I come from a non-dancing culture, an anti-dancing culture, actually. Until recently, dancing was a forbidden activity in the Mennonite faith community. It was certainly so in my parents’ growing-up years. When I was a child, my mother would sometimes pretend-dance in the kitchen, mimicking the act of dancing, making fun. She looked ashamed to even do that; to move her body in anything other than a strictly utilitarian way made her blush. I never saw my father do anything that even approached dancing, with my mother or by himself.
Granted, dancing was easy to avoid. Approved music was not very danceable. Church hymns and classical music made up the bulk of what we listened to at home and in the community. Music got no catchier than barbershop quartets or religious singing groups. Dad had an album of Czech polka music he loved, and one of sailor’s shanties, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, but he didn’t dance to them. Certainly, nothing with drums, nothing electric, and nothing with a twang was allowed in the house. My parents turned up their noses; that wasn’t music, it was low-class garbage!
I had a musical ear and loved all kinds of music, always. I sang, played the piano, the oboe, and the clarinet. I found it hard not to move to the music. I jiggled a lot when I sang in my church’s junior choir starting in fourth grade; I felt music deeply and wanted to experience it fully, but I didn’t have a model for moving to music.
When I entered the ninth grade in 1979, our high school had just begun holding dances. Our Kansas town of 500 had been predominantly Mennonite since its founding, and still was, but the wider culture was slowly seeping in; my generation became more integrated, expanded our experiences in urban settings, watched more TV, listened to top 40 radio.
I was excited to go to a dance, but terrified. How could I dance when I’d never done it before? But since none of us really knew how to dance, it was actually okay not to know. We experimented together in the stuffy gymnasium. I felt fabulous out there stiffly moving my feet to the classic rock tunes: step right, bring the left over, step left, bring the right over. I’m sure I looked like I was made of wood, but I was cooperating with the music! I was letting myself respond, and it felt right.
This was what everyone was scared of, I guess: the body’s sensual cooperation with the rhythm, allowing ourselves to respond. Such impulses must be managed, or they might lead to other inappropriate behavior. We had a joke in our community: Why don’t Mennonites have sex standing up? Because it might lead to dancing! What more dangerous gateway drug could there be than feeling an elemental beat and moving our body to it? We might lose control completely.
When I met my college boyfriend, now my husband of more than 30 years, at the Mennonite college down the road from our farm, he had come there from California. His parents were lapsed Mennonites who had graduated from this college, but he wore clothes I’d never seen in this community where most people dressed in Wranglers and button-down shirts. He had three-quarter length concert tee shirts from the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, tan flared-leg corduroys and Jordache jeans, a Members-Only jacket, Vans shoes, and cool sunglasses. He had abundant shoulder-length curly hair, a casual slouch, and smoked cigarettes. I thought he looked like a rock star. And could he dance! He had been to actual clubs in California and knew how to move beyond the left-together, right-together shuffle. How could I not be completely smitten?
Along our journey together I began to dance more, and he slowly danced less. Now he doesn’t care much for dancing, while I dance around the house for absolutely no reason. I love to turn on some music and move for the sheer joy of it. I have lost my self-consciousness, to the chagrin of my teenage sons. Their eye-rolling amuses me. In my mind, I look good!
I don’t require a partner to enjoy dancing. Many of my women friends feel the same way. They love to dance. The men I know, not so much. Perhaps they think they’re above such “silliness.” They’d be right at home where I come from. Meanwhile, I put on something catchy, step to the center of the kitchen, close my eyes, and breathe in the beat, then step, shake, bow, and boogie to my heart’s content, hair and feet flying free.