Effort Change


When I hear the key turn in the door, my stomach tightens and I take a deep breath. How much has he had to drink? Where has he been all day? I say a small prayer that he isn’t too drunk and that the night will be one of peace. I say that prayer to a God I’m not convinced exists and to a God who says he has a plan and to trust him. I say a prayer to a God that asks for trust among a world of intense fear. 

He kisses me and asks me if I missed him. I lie and say “Yes.” The conversation continues into the mundane. “What do you want for dinner?” “How was you day?” Every night I am asked the same questions over and over and over. “Do you love me?” “Did you miss me?”  He asks how my day was. He asks what I did and who I saw. He asks not because he cares to know, but to keep tabs on my whereabouts…or at least that’s what I feel he is doing.

He is the cooks dinner. He asks if dinner was good. The answer is always yes. As the night drags on, beer can after beer can is opened. The pop of the can forces my muscles to tighten and I take a breath in as a count each pop one after the other. He asks me if I’m happy. I say yes. He tells me that I look unhappy. He asks me if he makes me happy. I say yes.

He watches tv in another room. I hope the game he is watching is good. I hope his team wins. I hear him come down the hall to find out what I’m doing. My eyes close for a brief moment as I take a deep breath in. I hear every single footstep. What does he want? He touches me on the arm and then touches my breast. He asks me if I want him tonight. The only answer I can give is yes. My muscles tighten as I ask the God that I know doesn’t exist for the alcohol to make him so tired he just goes to bed. 

The night ends without incident. I exhale. A little dinner. A little tv. Very little conversation. A lot of alcohol. A lot of prayers. I have been holding my breath all night.  The exhale is what in dance we call an “effort change.” 

I made it through another night. 

An effort change for those who understand movement of the body is the system for understanding the more subtle characteristics about the way a movement is done with respect to inner intention. Basically, “What is the dancers body trying to tell you?” An effort change is a dance term. It’s used in the world of the arts to change expression or emotion without using voice. To my knowledge no one has ever used it to describe an interaction between two people in real life in a real scenario. In dance, an effort change can go from hard to soft by change of muscular tension and breath. You can go from fast to slow. You can “gradate” which means the color of the lighting can go from hues such as dark blues to light blues.



In real life, an effort change happens in the muscles and in the breath as the mind tells you what type of situation you are in. When a couple kisses for the first time, a breath of joy is taken as that anticipation of hope is drawn upon right before two people touch their lips together for the first time. The muscles are relaxed and the body collapses into the other person.  In an abusive relationship. In a relationship based on fear, the effort changes during the kiss are a tightening of the lips, the body, and the breath before the kiss is your mind hoping you can’t smell the beer on his breath. In dance, there is a motion called a “contraction.” In very basic terms, a contraction is often times used as an expression of “angst.” The body will contract inward to show a sense of smallness or deletion of freedom.


In this video from So You Think You Can Dance, you can see effort changes in their pure form. This dance created a national conversation about how far the arts should go in the presentation of the awareness of domestic violence. It’s beautiful in its art and horrifying in its reality.


As a student and lover of the arts, I see life in terms of efforts and gradations. I hear music for emotion and I see color as a complement to the bigger picture. When a person is in an unhealthy and toxic relationship they change efforts often. For a woman, they are relaxed when he is away and they are tense when he is around. They breathe when he is away and they hold their breath when he is home. Their heart is calm when he is gone and it races when he is around. In a healthy relationship the efforts are light and soft. The breath is one of love and hope, not one of fear. The colors are bright and the gradate into brighter tones of love. In a relationship of abuse, the colors are hues of red and blue. They are colors that represent drama, fear, and sadness.


If you have ever been through an abusive relationship you see the world in a series of short stories of a book that never ends. Every night is a new story, with the hope of an uneventful ending. You hear songs through tears, believing that the love spoken of by the singer will never find you. You watch movies in the hope that the happy ending will one day be your happy ending. You see the sun and feel the wind as a way toward freedom. You see color as gradations of blues and reds. Your body moves through a series of muscular tensions not knowing when you will ever relax. Your mind is a mind filled with hope. In all your prayers to God, you still have a little bud deep down in your soul called hope, because that is the one effort that cannot change or you will never survive. Hope is the one effort that is constant and is real. Hope keeps every human alive, even for those who have had it almost beaten out of them.


I like the concept of effort changes. Effort changes are the way your body talks to you. If we open our eyes we can see the effort changes in others. If you are aware of those around you, there is no need for words. You can see the effort change in their breath, their eyes, the way they sit, or the way they walk. It isn’t hard. It just takes awareness of the subtleties of the human body.

Compassion is the key and is the first step.

Understanding is the second step to eliminating violence.

Compassion though, is where we have to start.

Why doesn’t she…? Why does he…? Why don’t they…?

These questions are not for us to understand.  It is ours to offer compassion and an open heart.

It is ours to offer a sense of hope or an open heart.

It is ours to offer a warm hug and welcoming smile.

Once we offer the compassion, the understanding will come.