Shall We Dance?
Short answer: No. Nothing you say or do will change this family rule. The other answer always freaked me out and embarrassed me. No, because bodily contact between women and men when they dance and are not married to each other mimics sexual intercourse. The first step down the path of moral destruction.
A Theological Image
When I was a child I had perhaps the most glorious theological image I’ve ever enjoyed. I don’t know when it began, but every time I sing, “Let every kindred, every tribe on this terrestrial ball…,” I imagine an elegant, Cinderella-like ball. Hosted by Jesus! In a grand ballroom filled with people dancing in honor of the Lord of all.
Not until I was in my 40s and teaching seminary did I realize, thanks to a guest speaker, that the term ‘terrestrial ball’ had nothing to do with a grand dance and everything to do with planet earth!
I was stunned not just at my misreading of the term, but by the way my childhood theological imagination had fed me a glorious feast all these years. It still does. The only difference is that now I smile a little when I sing it.
When I get to 8th grade, I change schools. I’m 11, going on 12. I walk across the street from my relatively safe, private, church-run K-7 school to a large public junior high school for 8th-graders only.
During the past year I watched students getting off school buses, hanging out on the sidewalks, dressing provocatively, sometimes flirting or even smoking. Some of the boys shout insults to us on our side of the street. I pretend I don’t hear or see them.
Now I can’t avoid them. I have to be with them, if not one of them. I dread this new arrangement. The building is huge; the hallways noisy and crowded. I have to go from one classroom to another for instruction; even worse, I have a different teacher for each class.
I decide to carry my Bible to school every day. I’m used to doing that. I don’t have a locker, so I carry my Bible to each class, always on top of my textbooks as a sign of respect.
One day my home-room teacher asks if I’d like to read Scripture and lead the Lord’s prayer at the beginning of each school-day. That makes it a little more natural for me to carry my Bible every day.
After a week or two she shows me that she has a Bible on her desk. I’m welcome to use it. I tell her politely that I’d rather read from my Bible, thank you. Nobody calls me this, but I think everybody gets used to me being the ‘Bible lady.’
My self-consciousness escalates. I make great grades, but do I ever go to parties or hang out with fun people? Loneliness is a constant reality, broken up by small, chance meetings with friends I know from my rural community and from church.
An Invitation to Dance, and an RSVP from Daddy
For the first time ever I’m in a physical education class—PE for short. To my surprise, I enjoy it immensely. I love physical activity and being with other girls in this sometimes hostile, impersonal setting. We learn to exercise and play things like girls’ half-court basketball.
One day our PE instructor, a woman, announces that for the next eight weeks we’ll focus on dancing, and that our classmates in boys’ PE will be joining us. First we’ll learn social dancing, then square dancing. My classmates go crazy with excitement. My heart sinks.
When I get home I tell Daddy about the announcement. He isn’t happy. I tell him that if I’m to be excused from any PE activity, I need a signed and dated note from him.
That evening he types a single-spaced letter to my PE instructor giving her the long and the short of it when it comes to dancing. In 1 1/2 pages, he carefully lays out the entire sad and sorry case about why social dancing is verboten for true Christians. The next morning he hands me the letter, invites me to read it, and tells me I’m to deliver it to my teacher. I read the letter.
- He appeals to the Bible, including the responsibility of Christians to ‘separate themselves’ from such practices.
- He includes a painfully long discussion of sexual indiscretions encouraged and actually acted out by males and females when they dance with anyone who is not their lawfully wedded spouse.
- Finally, to my surprise, he makes the case that square dancing can be good, clean fun for body and soul. He will allow me to participate in the latter.
- Nonetheless, during the month the class is practicing social dancing, I’m to be sent to another room; I am not to stay in the gym, witnessing this highly questionable activity called social dancing.
I feel embarrassed and trapped. I also have to deliver the letter to my PE instructor. To my relief she’s gracious and kind, and instantly becomes the instructor who knows the most about me and my family—whether I like it or not. She agrees to have me back in the class for square dancing instruction.
In the meantime, since I’ve already been recommended to be a student assistant in the library, I’m to go straight to the library for the entire PE class hour and do whatever the librarian would like me to do. I’m thrilled with my alternate assignment.
When the month is up, I return to the class for square dancing instruction. I love it. It’s great fun, and nobody asks me why I wasn’t there for social dancing instruction. To my delight and surprise, I feel nearly normal.
The only problem with square dancing is that this isn’t the kind of dancing junior high and high school students do at their parties. Nor do they wear school clothes to these events. It seems my square dancing instruction is all for nothing.
Three Comments and My RSVP
Even though this happened to me, it isn’t directly about me. It’s about my father. In particular, it’s about his unbearable heaviness of being, his lonely way of dealing with the world as it is, and perhaps with what is in his own heart. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s possible that his response to dancing says more about what is in his own eye than what he thinks he sees or imagines in his heart.
I’m present, but I’m not an agent in this decision about me. I’m not asked whether I’d like to learn to dance. It doesn’t matter what I want or what I think. Without argument, I go along with his agenda. At his bidding, I deliver the sad news; he does not. I live with the consequences; he does not.
Finally, he avoids dealing directly with my teacher. He responds by writing a letter without having any conversation with her. It seems that her views about this and why this might be important in an 8th grade curriculum are as unimportant to him as my views.
In the 1980s, after completing my first five years of teaching theology, I took my first sabbatical leave. I had a book project to complete. I also wanted, however, to do something else. Something new, physical, challenging and fun. So I signed up for ballroom dancing lessons at a well-known dance studio.
Everything about me, every cell in my being took to dancing in a heartbeat! Release. Sheer joy. Physical and mental challenge. Great instructors, wonderful class members and dance partners. An opportunity to be female in ways I’d never experienced before.
I still love dancing–mainly free dancing now. Especially with my favorite Gatlin Brothers album turned way up, making it up as I go along, following the lead of my heart, my spirit and the music.
As for my RSVP: Yes, God. I’m ready! Ready in my body, my soul, my spirit and all the rest of it. Ready for the Grand Terrestrial Ball. Ready to dance my heart inside out.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 8 June 2014