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Essay

Redeeming the dance

By December 16, 2011 One Comment
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A half a century ago, I was a kid in a Sunday school class taught by a man who’d taught those classes longer, maybe, than he should have. We thought old Bill was ancient, but he was likely a decade or more younger than I am today.

The church loomed powerfully over the Dutch Reformed world I grew up in the 50s; it set agendas, created identities, shaped behavior. A 1928 warning from our denominational synod—against movies, dance, and cards—became a kind of measure of righteousness. In my own family, those rules weren’t necessarily set in stone; but, in the 1950s, the stern warnings still had some heft, and one didn’t violate them with impunity. I don’t remember old Bill ever railing against “wordly amusements,” but the church itself was so strong back then that he likely didn’t have to. It’s unimaginable to me that he wouldn’t have been fiercely opposed to dancing.

If the truth be told, I don’t remember much about that fifth grade Sunday school class, except shenanigans. I wasn’t the worst—but I wasn’t the best either.

Last night, I’ll admit the truth: I watched my own grandchildren far more closely than the hundreds of others on stage for a sweet little Christian school musical show, a presentation whose Sunday School-ish lessons were garbled away by a sound system that didn’t always pick up mumbled lines.

No matter. The evening’s great blessing wasn’t good strong moral lessons. No one came for catechism. Moms and dads and grandparents filled the place to watch their kids and a couple hundred other munchkins sing their hearts out.

I admit it watching my grandkids more than others, but that’s a sin for which I can be forgiven—I am, after all, a grandpa. My kindergarten grandson stood beside two little girls—one of them Korean, a beautiful young lady he’s known since pre-school. Beside them stood a little darling whose rich Mexican heritage could hardly be mistaken.

That young lady’s mother used to visit for language lessons when she first came to this country, when she was bound-and-determined to learn English and get a better job than she had at the time—scooping brains from the skulls of hogs just slaughtered in the packing plant. Later, she married; and last night her daughter, looking every bit of what her mother must have years ago in Mexico, went through every last action of every last song with the same determined gusto as the whole mess of kids up there, including my blonde grandson, who I never would have bet could have stood still for an entire hour the way he did.

But then, he didn’t exactly stand still. The gyrations that whole bunch went through made me believe that someday, among my people, there would be no more problems with rhythm–not when, from kindergarten on, they’re taught music like last night’s, music that won’t let you sit still.

Don’t know what my grandpa the preacher would have thought of it exactly, nor our old Sunday school teacher. Pretty wild stuff.  But 1928, last night, was ancient history.

The truth is, the show was a ball. It was raucous treat, a bedlam blessing, a feast of dance and song performed by angels (I know better, but give me some poetic license).

Then, right at the end, a tiny dark-skinned little girl in a loose white dress came out, belted out a song, then stepped back and danced, all by herself, a series of darling, little-girl pirouettes to the praise music swept up in a torrent by the kids behind her, my own grandkids among ‘em.

That dance was the highlight of the night, at least for me. I know the child’s parents; her mother was once a student of mine. I even know her grandpa, a man who, years ago, was the very model of what the kids in my boyhood church could become, if we gave our lives away to the kingdom of Christ. Her grandpa was a missionary in Mexico; to me, growing up, her grandpa was a hero of the faith.

And that missionary was himself the child of my 5th grade Sunday School teacher, old Bill, a man who left this vale of tears so many years ago already that, even back there where I grew up, 500 miles east, few people likely remember him at all.

But I did. I thought of old Bill last night, when I watched his own great-granddaughter spin out praise in a dance to the Creator.

This morning, I wish I could tell him what a blessing that cherubic great-granddaughter was, dancing her joy.

But then, maybe I don’t have to. Maybe he saw it all himself. I’d like to think he could.  But he would have had to rub his eyes, I’m sure. More than once.

What a blessing. I swear that old Calvinist would have loved it, dance or no dance. After all, he’s a grandpa—he can be forgiven.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

One Comment

  • Steve MVW says:

    Thanks, Jim. This world may be a vale of tears, but this post reminds me that the Spirit is indeed pulling us toward the eschaton.

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