Learning more than the steps at dance class

How do I get through this crisis?  When writer Anne Lamott asked her friend this question, his response was “Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Breathe.”

In February of this year, I started on a new adventure. It was not a crisis, but certainly a new place of vulnerability and humbleness. I started ballroom dancing. A friend gave me a gift of three free private lessons. How could I turn down an offer like that? I was unfamiliar with this world; somehow I’d missed out on all those tap and jazz lessons as a child. As a priest, I wondered, what does this have to do with spirituality? Maybe I should see it as a break from from ministry and church work. But what started out as a physical activity turned into a venture into spirituality as well.

The first day my instructor asked me, “what do you want to get out of this?”

I think that I said “I just want to learn the steps.”

How true of so much of what can be our life of faith. Just show me the steps. Tell me the one, two, three of prayer. Or liturgy. Explain to me how many cans of this, how many packages of that to put into the grocery bag at the food bank. Let me write it down and memorize it.

The steps are foundational, but I’m learning that they are just the first part of venturing out onto the dance floor.

One of the first lessons that I learned was that ‘left foot, right foot’ is not as easy as it sounds. I might be able to do it when walking, but add a partner and music (= stress) and all bets are off. How true for the crises in life as well. In happy times, putting one foot in front of the other comes naturally. Add distress and I forget so quickly. I am practised now in inwardly counting the dance steps. I am not so practised at doing this off the dance floor. What ‘normal steps’ can I continue to do to when tough times arrive?

“Straighten up – lead from your core. Keep breathing.”

I thought to myself, “I get this one.” People who meditate or do yoga understand about the importance of strengthening the core muscles. Everything needs to come from there, including our breathing. Doing the physical exercises to build these muscles is slowly working. But now I’m questioning what’s holding up my ‘spiritual core muscles’? How am I building these practices into my life daily? What can I be doing to prepare me for whatever life dance might be required for this day?

Because it’s never a given which dance will be needed today. Sometimes it’s a beautiful waltz, another time it might be a difficult tango.

While working on patterns one day, my teacher said to me, “Shelley, don’t lean on me for your balance. That has to come from you. Use the floor, press into it to stay balanced.”

What? Wasn’t that what a dance partner (especially an instructor) was for – to lean on? How do I even go about pressing into the floor? Again, after many months I’m slowly learning to not simply place my toe (or heel) onto the floor, but to bear down with my weight. The floor can actually hold me up. It is hard work. It makes me sweat. But when I finally do this, the actual dance is much more graceful and fun. My instructor does not have to push or pull to move me; we can move as one unit.

Spiritually I get used to leaning on others. I have my favourite authors and theologians and bloggers. What does this person have to say about a topic? How many wise friends do I need to call on get their opinions?  Friends and mentors are hugely important. They are one of the graces and gifts of life. We need each other for life to be rich and meaningful. But they cannot be what I use for balance. An ancient spiritual writer says that ‘God is the ground of our being’. I must learn to lean and press into the divine life first for my balance. Only that life is strong enough to bear my full weight. Then I can go out onto life’s dance floor and flow with and appreciate all the beautiful ones that are on the dance floor with me. Hopefully one day I’ll meet you there.

Rev. Shelley McVea is the priest-in-charge at St. Saviour’s Anglican Church at Kimberley and Swanwick Avenues. Services are at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays. www.stsaviours.ca.  She continues to dance.

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