A tense vagina is worth dancing about

Sara Juli is not afraid to tackle personal issues in a public forum. She’s a dance artist who has been creating and performing solo work since 2000. In 2006, she offered audiences her life savings – $5,000 – in “The Money Conversation.” In 2008, after losing her father to cancer, she addressed the taboo subject of death in her piece, “Death.”

The title of her latest dance theater performance is “Tense Vagina: An Actual Diagnosis.” And yes, it is about tense vaginas. Her tense vagina.

She means for you to laugh, but she also wants you to take her performance seriously. It’s not only about vaginas. She uses “humor, movement, sounds, songs, text and audience participation to reveal all this is awesome and all that sucks when it comes to being a mother.”

“Tense Vagina” was born out of a problem Sara shares with countless other mothers. After having two children, she had trouble controlling her bladder.

“I had a lot of urgency,” she explains, “or always felt like I had to pee and then would go to the bathroom and nothing would happen. I was never comfortable because I was always nervous about whether I’d be near a bathroom or if there wasn’t any bathroom. It was a mess, but I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t know how to talk about it.”

A year ago, Sara finally mustered up the courage to mention what was going on to her doctor.

“She said, ‘Oh, I’ll just refer you to the Pelvic Floor Rehab Center of New England.’ And I said, excuse me? What is the Pelvic Floor Rehab Center of New England? I mean, it blew my mind.”

The Pelvic Floor Rehab Center is a holistic physical therapy practice in South Portland owned and operated by physical therapist Susan Ramsey. The center treats women, men and even children with issues related to dysfunctional pelvic floor muscles – layers of muscles that stretch like a hammock from your pubic bone in the front to the base of your spine in the back. They support your bladder and rectum and if you’re a woman, your uterus. They were at the crux of Sara’s problem.

At her first visit, she started choreographing her performance.

“The physical therapist put her fingers inside my vagina to measure the strength of the muscles,” she says. “When she removed them she said to me, ‘Well, you have a tense vagina.’ The minute she said it I said, ‘I will be naming my next dance that, thank you very much.’”

Sometimes, the physical therapy appointments were awkward and uncomfortable (not physically), but what Sara learned about her body and how she could control her bladder problems was amazing. The therapist taught her how to do Kegel exercises properly. She also taught her how to do them at the same time she did sit-ups, Pilates and yoga, used a vibrator and did other exercises meant to release and strengthen her pelvic floor muscles.

“They are physical therapists for your vagina,” says Sara. “First of all, why isn’t that part of the mainstream? Why didn’t I know about them before I was pregnant or at least in the six-and-a-half years that I’ve had the problem?”

She’s not afraid to share any of what she learned in her performance. Even using a vibrator. Its purpose in treating pelvic floor dysfunction is to release tense muscles, but who doesn’t think of sex when they see a vibrator?

“My performance is not about sex,” says Sara, “but that’s the funny part of living with a vibrator. It can have multiple meanings.”

“Muscles are muscles are muscles,” points out Ramsey. “We try to keep the rest of our muscles in shape, but never think about our pelvic floor muscles.”

After seeing her physical therapist every week for three months and dutifully doing her homework assignments, Sara’s pelvic floor muscles are back in shape.

“I’m totally fixed,” she says. “Completely. I now understand the diagnosis. I understand the condition. I understand how to manage it. I understand how to treat it. I understand what’s happening and I am shouting from the rooftops. I want to share this knowledge because I went from having what I would describe as a broken vagina to a perfectly functioning happy one.”

She got her chance to shout in late October – two sold-old performances of “Tense Vagina” at Space Gallery in Portland.

“The show was a great success,” she says. “The biggest comment I received was, ‘I laughed so hard my cheeks hurt!’ Another audience-goer suggested I pass out maxi-pads at the onset of the show, since so many women peed in their pants from laughing so hard. I feel really pleased that while the hour-long work was certainly entertaining, it also struck a chord, particularly with women. Many women thanked me for capturing a lot of the essence that is motherhood: from the ridiculous to the isolation, to the defeats and triumphs. I also had several men comment on the power of the work and that it gave them the space to reflect upon the experience that is motherhood. Lastly, several of the physical therapists from the Pelvic Floor Rehab Center were there cheering me on.”

Sara plans to tour “Tense Vagina” for the next two years. She’ll be at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth, N.H., April 1 and 2 and The Dance Complex in Cambridge, Mass., April 29 and 30. She has been invited by American Dance Festival to perform next summer and will bring the show to New York City in 2017. She is also beginning an artist residency at Bates College. For more information about Sara and her work, visit www.sarajuli.com.

Sara Juli performs her piece, “Tense Vagina: An Actual Diagnosis.”

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