November 15, 2009

Dancing with Baptists



I think I always wanted to dance, because music always got me going. Music was magic to me. My sister Pat and I (and everybody else then) listened to radio music, well before television became our Keeper. Popular, country, cajun, and gospel were the fare. Of course, being raised Baptists in southwest Louisiana in the '40s and '50s did not make one a dancer. Once, we were walking along with our grandmother Louise past a Pentacostal Church, and rocking music came out the front. People were clapping and singing, and there was a drum.

"Holy rollers," my grandmother said disgustedly.

I don't know if she ever danced. It's hard to imagine, but anything is possible. She had ridden a horse a hundred miles on her honeymoon, and I saw her several times tapping her feet to music and laughing. She was Irish before she was Baptist, after all. I think she believed that her Lord Jesus wouldn't approve, and that was the main thing with her.

I don't know what Baptists have against dancing. (It's the sensuality, stupid.) I haven't identified with the church since I was 12, and I do recall a preacher now and then denouncing dancing, but only in general terms, lumping it in with drinking, taking God's name in vain, and extra-marital sex; all sins that you can burn in hell for. But if I have to spend the lifetime of the Universe in hell, I'd rather be in for dancing.

I didn't realize people danced until I saw my mother, after a six-year absence, dancing with her new husband Sidney in 1949. I was eight. I remember how ecstatic she was on her second wedding day. She was very beautiful. And Sid, who had a wonderfully authentic smile, didn't look at all unhappy. That came later.

In the fifth grade we learned the square dance (for squares) and the fox trot. It felt funny having a girl in my arms; we never seemed to get in step, and I felt awkward and shy. I wanted to dance, but I spent more time watching than dancing. I didn't like the feeling that eveybody was watching me and thinking I looked ridiculous. I didn't know they were mostly feeling the same way, and nobody was watching me in particular.

By then I was into jazz, old and modern, because I was a radio freak (still am,) and Lake Charles had two good jazz stations. KLOU had Rick Nelson playing everything from Glen Grey to Miles Davis, and KPLC had Ivory Alexander, a black man believe it or not, playing everything, from King Oliver to Billie Holiday and John Coltrane. I loved it all. I wanted to be a drummer. I had perfect rhythm but didn't know it then.

After we moved to Metairie near New Orleans I discovered dixieland. This music blew me away. I couldn't help but want to dance to it, and sometimes I danced alone in my room with the noise from a clock radio, puny beside today's volume, driving my mother nuts-enough to bang on my door with her shoes. I have to mention that I was also banging on an ironing board with drumsticks.

I started going to parties of schoolmates, always the girls', in seventh grade, and we danced. I had the fox trot down by then, but I was, no pun intended, still pretty stiff with the girls. It amazed me that fat ones always danced better. They seemed to float over the floor. It was easy to glide them in any direction. Believe me, fat girls can dance.

And then in eighth grade Elvis and Fats Domino hit the scene. Everything changed. Wow. We started dancing to rock and roll, and nobody knew what they were doing, or what they were supposed to do. We must have looked like a bunch of out-of-control robots out there; rigid white kids prohibited by custom from moving their hips. Adults who had jitterbugged during the war stood on the side and shook their heads. Anyway, we tried. A lot of guys gave it up for the rest of their lives. But I never stopped trying to get it down.

Fool, you say, why didn't you take dance lessons? Well I did. My friend's mother gave Jim and I ten free Arthur Murray dance lessons in New Orleans on his 16th birthday. We held sexy older girls (about 19 and 20) in our arms, and tried to learn the mambo, the samba, the cha-cha, the rhumba, and my favorite, the tango. But after the lessons were finished I didn't dance any of them for years, and now I would need more lessons.

The Marine Corps happened. After teaching me the rudiments of killing people, the Corps transferred me to Okinawa for two years. I danced with prostitutes in bars. I'm sure I wasn't anything special on the dance floor, even though I probably looked better then.

There wasn't much dancing for me after that, until, in 1968, I discovered marijuana, lsd, and psychedelic music. Suddenly, everybody was dancing better. It took me years to realize that my favorite dance music is Bob Dylan's. Yeah, I hear you laughing. But I never heard a song of his I couldn't get moving to.

I was sharing a house in Hackensack, NJ, with two other newspaper reporters, stoned on acid one night. One guy was sitting with his girlfriend on the couch, and music was blasting from two large speakers. A sudden urge to dance seized me and brought me to my feet. For the first time in my life, I dropped my inhibition against public dancing, and let go. I flew around the room in a dance that would amuse a professional dancer. But I didn't care. I felt very free for the half-hour I did that. They watched tolerantly, smiling.

When I finally stopped in a sweat, I told them that I thought maybe I could be a dancer. They politely agreed.

But I never did become one. My life drastically changed. A whirlpool swept me into it. I swam with the current of alcohol, drugs and jail, under-employment and anger, and poverty loss lonliness and despair, for nearly forty years. Not much dancing. But I never lost that perfect rhythm. I don't think you can lose it.

I still love music, and there are few things I'd rather watch than a good dancer. I've continued to dance alone in my rooms and apartments all these years. I found that due to long periods of not-doing it, some yoga postures are beyond the capabilities of advancing age. But I'm amazed and grateful to find that dancing is restoring my muscle tone, and strengthening muscles whose weakness causes much lower back pain in older folks. And I'm happy to report that I finally learned to let go and shake my ass. It's easy guys; you just dance like a woman until you get it down, then add your own style. Why do women dance together all the time? Because most men don't like to dance, and women are better dancers. (They move their hips.) They want to be seen!



I still dance alone. It's okay. I'd prefer a partner naturally. But that would require risky human contact, and no other animal has ever caused me so much trouble.

For now I dance with Eric the cat. (I use a string.) He doesn't seem to mind, and doesn't seem judgmental. I don't care what he thinks anyway. I'm sure he doesn't care what I think. One thing you can say about cats: they don't lie, and they don't pretend. They can't shake their butts though.

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