REFLECTION 1: “I’m dancing with myself”
Okay. Full disclosure: I can’t dance. At least not the way they were dancing during the prelude. Give me a driving rock & roll drum beat and I’m all over the place. But I love this other music; this music that begs for a partner. My feet start tapping and I want to dance, but my body just doesn’t know how to move like Lauren & Able. Why is that?
When I was a teenager and living in southern California, I was part of an awesome United Methodist youth group. Throughout the year, each church in our district would put on a dance and all the youth (and our friends) would flock to them. It was the 80s and dancing was something anyone could do. You didn’t have to know any special steps or how to be coordinated with a partner. You just got in a circle or a clump and moved to the music. If you were like our friend Mike, you’d just stand in one place and bob your head, or if the music got thrashy, just jump up and down. Safety Dance! Or like our friends Rob or Tami, you’d flow your arms and head like this. Or, if you were me, you’d travel around and avoid all eye contact.
It was great! Moving with the music, being with people, but then not really being with them because
I was wrapped up in my own space. I remember one dance when Billy Idol was playing and I was out there “dancing with myself oh oh oh oh” and this poor boy had the gall to come up to me and… ask me to dance! “I don’t like to dance,” I said— as I kept on dancing. I could have said, “I’m already dancing, dope! Why don’t you dance!?” or something nicer….But I was embarrassed and then the poor kid was embarrassed.
But most of the time you could avoid that kind of thing which was great as a teenager and young adult because you didn’t have to have a partner or know any special steps or be especially coordinated. Until, of course, there was a slow song….bleh! Time for everyone to leave the dance floor…. except the couples who basically just entwined themselves in a full body hug while swaying a little to the music.
But luckily the slow songs were few and far between so we mostly “rocked the house!” And no matter what group you were in —geeks or freaks or mods or the popular crowd —everyone was equal on the dance floor. Even in Pretty in Pink, outsider Ducky owned the dance floor.
What’s so great about dancing? In some ways, I suppose it’s like any kind of physical movement. My dad always use to talk about the euphoria he got when he hit that point in his running or biking when he pushed past the point when he didn’t think he could go any farther and there was this release of endorphins. That’s definitely part of it. The physicality. But dancing is different. In large part because it’s combined with music. With that beat that beckons us to get to our feet. It’s ironic that many world religions involve movement or dance as a spiritual practice while many others see dance as evil. The real irony is that I think it’s for the same reason. Dance makes sense as a spiritual practice because you can lose yourself in it—in the music and the movement—such that you forget about your conscious thought and go to a different place. That losing of conscious thought, of letting go, can seem scary. In some ways it’s a lot like sexual desire, giving over to the feelings of your body. Again, probably why the various fundamentalists aren’t so up on the dancing thing.
I’m not sure all the reasons why, but for me and the people I grew up with, and danced with, there was something suspect about traditional partner dancing—in whatever form it came in. We associated it with conformity and patriarchy, with putting the woman in a subservient position, draped on her partner like a supermodel on a sports car.
Though in schools there was still the formalism of the prom and all the crazy trappings that came with it, you could still go “stag” or with a group of friends. But my friends just wanted to get together and dance and wear whatever we wanted, not have to have a partner, but just hang out with each other while grooving to the music we really liked.
I remember my parents talking about the dances they went to when they were young—of the elaborate clothes they had to wear, the anxiety over getting a date, or being a wallflower waiting for someone to ask you to dance. Because you couldn’t dance if you didn’t have a partner. And I think that’s what we refused to accept. And so we had to push everything away that hinted at that kind of structure.
But is it really so freaky to dance with others? It’s good to be independent and to dance to your own drummer, but we have to find a way for it to not cost us our connectedness to others, our ties to community. We say we’re more connected than ever via the world wide web… Email, Facebook, Twitter—but aren’t we really just finding more ways to disconnect from others? to be less aware of our bodies and of others? to retreat into ourselves? I think today we’re still struggling with how to balance that.
But you don’t “dance with yourself” by yourself, right? I mean, I can turn on some great music and feel like jumping around to it, but it’s really not the same as if I was in a big group. Just like meditating by myself can be a good spiritual practice, but it can be easy to neglect if I’m doing it alone. We all want to be connected to the larger body. We can’t help but want to go to the dance. We need that pulse that connects our heartbeat to the larger beat. That helps us feel connected.
Why dancing with ourselves is really best done … with others.
Anthem: “For a Dancer” by Jackson Browne; David Ray, vocal and guitar
REFLECTION 2: “Two Left Feet”
Early on in our marriage, Rik and I went to a dance at our church in Brooklyn. We had not read the flyer very well, but just heard “dance” & our 80s brains said “whoohoo! Rock Lobster, let’s go.” We got there and found out they were doing some kind of swing dancing thing; there was a caller and one person had to lead and the other follow…we tried but….. It was… horrible. We ended up grousing at each other and getting in a fight. We stomped upstairs to the sanctuary and sat down and talked about it and ended up laughing. We realized we both had two left feet so we guessed that meant we had 4 between us which was just far too many. We vowed never to try dancing like that again.
Rik and I may suck at dancing, but we’re pretty fabulous partners. It hasn’t been easy. No long-term relationship is. It takes patience and honesty and willingness to make mistakes and forgive them. We both suffer from personal tendencies toward depression … And different things set off our tempers but usually they’re related to each of our sense of inadequacy about something in ourselves. Sound familiar? But most of the time, we can dance the relationship dance— when one of us is down, the other one compensates and takes up the slack; when one of us is agitated, the other one works to diffuse. When one of us is sulky or closed off, the other one works to pull the other one out of their shell.
Of course there are times when our rhythm is off. When family or work stress is high and we falter; when we’re both too tired to pay attention to the cues of the other. This is of course when a blow up occurs. We bump into each other; step on each other’s feet. There were more of these earlier on in our marriage than now, but they still occur from time to time. Mostly we’ve become aware of what triggers the other and keep ourselves from pushing each other’s buttons. We may not be able to figure out whose hands or feet go where when it comes to dancing on a dance floor, but when it comes to the relationship dance, we can waltz like the best of them.
What if we thought of all of our relationships as a dance? From our family members to our longtime partners to the stranger we run into in the hallway or street and every time we each take a step we get in the way of each other… We can get frustrated and just push past them. Or, we can laugh it off and weave back and forth before dancing on our way. It can be so easy to fall into our default setting of forward thrust, of ticking off our list, and going about our business. But if we remember that in the dance, we step forward while the other steps back, and then they step forward and we have to step back. Sometimes we lead and they follow. Sometimes we have to let go and be the follower.
Back and forth, around and around. Listening to each other’s cues. Remembering we’re in this together; we’ve all got our own form of left feetedness…
When we choose to let our interactions with others be a dance, instead of a duel, something changes.
And it’s a whole new dance floor full of possibilities.
REFLECTION 3: “Dance this dance with me.”
With busy lives, it can seem hard to just “let it be a dance.” Just finding time to dance can be impossible. Inspite of our two left feet, Rik and I still yearn to dance. Not with each other, we’ve got our own private moves for that. But to dance in community. Why?
I think it’s because as geeky introverts, we secretly desire more meaningful ways to connect with others. Ever since we moved to Asheville, and even before, back in Brooklyn, we kept hearing about Contra dancing. From old people to teens and everyone in between. This seemed like something really different. But could we do it?
Finally we decided to break our old pact and check it out. We went to the YMCA downtown that had a Family Friendly contra dance, taking our 10 year old son with us. It really was a lot of fun, until they got into some more complicated dances where it was really important that there be a “leader” and a “follower.” It was fine as long as we were all dancing with other people who knew what the heck they were doing, but trying to dance with each other we had the same problem—we couldn’t keep track of who was trying to lead and where our hands and feet were supposed to go. All those crazy left feet!
Still, we went back several times since most of the dancing was pretty simple and involved lots of people who didn’t know what the heck they were doing either, including lots of rowdy kids. So we didn’t stand out like sore thumbs, or 6 left feet.
I think one reason Rik and I struggle with traditional partner or group dancing like Contra is the use of gendered language. So when we hear “men on the left” and “women on the right,” we start getting twitchy, which doesn’t help us pay attention to all our left feet very well. This is the one flaw of the Contra Dance movement. I know the dances go back to the 1700s, but this is the 21st century! The dances are great mixers and people of any gender are welcome to take either dance part, so just lose the gender binary language already and just line us up as “leaders” and “followers” and let each individual decide.
But we so want to find a way to join this dancing community. We know enough now to understand the draw— You can’t do it by yourself. You can’t do it virtually. You need other people… in the same place…. together. You have to touch each other. And you have to have live music. And a caller. So it’s okay if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do; someone will tell you; and if you don’t get it right, you’ll have another chance because all the moves get repeated multiple times.
And if you and your partner both have left feet, that doesn’t matter either because you switch partners throughout the dance. It’s really a completely different thing than the dancing I grew up with. There’s a social contract involved. You can’t just focus on your own enjoyment. You have to get people where they’re going—across the circle or down the line; you have to pay attention to each other; be aware of your surroundings.
Some people have described contra dancing as a “kaleidoscope, a weaving, a quilting with humans.” I like that.
And guess what? The people look at each other…. while they’re dancing. They make eye contact. For me, that’s the hardest…and yet, the most wonderful. Because isn’t that what we all want the most? Someone to see us so we can truly see?
Let it be a Dance.
This is the last song sung at final worship service of SUUSI. SUUSI is the Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute, a yearly UU summer camp our family goes to. And no matter what the theme or the particular experiences of that year—Ric Masten’s “Let it Be a Dance” is always the right song to be sung. Because it exactly expresses why we come. Why we gather together year after year—and perhaps why we come here—to this place—to gather around this chalice fire, for the first time, and then again and again—week after week—to dance this dance; to feel the rhythm, feel the need, fill the need.
We need to be, to know and be reminded, like repetitive dance steps, that we can teach each other—that no matter who we are or where we come from, whom we love or how we dance, we are welcome around this flame; we are welcome to dance this dance; to let it be a dance; with ourselves, with our partners….with a circle of others, but always embodied—our full selves—mind, body, and spirit—always in community; this seeking of hands, of rhythm, of need and heartbeat. So that we know—we do not dance alone.
We never have to dance alone.
So come, sing a song with me and dance this dance with me.