Contact Dancing with Karen Rain
Note: I wrote this as an epilogue to Practice and All is Coming. For me, it rounded off the narrative journey of this 3+ years process. I’d gotten to know Karen Rain over several interviews, dozens of phone calls, and hundreds of emails. It was extraordinary to meet her in person finally, and go with her to a movement space where she didn’t have to speak her story anymore, but could show me something of what had helped her heal from being abused within the Ashtanga world. It really felt like the last word. However, as the book developed, its ending swerved away from the personal and towards the study of community health best practices. My editor and I eventually decided that this piece was ultimately distracting from that arc — even though it feels like the beating heart of how it all came together. So here it is, on its own, opening with a quote from Kathleen Rea, who hosted us that night.
Explorations of different themes, such as intimacy, sensuality, surrendering control, anger, fighting, being contained, grief etc. are welcome as long as they are not explicitly sexual, and are created through a step-by-step verbal or non-verbal consent building process. Please note that a newcomer to contact dance improvisation sometimes has not yet acquired the language or skill through which to build consent for dances exploring intense themes. We, therefore, ask that you limit exploring intense themes with newcomers.
— Kathleen Rea, “Wednesday Contact Dance Improvisation Jam Boundary Guidelines”
It’s a Wednesday evening in Toronto, mid-March. It’s chilly, and Karen clutches her bulky sweater close as we walk from the car to Dovercourt House in Toronto’s west end. On Friday we’ll be filming our big interview at Diane Bruni’s house. We’re chatting about it, going over the questions. The plan for the interview is to have something raw and humanizing to accompany The Walrus article when it drops. We know that people will try to discredit her, and me, and we’ve calculated that the in-person format will minimize that. We know what it feels like to talk with each other, and we’re thinking that if people can eavesdrop, they’ll get it.
But she’s nervous about it, and I can feel she wants to stop talking. The evening is crystal clear. We’re heading to a dance.
It’s a Contact Improv Jam, to be specific. The host is Kathleen Rea. She was in the ballet world, and is now a psychotherapist. We slip out of our coats and shoes and into her class in the enormous third floor room, and watch from the sides as she guides a small group. The dancers pair off and turn around each other, touching hands, arms, hips, backs, slumping together, pushing off gently, rolling down to the ground, supporting each other, trading weight back and forth. I feel relaxed and slightly mesmerized.
The class ends and Rea announces that the Improv session will be starting in ten minutes. She asks that if anyone is new to the experience that they meet with her outside to hear the intro talk and some ground rules.
As we file back out into the hallway, more people arrive. A musician begins to set up. It’s Jeff Burke, who locals know from his haunting busking on the subway. He has dreadlocks reaching down to his ankles. He’s smiling and melancholic, and bent low under an enormous dufflebag. As he unpacks it seems like some musical tickle trunk that can never be completely empty. He draws out a black bassoon, a tin whistle, and a theremin.
Karen and I sit down cross-legged in the hallway with three millenials, also first-timers to this space. Karen isn’t new to Contact Improv, which, she’s told me, has been very helpful in her healing process, post-Ashtanga. It’s helped her feel her body in relation to other bodies again. In public spaces, in safety, in sensual but non-sexual ways. Karen suggested we come to Rea’s class because Rea is famous in the Contact Jam world for the clarity with which she runs her space. Like Rain, she has been a reformer, calling out abuses and problems with consent in her subculture.
Rea starts her intro talk from the groundwork of affirmative consent. This is an art-form, she explains, in which touch is common. It’s often evocative and nourishing, but it’s also not essential. She says that any dancer can and should say no to an invitation to dance at any time, and can also express withdrawal verbally or non-verbally. She says that we might notice that people who have been coming for a long time have unique and complex dance-stories that have evolved between them. That can be cool to watch, but probably not to try to imitate.
She explains that Contact Improv can bring up all kinds of complex sensations, feelings, and thoughts, some of which might be sexual in nature. This is nothing to be ashamed of, she says. But in this space we agree that those feelings will not be acted out. There are spaces in the subculture in which that’s part of the scene, she says. But here, sexualized contact is strictly forbidden. She assures us that while she’ll be participating in the dance, she’ll also be available for questions and to help us process any complexity that comes up.
So I’m sitting there and it’s starting to sink in. How extraordinary it is to be here with Karen, listening to a teacher give us a ten-minute safer-space talk about touch and consent. How would Karen’s life have turned out, I wonder, if this level of clarity had been available twenty-five years ago in the Ashtanga world?
I can feel also something else. A terror has built up in me while writing this book that there is no safety to be found in this world. That yoga classes and dance jams are somehow always and forever strained by unconscious desires and aggressions fanned by unequal power dynamics, and that there’s nothing to be done about it.
This is not true. We can do lots of things about it.
Rea checks in to see if we have any further questions. A young woman asks about feeling shy or out of place. Rea nods and says, “You can just watch, too. And you can just wait for someone to ask, and see how you feel.”
I like that answer. It’s also for me.
We file back in and sit down against the wall. Jeff Burke has started to play. There’s a pickup plugged into the mouth of his bassoon. It sends a low drone through an amp and into a loop machine to keep it going. Some of the dancers are already up and at it.
I feel shy, not only about the dance, but about sitting there with Karen, not talking about Jois. We’ve put aside the history, and now there’s music.
Two days later, after our interview and over lunch, Karen summed up our awkward moment, and a few others.
“So when we stop talking about Ashtanga,” she says with wry smile, “will we have anything else to talk about? How likely is it that we’ll be friends after this is all over? Do we have anything else in common? I’m queer and you’re a straight guy with a partner and kids and very little free time. You’re also still in the yoga world.”
Half sad, half elated, I laughed. Of the many things this whole experience had done to and for Karen, it had above all else made her brutally honest. I know she doesn’t like this word, but I can’t think of any other that fits: for Karen, honesty is the highest form of spirituality.
As I drove her to the airport the day after that lunch, we talked about the sacrifice this spirituality demands. We were talking about the pros and cons of having gone through all of this, especially for her. How much it cost to disclose everything and remember, and retell, and weather the denials and rationalizations all over again. But also: how much clarity it had provided. How it had helped to change an entire culture.
“When I first dialed your number,” I said, “I had no idea that all this would happen.”
“Neither did I,” Karen said.
The landscape hurtled by.
“What can I say?” said Karen. “I hate you for this and I also love you for this.”
We laugh and cry.
Back in that dance room on that Wednesday night, I remember my shyness slowly turning into a pre-teen-style goofball shame that I wasn’t just getting up and dancing.
“So are you going to dance?” Karen asked me.
“I think I’m waiting for someone to ask me.”
“Okay.” She smiles. I’m sure I look funny to her. Just another man, used to thinking of himself as so confident. But really, deep down, afraid to dance.
“Would you like to dance with me?”
“Look,” she said. “I feel safe with you. I don’t think you’re a creep. But don’t give me all your body weight. You’re a big guy.”
I still felt too shy to look her in the eye. That was okay. We went to the centre of the room and sat down, back to back. The bassoon got louder and Karen leaned into me. As she pushed her back into mine I felt a flush of warmth and resolution and friendship.
And I was surprised, in a new way, by how strong she was.