“there s a dance in the old dame yet”

from “the song of mehitabel” by Don Marquis

The morning sun warmed the campground meadow where more than a hundred of us, following directions of therapists from Hospice of the North Coast, stood quietly in a huge circle.

We each held a river rock representing a loved one who had died. One family at a time stepped into the circle, told us who the rock represented, how that person had had meaning in their lives, walked to the center of the circle to set the rock in the grass and then join the circle again. The message: we are not alone in our grieving.

I was there with my son Carl, my fourteen-year-old grandson Christopher, and my daughter Holly. We had nursed and nourished Carl’s wife Sharon, bedridden at home by cancer for eleven months before she died. After the ceremony Christopher went off with the group of teenagers, led by the hospice therapist he had been seeing for almost a year.

Carl, Holly, and I were assigned to the group of adults whose bereavement had been less than one year. Our meeting hall, high on the hill, was a huge wooden building with knotty pine walls between floor-to-ceiling windows. The floor was covered with thick wall-to-wall carpeting. The few pieces of furniture were clustered near the fireplace. Two psychologists led our group wherein we each were assisted in sharing our experiences with our individual grieving process.

Later, after an epicurean lunch in the cafeteria, we returned to our groups. In this session, we were told, we were going to be led in a guided meditation. First we were encouraged to make ourselves comfortable as possible. I lay on the carpeted floor, closed my eyes, and relaxed to the music—Pachebel’s Canon in D.

The guide narrated that we were to imagine ourselves walking through an exquisite park. We come to a bench and sit down to enjoy the serenity of our surroundings. Our departed one comes along the path and sits on the bench beside us. We have a conversation. Our friend gives us a gift, and then leaves us. The music continues.

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My private meditation started with Sharon. She and I already had had many conversations before she died and I felt closure with her.

Who else? I always followed the dictum, “live each day as though it is your last,” and I always worked to keep abreast of my feelings with those close to me in my life. Who did I want to connect with now? I mentally listed the people who had been important to me and were now gone. Then, unexpectedly, God’s spirit appeared. It was above me and slightly to my right. What I could see was an undefined area of vibrating, muted light. As always, His message came into my mind as a thought. I thanked Him for coming, and He reminded me, “I’m always here.”

I asked Him how we could best help Christopher to deal with the loss of his mother. He suggested that Chris would have a lot of unstructured anger, and would not have tolerance for other peoples’ mourning. “He will want to get on with his own life.”

Then, after a period of silence, I asked Him, “What do you want me to do with the rest of my life?” This time there was a long period of silence, so I added, “They said you were going to give me a gift.” His immediate reply was strong, “I’ve already given you a gift. I’ve given you a body that works. Use it to teach children to dance.” Then He was gone.

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The next day I went to the principal of Christopher’s school and arranged to teach dance to the junior high crowd as well as the primary grade classes.

I decided to start with just the teenage boys. First I had them focus on hearing the beat of the music, then how to respond to the music with their bodies, then the Lindy swing dance steps, and after that how to lead a partner. At their request I also taught them the rudiments of Break Dance. Next I had the teenage girls brought into my classes, and they quickly learned how to follow the boys’ leading.

Around that time Holly was Clinical Director at a boarding school for bipolar teenagers on a working ranch in southern Oregon. When I visited there I taught classes in swing dance.

Carolyn’s dance class at Holly’s school in Oregon
Carolyn’s dance class at Holly’s school in Oregon

One day I was scheduled for a Saturday afternoon and it was also visiting day for parents. There was a new girl, Laura. She was furious with her parents for putting her into the school, and wouldn’t speak to them. Staff members had always been welcome to participate in my lessons, and this time I also invited the parents. I privately made a special invitation to Laura’s parents. Her father answered, “No thanks. I’ll just sit and watch.” I answered him, “One of these days Laura will be getting married, and at the wedding you will be expected to dance alone with her with all the guests watching. You had better start practicing.” He did participate in the lesson. After the parents left Laura said to Holly, who was her therapist, “My dad asked me to dance with him. I can’t believe it. I love him so much.”

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I had been working as an administrator at a Head Start program, and at the request of the teachers, helped the staff build a May pole, and then taught children and staff how to do the steps to the music and weave the ribbons around the pole. On May Day we invited the parents to our Teddy Bear Tea Party and May Pole Dance.

I put together three CDs for dance parties for all ages: preschoolers (Bunny Hop, The Chicken Dance, The Snake Dance, and Limbo Rock to begin), and teens (YMCA, Surfin’ USA, Hora, Conga and more).

At the request of a physical therapist, I developed a curriculum and CD targeted for seniors, named it Dancing through the Decades, and gave the CDs and instructions to her and my other physical therapist friends. It starts with the one-step, and among others carries through the Charleston, waltz, grand march, twist, Cajun, Country Western … and on to See You Later, Alligator.

… come to think of it, if I get a chance I’ll teach our Writing Workshop the Hand Jive and if that goes over, the next week it’ll be the Macarena.

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