Dancing in Circles: On Being Triggered by Meanness

Updated March 16, 2016 4:32pm PDT
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It is my desire, one day, to write about the precise and strange phenomenon of the brown mean girl. 

She is different from the white mean girl. Or the white mean boy. She has a legacy. 

I think I have been a brown mean girl, mostly because of how many years people have been mean to me, because of how when I get triggered, what rises up is this vomit, aptly referred to in that white mean girl epic, Mean Girls, that I have to get out at all costs. 

Something that I have been working on lately is not allowing my indignant rage at being scared, harmed, or reminded of harm, turn to vitriol and vengeance. This requires reminding myself where I am, who I am talking to, that I am safe, that I am allowed to advocate for myself and my boundaries. 

I am allowed to tell people what I have survived. 

The problem is: when I take away the fangs, when I code switch from a presentation of strength to that of vulnerability, what is left is that child who would be taunted for how often they cried. Who was harmed, even though they cried. And sometimes that feels like it will kill me.

While I have certainly been mean to people on an individual level, like a skunk or porcupine when I feel threatened, I have understood my disinterest in meanness most acutely in groups. It feels important to say: I don't think when someone experiences meanness, it is always the result of someone else's intention to be mean or harmful. I think there's a huge difference between calling shit out aggressively, from a place of disenfranchisement, and being mean from a place of power. 

Frankly, I'd like to save my energy for dancing aggressively any day.

I put a lot of stock in the importance of circles. As a practitioner of magic, as a black dancer, as a body made up of not very many straight lines. I love sitting and dancing in circles. When I was little, between the ages of eight and twelve, a circle of people laughing and clapping, with one person in the center, was a good thing. This was a freestyle moment at a dance party or gathering, where someone was showing off their dance style, or how well they had mastered the style en vogue. 

At this time in my life I was spending a lot of time with other black and brown dancers, Deaf dancers, dancers with Cerebral Palsy, Autism, young dancers, old dancers, sages, prodigies, queens. I felt a part of a legacy which could see and hold both my body and my face. 

I drummed and sang. Even when I had to go back to school in my small, sub-rural, majority white, New Jersey town, a place in which I was quick to cry, and was teased for starting “A Bug Club” and a charity fund for the Loch Ness Monster, I was also living a life in which I was celebrated. In which people thought I was beautiful and a good dancer and singer and person. 

I don't know if I ever consciously thought, but perhaps I did, that this confidence and secret knowing would carry me through the rest of public school.

It didn't. As soon as the workload got harder come 7th grade, I had to stop driving into the city multiple times a week with one or the other of my parents. I had to stay in Clinton all the time. I had to focus on school. I don't know if kids can smell when you are trying to figure out who you are, or yearning to escape, either a place or your skin. I helped them maybe, painting dripping lines from lip all the way to chin, wore capes, kept the hood up, read books in the hallway between classes, drew on boys hands when I thought they were being nice to me, left marks, trails, led them to me. 

There was a boy, he was black like me, biracial like me, new in school, and let me draw on his hands during class, which were all wonderful qualities. He had the potential to be popular though—it's funny, what bodies in public middle school do, and I did not. The boys who wanted him were all white; I was crippled as well as brown.

Every time I am in a group of mostly white, able bodied or invisibly disabled people (I am not equating these experiences, but rather highlighting my experience and the experience of visibly disabled people, for how we are often made a spectacle of in spaces where white, able bodied experience is being centered by the space's constituents), my capacity for humiliation, no matter others' aim, is always large. Even when I am not aware of this. 

As soon as race or racism comes up, or rather, the negative space around it, I feel like I am struggling for air. My chest tightens inward like in Tank Girl when they stick the pronged water bottle into people's backs and it sucks all the water from inside them into the bottle for white rich people to drink.

Sometimes it is a dance space, where we are all hoping, earnestly, to radicalize the scenes we have danced in before, or to create a new little space which is better. Less ableist, less racist, less misogynist, less full of physical obligation and shame and sexual harassment. 

I am a co-facilitator of an improvisational dance group for women and gender non-conforming people. We were playing a movement theatre game, one which involved a circle of people surrounding an interaction of two, taking turns narrating what the inner two are doing, as if narrating a nature documentary, when I was transported to 7th grade, where they held my arms back in the hallway, and told me what I saw. 

It was those boys that wanted my new friend to be their friend. And perhaps I have read too many stories, but my humiliation and abuse seemed to be his initiation. They all laughed while I cried, and tried to struggle free. There were seven of them, like a fairy tale. They took a lot of what I had under my clothes. 

Afterwards, we all had to go to the same class, and they were relatively on time, I was late, and reprimanded. 

The boy who was my friend never spoke to me again after that, until the principal made them all apologize to me at the end of the year for what he called “bullying”. I had never told anyone who asked the truth, except for my mother, years later. I didn't dance for a long, long time, especially in groups, especially in circles.

In the present day, in the game, I am being called a snake, who vomits and poops, and generally has a gross othered body. I love bizarro fiction, and I love dancing and theatre and games, and I think that in many other situations I would not have felt so triggered by by being called “a butthole snake” (part of the made up game began to involve making up names for new species), if I had been in on the joke. If the people calling me these things were not all white, save two people who were Asian; if I had not been the only wheelchair user in the group;if I had been prepared. 

When you can't see something coming, and when suddenly it feels like a group of people who don't understand your body are laughing at you in that body, this feels cruel. I don't think that cruelty has to be intentional. A group dynamic can so quickly escalate into cruelty, and you know what? I don't think that's beautiful. I don't think that's worth it. 

It takes care and self-regulation and great listening skills to learn how to behave in ways which will not oppress or harm other people. It takes even more care and fluency of social dynamics to understand not only how your body interacts with and impacts another body in space, but to understand how your body contributes to or stands out from a group dynamic. For a group dynamic to truly feel good, each person must be contributing somewhat to the intuitive, self-reflexive, and listening work of finding group unison which everyone can participate and feel good in. 

As a group facilitator, I trusted everyone too much to take care. And they believed, maybe I was impenetrable. But I am not. I am triggered by meanness, and I am, as it turns out, impacted by carelessness.

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Lyric Seal aka Neve Be(ast) is a mixed black, queer, multigender, disabled, porn performing, performance art wreaking femme anarchist with a vengeance. They are a staff writer at HARLOT covering all topics which can vaguely be related to performing arts, love, sex/work, disability justice, policy, and the lush insides of their mind. Neve also has a column in maximumrocknroll called "Totally Lame." They are a contributor to Everyday Feminism and various literary magazines. You can book them to dance, talk, teach, and make you feel good about yourself.