A Brief Personal History of Dancing

A story circulates throughout my extended family about the time that the wife of my father’s cousin, Gil, bellydanced at a family reunion, shocking and offending my Grandma Davis. Cousin Gil and his wife are no longer married—I can’t say whether the bellydancing incident had anything to do with that—but the story persists, casting a shadow on dancing of any kind.

As a young girl in rural Iowa in the 1980s, during one of the brief intervals when our family owned a television, I watched the Christmas special of the Nutcracker Ballet, and wished to learn to dance. My mom and stepdad, both pastors in the sort of church that frowned upon dancing of any sort, said no, but I could take piano lessons instead. So I made do with piano lessons and hula hooping in the backyard.

Once when I was a teenager, I had the sort of beautiful dream that always stays with a person, as if tucked away in tissue paper in a special drawer of the unconscious mind, waiting for the right occasion to be taken out again. In the dream, I was in some kind of crowded mall or marketplace swarming with people, the sort of environment that normally induces a terrible sensation in me; I might have trouble breathing normally and need to find a wall or quiet corner to stand in till the feeling passes. But in this dream, rather than panicking, I felt in the midst of the crowd a complete sense of freedom, release, and unutterable joy; I was wearing something white, flowing, and gauzy; I was dancing.

By the time I entered college in the late 1990s, ballet was no longer frowned upon in my subculture, so I began taking informal lessons from a college classmate. I knew it was too late for me to become a great dancer, but I enjoyed stretching and becoming more aware of the fact that I lived in a physical body as well as a mind. Petite, flexible, and weighing around 97 pounds, I was sometimes told that I looked like a dancer, especially when I remembered to stand up straight. Between ballet stretches, weeknight rock-climbing at the gym, and seventy push-ups per day, I became stronger than I’d ever been before, and forgot, for the first time since ninth grade, to worry about my weight and appearance.

In June 2005, I moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia, to live among Mennonites. By this time, I was married and had two daughters. Shortly after moving to my new community, I met a woman called Rose, with whom I quickly became close. Rose is tall, close to six feet, lean and willowy, with a strong-boned facial structure, elegant cheekbones, huge brown eyes, and wavy hair styled in a delicate pixie cut. It’s impossible not to notice her the moment she walks into a room.

Rose was then the mother of four little boys, ages one through seven, and newly widowed. Her husband, while driving, had crossed into the opposite lane of traffic and hit a semi-truck head-on, shortly after being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.

Rose and I got to know each other while taking a counseling and theology class together at the Mennonite seminary, both of us realizing that we weren’t destined to become pastors. We were instead exploring what spirituality meant to us, what marriage and family life were about, the ways in which our Christian upbringings—hers as the daughter of Mennonite missionaries to Africa, mine as the daughter of Free Methodist pastors—had shaped us into the people were becoming. We were trying to recover from the shocks that had struck us both in recent years, as well as to figure out what would come next in terms of career and life in general. When our class ended, we both wanted to keep seeing each other on a weekly basis, beyond just Sunday mornings at church.

So Rose decided that she would teach me to bellydance. She had started taking dance classes shortly after Ruben had died, as a way to set aside time to do something for herself, something completely different from wrangling four little boys. She said she’d never been much of a “girly-girl,” but now she wanted to explore what it meant to be feminine.

Somehow she persuaded a few other women to join us—including a woman who was, at that time, one of our pastors—every Monday morning as we donned exercise clothes and jangly hip scarves, gathered in Rose’s large basement, and warmed up with yogic breathing and stretches to the sound of New Age/international music. Then we’d try to locate the individual muscles used for moving hips, pelvis, ribcage, spine, neck, shoulders, arms. Most of us knew something about our arms—we’d all used them well and often for washing dishes, carrying laundry baskets, embracing friends in need—but the hips were difficult. Most of us felt a little ashamed, I think, for squeezing our glutes in front of other people. Sometimes we laughed until tears flowed.

Over the coming months, something happened between us. It seemed as if the energy that flowed through our bodies while we moved to the music also flowed from one of us to the next, so that we became connected to one another. Sometimes during a cool-down exercise, we would stand together in a circle, our feet a hip’s-width apart, while one of us would hold an imaginary ball of something in her hands, then pass it ceremoniously to the next woman, who would in turn pass it along to the third, until in this manner, the invisible ball traversed the whole circle and returned again to the beginning. Sometimes this felt a bit silly, maybe, but other times, it was like passing along a blessing.

After our hour and a half of exercise, most of us would stick around to drink tea together, taking turns to contribute scones or muffins, fruit, and chocolate to share together. We’d talk about our parenting struggles, marriages, divorces, and loneliness, unexpected pregnancies and infertility, mental and physical illness, unfair lawsuits, the need for balance. What did we each want? Why was it so hard to know? What did it mean to be a good woman these days? How did our values differ from the ones our parents’ generation had? Some of us home-schooled our kids; some of us worked part-time, some full-time, some of us had never earned wages. Some of us had only finished high school, while others had graduate degrees. How to measure success? What was enough—enough money, enough time, enough success, enough health? What did it mean to be a good wife, a good mother? Why did some men love us, yet leave? Why did others of us feel that we had life too easy?

We felt that the world was being re-invented around us and by us, every day. At any moment, anything could happen. A husband might die, a baby might be diagnosed with cancer, a stranger might sue us for thousands because a friend’s dog knocked them down while we were with it at the park. All these things did happen; this is the world we live in. But in the midst of these things, we also had tea, good food, and women to share it with. We had learned a way to move through this world with grace, to the sound of drumming and other-worldly singing.

Sometimes we gathered our whole families together for a hafla, an evening party that included a potluck and performing a few choreographed dances. Most of the husbands and young children seemed to enjoy it, while the teenaged daughters were embarrassed as only adolescent girls can be.

Rose, through her astonishing powers of charm and enthusiasm, persuaded us to perform as a group at the International Festival. She and someone else hand-dyed and hemmed silk veils, in flaming reds and yellows, for us to dance with. At the time, I was experiencing enough social anxiety that even grocery shopping was troublesome, but somehow, Rose convinced me to join in. We danced outside at Hillandale Park one Saturday morning before hundreds of people. Wind flapped our veils wildly, blowing our hair and skirts about us, energizing us as we moved, enlivening the dance. Wind and spirit, in some languages, are the same word. Pneuma. Wind is air, and air is breath. Breath is spirit. The spirit moves, the breath moves in us, through us, and out again. Inhale. Exhale. We breathe the same air as the people standing near to us, exchanging molecules with one another. Dancing, I remembered to keep breathing, to keep moving.

The audience loved us, I didn’t die, and afterward, an outing to the grocery store no longer seemed like a big deal. Since then, I’ve made a point to always say yes to any opportunity to appear in public.

Two years ago in January, Rose allowed me the honor of standing up at her second wedding; she’d met someone wonderful, handsome, and ready to embrace a ready-made family. At the wedding reception, we contra-danced in our hand-made silk velvet finery until the wee hours.

I continue to mull over what it means to be a good woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter, and friend. I have certainly not finished sorting it all out; I expect that I have years, maybe a lifetime, ahead of me, studying this. But one thing I’ve learned: whether in mourning or in celebration, on an ordinary day or a special occasion, a good woman dances.

In my household, we’ve taken to holding frequent after-dinner kitchen dance parties with just our immediate family: my husband, Steven, and our two daughters, Eliza and Magdalena, ages ten and eight. Steven likes to crank up “Stayin’ Alive,” “U Can’t Touch This,” and other ridiculous but lovable songs. The girls have the best moves; Eliza takes ballet, modern dance, and hip hop, hoping to become a professional dancer when she grows up (in addition to being an artist and fashion designer), while Magdalena prefers to invent her own delicious choreography. I alternate between trying to mesh my bellydance movements with crazy Eighties music, and imitating the cool stuff I see my daughters doing. Sometimes we play with the Wii Just Dance 2, gloating good-naturedly as we beat each other’s high scores.

Two years ago, our bellydance group was invited to dance at my church, of all places. It was to be for the Good Friday vigil. We would wear black, flowing costumes, use candles and scarves, and keep the hip movements minimal. Rose had selected a song that she’d discovered after Ruben had died, a Celtic piece with lyrics about seeing the passion of Jesus in nature:

I see his blood upon the rose

And in the stars the glory of his eyes,

His body gleams amid eternal snows,

His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower;

The thunder and the singing of the birds

Are but his voice—and carven by his power

Rocks are his written words

All pathways by his feet are worn,

His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,

His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,

His cross is every tree.

We met in the morning on Good Friday in the church sanctuary to practice. Rose talked about the song and all it meant to her, how it reminded her that although Ruben was gone, something of him remained alive in her sons, and in the things and the places he had loved.

Then Shannon broke in to say, “I wasn’t planning to mention this, but . . .” she would be calling hospice later that day—she’d just learned that the brain tumor that had been part of her husband, Wayne, for the past ten years had finally advanced beyond treatment; he had maybe weeks or months. She hadn’t yet told their kids.

We wept together, and then we danced, mournfully, somberly, dressed in black, with our votive candles, remembering Jesus, Ruben, and Wayne. We placed the lit candles at the foot of a wooden cross that was standing on the church stage, where we picked up our gray, lavender, and white veils to dance with during the second half of the song. The question of whether Jesus rose physically from the dead, what it means if he did, and all the other puzzling but abstract questions that descend upon me every religious holiday, dissipated in the smoke of the candles. I was present fully in the motion of my arms, which were flinging a silver gray veil over my left elbow, then over my right elbow, then around my body as I twirled, then holding the veil up with my left arm and down with my right as I brushed fingertips with the other women—Rose, Shannon, the others—in the circle we formed briefly before gliding offstage.

In the weeks that followed, Shannon, a Mennonite from the taciturn Midwest, didn’t talk much to us about her feelings, but she came regularly to dance class and sometimes spilled tears when speaking about the logistics of her life: “Wayne won’t be able to come to the potluck this weekend; he’s only eating a half-cup of applesauce a day with his pills—and even that’s a struggle.”

One of the mornings at Rose’s house, during the dress rehearsal before our spring hafla, Rose presented to Shannon a gift: white silk skirt and matching veil, a necklace and gold bangles. Shannon put them on and looked like an angel, or maybe a bride, with her pale skin, eyes blue as the sky, and silk raiments. We practiced our dance from Good Friday, but this time we wore colorful costumes, outdoors, with the Shenandoah Valley laid out behind us like a Dutch landscape painting. During the dance, we formed a circle with our left arms raised toward the center, palms together, veils fluttering, all our fingertips lightly touching—mine, Rose’s, Shannon’s, the other women’s.

The dancers left the circle one by one till only Shannon and I remained circling with our palms together. In that moment, I thought to myself, Powerless though we are to stop this woman’s suffering, we’ll be with her as she passes through it, dancing together, fingertips brushing. Then our hands parted, and we were both folded back into the rhythmic sounds of the fading soundtrack.

About the Author

Anna Maria Johnson

Anna Maria Johnson is a candidate for an MFA in creative writing (fiction and creative non-fiction) at Vermont College of Fine Art (Summer 2012). Her short stories and essays have been published in Ruminate Magazine, The North Fork Journal, DreamSeeker Magazine, and The Mennonite, as well as in the anthology, Tongue Screws and Testimonies. Anna Maria writes, gardens, and makes art along the Shenandoah River’s north fork, where she lives with photographer Steven David Johnson, their two daughters, a cat, and a dog.