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Intimacy

What does it mean to be intimate? As most words, ‘intimacy’ brings with it a certain metaphorical gesture, even a bodily scheme. The word suggests being ‘in’ something, in the sense of being in the very closest and deepest connection with it. Perhaps one of the strongest experiences of intimacy we all necessarily had was to be a foetus in our mother’s womb. By generalization and abstraction, intimacy refers to a feeling of closeness, familiarity, connection. This requires a sense of surrender and complete openness, an absence of barriers. It also entails a sense of wholeness, of being fully there, totally present with what is, without being split, scattered, divided. 

 

At a very subtle level, there is a sense in which awareness itself is intimate with any new experience. At a more mundane level, though, we often associated intimacy with two main domains of life: friends-and-family, and sex. In the case of friends-and-family (I’ll treat them together for brevity sakes), intimacy is mostly about sharing who we are, being heard and seen, and hearing and seeing each other, acknowledging our respective ‘selves’. We share stories, events, decisions, experiences, we build together our characters and position them with respect to each other, we become familiar and used to be together, we become a sort of team that plays the game of life. 

 

I’m reluctant to impose definitions upon sex, since sex is one of the most heavily socially-laden phenomena in human culture. It looks natural, but it is actually highly constructed and shaped by a myriad of social norms, habits, customs, expectations. Since human beings are around, sex has been probably one of the first behaviours to have been regulated, ritualized, controlled, oppressed, exploited. But for the sake of discussion, it is still possible to say that sex is an oriented activity (in the sense that it is directed, it has a certain underpinning intentionality that moves it in a certain direction) and it aims at creating and satisfying a demand for embodied pleasure. Because pleasure often induces a sense of relaxation and opening, sex can be a means to intimacy in the sense that it can bring individuals extremely close at a very deep level. 

 

In our culture, friends-and-family and sex are arguably the two main ways in which people develop intimacy (in fact, the word 'intimacy' if even used sometimes as a periphrasis for sexual relations altogether). However, neither of them is necessarily connected nor presupposes intimacy. In the case of friends-and-family we can be willing to share stories, characters, our persona, but these are all representations, symbolic constructions, forms. There is something deeper underneath that remains unspoken and ungraspable by verbalised self-representation. We can share our masks and play on the same stage, but this does not necessarily entail that we are going to share also our own raw being. There might be aspects of us that we would not be able or willing to share with our best friends or parents (or even admit to ourselves), and this is a barrier that prevents full intimacy with them, albeit it does not necessarily disrupt the familiar relation we have. The case of sex is even more straightforward. It is pretty obvious that sex does not require intimacy per se, no matter how spatially close and interlocked two bodies can be. The whole sex industry seems to rely precisely on this fact.

 

In ordinary life, we thus experience intimacy mostly through ways of relating to others that can be conducive to it, that can be used as tools to develop intimacy, and yet that are not necessarily connected with intimacy as such and to some extent can also be divorced from it. If we take these domains of experience as paradigms for what intimacy is, then we have a relatively skewed picture of it, and this can prevent us from going deeper into the experience and discovering what is there waiting for us. 

 

Dance is another way of cultivating intimacy. In my experience, the more improvisational and freer the dance is, the more intimate it can become. Intimacy is not an oriented activity; it is not aimed at obtaining or exchanging something. Intimacy is an exploratory attitude, an openness to unearth together a depth that is still unknown and yet calling for discovery. In my experience, the most intimate dances often happen when there is a complete surrender to the presence of the other, a complete giving up of any sense of ‘me’ being in control, and an opening to an unforeseeable co-creation. There is a complete sense of trust in each other, while being fully together in something magical. Then, everything could happen. There is no clear beginning or end to this exploration. It’s like unlocking a door and entering an immense space, largely unknown, wide open for us to dive deep into its mystery. It’s exciting, and thrilling, and scary, and beautiful. 


I don’t want to suggest that dance is the only way of encountering this kind of intimacy. But it is surely a very powerful way, and its advantage is that free improvisational dance can bracket other ways of relating that usually are entangled with intimacy, by thus allowing a more focused and (I’d dare to say) pure exploration of it in its own right.

 

With most people I’ve had these experiences of intimacy in dance, I never moved on to establish some sort of friendship, nor had any intention to pursue sex. In fact, one lesson I’ve learned through dance is that intimacy can be self-fulfilling in its own right and often does not require or need anything further to be added on top of it. It’s a thing in itself, beautiful, rare, and ultimate. 


In some cases, I also experienced how this level of intimacy can provide the ground for building something else. I have made a few friends through dance, and I feel that the relation I have towards them is a bit different from the relation I have with other friendships that grew from a different stem. In the former case, friendship comes from a place beneath and behind the veils of words, representations and stories. Instead of having grown over time, with little moves of progressive coming closer, it seems as if this kind of friendship was born in full depth all at once and it has been there since ever. I might know relatively little about the actual life of these dancing friends, but I feel they are like family, like brothers and sisters I never had but now, all of the sudden, I do.  

 

The first times I went to ecstatic dances, I clearly recognized cravings of sexual attraction kicking in. They were actually quite disturbing and very much in line with what the theory would prescribe: tunnel-vision focus, loss of connection with the rest of the field of experience, obsession and rumination, and ultimately frustration. But in these cases, the craving was cropping up without any basis of actual intimacy. Was more like an a priori and predatory attitude that was awakened by the new kind of interaction I was exposed to. It took some months to deal with this, keep it at bay and eventually seeing through it and the patterns that it entailed. 


But at some point, I realized that the craving that manifested itself as a craving for sex, was in reality a craving for intimacy itself (which at the time I confused with, and could not distinguish from sex). I discovered that I hardly had any real, deep intimacy with any other being, and that my way of understanding this craving was heavily shaped and constrained by the assumption that sex is the way to intimacy. As this knot became clearer, the craving changed in flavour, as a bud that opens up and reveals the flower. I stopped encapsulating that drive into the preestablished scheme I associated with sex (a scheme in itself quite narrow and limited, but that’s another story), and simply followed the call for going deeper down. I lost the sense of orientation and dropped in the desire for sheer exploration. What is possible with this other being? Where can we go together? What can we do that we wouldn’t be able to do on our own? These were (and still are) the implicit questions that move me on the dance floor, from body to body, from one encounter to the next. And I find it really precious and wonderous, and freeing. 

 

But then, it also happened that, from time to time, having established that basis of intimacy, something else would emerge again, something decidedly more sexual in nature (something again with a clear orientation, and less explorative). Yet, on that basis, it was relatively easier to discern whether or not to follow it. Since intimacy is built on complete trust and mutual dependence, it would be impossible to act in a non-consensual way without destroying it. It’s an immediate obvious truth whether the other person is interested in exploring the same direction, whether they are oriented in the same way or not. If intimacy is the basis and foundation, then hearing a ‘no’ is neither difficult nor too hard to bear, in fact, it is just part of the intimate relation itself, of its courage and strength. I’ve been saying this ‘no’ sometimes, and I’ve received the same ‘no’ some other times. It might have created some ripples and steering, but there was no breach of respect, no prevarication, no compromise of trust. Intimacy itself worked as a ground allowing even for for this kind of exchange.

 

In a few occasions, it happened that the answer on both sides was ‘yes’. In each occasion, the result was very different, as you would expect from something completely improvised on the spot, unplanned, and to some extent unrepeatable. I could clearly see the difference between the intimacy of dance, and anything else that followed (elsewhere) that would count as sex. But I could also see how that intimacy was offering a much deeper and broader horizon and context for the rest. In fact, I realized how limited and constraining my idea of sex was, and I felt invited to let go of it, bearing with the not-knowing.

 

Going to a dance for the sake of seeking a sex partner can be seen as a predatory behaviour (especially when this goal is not part of the space in which the dance happens). This is even less acceptable when one acts as a free rider in a space that is explicitly designed to facilitate intimacy but without putting any further pressure on participants. Inviting everybody to open up and relinquishing defences, but then exposing them to predatory behaviour is surely going to create trauma and suffering. That’s why keeping hidden agendas (as anything hidden and unexamined) is potentially dangerous and even cruel.


However, all of this is clearly based on bad faith and misconception. It’s a wrong way of doing things, which says nothing about the wrongness of the things themselves, but only about the way in which they are handled. Predatory behaviour is a breaking of the promise of mutual trust and respect that is necessary for intimacy to arise. Yet, intimacy is not only about feeling safe, it is also about the bravery of exploring together what might happen there once we allow ourselves to get really close. It demands an immense level of maturity to negotiate on the spot, without having thought it through, what might happen. Friendship or sex are some of the things that might happen (or not!), and they come (as anything else) with risks, challenges, and potential hurts. But you can’t take them out of the equation without compromising the experience, in the same way in which you can’t take falling out of dance without compromising its freedom and unpredictability. 

 

If you dance, you might fall. What then? How do you handle it? Open questions. If you get really intimate, you might fall in love. What then? How do you handle it? Open questions. Bearing with this scary and thrilling openness is also part of the challenge of really getting intimate with another being. 



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