(Originally published in The Seattle Press, February 14, 2002)
Dancing Your Passion: On Love and Obsession
If you’ve ever been through a relationship, you know what it is to dance. The tentative first steps; the palpable fear of rejection balanced by the rush of infinite possibility. Upon finding your rhythm, the euphoria of unabashed connection and understanding. But stay with it long enough and you’ll invariably grow disenchanted with a partner become too familiar and predictable. Beyond that, some say, lies true love.
party down, down, down,
“The dance is a poem of which each movement is a word,” said Mata Hari. Recite enough poems to enough dance partners in an evening, and you’re liable to get lucky. At least, that idea holds in a common, coarse perception of dancing merely as a means to mate.
Surprisingly, experienced dancers often claim that what drew them to dance was not the prospect of finding someone, but that it seemed a way out: A distraction for feelings of grief and loss; a fresh change for a life gone stagnant; a longing for connection in community. “You can’t be concentrating on your footwork and worrying at the same time,” says Judy Grant, a long time social dancer who met her husband, Chris, through dance. Indeed, ask enough dancers about why they dance and a common theme emerges, that of an experience of transcendent joy.
Though I started taking dance lessons with a timid “We’ll see” attitude, within a few short months most weekends were spent dancing. Friends comically rolled their eyes as I breathlessly held forth on the virtues of my newfound passion, and huffed impatiently as we fruitlessly attempted to schedule evenings together. With the fervor of a lover sampling chocolates from a favored suitor, I devoured dance classes, from swing to waltz to salsa. I had fun. I was carefree.
And then, I found zydeco.
could have danced all night,
All forms of dance tend to cultivate their obsessive devotees. My particular obsession became zydeco – eminently danceable cousin of Cajun music – a sultry, fecund music rooted in the Creole communities of Southwest Louisiana.
We enthusiasts will go to great lengths, often incomprehensible to outsiders, to immerse ourselves in the dance. Witness the “Zydeco Cruise” – seven straight days and nights dancing to live zydeco bands aboard an enormous luxury liner – now in its fifth year. Breathtaking ocean views and lonely deck chairs lie largely forsaken as hundreds of dancers groove and sweat in the Caribbean heat, relentlessly moving to the all-encompassing music. Attempts at rest are futile – there is magic in the music which levitates and propels the body, willingly or otherwise, into motion.
“I’m ashamed to say this,” says Rita Messina, an avid dancer, “but I schedule visits with my own parents around zydeco dances.” Decisions about where to vacation become moot as all thought turns to planning the next pilgrimage to the “Motherland,” unassuming Lafayette, Louisiana.
A dance instructor myself going on two years now, and as one for whom it is not unusual to spend five nights per week teaching, performing as DJ, and dancing, the question presents itself: What did I do before zydeco?
took me a while to see,
Were I not single already – a relationship recently dissolved – I believe I would have been after scheduling to teach an out-of-town Blues Dancing workshop this Valentine’s Day. My former partner and I apparently stumbled over that phase in our relationship when what we initially found exciting and dangerous about one another turned just plain annoying, and my “obsession” with dance became an issue.
Once more, Rita speaks to the truth of our commitment to zydeco when she admits the dance has taken on a new dimension in her life: “I don’t think it’s something I could ever give up for a man,” she says, adding with a laugh, “He’d have to be pretty rich!” I know she’s lying about the money; abandoning the dance is unthinkable.
Joe Romain, now three years into zydeco, describes his love in terms of a snowball rolling down a steep and endless mountain. “Every experience I have with zydeco that is positive and wonderful rolls that snowball further down the mountain, until I’m almost not in control of it anymore, and I’m forced to just go with it.” He adds, “I can’t get enough. When I don’t have it, I don’t feel well.”
Yet as time goes on, nearly every dancer will relate tales of injuries arising from the repetitive stress of set patterns of movement, and hobbling around on one’s sore knees after a night of hard dancing becomes habitual and accepted. Desires to linger at dinner parties, or to spend quiet evenings at home, go unrequited. Friends drift away, and activities in which one used to delight get shelved in favor of dance.
Another aspect of shattered illusions is that of perceived competence. Joe’s humbling experience came during his first trip to Louisiana specifically to dance, when he thought to “show them what we were doing in the Northwest.” The stark and painful realization he came to after seeing the extraordinarily fluid movement of some of the native Creoles was “Why am I doing this? I don’t even belong on the same floor.”
IV. Redemption, or “True Love”
love keeps lifting me higher
The root of the word passion is “pati,” to suffer. A modern definition is “the state or capacity of being acted on by external agents or forces.” While I view obsession as one’s relentless, unconscious pursuit of the unobtainable, passion is to be compelled on a willful passage through continuously opening doors, drawing one ever onward to experiences of great joy and value. In this view the outside force is that of perceiving and pursuing one’s calling; the suffering arises from what is sacrificed for the journey.
The Sufis of Turkey use twirling dances in religious ceremonies to help achieve a state of grace. With zydeco, there is a playfulness that can escalate throughout the dance into feelings of mutual delight, and a sublime rhythmic quality to the music and movement that can bring about – what I imagine is in part what the Sufis must experience – feelings of ecstasy and timelessness. Put simply, our passion is in pursuit of “magic dances” where one attains euphoria – a feeling of being in love.
Lawyer Gerry Spence once said: “The way people move is their autobiography in motion.” Is it any wonder people long to tell that story through dance? Especially if one adheres to the theory of dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, who said, “The body says what words cannot.” In effect, each new dance is an opportunity to reveal oneself. In my experience, powerful insights have accompanied these revelations.
Relinquishing the urge to compare himself to others led Joe to the realization that “I’m doing this for my own wonder.” Of zydeco dancing, he adds, “It’s a road of self-discovery.”
Once one has had a profound experience of love – much as the biblical Job found that a fleeting visit from the Creator irrevocably made his many curses and afflictions seem insignificant – it’s not hard to understand the longing to find it again. MaryLee Lykes, owner of Lykes to Dance, states: “Having a dance partner who is also a lover – that’s the ultimate experience.” While the lack of that combination does not prevent me from feeling fulfilled by the dance, I continue to hold in my heart the pleasing notion of infinite possibility.