Last Sunday our humble little church choir was singing the anthem for the offering, and as I was looking out over our congregation, all listening politely in their Sunday best, I noticed a little two-year old girl in the front row dancing along in a flurry of movement. She rocked from side to side, swinging her arms in big wide arcs, then as the music crescendoed, began hopping up and down, then spinning in place, regaining her balance just long enough to strike a pose for the final chord. The funny thing was, even at such a young age, and without any music training, she was moving along perfectly with the beat and the mood of the music, two things our choir, despite its best efforts and intentions, was failing to fully grasp.
The image made me smile. Few people know this about me, but if there is anything I love more than singing, it is dancing. I was too once one of those two-year olds who would burst spontaneously into singing and dancing at the least provocation, sometimes simultaneously. My guess is that you were too, even if you can’t remember it. Responding to music with movement and dance is a mysterious, primeval thing, which it seems no one can really explain. The problem comes when Mom and Dad see how much their little kid loves to dance, and sign her up for ballet at the first opportunity. Nothing against this beautiful art form, but in the classes I took, I quickly learned that there were two kinds of people: those who could touch their toes and do the splits and skip backwards without falling down (i.e. dancers) and those who could not. Since genetics did not bless me with either grace or flexibility, and I hadn’t quite gotten my mind around the idea of perseverance, I watched my dreams of twirling en pointe in a glamorous, sequined pink level-two leotard vanish in a puff of fairy dust, as quickly as they had been formed.
Dance classes were followed by a long desert during which no dancing happened, with one notable exception. One of my best friends and I started a tradition. Late at night, after our families had gone to sleep, we would creep into her living room with a CD (won’t tell you which one, but it was the late-90s era of boy bands, so I’m sure you can guess), plug in the small plastic disco ball I had found at a secondhand store, turn off the lights, and leap around in an uninhibited frenzy of spins, shakes and gyrations.
This was all well and good, until the local studio started offering hip hop, and a newfound, overwhelming desire to be accepted and admired by our peers, mixed with a genuine love for dance, compelled us to sign up. The era of the school dance was dawning and somehow we sensed that our spastic, spontaneous moves from days of old probably wouldn’t cut it. After much hard work and practice, we learned a choreography, taught to us by a busty, tattooed and somewhat delinquent teenager, and two weeks later showed up for our first middle school dance, just waiting for the moment that our song would play and we could wow our peers with our sexy new routine.
I don’t actually remember much about that night, probably because I willfully erased it from my memory. All I remember is showing up for language arts the following morning, and having the most popular girl in school snigger from across the classroom, “Saw you girls dancing last night. Those were some nice moves,” and collapse into a fit of giggles along with all the girls around her.
As shallow as it may seem, after that I was so mortified I swore to myself that I would never dance again in public, or anywhere. It was a promise that I kept for far too long, and was only broken when I discovered the chapter on dance and movement in Eloise Ristad’s book, “A Soprano on her Head.” Ristad describes movement not only as being a perfectly natural and necessary response to music, but as another way of knowing music. Don’t like jazz? Try moving to it. Having a difficult time getting in touch with the emotion of an aria? Try moving to it. There is no right and wrong in this kind of dancing. Age, flexibility, dance experience, musical knowledge, none of it matters. We use movement simply to open ourselves to music, to have a conversation with it, and to tap into the body’s innate musical knowledge.
This idea of exploration of movement resounded so strongly with me, that after a year or so of improvised, interpretive dancing in the privacy of my bedroom, I signed up for classes again, this time bellydance, since I loved Middle Eastern rhythms. After some intensive study, I joined a performing troupe, and by college I was teaching dance classes of my own while competing on the ballroom dance team (where I met the amazing man who is now my husband – double win!).
To free the body is to free the voice, since so often our bodies, as well as our hearts, know how to sing, if only our minds would let them.
Looking back, I am sorry that I let one insinuating comment take away from me years of discovering joy through movement and dance. How lucky I was though to later fall into the right hands, through good books and encouraging teachers, to rekindle the dancing spirit again! Dancing taught me that I could take joy in things without having to be good or the best at them. And whenever the ghosts of criticism past start to snigger, I simply smile in response and put them out of my mind, because I know that no matter what they say or do, this joy is mine to keep.