Sound of the Silenced

The other night, I met a group of friends at a dance studio to try out a new class. When I arrive, music is already playing, a pulsing drum and winding flute. The mirrors catch us unawares. The vast floor shines. We stand around on the edge and chatter like girls until the teacher, a forty-something woman with glitter on her bare shoulders, moves to the front of the room, turns her back, and starts stepping in time. Spacing ourselves out without talking, we do the same. In no time we twenty women of different ages and heights and sizes are moving together, a flock of us waving, dipping, spinning, shimmying, tip-toeing and grunting. Well, all of them but me. This sort of dance, Nia, draws from martial arts as much as modern dance so certain kicks and swings require a defensive oomphf. The tall older woman with the jazzy scarf around her head grunts. The short Latina with black velvet hair grunts. My friend Anne who wears heels grunts. Only I remain silent as I swish and sway. As the class unfolds I try. I do the kick and … nothing. I spend one whole song obsessing about why grunting is important. Would I let loose if I were actually defending myself? Eventually, I manage something between an exhale and a sigh, barely audible even if the music was turned off.

Afterward we meet for margaritas and tacos, the dancer’s reward. Dipping chips, we rave about the class. Marla, who teaches yoga, loved the freedom of movement. Darcie, a 50-something runner, said she’d never taken dance before in her life. We all agree the class was like going out dancing with girlfriends without the smoke and drinks and poseurs—as if that was something that we, so laden with commitment and love of sleep, did all the time. I confess my grunt phobia. Everyone nods supportively, but as the conversation drifts on I silently consider my desire to be silent.

At home I walk silently across wood floors, rolling into the future, heel to toe the way I learned in yoga, while my husband and son stamp. Sometimes people say they can’t hear me on the phone. “Speak up, I can’t hear you!” I wasn’t aware that I’d slipped away. And yet I love noisy sex. And for the first four years of my son’s life I sang to him, even teaching myself the words to favorites like “Boots of Spanish Leather.”

Maybe my silence is caused by allergies. Six months of the year I cough. Sometimes it’s a little dry hem-hem and sometimes it’s a body-wracking hack that scares other people. My throat and bronchial tubes swell and I get out of breath. Sometimes I wonder if this is how I’ll die as an old lady, trying to calm my chest enough to steal my last breath. Sometimes when I open my mouth to speak, a squeak comes out or, worse, an explosive cough. Maybe the proverbial frog I try to clear from my throat is actually all the words I was meant to write but haven’t because I choose to work full-time and also have a family. Words are seeping up as if from a polite volcano, tickling and scratching and refusing to be silent. I cough them out, clear them up. If it’s not mold, it’s cedar. The only thing that works is drugs. I inhale this or that and the unspoken words eventually stop pushing forth. They wait patiently or escape into the air like butterflies migrating. Finally, I am silent.

While I am still coughing and just a few days after dance class, I visit The Crossings, a spa-meets-holistic-piece-of-heaven in the hills west of town. Flipping through the brochure, I notice among the usual exotic offerings such as stone spirits massage and seaweed wraps is vocal toning therapy. This “sound healing” promises to release emotions and bring joy. During my tour, my guide points out a 80-something year-old woman walking by, erect with white hair and a purple rain coat, who is taking part that week in a retreat to teach people to sing in public. Apparently, this woman had sung beautifully as a child but was silenced by parents who thought a singing career too frivolous and had not sung in public since. Until the night before. She had stood by the fireplace at the front of the room and let the sound escape from her. Her voice was still beautiful, I was told, and while she sang the years fell away from her face.

My friend Susanna Sharpe, who sings lilting songs from Brazil, Cuba and other hot places, performed with her band throughout her two pregnancies. I wonder what those babies heard, the drums pumming, the guitar dancing, and their own mother’s voice cascading around them. Lucky babies.

Perhaps my silence comes from shushing. When my frazzled single mother told me, again and again, to Shut the Hell Up!, I obeyed. Too well. My seven-year-old son knows better. 

“Don’t shush me,” he says assertively. “You can’t do that.”

I didn’t shush you, I just said: shhhhhhhhh.

“That’s shushing.”

Oh. Well, then can we have a Quiet Break from the 30-minute monologue about why you need a Game Cube immediately if not sooner because every one else has one, even Carlos who doesn’t have a big brother.

Silence. At a stop light by the lake, we look out the window together at a flock of ducks dodging back and forth and finally settling in unison on the lake. It’s that blue time of evening, the tail end of sunset. It’s all a balance, when to speak and when to listen, when to exhale and when to breathe in, when to feel anger and disappointment and when to let it go, when to dance and when to be still.

Dance to your own drummer at www.niaspace.com

Heal thyself at www.thecrossingsaustin.com

To hear Susanna Sharpe sing: www.cataventomusic.com

Robin Bradford, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in two new anthologies -- Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works as a communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin. She lives with her husband and son, three cats and a dog in a tiny fifties house. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her. Send feedback to robin at motherload @ austinmama.com. Visit her site at www.robinbradford.net