Sara Juli has been raising TMI to an art form for sixteen years. How to Forgive Yourself in Bed exorcised what the New York-based dance artist calls "a very promiscuous college experience." Burden was about marrying outside of her Jewish faith, and The Money Conversation, Juli's major breakout, exhumed the anxieties of merging finances. She withdrew her savings and gave cash to audience members, who had to decide whether or not to give it back.
"I get as personal as I can, and no secrets are kept," Juli says, a week before bringing her latest solo to Motorco for the American Dance Festival. Continuing her serial confession, Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis puts Juli's signature—a combination of dance, songs, monologues, audience interaction, and comedy—on early-motherhood issues that affect many women, especially urinary incontinence. Not only does talking about experiences that are considered shameful help Juli process them, it shatters a silence so that others can process them, too.
INDY: You took a break from dance to have children. Is Tense Vagina a way of folding that lost time back into your creative story?
SARA JULI: Absolutely. It was a four-year blip that I didn't perform. It was challenging for me, but I was building this piece. There's a scene with a breast pump that speaks to me, and I share what I hear it saying. That's from hours and hours of sitting with that damn machine. It's terrible; you feel like a literal cow. When the time came to go into the studio, I had enough material for a two-hour piece. I thought, OK, I can't talk about my vagina for two hours. [Laughs] But I can for one.
Tell us about some of the issues the piece deals with.
I gave birth naturally, pushed really hard, and lost the proper functioning of my bladder—which we don't really talk about, even though it's incredibly common, when you think about a large child coming out of a small hole. [Laughs] Sorry!
For four years after the birth of my first child, I was peeing in my pants every time I sneezed. I finally said something to my OB-GYN and she sent me to pelvic floor rehab. It's like a physical therapist for your vagina. In France, it's built into your birthing package for a year. But in this country, our culture tells you to turn all your attention to this newborn baby. I'd gone through two births, and I'd never heard of this.
I did three months of pelvic floor rehab, and it changed my life. It fixed everything. I was like, "Why don't women know about this? Why can't everyone have this amazing post-childbirth vagina instead of this pathetic, dead thing?" After my first exam, my physical therapist said, "You have a tense vagina," and when she diagnosed me, I said, "Thank you, I will be naming my next dance that."
The piece has four sections, and in each, I share another part of the therapy, which gets weirder and more awkward as it goes on, balanced by the experiences of motherhood that are less talked about—the loneliness, isolation, and depression as well as the beauty and humor and fabulousness.
Do you think it took you so long to find out because there's so much mystification about women's reproduction, and even basic anatomy, in this country?
Totally. Look at all the media that surrounds childbirth. Apart from losing weight and getting your body back—which of course you never do because it's been through such a huge experience—where is there any information about healing and strengthening your vagina? It's designed to be private and shameful, and forces you to go out and buy an oversized diaper, which is expensive, embarrassing, and wasteful. I really had to seek this out, and I'm a pretty open person.
You don't say?
I make weird dances and share really personal stuff, and it took me four years to say something to my OB-GYN because I was embarrassed. You kind of know that other women struggle with it, but I certainly wasn't saying to other young moms, "Are you peeing in your pants? Because I am!" So I'm hopeful that the piece raises awareness that pelvic floor rehab exists. You have to maintain it with a freakish amount of Kegels, but it's a game changer.
Is dance a good medium for raising awareness about issues like this?
Oh yeah. I believe very strongly in the power of dance to tell stories, and I've added text to my dance. What's wonderful about the performing arts is that you're able to cross over, to transport people to think about deeper issues, to peel back a layer of our world. Women come up to me after every show, and my God, the stories. First of all, they want to tell me about their vaginas, which is a reminder that I'm doing what I set out to do: set up a safe enough space where a stranger is telling me about their vagina. I have a funny bit where I say, "Let me remind you I'm not a medical professional and I cannot advise you on this topic." But I can validate what's happening and say, "Seek help in the way that I did."
Has every story written about this piece been headlined The Vagina Monologue?
Nobody has referenced it! I have had some pushback from some presenters, saying, "Look, the piece sounds interesting but I'm just not going to be able to promote something called Tense Vagina." It's a reminder of things our country is still struggling with. I try to say, "Look, I'm not calling it Tense Pussy." Vagina is an anatomical word. It could be called Tense Elbow—what's the difference between elbow and vagina? There should be no shame in the word. But there is! All the more reason why I try to use it in a sentence at least once a day.
I'm afraid some of our politicians in North Carolina actually don't know the difference between an elbow and a vagina.
That's for sure. The energy of what you're dealing with down there, the ripple effect of HB 2, is pretty intense. Hopefully that will add a layer to the festival and make it all the more impactful. It's all the more reason why the arts need to step up and be a voice.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Vagina Monologue"