In favour of touching

Image: Sara Popowa. Land into Light, 2012. Dancers Jennifer-Lynn Crawford and Charlotte Spencer. 

As I approach the birth of my first child I find myself in a time of radical change. My body changes noticeably from one day to the next, my sense of myself is in flux and I am all too aware of the precious time I have all to myself to sit and think in a way that will be abruptly forgotten once the wee one has arrived.

All the books I’ve been reading about preparing for child birth and the early days of parenting re-iterate one common necessity – touch. During labour, being touched by your partner, Doula, friend, mid-wife is invaluable for managing the physical and emotional intensity of contractions. Massage, hair brushing, hugging, stroking, reflexology, acupressure…whatever helps you relax, it’s all good. As soon as the baby is born, skin to skin contact is essential. It will make the baby feel calmer, safer. It will aid with bonding. It is instinctive from both mother and baby. And babies need to be held and touched a lot. If they aren’t then they simply don’t develop properly physically or emotionally. Indeed if babies and young children don’t receive regular loving touch in their first two years of life, then the damage that that causes is irreversible. They suffer from attachment disorders, cognitive delay, their growth is stunted, their digestive and immune systems don’t develop properly.

I am looking forward to giving birth. That might sound slightly strange, but I am. I am curious about the demand that it will place on me physically, mentally and emotionally. I am so curious about this other life that has been growing inside me these past almost 9 months. Who are you? I keep saying.

I am so relieved to be in the midst of a process that is so directly entangled with what it is to be alive, to be human, to be in and with my physical body. So much of life today seems to be removed from that – it is virtual, on-screen, brainy, insubstantial. I don’t think you can get much more real time, real life, real sensation than giving birth. It is full of all of the senses.

Until the past couple of weeks I didn’t engage much with buying stuff in preparation for this baby, but I have been quite busy being in touch, getting in touch, being touched. It doesn’t feel like new work but it does sometimes feel luxurious. I find myself repeatedly grateful for the dance training that I had, for all the years that I’ve spent working with my body. I feel better equipped somehow.

When I think back to it, those years of full time training were so particular – long days that were so physically and emotionally demanding. Endless sweating. Sitting in a heap at the end of the day on the benches in the changing room, gathering energy to shower and change. Falling asleep in the body conditioning studio. Crying, a lot. Friendships were intense, supportive, fierce. There were plenty of hugs and massages and arguments. We touched each other a lot. Formally and informally we learnt many ways of touching, of being in touch with ourselves and each other. Of giving and receiving. Of knowing where our edges were. Sometimes we were clumsy, unclear, unsure. Sometimes we got the touch wrong. But we practiced a lot.

It is now almost 15 years since I graduated and in those intervening years sometimes I’ve danced a lot. Sometimes very little. I definitely touch other people less than I did then. Somehow there is less opportunity. Do I miss it? Yes probably.

Over the past year I’ve worked intermittently on a farm that specialises in growing Japanese vegetables. I have appreciated having a job of little responsibility that is 10 mins cycle ride from where I live, is outdoors and is physical.

We’re a friendly bunch and our working environment is pretty informal. And still we don’t touch each other at all regularly. We don’t hug or shake hands at the beginning or the end of the day. I worked with the same colleagues from June til December last year and it wasn’t until we said goodnight after our Christmas get-together that I actually hugged any of my co-workers. I noticed the absence of any physical contact during those months of working together and I missed it, but somehow I also didn’t instigate any sort of change or shift. Like in dance projects, we also worked intimately. We started work anywhere between 2 and 4am, we worked hard physically and supported each other when we were beyond tired. We shared jokes and as we worked we shared little snippets of our lives. In many ways it’s a wonderful environment for work. Meditative, outdoors, working with the land, hands in the soil – the work itself is a deeply tactile experience. And the conversations, relationships that develop through that working environment have the potential to be deeper, more intimate, more open precisely because of the context and the nature of the work. And yet we never actually touched each other. No pats on the back, no light brush of the hand. Nothing. It’s normal. And something always felt at odds with that.

I read that we are in the midst of a crisis of touch. Adults don’t touch each other much. Increasingly adults aren’t allowed to touch children who aren’t their own. There have been too many stories of abuse, too many scandals and we’ve become a scared nation. In the attempt to empower young people in being able to assert their touch boundaries, I find myself wondering what has been lost and what is the cost of that loss? Have we forgotten what non-sexual loving touch can be? Have we lost the ability to be able to give and receive nuanced touch? If so, we are indeed in crisis. Touch is life-giving after all. It is essential.

There has been (and probably continues to be) so much abuse of touch – the proliferation of the #metoo campaign reveals this all too clearly. And that’s only just the start. It’s certainly thorny territory. I’m curious to see how we can develop healthy, honest touch experiences. Ones which make us feel safer, more confident, more connected to ourselves and to others, less fearful, more optimistic about the riches that touch can offer. And I wonder what the experience of dancing, dance training, dance performance has to offer here. I have a feeling it is quite a lot.

Image: Kimbal Bumstead. Embodied Drawing, 2012. Dancers Thomas Goodwin and Charlotte Spencer