Keep Dancing

helping children have confidence

Image courtesy of Pixabay

My son—my focused, responsible, deep-thinking son—loves to dance. Like, really, really loves it—but until a month ago, I had no idea.

His school throws dance parties for kids who pass school-wide math tests, and it turns out these parties have become a highlight of his life, after sports and Legos. At home when my girls suggest dance parties, he usually retreats to his man cave (a.k.a. the Lego table)—of course, the girls always go with Disney princess theme music, so maybe that’s the problem. Or maybe he realizes that our third child likes to punctuate her dancing with violent gymnastics, and he’s not a fan of getting kicked in the nose. Whatever the reason, his dancing gifts have remained mostly hidden at home.

But last month at a church party, I got to see my reserved son in all his rhythmic glory. The dj cranked up “Watch Me” (yeah, our church is cool like that). The lyrics demand confidence, command attention: “Watch me whip! Now watch me nae-nae! Watch me, watch me!” Cautious dancers need not apply. You either bring your A-game and your stanky leg, or you sit down. So when my son hit the dance floor, so did my jaw. This was serious business. Work-up-a-sweat business. Leave-your-heart-on-the-dance-floor business.

Dancing has always been a point of sadness for me, a small and stupid loss. When the beat starts, my heart knows what to do, but my body stiffens. If someone says “dance party,” my inner insecure twelve-year-old ducks her head and runs to hide in the bathroom. I’ve decided dancing is kind of like snow skiing—you have to learn how while you’re young enough not to know the dangers, not to fear falling. You have to take advantage of that blessed innocent stage where you think you’re awesome at everything, and assume everyone else agrees with you.

Thank goodness, my son is stanky-legging his way right through that window. Watching him is innocence incarnate. Childhood—no, humanity—at its purest. Unhindered by the feeling of eyes on him, unconcerned about how he looks or whether he’s doing it right, he just lets the music take him. That night at the party, I watched him whip and nae-nae and duff and bop, and right there on the side of the dance floor, I started fighting tears.

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Because I hope he’ll always dance like this: confident, joyful, bold. Right now in his eight-year-old life, he’s cocooned by loving people who keep him safe. Who celebrate and enjoy him. But I know the world, the way it turns on you—one day star-spangled, all wonder and kindness; the next dark-shadowed, all cutting and cruelty. Already his sister, one year older, is coming to know a harsher fourth-grade world, where insecure girls say things like “You’re down there, and we’re up here.” And I fear my son’s day is coming too.

Son, let me tell you something:

One day some sad, self-conscious person may make a sarcastic comment.

Keep dancing.

One day a friend may tease you, joking and provoking the way boys do.

Keep dancing.

One day you might see a group of girls pointing and laughing across the room, and you’ll wonder if they’re laughing at you. The truth is, they’re probably not even thinking about you, but even if they are, you keep dancing.

I’m sorry to tell you there are sad people in the world—lonely people, broken people, hardened by hurts—and they don’t know how to live life the way you live it, the way it’s meant to be lived. When you meet those people, you know what you do? You feel sad for them, but you don’t let them break you too. You pull a Taylor Swift and shake it off, then whip and nae-nae for good measure. If you have to, you go ahead and pull out the stanky leg too.

Keep dancing, son.

Do it for yourself, because it’s who you are and what you love.

And you know what else? Do it just a little bit for me, too. One day I want you to pull me out there on the dance floor with you and help me find the confidence and courage I need, the sauciness it takes to chant, “Watch me, watch me,” then go on dancing like no one’s watching after all.

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13 Songs that Don’t Mean What They Sound Like They Mean

In honor of Rage Waters and the Fellas and their twenty-five fictional years of epic rock ballads . . .

1. “Hey Soul Sister” by Train—The most colossally disappointing song lyrics of all time. You hear the song, and it rocks. Everything in you wants to get up and dance (even if you are rhythmically challenged, like me), so you start listening closer—then you hear him talking about his untrimmed chest hair, and you start gagging. Violently.

3. “Baby It’s Cold Outside”—A Christmas classic masquerading as a sweet, innocent duet, but which is actually pretty shady. I mean, really, the girl needs to smack that boy! What a skank! But speaking of shady . . .

2. “Every Breath You Take” by the Police—Otherwise known as “the Theme Song for Stalkers.” Seriously creepy. Helpful hint: If your boyfriend or girlfriend ever sings this song to you, run to the nearest police station. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

4. “Mahna Mahna” by the Muppets—I know I don’t speak Muppet, but I’m pretty sure this song doesn’t mean what we think it means. I’m not sure it means what anyone thinks it means . . . even the Muppets.

5. “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins—Rumor has it that this song is about how Phil Collins, when he was a kid, witnessed another kid drowning, while an adult did nothing to save him. So years later, Phil tracked down the guy, invited him to a concert, and busted him by singing this song just for him. In some versions of the urban legend, the distraught man kills himself later. I’m sorry to report that the song is actually just about Phil Collins’ divorce—which must have been unusually nasty. Phil Collins and Taylor Swift definitely shouldn’t date and break up. The aftermath would be apocalyptic.

6. “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley—One of those songs that’s so deep and steeped in biblical references, it’s almost awesome, but ends up convoluted. But I could still listen to it all day long. Especially to the version by Amici, which has been known to make ecstatic listeners levitate off the ground. Who cares if some of the words don’t make sense? With soaring harmony like that . . . they could sing the telephone book and I’d sob with joy.

7. “MMMBop” by Hanson—Remember this one? Crazy fun song. Way back when, I read the lyrics and everything, and still I was confused . . . but once you accept that it was composed by long-haired, uber-talented preteen boys who made up a word just for kicks, you can sort of go with it, ’cause, just like Hanson’s fame, “in an mmmbop it’s gone . . .”

8. “Little Bo Peep Has Lost Her Sheep”—If you listen closely to the words to this song, it’s not a nice children’s song. It’s gruesome, actually. I mean, all those poor sheep, missing their tails? And in some versions of the song, they never do find their tails, so those sad little sheep go baah-ing through life, tailless and forlorn, presumably being mocked by all the other sheep for the rest of their sad little lamb lives. Heartbreaking, really. I refuse to sing it to my children.

9. “Rock-a-bye Baby”—While we’re on the topic of sadistic nursery rhymes, listen to the words to this song: “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall/And down will come baby, cradle and all.” Seriously? A baby falling out of a tree in its cradle? Who wrote this evil ditty? And who hangs baby cradles in trees to begin with? I’m thinking this was a song written by the world’s first serial killer, and young mothers, fooled by its innocent melody, have traumatized their babies with it for generations. Well, the torment stops here.

10. “Billy Jean” by Michael Jackson—Killer beat, awesome video with the light-up sidewalk . . . weird, kind of uncomfortable topic.

11. “If I Had a Hammer,” by Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes—Crystal mentions that her mom loves this song in The Thirteenth Summer, and I agree with Crystal’s assessment: Great melody, but what in the heck is this song about? Do the singers long to work for Habitat for Humanity, or do they just love HGTV? I’m all for hippie peace and love and idealism, but I just can’t figure out what a hammer has to do with social justice, unless you are seeking violent revenge on an ex-boyfriend. Which isn’t very flower child-like.

12. “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie” by Don McLean—Awesome riffs, and I’m with the lyrics for two verses, but by the time you hit the third verse, it’s like, double huh? Although you gotta love the line, “And I knew if I got the chance/That I could make those people dance/And maybe they’d be happy for a while.” I think every writer feels this way.

13. “The Hotel California” by the Eagles—But really, I’m not so sure even the Eagles know what their song means. Which is why (as Stoner and Rage could tell you) you shouldn’t write songs while under the influence. Or about being under the influence.

Life Lessons from the We Buy Gold Guy

I have a new hero.

The first time I drove past him, it was 11:00 on a brutal August morning in Georgia. The heat and humidity had already exceeded the Dangerous for Old People and Sensitive Writers level—it felt like walking around the inside of a dragon’s mouth, being steam-boiled alive. This time of year, in deliberate over-compensation, I crank the AC in my minivan so high that it’s like the North Pole on wheels.

As my children and I shivered in our van at a busy intersection, waiting for the light to change, I spotted him holding court on the sidewalk in front of a decaying strip mall. I don’t know his name, but I’ll always think of him as the We Buy Gold Guy. He was a stocky white kid, maybe in his early twenties; his baseball cap was cocked at a jaunty sideways tilt, and he held a gaudy gold sign in the shape of an arrow. Large black letters screamed, “We Buy Gold!”

Sign-holders like this guy have been, for me, one of the most memorable—well, signs—of the recent recession. I’ve seen dozens of people holding signs like this one during the past few years: Close-Out Sale! Debt Solutions! $5 Pizza! I always feel a jolt of sympathy for the poor sign-holders. How miserable they look, standing on the side of the road for hours, braving the heat, the cold, the rain—surely these people have fantastic talents, big dreams for their futures—and yet a miserable job market has forced them to spend hours of life waving signs at passing drivers, who are too busy yakking on cell phones to bother sparing them a glance. Some of the sign-holders stand there, enthusiastic as dead-eyed zombies; a few give their signs a weary wiggle every so often; all are clearly counting the minutes until their sentence is complete.

But the We Buy Gold Guy was different. The dude was dancing—not just pumping the sign up and down halfheartedly, like, “Hey, they’re paying me minimum wage to shake this sign and grow skin cancer out here”—but seriously jamming, like he was out to win “Dancing with the Stars.” We’re talking Michael Jackson smoothness, and awesome behind-the-back tricks, spinning and tossing his sign like a baton-twirler in a parade, all to the beat of the old-school boom box sitting at his feet. My jaw dropped open in awe, not just in envy of his rhythmic prowess, but in amazement at his pure enthusiasm, his unbridled joie de vivre. I couldn’t help but grin. (For more on my minivan socializing habits, see The Biker Wave.)

I smiled and chuckled the rest of the way home.

I drove by him again a few days later—the heat was even worse, and yet the We Buy Gold Guy was still out there, break dancing to his own music as the world drove past. Nobody clapped, nobody honked, nobody tossed coins in a hat at his feet. He danced for the sheer joy of it, because hey—if you have to hold a stupid sign on the side of the road, you might as well do it right.

I want to be like that guy. Really, I do. I don’t care what the world throws at me—minimum wage job, spine-melting heat, stinky exhaust fumes—I only get one life, only so many summers, falls, winters, springs, and I don’t want to waste a single minute. I want to live with abandon, dance my rhythm-less heart out no matter who’s watching, make my own party wherever I go. We only get one shot—we might as well dance.