My friend, Julia was – and still is – an upstart, a firecracker who’s always lit the spark in me. We raised our kids together, sipping tea and talking while Max and Katie (mine) played Magic Ponies and make believe with Julia’s (Molly and Hannah). We covered every subject – husbands, home remedies, peach cobbler . We talked about Julia’s love of teaching and my dream of being a writer. We’d planned our not-for-profit corporation – and launched it, bringing high-quality arts programs to local kids when the community once again voted down the school budget.
The soundtrack of that friendship was the music of Tom Chapin (for the kids) and Mary Chapin Carpenter (for the moms.) I’d forgotten that until Julia invited me to attend the concert.
It’s been 15 years since I’ve been in that theater – since my family moved away so Max and Katie could attend a Waldorf school. And I’d been looking forward to the concert – and to spending the evening rocking and dancing and being with Julia. But as we entered the theater, Julia stage-whispered, “Are we the youngest people here?”
I laughed. The crowd did seem ‘older.’ It wasn’t their age – though a few sported the steel-gray salon styled hairstyle my grandma favored, most were late 40s, early 50′s. But they were so low-key, so reserved, that Susan Werner, the warmup singer, stopped her set to comment, “You people are REALLY listening, aren’t you?”
At intermission, while the crew reset the stage, the crowd moved quietly, almost silently from their seats to the snack bar, purchasing plastic cups of white wine and shuffling back to their seats to wait. Even when Mary took the stage, and the crowd clapped – they did so politely. (Julia and I, on the other hand, shouted, “Woot woot!” waving and stomping our feet.)
The music swept me away. Here was the familiar voice – the beloved songs – ”Passionate Kisses,” “Stones in the Road” – and my whole body responded. I swayed and clapped, wiggling in my seat until it hit me…
We’re the only ones clapping. No one is seat-dancing, no one’s singing along. They aren’t even moving – just silently sitting, hands in laps. Silent.
Their silence silenced me… for a few minutes.
But the music was too good – my own joy too big. And frankly, I’ve never been much of a rule-follower. And so, during the encore, when Julia leapt into the aisle, I went, too.
And though we were the only ones dancing – the only ones standing – we danced.
As the show ended and the band was still exiting the stage, a”big” man leaned over to me. “I didnt’ pay 50 dollars to watch you and your girlfriend dance,” he said.
Abashed, I looked at the place where he’d been sitting. We’d been dancing behind him so we hadn’t blocked his view. Neither of us had touched or bumped into him. How had my dancing interfered with his fifty-dollar experience?
Years ago, I’d have whipped back a wise-ass comment or, at a different time of the month, burst into tears. But this time, I just laughed – a burst of joy that escaped before I could stuff it back inside. I laughed because I was free… and because I really did get it – he just didn’t like that we were dancing.
Let me reiterate: This man was offended because we danced… at a rock concert.
This is why we left, I realized, remembering the parent-monitors who’d roamed the halls of the elementary school, hissing, “Stop running” “Get back in line!” “No whispering!”
I remembered the first-grade teacher who’d pulled me aside and said urgently, “Max needs to toughen up. These kids will eat him alive. He’s too… nice. Too… creative.”
When I’d asked her for specifics (I simply didn’t understand what she was talking about) she’d said, “Well, he dances down the hall… holding hands… with another boy.” That day, I’d laughed the same way I did last night. A stunned burst of: Oh no you did not just say that!
My husband and I had a long talk that night, agreeing: “No one’s going to chase the joy out of our child. We don’t want him ‘toughened up.’ We want him free.”
Julia’s kids were having a different experience. In a different school district, they were blossoming like roses. But we moved.
Instead of making our kid conform to fit in, we found a school that fit him.
We knew we’d made the right decision when, in the first week of classes, Max burst from the classroom crowing, “They like me! Mommy, they like me!”
This morning,I’m writing with tears in my eyes: Because, thank heaven, I dance. And so do my children. And because I understand why that man at the concert censured me – and why everyone in this crowd sat so quietly during the show.
That big man has been listening to the “don’t dance” police, the hissing hall monitors and scolding teachers all of his life – Hcck, he IS one of them now – a self-appointed joy-squasher.
Bottom line: Our dancing made him really uncomfortable.
And I totally get that. When you are holding your joy inside of you – watching other people release theirs can make you feel squirmy inside. It can feel wrong, it can feel bad, it can even, I think, feel like an insult – a personal slap in the face.
It can ruin your fifty-dollar experience.
That’s why this man reacted, crossing a different kind of boundary to scold another adult – a perfect stranger – back into line.
Our dancing anyway was an act of sheer defiance against the silent staleness in that room – just as starting our arts project so that our children could experience painting, drumming, singing and dancing had been.
It was our way of saying: You can not vote away the messy freedom of brushstrokes and color and creativity. You can not squash joy. You can not stop beauty from bursting through the seams and splattering into life. And don’t you dare try to stop us – or our children – from dancing.