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To Go Out Dancing

I went to my daughter’s dance recital on Sunday. I went expecting to be bored every time she wasn’t on the stage which would be for most of it, because she was in two dances out of fifty-five. I figured, why would I want to pay attention to other peoples’ little darlings scampering around the stage in tulle and sequins? I brought a New Yorker with me, but even I recognized it would be the height of rudeness to read while other peoples’ children were dancing.

So much for my preconceptions. I was anything but bored.

For the first half, my older daughter and her boyfriend were with me. And by the second half, when I had promised myself I could go out for a cigarette break, even though I don’t smoke, I was hooked. I was enjoying myself. I was moved.

Apparently I love watching other peoples’ little darlings scampering about in tulle and sequins. Apparently I love watching the energy of adolescent and pre-adolescent kids fully living inside their bodies in a way so many adults have forgotten how to do, if they ever knew in the first place. Apparently I love watching full-grown women, beaming in sequins, giving in to that never-ending childhood need to dance, freed from the normal mortal drudgery of living.

And apparently I am a softie when it comes to mother-daughter stories.

The Denise and Irma Baker Dance Studio has been in operation for many years, founded and run first by Irma, now approaching 91, then by Denise. And now her daughter—my daughter’s teacher—also manages the studio. Three generations of dancing women.

All three of them were at the recital. And all three of them danced. Irma, who makes 90 look fun, was decked out in coat-tails, tights and tap shoes. When she took to the stage with a confident air and an easy rhythm, Madeleine leaned over to me and whispered, “That so would be Grammy if she were alive.”

And it so would have.

My mother, who passed away nearly ten years ago, believed in dance. She loved dance. As a young woman she was an execution ballroom dancer and teacher. In her later years, to the mystification of her daughters, my mother took up square and round dancing, finally becoming a caller—which befitted her take-charge nature.

She enrolled all three of us in dance lessons. And it leaves an imprint. I danced all through graduate school and seminary. When I watch professional dancers perform I feel their movements in my body, a corporeal reminder of the need to move.

Even in the last conversation I had with my mother, she spoke about dancing. It was evening, a day or two before she died and she was in the hospital. But she was still mostly lucid and, unsurprisingly, very talkative. Our conversation ranged from topic to topic, possibly a result of her mental state or possibly because we are a family of talkers easily capable of having multiple subjects on the table simultaneously.

So she talked about God, about the perfume I wore (“It’s ‘Knowy’, isn’t it? No, I mean, ‘Knowing.’”), about my daughters, about a handsome orderly. Finally, she looked up at the ceiling and was silent a minute.

“I hate the goddamn joists in the ceiling,” she said firmly. In one way I didn’t know what she meant; in another way I understood it perfectly. And then she turned to look at me and said, “I want to go out dancing.”

“I want to go out dancing.”

At the time and for several years afterwards I figured she meant she wanted to go out dancing—put on her crinoline skirts and her round dance shoes and have a night on the town. More recently I’ve been thinking she meant “I want to go out dancing.”

Dancing out of life, as she had danced into it. Dancing out of life, using the body until there is no more body to use, not ceding any energy to anybody until the dance was completed.

I watched Irma dance. And then her granddaughter. And then her daughter—three blonde and graceful women who had helped so many children to dance, to move, to hurl through space as God intended. I watched my daughter dance. And I wished my mother could have seen her.

After the recital, Linnea wanted to go to Scotia’s iconic outdoor hamburger joint, Jumpin’ Jacks. As we pulled into the parking lot she said to me. “I still feel like dancing. Maybe I’ll just get up a picnic table and keep on going.”

Thomas Merton—not necessarily someone you think of when you think about dancing—wrote: . . . no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds, and join in the general dance.

The images linger: the tiny children, their bodies still new and uncoordinated; the older children, their bodies jumping and twisting and tumbling into action; the still-older children, nearly young adults, whose dancing is not only bodies hurled through space, but emotion expressed; and the all-grown-up children, the decades unable to keep them from dancing.

I, too, want to throw my awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.

 

—Jo Page

jopage@graceniska.org


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