Wednesday, September 22, 2010
dancing with the stars...
Despite photographic evidence to the contrary, my dad was light on his feet. He danced like a dream. It seems he could make anyone look good - when he and my mother danced together, they moved as one - but it was my dad you watched. His long-limbed grace, his poise, the delight shining on his face, his goofy ear-to-ear grin; he made dancing look like something everyone should do, all the time.
It wasn’t until you tried it that you realized how easy he made it look.
When I was very little, I stood on his feet and he swung me around, pretty much carrying me through the steps. But as I got older, he taught me to waltz, and to polka, and to jitterbug. He taught me to stand up straight and move from my hips, and to let the music tell my feet what to do when, and he taught me the sheer joy of dancing with a partner. A touch of the hand on my back, a slight pressure on my waist, or a grasp of my fingers, and the rest of my body, and especially my feet, knew where to go and what to do, in sync with his rhythm. It was magical – it might very well have been magic.
He had a way of shuffling his feet, knees bent, that made him look like he was flowing water, or maybe just gracefully boneless – I saw him move with the same fluidity and grace when he played basketball with me in the driveway.
As a fundamentalist Baptist, I was not permitted to dance in high school. Not for us the slow dancing of prom. My favorite joke for a long time was, “Why don’t Baptists have sex standing up?” The answer, of course, is “Because people will think they are dancing.”
But in my young and wild single days, a friend and I frequented an Irish bar where, every Tuesday evening, people gathered to ceili dance. Ceili is the folk dance of Ireland, and it resembles clogging, or square dancing, or even Highland dancing. Step dancing, the stiff, intricate footwork associated with Michael Flatley and girls in curls and green velvet, is the next step up – you have to know how to do it to do it right. But ceili is a group effort, perfectly suited to beginners; you leap in, usually with a partner, and if you let the old people who know what they’re doing push you around to your proper spot, you pick it up quickly and then it’s a whiz. The music is infectious and you can’t help but move – I find that I assume there’s something seriously wrong with people who can listen to a fiddler play a reel and not move their feet. It’s all I can do to stop myself from dancing, you know, when everyone else is sitting at the table, demurely sipping beer. It’s also very good exercise; I developed calves of steel and remarkable lung capacity.
My second foray into rhythm was when I signed myself up for a zumba class at the gym about a year ago. Zumba is a fusion of Latin dance and hiphop coolness, all disguised as exercise. I am no Britney Spears, it’s true, but I find that if I just lose myself in the thrumming beat and don’t watch myself in the mirror, I don’t feel nearly as awkward as I am sure I look. Sometimes I fantasize about breaking out my moves at some wedding with an insanely cool DJ who has no aversion to playing profanity-laced, innuendo-laden, bass-heavy dance music.
But I learned long ago to leave the wedding reception before the bride’s dance with her father. I didn’t dance with my dad at my wedding – he had been dead for close to eight years by then. My older brother gave me away, filling in my father’s traditional role perfectly fine, but I couldn’t dance with someone else, for the dance that was supposed to be his. And watching another happy bride dance with her dad, however awkward, makes me ache for my dad. Makes me wish ferociously that he had danced with me at my wedding.
My father-in-law dances well enough, he knows the steps; probably a generational thing. But his dancing is studied, and full of effort. You get the impression that he’s talking to himself in his head as he spins and twirls and guides my mother-in-law. My father’s dancing was effortless.
He was in his element.
He looked dancing like I feel swimming.
Recently I was out to dinner with friends. We sat outside at a tapas bar, and an older gentleman played soft, slow Brazilian jazz. The owner of the restaurant, a tall, slim man with a Brooklyn accent I couldn’t quite believe was real, danced with his wife on the little brick patio, and his loose, light stepping made my throat tighten. He danced like my dad. Controlled but free, fluid and graceful and lithe...I longed to ask him to dance with me. He may very well have, but I was more afraid that were we to dance, I would lay my head on his shoulder and weep.