Dance with Both Hands Free

A parable from Sri Ramakrishna.
Retold by Liz Mangual.
I loved this story when I first heard it told. I thought it would be a perfect story to share with incarcerated teens. It served a twofold purpose. I could use it to share a personal story, always a good way to start, and also to generate a discussion on a theme relevant for the students.


Once there was a woman who went to visit her friend. Her friend was a weaver and had been making a beautiful tapestry on her loom. It was woven from beautiful silk threads of many colors. When the weaver saw her friend she exclaimed; “Friend! I cannot tell you how happy I am to see you! What a joyful day. Surely a day for celebration! Please come in and make yourself comfortable, and I will get you something to drink”.

The weaver went into the kitchen to get a cup of tamarind tea. Her friend looked around and noticed the silk threads shimmering in the early afternoon light. They were so beautiful!…and she was tempted. She couldn’t resist herself. Quickly, she reached over and took one of the bundles of thread and stuck it underneath her arm.

When the weaver returned she noticed that a bundle of thread was missing, and knew that her friend had taken it. She thought for a moment, and devised a plan to get it back. Putting down the cup of tea she said; “Friend, what a joyful day it is today! Please, get up and let’s dance.” In a tentative voice her friend responded, “yes, let us dance”.

The weaver raised both her arms high and began to dance. She smiled as she turned in slow circular motions dancing with joy. Her friend got up, but instead danced with both her arms pressed close to her sides, holding the bundle of thread tightly underneath one of her arms. When the weaver saw this she said; ” It is a day for celebration friend, how is it that you dance with your arms that way? Look, dance like me with both your arms raised!” The friend then raised one of her arms, but kept the other pressed tightly against her side. The weaver seeing this insisted and said; “It is such a joyful day, please dance with both arms raised. Look at me. Like this!” The weaver continued to dance, spinning, turning and swaying with joy. The friend looked down and quietly said; “but…sister, I am sorry, this is all that I know of dancing.”

…Always be ready to dance with both hands free

A Dialogue on Dancing in Camino Nuevo

by Liz Mangual and Bob Kanegis

Bob… For the past three years my partner Liz and I have offered a storytelling-based program called the Hero’s Journey in juvenile detention centers in New Mexico. We are not only partners in work we are partners in life. In the lingo of incarcerated kids, we are a 24/7 couple. (24 hours a day/seven days a week). In our most recent cycle we were faced with a new challenge. Because of other program commitments Liz would not be able to participate. For the first time, I would have to go it alone. Yet in each of the 12 sessions that followed the accumulated knowledge and experience we had together helped me navigate the challenges and obstacles of working in the very difficult environment that is Camino Nuevo, the maximum security facility in the state. It seemed absolutely necessary to have Liz with us for our final session and very modest celebration. We had a truly remarkable day with each of our four classes.

Liz… I loved this story when I first heard it told. It evoked images of my mother many years ago. I thought it would be a perfect story to share with incarcerated teens. It served a twofold purpose. I could use it to share a personal story, always a good way to start, and also to generate a discussion on a theme relevant for the students.

Bob…When Liz told me that this was the story she would tell, I really encouraged her to share the personal associations it brought up for her.

Liz…It’s important to share personal stories but I find myself being selective about what stories and how much detail to include. I feel vulnerable. Will the kids respect what I say? Will they listen with compassion, will they laugh? It’s a delicate balance and dance.

I told the students how, for over 40 years my mother worked in a sequins factory in New York City. I remember her sitting at her chair near giant spools of shiny, colorful plastic sheets, pulling the sheets of plastic and rolling them onto her machine. She transformed them into the beautiful, shiny pieces of discs that are used on wedding dresses, prom dresses, evening dresses! Every time I’d visit my mother at work I would leave the factory with free tubes of different color glitter. What a joy that was for me!

I also told them how, even though my mother worked for many years in the same factory, she did not have many friends at work. She was a beautiful woman with a lot of grace and a ‘big heart’. To me it seemed that her co-workers were envious of her beauty. This envy was metaphorically preventing the full dance of friendship. It didn’t seem fair and I felt sad for her.

Bob…Emotions, ideas, judgements, self image, prior experience… so much that we in fact ‘know’ can lead us to that less than fulfilling state where we say ‘this is all I know of life.’

Liz…I had another agenda for sharing this ‘personal’ story. Since I knew that most of the boys were of Hispanic background, growing up under difficult circumstances, I wanted to illustrate how I, too, was brought up in challenging times. Young Hispanic boys place a high value on their relationship to their mothers. I thought that by telling a story about by own mother we could find common ground.

Bob…I observed the boys watching and listening to Liz with rapt attention. In earlier sessions I’d hinted that she would be with us for the final session. I wanted to create a sense of anticipation. I also wanted them to know that I was a man who had a talented partner who I respected. In past programs, students sometimes expressed amazement that we were able to solve problems and minor communication breakdowns with each other on the spot right in front of them. We get to model a reasonably good relationship, something that very few of these kids witness from their parents.

Within the framework of our overall goals and intentions for the program, our plans are fluid. We have a few core stories that we know will be told, and some tried and true activities, but overly detailed plans can be yet another obstacle.

For example, I had to leave the room at the beginning of the third class to get more donuts from the car. When I’d made my way through the maze of locks and sliding doors again, I walked into the classroom and was surprised to find the teacher who had heard the story in the two previous sessions telling Dance With Both Hands Free instead of Liz.

Liz…As a new group of boys trailed into the classroom I noticed that the teacher was engaged with them. I had asked her if she would tell the story. At first she resisted, but with encouragement from me (and the boys chiming in in the background) she took the challenge. This was an opportunity for her to model taking a positive risk. I was taking a risk, too. I needed to let go of the idea that perhaps the story wouldn’t be told in the right way, and in turn that the boys wouldn’t get the whole point of the story. I was determined to help her succeed. And she did!

After the telling she engaged in the discussion that followed more so than in the two previous classes:
Did the weaver have other choices? Did she want her friend to be revealed? What was her intention and why did she take such an approach? And how about the friend? How did she feel? What were her choices? Did the weaver get the thread back? The responses were thoughtful and sincere. One boy spoke eloquently about being able to live life in the open and about being perceived as trustworthy.

Bob…I had been only slightly more calculating in my decision to take a risk that day. In planning the session, I wanted to bring in a silly and outrageous story and song, my version of Mama Don’t allow made popular by Thatcher Hurd. I do it with my squeezebox. The refrain goes…”We Don’t Care What Mama Don’t Allow… were going to… .dance…jump on the bed… etc … anyhow!’ Altogether a revolutionary song for a bunch of juvenile delinquents!

Camino is by far the darkest place in the system… dark in spirit, energy, and just plain oppressive with its solid steel remotely operated doors upon doors. It hadn’t been an easy three weeks, and every day the energy was different. There’s heavy gang mentality, staff that get off on the opportunity to provoke then restrain kids, and the guys are there sometimes for years at a time. You don’t hear a lot of laughter or see a lot of smiles. By telling this story I’d be risking making a fool of myself to stony silence. But somehow I felt that I had established enough rapport and trust so that I could get truly silly this last day.

What actually happened? The Joint was Jumping! Never did I expect that some kids would actually get up and start dancing. ‘Carlos’ was phenomenal. He stood up and danced with me as I played. He could have been a Sufi or a Hassid lost in ecstasy. There were smiles and laughs all around. The principal, secretary, even the correctional officers were peering through the window, agog at the wonder of it all. Later the principal would tell us that for him it was an astonishing experience, acknowledging that for a time the whole place was transformed watching Carlos, and that for a few moments Carlos, who is now 17 and has been incarcerated since 12, was truly free. Yes, this was better than even the Kirov ballet that we saw later that evening. It was truly dancing with both hands free!

Liz…What did we learn? Doug Lipman, speaking as a coach, suggests that we look to the stories we choose to tell for the clue to what it is that we ourselves must learn as storytellers and teachers. Bob and I first met on the dance floor. As partners, teachers and guides we continue to learn to approach each other, our colleagues and students with openness and respect. We are still learning the dance of give and take, of lead and follow, and the lessons of trust and support.

Will you join the dance?

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