Shall We Dance?

· 2009 Heather Campbell Personal Essay Contest Winner ·

January 31, 2011

MY PARENTS DANCED in the kitchen. Dad would come home from work and sweep Mom into a fluid fox-trot on the brown and gold linoleum. The man could dance. He was smooth—transformed from the owlish, bespectacled engineer-high-councilor-family-fix-it-man into, well, Fred Astaire. Their graceful everyday duet enchanted me. Like many little girls, marrying a prince had always topped my list of dreams. Now a new ideal took shape in my young heart. I decided that any man who could dance like my dad would be a prince to me. Surely I would wed someone who felt the music like I did, and we would twirl together through eternity. How could I know that the odds lay stacked against me? No one told me that my father represented a species on the verge of extinction: the Mormon man who loved to dance.

I grew up dancing in the living room and naturally assumed that every family bounced and shuffled together with the same joyous abandon. Our family home evenings often culminated in an interpretive free-for-all, a sort of family mosh pit in front of the stereo speakers. Dad moved it with the best of us, as I was certain any patriarch worth his salt would do. But childhood bubbles burst all too soon. Neighborhood kids who came to play at our house consistently vetoed my suggestion that we put on a record and dance. More than that, they scoffed at the idea. Laughed in my face. Public dancing? Decidedly not cool. I took my groove underground.

My deep need to shake my bootie baffled my friends and defied both genetics and tradition. Clearly, I came into this world ready to hop. So why wasn’t I born into a culture where dancing comes as naturally as eating? What went awry in the genetic lottery that resulted in my birth as a doughy white girl of Scandinavian and Scottish descent? Not that I blame my poor progenitors. My dad’s ancestors lived in wintry Northern places and worked stony farms in short growing seasons. They sat on hard benches in gray churches and sang staid hymns in precise four-part harmony. That would beat the boogie out of anyone. Appreciation for my dad blossomed as I realized he had broken the cycle of strait-laced, buttoned-up restraint from which he had sprung. My dream of marrying an RM who could handle R&B looked realistic—inevitable even.

The stake youth dances I frequented in my teens gradually dismantled my dream. Self-conscious girls huddled together in nervous clusters, their hair swept back Farrah Fawcett-style in symmetrical swoops the size of 747 wings. They giggled and scanned the gym, hopeful for any sign of life among the males lining the perimeter. The boys, for their part, seemed to feel a solemn priesthood duty to hold up the cinder block walls. A tacit agreement about spacing for maximum structural support existed between them: precise six-foot intervals, shoulder blades pressed against concrete. No smiling or small talk allowed, hands must remain in pockets at all times. At first, my optimism did not falter. I requested the song I knew no one with a pulse could possibly resist. The DJ nodded. Feet itching, I grinned triumphantly as the opening bars of “Brick House” thumped out of the speakers. Oh yes. Smug smile drooped. Oh no. Nothing. Steadfast and immovable they stood. My short-list of must-have qualities in a man shrank in the glare of reality—dance maneuvers no longer required.

Fast forward to BYU, September, sophomore year—a stake welfare service project in the Payson apple orchard. Perched high on a sturdy limb, I heard an engaging voice below me ask, “Do you need some help?”

Assessment from my bird’s eye view—deep dimples and a wide grin, curly brown hair, and a build that transformed Levi’s 501s into something inspiring. He looked like Gene Kelly, but more gorgeous. No lie. My heart flipped over and I croaked out something semi-intelligible. We moved slowly through the orchard together, picking apples and talking without lulls. So it began. Over the next few months I discovered that Bob backed up those irresistible dimples with a powerful mind and singular integrity. When he sat down at the piano and played the Brahms Rhapsody I turned to jelly. Something stirred in my heart—an old dream, an almost forgotten hope. He could pass for my iconic dancing dream-man’s brother, after all. It must mean something.

It did. It meant I had watched way too many old movie musicals.

The homecoming dance would tell. We lingered over a romantic dinner, arriving late to the dance (not the best sign, admittedly, but perhaps not deliberate). After a delicious slow dance on the terrace, the DJ cranked up a string of fast songs. I turned expectantly toward my date. Gone. Bob had passed me in a blur, making a beeline for the refreshment table. I caught his eye. He nodded toward the drink clutched in his white-knuckled hand, as if to explain why he couldn’t possibly take me out on the floor. His uncomfortable smile said it all. Spontaneous body movement appealed to him about as much as pinkeye or a root canal. I sighed but, oddly, felt little disappointment. We married in July—no dancing at the reception.

I chose the right man. As we grew up together and created the rhythm of our own family, we maintained respect for one another’s individual jive (or lack thereof). I never pressed Bob to kick it with me, and he had infinite patience with my need to rock out. At wedding receptions and stake adult dances, we danced every slow dance. When the beat picked up, Bob would gravitate to another panic-stricken husband of a dancing queen wife and lose himself instantly in deep conversation. The conspirator always caught on quickly and gratefully, stroking his chin philosophically at something Bob said. “Can’t dance, honey, profound interchange going on here,” their relieved eyes advised. No problem. The ladies took the floor together and shook it.

Our three daughters came into the world, each an intriguing hybrid of Jerie/Bob genetic traits. All had dimples. One inherited Bob’s brown curls, two got my straight blond locks. Three for three were born to boogie. I brought them up carefully in the faith. We danced in the living room every day. Bob fueled our fetish by pounding out ragtime on the piano so we could Charleston. When we wanted to swing, he played “In the Mood.” The girls never tired of jumping around to theSesame Street theme song—part of Bob’s expanding dance-friendly piano repertoire. He became our handsome, laughing one-man jukebox, and we adored him. The kids never even noticed that Dad didn’t dance—we were all in the mix together.

Then came the advent of the man-child. Gazing into the face of my newborn son, a tiny tabula rasa, I felt a sense of mission flood my heart. I would raise a Mormon man who loves to dance. It would be my enduring legacy. Generations of smooth movers would call me blessed.

Before the boy could crawl, he rocked. We pushed the furniture back and danced to anything and everything. One of my proudest maternal moments came at a company picnic. My children gravitated inexorably toward the DJ’s small outdoor dance floor where our three-year-old man-cub cut loose with some serious jump. A friend sidled up to me and murmured in amazement, “Whoever said white men can’t dance never saw your son.” The skies parted, unseen choirs sang. I basked in the glow for days.

Somewhere along the way a barely perceptible conversion process began with Bob. Now and then he joined in our living room dance parties. Even in public venues he ventured an occasional fast dance, securely surrounded by his bouncing family. He took his time getting in touch with his inner Gene. Why rush? We have eternity, after all. A lot can happen in infinity.

And a lot can happen now. My life bore some resemblance to the Titanic. It moved forward steadily while I danced my heart out in the ballroom, oblivious to the iceberg ahead. In 2007, at the age of forty-four, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Iceberg. Impact. Impossible. Old people get Parkinson’s. Questions hovered in my mind. What happens to my dreams? Will I ever complete the triathlon I had been training for? Will my mind process ideas into words? Will my hands function to write them? Will I ski with my grandchildren? Will I bike? Hike? Dance?

Immediately after the diagnosis, I read everything I could get my hands on about this “movement disorder” that would be my companion and teacher for the rest of my life. Words like “degenerative,” “irreversible,” “progressive,” and “incurable” have a powerful effect on the psyche. Dreams come suddenly into sharp focus. Some, the ones that matter little, sink quickly to the bottom without a struggle. (Forget the triathlon.) A few I grab by the wrists and pull to me, breathing urgently into them until they sputter and live. (Awakening to the unexpected beauty of my new brokenness, I record it in words that scarce can serve.) Other dreams bob unbidden to the surface, swelling like bright lifeboats on the near horizon. “We’ll do this together,” Bob repeatedly assures me. I am saved. He hauls me up and over the side of a long-submerged dream, newly inflated. We dance.

I stumbled across a magazine article about Parkinson’s patients and dance therapy. (I stumble a lot these days.) Dance therapy. Even patients who have difficulty initiating basic movement—such as walking—can, inexplicably, dance with surprising agility. “Let’s take dance lessons,” my boogie-phobic sweetheart proposed. Greater love hath no man.

Twice a week, sometimes more, Bob bundles me off to a social dance studio for some prescription-strength salsa. Medicinal merengue. West Coast swing. To dance goes beyond therapy. It feels more like magic. My left foot doesn’t drag when we lindy. No tremors when we tango. For a few hours I am freed. As soon as the beat begins, my limbs remember what it felt like to move in effortless rhythm. My “Barbie” arm (the one that hangs stiffly at my side like Mattel-molded plastic) rests lightly on Bob’s shoulder and responds to his lead. We move together hand in hand, face to face. And Bob? The man can dance. A few pointers from the glitter-enhanced instructors at Arthur Murray finally released the Gene within. Now my “just-shoot-me-before-the-next-fast-dance” husband busts it—bona fide. It’s heaven on a hardwood floor.

Funny how life comes full circle. I married a true prince, rather than the disco king I dreamed of in my youth. Thankfully, I laid hold on the better dream. Twenty-seven years later, my hopes of cutting an eternal rug are materializing (complete with Cuban hip action). Who would have thought? I am married to a Mormon man who loves to dance. With me.

Ironically, the two left feet that I vowed to avoid in a mate are now attached to my ankles. OK, one left foot. But one like mine—about as lively as a banana slug—is more than enough. It produces the same net effect as two left feet, at least until the music starts. Mmmm, the music. Life’s exquisite beat goes on. Bob appears, smiling and holding out his steady hand. “Shall we dance?” Like he doesn’t know my answer already. Yes. We shall. My heart still dances and my body must follow, in spite of the sluggish left side. So we dance—even the fast ones. And we dream—even the unlikely ones. And we trust—wholly. We have eternity, after all. A lot can happen in infinity.

January 31, 2011