From the time I was a young child and attended high holiday services, I always felt a shiver up my spine during the prayer where the community begs God not to abandon them like the way elders are forgotten during their old age. This notion became particularly acute in my job as a social worker in a residence for older adults with complicated medical and family histories. As the prayer foretold, my clients were cast off to the margins of society and were mostly forgotten about by their families, the neighborhood community and society as a whole. Though housed with others their own age, these seniors were isolated from the larger community with few visitors or opportunities for social interaction outside of the home.
What I was most struck by in my work with this population, however, was the lack of physical interaction with and among this age group. These seniors receive most of their physical care from aids and nurses and these acts of touch are prescribed in the care and are not of spontaneity, comfort and assurance. In contrast, babies and young children are almost always physically engaged—through cuddling, kissing or holding. Young people express a great amount of pleasure from this attention, acknowledgement, validation and stimulation. What occurs over the span of a lifetime to lose this very basic form of interaction?
When I think about my own life, I notice how even in my relatively young age, I have already experienced a deterioration of touch. As a young child, I frequently sat on my mother’s lap, snuggled with my sisters and held hands with my best friends. I loved these forms of physical acknowledgement and felt thoroughly excited, happy and filled by these giving and safe forms of tactile communication. Even in my early 30s, I already notice a palpable absence of touch. While I am lucky to have wonderful friends and family members, our main form of communication is through verbal and visual interaction. I engage with those closest to me by listening intently to their stories, providing supportive verbal feedback and maintaining eye contact. Yet even with those friends and family I am closest with, the only physical interaction I generally receive or give is a quick hug. On dates with a potential partner, a hug usually begins and ends the date. Though these hugs involve physical interaction, they feel formulaic, almost as a forced acknowledgement of the other person, but not an act of touch that is readily and excitedly offered.
The times in my adult life that touch has been more freely offered and given has been during a romantic relationship where both my physical and emotional self has felt affirmed and acknowledged by another. In those instances when I share affectionate and tactile communication with another, my sense of my own physical presence in front of another and within myself feels validated. When safe and wanted touch feels so affirming, why has it become confined to only romantic encounters? How can sustained physical communication be reintroduced into the lexicon of relating to others so that it can be an available and integrated form of communication across the lifespan?
While working at the senior facility and thinking about touch and physical acknowledgement, I met a friend who invited me to go contra dancing with her. Contra is a type of social folk dance danced with a partner, where couples dance in two facing lines or a in a group of four. During the dance, each person dances with their partner and the person next to them, temporarily becoming a couple with that neighbor. The dance progresses as couples move up and down the lines. Couples interact through partnered dance steps alternating between ones that involve touching or holding your partner and steps that do not involve physical contact. Contra dances are accompanied by live folk music with many melodies from Irish, Scottish, and French-Canadian origins. The contra dancing community is comprised of dancers of all ages, from young children to older adults.
Although I knew that contra involved partnered dancing, the amount of physical interaction in the dance was initially jarring for me, especially since there is such an absence of touch in my life. As soon as I arrived at the hall, a potential dancing partner eagerly asked me to dance with him and immediately took my hand. Holding hands is something that I’ve done only after knowing someone for a while and as an expression of interest. Here though, where everyone else was holding hands it felt strangely nice and easy.
The steps in the dance moved rather quickly, and like most beginners, I felt very dizzy. My partner instructed me to maintain eye contact with him, giving me a point to focus on to reduce the dizziness. As the lively music began again, my partner held me close with a hand on my back and another on my hand. He looked deeply into my eyes as we moved across the floor together and as our steps quickened and as we spun around faster, the room around us began to become a blur of colors. Through our visual gaze and tactile interaction of our hands guiding our steps and body positioning, I felt more alive and awake than I had ever experienced before. My dancing partner affirmed my presence and importance in the room. My eye contact mattered, but so did the actual matter of my being; my physical presence. I felt a sense of wholeness, validation, excitement and pleasure in being seen by my partner and seeing how much I mattered through his gaze. Though I was firmly rooted to the ground, the happy feeling elicited in me made me feel like I was flying. As the dance progressed, and I continued to make eye contact with my partner and with my neighbor, who kept changing throughout the dance, I felt that same amazing feeling with each person I danced with. This person sees me and feels the weight of my body! This person sees me too! I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
As I danced more, I learned that the swing step, the most common step in contra, is correctly achieved when both partners provide weight and tension in their touch. The weight in this move must be mutual and shared, causing both people to be active participants in the swing. When done properly, dancers achieve a sensation of a shared balance. This shared connection of the visual and the physical allowed me to feel held, supported and present in a way I hadn’t known before. I felt so in tune with my partner, that even in the steps that do not allow for touch, I still felt his eyes holding me and even just tracking me through their gaze on the dance floor felt incredibly self-affirming. Over the following months, I continued to attend dances, both locally and out of state.
I felt fully seen and acknowledged because the visual was grounded in the physical. Being able to connect the mind with the body heightens the experience of connecting and relating to another. It is especially exciting to have discovered a community that celebrates physical communication in a non-sexualized form. Experiencing the wonderful rush of mattering makes me realize how disconnected I am with others when I am not encountering them in a physical way. In contra, connection is the language and touch is the dialect that is used to convey affirmation of another. When it is just one without the other, there is a level of connection and emotion that is unachievable. However, when there is a community that is able to achieve a sense of connection starting at the point of safe and playful touch one can still maintain a deep feeling of connection even when not touching.
This story "The Power of Touch — and Contra Dancing" was written by Sarah Rubin.