“Dance Fever in Waltz Time”

Here is a sermon I delivered at Shawnee Mission UU Church in Lenexa, Kan. on 7 August 2016.

“Dance Fever in Waltz Time”

In a favorite film of mine, L.A. Story, the hero, in a voice-over, muses that, for him, there are only three sacred places – the first two are the postcard sort of mystic places, but the third, a bistro on Sunset Boulevard, gets the designation for personal reasons.  As a person who “lives for revelation,” I have dozens of sacred places.  One such is the Common in Greenwich, Conn. for that is where I received an outward (31 May 1993 at approximately 6:10p ET and an inward (same date about 15 min. earlier) acknowledgement as dancer.  I had been with the Bassett Street Hounds, a men’s Morris team in Syracuse, NY, for just under a year when we went to the Mixed Morris Ale held that year in New York City and environs on Memorial Day Weekend.  At every stop, each Morris team would perform a short set of dances, and then, to top off the event, all who would were invited to join in a common dance.  The call went out:  for all who will, Bleddington “Young Collins.” This was the last dance of the weekend; I couldn’t miss it.  I grabbed my stick, a dogwood branch, with the “bark still on it,” and charged to join a group missing a # 5.  One of my fellow Hounds, a man called Rich, called after me – “Wait.  They’re doing Bleddington,” letting me know that this dance was in a tradition the Hounds didn’t do – the Hounds did Oddington.  But I couldn’t wait.  I rushed right in to join the dance.  I danced it, all right, with lots of mistakes.  When the dance was over, a pair of women asked me to explain what they had just seen, and I explained Morris dancing with some excitement.  When I got back to Rich, he said to me in wonder – “You really are a Morris dancer.”  At that moment, I felt almost as if I had been knighted, as if Rich, one of the founders of the group and the most expert of the dancers, had had me kneel, and had dubbed me with my own dogwood stick.  More important was that, in rushing in to dance Bleddington “Young Collins” I had already defined myself as “dancer.”

The previous summer, when I first came to Friday night practice, things were quite different.  I’m not sure what propelled me to that practice.  I was no dancer, but a klutz.  And yet, there was something that got me past all my excuses and into that practice.  I have no words to describe just how awful I was that night, but the name “Elaine Benes,” for all who know Seinfeld, comes to mind to hint at my godawfulness.

I’m not sure what brought me back the next week, and every week thereafter for that first year.  My rational mind was saying – you really suck at this – give it up.  The only thing I can think of that might have kept me going was the example of toddlers learning to walk.  I love watching toddlers learning to walk.  They are fearless.  They charge right in, and their brain is racing as they’re trying to coordinate all those motions that make for successful bipedal locomotion. You can see it in their faces – the concentration, the exhilaration when they make those first few steps, their hesitation when they’ve hit that moment of “what next?” and no immediate response is forthcoming, and they totter and fall.  And then they get up and do it again.

Toddlers know the importance of — we sometimes forget we know — that maxim from Swing Time – “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.”  Somehow, that became my joyous mantra that year, and I was rewarded for my resilience.

But personal determination and resilience alone would not have got me to that memorable Memorial Day in Greenwich.  The patience of my teammates (the patience of saints) continued to pick me up, help me along, with a lot of carrying.  They could have taken me aside, and “let me down easy,” and shown me the door.  They did do not that, and to that brave band of men, I remain grateful.

In this church without dogma, learning to be UU can take some doing. It requires effort on the part of newcomers, and the patient and loving attendance on the part of old-timers towards them. And so I would say to those visitors today – be bold, explore your spirituality, here with us and with others, too, “till by turning, turning, you come round right.”  Oldtimers, let us not forget we were once newcomers, and be generous, and loving, and patient with newcomers and with each other in our dance.

From that Morris moment to a contra move.  There is a The New Yorker cartoon (from about 1982) by Jack Ziegler that I love. At a cocktail party, a man, wearing a “them” button, speaks to a man wearing an “us” button.  He says, “I’m surprised, Marty, I thought you were one of us.”  I love this cartoon because it confounds me – the guy with the “us” button is the “them” to his friend; the speaker with the “them” button represents the “us” here.  As a person who loves to play with language, I love that this cartoon plays with labels, while gently reminding us of how we carve up our world community into groups.

And language does that – language is an arbitrary system based on binary pairs like “us” and “them” – the story of Adam and Eve in the garden is all about the two of them learning about “difference” – the fall from Eden is a fall into language, a system rooted in difference and analysis.

Dance, on the other hand, though it can be broken down and analyzed – it’s what choreographers do – speaks to something beyond language, something rooted in the body, something prevocalic. In the dance, we are in the present moment.  If we allow ourselves to be swept up in the dance, we enter the zone, we touch eternity, we lose track of time, or have another perspective of time, caught up in the beat.  In dance, we lose that sense of separateness.  We become one with our partners, one with the music, one with all on the floor.  We are part of a dance; we are also the dance incarnate, the dance made flesh.

There is a particular move in Contra Dance called “Gypsy into Swing.”  In this move, you and your partner face each other, lock eyes, move towards and around each other coming slowly closer to one another until you meet and then spin around in a swing as a couple.  When I do this well, I can feel the other person, though we stand separate, as if she held some gravitational hold on me, and I on her. My aim is to enjoy that interlocked separateness for as long as I can. If I do it right, I can feel the tension constant, yet tightening, as we move into the swing.  And then, when we get to the swing –eyes still locked, my partner and I in close embrace go spinning, often quite fast. It’s important in a swing to maintain eye contact with your partner – it anchors you as you spin.  In the swing, I’m aware of moving, but also of a stillness at the same time; around me, I can see vaguely the other dancers in the line moving likewise, but they lose distinctness, and appear as colorful blurs and swatches of color. I’m also aware of the music, but at no conscious level, and can often sense just the right moment to break back into a line.

For the swing to work, each of the partners has to do his or her part.  To get momentum each partner has to give weight, leaning back against the partner’s arms, keeping a certain amount of tension.

And here I see a lesson for a non-credal church, one which speaks to oneness (in diversity) and to the universal.  We are each separate and all together as a community.  With that in mind, when we do fellowship here, we can discover a creative tension between our different traditions and our common heritage.  It is love that keeps us in community.  “We do not need to think alike, to love alike” as we like to say, and which we attribute to Francis David (probably wrongly).

And now to the movement and magic of the Spiral Dance.  I first danced the Spiral Dance in the dining hall at Rowe Conference Center in Western Mass at the CUUPS convocation on Columbus Day weekend in 1993 – the date: October 8, the time, uncertain, as I neglected to bring my watch with me.

The Spiral Dance is a dance aimed at suggesting the interconnectedness of nature, humans included, and at mimicking swirling galaxies. It is danced to celebrate and to recognize community and to build energy and power.

In the dance, which is best done outdoors, or in a great hall, a circle of people form a large circle and join hands.  The circle begins to circle in a clockwise direction. After some chanting and the beginning of music, the leader drops the hand of the person to his/her right and starts to move in a clockwise direction around the inside of the circle.  As the leader moves, the circle itself begins to move, and to coil up like a watch spring until the leader reaches the center.  At that point, she turns back on her path, and is now moving in a counterclockwise direction facing each of the other dancers as she moves back out, while the rest of the circle is heading to the center before each of them turns back as well.  Once out, another opening into the center becomes apparent and the leader goes once again into the center.  It is a dance I hope we do some day here – maybe in the fields out back.

It is a dance that has to be experienced – descriptions don’t do it justice.  And I can only speak to my own situation and perception.  The dance starts very slow, but as the leader gets closer to the center, the tension on the arms of each dancer gets greater and greater.  You can feel the pull of the dancer ahead, and the pull of the dancer behind.  That tension builds until you’ve hit the center and then it explodes outward, just as you are turning and looking at all the others in the line.  As the line moves, everyone in the line gets to be face to face with every other person in the dance.  At Rowe, there were easily 100 of us in attendance, but that dance joined us together as community, and revved us up for that weekend with Selena Fox.

But what made the experience in the hall on that night even more special was that, as we danced, we could all see in one corner of that dining hall a gigantic spider web in one corner of the ceiling – at least 5 foot in diameter.  It had been there all along, but we dined early that first day, so the tables and benches could be moved to allow dancing space, and without backlighting, the web was near invisible. As we danced and passed that corner, that great majestic web, lit from behind, came into view, and we each had a silent “aha” moment.  For me, whenever I hear the phrase “interdependent web,” I am transported back to Rowe in 1993, dancing in my mind, and seeing that great web above.

The spiral dance was, for Starhawk, a metaphor for nature, for the stellar galaxies spinning in the sky, and for the celebratory pagan practice that celebrates all that jazz.  For me, I can think of no better metaphor for community than a dance in which all are equal partners, where one can feel directly or remotely the power and energy residing in each person, oneself included, and where one gets to see every other member of the dance face-to-face.

I will not say that dance “saved” me, nor will I claim that dance in actuality or as metaphor can “save” anyone.  As a Unitarian for almost a quarter century, I know that I rely too much on my mind and on language and on reason.  Dance reminds me that I am soul incarnate, that the mind/body split is all in my head, and that I ignore my body to my peril.


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