On Personal Space, Bumping into People and Social Taboos
by Heidi Beierle
Recently, I attended a friend’s birthday party. During the festivities, I had cause to travel through a bottleneck in the kitchen, which was completely filled with people, then dip into the shack for a drink on the far side of the space. Both room forays required me to navigate many human obstacles. Party-goers remarked on my ability to move nimbly through the crowds.
Not long after, I attended a Contact Improvisation Jam at Breitenbush Hot Springs. Contact Improv can look a lot like ballroom dancing, in that people dance standing duets—but throw in a little swing, tango, yoga, tai chi, capoeira, and mime, break the duet into a solo, trio, quartet, take it up in the air, down to the ground, and somewhere in between, and you get closer to visualizing what it’s really about. The juxtaposition of my experiences at both the Jam and my friend’s party, combined with the persuasive challenge of a writing sprite goaded me into musings on how personal space affects social interaction.
During last Spring’s Contact Jam, I had a great quartet dance that formed what we fondly refer to as a “blob”, a dance at the floor level that sticks together. Forming a blob requires radically different personal space than most of the earth’s social collective is used to. For example, rolling on the floor and over and/or under a person puts traditionally “protected” areas of the body (i.e. breasts, buttocks, genitals, inner thighs) in contact with another person’s body. For example, if you want to get up on someone’s back, you have to touch his or her butt with some part of your body. Doing this comfortably results in considerably shrunken sense of personal space at one’s sacrum, and produces a certain ease of access to other people’s sacrum. Apart from being a stable perch and vault, the sacrum serves as the fulcrum point for a number of lifts and provides desirable results when dancers initiate from it.
For me, shifting into this “dancing” space helps me engage human bodies as dynamic structures, rather than 3D fields of “taboo,” “off limits,” and “no touchy.”
In addition to perceiving bodily connection differently, contact enables energetic communication. Now, you may understand this as being able to read body language, which it is, but it is more than that. Body language gives us clues about a person’s interest in engagement, preferences about touch, or focus on other activities, and bestows cues about emotional states and/or other subtleties. Imagine perceiving all that with eyes closed and your body in motion—without connection to the floor. Even when your eyes are open, they are not always directed toward motion vectors, so somehow you learn to perceive and anticipate through your body. The body then becomes an energetic receptor, the same way eyes are light receptors, and the body also emanates energies, which are received by other bodies.
Body contact makes this communica-tion easier. With detailed information coming from my entire body (including my energetic body), I can be precise and receptive in my response. I most enjoy when my energies synch with others’ energies to form something akin to a harmony that is sensed rather than heard or seen. Similarly, I notice that being sensitive to these wavelengths can alert me to “bad vibes” before they become apparent. Again, more information helps me formulate an astute response.
The more I dance Contact, the more important touch has become to me. Touch is the most healing tool I possess, and as I have come to understand and appreciate its power, I am conscious of the quality and affect of my energy as it travels to another person outside of the dance form. I recognize that a personal space “intrusion” can be uncomfortable for many, but I also know that touch is a key ingredient in vitality, and that most of us do not receive enough.
To me, bumping into people is an opportunity to sprinkle them with light, or give them vicarious vitamins. Lately, I try to draw attention to such moments of unexpected contact. When people apologize for a breach in personal space, I ask, “Is it such a bad thing?” Instead of “I’m sorry,” perhaps we can say, “Thank you,” and move along, proffering an energetic buzz dressed as a twirl or sway.
Heidi Beierle lives in Eugene, Oregon. She specializes in writing, painting, human relating, non-verbal communication, body arts, performance, astrology, and constructed environments. This winter, she teaches “Intimacy and Ecology: Lessons in Primary Sensation,” a workshop that connects our creative natures to our social and physical milieux. Contact: [email protected].