Butterfly Beach

(Butterfly Beach, the blog version. A new book is coming out from Triarch Press with writings by practitioners of Prapto’s work. Butterfly Beach has metamorphised and will appear there, details coming soon.)

Butterfly Beach. I happened on it while riding my bicycle around Santa Barbara during a vacation. I was visiting my best friend who had just moved there, back in the 80s. I remembered it for years later as the perfect beach. I had come upon it at the end of my stay so I didn’t have time to go back, but I marked it in my memory, “Come back here!” Shady, there was a wall, a descent, not much beach, high tide? Heavenly swim. That sip had potency. But my friend moved to the mountains with gorges and rock pools to explore. Butterfly Beach entered my dreamscape, then began the long slide, from consciousness to sunken treasure. And there it lay.

October 2011. Last October, I flew to Santa Barbara again after twenty odd years. This time to study with Suprapto Surydarmo, aka Prapto, an Indonesian improvisational dancer performer. Coincidently, the first time I had studied with him was in a workshop called The Prayer of the Butterfly, a workshop in the woods in Massachusetts and nowhere near a beach. From my notes on Butterfly:

Adapt to language of wind, finding place where wind doesn’t blow you, like butterfly, how may find the land of the wind?

I remember Prapto pointing to two butterflies in the orchard playing, dancing, sparring as butterflies do mid-flight, like light dapples under a tree when the wind blows. Like that—find the land of the wind.

I also remember there was a lot of angst among the ten or so of us from around the globe in the workshop about finding our right place in the world, our home. Where to live? How to live? We were all vagabond dancers: some still in school, others mid-vagabond wondering what next? Or post-vagabond, wondering how to deal with the stationary world in which we had found ourselves. Kerplunk. With Prapto dancing, singing, or drumming along with us, we practiced anchoring, coming and going, and staying in relationship. His work adapted to our situation and context, and it made perfect sense.

This time with Prapto at the Unitarian Church and the park nearby, we practiced “stopping in moving,” “stopping in no moving,” and “stopping in not moving.” The park ducks were our mentors. We practiced on a little island in their pond. Stopping in not moving was when they slept, beak tucked under wing in apparent oblivion. Stopping in no moving was their habitual paddle, lazing about, nibbling at the water and throwing in a preen. Stopping in moving was when they took off after something, a rival duck or proffered bread crumbs, darting with single-mindedness. We observed, then practiced. I often got it backwards. Nevertheless, I practiced something, blindly, somehow finding my faith in the process.

Melinda and duck at the Duck Pond, Santa Barbara

Later, we moved onto “not leaving.” In not leaving, we worked with chairs indoors. We sat in, and moved in and around our chairs, but never leaving them. Even if we stood up to shift position, our attention was to stay focused on the chair. The chair was our anchor. This is a difficult practice for busy Americans, always on the run. Prapto mimicked how we move from one thing to another with our minds already on the next spot—where we are going to be rather than in the transit. In a development, one person sat in the chair, not leaving, and another person moved around them, not leaving. Prapto explained that the person in the chair was more of the flora variety, and the person moving was more of the fauna variety. This exercise is excellent couples therapy. Prapto and Diane did a fabulous duet-lecture-demonstration, including dialogue from their personal relationship. Prapto tiptoe-ing, strayed a bit far from the chair and Diane, perfectly timed, harrumphed that she would rather stay home and take care of herself, thank you very much. We explored our own comfort zones, just how far could we push the envelope before it felt like we had left our companion-in-chair? Were we more flora, a rooted homebody? Or more fauna, enjoying a bit of independence now and then?

Before we knew it, we were Being Blooming, the name of the workshop and pun on the name of the organizer, Katya Bloom. Prapto brought us into the courtyard and explained the lotus sutra to us as we gathered around the orange day lilies which were in various stages of bloom. In order to be blooming, we were to use the practice of not leaving in order to stay inside the lily bud where we would show our face, rather than buzz around outside the flower—bizzy, busy, buggy mind. In the Butterfly workshop, there had been many sitting mediation sessions. In this workshop, there was just this one, adapted from the lotus sutra for our present-day Santa Barbara Unitarian Church purposes. Simple ingredients, we remembered and relocated the sutra from our multi-voiced perspectives, a gathering of ducks. The result: we did bloom!

The magical courtyard at the Unitarian Church, Santa Barbara, where we received and remembered the Lily Bud Sutra.

Our blooming was somehow accomplished through all of our moving practices, our moving had secretly been informing us. When it came time to sit, we just knew what to do. We were “outwardly” sitting, but inwardly (is it really inward?) we were “showing our face,” basking in our blooming, finding our stopping.

I wish I could explain this movement in a way so that it could be pictured, because that is how I have been taught to write about dance, “Please paint me a picture.” All I can remember is that I just moved, if I didn’t start “just moving,” I wouldn’t be able to find it. It is the exact opposite of many improvisation classes I have taken. In these I am told, “Don’t noodle around! Make a phrase! Learn to be still! Learn when to exit!”  Come to think of it now, in Prapto’s work we do have our stoppings, so it’s not like we noodle, noodle, noodle. Our stoppings help us. Prapto says, “composing while dancing” is recognizing ourselves in the dancing. “Find your stoppings!,” he reminds us, “then you can recognize your composition.”

At first, it is hard for me to trust the moving that Prapto asks of us. “Please come,” he will say, which means come here and start moving. It’s not hard to begin just moving around—no, it’s not that it is hard. I still transgress my improvisation training all the time! It’s just that I’ve been trained to want something more, to look for something. I feel Prapto asks me to stop looking for something, to stop leaving the dance.

Lawn ornaments in a garden at Pacifica University, L-R: Prapto, Hugh Kelly (organizer), Diane Butler, Katya Bloom (organizer).

I could say something about the way the movement feels. On watching it, it feels silvery, like a thread, like the weaving of a web, a quicksilver web. But the spider-feeling isn’t there, the spider I don’t want in my shoe. It feels like entering a magical a slipstream of movement that is always almost right here, being woven just beyond normal, if I could only catch it. Then I do, I find myself moving and I forget that I ever needed something more. It’s enough. It feels like enough.

My last day was beach day. Prapto often works on the beach at his home in Java and in Bali. How lucky to have the opportunity to do that work with him here in the U.S.! We arrived at the beach in the afternoon, squeezing into the last few parking spots we could find, clambered down the stairs onto the beach. It’s Butterfly Beach! My memory returns, the perfect beach, here with Prapto to do his amazing yet ordinary work.

Butterfly Beach, not quite as I remembered it, October 2011.

We immediately ran to the water’s edge as one does, dipping our toes, making overtures to the waves to let us in. Prapto admonished us not to lose ourselves. Then he showed us how to find the horizon and to find ourselves in relation to the horizon. Our dance became finding our human measurement amid this infinite backdrop. There were many dances that day, in duos and trios, in and out of the water, on and in the sand. “Please come.” I struggled and flagged in the hot sun, grit, and beach gnats. What was I doing? I would find some strand of a dance to hang onto, only to have it drift away. The tide shifted around us. Finally, as the sun set, I said my good byes to the group; I was too tired to register sadness at my departure.

Left to right, Prapto, USCB tech and art masters student Tim, and Melinda B. dance on Butterfly Beach with oil rigs and San Marcos Island in the distance.

But the next morning, as I sat in a brief predawn meditation before a full day of flying, I felt it—I felt the ocean moving, a physical echo, like a sailor experiencing land sickness. Slurping, slapping, rocking, laughing, washing. I felt myself in relation to the ocean, and for a moment, in my early morning stopping, it all made perfect sense: the endless movement, the ducks and butterflies, the coming and going, the not leaving. Then the ocean swallowed me up as it does every day, the ocean of daily activity—but for that moment of stopping I could feel its gentle caress reminding me, don’t leave.

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