We were moving right along, taking turns (sportsmanship!) and acting out the cards (hand-eye coordination!), when it came to my turn, and I drew a card that read “Do a silly dance.” Of course, my little girl happily performed every action that I performed, so even if it was my turn and I drew the card, she’d do whatever I was supposed to do. So we did a silly dance together. I wish I had it on video, so I could post it here in this blog and you could be overwhelmed with the sheer adorableness of my sweet little girl and it would become a viral hit on YouTube that office drones the world over would forward to one another in the hopes of brightening their dreary existence with an repeated enactment of the sheer joys of dancing. Since I don’t have it on video, I’ll endeavor to accomplish the same feat with the written word.
First of all, let me make it clear that her silly dance was an attempt to copy my silly dance. As it turns out, my silly dance is exactly the same as my “gentle mountain hippie” dance that I do to make fun of the peculiar breed of bohemian earth children that proliferate in southern arts communities and can be seen attending Donna The Buffalo and Widespread Panic concerts wearing overalls, no shoes, and dreadlocks. I fashion my hands in the shape of spades – as if I’m going to dig the music, man – and I spin my arms in alternating concentric circles in the air as I sway my head side to side in a rhythm slightly out of sync with my arms. Also, you have to close your eyes, because you don’t give a shit what other people think, dude. If it’s possible, turn around in circles while doing all this and bump into as many other people as you can.
So I approximated this dance while sitting in the floor. I also kept my eyes open, because guess what? I do care what my little girl thinks, gentle mountain hippies be damned. If your silly dance can’t make a two-year-old laugh, then you are doing something wrong. My beautiful little two-year-old did her best to approximate my silly mountain hippie dance, and it looked like this: Her hands, splayed out as if she were fanning herself, bobbed back and forth at the end of arms that swung at the elbows like newly-oiled gates. Her torso swayed side to side, her hips the base of a metronome keeping time to some fitful arrhythmic beat, her head dropping dangerously low on each dip as if she might topple forward under the weight of it. And that is exactly what happened; she fell forward into my lap in a fit of squeals and giggles. Immediately she cried, “Again! Again!”
And so we danced again. We started taking turns, always called out by my little one: “Daddy’s turn! My turn! Daddy’s turn!” She ended each of her dances with a squeal and a flop into my arms, followed by hearty belly-laughs and the refrain, “Again! Again!” This went on past her bedtime, the game of Roll & Play completely forgotten. When I noticed the time I was overcome with dismay at the prospect of ending our dances; not only did I know that this would entail tears, but I also was enjoying myself too much. She wailed as I stood and motioned for her to brush her teeth and I said, “I know, that was a lot of fun.”
Dancing is an ancient, primal, powerful practice. Humans have been doing, well, forever; in the Bible, King David danced before the altar of Yahweh; before that, Miriam, Abraham’s sister, danced at the liberation of Israel from Egypt. The Greeks had a god who was devoted to revelry and dance, Dionysus. And spiritual mystics have been practicing ecstatic meditation and movement in cultures all over the world. Barbara Ehrenreich has written a history of how this practice of dance has developed (and been stifled) throughout Western culture. It is called Dancing In the Streets (natch), but it’s the subtitle that captures the power of dance: “A History of Collective Joy.”
Dance is an expression of joy, of fun, and gladness, of good times. Of course, there are performers who can portray emotions of sadness, anguish, anger and despair with bodily movement and dance; I don’t mean to dismiss the art of interpretive dance, but it isn’t what I’m talking about here. The sort of dance that took place last night in my daughter’s room was not art; it was not performance; it was not an interpretation of some emotional state meant to convey spectators to a particular awareness or experience. It was a spontaneous expression of our own shared joy. But there’s an element to dance that is more than just emotion, beyond even collective joy: it is a celebration of the body. There are plenty of ways to express joy. I can laugh. I can smile. I can say out loud, “I’m feeling joyful.” But dancing is a way of being joyful that uses your entire physical self. It’s like laughing with your whole body.
I’m a very self-conscious dancer. I grew up in an awkward, gangly body and I, like all Americans, learned to feel ashamed and critical of my physical appearance. I will quickly tell you that I am not a good dancer, but what that really means is that I am not a comfortable dancer. Dancing has always felt like a task that requires skill, an undertaking that must be performed in a certain way in order to be approved. I did not learn as a young person that dance was a natural way to celebrate out loud one’s joyful existence within one’s body. My spouse might have learned more of this; she grew up taking dance classes, and perhaps the formal training gave her some freedom to enjoy her movements in her body. Nonetheless, I assume that formal dance training is rife with its own judgments and expectations that can stifle creativity and joy.
There is something so amazing and inspiring about watching a newborn discover her body: her hands, her feet, her voice. A two-year-old inhabits her body with less uncertainty and maybe only a smidgeon less awkwardness, but with just as much curiosity and discovery. When I watched my little girl dance I couldn’t help but be caught up in the excitement, the delight, the unbridled joy of being in a body and of learning to enjoy it and the way that it takes up space in the world. Honestly, I was jealous of her. I want to have that much fun doing a silly dance, and I want so badly to be even half as cute as she is when doing it.
There are plenty of joy-killing forces in this world. It won’t be long before my daughter starts to soak in the negative body images that our society forces on girls. I can’t shield her from a culture that has unreasonable beauty standards and conflicting expectations about proper behaviors and untenable pressures regarding worth and value of persons. Frankly, American culture just doesn’t value most of its bodies; only a select few in our society are fortunate enough to be deemed beautiful and worthy of admiration. I can’t shield my little girl from any of this; no matter how we seek to empower and instill her with self-esteem, culture will find a way to undermine her confidence and shame her for her flaws.
But what I can do is dance with her. I can encourage her to inhabit her body and feel its elation and let it all loose, just hang out, man. I can teach her that in our house, when we’re feeling the joy of being alive, we don’t give a shit what people think. We silly dance.