Dancing with Fire

I always wondered when my two worlds were going to collide.

OK, collide is a bit of a dramatic word. Let’s say “intersect” instead.
I always wondered when my two worlds were going to intersect.

And the two worlds, you’re wondering? Why firefighting and free form dancing, of course!

This is my sixteenth year working as a firefighter in an urban fire department.  A career I am humbled and grateful to have. For me, serving my community, being ready to help in emergencies of all kinds, feeds my soul and gives my life meaning. For sixteen years, I’ve been responding to any emergency imaginable – emergencies from broken hips, heart attacks, allergic reactions, over-doses; to car extrications, car fires, shootings, stabbings, and structure fires, to name just a few.

Off duty, in my civilian life, for the last seven years, I’ve been practicing free form dance. Free form dance has quickly become my favorite self-care practice. It’s one of the primary ways I keep my body healthy, quiet my mind, feel into emotions, and breathe the life-affirming energy emanating from my soul. On this particular dance floor, where yoga pants and bare feet are the norm – a no talking place, where respect for the individual and collective dance space is apparent – I build up a fierce sweat. My arms and legs limber this way and that, my torso stretches from here to New York, my feet take me to the left, and with a jump and twirl as they land, I feel myself sway downward, rolling onto my side, continuing to roll onto my back and find my self rising upward on two feet again, all the while rockin’ out to dubstep and funky world beats.

This way that I listen to my body and move my body, nowadays, are much different than years ago.

Pushing  (Telling the Body What to Do)
Many years ago, as a competitive gymnast, I was used to pushing myself, and my body, from an early age. Three to four hour practices, multiples times a week, challenged my body in all of it’s cardiovascular, aerobic, and anaerobic capacities. As a firefighter, I know that this early training has helped enormously to assist me in the mental, emotional and physical challenges that firefighters face daily.

Early in my fire career, my workouts consisted solely of standard strength training at gyms, with weights and machines –  lifting, squatting, benching, curling, pressing, running. More pushing.

And that’s actually how I’ve fought fires my whole career. All that training and experience boil down to the charged moment when I’m facing that crackling orange inferno, and I get my body ready to Push.

When the fires come, it goes something like this….. I’m feeling pretty invincible – but I know its the adrenaline pumping through my body that’s talking. I’m breathing faster, oxygen saturating my core organs and muscles.  I’ve suited up into my heavy protective gear with the SCBA (self contained breathing apparatus) on my back and pulled 200 feet of hose off the engine. I’m masked up and ready, holding the nozzle with the hose flaked out behind me, on my knees or in a low crouch. My vision is obscured (because my mask covers my face and it’s dark and smokey in a fire) so my other senses are heightened. I hear beyond my breathing, the crackling, popping, and loud thud of falling objects. I’m feeling the hot walls, and the ground, through my structure gloves, hoping there are no bodies in here to be found. We press onward into the blackness and heat, until we get to the crackling orange.

As I prepare to open the nozzle, I’m aware that I’m squaring off my shoulders, my left leg lunged forward in a deep squat, digging in my feet or knees and ready for the water to come spiraling at 145psi (pounds per square inch) through the line and shooting out the nozzle. The water pressure wants to send me flying back, but I’m gritting my teeth and I’m diggin’ in. All that training and experience is kicking in. I’m fighting fire. And it all happens in a split second.
There is a lot of push.

That’s how it usually goes, when I’m in front of a fire. Until a couple of weeks ago.
And I’m convinced that my dance practice, played a big part in this new experience on the fire ground. Let me explain.

Going with the Flow  (Listening to the Body)
My seven years of practicing free form dance has allowed me to become the experiencer of my body. When I’m on the dance floor – instead of telling my body what I want it to do (like pumping a free weight at the gym, or even practicing the steps of a zumba workout) – I become a deep and attentive listener.

I don’t push my body on the dance floor. I listen. Another way to say it is I become very aware and feel into my body and then flow with the way my body wants to move.  From this listening place, I follow my body’s direction. And on the dance floor I’m always amazed at the wondrous ways my body moves itself. Like I said it’s a workout, a break from my mind, and often times it’s an expansive and spiritual experience.

Recently I’ve added to my free form dance practice by taking a contact improvisation class. Contact dance improvisation requires, like free form dance, deep listening to self as well as to a partner or two or three or four. In contact improv one is always keeping a point of contact to something or somebody whether it’s the floor or your partner or a group of other dancers. Contact improv requires even more listening skills in relationship to your dance partner(s) and how you decide to respond.  The dance is very fluid.  I’m in awe when watching seasoned “contacters” and the flow they exhibit in their dance, making it all look so fluid and easy, as arms, legs and torsos weave in and out of each other through rolling, lifting, and transferring weight.

Fire Dance
Two weeks ago I was fresh from a contact dance class. I arrived at the fire station and a couple hours later our crew was dispatched to a fully involved RV fire. The RV was in the middle of the intersection, flames already blowing out the roof, the owners standing curbside, screaming for us to hurry. I pulled the hose like always, but this time something was different. Very different.

Right from the beginning while I was fighting this fire,  I became aware that I wasn’t in my familiar squatting-squaring-off-shoulders-mode.  I didn’t even have my determined teeth grimace going. In fact, my usual digging in, “fighting” stance was no where to be found. Whoa I realized with surprise, somehow I wasn’t in push mode. Everything felt oddly natural, easy. Wait a minute, was I in dance mode?? When the pressurized hose wanted to move me to the left or right, my body simply responded accordingly, a small movement here, a slight adjustment there, a stretch, a weight transfer – just like an improvised dance with a contact partner.  And my body went with it, with ease – with flow. Omg, here on the fire ground, I was in flow mode.

The other interesting fact  worth mentioning is this. Unequivocally after a fire, I feel the residual physical effects a day or two later. If our actions at the fire scene were physically grueling, I might be sore all over. Even at the less physically taxing fires, I usually feel a muscle here or there, a place where I think to myself, Oh I must have used that part of my body, or I didn’t even know I had a muscle there. Usually at least a small reminder or souvenir that I did some hard work in the middle of the night.
Interestingly enough, after my dance with the RV fire, not a sore spot to be found anywhere.

The Choice is Yours
So what does all this mean and why does it matter? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot these past few week.

I’m highly aware that the RV fire would have gone out just the same in “fight” mode, as it did in surprising flow/dance mode. However, putting out the fire in “flow” mode, felt smooth, easier, natural and still accomplished the goal – without the negative residual effects (sore muscles).

I often see dance as a metaphor to living, and this time is no different.  To me, this experience of  push and flow brings up the following. I believe we can do most things – even very difficult things – without push, struggle, or fight. I believe it is possible to accomplish our goals with deep listening, response, and flow. I believe this about our personal lives and greater lives as well. Politically and socially – no matter where we stand on issues – I wonder about “fight” and negative residual effects. And I believe that deep listening, response, flow, deep listening, response, and flow are a legitimate way to get to our goals and dreams.

So if there is something in your life that you feel you need to fight for or against, or grit your teeth at, or dig your heels in, or square your shoulders off to, more power to you. It is, after all, your blessed choice to go about doing that! But maybe, just maybe, it’s worth considering, going about it in another way.

Perhaps deep listening instead of squaring off, responding instead of digging in,  flow instead of fight, is something worth trying.

And the fire will go out either way.




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