"Those Are the Rules in Prison"


What is intimacy, exactly?

Closeness? Touch? Sex? Friendship? Oversharing? Being vulnerable? Allowing yourself to be truly seen by others?

(And how many of you actually squirm a little when I say the word “intimacy,” or have a response that goes something like, “I don’t really do intimacy with strangers/most people/all people?”)

Perhaps we are a little confused by, and uncomfortable with, intimacy in our (US) culture. We like our distance and our independence, thank you very much. We want our personal space with strangers: no bear hugs, triple cheek kisses, or sweat, yuck. Don’t cry, it’ll show you’re weak, and if you’re a man? Suck it up and be tough. “Act like a man.” We avoid the topics of money, sex, or religion. We are often a lot more intimate with our phones than the humans sitting next to us.

How is it that we can be so intimate and so not at the same time? “I tell my spouse everything, she’s my best friend” / “I can’t possibly talk to my wife about the details of our sex life or my deepest fantasies, she’s the mother of my children”… We shun nudity and touch but are obsessed with porn… We follow and like and make connections with others online but don’t know our physical neighbors at all.

We even have rules in schools: no physical contact. As a teacher, this drove me nuts. Try caring for five-year-olds and not have them touch you (impossible, and irrational). I would teach theatre and dance classes where middle schoolers would get squirmy about even clasping hands. I would tell them to get over it. As a teacher, technically I was not supposed to lay a finger on anyone. But to me, it doesn’t feel human. I understand the motivation — of course we want to prevent abuse of young people by adults in positions of authority. But does that preclude having an even slightly nuanced dialogue around what is appropriate and not appropriate touch in different circumstances? I think good, responsible teachers can handle that. I think even ten-year-olds can handle that conversation. After all, it is as a professor of mine once said of the no-touch thing: those are the rules in prison.

Of course, intimacy is far more than just touch. Developing closeness — emotional, intellectual, spiritual — is also at the core of intimacy. Being vulnerable with someone is a kind of intimacy: “I will let the tender parts of me be seen and trust you to listen, be gentle, and accept me anyway.” But the experience of this is so foreign in our culture that sometimes I feel we starve ourselves.

I have been thinking about intimacy and touch because I have been studying tango. Far more so than almost any other kind of dance, tango requires intimacy. The lead and follow is very subtle, compared to the “broader” leads of swing, salsa, etc. (which use more of a push/pull, turn her here, twirl her out, etc). In tango, you really have to “listen” to the other person with your body. And much of tango is danced in close embrace, which means you are chest to chest with your partner. All of this means that you have to stretch your normal comfort zone to let a total stranger into your close physical space and agree to put your subtle attention on him or her. You even have to get over squeamishness about things like sweat, because people do sweat when they dance a lot, and you are in very close proximity to it.

But the payoff is pretty mesmerizing, addicting even. Many people who dance tango fall hard in love with the dance; it kind of hooks you into obsession. The level of unprecedented intimacy and the very powerful “in the moment” experience of music plus connection are unlike nearly anything we experience in this culture. It makes me think a little of massage, where we actually do give ourselves permission to get literally unclothed and vulnerable with someone who is going to touch and work on our body, in an intimate but non-sexual sense. But even that we somehow can make very impersonal. You take off your clothes, you get under the sheets, and you tip the person afterwards. Do you remember the name of the last person who gave you a massage? Did you actually establish any level of connection?

But there is a liberation in breaking through the discomfort and experiencing the beautiful intimacy and connection of tango. You will mess up leading or following. I do, often. You will sweat, you will worry you are in need of a breath mint. You will fret about asking people to dance, or being asked. All of it is worth it. Because there is the moment, where you must say, without words, “I see you. I feel you. For the next three songs, I will put my attention on you and be present, right here, right now.” What a gift that we rarely give to ourselves, or others.

For the next two weeks, I am alone, in a big house that is not my own, with two cats, in a place where I don’t have many connections. I am very conscious of how strange it feels, to be without human interaction, conversation, hugs, meaningful connection. I have to really force myself to get creative about ways to have those interactions occasionally, lest I go a little nuts.

Ironically, there may be no touch in prison, but I think if we all were able to experience something like the touch & intimacy of tango, the despair and pain that drive many of the acts that land people in prison, would never happen.

Because in the end, life is really a series of bids for meaningful connection, whether it be tango, technology, our professional work, or love. Reach, beyond where you think you can, and the connections may surprise you.