Do you remember Lee Ann Womack’s hit song “I Hope You Dance?” One of the lines goes, “… And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.” Here’s a story that I hope makes you not only want to dance, but just as importantly, to extend your hand to someone sitting on the sidelines.
A year ago, I went to my high school reunion in Connecticut. Although I ignore invitations to college and graduate school events, I never miss it when my class gets together every five years, way more fun than actual high school ever was. Go figure. We’re a bunch of passionate achievers who separated for distant colleges and lives, but never lost touch. Marked by the Vietnam war years, we’ve shared pain and too many terrible early deaths. We’ve also shared some unspeakably beautiful memories and moments.
One of these times now involves a star of our class, Jan. Smart, popular, she even did sports and was on the committees that make things happen. Homecoming Queen and Prom Queen junior year. The kind of girl who knew all the new dance crazes and actually did them, and then, when the slow music started, danced with her eyes closed, arms around her boyfriend’s neck and his around her waist while her gardenia corsage got crushed between them and even the air grew heavenly. I really think everyone liked her. I certainly did. I remember very dark hair–it must have been long (wasn’t everyone’s in high school?)–and perfectly arched eyebrows, not too thick, not too thin, color-matched to her eyes and hair. I can’t remember where she went to college, nor where she went after. New York City, maybe, or Washington D.C. where she ended up. She was a consultant to commercial architects on sustainable building practices. She didn’t marry. Six years ago, at the reunion before the most recent one, she and I talked for quite a while but I have no memory of what it was about other than that she told me I have pretty teeth. She was gorgeous as ever, dressed exquisitely, her hair still long and dark. She wouldn’t have been out of place at a reunion for people fifteen, even twenty years younger than we, always one of the cool kids, but warm, fun, real. She loved Broadway shows, New York City, and all things French, which she spoke beautifully.
As I’ve confessed in another post, my class is an exuberant (okay, maybe rowdy) bunch when we get together. Last year, Jan’s younger sister brought her to the Friday night gathering and then to the big Saturday night dinner dance, because Jan was on a walker, unable to make the trip by herself. She didn’t want to miss the main event, even though she was almost indescribably frail, rib-thin, being ravaged by something I’ve since heard was Lou Gehrig’s disease (but am not positive that’s correct information). She was cheerful, engaged and engaging. After dinner, there was, again this year, an open mike for us to honor the classmates we’ve lost. This time, the Choraleers reprised a song in their memory, one we’d done in concert our junior year, “Brother James Air.” After that, well–I told you we’re a rowdy bunch: a live rock n’roll band, The Tire Biters.
Then, the dancing. We are dancing fools. Not that Jan sat alone; people variously sat one out clustered at tables, talking, having maybe just a little more from the bar. Jan talked and watched the dancers, maybe remembering, keeping the beat with her hand on the table. At one point–I really don’t remember who started it–and my memory of this is not sharp, warmed and fuzzed as it is by time and her smile, but we noticed what looked like longing, and encouraged her to stand and dance, meaning just bounce a little to the music however she wanted, using the walker. A bunch of us danced across from, around, and with her to our old, fun music. She was radiant.
It lasted a couple of songs before the band switched to ballad tempo and she sat back down. People cut in on old friends, couples switched up partners; every song was one we knew. These were not songs to which a person on a walker could feel comfortable dancing by herself. Not when everyone else on the floor was slow dancing in couples.
Then a classmate, Bill, went over and picked her up. He just picked her up, held her against his body, her feet not touching the floor, not needing to. No need for her walker: all she had to do was hold on, and let him do it. She did. He isn’t someone to whom she’d been very close in high school. Just a good man who saw her and risked kindness. I saw her close her eyes for a while, her head on his shoulder. And I saw the light on her face as they slow danced.
That night, Bill lifted her, and Jan danced. Now I have a note from our class president that Jan has died. I hope that in this climate of frequent unkindness, more of us can be like Bill who saw someone alone and moved toward a different possibility. “When you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.” She could have said no; he could have held back–but neither one of them sat it out. They danced. Let’s all of us, whenever we can, be kind. And dance.
Photos courtesy of Douglas Howe