In our usual pre-article email exchange, In Dance editor, Wayne Hazzard wrote to me, “What is healthy these days?”
I have a very personal stake in this question, which made it hard to sit down and write about it. I tried to write about it when I was feeling well—but when I’m feeling well, I don’t want to think about my health. I tried to write about it when I was in the throes of a panic attack because I was convinced I had neck cancer (more on that below)—but it’s challenging to write when you’re lying on the cool tile of your bathroom floor with your legs up the wall, sobbing on the phone to your psychotherapist. I tried to write about it when the air quality in the Bay Area was worse than Delhi and Beijing—but my kids were home because schools were closed and Yahtzee took pre-cedent over writing. I tried to write about it the Monday after Thanksgiving because my deadline was in three days—that worked!
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2016, found out I had the BRCA1 mutation a month or so later, had a double mastectomy in July, and a full hysterectomy plus breast reconstruction in December. Then, in early 2018, I discovered the doctors missed a spot in a single lymph node, so I had surgery again, then four rounds of chemotherapy, and five weeks of radiation. I finished all the treatment in July, spent September in a panic that I would be diagnosed with cancer every two years for the rest of my life (hence the aforementioned neck cancer panic—it took three doctors to convince me that I have, in their words, “a perfectly normal neck!”), and enjoyed the extra hour afforded by Daylight Savings Time wallowing in the realization that I have anger issues and can’t forgive myself for yelling at my kids all the time.
Hard times, my friends, hard times. Add to my personal saga our national politics and global climate change and it would seem perfectly rational to start smoking a daily pack of Winstons again and having liquid lunches (Seabreezes, to be precise) like I did during the summer of 1988 in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. (That was my weight loss plan at the time. Worked like a charm.) But I want to stick around for as long as I can for those kids I yell at all the time so they can complain about me in therapy and then tell me about what a shitty parent I was at Passover seders.
So what does health look like “in practice” for me now? And what does my reflection on that question have to offer our phenomenal dance community?
The hardest part is feeling like I don’t have any control over my health because there are too many variables at play. I know I have some control, and most it has to do with what I do with my body—how and how often I move it, what I feed it, how much I allow my mind to fuck with it. To cultivate the best body-mind relationship I can, I engage in a rather extensive and somewhat unwieldy self-care regimen, which includes:
Feldenkrais with Mary Armentrout; dance classes with Randee Paufve, Nina Haft, Mo Miner, Melecio Estrella, and Joan Lazarus; Iyengar Yoga with Anneke Faas; lymphatic massage and somatic experiencing with Ama Dawn Greenrose; acupuncture with Carla Cassler; Jungian psychotherapy with (not telling! I’ll share body workers but not my shrink); nutritional advice from newly minted nutritionist Vika Teicher; no screens past 8pm, lights out at 10pm (this is more aspirational than actual); consumption of half my body weight in water every day (also aspirational—I hate having to pee all the time); mindfulness meditation (I don’t always manage even five minutes a day, but I believe “meditation on the spot” as Pema Chödrön calls it, counts); listening to Tara Brach podcasts; clean eating (I started a 30-day clean eating challenge, the 30-Clean, in late September, and haven’t gone back to any of my old habits…yet; I could write a whole piece on the stress of trying to figure out how to eat—what’s an omnivore to do? Right, ask Michael Pollan). I’ve got calls out to a Reiki practitioner and a Jin Shin Jyutsu master. I dabble in Qi Gong (I love your DVD, Margit Galanter!). I get occasional chiro/ART tune-ups from Bruce Rizzo and Rob Pape, plus PT with Wendy Clark at Kaiser Oakland. And of course, as much time as possible with beloved friends and family, indulging in intellectual inquiry, creative practice, commiseration, and The Great British Baking Show.
How do I afford all this? I do a lot of bartering, for one thing. And it’s not like these things are weekly or even monthly in some cases. I mainly try to make room for at least one of the above body-mind modalities per day. Also, though precarious, I’m privileged to have three jobs that allow for a flexible schedule to accommodate these psychophysical adventures.
Folks give Descartes a really hard time for initiating the mind-body split, but I think we’re too hard on the guy. I certainly know that my mind and my body are deeply connected but I also often feel like they are two separate entities vying for my attention. I was not raised to listen to my body, so my mind does a lot of the heavy lifting for me, often to ill effect. So I need all those body-centric activities to give my guts and fascia an opportunity to tell me what to do.
If I’ve learned anything about health, it’s that trusting in one’s health is fundamental to feeling healthy, and that enjoying oneself as much as possible is good for your organs. I remember yogi Rodney Yee telling a smoker who was feeling bad about smoking that if he’s going to smoke he might as well do so with pleasure: deep inhale, long slow exhale—the yoga of nicotine addiction. It’s also a great idea to see beauty and humor wherever you can. Sounds Pollyanna-ish, but for a gal who grew up with whatever the opposite of Pollyanna is (Yenta?), it works wonders. For example, having gummy bears that are anchored under my pectoral muscles in place of breasts that used to hang so low it took an acrobatic feat of drop-and-scoop to get them into a bra, means doing grand allegro braless—plus, I can now wear plunging necklines and backless dresses. Having no reproductive organs means no menstrual cycle and thus no fear of pregnancy (I know, I was pretty much out of the woods before my hysterectomy, but not totally out!). Other perks: my hair has grown back curly post-chemo and I have an asymmetrical tan across the right side of my chest that makes me look like I sunbathed half topless.
My health woes have taught me a lot about gratitude, though it’s still hard to feel it sometimes. (Thus the gratitude accountability email exchange I have with a friend.) They’ve showed me who’s in my corner. Above all, they’ve made me painfully, joyfully conscious of the fact that we’re all born into a death sentence. And what better way to partner with death than to dance.
Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her scholarly articles and book reviews have appeared in TDR, the Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices, Performance Matters, Contemporary Theatre Review, and The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies.