Dance Lessons

My friend asked me if I wanted to be introduced to a man that she knew. She said he did not seem to have any mental health issues. She liked him well enough, but he lives in my town, not hers.  I thought about it. I must be honest; dating makes me nauseous– like eating 2-week-old leftovers. But at my age, all men are leftovers, left behind, left broken, left alone. So, I said, No. thank you. I really appreciated her thinking of me, but, no, thank you. And I spent the next few weeks feeling guilty. And it is all my parents’ fault. 

My parents met at a dance, yet I have never seen them dance except in the symbiotic way their lives have been in sync with each other, their opposite natures making their relationship perfectly choreographed and beautiful. My dad is a tall man at 6’2” and my mother is a petite 5’2” woman. My mother moves through the kitchen and unconsciously hands my father the things that belong on the high shelves and my father offers her the items for the lower shelves. There is little verbal communication as they unload the dishwasher or make a meal together unless it is my father offering his expertise, which my mother would in turn accept or reject according to her whims. 

Their upbringing underscores their devotion to each other. My father grew up in a home with two parents of German descent, in a comfortable house in New Jersey. My mother grew up in The Home, an orphanage in Mississippi.

My mother, as the epitome of southern hospitality, could repeat the highlights of the life of a person she had met for 5 minutes in a grocery store line. My dad would consider a dinner invitation after knowing someone for a minimum of 2 years. There were moments when the dance steps that they were comfortable with changed, but it never seemed to slow the dance. They were perfect partners and able to anticipate the direction of the next move. 

If there was any music that orchestrated their lives it was the gospel of Jesus Christ. They were very attuned to the rhythm, and I never witnessed a misstep. They were always in synchronization with each other and the Savior. They perform perfectly executed pirouettes with their eyes focused on Jesus Christ and trusting completely that their partner will not be moved, always there with each quick spin of the head. Sure, and true.

Sometimes my dad would lead, and the dance followed a pattern that resembled a waltz:  comfortable, organized, expected, and planned. Sometimes my mom would lead, and the dance was still beautiful, but fresh, unexpected, and a little erratic. My father sees patterns and plans and perfection. My mother sees people.  

Perhaps the most beautiful part of the dance is not the length of the dance or the heights to which they have ascended. My parents have been married 62 years. Perhaps the significance of their lives is the way they have prepared for the exacting parts of the dance–the times when the dance was demanding, exhausting, frustrating, and when they needed to deepen their plié on already fatigued muscles. 

The French word plié means to bend, and when a dancer leaps to a great height it is only achieved when the dancer first executes a plié, a bending of the body to achieve the desired height. But the plié is not only necessary before the leap, but also after the execution, to protect the dancer’s body from injury. If a dancer tries to leap without the plié, it will be only mediocre in execution and the dancer may suffer an injury.  In my parent’s marriage, there has been a significant amount of bending, bending from personal preferences and comforts so their partner could reach greater heights. There has been bending of expectations and demands to save the marriage from harsh injury. 

                My favorite example of the plié in my parent’s marriage is the way my father has learned to appreciate my mother for her special gifts.  My mother is a frantic and busy person, always seeking to ease the burdens of everyone around her. She is incapable of structuring errands and items in a way to be efficient and save time or energy. It is not a priority for her. My father, on the other hand, is an efficiency expert because he has an engineering brain, it is wired for organization and efficiency. It is his priority in every undertaking. His efforts to instill in my mother the need for efficiency and organization resulted in hurt feelings and sometimes harsh words.  Through the years my father learned to bend, to understand that my mother needs to help people more than she needs to do it efficiently. He bends by waiting for her to falter in her strength and then offers support where she needs it, not where he wants to give the support.

Dancing with grace and poise requires that it seem effortless. There is an Italian word sprezzatura, that first   appeared in Castiglione’s 16th century The Book of the Courtier. It refers to the great efforts the courtiers exerted to appear as if no effort or art was required in great accomplishments. It is a nonchalance in the accomplishment of great things. The magical spontaneity of my parents’ lives together is an example of sprezzatura. With perfectly matched goals, ambitions, and devotion, their lives are a beautifully choreographed, perfectly timed example of perfect love.

It is the sprezzatura aspect that has created the most confusion in my life. They made it seem effortless and ordinary and real and achievable. They live in a world they have made where you simply love your partner and improve yourself, instead of a world that encourages us to love ourselves and improve our partners.

Most of the time I do not think about dancing. I am happy. My life is beautiful and rich. Then I spend a day with my parents, and I feel the space, like when the wind rushes through an open window–a void where something used to be. Things have moved and shifted around in my life, so the space does not occupy a shape or have a name. It certainly does not resemble any of the human forms that used to be there. 

It is abrupt, this feeling, like putting on a new pair of prescription lenses or trying out hearing aids for the first time.  You do not miss what you do not know isn’t there.  When I watch my parents, there is a connection, an assurance that there is always a place for the other one, a spot on the sofa, a porch swing, or a mattress that will always be reserved for the other. No exceptions, no exchanges, always welcome. There is a desire to share every little lovely, hopeful, heartbreaking moment with their friend. It is even evident in these shadow years as my mother wonders where my dad is, when he is sitting beside her. 

She remembers that she needs to tell him everything. My mother has always known that my father would be there to help her lift the heavy things. Now the heaviest thing my father lifts for her is a fork. He holds it as steady as he can on my mother’s plate so she can scoot her peas on her spoon. He does not ask if she needs help. She does not request any assistance. It is the loveliest part of a well-rehearsed routine; each person trusts that their partner is there and ready.  

I watch my parents and I can tell what love looks like: love is calling someone by name and savoring the sound of it. Love is watching “Hello, Dolly” again and again and again and smiling sweetly when she grabs his hand and says, “Isn’t this the cutest movie? I have never seen anything like this before. It is just darling,” because her mind is slowly slipping away, but she remembers she wants to share her joy with him.

                I agree with Brian Doyle, who says in Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies, “Love is our greatest and hardest work,” like a dance routine that is learned first in a slow meticulous practice and is defined by space and timing, each movement choreographed to make two people come together in a way that redefines them as a pair and blurs the edges of individuality. 

It is clear to me now why my own efforts at performing a dance have been completely disastrous.  I had the equivalent of the greatest dance company as my model. When I attempted to enter the dance floor, I expected my partner to know the routine, but I learned that there are many routines and I had only prepared to imitate one.

One of the dilemmas of using my parents as the standard of excellent performance is that I came late to the show. I am the third daughter. I was brought into the routine during the second act when life was settling into stability. They were practicing and performing well-rehearsed steps by then.

I began my dance with sure movements and confident leaps. I was confident in the dance that was so familiar to me.  In time my pliés were deep and steady in anticipation of a great leap—that moment when two people perform as one—that moment when the leap is lovely, graceful, and fearless and the one who waits is steady and sure and ready.  My muscles became attuned to the demands of the dance and I was in perfect condition to offer my love, support, and everything to my partner.   That is when my leaps into the air brought the joy of the flight and understanding that loving someone unconditionally is a gift. It was many years before I realized that I was coming down, not to the sure and steady hands anticipated, but finding empty air, unsure footing, and an unforgiving floor. My offers of love were not what he wanted or needed, and it made me unsure and hesitant. If I bent completely to his will, would I break?

I only saw trust and complete devotion in my parent’s lives. But my story was different. Every attempt at making a faultless plie of bending resulted in the boundaries being more restrictive.  Sometimes I would fall in the middle of a spin when the dance had the potential to shimmer in a heart-stopping ecstasy when we could have triumphed over all the terrible odds. When our marriage could have grown from the difficulties and hardships, as I had witnessed from my family. That is the part of the dance that makes those watching hold their breath and anticipate disaster only to be rewarded with the precision and skill of hours of dedicated practice and sacrifice.  Only our practices had been mediocre, offers of forgiveness ignored, apologies late, and I began to keep score of the missteps.

 Instead of thinking of the dance steps we could do together, we focused on the part we could do alone. Our family was devastated by trauma of a son with serious mental health issues, bruised, and broken from trying to save our son and ourselves.  My focus left the Savior and focused on my partner. My spinning body should have been held steady by my constant focus on a sure true point when all I could see was my partner’s missteps, every part of the routine that could be attributed to his failings and I allowed my performance to falter. 

The problem with a second major audition, after the first one has failed, is trying to give the performance as passionately as you were able to give the first time. When dating was new and we were young, before our scars, our first auditions were fresh and hopeful and filled with a sense of wonder and magic. Now in our later performances, the dance is no longer about nailing a technique: love, passion, pain, forgiveness, and being closely attuned to your partner’s moves. Now it is about an assessment of whether our potential dance partner has a mental illness, can appropriately manage money, does not lie, cheat, steal, respects women, respects men, works hard, honors their priesthood, delights in womanhood, and the list goes on and on as we think of our stories and the stories of our families and our friends and watch the news and read newspapers and magazines. We now know from our vast experience that people can be cruel, broken, violent, selfish, dangerous, liars, and lost. 

                Now, there is what people call baggage. This is the life we live with after the painful lessons.

And then in the presence of my parents, I forget about my baggage and those of others that I carry around for justification. I remember a particularly lovely leap that occurred while I was still young enough to expect that all fathers would dance with the sole purpose of making the performance of his partner flawless, magical, and perfect. Time after time I watched as my mother made wedding cakes so elaborate and delicate that it would require my father’s engineering expertise to finesse the structure into stability. Her talent and efforts were a constant wonder to my father who wanted his contribution to merely compliment her incredible gift. I witnessed movements so perfect and in tune with the music that it seemed as if there was no other way to behave. 

I believe that love is our greatest and hardest work. The greatest and hardest worker in the dance world is the prima ballerina, who before she has achieved that great success has spent years with aching muscles, bleeding and broken toes. She will ultimately sacrifice the beauty of her feet to perform the most delicate of dances. She has paid a price for her pursuit of perfection in the dance world–this life she has chosen. Her dance will awe and inspire everyone who has paid the price of admission to see the performance. She will give her all in every performance, every night again and again, because she has sacrificed enough to be worthy of the dance. As I think of her, the prima ballerina, in the perfect costume performing a dance so exquisite that grown men have been known to weep, I think of many things, but mostly I think about the fact that it is not really about her partners at all. It is about her training, sacrifice, and commitment that have given her the ability to move an audience to emotions that can do nothing but unite them and make the world a better, kinder, gentler place.

Sometimes, I hold up my battered and wounded feet as a symbol that I deserve a dance partner who has paid a similar price, when the fact is those wounds are the least important thing I have. The routine, discipline, pain, and commitment have given me things that are far more valuable than my wounds. It is the same with love, each offer we have made in our lives to love someone unconditionally, every sacrifice we have made to make another person shine or be better, every teardrop and blood drop shed, have added a measure of love to our performance, a bit more finesse, skill, precision, and timing–and each is more valuable than the sacrifices made to achieve them.     

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