Dancing a New Humanity
The Potential of We Beyond the Gender Binary
Sometimes, when watching Kirstie Simson dance with others in concert, a different possibility for women and men arises before my eyes. Unlike the swan-like princesses and dashing dark-clad heroes of classical ballet that so often play out the polarity of feminine and masculine, the whirl of colliding, sinking, rolling, lifting bodies in Simson’s work defies any expected pattern. Female dancers drive and pounce, males curl and receive, or vice versa in endless permutations of call and response. An energetic impulse leaps from one dancer to another, passing through the dancer’s body, compelling it into motion to touch and move on. The sense is of human beings liberated, simple and open, in spontaneous creation. I forget that I am watching women and men, female and male, and find myself surprised and amazed by the ongoing unfolding of possibility between these human beings. The current and currency between the dancers isn’t sexual, but a force that is clean, not in the sense of some kind of moral purity, but stripped bare and essential.
Simson’s strength and presence are always at the center—she’s formidable, nearly two meters tall, muscular, with big expressive hands. The London Times called her a “force of nature” for the unleashed power of her performances. One of the pioneers of Contact Improvisation, she has a rare capacity to create a fresh sense of potential between human beings—a new “We-space” that goes beyond the habits and expectations that we have for ourselves and each other as women and men.
For me, the new and growing interest in consciously creating “We-spaces” that open unforeseen potentials and capacities in our humanness is tremendously exciting, particularly for our sense of who we are, male and female. While Simson’s work hints at this through performance, there are many other experiments with the “intersubjective”—the living interior experience within a group—that also can, and will, lead to new ways of being women and men together. Through my own work, I’ve seen and experienced the potential of a new We for changing the entrenched patterns between women and men and laying the ground upon which we can dance a new humanity.
Conscious of it or not, each of us is drenched in We-space. As Ken Wilber’s integral theory tells us, every society—or intentional collective of people—has a shared interior that we can call “culture.” That culture, or intersubjective, consists of the languages, customs, and assumptions that define reality and who we are within it. It is also the ground for our identities—our unconscious, pre-thought sense of “me.” Some speak about the intersubjective, or the cultural realm, as a value sphere. But I find that more confusing than helpful. When we think of values, we tend to think of a range of things such as personal qualities, like honesty, or political leanings, like being fiscally conservative, or lifestyle, like polyamory. The values that shape the intersubjective are much deeper—they form an invisible scaffolding that shapes our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In a modern Western context, that invisible framework creates men and women who end up believing that they are Mars and Venus.
The depth of these divisions pops up when women head for Mars and men try to reach Venus. In 2012, three researchers at the University of North Carolina, New York University, and the University of Utah discovered that male executives who are in traditional marriages where their wives stay at home tend to be unconsciously hostile to women in the workplace. They also believe more strongly that a man’s role is to support his wife and family. Asking “whether a domestic traditionalist can also be an organizational egalitarian?” the researchers respond, “The answer we posit is ‘no.'” Yet, the issue of unconscious bias is a two-way street. Repeated studies and observations note that mothers who are taking care of kids tend to shun stay-at-home dads on the playground and at parental activities at school. These women, and the male executives, are gender traditionalists, which makes them unable to create a We-space that includes the other sex in any context that violates the gender division.
The fact that the gender binary in which women care and men build society is no longer simply assumed is already significant. There are men, with working wives, who support women at work. There are men who choose to be the primary caregiver to their children. Perhaps much will change as an older generation, more rooted in traditional gender expectations, passes on. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, Millennial men and women are closer to parity on wages than any previous generation, which seems at first hopeful for the project of equality. But unfortunately this is largely due to a decline in young men’s wages. Millennial women, more often than men, also say that they are more focused on their careers than their male age-mates—which may have to do with young men’s increasing confusion about their place in society. There is still a sense in this survey, even in the questions themselves, that men and women are somehow pitted against each other in a zero sum game. In fact, these young women fully expect that when they have children, they will fall behind men in their careers, as happened in the previous two generations. As long as there is an underlying gendered division built into the fabric of society and our selves, women and men are going to find it difficult not to be at odds with each other. The intersubjective We-space created by such a division only perpetuates division—regardless of whether men or women seem to have the advantage.
A New We
I was clueless about the potential of intersubjectivity when I was first fired up to create a world built on gender equality. But even then, as a young activist in my twenties, I realized that simply trying to pass legislation to support equity, as challenging as that was (and still is), would not liberate women and men into something new. I next studied developmental psychology, wondering if we could raise children differently to create a more equal world. I came to realize that children were formed by the world that they found. The finger pointed back to myself: we, as adults who care about the future, hold the responsibility to create a new We that would allow the next generations to grow into a new way to be human, no longer divided from themselves and each other. But how?
Following an intuition that I had to go someplace in myself that was beyond what I already knew, I found myself in a spiritual community that developed a spiritual practice that was focused on breaking through to what we came to call a “Higher We”—a conscious intersubjective that was transpersonal, alive to a shared creative intelligence that animated the whole. Engaging in the “Higher We” meant that each of us had to consciously shift our identity away from the personal defenses, fears, ambitions, and habits that shaped us as individuals, including as women and men. Sitting together in a circle, our deepest attention and intention focused on the whole between and beyond the particular group we were part of. As a woman, I was confronted with tendencies that I hadn’t been aware of in myself, such as the fear of letting go, beyond what I know. At the brink, I would instinctively pull back. Men couldn’t rely on intellectual fireworks, abstraction, or dominate the conversation by interrupting and overtalking. For this other intelligence to manifest between and as us, we had to make ourselves available through an autonomous choice that placed all of our attention and care on a subtle, living process unfolding in the space between us. This choice was a simultaneous surrender and active response. Remarkably, the Higher We space that we discovered transformed the polarities that shape our assumptions about reality. Self and other, mind and body, unity and diversity, passive and active, autonomy and communion: all of these polarities that shape the modern mind lost their sense of opposition without losing the important differences held in the pair.
And what about the polarity of male and female, masculine and feminine? I can only say that my experience with this was limited but powerful. For a variety of reasons, including dynamics relating to power and gender with our spiritual teacher, we weren’t able to pursue this much beyond the realization that something radically different became possible by shifting one’s identity in this way. To go further would have meant a conscious, intensive, and persistent commitment to use the Higher We context that was our spiritual practice to transform our daily lives, habits, and selves. That commitment wasn’t there.
Dancing a New Humanity
But I haven’t let go of the potential I have seen. Recently, a dear spiritual colleague who I hadn’t seen in some years invited me to come to her weekend retreat for women in Portugal. Over the course of the weekend, I led the women to identify more and more with the deepest part of themselves that has no gender. Anchored in this expansive place, another possibility for being human, embodied as women, began to gain momentum. Liberation caught fire between us: being women was no longer a focus or preoccupation, which released a tremendous inspiration and opened a new sense of possibility for individuals and the group. At the end of the retreat, my friend invited the young men who had been serving the women’s retreat to join us in the last session. Coming in, as they later told us, they were anxious—often women’s events have created or deepened the sense of division between the women and men. But as soon as they entered this We-space, something in them fell away. A field of nonseparation and deep interest in others overtook the group, now consisting of women and men. The men said that they had never experienced no barriers between themselves and women in this way before. The door to a new world opened just a crack.
To me, that crack is everything. How can we widen it? Right now, the dynamics of this old gendered division seem toxic. Too many young men seem lost, confused about what young women want and feeling superfluous to them. Young women are determined, but too often they unconsciously hold back because they want to appear perfect or trade on attractiveness in ways that are ultimately undermining. Unwittingly, these are contemporary twists on deeply engrained gender patterns—he is motivated by being needed and valued by her and she is oriented toward others’ approval. Awakening to a Higher We enables us to discover a different motivation that unites rather than divides us. We defy expectations, and discover the joy and liberation of creating a new dance together.