When I travel, I almost always bring a yoga mat – a rectangular island of plushness to gently coax a jet-lagged body back to coherence. But when I travelled to Cuba to study dance, I wanted to travel light. I reasoned that I could practice on any wood floor. I could adapt.
But there was no wood floor. The Casa Particular where I was staying was tiled – unforgiving to my bony back. Our dance studio floor was the dusty rough cement of a decaying movie theater. There was no wood floor.
I lay down anyway, arranging myself in the Alexander Technique “Active Rest” position, but I felt every vertebrae crushed and aching against the tile. I experimented with bridge pose. Worse. Hmm… Perhaps practice on a hard floor is similar to wearing minimalist shoes. Just as thick soled shoes allow for careless impact of the heel bone, my thick mat has protected my back from careless slamming. The more cushioned the shoe, the more people tend to use their feet like bricks – a gait style one would quickly curtail if barefoot. The foot is composed of 26 movable bones…How about the rib cage? Twelve thoracic vertebrae, 24 ribs… What if I allow all these bones to articulate and roll? Perhaps the impact will not be so jarring…
The quest to soften the chest was highlighted in my dance studies. I had audaciously assumed that with my years of classical and contemporary training, my recent studies of Afro-Haitian and West African dance, plus the Alexander Technique, my secret weapon for free movement, that Afro Cuban Folkloric would be in my wheelhouse. You laugh. And rightly.
The fluidity of the chest, the articulation of the ribs, the shake of the shoulders, the powerful mobility of the pelvis are not learned in Western dance forms, nor is this sort of movement supported by Western culture. Nothing was coming easily.
The relaxed chest of the Cuban dancers (and everyone in Cuba is a dancer) was mimicked by their relaxed attitude to the harshness of life. With nothing to cushion the impact of poverty and limited freedoms, the people were easy in their attitude towards living. In America, I would have gone to Walgreens and bought a cheap yoga mat. I might have suffered stress from wasting money or buying polluting plastic, but I could purchase a yielding surface. In Cuba, there is no Walgreens, so the people yield.
Early in the morning, as I did my Alexander Technique inspired warm up for dance, rolling and experimenting on that stony floor. For 4-hours a day, I danced on cement, and thought about fluidity in my chest. I imagined ribs like fish gills, a spine like smoke, shoulders that melt into an easy shimmy in response to the rhythmic song of the feet.
The environment was hard. I learned to be soft.
P.S. On the flight home, I remembered to melt in the airplane seat, and fell into a deep, loose slumber.