To answer the question What is it like for dancers? I turn to Rae. Rae is a professional modern dancer. (A disclaimer: though sensuality pervades all dance, from here on out, I'll be talking primarily about Western and Westernized concert dance, as it is mostly in these forms that dancers engage in full-body contact with each other.)
Some dancers stand like gods; Rae's strong as a lion, but she's too busy vibrating with near-visible energy to stand her ground. She looks as if a door inside her's just been flung open; she dances like she's hungry. I knew she'd have stories.
Let's start with the juicy stuff, Henry's question: are dancers better in bed? Rae's answer is an emphatic yes. "Modern dancers are the best lovers." Why? Because of their training in dance, in anatomy, in how to release into touch. "You know the cells and you know the weight of things and you know the push and pull," she says.
Are dancers wild? Rae demurs. Most dancers, she says, are compulsive, and this often translates into committed monogamy. The dancers in her company are almost all coupled up for the long haul. But others are "lovers--they're just lovers!"--people who aren't made for monogamy, she says, people who "just love physicality" and surround themselves with it. "We touch each other's bodies like it's nothing. It's easy to get sucked into that feeling." Rae doesn't fault them for it, either; of one noted testosterone bomb, she says, "I honestly just think he loves loving."
As this implies, dancers often have a different sense of sexual identity and morality than the general population. For starters, they see sexuality as a continuum, on which there are many more points than gay, straight, and bi. Rae's dated men and women, but she doesn't care to define herself: "I love who I love. Whatever I get attracted to, I go in that direction." Arrangements you rarely hear of in what I increasingly think of as the straight world are not uncommon in dance: open marriages, long-term threesomes. At these arrangements dancers do about as well as anyone else--that is, not particularly well; but they would say that at least they're willing to try. "I think it's progressive!" Rae exclaims.
Tellingly, the cardinal sin in dance love isn't cheating; it's keeping your cheat secret. Relaying the story of one company-tearing affair and its aftermath, in which the original couple remained together, Rae finishes, "And they're living a happily ever after." Dancers are at once more realistic about the possibility of temptation and less willing to resist it when it crops up--and when you think about it, it makes sense that people who earn their living saying yes to full-body flight and blind falls would have a hard time saying no to anything that could be construed physical experience.
This might be the key to sex in the dance world: for dancers, erotic knowledge, because it is physical knowledge, can never be separated from art. So while they might be more promiscuous than the average (though not, I think, in the league of such late-night professions as food service, live music, or law), they approach their encounters differently, deliberately. They don't need to get drunk to have sex any more than they need to get drunk to dance; saying yes to a new lover is, for a dancer, saying yes to knowing more about bodies in motion.
Whether dance teaches this attitude or whether those who have it go on in dance is a chicken-and-egg problem I can't pretend to resolve, but for Rae, growing up in dance, "my body was a tool to make dance. I never realized there was a different way of looking at bodies and love." She never separated the moving body from the loving body: as a teenager, she had a crush on an older dancer, a girl, and "dance made hormones a whole other thing"--an aesthetic experience--and she's never looked back.
As Henry guessed, this means Rae lives in her body with a pleasure most don't feel. But there's a danger here: "The stage is the only place I feel safe or free. I've never had anyone rush the stage. You can be as sexy and crazy as whatever you are"--but "once I leave the stage, all bets are off."
Maybe you know what she means. In the real world, you might sometimes have an excuse to enjoy your physical self--running for a bus, say, or brushing your hair--but do this too visibly and you'll be labeled crazy or easy and treated accordingly. We have so little bodily freedom. No wonder dancers are sexy: they show sweat, hair, breath, nipples, in a world of prescription-strength deodorant, wind-tunnel hair spray, Teflon suits, and breastplate bras.
So what's it like to live in Rae's world? What's it like to be a professional modern dancer, touching the most amazing bodies in town day in, day out?
Intimate: of her company members, Rae says, she knows "every inch, every ounce, every freckle. I know how to deal with them, I could balance them on anything." She describes lying on the floor in rehearsal, looking at a man in her company while a long sixteen counts goes by. It's a moment "post-this, pre-that," a moment to take another person in, no judgment--and, you might be surprised to hear, no lust. For her company members, Rae says, "I feel love on the most amazing level, but I don't feel attracted."
Not that it's that way for everyone. Someone tells me a story of a "devastating" dance crush, a straight woman in love with a gay man she danced with for years: "I only had to look at his hands, and they just turned me on so much." Another dancer, a husband and a vodka later, could still recall everything about one partner she never so much as kissed: "I remember the shape of his wrist," she said, sketching it in the air. "I remember the way he smelled"--and her eyes shone as she said it.
Dance does touch Rae's sex drive: "When I'm dancing all the time, I don't need sex as much." She goes on: "You're sweating and breathing hard and rolling on the floor and pushing and pulling and it's chemistry and a full-body experience. Sex doesn't make it richer." Dancing itself is bliss, the feeling that "I just love flying through the air at this moment with you. Why would you need anything else?"
Even partnering with dancers she doesn't adore off the floor, Rae says, "It's magical. There's something that happens with touch--you find the core love and care." I know what she means. That moment you're dancing closely with someone, sharing weight and momentum, trusting and being trusted, it doesn't matter who they are: you love them, love their physical existence in this world. "You don't want them to be in pain. Every ounce of me goes to save or protect" her partners--and she knows they do the same for her. "You let go of stuff because you have to, you live inside of what you have in common."
She's getting euphoric just talking about it. She throws her arms out: "Why doesn't the world start there? I think dance would save the world."
But what about love with a capital L--romantic love? I don't think I'll ever recover from the first time I saw the Sleeping Beauty kiss: he kneels, they grasp hands, and she sweeps into a deep arabesque on pointe, her foot striking twelve o'clock as they kiss. That moment set my compass for life, and I can't be alone in finding my most abiding images of love in dance. So dance affects love--what does love do for dance?
"Love? I don't know anything about love," Rae says.
I'll have to keep looking. Stay tuned.