Healing Sexual Violence With Body Movement

Patricia Cumbie (photo by Sarah Whiting)

I come from a long line of shotgun weddings. My maternal grandma fell for my delinquent and scrappy grandpa and found herself, at the top of her high school class, pregnant, suddenly married, and on a train heading to the West Coast where she would live with him before he shipped off to Japan in World War II.  

Ma was a waitress in California when dad ordered a cup of coffee. Soon she, too, had a bun in the oven — me — her senior year of high school. Teenage pregnancies afflicted my aunties, too — each one right after the other. 

I also come from men who were restless seekers. My paternal grandpa was, in his prime, a handsome man and a mercurial alcoholic. He was attracted to frontiers, tough guys, and vigilante justice. By the time I came along, nobody could remember his good qualities. Dad spent his childhood pulling his own father out of bars to keep the weekly paycheck from disappearing completely.

My dad’s two brothers drowned in a Florida swamp when he was ten. My cousin was shot six times by a deranged neighbor who was obsessed with her. Another cousin died in a car wreck with her best friend, fleeing a violent, drunk husband. My youngest sister’s bipolar husband died popping wheelies on his motorcycle. My brother is in recovery. Many of my aunties had abusive husbands. I was looking for an escape hatch and, instead of the freedom I thought I would find in college, I got raped trying to pass through it. 

I grew up with people with certain struggles, who needed therapy but couldn’t afford it. Therefore, therapy was something that fluffy indulgent people did. The problems piled up like unpaid bills until, bang, someone flipped out, smacked someone, hit rock-bottom, or was court-ordered to go.

When I finally admitted to Betsy, my therapist, that I was one of those people with a long history of big problems, I was certain she would gasp with the admission. Instead, it was news she took as if I had placed an order in a drive-through window.

Betsy gave me a tape she made of a meditation. I listened to it every day, prone on my bedroom floor after work. Her voice on tape was verdant, soothing. A singer’s voice. 

While the tape talked — “Imagine you are a balloon. Orange. Full with air. Breathe in. Breathe out. You are floating in a clear, blue sky” — I knew this was definitely something that fluffy indulgent people did. They rested after working all day. They listened to a soothing female voice. They filled their bodies with breath instead of cigarettes or drink. 

All my years before recovery were such a waste of love. It didn’t allow the pleasure I might have had with anyone I was in a relationship with. I know now that I needed that time, as long as it took, to prepare myself to deal with the trauma and let it go. But part of rape’s insidious impact is that it robbed me of natural sexual joy for many years.

Thanksgiving. We were alone. We cooked a small turkey, drank wine. After dinner I felt drowsy and satiated. I wanted a piece of pie and a luxuriant conversation or an absorbing book.

My husband and I sat down on the couch and he began rubbing my shoulders. He moved the back of my hair up, exposing my neck. Massaging, and then kissing it. His kisses were insistent.

I tensed. Dessert, not sex! I jumped off the couch to be away from him. I was so angry about this unplanned proposal. I threw off my clothes and screamed at him, enraged, pointing at my shaking and naked body, “Is this what you want? Is THIS what you want?” 

Take Back the Night rallies started in the late 1970s, in countries all over the world, as a way to expose the prevalence of rape and remove the stigma of being a rape survivor. The rallies give women an opportunity to speak out against domestic and sexual violence, and raise awareness in their communities to work toward better solutions for women’s safety.

I went to my first rally in 1988, when a number of us at a new “Feminist Voices” newspaper attended. 

“A woman is raped every two minutes in this country,” said the woman at the podium.  “One in four women has been sexually assaulted.” The speaker held silent a beat, like a preacher, to let those statistics sink in. “And you know what? So many of these rapes go unreported. Unreported. The system,” she emphasized, “is not friendly to women. We have been silenced! For far too long.” 

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard these statistics, but hearing them yelled out into the night sky made them seem heavier than ever. The crowd clapped and woo-hooed. The very air was redolent with outrage.

I had been given an armband, as a survivor, when I arrived. I held it tight in my hand, in my pocket, the very portrayal of a silenced woman. The armband for me generated the heat of denial. I didn’t need this — to revisit trauma. Especially not in public. The thought made my hands sweat, my heart pound, knees shake. 

I held a certain part, the heartbreaking part, of female identity right in my palm, and I was crushing it. Refusing it. I felt wretched, undeserving of anyone’s sympathy or righteous indignation.

I rationalized that I was a lucky one. I hadn’t gotten pregnant. I didn’t have visible scars. You couldn’t tell by looking that I had been raped. I didn’t appreciate then that these were often universal truths, true for men and women who have been assaulted or abused. 

I was angry. At myself most of all — I had been weak and made bad decisions. My need for atonement meant that I was to suffer the consequences. Alone.

During the march, the voices of women around me poured out in chants: “Claim our bodies, claim our lives, take a stand, take back the night.” “Whatever we wear and wherever we go, yes means yes, and no means no!” 

I walked along, solemn, stoic. Not galvanized.

I left the rally before the candlelight vigil got underway. I was antsy and handed off my unlit candle to someone in the crowd. I didn’t want to stay for what was sure to be a powerful spectacle and formidable visual reminder of the prevalence of sexual assault. Instead of feeling the collective power of womanhood united, I felt confronted and disturbed. 

I got involved in dance a decade later. I saw it as a way for me to finally take feminist theory about owning my body and practice it in real life.

A belly dance taqsim is an invitation to glimpse this inner life of a body. The word means “division” in Arabic, and in the music means that a specific instrument will play an improvised solo. A taqsim is an improvised response to a melody instrument. Rhythms move a dancer to interpret the music emotionally by adding different textures to the performance with slow and fast and big or small movement.  Or a moment of stillness. 

I have never stood before people and used only my body to emote. Is that, then, what could make me stronger, more resilient? 

I took up dance to find out. The answer was yes.