Sauna Series

By Ann Carlson

December 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

I work as an interdisciplinary movement-based artist. I shorten it to choreographer most of the time, depending upon where I am, who I’m talking to. Right now I am in California, in Palo Alto as a visiting artist at Stanford.

I belong to the YMCA, an earnest and clean, sort of every man’s gym, or woman’s. After swimming–I shower and go into the sauna. It’s a nice sauna, hot enough, clean enough, a warm semi-private space, conducive to quieting the mind or having an unexpected conversation. It seems I am starting to collect some stories from my visits to the sauna, or maybe they are collecting me. One morning I opened the sauna door and saw a woman I recognized.

In my mind I call her the “mayor” of the locker room. She’s there regularly and seems to know everyone. She has a very specific skin care regime. She hands out advice like the attendant gives towels. The conversation went like this: (and this is true) M is the “mayor,” A stands for me.

M: Hi Ann, how are you?
A: Good, you?
M: I’m good, I haven’t seen you for awhile. What are you doing today?
A: Oh, I’m going up to the city, I’m glad to go, I enjoy San Francisco so much.
M: That’s nice. You are a city person, aren’t you?
A: Well, yes, I lived in New York City for 22 years. I long for a city most of the time.
M: Well, I grew up in San Francisco, so it’s disappointing to me now–it’s changed so much.
A: Oh, yes you have probably seen a lot of change.
M: Well, not to be racist, but San Francisco feels like a third world country to me now.
A: Oh, well, that is, um, racist, and before we go on, I should tell you my kids are black.
M: Oh, [she’s a little taken aback] did you birth them or are they adopted?
A: They were adopted. Hold on, I’m going to take a cool shower.
[I come back into the sauna]
M: Well, the other thing, though, about San Francisco, it’s such a mecca for gays and lesbians.
A: (laughing a bit) Oh, I should say again before we go on, I’m a lesbian.
M: You are?? [She looks at me, we’re both naked sitting there . . .] You don’t look like one.
A: I don’t??
M: No. But do you watch Oprah?
A: Sometimes.
M: Did you ever watch Family Ties? There’s this actress, Meredith Baxter Burney and she wrote a memoir about realizing she is a lesbian and Oprah had her on.
A: Hmmm, well some people come out later in life, yes.
M: And my daughter has two women friends who had husbands and then got together and now they own a wine shop in Carmel.
A: Oh, yes, that happens.
M: I don’t know.
A: I’m too hot now. I’m going to get out.
M: Ok, have a good day, Ann, have fun in the city.

She waved to me as I exited the sauna and I was both laughing and wincing inside. It can’t be that much of an anomaly to be a white middle-aged lesbian mother to three black teens sitting naked in a sauna in Palo Alto. But that’s not really the point. That conversation made me muse on this little room of public nakedness. In this hot sauna space what immediate assumptions do we make about each other? As we’re wrapped in towels, sweating and stealing precious moments for ourselves, do walls come down and veils come up simultaneously? Do we converse differently without the obvious signs of class, or wives, kids, or to do lists? If shared nakedness frees us, how does skin and hair texture house us? About two days later I was in the sauna again. There was a woman sitting sideways on the bench, legs drawn up, her back against the wall. I’ve talked with her before. She’s beautiful, like she just stepped out of a Gaugin painting. She does elder care, sits in the sauna while her charge takes aqua aerobics for seniors. She has four kids around the same age as mine. We have talked before, and she knows “the mayor” as well. I felt compelled to tell her the conversation I had had a few days before. I hesitated, but told her anyway. Her name, I don’t remember, I’ll call her “G.”

A: [I climb up to the top seat where it’s hottest] Hi, how are you?
G: [She’s sweating, she’s been in there awhile] Oh, I’m pretty good.
A: I had this crazy conversation with “M” yesterday in here. [I proceed to tell her the conversation above. As I talk I realize her eyes begin to brim with tears.]
G: Oh, yesterday I dropped off my grandson in L.A. My daughter, his mom, came to meet us. The last couple times I’ve seen her there’s been this friend with her. Well, this time she said, “Mom, this is my girlfriend.” I didn’t think anything of it, but then my daughter said something else, like “I’m with her, mom, I’m gay.”
A: Oh, wow.
G: I didn’t know what to say after that. When I got home I sent her an email. I said, it’s your life and you have to live it and I’ll never stop being your mom.
A: That was good to say.
G: I feel so bad for my husband, we’re Mormon and he just doesn’t know what to do or think about it.
A: Hmmm.
G: I wrote her an email and said it’s her life. Was that the right thing to say? I don’t know, maybe I should have said something else to her.
A: Write her again and tell her you love her.
[G got up to leave and so did I and we hesitated in the doorway]
G: I’m not sure I said the right thing in the email.
A: I think you did.

There were two more conversations in the sauna that week, both brief, but both stayed with me, like the way a piece of glitter gets stuck on your eyelid. I got talking to a woman, mid-fifties or so, her freckled skin was very, very pink from being in the heat for awhile. We didn’t speak for a long time, then she told me how important it was to drink water in the sauna. She seemed both feisty and resigned as she told me about some health issues she had had, and then again, how I should have a water bottle with me in there. Somehow it came up that I was a dancer and choreographer. I’ll call her “V.”

V: Oh, I always wanted to be a dancer [she was so wistful when she said this]. What kind of dance do you do?
A: It’s a little hard to describe, but comes out of contemporary dance.
V: Oh, what’s that?
A: Are you familiar with modern dance?
V: Like on So You Think You Can Dance?
A: Not exactly, I work with the idea that dance is all conscious movement. So I think of dance in a really big frame. It includes gestures and actions that people do in their everyday lives, in their work, or while tending to a child, or playing a sport. I make dances for all kinds of people, being themselves, playing with the choreography of everyday life.
V: Did you watch Chas Bono on Dancing with the Stars? That was weird. But I don’t think they should keep him (do you say him?) from dancing.
A: Yes, I watched a little of it. I agree, I was glad to see him dancing on that show.
V: [She shook her head, and looked down, tsking] I don’t know, I always wanted to be a dancer.

I excused myself with a nod and a hmmm sound; a vocal noise to exit on, trying to sound both validating and courteous, I guess. I stood in the cold shower and opened my mouth, drinking in water from the spray. “V” was gone by the time I re-entered the sauna. Another woman, “B” had taken her place, standing with her back to me–she was drying herself off, she had bright green Crocs on her feet and big pendular breasts.

She said hello right away, cheerfully. We said only two sentences to each other.

A: Hello. It’s hot in here today, feels good, though.
B: Oh, it does feel so good. I usually only have two or three minutes to be in here, but I really savor them.

When she said the word savor I could feel a memory rush through me; it was a flash of my son Joseph when he was about two, (he’s 18 now). He was dressed in little jeans and a white t-shirt–he was laughing and half skipping half running towards me, he tripped and fell right into my arms. I can still feel his little sturdy body falling, then wriggling away with glee. I took a deep breath, wiped the sweat off my face and thought that’s too easy, to savor in retrospect. Isn’t the real test to savor the now; these words, eyes writing, ears reading. I left the sauna, savoring the slippery shower room floor under my careful feet.

This article appeared in the December 2011 issue of In Dance.