At first, the ideas came only while I was running at night, slivers of a story streaming past me like the tail ends of dreams I was occasionally lucky enough to catch on to. As long as I kept running, allowing the borders of my body to dissolve into the darkness till I was not quite myself, not trapped inside my flesh, the story seemed possible. It seemed like something I could write down, make as real and permanent as my bones, transform into something that had weight and meaning. But as soon as I stopped moving, the story stole away.
This went on for a year, maybe two. I can’t quite remember when it started, the same way you can’t remember the first instance of a reoccurring dream.
When I was in graduate school for writing, I wrote a personal essay my creative nonfiction class was quite taken with. Recounting this might make me sound full of myself, but I had a long way to fall. I dashed out the essay in a few hours, annoyed that I had to write something when I’d rather be out exploring Los Angeles—the graduate program was just an excuse to move to this angelic and devilish city that had always fascinated me.
The essay described how badly I had longed to be a dancer growing up, how I had worshipped those elegant, gravity-defying ballerinas who seemed to transcend the limits of space and of their own bodies. How they hovered on the tip of one toe, hung suspended in a leap, spun like a top that whirls tighter and tighter yet always remains upright; and how all of that movement drew emotion from the viewer, from me. Those dancers’ bodies unwound my yearning like thread from a spool. I wanted to move my body like that, to make physical an expression of my truest self.
So I took as many dance classes as I could, practiced every day, and even minored in dance in college. But I was not a talented dancer. I never managed to defy gravity. Once I’d finished college, I didn’t get into any of the dance graduate programs I’d applied to, and I had to accept that my talents lay elsewhere—in writing, in using my mind rather than my body—even if writing was a process I often loathed.
That was the message of my essay: the talents we’re given aren’t always the ones we wish for, and despite society’s emphasis on “following your passion,” sometimes we simply have to do what we can.
I got the message, but, disappointed and a bit arrogant, I chose to interpret “do what I can” as “do as little as I can.” Overestimating my talents, I finished grad school and set out to make a living as a writer without putting my heart into it. I chose projects I thought I could finish quickly, wrote books I or my agent thought would sell, even if they didn’t reflect my inner self. It wasn’t like I didn’t work at all, but I didn’t pour blood and sweat and desire into my words the way I once had into my body, as I’d spun and stretched and swung my way across a dance floor, hoping to achieve something beautiful but never quite reaching it.
In my post-grad school life, as I was writing and tutoring part-time, I had given up on taking dance classes—it was far too expensive—and instead I followed a dull, mechanized exercise routine that resembled a dance class to the extent that a telephone book resembles a novel. Leg lifts, heel raises, Pilates and stretching on my yoga mat, just enough movement to keep my body from atrophying, but not enough to allow me to feel free.
I started to live for those dark sky moments, when it was just me and my sneakers slapping against the pavement. Sneakers—clunky shoes I never wore in those years I dreamed of being a dancer, when my exercise took place in bare feet and ballet slippers. Now, these earthly shoes and empty streets were the closest I could come to freedom, and as I ran my mind opened in a way it never had while dancing, and people began to pour in, characters who were me and not me, and a story that would take those characters and me to the edge of despair and back again. A story that would take us—me and the voices in my head—to the dark places that only exist when the sun is gone, and you’re alone with your imperfect body, and you cannot sit still.
Maybe I would have continued this way forever: working jobs that weren’t too taxing but didn’t pay enough, writing stories that only skirted around the edges of everything there was to express within me, forgetting what it felt like to desire with my whole physical and emotional self. Or maybe I would have fallen in love, gotten married and had children, developed a new relationship to my body and led a very different kind of life.
Then, around the time I turned thirty, while researching an erotic thriller I was vaguely considering writing, I saw an ad from a local commercial dungeon—a place I’d had no idea existed—that was hiring professional submissives. I had recently lost one of those not-too-taxing, low-paying jobs, and with a mixture of desperation and some buried, unacknowledged longing, I answered the ad.
I got the job.
Suddenly I found myself performing a role that placed my body, rather than my mind, front and center. As a submissive at a dungeon, I sessioned with men who usually asked me to strip to my G-string, then spanked me with their hands or various implements, tied me up and tickled me. After years of shutting my body down, I was quite literally being slapped back to life. I had always been a bit of a masochist—what aspiring ballerina isn’t?—and while I wasn’t crazy about being tickled, the remainder of my new “job duties” were a revelation. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid well—much better than I’d ever been paid for my writing—for my ability to take a good spanking. Each man’s hand that impacted my flesh brought me back to my body, to myself. The pain pierced through me, telling me, You are real, you are a person who feels and desires and matters.
And, I discovered, I was a much better submissive than I had ever been a dancer. My high pain tolerance, combined with an eagerness to please, made me very popular my first year at the dungeon. My physical body became my source of livelihood, though not in the way I had once dreamed of as a professional dancer. It would have seemed to an outside observer that I spent most of my time staying still: being spanked or tickled or flogged, tied up or pinched or slapped or, yes, groped, my only role to absorb the sensations. But there was movement within me. There were messages shooting from my nerve endings to my brain, endorphins flooding my entire system; there was the rush of my blood and the pounding of my heart.
When I stopped running, when the night passed and the day and its responsibilities and judgments re-emerged, the story stopped too. Who would want to listen to those voices in my head, I wondered—to those characters I was creating, those girls who were me and not me? And even if I could convince someone to listen, how would I manifest those characters? How could I capture them on the page, when they existed only in the slipstream of darkness and my moving, aching, desiring limbs?
After about a year at the dungeon, I moved to a new apartment, and discovered a yoga studio only a block away. I’d taken a few yoga classes back when I was dancing, and I decided to try it again. I thought it would be a cinch.
I was wrong.
It turned out I had taken restorative yoga before, and what I’d signed up for this time was a vigorous vinyasa class with a particularly challenging teacher. Within minutes, I was sweating more than I had since my last un-air-conditioned summer dance class, probably ten years earlier. My muscles burned and my lungs struggled for air as I tried to keep up with the complex flow that transitioned from low lunges, straight to standing poses on one leg, and then on to arm balances. I walked out feeling dazed, and returned only to prove to myself that I could.
It took a few more classes for me to even begin to understand what yoga was: whereas dance was a physical expression of emotion aimed outward at a viewer, yoga was movement directed inward. Yoga was about understanding which poses my muscles and bones welcomed, and which they rebelled against; it was about choosing when to lean into and move past that discomfort, and when to draw back.
Just like working as a submissive at the dungeon, yoga woke up the physical self I had repressed for so long. The difference was that with yoga, my job wasn’t to accept and react to pain. My job was to move, to act, to decide for myself what felt good and what didn’t.
And, so subtly I didn’t realize what was taking place, that power to choose began to reawaken my mind as well.
Eventually, the story started to live outside of my limbs, outside of the sensations of my feet against pavement and the darkness cloaking me. The voices of those characters in my head whispered to me in the moments between sleeping and waking, in the spaces between song lyrics, in the seconds lost standing in line or waiting for the light to turn green. They said: we know you don’t have time, or energy. We know you think you’ve lost that part of yourself. But write us. Just write us.
By that point, working at the dungeon had started to feel less ideal. My body had woken up, and I had moved past the initial exhilaration of just feeling. I was beginning to realize that my body—and my inner self—didn’t like everything I felt at the dungeon. My body didn’t like the men’s hands where I had asked them not to go; it didn’t like the sting of badly aimed swats from a strap or cane on my thighs, my lower back, my ribcage; eventually, it didn’t like the sting at all. But this was my livelihood now, and I couldn’t just leave.
Still, the men seemed to sense my growing reluctance. I stopped seeing a few of them, the ones who simply wouldn’t accept no, and others made their visits less frequent, or not at all. They could feel the difference, the way my body tensed where it once had yielded. Now, I was waiting to yield in yoga class, in that sacred sage-scented space, so different from the dark dungeon. I cut down my hours at the dungeon, took on more editing and tutoring work, but that didn’t pay as well. Soon the inevitable happened: I could afford yoga classes rarely, and sometimes, not at all.
I tried doing yoga at home, but it wasn’t the same. I couldn’t escape the painful memories and stressful hours tied to my apartment, the place I had moved to with the money made from the dungeon, with a love for my submissive self that had since faded. I had allowed myself to become trapped once again, depending on jobs that depleted me, living in disappointment. I had to get out of my apartment. I had to get out of my self. So I found a new way to exercise: I started running, at night, in the dark.
The story came out of the darkest parts of me, the parts that felt trapped, tied up or confined to a cage, chained to a life and a self I no longer wanted. The story came out of my desire to break free, but not to escape myself; to choose what I wanted to feel, how I wanted to move. The desire to run.
I had to run toward something, not away. I had to write down my story. It was the story of everything I had absorbed at the dungeon, all the touches and sensations, the impact and pain, the sting and the thud. Everything I had taken into my bloodstream and allowed to fill me. It was the story of everything I had relearned in the yoga studio, listening to my tender limbs, challenging them and treating them gently. It was the story of my body running through the night, losing myself in motion while my mind grappled and struggled, strived and transformed.
It was hard, returning to a blank computer document after so many years away. I stumbled and stopped and restarted, like a child learning to walk, or to dance. My words were a lot messier than they had been when I was writing what I thought others wanted me to write, what I thought would sell or be praised or easily understood. The emotions behind my words were deeper and more tangled. The path I was wandering was darker, and full of twists and turns.
But I kept moving.
I kept moving my body, imperfectly, not the way I had once hoped to, as a dancer creating beauty or a yogi folding and unfolding herself. Just as two limbs and a beating heart, heading forward through the dark.
I kept moving my mind, letting my characters speak, imagining the way they might walk or dance through the world.
I kept moving my fingers across the computer keys, believing, finally, after so many years of doubt, in my capacity to create something worthwhile.
I’m still writing my story. I’m still running every night, in the dark. I still haven’t reached the place I want to be. My efforts are taking longer than I hoped they might. But I finally understand, now, that what I resisted for so long—my ability to tell my story in writing, to shape words into meaning on the page—is its own kind of dance.
And if I keep moving, it just might be enough to save me.
Stephanie Parent is a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at University of Southern California, and she worked for six years at a commercial dungeon in Los Angeles. Her poetry has been nominated for a Rhysling Award and Best of the Net.
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