Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly sore I treat myself to a massage. I always consider this carefully since I don’t have much cash to throw around. How much am I hurting today? Will a massage be worth the few tips I’ll make during a slow lunch shift, five hours of my life spent scooping out melted votives and prepping drink garnishes for customers who inevitably push them aside? More often I decide against it and get by with my husband’s well-intentioned but brief backrubs. Occasionally I see a friend who knows to hug me tightly so that a couple vertebrae crack beatifically in his embrace. But when the e-mails requiring a professional-voiced response amass in my inbox and double shifts at the restaurant keep me from settling into my writing, I turn to skilled help.
My massage parlor sits on the edge of Nolita, a neighborhood known for its tony boutiques and the perfectly accessorized crowds that stroll its small streets. But beyond the parlor’s basement-level entry, all signs of the area’s swank disappear. There are no aromatherapy candles or scented oils on the premises, or a receptionist in a thoughtfully spare waiting room to offer kombucha to clients. At Spring Wellness Tui Na, the overhead fluorescence illuminates the dirt stains on the waiting room’s worn carpet. The densely packed fish tank common in Chinese establishments buzzes in the corner with its own artificial light.
On the few occasions I’ve visited, my arrival has interrupted the employees on lunch break pushing rice noodles into their mouths. It’s not the most tranquil scene, but I don’t kid myself: I go here to save money. But more than that, I seek the firm touch, the golden fingers of these rigorous women. Usually the masseuses are resting on the black pleather loveseat meant for clients, but one of them always sets down her Styrofoam container and leads me into the darkened adjacent room.
A double row of cots lines the interior of a space more suggestive of an infirmary than a sanctuary of holistic pleasure. The hospital-style curtains, too narrow to fully surround any one bed, offer passersby a peek of you struggling with your jeans or diving for the bed to hide your naked torso just as the masseuse jerks the curtain open with a brusque Ready? My favorite pair of hands belongs to a petite woman with permed hair and fading blue tattooed eyebrows. She punches my forty-five minutes into the small digital timer as I sink my head into the bed’s cutout, lined with fresh sheets of Bounty. Around me, various timers sound off. With each series of cruel beeps signaling the dismissal of one client after another, I dread the conclusion of my own pampering.
Well before this necessary reprieve from daily stress, my pleasure in the rejuvenating power of touch began in college. But as always, before anything there was my mother. In spirit similar to settlers who put their children to work on the family farm, she seemed to have birthed my siblings and me so we could honor her body, or at least take part in its upkeep and well being. When he wasn’t in his room with his basketball cards, my older brother was usually on the living room couch pounding my mother’s legs with his teenaged fists, his eyes vigilantly following The Simpsons or the Celtics onscreen. At the height of her work as a housekeeper when she and my father were cleaning four or five houses a day in the old monied towns of south shore Massachusetts, my mother longed regularly for this brute force to stun the ache in her joints.
As my sister spent more time with her friends, I took over the task of tweezing my mother’s armpit hairs. Except for a few coarse strands, my mother didn’t have much underarm fuzz, and yet as soon as I announced I was finished, she’d arch her arm higher alongside her head and insist I scan the two-by-two inch slab again, more carefully. She always knew when my mind wandered because I would absentmindedly clip her flesh between the tweezer prongs. She’d yelp; I’d giggle and apologize but inside I still sulked, certain that no one I knew suffered through a chore so strangely intimate. She didn’t even offer remuneration—allowances didn’t exist in our family. It was as though she were getting even with us for the burden of carrying us in her womb, for misshaping her once taut, youthful body, for the turmoil and headaches she endured for and because of us.
I escaped this bitter chore by leaving for college. I roomed my first year with a high-spirited, charismatic blonde from Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. We had some serious issues, SZ and me; she was a Leo and I am a Scorpio. On the one hand, we drove each other mad—my lonely freshman depression dampened her pep and her odd combination of passive aggression and possessive craze incensed me in all kinds of ways. SZ was the kind of person who would say Wouldn’t it feel nice if the fan was on because she was too lazy herself to get up. Once she rang my phone while standing outside our window and threw a fit as she watched me ignore the call. Still, we cared about each other a great deal, which is probably why we had so much trouble.
Turbulence aside, we had fun that year. To de-stress we treated ourselves to dance nights: lamps dimmed with scarves, sticky weed in SZ’s glass pipe, Enigma’s Trilogy album. From her trunk of belly dance costumes that she lugged from Tennessee with photos of her dance troupe—tanned blonde girls wrapped in bright veils—taped to the inside of the heavy lid, we pulled midriff-baring tops with billowy sleeves and silk harem pants. We tied coin scarves to our hips that jangled when we moved. When the room felt small, we ran through the dorm corridors to the spacious stairwell landing in front of the window and practiced head slides and rib circles, oblivious to the crowd of people watching and clapping from the dark lawn below.
That was the year I existed outside myself. I spent most of my time in a private study room at the library, slumped over asleep in a chair with the books I always fooled myself into carrying pushed aside on the desk. When the library closed for the night, I’d return to my dorm room and crawl into bed. Sleep was the only thing that came easily, though each time I woke up I seemed more awkward and inarticulate than the day before.
I wanted to flee the familiarity of myself, to make noise and to shatter out of the tiny, confining space I felt I just barely took up. But I was also desperate to hold onto other intimacies, things that were once recognizable but suddenly were not. I knew when I applied to college that I would study fiction but realized once I got there how little I knew about something that once seemed innate. I could read it and talk about it, maybe, but writing it was something else. With belly dance there was no shame in not knowing, or an impulse to claim to know. It was freeing. SZ taught me the steps, and I followed gladly. Her self-possession and confidence were so close—just beyond my reach—that I felt I could soon inhabit myself again.
To end we’d climb into her bed that she regularly dusted with a perfumed white powder and take turns massaging each other. SZ’s strong hands intuitively sought out the stones in my neck and shoulders. She rubbed them until their hardness shrank. My returns? They were lame, my feeble fingers merely pushing and pulling her skin into different directions. I could feel frustration in her restless shifting and when she could no longer bear my efforts, she suggested I practice the belly dance hand exercises she’d taught me.
Alternately she turned to a short, bald Bosnian guy everyone called Mini-Vin because he looked like the actor Vin Diesel minus about three feet. While at Sarah Lawrence, Mini-Vin’s interests ranged from fashion to opera to some book that taught men how to trick women into sleeping with them. He’d allegedly dug mass graves in Kosovo. In the beginning of the spring term he dabbled in acupuncture and massage, keeping a pack of needles he’d ordered online in his backpack and visiting girls in their dorm rooms. I’d return to our room after class to find him straddling SZ on the floor, kneading her oil-slicked back or sliding his thin, long needles into her skin, not understanding why his shirt was off. In a moment of weakness, I gave in to what would turn out to be magic paws; Mini-Vin would baste my own back like a pig for roast with Mazola corn oil laced with drops of tea tree.
Over time, my hands developed their own power and sensitivity to the arrangement of SZ’s musculature, and I was finally able to reciprocate properly. This was the link missing on our nights and now I felt the richness of releasing my friend’s body from kink and pain. I could make it feel cared for just as she did mine. This discovery of connecting with another human being—not through forced, mangled words or ambiguous social cues—but through the simple physicality of touch relieved me.
I returned home that spring break stronger. I’d recovered from the initial shock of living and learning with different people. I’d packed my second semester with dance and movement classes, and I was in the best shape I’d ever been. More importantly, the focused rigor of dance forced me out of my head and helped me begin to look people in the eye again. In my mother’s room, when she demurred at my command for her to strip, I pulled her pants down, sat across her lumbar, and gave her the massage of my life.
“Where did you learn to do this?” my mother asked, craning to stare at me.
For the beginning dancer, the necessary foundational exercises that develop strength and mobility may seem repetitive and simplistic. It will be difficult to understand fundamental skills such as balance, weight transference, and efficient frame alignment. Through exercise, the dancer gains experience and a willingness to reassess physical habits. Locating and feeling skeletal relationships will become habitual when she builds muscle strength. She will begin to negotiate her relationship with gravity.
Whatever the tradition or school, I was not a good dancer. Though I could always get down on the dance floor at parties, once there was any kind of formal instruction or choreography I’d trip up, always lagging three or four beats in middle and high school musical numbers. On top of that, my college body, still gravid with sleep in morning classes, protested against my commands for it to move. But it was mostly my mind that got in the way. I’d fixate so intensely on a movement’s technicality that when I considered a simple concept like opposition in walking, my body would revolt and paralyze the act. By thinking too much about walking, the alternation unraveled: my right leg began to move with my right arm, my left leg with the left arm, like a drunken robot.
Although it may look relaxed, the contained subtle movements of belly dance take great muscle control. The focus in this dance, unlike most Western dance forms, is on natural isolations of the torso muscles rather than sweeping paths of extremities. There is one important connection between modern and belly dance: feet. In both styles, the dancer’s feet are planted to the ground. A useful modern dance exercise involves spreading the toes as far apart as possible, the weight evenly distributed across the entire foot. I liked imagining that the bottoms of my feet, callused and tough, had sprouted roots to the earth.
With all the bodies around in dance class, it’s difficult not to pick up on the various things you both love and find flawed about your own. Feelings of envy and inadequacy aren’t uncommon. But you get past this. You begin to understand that people dance to express themselves, or to simply feel good. For women especially, it’s a celebration of the body that we learn from an early age to protect and keep hidden. Women have always been most beautiful to me in motion. Whether it’s ratty Hanes or bright Lululemon, our lines are best emphasized through soft cotton and stretch nylon. Without judgment or shame, we jut our asses into the air, push ourselves into planks, submit into child’s pose. We bicycle our legs—long, plump, short, skinny, chicken, bowed—into the air.
With SZ I continued informal belly dance lessons. We snuck into darkened campus studios after hours. One weekend we rented a car and headed to New Jersey with two other girls for a belly dance convention. In a concrete building directly off the turnpike, thousands of women in coin jewelry flocked to watch Suhaila Salimpour, a gorgeous olive-skinned woman from California, with thick hips break down hip lifts and snake arms. I remember the exuberance in hearing my wavering ululation, not yet tested outside our dorm room, join the high-pitched howls of the women around me as we watched a tribe of women flawlessly execute a cymbal dance with chiming zills strapped to their strong, elegant fingers.
At one point I looked around that convention hall, noticing that except for my friend Sheila—a curvy Persian girl who was also by far the most natural and experienced dancer of our little college crew—we were surrounded by hundreds of the mostly white faces of middle-aged women, their eyes rimmed with Wet ‘n Wild kohl. Everyone wore Middle Eastern costume, some more elaborate than others. And I, in SZ’s ankle-length amethyst skirt and ivory crepe choli, a chain of polished, jade-like stones I’d just bought at the fair encircling my hips, stood among them, celebrating an art form so blatantly appropriated. My shame began to pound in rhythm with the loud Arabic music playing overhead.
Although most people think of belly dance as a dance for male viewing pleasure, it’s most often performed among, with, and for women. A few years later in Paris I watched women dance for each other in the city’s many Middle Eastern dance clubs. It was celebratory and playful, sisterly and sexy. But above all, it was powerful. I watched women bring rowdy audiences to silence with the lift of an arm.
Whatever the origins and evolution of this dance, I felt then that it had the ability to break down the social programming telling women what our bodies should look like and what to do with them. I needed this inclusive spirit, its invitation for contact and community. Women of all different ages, shapes, and histories undulated their torsos and isolated their chests. To participate, I only had to learn. It didn’t require mutilating my feet for years to raise en pointe, and it didn’t make me starve myself to fit the form’s aesthetic. In fact, I wished pretty hard for more flesh on my boyish hips for a more substantial shimmy.
For years after, I studied different kinds of movement and dance. I choreographed a piece for performance in Paris, and there, too, I took incredible West African dance classes. Every week I clapped and leapt until I gasped for breath. During breaks, I sucked on crystallized ginger pieces the instructor brought to class in a clean, linen satchel. I became versed in the physical language of each style I took up. I studied the vocabulary and articulations that live within and through each gesture.
I’m not sure that I would attend that belly dance festival today. I’m as open to the physicality of the dance as I used to be, but I’m not sure if I’ve let go of all of the old judgment I felt for myself and my belly dance sisters for taking pleasure in a tradition that didn’t belong to us. But who would I be hurting if I did?
That weekend in Somerset, New Jersey, I learned how to use shoulder accents to punctuate a beat; exploded into laughter with my friends as I tried to pull off bouncing ‘earthquake’ shimmies, tripped on traveling steps, and snake-armed until my biceps were sore. I low-kicked one after another, played with tossing my head, then stepped back to watch more experienced dancers tilt and circle and loop their hips into infinities.
How do I explain the severity of a hard floor, how its refusal to receive your body can feel like a cold stranger, or worse, an angry, withdrawn lover? How do I explain the devastation over this disconnect, as though the floor were a living, rebuking being, and the relief of feeling your body finally sink against its surface only after a series of small, repetitive movements, a sacred offering of gestures? Ten light drags of the knuckles, ten flicks of each wrist and hand. Ten slow turns of the head, left to right and left again, all against that worn, blonde wood floor. Then, suddenly—assent. Euphoric gratitude.
It took that first year of college, of being both still and in motion, to make me feel like myself again while accepting I’d changed. Simultaneously I learned how to feel my own and other bodies through movement—simple and radical—and when I wasn’t dancing, I was in stasis. Touching or being touched. Isn’t that what we’re trying to do?
Late one summer night before I’d left for college, I came into the living room to find my mother power walking on the treadmill. Soft flesh and hazy lighting filled the television screen. Laughing, I said, “Mom, what are you watching?”
Her frank act of watching porn—girl-on-girl, not a male phallus in sight—embarrassed me. But she was simply enjoying the female bodies. If I could do it over again I wouldn’t have laughed. It shouldn’t have surprised me; my mother used to watch the Spanish soaps on Telemundo for those glamorous actresses with full lips and big hair though she understood nothing they said. She didn’t need to understand; she watched for their beauty. I envy my mother’s freedom to ignore story. I’m mostly so locked into words that physical communication—not of mind or mouth—is hugely affecting and appealing.
At art exhibitions I tend to read curatorial statements and wall texts before looking at artworks. I’ll catch myself relying on the descriptions to understand the art, rather than allowing myself to feel it before rationalizing. With dance I’m usually not thrown a lifeline for context. I’m driven to feel, not interpret. I wonder if my mother’s choice to forgo narrative is not so much a choice. Her lack of language skills pushes her to cultivate that appreciation of beauty, or pain, or fear without explanation or words.
From the other side of the curtain, the male masseuse at Spring Wellness burps. He follows up with a guttural cough, then sneezes expansively. I imagine a spray of saliva misting the back of his client. But she’s kinder than I am: she offers a quiet bless you.
So there it is: I can easily find men vulgar through actions like these, however involuntary. What is acceptable to this male masseuse—grungy flip-flops, lunch breath, and an onslaught of bodily emissions—strikes me as inconsiderate and gross. Is it because I believe a woman wouldn’t behave this way? Is it a cultural difference?
Even in this dank cavern of massage, I recognize that the women here are more focused and empathetic to my needs. My pleasure is not the male masseuse’s priority: the pressure he applies is decent but never in the right place. His mind wanders, just as mine did when I stooped over my mother’s armpit years ago.
When the female masseuse rubs me, it is an extension of herself, a projection of how she wants and needs to be touched. This is the understanding. Her cool, light hands run down my neck, my back, locating my pain and anxiety. The coaxing, the slow kneading, fist rolling over the reef of my spine, skilled digs behind a shoulder blade. Little sighs and grunts escape from me and those around me. And from the masseuses in the room, suppressed giggles—because, as I recently discovered upon raising myself up to gather my hair, the minute I tuck my head into that cutout and close my eyes, that curtain gets pulled right back open. The masseuses communicate with each other as they work on our bodies through knowing glances and private smiles.
Eventually, that little timer above my head goes off. My time is up, but for several minutes after the beep, my lady gives me a few extra squeezes on my shoulders, presses her fingers into the hollows behind my ears and the back of my skull. For you, her gestures say, and I know that by my deep, even breathing and the way my body has fully sunken into the bed, she feels my gratitude radiating for her gifts.
Titi Nguyen’s essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, The New York Times, Paris Review Daily, Witness, and elsewhere. She will be a tuition scholar at this summer’s Bread Loaf conference in Vermont. Find her work at titinguyen.net.