Let your feet bring joy to the heart
by Jan Wheatcroft
Why does one want or need to dance? What makes a person “dance high” or dizzy with the beat and sound and movement with dancing. These are questions I ask myself as I remember my past experiences of dancing as an untrained member of “A Joy Through Movement” spontaneous group.
My memory tells me that when I was about five or six years old, my father asked me if I would like to learn to be a ballet dancer. That was my perfect fantasy, wearing a candy floss net tutu and ballet shoes or toe shoes with natural wool stuffed into the toes. I would whirl and swirl and actually leap into the air. Of course I said yes, and he had a pink tutu made just for me. I remember how disappointed I was at the end of my first ballet lesson when all we had done was scissor-kick across the floor for what seemed like an hour. I felt no closer to being able to fly than I had the hour before. So I refused to return.
While I was studying anthropology at UCLA, I somehow got involved with a professional folk dance group called Aman. I remember the joy of dancing on evenings with these accomplished dancers to international folk music. There were always dances accompanied by much stomping of boots to strong rhythms and the quick criss-crossing of feet while arms were intertwined. This was often followed by whoops and shouts of joy.
Sometimes these dances were done in a circle and sometimes in a line winding around the room, in and out in a snake-like fashion. They were joyful dances. When performed on stage, the heavily embroidered costumes were worn by both men and women while the women wore swirly skirts and had ribbons in their hair. I was not really a part of this group and only danced with them at practice meetings but it was a treat to be able to hang out with them and feel their energy and delight.
When I left university, I went to live in Israel. At that time, Israelis spent a lot of time in groups where dancing was as natural as singing and eating. An impromptu circle dance, the Hora, would form and there was much kicking up of feet, accompanied by clapping, stomping and twirling about. Often the music was provided by songs with a pioneer spirit and the dances were of Eastern European origin. My love affair with the dance became stronger and more defined. Dance began to connect me with where I was staying or visiting in the world. I just wanted to join in.
Later I went to Greece, where I discovered that during the day the Greeks fished, cooked, farmed, played cards, drank coffee and gossiped. But by night, they danced. Dance space in bars opened with bouzouki musicians and their magic fingers played the music, which made my blood flow and my feet fly as I joined the circles of dancers up on the stage.
In those early days—when passion was reached by those who sat and watched and clapped—a plate flew off the table to land close by the stage in appreciation of the dancer’s performance. This might be closely followed by a crashing wine or beer bottle. It was the real receptacle that was tossed, not like today where plaster of paris plates are bought and broken close to the stage. If one really enjoyed a performer who danced his heart out in a solo performance on stage, one could bring him a glass of his favorite drink, which he consumed while dancing. The tossing of plates and glasses, and the sweeping up of the shards, served as acknowledgement of one’s passion or pain, The dance created a connection between the audience and the participant that was heightened by the music and the drink. It was glorious and very freeing.
For many summers, I was a participant at the Skyros Center, a British personal development community on the Greek Island of Skyros. We had quite a few interesting classes offered and once I chose Egyptian Rak Shaki, or Egyptian Women’s Belly dancing. We learned a few of the sinuous movements and the connecting hand and arm positions, which we practiced for hours wrapped up in long scarves and twirly skirts and cropped tops.
Finally, at the end of the week, we put on a performance for the rest of the community. I really have to laugh now when I see the photos taken that evening and me, in particular, but I did so enjoy being involved. It was the connection of the body and the rhythm and the music and being drawn into the structured rapture.
When I first moved to Claremont, I joined a Folk Dance Group up at a fire house on Base Line Road that had weekly meetings offered through the city. I then moved on to line dancing at a Western Bar down on Holt Boulevard every Friday night as part of a group with my neighbors. I loved the look and feel of us all linked together in the same rhythmic movement of our feet and legs, while keeping our bodies rigid. And I enjoyed the live music. I did this for nearly a year and then the bar closed but it had filled a gap that I didn’t realize I had been missing. I was sad when it was over.
Now-a-days, I feel that same passion come over me when our local groups The Squeakn’ Wheels and the Happy Neighbors Band play. I have been to their concerts and I find myself up and dancing all by myself, just an impromptu hop and shuffle for my own pleasure. It is as if my feet are taken over by a strong force driving me to move to the beat. For that moment, I don’t care how I look or if people are staring at me. I just feel propelled to dance, to move and to express the joy along with the music that calls to me to rise up and celebrate the moment.
My friends know not to let me get near a live bouzouki band at a Greek restaurant where dancing is going on. I may not be able to control myself. I’ll hop up and join in the dancing until I nearly collapse from the exertion of not having danced for a number of years. But I am always propelled by the music and the memories.