NPR’s Scott Simon presented a commentary this morning about a planned meet-up/protest today at the Jefferson Memorial. Today’s event follows an appeals court ruling in May that upheld the National Park Service’s arrest of a woman and her friends in 2008. They were arrested for silently dancing at the Jefferson Memorial in celebration of Jefferson’s birthday; the arrest was on the grounds that dancing was at odds with the “atmosphere of solemn commemoration” around the national monuments. Today’s meet-up invites people to bring earbuds and, again, dance silently.
Scott Simon referenced the movie Footloose in his commentary and called John Lithgow, who played the anti-dancing minister in the movie. Lithgow commented that the meet-up would be a flash mob: “An almost meditative moment passing as a great party. It may be a spectacle, but that’s an act of creation.” What a great definition of what dancing is about in general. Dancing takes the meditation of lessons (formal, informal, whatever) and daily practice (also formal, informal, or whatever) and displays the fruits of that labor in a moment of spectacle. And that’s not necessarily at odds with solemn commemoration, either.
I understand what the Park Service was trying to do, but I respectfully suggest–as did Mr. Simon, in a different way–that when they arrested the original dancers, they did so out of a limited understanding of dance and what it can communicate. Dancing can be celebratory; it can be sexual; it can be disruptive. It can also be respectful, honorary, worshipful, solemn, elegant, and elegiac (and a bunch of other things). As someone who typically values the life of the mind over the fetishization of the body, I am not always at ease with the overtly sexual and celebratory aspects of dance myself–but that’s got more to do with me than with the nature of dance. I love the idea that dance can communicate complex messages in complex ways and in unexpected places, and maybe bridge some divides in the process.
The arrest of the original dancers is a stark reminder of how much courage it takes to dance in public in any context: leaving your friends along the gymnasium wall at your junior prom and getting out on the floor, or trying out some moves at a nightclub, or taking a class, or performing for an audience. Yesterday at dress rehearsal we heard a tiny girl, lining up to go onstage, say to her mother “I’m so scared.” She wasn’t hysterical; she wasn’t crying; she wasn’t trying to run or throw a tantrum. She was standing perfectly still and wide-eyed, confronting what she was about to do. Performing is an amazing high and a huge accomplishment, purchased at the cost of a big personal risk. What could be more intimate than moving your body in front of an audience, trying to communicate through your movements? I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that our dance recital today, or our competitions, or our lessons & classes, are political acts. But I salute everybody who’s willing to take the risk, overcome their fear, and get out there, wherever “out there” may be. Merde to our dancers and to the crew at the Jefferson Memorial.