Exploring your comfort zone: a thing of Beauty

I stared in to the night sky, allowing deep breaths to enter my lungs, fill me with energy and leave my body as clouds of steam. I stood still and strong in front of my family, my friends, my community. I felt their gaze on me, I enjoyed their attention, their focus. The lights slowly became brighter and our names became distorted. This night was the final night of The Beauty Index, a project I joined to get out of my comfort zone. What shocked me, as I watched another breath of steam rise above me, was how comfortable I felt.

Way back in December I attended a workshop that was a taster to becoming more involved in a men’s dance project. As I’d previously overcommitted in a car park (follow the link to my SeeSawMag interview) as an enthusiastic spouse at Annette Carmichael’s Creation of Now; I felt I had to rock up and see what this whole thing was about. I was terrified walking in to the Civic Centre. Some of the men here could already dance, already move well. I felt awkward and uncoordinated. Self-conscious and stiff. It isn’t like I never danced or moved – I loved mucking around at concerts and festivals, I was fit from running and football – but keeping in time and having awareness of my body? I was lost.

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I enjoyed the day, and felt like I should commit to the project – but this was not coming from a place of confidence. I was desperate to push my boundaries and get myself out of my comfort zone. I really wanted a new challenge, and the way I had felt on that first day – this whole “becoming a dancer” thing was going to be that challenge. When the call came out in April to put up or shut up – I dove in to the main group of the project. A group of men with varying physical abilities, fitness, age and experience.

What followed was months of rehearsals. There were times I questioned how wise this whole thing was. There were times we couldn’t walk in a straight line, or keep basic three pattern movements in time – how the hell were we going to be part of a big performance. We ground away, getting better every few weeks – before putting in some utter shit-show of a rehearsal that would have everyone, including Annette, second guessing us. Then, things would click, timing would improve. We developed a sense of ownership over the project and the process. We could do the rehearsals – now, could we perform it?

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Rehearsals – Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

I had no performance experience – dance or otherwise before this project. In fact, my first time on a real stage was the Wednesday before the start of the Country Arts WA Regional Arts Summit when we had the chance to wander about ManPAC as part of our “bump-in”. We were in Mandurah to be the living, breathing proof of effective community engagement and were there to work alongside delegates to put on a show on the final day of the conference. It was invaluable experience – the bunkered in rehearsing for hours; the joy of sharing a house with five other men; the late night partying and frivolity of a world far from responsibility; the hangovers; and on the final day – getting on-stage in front of an audience to perform. It was unifying. It was exhilarating. It was the chrysalis of the ManPack.

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The ManPack performing at ManPAC – Photo Country Arts WA

Suddenly, we were back in Denmark and back with the wider group. Hard in to rehearsals. On site. Dealing with dancing on slippery clay in the rain when we’d spent months rehearsing on floorboards, in doors. I slipped and fell hard moving in a way I had previously had no second thoughts doing. I wasn’t hurt but I was rattled. We were in hoods for our costume. Another adjustment. The floor of the shed was high pressure hosed to get rid of the slippery clay. We were rehearsing under lights. Suddenly it was dress rehearsals. Suddenly – there was no more time. Suddenly, I was going to find out a lot more about my comfort zone.

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Our youngest member – shredding his solo on rehearsal

Our Tech Rehearsal night, from my own perspective, had been a debacle. I was late, or early, or just out of time. My body was not right. My back felt sore and I felt heavy and unstable. I went home in what at best could be described as a funk. At worst – abject terror. Had I not been driving a couple of fellow community dancers home that night – I would’ve burst in to tears. Had my windscreen not been so difficult to see out of, I would’ve still done in in front of them. Dress rehearsal came about and I was stressed. We had a handful of VIPs in to watch and this was a full run through. The stakes were much higher than ever before, even higher than Mandurah.

Dress rehearsal went ok. We weren’t great. We weren’t bad. I was ok. I felt the nerves that had rocked me the day before became slightly placated. Things were going to be different on opening night in front of 140 people – but at least I wasn’t about to burst in to tears. Hopefully. As a group we were happy with how it had gone – the mistakes that are inevitable in a performance weren’t big enough to cause trouble in the run – and the manner in which we either recovered from them, or covered them was a tribute to our preparation. I went home ready to take on the real thing the next night and ready to let the world see what we’d been playing around with for months.

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Our pros – Scott Elstermann and Sam le Breton Photo by Nic Duncan

Our first two nights of the season were fantastic. There was a buzz amongst us and a buzz in the crowd. People had come with a forgiving mindset and a careful curiosity – I mean, seriously, how well could a bunch of blokes from the community really dance? It was good of us for having a go. What no one had counted on was our desire to be more than a curiosity. We went for it both nights and put on solid performances. The buzz around town was fantastic. People were clamouring for extra tickets to the sold out Saturday night show. People willing to stand. People who had heard that we were actually pretty good. Even some of the art snobs who didn’t want to watch men plod around stage.

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Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

Suddenly the final night was here. The night were this post began. We’d had our now traditional warm up to the Game of Thrones intro. We’d a brief sing-along of the Lion Sleeps Tonight. We mucked around in the dressing room together. We’d told a few more dodgy jokes, done our warm up games and had our hugs. There was a feeling that tonight was going to be a big one. I was feeling good. The aches and pains weren’t too bad. The energy in the group was great. Our unity was forged.

We hit that final night with another level of focus and intensity. Standing in front of my family, my friends and my community. Some of my family had travelled from Perth to come and watch. As I gazed out towards the moon, peaking out from behind the trees; just over the heads of the audience; I readied myself to go as hard as I could one last night for them. You have to meet commitment with commitment. I stood and enjoyed sensation, audited my body in my mind and relaxed.

That was the most amazing thing about this process – that moment of relaxation, of enjoyment, of comfort. At key moments in the show I had the chance to take in the audience, enjoy their gaze and attention. Make myself to take up more space and feel larger than I truly was. We were performing in an old saw mill – a huge industrial space, a place of masculinity, blood and sweat; where trees came to die. There was no fear of overwhelming the stage with presence. We had to fight for the audience’s attention over our setting – it challenged us to be bigger and demand more respect as our confidence grew in each show.

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The hinge – Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

After the second show, Annette asked me what I was going to do on the final night – what was going to come out in my performance. I think the both of us had been pretty shocked how far I’d come along in the process. I’d trusted her fully in preparing us to perform; and had unlocked part of myself along the way. That final night, as I challenged myself to go harder and harder through the show to take up more space, stretch further, embody the work more than the night before. I wanted to move with more air, more grace, more intensity, more purpose. I felt fantastic. I felt alive. I felt comfortable.

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Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

Sure, my dancing still has its moments; I’m very much untrained – but this project was about getting out of my comfort zone and trying something new. About putting my trust in others and seeing where it would lead. About giving part of myself to the creative process. About forcing myself to take in the gaze of an audience and enjoy it. I’d talked about taking a running leap from my comfort zone, away from running and football and taking the piss out of myself.

I had never expected to so comfortable on-stage (well, on-concrete). To feel so comfortable performing, especially in front of my community. To find a new comfort zone. One I never new existed. One I am so grateful to Annette, the crew and the ManPack for unearthing. One that I’m not keen to lose track of again. Now, I’m not packing my bags for WAAPA – but what I have done, is added dancer to my identity.

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Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

The Manpack:

Leader, mentor and force of nature: Annette Carmichael http://annettecarmichael.com.au/Home/Home.html

Our Incredible Community Performers: Don Anderson, Adrian Baer, Brad  Black, Dennis Buffart, Alexander Grace, Carl Heslop, Alex  Pyke, Todd Anderson, Rick  Bentink, Emil Davey, The Mountain Nigel Levinson, Phillip G Light, Martin Sulkowski
Professional Performers: The incredibly gracious and supportive Scott Elstermann, the capoeira king Zak Launay, the quiet intensity of Sam Le Breton, and Peter Fares (research phase)

Epic sound designer: James Gentle

Design gurus: Kevin Draper and Indra Geidans

Costume designer, stage manager and general support legend: Symantha Parr

Lighting designer: Kevin Blyth http://www.allevents.net.au/AllEvents.html

Photographic genius: Nic Duncan www.nicduncan.com

Tear inducing filmographer: Rob Castiglione http://www.robcastiglione.com/

Producer and Jingle-jangle lookout: Sandi Woo https://sandiwoo.com.au/

Co-ordinator of everything: Anna Boaden

The Beauty Index is supported by Denmark Arts; the WA Government through Departments of Cultural Industries and Regional Development; Country Arts WA; the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts and the Regional Arts Fund; Lotterywest.

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Monochromatic trees by Kevin Draper and Indra Geidens – photo Carl

Macho Macho Men

Macho, macho man; I wanna be, a macho man; Macho, macho man (yeah, yeah); I wanna be a macho! You’ve gotta be a certain type of man in our world – particularly in the rural area. Welcome to this rambling thought piece that wanders through some ideas on how railing against a stereotype can be challenging – and at times, you have to think, why bother?

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Apologies for the Village People reference. I mean, who doesn’t absolutely love them –  but it is more than dated, and the link to my macho man post is a little tenuous. The Village People song was more about getting as fit possible and being ready to get down with, anyone you can – while this is more about being a certain type of man and acting in a certain way. A macho way all the same.

Now, as a man who chose nursing as a profession – I’ve experienced questioning on my sexuality based on that choice. From the start of my university studies, some of the men that I played football alongside would regularly call me gay. Or a faggot. For studying nursing. Some of it was “harmless” (see homophobic) joshing that was more about having some fun than actually thinking I was a homosexual, but sometimes I actually wondered if they thought I was.

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I was quite comfortable with my sexuality, so didn’t pay much attention to this borderline homophobic abuse; but looking back, I really feel for anyone who was in my presence that may have been gay, or bisexual, or questioning; and hit by any of the ricochet. I wish, having my time again – that instead of laughing this abuse off or even playing along to cope – that I was a stronger ally and called out the language that was being sent my way for what it was. It wasn’t until years later, at the WA launch of the Safe Schools Coalition, an amazing two day workshop; that it really dawned on me that I should have been stronger.

I’ve been involved in male-dominated sporting groups for most of my life and they have times that they are wonderfully supportive – provided you fit the mould and do and say the right things. As a young nurse who doesn’t drink beer, there were times that I felt like my club mates thought I was really quite odd. Again, I was pretty comfortable being me, but there were times that, in that hyper-masculine setting, that I felt pressured into conforming with behaviour I wasn’t proud of or comfortable with; or letting things slide when I should have stood up stronger.

For instance, it has taken me a long time to feel comfortable enough to challenge people’s blatant racism or sexism within this setting – particularly when I know I am in the absolute minority. My wife comes from a Muslim family, I have Muslim friends, and have travelled mainly in Muslim-majority countries – so when some life-expert who hasn’t left the state wants to give a lecture on what “they” are all like, I can’t help but introduce the fact that, in my experience, the Muslim’s I know personally, haven’t waged jihad on me. Well, I don’t think my mother-in-law has….

I’ve also tried to model better behaviour and language in my own conduct – particularly know that I am coaching young men, particularly around attitudes to women. I’ve tried to change the language we use as a team – no homophobic or transphobic slurs; no one is a pussy; we do modified push-ups, not girl push-ups; the world girl is not to be used as a slur; I try to casually bring up female sporting achievements, the AFLW has helped with relevance, as casually bringing up Elaine Thompson was a challenge. I’m not a feminist – I don’t feel worthy of using that label to describe myself when I feel that there are many more people, women in particular, who are doing much more to be advocates, leaders and revolutionaries. All I’m doing is not being a douche canoe. I don’t deserve a medal.

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I also try to model this behaviour, language and attitudes for my sons. I’ve also, always, been physically affectionate with them. I was wary of the concept of “handling” them like boys from the beginning, and while you can’t break from everything that is engrained, you can try. I am determined to continue to show them that kisses, cuddles and touch are normal between men. I’ve tried to model it with their uncles and our male friends. Reading this excellent piece by Clementine Ford (and being lucky for her to tell me about it discuss it before it was published) has made me even more certain that we have to challenge the social norms around male touch. We just need to chip away to normalise it. My father was wonderfully affectionate to me up until the time he died. As a young teenager, I felt really embarrassed when he would hug me or give me a kiss goodbye. Mortified. Now, I look back thankful he did, and miss it greatly.

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My father was forced, through ill-health, to be the “stay-at-home” parent for me in my first years of life. He eventually went back to work and resumed his cultural norms, but for a while there, he was on the other side. Since my eldest son was born, I haven’t worked full-time. I’ve taken time away from formal work; to work within our home, raising our children.

I currently study from home and work part-time while my wife is the major breadwinner in our family. Working as a teacher in a primary school as well as running her own tutoring business is seriously hard work – hard work that few actually recognise or acknowledge. I find her dedication to both roles both tiring and inspiring. A perfectionist, incredibly intelligent and highly-qualified – my wife does not do things by halves and does not phone in a session in either role.

Part of taking on this role, of majority breadwinner, as a mother, is fraught with judgement (both external and internal), guilt and and fear of letting others down. Society views working mothers as choosing work over their children. Of letting down their kids. This isn’t my thought bubble, a really intelligent women called Dr Judy Rose, did her PhD on the phenomena. Working fathers do exactly what my wife does – in fact typically greater hours away from the home, with arguably less engagement with it when home – but men are just doing what they are supposed to do. It is bollocks.

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By taking on this high level of work and earning capacity, my wife has enabled me to focus on my study. I would not be able to do this without her. By taking on this role, my wife has also enabled me to be the main worker in our home. Something I am comfortable undertaking, and feel grateful for the challenge – it’s bloody hard work. I have many peers that don’t understand this, wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it, or are in professions that wouldn’t allow them to do it. It’s a shame. Until more men understand the division of home-based labour that currently exists is entirely unfair, particularly around the mental load of organising the home – the less likely we are to see more women re-enter the workforce and bring their talent and expertise with them. We are poorer for it.

The other attempt to challenge norms in behaviour that I’ve recently embarked on is a men’s dance project. I’ve never done any form of structured dance. I’ve been an active participant in large-scale dance events that involve no structure, but lots of fun (concerts, festivals, gigs), but real dancing – as in choreography, timing, and visualisation, is a whole new thing. I’m well beyond my comfort zone. I’m working with an amazing group of community dancers – other men with no experience. We are physiotherapists, tradesmen, a mussel farmer, teachers, vineyard workers, and farmers. We are being led by an amazing director and dancer in Annette Carmichael.

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My involvement in this project isn’t just about “having a go”. I am determined to show my sons that men can dance too. And my young footballers. And anyone else caught in the collateral. I tried to encourage some friends to join alongside me, but was met with a resounding chorus of NO! Like nursing – dancing is seen as a realm for women. Like nursing – dancing is seen as something gay men do. Like nursing – there are plenty of raging cisgender heteros who do dancing. Even if you are a gay man who dances, or nurses, or both – you should be free to do it without being reduced to some tacky stereotype. Just as if you are a homosexual man who likes playing football – you shouldn’t have to listen to homophobic slurs, even if they aren’t directed at you.

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My boys have already responded really positively to my dancing involvement. They are hanging out for our performance in November. They join in when I practise my routines at home. They ask me about things I have been doing in practise. They are even putting on dance performances for me at home, regularly exploring movement and expression in their own – and feeling comfortable doing it. It’s great.

Now, dancing for myself is fun. I’ll get congratulated for doing it and patted on the back. Similarly to not being a douche canoe above – there are many professional dancers who are men, who deserve amazing recognition and praise – just as there are thousands of talented community dancers (and professionals) who are women, who deserve it too. A former country footballer giving it a go is a cultural curio – the bar is set low for me as far as expectations go, so the urge is to pat my back for trying.

Which, if personal recognition, was what I was chasing, then it would be worth, as I will be recognised. and congratulated for being brave for doing something thousands of people do every day. Don’t get me wrong- it is terrifying and I’m proud of myself for taking the challenge, but I am doing it for my sons, not to be heralded. I want them to feel that that dancing is a bit more normal, and if they want to challenge the norms and take it up, they’ve seen a male role model do it.

In talking with my mother, after I signed up for this dance project – she told me a story about my father. It turns out he was a very active Irish dancer when he was younger, regularly performing and competing. He loved it. Now, he never encouraged me to dance – but never discouraged me either. I always remember him being able to dance at weddings during traditional dances, cutting a rug with my Mum. It explains, perhaps, my electrically fast feet (ha); or perhaps, more closely, explains why I felt it was ok to take on a men’s dancing project in the first place. Dancing had never been rubbished to me by my role model. And like home-based work, physical affection and the many other areas of influence my father had on me – if I can just build on each of them a little more – they’ll become more and more the norm for my sons. And hopefully their children.