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The Dancer and the Dance

By Emily Milner

My daughter tells me the morning of her dance recital that she doesn’t want to
go. “I’m not going to dance for the mommies and daddies because I
already did,” she says. She’s watching me to see my reaction.

“I’ve never seen all your dances,” I tell her. “I always have to leave
in the middle of your class. I really really want to see all your dances.”

This is what she wanted to hear, I think: she wanted me to beg a little.
She wanted the recital to be as important to me as it was to her. “Hmm,
all right,” she says. “I guess I will.”

“Oh, good,” I tell her. She wiggles a little, excited.

We arrived early enough that we sit on the front row, my baby’s stroller
parked in the aisle. Now the girls are lining up as their teacher
introduces their warm-up dance. My daughter and the other four girls wear
simple black leotards and black footless tights. I’ve pulled her pale
blond hair back in a ponytail, but it can’t restrain flyaway hair from
creating a halo around her face.

The girls run in a circle, arms wide, nearly crashing into each other a
couple of times. And then the near-miss becomes a hit, and Norah falls.
The other girls run past, and then Norah gets up and starts too. Her
chin is trembling and her eyes are wide. She keeps going, but she wants
to cry. Soon, though, she forgets the fall and becomes caught up in
skipping and twirling.

The music changes. My daughter follows along as the dancers plié and circle;
she’s familiar with the way her body is supposed to move. On her face I
see concentration and joy in what her small body has learned.

I’m so caught up in watching my daughter that I haven’t noticed my baby. He’s laughing. He’s delighted by the way the girls twirl and spin, and he just laughs. This is their free dance, when they can do whatever they want to. They want to whirl around and prance on tiptoe. My baby giggles, enthralled. I want to laugh to, laugh and cry at my dancer, her bare toes pointing, her hands outstretched.

Jennifer Hoi Yin Jensen’s essay “Improvisation” talks about the
vulnerability and joy of dancing. Initially scared of improvising in a
modern dance class, Jennifer discovers the joy of connecting body and spirit.

I feel that same joy in my daughter’s dance recital. It’s something I experience vicariously, but I know it’s real.

What is your experience with dancing? How has it
blessed your life? Do you see dancing as a fundamental part of the
Gospel or of Mormon culture, as the PBS segment in “The Mormons” discusses?

About Emily Milner

(Poetry Board) graduated from BYU in Comparative Literature, but it was long enough ago that most of what she learned has leaked out. She would like to mention other hobbies or interests, but to be honest she spends most of her free time reading (although she does enjoy attempting yoga). She used to blog at hearingvoices.wordpress.com. For now, though, Segullah is her only blogging home, and it's a good one.

9 thoughts on “The Dancer and the Dance”

  1. Almost daily around here, we crank up the music and just dance. We call them dance parties and my kids love them. Right now we like "Dance Puppet Dance" and "I'm Blue!" So while the music is varied and ecclectic, my kids' happiness is not. They're constantly smiling. And jumping, their firm little legs supporting them, their arms all long and flailing.

    Anyway, there is joy in movement– in rejoicing in the creation of our body. (That seems spiritual to me!)

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  2. I have almost no personal experience with dance, but I think that it is an important part of the Gospel. Dancing, along with other forms of art, goes hand in hand with the doctrine of seeking learning out of the best books. The best dancing, music, and art cannot come without a significant investment in learning.

    I believe that the early pioneers saw dancing as a way to keep a connection with the cultured, civilized life that many had known before persecutions forced them into their new desert homes at the edge of the frontier.

    When I look at some of the heirlooms that have been passed down to me from my ancestors, I see signs of former wealth: a marble candlestick, a fine glass pitcher, handkerchiefs or other linen featuring elaborate needlework. Even though most of their wealth was lost or left behind when they crossed the oceans and the great plains, the pioneers brought their learning–and dancing–with them.

    My great-great grandparents established a farm in Star Valley, Wyoming at the turn of the 20th century. In the midst of their struggles to raise crops and 13 children in that beautiful but brutal and remote part of the country, they purchased a new upright piano. I do not know how many seasons of sacrifice and hard work were required to pay for that piano, which was shipped by rail and horse-drawn wagon from a factory in Chicago to the mountain valleys of Wyoming. Whatever the cost, my grandparents were willing to pay it in order to have the beauty of music in their lives.

    It makes me wonder where the culture and refinement is in the "dancing" our children participate in at school dances today! I hope that will be able to teach my children to recognize true beauty in art, and not to settle for merely swaying back and forth to the 95-decibel beat.

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  3. I love and appreciate dancing both as an art form and as an invigorating activity, something just for fun. I happily went dancing as a single woman and my husband and I still try to make it out (our most recent adventure was to Scream Metal night at a local club). We stand out in these places being fully clothed and all. And even though I feel like an old lady sometimes, I think the activity and the excitement keeps me young. It makes life seem sexy especially when the biggest item on my daily agenda is to find the floor of my children's room, and most often, I'm unsuccessful in my attempt. Dancing seems like a way to forget the daily grind and remember why you love your significant other and why you love having a physical body.

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  4. Thanks for your comments. I always feel bittersweet when I watch dancing; I'm not comfortable in my own skin, and dancing feels awkward to me, even though there's a part of me that would love to be better at it. I want to help my daughter retain this dancing joy all through her life, and not lose it somewhere around eleven like I did.

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  5. I LOVE dancing. I loved it growing up, loved going dancing when I was single and still love dancing with my hubby in the living room/kitchen/wherever now. Also, my newest love is dancing with my baby. She's only 3 1/2 months old, but she LOVES our dancing time. I turn on some music and hold her while she just lays on my chest as I move and twirl around the room. It's not too vigorous since she's so little, but truly this is something that always calms her and she usually cries when we stop. I hope she continues to love dancing all her life.

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  6. What ironic timing! I've been seriously considering declaring my minor as Dance this month – and then this article comes along.

    I have always loved dancing, and I'm falling in love all over again this summer. Dancing has always been freedom of expression, freedom to love my body unequivocally, freedom to step out of myself for a moment. This year, dancing has become something more. I have a chronic muscle condition (Fibromyalgia); two years ago, I could hardly climb the stairs. Now, when I dance, it's triumphant – I'm proving to myself and to the world that I can love my body and find art and expression in its healthy movements, despite the obstacles.

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  7. I grew up dancing– up to twenty hours a week at one point. Modern was my favorite. I don't have an outlet for dance right now (other than around the living room) and I really hunger for that. I still dream about dancing.

    I have five daughters, and I haven't enrolled any of them in dance, though. As much as I love and still yearn for that physical expression, and as much as I appreciate the grace and physical fitness that I developed, I worry about the culture of the dance community. There is a great deal of immodesty in costuming and music, and I had friends who struggled with body image and various eating disorders. I wish I knew of a dance community in my area that was heavily Mormon influenced!

    I have never thought of dance as being particularly LDS. I do think Mormon culture places an emphasis on all of the arts, although I would have fingered music before dance.

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  8. One more comment. I'm a student at BYU-Idaho right now, and we have SO many opportunities for dancing – any kind of dancing. Nearly everyone takes at least one "social dance" class; there's country, swing, latin and ballroom dancing every week; there are workshops for hip-hop, jazz, modern and even "Caribbean" dance not once but twice weekly. I would say, in this area of Mormondom at least, that dancing IS a huge part of the culture.

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  9. Cindy, I found that to be true at BYU also. In fact, I even took a social dance class. It was a challenge for me, as all things physical are, just because I am very uncoordinated.

    This is what Terryl Givens says about dance in "The Mormons:

    "The philosopher [Friedrich] Nietzsche once wrote: "I should never believe in a god who should not know how to dance," and I feel the same way.

    "There is in the Mormon faith a kind of celebration of the physical, which I think is a little outside the Christian mainstream. Of course, in the early 19th century almost all of the Protestant denominations were condemning dancing, for example, as a device of the devil. Meanwhile, the Mormons are even dancing in the temple. We have record of that occurring in Nauvoo. When the Saints moved to Utah, one observer in the 1850s noted that they had schools in most every block, but that every night schools were converted into dancing schools, and he observed with some displeasure that they should go to school, but they must go to dancing school. I think that there's a connection with the place of dancing in Mormon history and the concept of an embodied God, because we believe that God the Father as well as Jesus Christ are physical, embodied beings; that elevates the body to a heavenly status. …

    "Brigham Young once said that he supported and endorsed any activity that tended to happify, and I think that there's a kind of exuberance and celebration that is in many ways a result of that same collapse of sacred distance that was so central to Joseph Smith's thinking. Instead of denigrating the things of the body in order to elevate the things of the spirit, Joseph always argued that it was the successful incorporation of both that culminated in a fullness of joy. So dancing is, I think, in many ways just an emblem or a symbol of a kind of righteous reveling in the physical tabernacle that we believe is a stage on our way to godliness itself. …

    "Thomas Kane, [author of The Mormons, published in 1850,] visited the Saints on the prairie. He said it was one of the most haunting, haunting experiences, to see the vast stretches of isolation and loneliness, and then you'd hear the soft strains of classical music coming over the hills, and there would be the Saints, gathered around, playing music and dancing. And so it apparently accompanied them all the way West. …"

    I like the idea of "righteous reveling in the physical tabernacle."

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