“Why Dance?” grows out of some of the memories in “Snapshots of the Mind,” a collection of random recollections that came when I allowed my mind to float by free association from memory to memory. The essay below expands the recollections about dancing. A quick read of “Why Dance?” may give a few ideas for exploring one of your own lifetime passions—its roots and history, its highlights and byways.
Dancing designs a new reality
Within but apart from the old.
Dancing is motion
Inside of rhythm and melody.
Dancing releases everyday rules of being
To follow the reign of music.
Dancing aligns the life force
In all the muscles and organs of the body,
Especially the heart.
The patterns of the dance
Invite my spirit in
To paint a scene
And describe a dream
Made of feeling and flair
Enveloped in music.
At supper one evening when I was four, as we sat at our table in the kitchen of our little white house on Nichols Avenue, Mother and Daddy asked me if I would like to take ballet. I couldn’t believe such a magnificent possibility was mine. I rose from the table and spun around the kitchen, spinning my joy that I was now a ballerina.
My ballet teacher was Miss Peggy. Her mother played the piano as we little girls in pink leotards crossed the room with our small grands jetés, as we stood at the bar for our pliés in the five positions, and as we practiced our routines for the recitals we gave for our families. Before the recitals, our mothers basted short net skirts onto our leotards, and then more than ever we were real ballerinas. I wished I could wear my pink ballet slippers every day, and not just once a week to dancing class. We carried our slippers to class in little cases with felt dancers glued to the front.
For Christmas when I was six, Santa brought me a recording of The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty along with a little blue record player, which could be snapped together like an overnight case. Sometimes I put on my ballet slippers, rolled up the rugs in my bedroom, and twirled to Tchaikovsky’s music playing on my record player.
Beginning in first grade, Friday afternoons brought ballroom dancing lessons: the foxtrot, waltz, cha cha, and Lindy Hop. I especially liked the cha cha and Lindy for their turns and speed. At the end of each class, we marched around the room to the Grand March from Aida. We little girls wore our party dresses and white gloves, which covered the eczema on my hands and joined the music in giving me confidence. The boys wore their Sunday suits and seemed happy to be dancing and to dance with me. I remember that a friend’s mother told my mother that I was graceful. I wasn’t a particularly vain child, but I was proud of the things I could do well, and so I kept the compliment in memory.
Mother and Daddy took dancing lessons for many years at the DuPont Country Club, to which any DuPont employee could belong. I felt relaxed and happy hearing their bossa nova and tango music floating up from the basement, where they practiced while their dance records spun on my little blue record player. Mother was exceedingly graceful, and Daddy, like me, had most enjoyed gymnastics in gym class and so also danced easily. In the kitchen, when I was grown, Daddy sometimes taught me the steps to the Latin dances; that night, I‘d go with my parents to the Saturday dance at the country club. Not only Daddy but also a couple of my parents’ friends would dance with me.
Boyfriends who could dance were scarcer. Karl was a top-of-the-line jitterbugger, and we polkaed together at the rollicking German House parties at the University of Delaware. But then until Fred, with whom I only danced on three occasions, all the other men of my generation with whom I danced did the shake-it-all-around and make-it-up-as-you-go moves that went well with “Proud Mary,” “My Guy,” and “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.” I liked the self-expressive, free-for-all dancing, too. It could even be done alone, if necessary.
Fred had evidently gone to childhood ballroom lessons, also. We danced together briefly the night we met and then during a visit with my parents, when we attended a Saturday-night dance at the country club. As we stood in the middle of the floor, Fred and I had words over the correct execution of the foxtrot. But then on New Year’s Eve, a couple of months before we’d utterly and completely had more than enough of each other, we whirled on the red carpet of the Kennedy Center as National Symphony musicians played Viennese waltzes.
Other opportunities to ballroom dance with a man have been scarce. I’ve spent a couple of evenings at dances with guys who needed to be steered around the dance floor as if they were lawn mowers. One lovely evening in Massachusetts, I attended a singles’ dance with three friends—interestingly, they were all former nuns. An Italian man who was a miraculous dancer (and quite beautiful himself) danced with me much of the night, but only because my skills were the best he could come up with on that occasion.
I have always loved to move my body, even before the time of swinging on the jungle gym that Daddy built for me in the backyard and of showing off my handstands, cartwheels, and somersaults. In motion, then and now, I am cleansed of shyness and self-doubt. In some adult decades when dancing was scarce, ice skating was my happiest way of moving. Ice skating felt like dancing with extra speed, a lovely combination. In recent years, as I danced around the apartment after an episode of Dancing with the Stars, I thought how fine it would be to find enough fame to join the show for a season, to dance hour after hour and day after day.
In my earlier years, I could not have imagined that the greatest outlet for my grownup dancing drive would come after I retired: tap dancing on Mondays and line dancing twice a week. Then at a recent Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) program in Kentucky, I was probably the most enthusiastic participant in our daily square-dancing and line-dancing lessons. In retirement, I can once again dance as often as I did as a child.
I do still sometimes dream of dancing with a willing partner:
Wishing for a man—
To love and be loved—
Crept back today
As I danced with the women
In our line-dancing club
To a country tune our leader played.
The singer was holding his lady dear,
And I waltzed-two-three,
Wrapped within motion,
And the words pulled longing
Out from under the years,
And it waltzed with me
But my life is full and happy, and I don’t think I have time for a dancing boyfriend just now—even if a man should decide he’d like to fill that role. When our dance groups perform, I seem to give some pleasure to audience members, and I am grateful for that blessing—it and the joy inherent in dancing are treasure enough.