What Its Like To Be Black At The Touch&Play Festival

"Bernadette Pleasant Touch and Play" - http://shayaulait.com
Pictured: Bernadette Pleasant Teaching “Emotion in Motion”
during Touch&Play: Emerging Seeds in Asheville. Image by Shay Au Lait

In 2019, I attended two Touch&Play Festivals. Emerging Seeds in Asheville and EarthDance in Massachusetts. In short it is an immersive community experience with daytime intensives, workshops and offerings as well as evening events that explore our relationship to ourselves and each other through movement, dance, art, intimacy, kink and nature. Its Sex Positive, though it isn’t a Sex Festival. Its an LGBT+ safer space. Its even a Poly Positive space, if that’s such a thing. Its also heavily laced with Contact Improv, as Touch&Play was inspired by it.

The first time my blackness came to the forefront of my mind in a way that didn’t feel good was when I went to apply to the Touch&Play Festival in Asheville.

Let me explain that the Touch&Play Festival and community is one that I am proud of. This is one of the few and rare communities and places on this entire earth where I feel free, seen, held and fully expressed. It is not a perfect community. I have cried. I have been angry and yet I stay engaged because it’s a transformative community too. It’s one that believes in calling people in, in nonviolent communication and in restorative justice. But Touch&Play has a couple issues, like everything else and one is RACE.

If you can help it, read with grace as this is my community.

While I do not recall the exact questions and I can’t find record of them, there were a few race specific questions on the teacher application for the Touch&Play Festival. What I do recall is that something about the questions didn’t sit right with me. I checked in with my mentor and friend, Bernadette Pleasant of Femme! & The Emotional Institute and she shared the same sentiment. In my answer to the application questions, I expressed my discomfort with their questions and suggested that they revisit them. 

One thing the organizers made clear before I applied was that they were intentional about and prioritizing inclusivity in their outreach. They were selectively inviting people of color, i.e. me and many others, who were not only qualified, but whose voices aren’t often heard in spaces like these. I felt that to be more successful in recruiting people of color to teach, contribute and attend…then they might want to change the way they were asking questions to us, as it was off putting.

Soon after, I found myself on another call with the Festival’s organizers. Literally soon after. They apologized. They took the criticism. They weren’t even aware. They simply didn’t know. They wanted to fix it right away and they did. It was amazing seeing how they responded and acted quickly. I was so excited to be a part even more.

I want to pause, as I have more racial anecdotes to share. However, there’s a lesson to be learned here. Recently, an industry colleague of mine Eva Mystique publicly requested referrals for Black Therapist, Counselors and such who were open to helping assist black people with recent traumas we’re dealing with. A tone deaf white woman came onto the post asking, “Why not white therapist?” in so many words. But it was the WAY she asked her supposed innocent question. It was more detailed than that and her full statements have since been deleted. However, because of the careless and callus way she asked her questions…which had no place on the post anyway, many people came to bat, checking her and holding her accountable for her ignorance. She took it personally. She got defensive. For awhile she made the whole post about her white fragility and her white tears. She was now being attacked, apparently. Do you see this shit? A black woman asked for a referral of a black therapist and now a white woman was on her post in tears because other black women checked her for being out of line. Granted we each spoke to her in different tones. Some appealed to logic. Some appealed to emotion. Some tried giving examples. Some told her to shut the fuck up. Another white woman told her her comments now crossed the lines of ethics even. We couldn’t even talk amongst ourselves to find resources with healing without a white woman coming on the post and crying victim. Why?

Do you see what happens when you ask questions without considering context? The lesson is to think about how, why, who, when, and where you’re asking your questions. Maybe consult with others to  ensure that the intent of your message has the impact that you desire. Or at least gets as close to it as you meant. 

The Emotional Tour by Bernadette Pleasant

The next racial anecdote that stands out to me is a moment that happened during a Bernadette Pleasant workshop at the Touch&Play Earthdance Festival in Massachusetts. Bernadette’s “After Glow” program was selected as one of the 4 intensive offerings of the festival. While most workshops were one off events, each attendee selected a single intensive and attended that specific program daily.

As I am a licensed and certified Femme! Teacher, one of Bernadette’s programs, she requested my assistance during one of the exercises in her intensive. In short, the exercise explores emotions in a full sensorial way. There is spoken word, movement, and live drums happening simultaneously in a performative manner. Parts are freestyle improv and the words are scripted. Several emotions are explored. In between each “act,” attendees are then guided through discussion questions which include exploring how even they embodied what they saw, heard and felt. Its a wonderful experience and I was happy to contribute with the movement component of this exercise. 

In a regular workshop, we cycle through 7 to 8 emotions in this exercise. At the Touch&Play Festival, if memory serves me correct, we only got through 3. I blame it on White Privilege.

You see, what had happened was FEAR. Literally. It may have been the second emotion that we were exploring. Bernadette read her monologue. JWOWW the drummer went in. I channeled my method acting from college and my freestyle movement from dance and I became the embodiment of someone experiencing FEAR. We put on a show. So much so that once the discussion portion began, Bernadette came to put a hand on my back as a check in while I caught my breathe in the back of the room. I nodded to her to let her know I was ok. It was an act. The scene was over. I was back and ready for the next emotion.

But the students. They had been rattled. Which, was the point. The point was to have them experience and embody emotions in different ways and this is one of Bernadette’s method. Combining theater, dance, live drums and spoken word. And we’ve all heard a song or seen a movie that made us cry or laugh or whatever. We understand the transformative power of art. For them, we wanted to invoke, evoke and provoke something. And they were shooketh.

The students spoke of many things. They spoke of what my fear reminded them of in their own lives. They spoke of how they felt compelled to save me from whatever it was I was experiencing. (Many people truly thought something had happened. That I wasn’t ok. I appreciate the sympathy…but also it was a theater moment. End scene.) They spoke of many things. They spoke so much, I realized 10 minutes had gone by. Normally, its a 2-3 minute discussion. We still had several emotions to go through and there was more to the workshop than just this part.

But we stopped because that’s what the moment called for. There were things that needed to be addressed. We took a brief break. And even when we came back….still the students were stuck on FEAR. Bernadette tried to begin moving the workshop forward. But they stayed on FEAR. There was more they wanted to talk about. 

By this point, some of the discussions had turned to race as well. And I get that art is subjective and we can interpret it in many ways and we each feel different things even if we have the same experience of the art itself. I was even asked what was in my mind as I acted that out. What had I been channeling? Was it race? Was the white man coming after me? Was it abuse? Was I reenacting a personal attack?  What made me fear for my life like that? I told them I was imagining the way I feel on the inside when I have a panic attack about a spider. That’s it. I have an irrational fear of bugs. If you know me, you’ve seen it.

The fear itself seems ridiculous but its so real. I acted it out in that moment 150%x what I normally feel. I did it in such a believable way that now we were having race talks in a workshop and people were triggered. Who knew me acting out a fear of spiders…..brought on triggers, tears, a savior complex, race issues and the call for another break.

Because that’s what happened. A white man stood up and requested that we pause the workshop to take another and this time longer break. It would give people a chance to shake things off. Maybe go outside for a moment.

Then it hit me. Like a ton of fucking bricks.

Bernadette’s workshop had been usurped by white privilege and fragility. 

I looked over at Bernadette, a powerful black woman standing there addressing everyone’s triggers, actively working to re-center the conversation while being drowned out by the need for others to keep talking. I get it. They are the students. This class and entire festival was designed for these moments. These conversations and explorations.

But there also comes a point when the teacher is talking and everyone else needs to shut the fuck up.

There are times when we just need to get the fuck over ourselves.

There are times maybe when we need to take a moment for ourselves without making it a moment for everybody else.

She was the teacher. This was her class. I looked over at the drummer, JWOWW, another black woman just waiting for her cue to begin while trying to hold space but giving me and Bernadette an all knowing look. I sat to the side waiting as well. All that stretching and warming up I had done was useless now. Looking at the clock, we should have been through at least 4 more emotions by now. I knew then Bernadette wasn’t even going to be able to finish her class for the day.

And yet, this was a moment when Bernadette should have been heard. We get that the exercise was impactful and left lasting effects. But also it was an exercise, a theater piece and the moment was over. Now it was time to finish letting a black woman lead with the two black women beside her.  

But nope. We took another break. Because white people were shook. We always gotta take breaks for their tears. This is what I wrote about the experience last year…

I recently witnessed and experienced white people feel uncomfortable. And sometimes what I find is their discomfort is automatically labeled as processing or reconciling with their "white privilege." In this instance, they added their issues with race to a subject that had nothing to do with race. So instead of focusing on the subject at hand it became centered on their white fragility and probably simply it was about their emotional instability. Then those white tears became THE THING... When it wasn't about race...initially. Then they used their white privilege to actually change the entire dynamics of everyone's experience...and I don't think they realize that. That they took a non racial thing and made it about race and then used their white privilege to exert their power to control the room....all because they were uncomfortable. It was crazy and interesting and eye opening.
Now I'm researching embodied race workshops cuz I'm sick of this shit. I've seen so many classes and workshops that allow creative play, ritual, dance and art about gender and I wanna see those for RACE. I'm hoping this already exists. I'm not an activist in this way but many of the leaders I know of don't offer work in the way I'm describing. So I'll keep searching. And if I have to make one myself, I fucking will. Lastly, we can talk race, diversity and inclusion all day. I love it. But don't talk to me about your "white privilege" until you've done the work in Layla Fsaad book, Me + White Supremacy. It was offered for free to everybody and now it's being sold. Pay her for what she's created because it will help you not repress me when you center conversations on you that are full of your white tears. I'm sooo done collecting them. I can't hold space for this anymore. The way you talk about your white privilege....sometimes is a microaggressive way of exerting that very privilege.

"The way you talk about your white privilege....sometimes is a microaggressive way of exerting that very privilege."

 I see all kinds of allyship from white people these days. Some of the white attendees at the Touch&Play Festival are our active allies. They are talking about #BlackLivesMatter but when some of them had a chance to listen to a Black Voice….they needed to take a break to go shake it off. When a Black Leader tried to offer a way of experiencing emotions in a different way, some just wanted to bathe in their white tears and hug their white guilt and stopped a workshop so that we could all watch. I wonder if they are aware as they post black boxes on social media that they silenced three black women with their fragility.

This incident still doesn’t sit well with me. As we always have to be resilient and go with the flow are white disruptions, we ended up scrapping the majority of the lesson plan after the second break. The world kept spinning.  The entire intensive was great. End scene. Etc. etc. etc.

Blindfold Contact Improv Jam

The next racial anecdote that stands out is what happened or I guess what didn’t happen with the Blindfold Contact Jam at the Touch&Play Earthdance Festival in Massachusetts. 

First, I should preference this with saying I’ve been exploring contact improv since 2001 in the theater program at my college. While I understand the mechanics of it, I don’t really like it. At all. Well, that was until Touch&Play. I’ve started to explore it more and the idea of a Blindfold Contact Jam excited me. I love dancing freestyle with blindfolds and I felt that this might help me get over any lingering issues I had with contact improv.

As a quick description. Contact Improvisation is a form of improvised dancing that involves the exploration of one’s body in relationship to others by using the fundamentals of sharing weight, touch, and movement awareness while usually maintaining one or several points of contact.

For this specific class, the blindfolded one, I read over the description in the pamphlet just to double check what it was about. It stated, “When we blindfold ourselves and let our sight go we are able to develop and heighten our other senses. In contact this is essential to training our bodies to expand beyond our patterns and open to a broader range of movement and sensation. Being blind in the dance is a whole new experience that helps to let go of our prejudgements, agendas and movement habits….” The description goes on and on and I fucking loved it. I was HYPED to try this out. 

Right before we began to play, the facilitator wanted to do a brief check in, share a few guidelines and answer any questions we might have since it was a large class and they wanted to ensure everyone’s safety. As the facilitator began to speak about the INTENT of this workshop, my heart sank. He spoke about how this was an exploration of ANONYMITY. That’s different than an exploration in SENSORY DEPRIVATION to also enhance other senses. Those are two different concepts. 

There was no way I, as a black woman could be anonymous in this game because of my HAIR. I know its silly and simple. But by his explanation, I was excluded. This is because there were only a couple other black people. So encountering us during a blindfolded moment…you’d know it was us. This wasn’t a level playing field. Not only that, I already at times felt like a fucking spectacle. In their care to ensure that the voices of POC peeps were heard and prioritized and that we were represented as teachers and etc, sometimes it felt like a bit too much.  Too much attention in ways we didn’t ask for. We weren’t fragile. We just wanted to be heard. Like sometimes I just wanted to sit at the lunch table and talk about my obsession with the Sims 4 game and not about my experience being black at breakfast earlier morning. Sometimes being an ally, is letting me just be in the space too. And this explanation of the game felt like I couldn’t be in the space. 

I expressed my concern to the facilitator and honestly, I think he just didn’t get it. He moved on to the next question. A few people, especially the black people felt like he was being a bit dismissive. I don’t think that. I think his privilege just wasn’t allowing him to see that the rules of his own game excluded us. So minutes later all who wanted to play went into the dance studio and a couple of us black kids sat outside holding each other while we cried. So fucking silly and so fucking sad. 

What annoys me about this is that we don’t deal with this.

Some of the games and systems we use are now outdated. There are things that would never happen at that Festival that would even subconsciously exclude the LGBT+ community. That’s a huge assumption on my part. But I just don’t think they’d let anyone come in there and offer an experience that might even begin to subtly exclude others in that way. There’s no way they’d let an exercise even toe the line of only applying to binary people. I think those things are thoroughly examined at Touch&Play but race is not. Gender and Sex, they got. Race, nope! And that’s probably because most of them are white and with their privilege they don’t realize the games they created and its guidelines exclude me. My black hair is not anonymous in a blindfolded sea of white people dancing contact improv.

IS TOUCH&PLAY INCLUSIVE?

Touch&Play is aware of many of its challenges as it relates to inclusivity. And they actively address those things in their mission statement, their inclusivity statement and their actions. By the following year, Touch&Play Asheville had me on as one of the Festival Organizers and Emcees. So again, this is not a “bash them” post. They’ve made some huge strides and they are honest about needing help and they are doing the work. But there are subtle little things. And those things are impactful too. You can do all the work you want to have a black woman as your intensive teacher…but when she tries to teach you a new way of being emotionally intelligent, will you listen or will you just cry white tears? You can do all the work to market to black people to attend the festival…but maybe make sure your classes, your events and your games are inclusive to them too. 

If you ask me about my complete experience being at Touch&Play, OMG! I sing their praises. Its not for everybody. I mean, not everyone is going to want to attend a festival like this. But for those who have taste like me as it relates to art, movement, sex positivity, kink exploration, communitity and so much more, these gatherings are magic, transformative and long lasting. So many of my experiences there have gone on to change my life, change how I think, change how I talk, change how I create. I am more thoughtful, open and authentic because of them. I communicate and love differently because of the Touch&Play festival. 

I love them and yet we also have a ways to go, because specifically these were my experiences being BLACK at Touch&Play Festivals. And there’s something off about that.

What is Touch& Play?: The Touch&Play Project has been creating safer and more inclusive spaces to explore our relational bodies since 2010. Grown from a search for, first the chemistry, and later, the edges of Contact Improvisation our work integrates various dance and movement practices as well as conscious sexuality, consent work, power, sensation role and rope play and many other disciplines. Our work experiments with the deeply playful art of relating to our selves and others by creating conscious connections through our minds and bodies by listening to what’s alive between us at any given moment. Read about its origins here: https://touchandplay.org/about/

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