The Arena of the Artistic

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a salsa dancing class. I’ll admit that at the time, this “opportunity” felt more like an obligation. It was early in our years in Galveston and Andy and I were subletting a room in our “too large for one couple” rental home to a UTMB exchange student who had recently come to the United States from Poland. Ola wanted to learn everything she could about the United States and we took her along with us to the many places that we went and taught her the basics of life in our seaside town. Her English was pretty rusty and so we spent many afternoons with Ola’s Polish/English dictionary attempting to explain various items in a grocery store or the aspects of getting around. It didn’t take long for Ola to begin making her own friends at school and before we knew it, she was inviting us to activities that she had learned about too.

For weeks, Ola wanted to know if Andy and I would join her in Houston to learn Salsa. The classes were free at a Mexican restaurant in the city on Wednesday nights and Ola was desperate to try. At over an hour away in Houston traffic, I was less than thrilled with the idea of attending this class in the middle of the work week. After weeks of requests however I started to feel an obligation to give Ola the ride she needed to the class and so, on an evening where Andy had to study for a test, she and I headed north to Houston to learn how to salsa dance.

The class was well attended with 20 or so guys and gals ready to learn some beginning dance steps. Two professional male and female dance instructors lined us up on the dance floor in pairs and showed us the first simple steps. Without fail, over the next hour of practice, the instructors would stop us and remind us: “In dance, you must remember this: The man leads, the woman follows.” We would start again only to be stopped soon thereafter. “In dance, the man leads, the woman follows.” Then we would trade partners and start again. We ladies were assured again and again that we could lead in every other facet of human life, (and we absolutely SHOULD, we were told) but on the dance floor, the man leads and the woman follows or the dance doesn’t work.

They said this over and over again for an hour straight because its likely the hardest part of the entire dance. Learning to lead and learning how to follow. This is not necessarily intuitive when you’re trying to express art with your bodies and yet here we were regardless. If you want to learn to dance gracefully you have to learn this basic dance instruction first, regardless of the type of dance class you are practicing.

Midway through salsa class we all stopped to take a break for water and conversation. At this point I was happy to be there, despite general end of the work day weariness. I chatted with Ola and her dance partner and then grabbed some water and wandered to the corner of the dance floor to wait for class to resume. As I turned around, I’ll never forget what I saw I next. The music we’d danced to during class that night remained on and the instructors were using the time to practice their craft. I was stunned. I’m pretty sure my mouth hung wide open. This man and this woman were just so beautiful. I don’t know how else to describe it. The man was strong and confident and, quite frankly, so was the woman. He used his hands to guide their steps and she twirled and swayed with such authority that you wouldn’t have known who was leading and who was following. And I don’t know if it was the lighting or the music or just God turning the experiential volume all the way up but I swear to this day it was one of the loveliest (and dare I say sexiest?!) things I’ve ever seen to date. I just kind of wish you all could have been there to see it too. You would have been blown away.

Ola and I went home that night, tired and warm, inside and out, from a great time out in the city. And to this day, years later, I can’t help but shake what I saw. Two people submitted to their craft in different roles, making art for the world to enjoy.

I don’t really know what it was about that experience that struck so close to my heart that day. Or what to make of the fact that I can’t stop thinking about it to this day, years afterward. I think it was the confidence that both dancers displayed and the fact that I, as an onlooker, didn’t actually know who was “in charge.” Sure, those things were important when these two professionals first started out. Like us baby salsa dancers that night, they too needed to hear over and over again that “the man leads and the woman follows” or their dance career couldn’t move forward. But this couple had clearly moved beyond the basics of dance instruction. They were in the arena of the artistic, and everyone watching them knew it because what we were watching was beautiful.

So what does all this even mean and why can’t I get it off my mind in a time of such sorrow as 2020. I guess I just believe that we people with brains full of smarts and hearts full of desire (which is my audience of readers as I’ve known them to date, btw) are called to make art with the resources we’ve been given. The world is so polarized right now. We’re either pro abortion or anti abortion. We’re pro capitalism or pro socialism. We’re pro healthcare for all or we’re pro private insurance for the few who can afford it. God forbid we recognize that these problems are hardly ever clear cut. God forbid we lean in and ask for a healthy dose of nuance and creativity to solve our problems. It all makes me fear that we’re really more comfortable standing on the sideline attending a lecture about salsa dance or viewing a slideshow of people dancing than we are with strapping on our shoes to give the dance a try for ourselves.

But maybe that’s really the case. Maybe we really are just afraid. If I put on those lenses, things start to make perfect sense. Life is scary and if historically we’ve taken the dance floor only to be laughed at or told we’re too fat/short/skinny/lanky/ugly (insert your own shame story here) to dance then who wouldn’t remain seated and want more information before sticking out their necks. I totally get it and I’d be lying if those things haven’t taken me off the dance floor before too. The hecklers on the sidelines are loud and sometimes its just too hard to hear the music.

I guess in the end though, if we can’t hear the music than we just have to move closer to the speakers. I don’t have the energy to compare myself to others any more. Nor do I want to make a habit of comparing you and your story to mine any more either, so help me God. I really just want to know what it feels like to dance in a way that feels beautiful. And at some point, I happen to know, I’ll get tired of dancing on my own. I like to dance not because I want to know who’s in charge or who needs to follow me but because, dammit, dancing is really just SO. MUCH. FUN. Right?! Of course I’m right. You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. Ha!

Its Election day in America and that reality is not insignificant. Leadership matters. The last four years have proved that to be true and I have a certain preference for how this election turns out, thank you very much. But when I wake up tomorrow (or later this week?) and find out who my president is, my plans will not really change all that much. The Lord has given me a body to take care of, a marriage to build up, a family to serve and a community to love with the gifts he’s given me to use and I’m prepared to follow His lead as we step out on the dance floor for the next four years and beyond.

He’s so supremely confident, our God is. He knows exactly what he’s doing. I just really hope my feet can keep up. And I hope you will join us out on the dance floor too. The music here is kickin’ and the people who’ve dropped their guard with me are the most enjoyable and interesting people you’d ever want to meet. We’re in the arena of the artistic and while we don’t always know the next right moves we’re committed to figuring it out with the help of each other and our instructor. I sure hope you’ll join us.

Life is too short to listen to lectures about dance. And looking at photos of other people having fun gets old after a while too. If we’ll be honest with ourselves for once we’ll realize that we all want to lead lives of significance and deep joy. And those things happen in the sweat filled, people packed, awkward but ridiculously fun-filled dance halls in cities and communities across the country. So put your shoes on. Or if you’re like me, take them off! However you show up just show up. Its just really not much of a party unless you show up.