the body to its conformity and controllability – from an ars erotica to a scientia sexualis, from a “symbolics of blood” (and of flesh, skin, taste, and touch) to an “analytics of sexuality.” In exploring the ways we have translated the desire for sex into an “injunction to know it,” and how this knowing of sexuality has supplanted having of sex, reveling in desires, and embracing the pleasures of our bodies, Michel Foucault concludes that “the rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not be sex-desire [and thus more discourse], but bodies and pleasures.”
So what would it look like if from an early age, we grew up feeling safe in our bodies? What if our bodies weren’t shamed, violated, or abused, but were celebrated, honored, and loved, by us and by those who raised us, surrounded us, and taught us? What if as little kids, we all grew up regularly seeing adults – young and old, with and without disabilities, across the spectrums of gender and orientation, with all shapes and sizes of bodies – loving themselves, dancing freely, and caring for each other in vulnerability, with tender compassion, fully embodied and present with their feelings?
I know we can’t recreate the past – each of us is here shaped by the stories that brought us to our current awareness. But each of us is also here creating something new, for those who are now growing up and those who are yet to come. Pagan theologian Christine Hoff Kraemer posits that “when the right to pleasure is considered to be a basic human right, acts that do not nurture the body become clear ethical violations in a way that American society does not currently acknowledge.”
This has profound implications for social justice, but also for our personal practices of bodily presence and sexual expression. Would I have accepted years of my body serving the primary purpose of pleasure for others, a sex toy in tissue and disaster, without autonomy or direction or self-compassion, had I grown up with models for embodied joy and intentional, sensual presence? Would it have taken as long to come to a place where any lips that graze this tender flesh breathe blessing and respect across goose-bumped skin, and any touches, experienced only with consent, feed love, adoration, and shared pleasure deep into the parts of my soul that once laid abandoned or ignored, formerly littered with doubts and fears and self-loathing?
I want something better for my children. I want something better for all 9-year-olds – those we are raising, those we once were, and those whose lights will dot the future with sparkling hope and revolutionary fire. Will you help me create it?
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She is a graduate student whose current liberal studies program has focused on religion and social justice. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, priestess, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.