Dance, To Be Free
Originally uploaded by lorenzodom
1. Creativity is A Way of Life (Underwear Boy Dances), 2. Doctor, Doctor, 3. Going SkinDeep in Atlanta, 4. An Angel of Delight, 5. Groovin' NY Style, 6. Nicky's Morning Dance
Dance, To Be Free
I have a million and one stories about dancing.
Tonight, I’ll attempt to relay a few.
The way I see it, my mother must have been dancing when she gave birth to me.
After all, my parents first met at a dance and were married soon thereafter.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of watching my parents dance together.
And even though it has been more than twenty years since their divorce, they still find occasions to dance together, if only for ol’ times sake.
Seemingly, it is one of those activities in which they realized that they remained compatible, despite the world of evolving differences that couples ultimately have to accept and contend with. Because when you’re dancing cheek-to-cheek there’s little to separate you once you’ve let go and given yourself up to the music.
Marry me and Fly Me to the Moon
you asked her on your wedding day;
years later you still make her swoon
with your spontaneous kitchen sashay.
Whirling after two bites, dinner gets cold,
my baby sister and I watch you, with wild-eyes;
you make-believe, love never grows old,
she rests her head on your chest, and sighs.
Despite too many fights for any child to bear,
adoration unrehearsed proved lithe.
And as all spite dispersed with twirls undone
We saw you off upon your lunar flight.
The trajectory of your steps launched you two
into giddiness and endearing smiles;
while Mama believed dreams do come true,
you beamed, proud of your wiles.
I’ve dated many women who I first met when I asked them to dance. I’ve learned dancing is a wonderful ice-breaker and can quickly determine physical compatibility. Moreover, most women love to dance, especially if it is with a man who knows how to dance (well).
It bewilders me that more men don’t make an effort to learn an art that enables them to reach out and so readily impress and charm (i.e. disarm).
Of course, that said, I realize that it is easier advocated than accomplished. For the road to grace is long and arduous, a never-ending rehearsal really. As with any other skill or art, once you’ve learned your craft it requires applied dedication to keep your agility sharp, limber and in tune.
I’ve been learning to dance all my life. Not only did I grow up with a family that loves dancing and a cultural heritage that embraces, if not demands it—“it runs in our blood son”—but I’ve also had a lot of formal training as well—everything from grade school folk dance troupe performances, high school theater, an extracurricular and formal college curriculum (i.e. ballet , folklorio and modern), and eventually, as informal couples therapy. Alas, as therapeutic as dance may inherently be, it is not the cure to everything.
Ironically, it was while dancing that I had one of those ominous “I should have known” moments, a realization that we all console ourselves with retrospectively, especially after the love is gone.
The First Night (I Shoulda Known)
It was New Year’s Eve, 1996, a few months after the beginning of a year-long engagement. We were attending an event called First Night, which is an organized non-alcoholic initiative that occurs in major cities and small towns alike, seeking “to foster the public's appreciation of visual and performing arts through an innovative, diverse and high quality New Year's Eve program which provides a shared cultural experience, accessible and affordable to all."
My fiancée and I decided that we were going to do this evening right by dressing to the nines—I in black tie and she in a beautiful black dress and tiara. Despite the fact that I was running a fever and feeling quite ill, I made an effort to stick to our plans nonetheless, even if I clearly should have stayed home in bed, and watched Dick Clark grow older instead.
Although there were venues and events organized as part of First Night all over the city, we decided to go to Grand Central Station for dancing and live music.
Immediately, we noticed that we were well over-dressed, or rather, that most everyone else was quite under-dressed, and thus we stood out like swans amongst a flock of geese.
Within minutes of starting to dance, a photographer from the New York Times began snapping shots of us in motion. Despite being pretty sick, I did my best to ham it up for the camera and spun her around and round and round. Being that I was happy and in my element, I quickly forgot that I was sick.
Alas, I soon discovered—she wasn’t.
In sharp contrast to myself, my bride-to-be shied away from the attention. Unfortunately, this difference immediately led to some bickering between us.
Nonetheless, we both shrugged it off. That is, until all but ten minutes later, when we began dancing again, another photographer, this time from the coveted Style section of the New York Times began taking our photo as well. This time though, whereas I was now inspired to dance the night away, she’d had enough, and wanted to stop dancing entirely.
Thankfully, the discord was not for nothing, as we were called the very next morning by friends who informed us that we were on the front page of the paper on New Year’s Day, 1997—dancing (and kissing) no less. Of course, I ran out and immediately bought a dozen copies.
Regardless, I really don’t believe that I coulda-woulda-shoulda known that our incompatibility in the lime-light was a sign of our inevitable demise.
Like my parents, regardless of the differences that were born from the years of agonizing compromise, I still cherish my estranged wife as a dance partner. There have been very few that have followed as well as her, few that have proven to be such a smooth match otherwise, especially whenever we danced in our living-room, alone .
Dancing has highlighted and taught me about other critical differences as well.
It’s In The Blood
A few years earlier in 1992, when I first arrived in New York City to begin graduate school at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, I ventured out one weekend with a few colleagues to a free concert at South Street Seaport.
The performance featured a well-known Zydeco band. If you’re familiar with music from the Bayou you well know that it is highly rhythmic and will make you want to dance. At least, it certainly made us want to dance.
However, when we arrived at the venue at the base of the pier, almost all of the attendees were seated on the pavement in an uncanny stupor. The audience primarily consisted of a somber pale, pall almost, of people who only acknowledged the music with an occasional, almost imperceptible, sway of their heads, and a tap of a finger.
This lack of enthusiasm drove me crazy, nuts, and I was subsequently rankled by the irreverence for the music.
Although, my colleagues and I wanted to pay our respect to the musicians by dancing, there was no room, for the few hundred square feet before the stage was taken up by people with cement shoes. The scene was decisively depressing, and so we decided to leave after lingering for a song or two.
Redemption was not too far away, however.
For a block away or so, immediately beyond the point where the performance became an euphonic blur of static, there was a group of eight or so colorful souls making music out of nothing but the pleasure and enthusiasm of each other’s company.
Amongst this happy horde of Latinos, was a couple dancing Salsa. Their friends provided the music by clapping and yipping and encouraging calls of organic glee. There was literally no other musical accompaniment otherwise.
It was at this very moment, that I realized a poignant cultural difference that I had intuited and felt and struggled with for so long. It was something that my parents had taught by showing me, showing me that apparently the impulse to dance runs in our blood.
"What is dancing, but making love set to music playing..."
—Come Dance with Me, S. Cahn, J. Van Heusen—
This is why I long struggled whenever I have had to straddle the world of my upbringing and that of my schooling.
Dancing All By Myself
At home and the in the homes of my relatives, dancing had always been second nature. We danced at every party, every family reunion and upon every occasion to celebrate, including merely appreciating life itself.
From second grade onward I had been placed in the advanced learning program, MGM, Mentally Gifted Minors, later to be euphemized as ELP, the Extended Learning Program. Thus, at school, although I was lucky enough to hang around with a bunch of pretty smart kids, unlike me, almost all of them were “white.” And so, as luck would have it, ultimately I would be one of the only non-Caucasians amongst the academically privileged for years to come.
Thus, in junior high, while I adapted easily enough and thoroughly enjoyed classic rock music by the likes of AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Van Halen, I was also often secretly enjoying the music that “the other” kids were listening to across the schoolyard—Michael Jackson; Earth, Wind and Fire, The Commodores, Prince and Grand Master Flash—music that I could have never dared be caught listening, and dancing, to, lest I face being ostracized and interminable mockery.
In 1979 my clique’s “dancing” was pretty much limited to pounding the bus seat in front of us while drinking Mountain Dew and shouting the rousting lyrics of Queen's We Will Rock You.
In turn, I often ended up dancing all by myself, while listening to KFRC on my AM radio in my room alone on Friday nights, and while watching Soullll Traaaain late on Saturday mornings.
All by Myself
Dancing in the basement
all by myself—
no cues to eschew
no doorman to sail
past with attitude
all by myself—
feeling muscles move
loosely about my bones,
exercise, now almost
a foreign concept,
except for dancing
on my own.
Most I get otherwise,
is via this unsupervised
all by myself—
no one to watch me
no one to stare
moving as if ,
I just don't care,
dancing in the basement,
all by myself.
Ironically, before I was sullied and stymied by the socialization of adolescence though, I remember that I was actually quite free to express myself.
The September of My Sixth Grade
Sixth grade was a particularly poignant and impressionable time for me in my life. I vividly remember being particularly free of feeling self-conscious, and thus feeling free to dance as I please.
I remember one particular moment in late 1978, at the age of ten, when I shamelessly showed off.
It was Kimberly’s birthday party and there were a dozen or so of our friends gathered about her small apartment’s living room. Antsy, I loitered about the stereophonic console and acted as the festivity’s makeshift DJ. I keenly recall placing the black little 45 of Le Freak by Chic on the record player, and then placing the needle to the vinyl. As soon as I heard “Freak out!” I was moving about like a banshee on crack and mercilessly attacked all the girls-blossoming-into little women, asking them if they cared to dance.
Of course, I was readily rejected all around, but I continued to dance nonetheless, all by myself. Kimberly’s mother and aunt fawned over me and asked “Do you give dance lessons?” Slightly embarrassed, I shyly smiled in return. Yet, I was so enamored by the music, the moment and the movement that I kept dancing until my heart’s content and the end of the song.
Likewise during the same year, I happily remember one Saturday at Sunday school, when we were having a party to celebrate the last day of classes. This was a particularly memorable day because it began with poor little Carmen Luna’s mother paying a surprise visit while she was stinking drunk.
You could smell her soused breath before Mrs. Luna stumbled in from the back of the classroom and asked the teacher out loud, “Do you know what God is doing when it’s raining?”
She didn’t wait for anyone to answer, blurting, “He’s pissing on you!”
Of course, we were all quite shocked and the teacher quickly moved to get a nun to help Mrs. Luna out and away from the classroom.
Upon the teacher’s return we began our party nonetheless, as if nothing had happened.
I had brought in my little portable Panasonic tape player and a cassette on which I had recorded one of my favorite songs off the radio—September by Earth, Wind & Fire.
I played the song over and over again and half a dozen silly sixth graders danced in the hallway, looking much like the Peanuts gang (Snoopy, Peppermint Patty, Charlie Brown…) dancing to the punchy piano tune “Lucy and Linus’s Theme.”
September remains one of my all-time favorite songs to dance to. And I feel that it is no coincidence that the hit film A Night at the Museum featured the song in the closing scene. For surely the makers of the film were astutely aware that such a song would not only appeal to the children of today, but also spark a certain gleeful feeling of nostalgia for those people, like me, who are now budding parents, taking their children to the movies, much as my parents did thirty years ago.
Looking back, in addition to acknowledging that I inherited the gene for happy feet, it should be no surprise to me that dancing became such an important part of my life, for I came of age at the height of an important dance music era.
In 1977, a polyester white leisure-suited John Travolta and Saturday Night Fever sparked disco fever across the country, if not the world. In 1978, T.G.I.F., Thank God It’s Friday, starring disco diva Donna Summer, fed the fire with her iconic song the Last Dance.
In addition to the entire soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, other unforgettable songs of the time that instantly take me back include: Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, The Village People’s Macho Man and Y.M.C.A., and of course, Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album.
Ironically, as I grew older I find myself yearning to return to my innocence, longing to break free, to be me, to simply dance when and as I please.
Fortunately, at times I succeed.
For at times, I muster enough courage to let go, make the right choices., and dance as I please.
And you can dance!
Get into the groove
boy, you've got to prove
your love to me, yeah.
Get up on your feet, yeah,
step to the beat
boy, what will it be?
Music can be such a revelation,
dancing around you feel the sweet sensation
We might be lovers if the rhythm's right,
I hope this feeling never ends tonight
Only when I'm dancing can I feel this free.
At night I lock the doors, where no one else can see.
I'm tired of dancing here all by myself,
tonight I wanna dance with someone else.
—Into The Groove, written by Madonna and Stephen Bray—
(R&O thank you for the inspiration)
Rose, Olive & Me