Go Out Dancing
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
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.