1

Blue Sunday

This isn’t going to be a fun or happy post, even though I did, for the most part, have a nice day and spent it with some really good friends. I know I should probably be reading for class or writing for class or something right now, but the thoughts are in my mind and I want them to be in my blog. This post may disappear without warning. Okay, now I’m just being supercilious, so here it goes.

I have a confession to make.

I have been a brother of APO since 2006. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. Since then, I have been active in 3 chapters and am now working with one in an advisory role. I have traveled to Louisville and Boston for national convention, and I have made friends across the country and around the world. I have done hundreds of hours of service, attended crazy and fun fellowship events, created and carried out service projects/fellowships of my own, have collected two awards and so, so many memories.

Most of them are good, but some of them are bad.

Here’s one of the bad ones.

During my final semester as an undergraduate, I was abused by a brother.

It was not physical or sexual in any way, and since I was not a pledge, it was not technically hazing. But I was still hurt, mentally and emotionally, and I should have seen it coming based on something that happened at a meeting in an earlier semester. We were planning to hold a ritual on a Saturday night, but due to a pledge’s conflicting schedule, we moved it earlier in the week to Thursday so all the pledges could attend. Everyone else in the chapter was on board…except me. I had won a playwriting competition in Baltimore, and the show was set to open that Friday. Since I wouldn’t be able to attend the show on a Friday night, I planned on flying down Thursday afternoon, seeing final dress rehearsal that night, and getting back to Amherst on Friday morning to make it to my Friday afternoon class. When I brought this up at the meeting (which I had mentioned at the past two meetings, at least), I knew that I would probably be overruled. Unsurprisingly, I was, but not before a brother yelled out, “Well, you’re not important.” That kinda hurt, but I brushed it off as just something that came out at the wrong place at the wrong time, and in the wrong tone of voice.

In my final semester, this brother started opening up to me, or so I thought. She would call to see how I was doing, she would invite me to eat lunch with her, and was generally nice to me.

I really thought she’d changed.

I had been lulled into a false sense of security.

Over the next few weeks, things got worse. She began to be “honest” with me, and told me about what she perceived as flaws in my character, some of which I agreed with and some of which I didn’t agree with. When pledging started, she emailed me, telling me that she heard that I said something inappropriate to a female pledge. When she mentioned the name, I was taken aback: I had barely interacted with this pledge. She also said to stay away from her, and not to apologize, because that would make things worse, and warned me that our president knew and was watching me, so don’t talk about it. Puzzled about what I did or when, I just kept to myself, and since nobody ever brought it up, I assumed it had either a) fizzled out or b) been taken care of. I also avoided this pledge, making an excuse to leave whenever she was around and deliberately not talking to her, for fear of making anything worse.

That semester was also the beginning of a service project that I created with the help of the Chabad House at Amherst, Loaves for Love, a program involving brothers coming to bake challah on a Thursday night, taking some home, and taking the rest to a long-term care facility or a nursing home in nearby Hadley. I was unsure of the project at first, fearing that people would not like it. The first time, only six brothers showed up, but they had so much fun not only baking but learning the Jewish traditions behind the taking of Challah from the dough, different braiding patterns, listening to folk tales told by the rabbi’s wife while the challah was baking, decorating the challah with sesame and poppy seeds when it came out of the oven warm and fresh, playing with the children of the house, and of course, eating challah – for some of them, it was their first – and taking some home to enjoy later. The five other brothers who attended had such a great time that they told the other brothers, and for the remainder of the semester, everyone jumped at the opportunity to do Loaves for Love, and together with Chabad we made hundreds of challah rolls and heard so many stories that made us all feel good inside. Oh, and the warm bread helped too.

Then, I received an email from you-know-who. Very bluntly, she accused me of pushing a religious agenda on the brothers and pledges. As one of the few brothers to never cross the threshold of the Chabad House, I’m not sure how or why she claimed that about the project, but she used the magic “they,” so I became very nervous at future Loaves for Love events, especially around pledges. I was kind of freaked out. More than freaked out, I was terrified. The thought of me pushing religion on anyone, as a member of a religion that forbids proselytizing of any kind, was unacceptable. I continued planning and facilitating events, passing the project down to my little, but each time I went, I was petrified from the moment I rolled up my sleeves to the moment the last challah roll was bagged. But I could never let it show, because I was trying to be brave, be strong, and be a leader.

Things progressively got worse. This brother confronted me directly after meetings. After one meeting, when I refused to speak with her, she followed me around the room as I talked to other brothers, stalking me silently, waiting for me to break a conversation so she could slip herself in. When she made an attempt to butt in or start a conversation with me, I just said, “I don’t want to talk to you right now, we’ll talk later.” I successfully managed to avoid her that night, bundling myself inside my coat and briskly walking out of the room, out of the student union, and out of her clutches.

I thought I had made myself clear to her, and to the rest of the chapter, that I did not want to talk to her. I guess she felt embarrassed when I shut her down after the meeting, because what came next almost pushed me over an edge and made me want to quit entirely.

Not long after, I received an email from her. I opened it, knowing I’d be horrified, but this email left me gasping for breath. I have blocked most of it out of my memory, but not only did it bring up the pledge thing and the religion thing, it also included, well…hate speech is the best way to describe it. It was cruel, mean, and nasty. It was sexual in nature, but her usage of words was clever enough to mask her true feelings (claiming, again, it was the chapter’s feelings) that it made my eyes water and my blood drain from my face.

What happened next?

Something I’m proud of, and something I’m not so proud of.

I’m proud of the fact that I a) did not respond or retaliate, b) did not confront her publicly or privately, c) did not bring it up at chapter meeting.

I’m not proud that I a) did not share my feelings with any brothers, and b) deleted the email, hoping that no one would ever read it, ever again.

I still regret those two decisions.

Even though this was between me and her, I felt stripped of any humanity or self-esteem I had left. I was emotionally wrecked. Between plugging away at academics and being scared at the prospect of graduation, I looked to APO for service and friendship, and it had let me down. I still went to meetings, but finished my requirements quietly and then stepped away from the chapter for the remaining weeks of the semester, putting all my focus on my schoolwork.

Before the semester ended, however, I decided that I wanted to graduate from school and APO with my head held high. I had done a lot of service that semester, and I thought I’d helped start a good project. An advisor showed up at a meeting one day, someone who was relatively new to the chapter, and mentioned that she’d be available to talk to anyone, giving out her cell number and email address. I took advantage of that, and called her immediately, setting up a lunch date away from campus to talk about things. I didn’t tell her everything, but what I told her confirmed similar things she’d heard about this brother. She advised me not to listen to that brother anymore, and that her magic “they” was, in fact, nobody at all. Nobody! She continued by saying that she hadn’t heard any complaints about me from anyone else in the chapter. After that lunch, I felt so much better. I didn’t pursue anything further, even though I could have and should have. I just didn’t want any additional drama.

Whenever you become the receiving end of any abusive words or actions in your fraternity, sorority, or any organization, tell someone.

Don’t do what I did and suffer in silence; you are important and so is your voice.

Never accept hearsay.

Be true to who you are and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

You are important and you deserve to be treated with respect; if you are being treated otherwise, that person is not your friend.

Stand up for yourself and inspire others.

And most importantly, SAY SOMETHING. And not to yourself, to SOMEONE ELSE. ASK. FOR. HELP.

But this story does have a happy ending – sort of. Right before banquet, the pledge who I’d been avoiding approached me to interview me for her Pledge Book. I was tense, but I answered her questions through a poker face. At the end of the interview, I told her that I was sorry for whatever I did or said to hurt her in any way.

Her response: “I’m not mad at you…who told you that?”

1

Confessions on the Dance Floor

Here’s the first one: I like to dance.

Here’s the second: I’m not that bad.

Here’s the third: I’m not that good, either.

Rhythm, a sequence in time repeated, featured ...

Rhythm, a sequence in time repeated, featured in dance: an early moving picture demonstrates the waltz. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My first real encounter with dance was probably as a child, in synagogue, of all places. On holidays like Simchat Torah, we would dance with the Torah in the social hall, an event that would go on until late in the night. One of the reasons I liked it was because I got to stay up late, and the other was that I got to be a part of something. The dance of choice was usually the hora; the faster, the better. It was a way of expressing my love for Judaism without having to eat special foods or spend hours praying in the sanctuary. I remember feeling so special when my dad would put me on his shoulders, or when someone like Mr. Reich would spin me around on a chair, using purely centrifugal force to keep me from flying into the crowd.

The only dancing my parents ever did together was at weddings, and even then, limited to one slow dance where they mostly stood in place and rocked back and forth. Some of my happiest childhood moments were when my mom and I would sometimes dance around the kitchen together, just the two of us, usually while singing or humming “Shall We Dance?” from The King and I. My parents never really knew where my interest in dance or sense of rhythm came from, as neither of them danced much growing up. My dad, however, did say that my grandfather (whose name is my middle name) was “rather light on his feet.” But since I never got to meet my grandfather, who died before I was born, and there was no video taken of him dancing, I’ll just have to take my dad’s word for it.

In middle school and high school, I participated in every single school musical. Most of them were terrible. I forgot exactly where I was going with this thread, but suffice it to say that I enjoyed being on stage and dancing with the chorus, especially when I got to use a prop, wear a fancy costume, or do a solo or a difficult step. Most of it was “step-together-step,” but since I mastered that pretty quickly where others were still watching their feet, I could focus on performing for the audience. In junior year, I even got to be Dance Captain for one of the numbers in that year’s show, Oklahoma!, which made me feel great – earning a leadership role rather than being voted on it by peers (read: popularity contest).

I had put dancing aside in college, but then a girl from down the hall told me about a beginner’s jazz dance class, and it fit right into my schedule that fall of my freshman year. I joined a few weeks into the semester, and learned that there were other people who enjoyed the challenge of memorizing choreography (I was never as good memorizing lines as I was steps) and enjoyed dancing as a fun hobby where we could burn some calories, make new friends, and get a chance to just jump around for no good reason in the middle of the day. I always associated dancing with being part of something, part of a community. If you dance by yourself, everyone looks at you and thinks you’re crazy, but when you’re dancing with a group (and even better, doing the same moves at the same time), everyone looks at you and thinks, “that looks like fun,” and “wow, I wish I could be dancing right now,” or maybe even “wow, I wish I could dance like him.”

Although my friend dropped the class, I kept on with it and moved to intermediate level the next semester, and did two semesters of advanced jazz until I switched schools and they didn’t offer dance classes for non-majors anymore. I did think about making it my major, but that’s another story for another time. All the while, I focused completely on jazz dance though, no other types. I wasn’t interested in modern dance, and I didn’t want the stereotypes associated with ballet, so jazz was a happy medium. I was always jealous of the tap class though, but I didn’t have the shoes or the courage to try, a choice I regret.

My favorite parts of the semesters were the end, where we would dance in a recital. The first semester, we did a number from the Chicago soundtrack. It was not challenging, but I got to dance front row center, which made me feel special. Next semester, we did a routine a la Center Stage to a Stevie Wonder song, “Higher Ground.” This was my favorite, because it told a little story: we walked onstage with our bags and started stretching as if we were starting a class as the song started, and then once Stevie started singing, some of us started the routine, and one by one we all joined in. Then, we had a mock “dance battle,” boys vs. girls. Since there were only four of us boys, four of the best girls “challenged” us and we danced them offstage in return. Then, we did a reverse of the beginning, with everyone coming on stage to do the routine one last time together before peeling off one by one until the stage was bare. The next semester, we did a jazz/modern combo to “Ngankarrparni,” one of my all-time favorite songs, sung by Peter Gabriel on the soundtrack for Rabbit-Proof Fence. The dance itself was a bit slower in pace and more technical than before, but I had a great time nonetheless.

I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated a good dance routine, and always kept songs in the back of my head for something I should make some sort of routine for, but I never returned to jazz. On my trip to Ecuador with DAT, we took a salsa class and learned Andean mask dance from a real Andean, in the Andes. I fell in love with a monkey mask in the market and tried to summon the spirit of the monkey to help me dance, but being cold and barefoot on a floor made up of jagged, pointy rocks made it hard to focus. In the show that we subsequently performed off-Broadway, my character got to lead the others in a dance, so I’ve technically danced in an off-Broadway show, which is a cool trivia fact even though I was in an uncomfortable lion mask rather than my happy monkey.

In Houston, I discovered the Texas two-step and regularly made a fool of myself doing it with friends on Saturday nights at Wild West. I was never that good, but I usually got a few girls to dance with me before the night was over and usually managed not to mess it up too badly. I was so jealous of the cowboys and cowgirls in their boots, moving gracefully around the floor. Usually the burlier the guy, the better dancer he was, which was always a surprise to me. No matter how much I watched them twirl, dip, and toss the girls, though, I could never get it quite right, although I couldn’t have been that bad at it considering that sometimes I got a second or third dance from the same girl. I also went out to a Latin dance club occasionally, and with very little knowledge of it, gave it my best shot. I could tell I looked awkward and wasn’t the best out there, but my partners usually said, “no, you were great.” Even if it was a lie, it made me feel good, or at least better than the guys who didn’t even try to dance at all.

Even though I have mostly only danced for fun (and in my kitchen), and haven’t had much training, I enjoy it. I like the way it makes me feel.  Standing still, I am alone, I am nervous, and I am vulnerable. When I’m in motion, nothing can touch me, hurt me, harm me; the faster I go, the more invincible and protected I feel, and no one can catch me, unstoppable and invincible. The planet Earth is hurtling through space at breakneck speeds, spinning and spinning on its axis; when I was younger, I could feel it moving beneath me. When I did, I would have massive panic attacks, convulsing, throwing myself on the floor, my body temperature turning white-hot and then very cold, issuing a visceral ululation from my throat the entire time. Usually they only lasted a matter of seconds, and when I was alone, I could usually cry my way out of it until I felt whole and still again. My father got used to it, but whenever my mother saw me entering this panic mode, she would hold me down flat on the ground until my body stopped shaking. I got used to it too, and through the years have had fewer and fewer episodes, shorter and shorter, until they stopped altogether for awhile. Over the past few years, I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve had one, how many times I’ve felt the Earth move under my feet. When I dance, I don’t ever feel the Earth move; move, on the earth, through space and time. I set my own course, and I am in full control of my brain, my skeleton, all the way down to my feet. I am a beautiful creature, strong, wild, and free. I feel special, inspired, and unique while at the same time a member of the greater human race, protected like an animal in its pack; gentle, like the willows in the field move together in the wind; and magical, spinning and flying high, following Peter Pan to the second star on the right and straight on until morning.

So, recently, here in Madison, I saw a flier taped to a pole, advertising free ballroom dancing lessons. I decided to give it a try, because it sounded fun. I went, and I had a great time. Since then, I signed up for regular classes, and I’ve gone back a few times since, including tonight. These guys and girls can really dance – I thought I danced okay, but looked and felt like a complete fool when stepping out on the floor. The people seem mostly pretty nice, except for a few who seemed stuck-up, but I’m not going to let their attitudes deter me from not going back. It’s so much fun and it looks beautiful, and best of all, includes the element of community, with partnerships not just encouraged but required for each dance. That’s what I liked about dance in the first place. Hopefully I’ll make new friends in the beginner class, and maybe even actually start to look beautiful while dancing these difficult, precise steps. Maybe one day I’ll learn enough to even choreograph a routine of my own, or be in a competition. Even if I don’t, I will try to have fun, and I will feel collected, coordinated and confident in myself on the dance floor of life.

But know this: you will never, ever see me twerking, that’s for damn sure.