Why Dance?

“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.

Miss Peggy also taught us to tap dance.

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,
Turned-two-three,
Wrapped within motion,
And the words pulled longing
Out from under the years,
And it waltzed with me
Again-two-three.[*]

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.


[*] From my book A Woman in Time.

Keep On Dancing

I am reading the novel Trick, by Domenico Starnone (New York: Europa Editions, 2018, trans. Jhumpa Lahiri).  The original title, in Italian, is Scherzetto (Rome: Giulio Einaudi, 2016).  The novel is told from the point of view of an aging artist who fears he has lost his edge.  My own version of that feeling has been having a starring role in my life.

May 30—Memorial Day each year before it was moved in 1971 to the last Monday in May and became a national holiday—was Lower School Field Day at Wilmington Friends School.  I liked Field Day, on which classes were canceled and the whole elementary school took part in races and other competitions.  I have a vague sense of having participated in burlap-bag and three-legged races, but the clearest recollection I have is of taking part in the long jump.  We had a sand-filled long-jumping pit that I can still see in my mind.  I was good, that is for a small grade-school girl.

My friend Lee was better, but she was taller and a year older—and anyway, I was a close second.  Other children must have taken part in the long jump, but my memory houses only Lee and me, jumping away and feeling good about the results.  I liked being good at things.  Long jumping, dancing, playing Becky Thatcher in our fourth-grade production of Tom Sawyer, and beating the boys in math were an antidote to ostracism by the class bully and her court.

Ballet

All these decades later, I continue my mix of feeling socially inadequate but hoping to win notice for some physical and intellectual skills.

May 30, 2018,  brought the first of this year’s three performances of The Follies, our community’s annual talent show.  For the sixth time, I am tap dancing as part of a small group.  This year three of us are dancing to “I Got Rhythm.”  I always get nervous when I dance or act in front of an audience, and now I have let my nerves unbalance my confidence even more than usual.  The root of the problem is my reputation for dancing competence—I’m afraid of not being able to live up to this reputation.  (The syncopation in “I Got Rhythm” adds to my fears because it makes timing the steps somewhat more difficult.)

Each year, of course, I am a little older and a little more tired.  I think to myself, “I may not be able to do as well as I did last year.  And [here’s the key] people may talk about me and say, ‘Winnie’s slipping; her dancing isn’t as good this time.’”  Do I think my right to a place in the world demands that I never lose a step, literally or figuratively?

That is exactly what I’ve been thinking.  Not surprisingly, I let my nerves sabotage me during the two full-cast rehearsals for the 2018 Follies, experiences that then added to the pressure I felt for the opening show.  The mistakes I made during the full-cast rehearsals did remind me that audiences pay more attention to the overall pizzazz in a performance than to the exactness of the details.  Nevertheless, I was worried.  I knew I could do the dance when no one was watching, but my close friends would be in the audience for the opening show, and the production was being filmed for our community television.

On May 30, 2018, I awoke feeling good, in spite of the ongoing sleep problems I’ve been having—largely from agonizing over the focus and purpose for my writing.  For a show day, I was even reasonably calm.  Showtime came, and the dance went well.  The timing was a little suspect at a point or two, but the three of us were together and the steps were solid.

Did I love the compliments that followed, including a kind woman’s saying, “You could be on Broadway”?  You bet I did!  My confidence roared back into life.

102_0720

But how am I going to use the fact that I got through the May 30 show?  Am I going to ratchet up the pressure for the remaining Follies performances?  I hope not: I have evidence now to tell me, “I can do this,” and the performance with my close friends in the audience went quite well.  More dangerous is the effect on me for next year’s Follies tap dance—and for all other future public displays of whether I still have it or not.

Really, am I going to live the rest of my life the way I’ve lived it since second grade: believing that I can hold my head high only through prowess in the skills by which I define my acceptability?

It’s long, long past time for me to live—and not just give lip service to—this principle: The reasons for doing something such as acting in a play, learning a language, writing poetry or prose, dancing, participating in sports, studying literature, or playing music include personal satisfaction and growth, the desire to create, and the wish to share aspects of ourselves and the things we love with others.  The reasons do not include proving our worthiness to take up space in the world.

I do think that enjoying congratulations for something done well or in a manner that is pleasant for others is okay: We naturally value another person’s appreciation of us and prize our own skills.  But if we are performing in order to impress or prove ourselves to others or to keep ourselves from sinking into the despair of not counting, we are probably addicted to praise.  Praise addiction brings with it the suffering of withdrawal when praise doesn’t come.  Praise addiction also brings a suffocating fear of aging and all other reasons for “losing a step.”

Okay, I get it: It’s in my power to stop letting the false gods of approval, expectation, and judgment trample my joy in self-expression, and any good my self-expression may do for others.  It’s a lot more important for folks to see an aging person who is still dancing, creating, and learning—and having fun doing so—than for them to see me getting every one of the steps right.

———–

Update: During tonight’s Follies (the second of the three shows), I didn’t entirely live up to my newest resolution.  I intend to keep working on it.