If my grandmother was alive, either yesterday or today would have been her birthday. Except, I don’t remember and my mother can’t exactly place the date either. So, we’re going with today.
Happy birthday, Grandma D.
This post deserves a disclaimer, lest you believe me to be something I’m not. I dance, but I don’t qualify myself to be a “dancer.” My formal lessons weren’t the standard ballet/tap/jazz that most white suburban girls take. (It’s because my dad was convinced I should be involved in science competitions. Gross.) I don’t think I’ve ever won a contest. I’ve never been to a competition.
But, I do love to dance. And I have a beautiful, talented friend-set that includes handsome male leads who know how to guide spins and execute stunning dips. So: we dance.
And, inevitably, at the live summer concerts or weddings or festivals someone will approach me and say, “You dance so well! Where did you learn to dance?”
Mostly I answer that I learned my basic ballroom steps from a local studio when I asked my mother for lessons in middle school.
But, that’s not true, is it?
The truth is: I learned to dance from my grandmother, my grandmother of the green dress and the scarred arms and the Wrigley’s gum. My grandmother who never missed a Friday of folkdancing, even though she wouldn’t join the dances…only watch.
One time when I was little I was at her house, the house of a hoarder. There were pathways through the home and I was in the kitchen-pathway, by the worn, white leather couch. She was in the oven-pathway because she was heating a newfangled treat known as the “Toaster Strudel” in her oven for her grandchildren to try.
The internet says Toaster Strudels debuted in 1994, which makes sense because that’s the same year the Macarena dance became big news.
And then MY GRANDMOTHER TAUGHT ME THE MACARENA IN HER KITCHEN AS SHE HEATED TOASTER STRUDELS.
“This is the big dance right now,” she told me, and she demonstrated the hand motions with her arms, white and flabby, as a Polish grandmother’s arms should be.
I followed the pattern–hands on my shoulders, my head, my hips. My grandmother swayed and jumped to the new direction before starting the pattern again.
Another time we were at the State Fair, a locational love affair for my grandmother who knew how to crow like the roosters, where to buy the thick State Fair chocolate milk, and how to appreciate an Elephant Ear.
I remember that, at this State Fair, there was a woman passing out bandanas–bandanas covered in Ocean Spray logos. I tell you that not to promote Ocean Spray, but so you can realize how weird this was. If my depression-era grandmother liked anything, though, it was something free.
The Ocean Spray lady was probably hired because she was a good-looking model, and she was probably supposed to smile, look pretty, pass out the bandanas, and promote Ocean Spray. I think she decided this was not interesting enough, though, so she was playing music from her SUV and telling people that they needed to DANCE in order to be awarded with a bandana.
I think I joined the circle of stepping-to-the-music people with my sister…and then my grandmother stepped in, too. I was dancing like I had seen people dance before–stepping from side to side, elbows bent, maybe clapping or snapping once in a while, but not enough to draw attention! Gosh, no!
My grandmother, a heavyset senior, looked at me with one eyebrow raised and said, “That’s not how you dance.”
“THIS,” she said, “is how you dance.”
And then she began demonstrating and explaining simultaneously.
“Raise your arms,” she said and she lifted her snapping hands all the way in the air, keeping time to the song that was years younger than her.
“And swing your hips from side to side,” she said and began shaking her booty.
“If you want,” she instructed, “turn slowly in a circle.” And, there she went, my arms-raised, hip-shaking grandma, snapping to the music and stomping her feet.
Guys, she won the bandana.
As a child, my grandmother was raised surrounded by abusive alcoholism. Her brother died in World War II. Her husband (not an alcoholic) died young, leaving her with three small orphan girls.
And yet, she danced. In reflecting, I think that she knew how to dance because she knew pain. If she didn’t know suffering and choose joy, her dance would somehow be less.
And so, when people ask me where I learned to dance, I think of her, my grandmother, the lady my friends thought was their grandmother too. I think of her teaching the Macarena, reprimanding me and swaying at the State Fair, picking up her cane and moving to the accordion at Polish gatherings.
I might have learned steps from someone else, but it was the soul that was given to me by my grandmother.
I was taught to dance because she showed me that love and joy can still exist after pain. She taught me that, when you hear music, you dance. And you dance, even if people are watching, with joy and freedom. Because joy and freedom belong to you…and sometimes other people need to see that and be inspired, too.
Happy birthday, Grandma D.
May heaven be the endless dance party you and I have always hoped it would be.