Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Arts: Strangers With Cuddles

By Julia Schweizer and Najva Soleimani

Thirty people hobble on their hands and knees, mooing atop piles of blankets, in a downtown yoga studio.

"Imagine you're a magical cow in a magical padded field,� says a grown man wearing Monopoly-themed pajamas. "What's a cow's greatest enemy? Why?" A few seasoned crowd members respond: "Drunken college students! Cow Tipping!" Everyone pretends to be tipped over, and the man jests :and that's how you get a room full of people to cuddle together."

A momentary love fest ensues, and then many retire to a nearby snack table, or to pillows arranged on the floor, for one-on-one cuddle sessions and plain old conversations.

The man, 39-year-old REiD Mihalko, looks like a blond cheerleader and acts like a class clown. The martial arts-trained actor turned masseuse co-created Cuddle Party with relationship counselor Marcia Baczynski in February 2004. According to cuddleparty.com, the event's purpose is "for adults to explore communication, boundaries and affection."

Held in yoga and dance studios across the country, the monthly, three-and-a-half-hour-long parties have been covered in GQ, Newsweek and elsewhere, and are the butt of Gawker.com and SNL's jokes. Last Sunday's party began like any other, with a welcome circle to break the ice and explain the rules. Perhaps the most perplexing one is "You are not obligated to cuddle."

In fact, participants aren't obligated to do anything but follow the rules, which include receiving verbal confirmation (for example, "Is it OK if I rub your arm?") before any physical contact, not taking rejection personally and only non-sexual touching. This means keeping the pajamas on at all times, even in the case of accidental erection, which Baczynski assures the group is not something to be ashamed of.

A Cuddle Party seems like a breeding ground for perverts and outcasts, but the level of respect that cuddlers have for one another is surprising. Many participants are regulars, so the nervous energy is limited to newbies who quickly find themselves at home with all the TLC.

Although there is no screening process for participants, Mihalko reports that only six people have ever been kicked out in three years of cuddle parties. Oddly enough, even these few incidences didn�t stem from participants� bad intentions, simply misunderstanding of the event. For example, one cuddler was unable to ask before hugging, namely because he didn�t speak English.

There is a minimum age of 18 to attend, but no upward limit. The cuddlers are as diverse as New York City, representing most ethnicities and ages. A black, 20-year-old college student may find herself in a spooning chain with a middle-aged, Jewish MTA worker and an Asian, retired crisis counselor.

Depending on socio-economic status, people cite different reasons for attending (or returning to) the Cuddle Party. The students, counselors and new age-types are generally interested in having fun and relieving stress. On the other end of the spectrum are businesspeople, who use the party as an antidote to human touch deprivation.

During the closing circle, Mihalko asks the group if Oxytocin, "the feel-good chemical in the brain," is coursing through their bodies. Apparently, after lying around for three hours caressing, spooning, massaging and chatting while enjoying cookies, grapes and cider, the group should have a warm fuzzy feeling. Glancing around the room at cuddlers� dopey smiles, coupled with their reluctance to leave, it was obvious that Oxytocin was working its magic.

Skeptics may raise their eyebrows at the theory that cuddling with strangers is therapeutic. Luckily for them, the coordinators offer an opportunity for them to leave after the welcome circle, they�ll even provide a full refund of the steep $30 ticket.

Even the most skeptical could not contest that the participants are good intentioned and easy to talk to. But if members suspend disbelief, they may find themselves getting a simultaneous foot and back rub from two different people while having an emotionally fulfilling conversation with a third.

Cuddle Party is far from the typical New York attitude, where a request for flared jeans at a store is met with a disapproving glance and every smile is an opportunity for rejection. In the cuddle world, people ask for what they want and either get it or don't, with no consequences and no judgment.

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