*I first wrote this post for the Dance issue of Catapult* Magazine, May 2013*
“From the oldest of times, people danced for a number of reasons. They danced in prayer or so that their crops would be plentiful or so their hunt would be good. And they danced to stay physically fit and show their community spirit. And they danced to celebrate.” And that is the dancing we’re talking about. Aren’t we told in Psalm 149 “Praise ye the Lord. Sing unto the Lord a new song. Let them praise His name in the dance”? And it was King David — King David, who we read about in Samuel — and what did David do? What did David do?-- Ren in Footloose (1984)
One night when I was about 16 years old, a late-winter snowstorm closed down the streets. You’d have to live through a blizzard to understand the silence of snow. At the time, I could barely see past my adolescent angst to notice my brothers, sisters and parents. But this night the snow fell, Dad built a fire under the mantel, my brother baked chocolate chip cookies and someone put a Beach Boys cassette tape into the player and cranked up the volume. Then my preacher father danced like we’d never seen him dance — maybe because we turned off all the lights or because we felt isolated by snow, like the only family on the earth that night. All I know is that for the accumulation of good memories my parents gave me, very few moments captured my imagination like the night we danced on the living room rug in the firelight. I’m pretty sure I went back to being perpetually miffed with all of them the next day, but now, tucked into my sensory memory, was the knowledge the preacher’s family could dance.
I remember everything about the night perfectly. After 12 years together at a Christian school, my best friend enrolled in public school her senior year. I tagged along to the first dance for moral support because neither one of us had ever been.
I wore a shiny, white, polyester blouse (mock neck and capped sleeves) and pastel pink, pleated pants, pumps, dangly earrings, moussed-up bangs. I’m sure we danced with people a few times — some of Lori’s new friends — but mostly I remember the throbbing music touching off some inner pulse I didn’t even know I possessed. To borrow a line, “I had the time of my life and I’d never felt this way before.”
2001: Play that funky music
My husband and I didn’t dance at our wedding. Truth is, even if it would have been permitted, we wouldn’t have known how. We didn’t drink then, either. It took ten years of keeping vows — some years, just barely — before we figured out we really needed to dance. We celebrated our anniversary on a free Caribbean cruise, found the dance floor and the frozen fruity drinks. We closed the club each night, dancing off our pent-up piety.
A few years ago, while two or three dozen of my extended family still gathered for Thanksgiving dinner, an ambitious relative cleared the far side of the fire hall for a dance floor. One by one a few cousins, especially the littlest ones in the fourth generation, an uncle, an aunt began to twist and spin. Without much coaxing, Grandpa and Grandma took their turn on the floor. The fox trot never looked so good. Before this November afternoon I’d only ever seen my grandfather’s eyes shine this shade of blue during heated volleyball matches at the cottage or banjo-plucking sessions to old gospel tunes. Standing along the wall, my mother whispered to me, “All these years, he thought he wasn’t supposed to dance.”
It’s one of the saddest epigraphs I can imagine.
My friends Lori and Chris are great dancers. Firsthand, I’ve seen them swing, waltz and polka. For my thirty-eighth birthday party, they taught us to polka. Seriously, that was my birthday present — can you possibly think of one better? We rolled up the rug, moved the living room furniture and gathered round to watch them demonstrate — to the tune of “In Heaven There Is No Beer.” We watched and clapped and laughed. Then we tried to dance to “Roll Out the Barrel” and some of us did a pretty decent job.
Some of us, not so much.
Summer of Thriller from Tamara Murphy on Vimeo.
One night during summer vacation on an Adirondack lake, we reached back into that family snowstorm memory, lit lanterns on the deck and threw a full-out, shake-what-your-momma-gave-ya dance party. The party became a tradition we repeat every summer when all 20 of us vacation together. It’s always summer now, never a snowstorm. The feeling of isolation is about the same because we tend to vacation at conservative church camps. This means we have to close all the curtains and keep the speakers away from open windows. We stomp and twirl and sweat through our summer clothes until we can’t take it anymore. Then we end the night jumping off some forbidden dock lit by an upstate New York sunset.
No one dances harder than the preacher (even though, on occasion, he makes us take an intermission for family devotions).
In 2009 some of the younger family members prepared ahead of time, learning all the steps to Thriller. They performed it flash-mob style in a vacation town parking lot, the King of Pop singing back-up through my brother’s mini-van speakers.
2011: Texas Two-Step
In July of 2011 we danced our hearts out at my sister’s wedding. In August we moved our four kids 1,700 miles away from everyone we’d ever known. Three months later, the newlyweds came to visit — our first guests from back home. We’d planned a perfect itinerary for a Friday night in Austin: country-fried steaks, cheap beer, cowboy boots and learning the Texas Two-Step at the advertised “last of the true Texas dance halls”. Problem was we were too poor to pay for lessons for all of us. Determined to dance, we went back to our rental house, cleared the dining room floor and let YouTube be our guide. Round and round the unlit fireplace we stepped, air conditioning blasting because outside felt like the surface of the sun.
We stamped out that grief like Jesus dancing on His tombstone, soles of our feet recalling that the preacher’s family is a dancing family.
What did David do? "David danced before the Lord with all his might, leaping and dancing before the Lord.” Ecclesiastes assures us that there is a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to laugh and a time to weep. A time to mourn and there is a time to dance. And there was a time for this law, but not anymore. See, this is our time to dance. It is our way of celebrating life. It’s the way it was in the beginning. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s the way it should be now.
In this season that I do not have time to write, this is the idea God gave me: For me to ponder and notice again the words I've already written once, to keep praying the beads of memory to discover this sacramental life.
Won't you join me?
I'd welcome your company along the way.