I have always been drawn to people and communities who dance. My theory is that when a culture loses its dancing as a community, it loses its vitality and reason for existing, what the French call raison d’être.
Conversely when a culture finds its soul again and expresses its soulfulness in song and dance, it is fully alive. The cobwebs are cleared out, the blues are gone, and a collective joie de vivre is found.
That’s the spirit that is coming alive in East Tennessee as the Jubilee Community Arts preserves the performing arts of this region by sponsoring folk dances and presenting music at the Laurel Theater, a lovely building that was once a small church. My friend Candy says her grandparents were married there at what was then called the Epworth Church. It was around 1915 and the bride and groom rode in a carriage with white horses.
No longer a church, the building still has beautiful stained-glass windows, and inside the fiddlers, stand-up bassist, and guitar man play mountain music every second Thursday night. Coming from Asheville, NC, on Valentine’s evening, the square dance caller taught us the moves of each dance, then he called for the music, and we would gooooo.
In the sixth grade was the last time I square danced. The boys hated dancing, or at least that’s how I remember it. We girls would twirl and our full skirts would fly out around us as we spun. I loved dancing the old dances that were brought over to America by our English/Irish/Scottish ancestors. The ones who were fleeing poverty or persecution, and hoping for a bit of land to farm and call their own.
When a culture loses its music and dance, it loses its passion. As Americans we have become too isolated from each other–and perhaps ourselves–as we hunker down before our televisions for the midwinter of our discontent. Man- and woman-kind were not meant to be alone. We die a bit everyday when we are not connected to others.
Although hell can indeed be other people, as John Paul Sartre wrote (and being quite a bastard himself, he should know), I’ll go him one further and say hell is even more the oblivion of being alone.
Dust off your soul, find a way to dance, and look for someone who ain’t looking through you, as Bruce Springsteen wrote in his intoxicating Badlands, which is my personal anthem:
For the ones who had a notion
A notion deep inside
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive
I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me
I wanna find one place
I wanna spit in the face of these badlands
Many a dreary day Bruce’s music has reminded me who I am. Sometimes I have grown lonesome for the days when I ran in my grandparents’ backyard while Papaw plowed the garden and Mamaw shelled butter beans on the back porch steps. I call that being lonesome for what never was.
Through the rose-colored glasses of my memories, I more readily recall Papaw’s rangy, hardworking, man-of-few-words-and-an-occasional-smile side. I forget his judgmental, Calvinistic, my-way-or-the-highway occasional cruelty, and his merciless teasing of my father for not being the man he wanted Daddy to be. You’d never catch my Papaw dancing. Lord no.
But I do have the good memories when I felt I might have been his favorite, the first grandchild, the oldest, and perhaps because I was so much like him–before I fell from grace, and got a mind of my own.
When I told my grandparents I was getting a divorce–what would be the first and only divorce in our family (until my second one)–Papaw said with deathless economy, “You made your bed; you lay in it.”
Mamaw said, “But, Thomas, if she doesn’t love him, she’s doin’ the right thing, right?”
Bless her heart. Mamaw played Turkey in the Straw on the piano. She had the broad Irish smile and a quick laugh with a small lap because her belly was round and full of her own good cooking. I’ll bet Mamaw danced when she was young–in fact, I know she must have.
In Mamaw’s spirit, and in carrying on the tradition of my Mamaw’s laugh, I dance.
Anna – 2/15/13