Dancing with an Invisible Partner
Storytelling and Grace

by Joan Stockbridge

I’m a storyteller. I tell stories in schools, libraries, shelters, museums, malls, churches, and many other places; usually folktales, but also personal and historic stories. Telling stories brings me joy and delight. When I tell, I feel free, fluid, unselfconscious, and full of life. I operate on an intuitive level, unfettered by my ordinary fears and constraints. For me, storytelling is an act of discernment, of listening for guidance and direction, while simultaneously sharing the story out loud with others.

As I move through the landscape of a story, I feel like I’m dancing with an invisible partner, trying to feel the subtle shifts and nudges, the guiding cues. … While part of my attention is engaged with the story, another part becomes a questioning receptor. I scan the audience looking for clues as obvious as heads nodding. I also listen for inner prompts about where and how to move with the story and the listeners.

While listeners often bond during storytelling, one particular experience stands out in my memory. It was a school Spring Fair, and I was scheduled to tell stories to anyone who showed up at 2:00. As I waited in the stuffy classroom, I listened to the hubbub outside. Kids were excitedly decorating cookies, hurtling themselves off a mobile climbing gym, running relay races, throwing balls to land their teachers in a dunk tank, and generally having a great time, while adults chatted with each other. I stood in the classroom, worrying that a story would hold little appeal, given the very enticing competition for people’s attention. Nonetheless a few school-age kids and a couple of adults came in. We pulled the little desk chairs into a semicircle, and I stood in front of them, my backdrop the chalkboard with the week’s assignments sternly marching down the side.

I went into story mode. This does not mean putting on a big voice and trumpeting words at the audience. To me, it means summoning energy and seeking relationship. As I move through the landscape of a story, I feel like I’m dancing with an invisible partner, trying to feel the subtle shifts and nudges, the guiding cues. What this means practically is that while part of my attention (and most of my body) is engaged with the story, another part of my attention is quite separate. This other part of my attention becomes a questioning receptor. I scan the audience looking for clues as obvious as heads nodding. I also listen for inner prompts about where and how to move with the story and the listeners.

That day at the school fair, I began, as usual, by laying the groundwork for a sense of connection to emerge among the group. We shared introductions. I listened hard and watched closely, trying to discern why these people had abandoned the gaiety of the fair in order to sit in a dimly lit classroom and listen to a story. A red-haired girl, looking serious, announced that she loved stories. Several heads nodded vigorously in agreement. All eyes were focused on me expectantly. These are story enthusiasts, I thought, probably looking for something powerful, some kind of sustenance, a story with emotional depth.

I had planned on telling a funny English story, “Wee Meg Bamileg and the Fairies,” which had seemed like it would be good for a school fair, with a family audience of widely ranging ages. But suddenly, standing among this small intense group, that story did not feel right. While playful and charming, it seemed too slight. Out of nowhere, I remembered another story: “The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese.” The idea came with just the merest whisper. I could have ignored it and gone with “Wee Meg Bamileg,” which I had prepared and was ready to tell. I could have kept questioning myself, but gradually, as I have told more stories, I have slowly come to trust the small voice of intuition—that dance partner—saying, this way, not that. Nervous, I took a breath, mentally catalogued the flow of events in the story, and launched in.

“The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese” is a tale collected by Howard Norman from Inuit storyteller Mark Nuqac. Among other things, it speaks of betrayal, isolation, evil, and coming of age. In it, a girl inherits the familial task of “dreaming in” the geese, i.e., calling them to the village through her dreams. To succeed in this work, she has to return from self-imposed exile and overcome a deceitful shaman. As I told the story, I felt the room relax. Kids and adults sat heavily on their chairs, legs and trunks and shoulders giving up the fight against gravity. Mouths opened slightly. Each person was focused on the story, inwardly making it real. Yet while each of us was experiencing the story separately and inwardly, we were also co-creating. Something was emerging that was shared between us. When a group is becoming unified, people start to breathe in unison. Synchronized breathing is one of the clues that the receptive part of my attention looks for, and in that room, that day, it was as if we shared one breath. In essence, we became one. When the story was over, there was a collective sigh, and we all shook ourselves slightly, as if coming to from a dream.

On another day, in a nursing home, I had another experience of changing my preconceived plan. The receptionist had led me down a hall, let me into a huge room, and closed the door behind me. I looked at a sea of wheelchairs and gurneys, 40 at least. Taking a deep breath, I said brightly, “I’m Joan. I’m here to share some stories. I’d like to know your names.”

There was no response. I walked to the closest woman. She was in a wheelchair. Her pink housedress was clean. “What’s your name?” She stared blankly, her eyes a clouded sky.

“Grace,” a helpful woman offered. I went round the room, trying to touch each one as I asked their names. Very few could tell me who they were. I began to hurry, trying to get though this painful exercise. A restlessness was building in the room. I could feel the agitation. “Get away!” a woman snapped behind me. I turned and saw … nothing. No one was within ten feet of her.

“We’ll finish the names later,” I said, and stepped to the front, my heart thumping wildly. “There was a thief,” I began, jettisoning my introduction, just trying to push my way through their confusion. If we could only get to the story, I thought, longing for its safety, its shelter. A woman began to moan and sob.

“Shut up!” others muttered.

“Well, this thief,” I carried on, persisting because it was all I could think of to do, “was very unusual.”

“I want to go home!” another woman shouted loudly. “I don’t want to be here.”

“He only stole from the rich,” I said even more loudly, panicking, not knowing whether to move towards the woman who was shouting or the one who was crying. The screamer might become more agitated, I thought, and walked over and patted the hand of the woman who was crying.

“He only stole to feed the rich,” I persisted, my concentration and logic breaking down, as the woman dissolved into heart-rending sobs.

More people began to cry. “Shut up!” others screamed. The room throbbed with cries. I felt complete panic. I was not communicating with anyone. There was no connection. No relationship. No story being told or heard. The room was full of chaos and grief. What could I do?

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir yes sir three bags full.
One for the master, one for the dame.
One for the little boy who lives around the lane.
Baa baa black sheep have you any wool?
Yes sir yes sir three bags full.

The song had come out of nowhere. I had been thrown a lifeline rather than nudged with a gentle dance cue. No thought had gone through my head before that child’s song had come out of my mouth. Dangerous, I know. But it was the right thing. The room quieted. Some eyes had closed. Some heads were nodding along with the music. I launched in again.

Baa baa black sheep have you any wool?
Yes sir yes sir three bags full.

When I finished, I started singing the litany of songs I had sung to my own children night after night. I sang right through the list: “Hush-a-bye,” followed by “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” followed by “Sleep Baby Sleep.” I sang them over and over, one after another, interspersed with tiny bits of story, just two or three sentences, about my daughters, their bedtime rituals and playground experiences—until the moment the door opened and aides walked in to wheel away the chairs and gurneys. By that time, many of the patients were singing softly along or tapping fingers. A peace had descended upon us, and in it we had rested.

I am not an accomplished singer, and it was not the quality of the music that transformed the pain of that group. It was pure grace, and fortunately I had been desperate enough to stand aside and let it flow through.

Joan Stockbridge is a storyteller, writer, and editor who lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills.


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