The Joy of Dance
A friend of mine posted a photo of her 8-year-old son leaping across a stage, his face lit up with joy. JOY! The expression on his face thrilled me. He wasn’t just smiling. He was beaming! His eyes were smiling. His eyebrows were smiling. His whole body was smiling. His arms were open wide and radiating energy. The photo caught him in mid-air, a feat in and of itself. There was not a speck of self-consciousness. Just pride and joy in his body, the feeling of movement, the pure fun of performing with others. I knew just how he felt and I laughed out loud with joy. So happy for him and his mom. Dancing is so much fun. Especially leaping and flying through the air.
Her son was participating in a program at his school run by the National Dance Institute. NDI programs are offered in public schools impacting 40,000 students annually. They offer classes and workshops that end in a performance experience, with a mission of introducing all kids to dance and engaging them in the arts as a way of learning how to collaborate, work towards a goal, and perform. If anyone doubts the value of arts in education, just look at this photo! I felt inspired and absolutely fierce about defending the role of arts in our world.
My friend confided that her son loves to dance and that she was so appreciative of the NDI program for giving her son an outlet to express himself through dance. She is grateful that the program continues for another year. What’s next went unspoken. But as a dancer and a mother of a son, I took the leap. What’s next is that most boys are not encouraged to dance in our culture. It’s not manly enough nor lucrative enough. No, our manly heroes are sports figures, tech wizards, and movie stars (who all have dance training, btw.) I must say, though, that I do see this changing. Grateful.
If music is as old as culture, surely moving to music is equally old. Dancing is fun and expressive, a way to connect with others. You can tell stories with dance. You can celebrate rites of passage with dance. You can show someone you love them by dancing with them. One of our family traditions is to blast the Beatles Birthday Song on birthdays and dance wildly and joyfully. When my son was younger, he would insist on playing it over and over again so we would keep dancing. It wasn’t every day he got to see his mom dance wildly and joyfully.
What happens to that wild and joyful dancing? As we grow up we are rewarded for A’s and other achievements deemed socially worthy. The playful moments become fewer and their importance is minimized. The 8-year-old boy becomes a 15-year-old-boy with increasing amounts of homework and pressure to get good grades and pursue resumé-building activities that will help him get into college.
Of course there are many ways to feel joy besides dancing with abandon. There are the physical feats, that may involve a bit of speed or fear or adrenalin to catch that thrill. We may avoid the fear of doing that cartwheel or leaping across that stage. Or, perhaps worse, we may confuse physical joy with an adrenalin rush and require more and more intensity to get the adrenalin to kick in. But you don’t need adrenalin or fear to find joy. Singing or playing music, sitting quietly in nature, looking a loved one (or a loved animal) in the eyes. Connecting.
What struck me about this wonderful photograph is that I realized I rarely see this joy on my 15-year-old’s face any more. Somewhere around puberty, that childish lack of self-consciousness and joyful abandon has been replaced with a desire to fit in and a host of emotions related to the pressure to get good grades. A combination of worry and striving mixed with procrastination and some teenage remoteness are more common expressions. As I spend my midlife wondering where the joy went and how I can get it back before it is too late, I seem to be dutifully knocking it out of my son so that he can be “successful.” This has to stop! I would give anything to see my son’s face and body light up with joy. What a gift that would be! Instead of killing the joy, I must help him to find his joy. It would probably help if I set a good example by playing, having more fun, and enjoying my own joyful moments, eh?
Lately, we’ve been lax with playing “Birthday.” The next family birthday is, ahem, my son’s 16th. It will be a wonderful occasion for some wild and joyful dancing.
Photo Credit: Photo by Suzanne Pappas Quint of her 8-year-old son leaping with joy.