The other night I went to a jazz festival, expecting to just sit and listen until my butt hurt from sitting. Instead I ended up dancing.
For many people, that wouldn’t be a remarkable event, but for me it was an experience so intense that it led me to tears. (And then my butt hurt anyway, from the exertion, but that’s not the point here)
The back story to this is long.
I never expected to care about dancing. I was a very clumsy and socially inept child, and dancing was just worlds away from the head space where I lived. General gracelessness was bad enough when our class had to learn the Mexican Hat Dance for PE, but when we were expected to learn a couples dance, it was excruciating.
So my social life in high school consisted of board games and bridge(!) with my fellow nerds.
The seed of change was planted with my first psychedelic experience, which revealed to me in starkest terms the chasm between my first-rate intellect and the wretched relationship I had with my body. I didn’t know what to do, but I realized something had to be done.
In college, at Reed, I was suddenly among peers. I couldn’t use my “superior intellect” game for self-esteem; I was just average, here. I still needed to take PE classes, but there were choices, many catering to nerds like me.
• Archery was non-competitive and required little mobility, but I failed at it anyway.
• Volleyball was okay, maybe. The team spirit that motivates people to play this, however, is not really natural for me.
• Meanwhile, I noticed that literally the only social activity on this campus was something referred to as “folk dancing.” Though the “dance” element was still vaguely threatening, I heard exotic, intriguing music when I walked by, and I saw people forming circles of community rather than couples. At least it’s not the kitsch I associated with the other “folk dance” styles I’d seen. Maybe it’s worth a try.
The first day of class, the men and women were sorted into separate lines (a traditional device that is rarely observed in modern times), women holding hands, men with arms on shoulders for support. Now instead of trying to compete, or even perform to anyone’s expectations, I found a line of brothers supporting me. My movement no longer had to flow from my own memory or physical mastery, but became a function of the whole line’s instinctive response to each others’ contact. What a rush of gratitude! I could feel at home moving in my body, for the first time. Meanwhile, the music (Macedonian, Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian) completely entranced me. We learned to count the seven-beat rhythm of the dance–something I’d never learned in 12 years of studying classical and jazz piano.
Sculptures from ~1450 BCE in the Archaeological museum in Heraklion. Women dancing around a lyre-player using the same handhold that they use today (when doing traditional dances). I suspect the music of this region has the same venerable history.
Going to the social dance events only deepened the intrigue. I learned more choreography, more music in odd times. Within a few months, I felt myself being a dancer. The dance classes and social nights became the most important experience of my time at college.
I still didn’t socialize much among dancers, though. So I didn’t connect with the cadre of upper-class master dancers. This happened to include a girl named Tania, whom I would meet again, much later.
When I left Reed, I continued to find places to do Balkan folkdancing, on and off. But since the social side of it didn’t grab me, I ended up integrating movement into other aspects of my life: hiking, bicycling, Aikido—the habit of inhabiting my body in a healthy way was now a core part of my identity. Complete reversal, and largely attributable to the magic of Balkan music and dancing. In my spiritual life, I spent time at the altar (so to speak) of Shiva, in His aspect as Lord of the Dance. Then injuries and more adult responsibilities broke the rhythm, and my communion with the Lord of the Dance became more scarce…
… but never too far away. I visited a Pagan artist, and asked him to do a magickal portrait of me. This is what he produced:
It took me years to figure out where the Badger came from, but the dance movement must have been obvious from my mere presence, seen with the eyes of a magickal artist.
Some 35 years after leaving Reed I was playing piano at a party, and a woman about my own age approached with a recorder in her hand. She asked if I could accompany her on a tune she liked to play. It sounded familiar, and I said so. It’s a Serbian folk dance tune, she said. It was Tania, and she brought back to me the whole cultural memory of dancing at Reed. We started hanging out together. We started living together. We got married. We went on a folk-dance tour of Greece. I never had the instinctive gift for learning choreography that she did, but I liked the music.
Tania (blue sweater) and I dancing in a local taverna while touring Greece, 2010.
Tania died of a heart attack in 2011. I stopped dancing. I left California, looking for a new life. A year later I was in Amsterdam, when I had this encounter.
The park is filled with locals of all ages playing hookey from work to enjoy the fine weather. Beautiful girls in bikinis—a couple sitting around a large hookah—young men gazing at the lake while listening to a radio; “Here Comes the Sun” is playing, just as is would be in fhe movie version; but this is real. It could be any big-city park in America, on such a day. Except for the hookah, that is. Nice that the stigma of smoking is gone here.
I pick a peaceful spot to nap and stretch. But soon I feel restless. The “random” game is calling me. I head across the park. Everything seems normal, until I get within earshot of the music. Two dark-skinned guys (I assume Gypsies) with clarinet and accordian. At first it sounds Greek, like the slow intro to some song. After awhile, it’s just noodling.
I walk away, thinking, if Tania were here, she would engage with them, get a dance going. But I don’t hear any dance in their style.
Then the music changes, and they are doing a 3/4 folk tune, probably Dutch. That’s danceable, though not by me.
if Tania were here… I can’t turn away. I go back to them and ask, Do you know any Greek dances? Syrto? They are uncomprehending. “Nederlands.” is all they answer. Does that mean they can only speak Dutch, or that they are Dutch, and don’t know any other cultures? (But surely they are Rom?) I step back, perplexed.
More noodling, but this time, it turns into a dance, a fast 7/8. I start moving, not sure what steps to do, but letting the music lift me. The rhythm shifts, and suddenly “Hava Nagilah” is roaring through. Tania is here dancing with me. It’s not a dance for me, but for her. Around and around we go, until I am tired.
I’m dizzy, not with exhaustion, but with awe of the visitation. If I have done anything to deserve such miracles in my life, I must keep doing it. But I suspect we can all have grace; “deserving” anything is not an issue. How can one so much as breathe, without feeling immense gratitude for such a universe?
Meanwhile, the dance (and my added tip) has broken the ice, and one of the musicians can now speak English. “Where are you from?” “California… and you?” “Bulgaria.” Instead of Greek, I should have asked for a Bulgarian dance. Next time…
Yes, there is life after life. Yes, we can integrate the joy of someone’s company so that we can never really lose them.
As the years went on, though, I didn’t keep dancing much. My body is wearing out. The knees can’t keep up the movement; the back gets sore, I get tired.
That is… until, ten years after the Amsterdam encounter, I go to this jazz festival in Chiang Mai. One reason I’m drawn to it is the intriguing name of one band: Raja Fairies Orkestra. It’s certainly not a typical jazz-band name! Raja suggests Indian (which is appealing—I started enjoying Indian music even before the Beatles made it known to the pop world); the realm of Fairie is my most-visited vacation destination (as you can find elsewhere in this blog); and did they say something about a Balkan influence? However that gets put together, it sounds right for me.
So the band comes on, and my first reaction is “you say Balkan, I say Klezmer!”—which also has always had the flavor of home for me, though it’s not clear why.
The energy is infectious, and a bold couple (a farang boomer and his young Thai girlfriend) get up and start dancing in front of the stage. I can’t resist the call of the music. I approach the pit and coyly start dancing gently, but off to the side where only the other dancers can readiy see me. They do, and smile in thanks for the solidarity. I’m feeling good.
The next song is Bulgarian rhythm well known to me from my early folkdancing years, a Kopanitsa. By this time many more people are dancing, but I doubt they would mesh their steps to the odd 11/16 rhythm. I start doing the traditional basic step—still in my little side nook. And one of the other dancers sees me and immediately grasps that I actually know what I’m doing. She comes over to me and immediately matches my steps: a talent that I don’t have, but Tania did. And I’m thinking, again, if only Tania were here to enjoy this with me! And then…again! She is here with me. Unmistakably, her smile, her pleasure at the dance, her love of feeling at home in a culture preserved for us from antiquity, her living companionship. And with that, I’m laughing and weeping with joy and gratitude and the overwhelming awe of how the Spirit continues in love.