Dance was instinctual. Actually, it still is. When my ears hear music my body begins to move. Every. Single. Time. Dancing is what I was born to do; I’ve held this conviction since I was a little girl – 4 or 5 years old. Movement, flow, and dexterity always mesmerized me. As a child I’d contort my body every which way, pushing it to its physical limits out of curiosity, and yes, even out of necessity. As a young adult, I picked up a few dance classes here and there, but by then dancing felt like a shameful experience for me.
“True Christians don’t dance” is a statement that had been ingrained in me since childhood. These words took root in my mind and heart to the point that I didn’t know how to peacefully become a Christian who danced. I had no clue how to process that contradiction, so I never committed to dance training even though I could think of nothing else.
Since childhood, there were so many rules regarding music and dance within my home that I’d been trained to remain still. I had been conditioned to contain the need to allow my body to be an instrument of movement. And it felt like a slow, harsh death.
But this inner struggle didn’t negate the fact that when I’d see dancers on television, I was glued. I’d try to imagine how they felt and how often they had to practice in order to perform a flawless routine. I could feel every lift, twirl, and split, but over time I couldn’t move.
Dancing was so instinctual that even corny television theme songs would get me moving. On one particular day, I had to have been about six or seven years old and my sister about 11. We were excited because an episode of The Partridge Family was about to come on television. This show had become one of our favorites, and we watched it time and time again. But for some reason, moments before the show was about to start, my sister was stuck in the bathroom finishing up a task. The bathroom door was ajar. So when I heard the show’s theme song, I rushed to stand outside the door and began dancing. I would always dance to the show’s theme song but on this particular day I also wanted to tease my sister and remind her that she was going to miss the program if she didn’t hurry up.
At least twice I heard, “Stop dancing like that!” But my sister and I were giggling like crazy because we both knew that I was having fun teasing her. The theme song hadn’t ended, so I kept dancing. The voice that was so distant drew closer and threatened, “If you don’t stop dancing like that, I’m turning the TV off and you won’t be allowed to watch that show again!” In my six-year-old mind, that was an idle threat. So I kept moving, entertaining my older sister. The owner of that voice swiftly switched off the TV. “Y’all will NOT be watching The Partridge Family anymore.”
My sister was livid – primarily towards me and secondarily towards our mother. I was stunned and confused. In that moment, it felt like someone pushed the needle off a playing record. Abrupt silence.
What’s worse is that the music of my heart stopped playing on that day, as well. In that moment I stopped trusting my heart; clearly it had been leading me wrong. I’d repeatedly gotten into trouble for acting on my desire – my instinctual need – to dance. And since I was constantly getting in trouble, I concluded that I had to be the one who was wrong. I was the problem. It was my fault that I couldn’t help but move my body. So I stopped.
I was so sick of getting in trouble that I became numb. From that moment forward, I gradually bottled up those emotions. When the television was on, and we’d hear the theme song to The Partridge Family, I was the one ordered to turn off the television. It was symbolic of turning off that which was intuitive, and it fostered a duplicitousness nature in me.
What felt most cruel was that my mother knew how much it killed me not to dance. She knew that it was my gift, but she stripped me of it anyway. It was a carrot she would dangle before my eyes, daring me to sway to its rhythm just so she could banish me to the corner of a room and dole out a litany of insults that condemned not only my actions but my spirit – my sense of self.
The three of us would watch musicals, like White Christmas, Singin’ in the Rain, and An American in Paris on television. It was okay to watch those shows because mother enjoyed them, but if I moved I’d be punished. Dangling carrots.
A local children’s dance studio annually conducted a fundraising performance that was a huge event in our community. There were hundreds of dancers in age groups ranging from toddlers to 18-year-olds. My cousin and a number of my classmates were among those dancers. I raged with envy, largely because attending that annual show was yet another reminder of what was okay for others, but I was not allowed to do. Although attending the show contradicted my mother’s no dancing rule, she considered it to be a justifiable exception. Dangling carrots.
At the end of each show – with a smile plastered across her face – my mother would ask me how I liked it. I knew if I enjoyed the performance too much, I wouldn’t be allowed to return the following year. So year after year, I mastered the art of inner movement and qualified the experience as, “It was fine.” Inwardly, my soul was on fire.
I was about 20 years old when I Hope You Dance permeated radio airwaves. And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance…I hope you dance…I hope you dance. I cried uncontrollably when I first heard this song. It still makes me weep.
But now when I hear this song or read the lyrics, I realize that my mother’s rules were never solely about dancing, and neither is this song. The lyrics of I Hope You Dance read like a love letter. This song is a call to action. It inspires you to fully engage in life whether it’s wonderful or challenging, because at some point, it will be either, or both.
Nearly two years ago I stood in the kitchen, preparing a meal. My mother sat at the table behind me. I turned my foot outwards and stretched, as I so often do, one leg at a time. I felt her eyes on my back, and then my mother said, “You could have been a dancer.”
Her comment nearly floored me. My emotions began to spiral out of control. But as always, like a good little girl, I contained them. I calmly reminded her that she always told me that dancing was a worldly act in which Christians couldn’t engage, and that if I acted on such a desire, I’d spend eternity in Hell. Her initial response was surprise. “I said that?” she asked.
Eventually she admitted that a church member told her those things when I was just a toddler. This church member was like a mother figure to my mother, who’d lost her biological mom when she was 15 years old. My mother told me that this woman had driven her to one of my older sister’s dance rehearsals decades ago and during the rehearsal stated, “Saints (practicing Protestant Christians) don’t dance.” So my mother eventually pulled my sister out of dance classes and prohibited the sinful act in our home.
Finally hearing a somewhat more logical explanation offered a little relief, but then I became infuriated (internally, of course). I was even more upset with her for allowing a church member to mold her perception of God into something that caused her to mistreat her own children. Yet to this day, she’s still critical when I move to music. That tells me that neither God nor that church member is the source of her criticisms. She simply doesn’t dance. She watches musicals and holds strong opinions on how others should live, but she doesn’t dance herself – not on stage, nor in life.
I Hope You Dance is steeped in hope and pouring over with advice on how to navigate life and live from the heart. And it hurts that my mother never held these hopes for me. But it’s finally becoming clear that she never will. And yet, I am feeling less and less as though I am the root cause of that reality. Now I understand that she can’t have hopes for me that she’s never permitted for herself.
Music is another interest of mine that my mother firmly opposed and thoroughly condemned throughout my childhood. Similar to dancing, I’ve taken up instruments, but I’ve never fully committed due to my inner struggle. And like dance, the interest has never dissipated.
One day I searched my local library’s database for books on the topic of songwriting. I checked out four books; one was titled, The Secrets of Songwriting: Leading Songwriters Reveal How to Find Inspiration and Success. I began reading the book and felt akin to the interviewees, but because of my schedule, I didn’t have time to read every interview. I started skipping around and spotted a name that looked interesting: Tia Sillers. I flipped to page 184 and began reading. I’d always associated I Hope You Dance with Lee Ann Womack. Even though I had the habit to religiously read compact disc liners, I never knew who’d written this song. I guess I was too captivated by the lyrics to focus on that.
As I read Tia Sillers’ interview, my love for I Hope You Dance, my desire to dance, and interest in songwriting collided and formed a synchronous brew. Life as a source of songwriting inspiration, fierce work ethic, the need for solitariness, taking long walks for mental clarity, producing both words and melodies – this and all the interviews I read in one way or another confirmed that desires of the heart exist for a reason and are often times far wiser than seemingly logical rules or forced beliefs. After reading Tia’s interview, I felt less weird and more purposeful because I learned that my heart, thoughts and creative processes are a lot like those of other creative individuals.
While it’s still hard for me to understand how to fully express my creative interests while holding true to my belief system, the overwhelming sense of shame that used to paralyze me has been tempered by the truth that my desires do not make me a bad person. I believe that God is the one who gave me these desires, so I no longer feel as though he would punish me for pursuing them. I still have a fighting chance. I may never dance professionally. My song lyrics might never be demoed or recorded. But for now at least, exercising the freedom to dance in the rain and write words on napkins and in notebooks, without an overwhelming sense of guilt, suits me fine.
Read more of Nia’s work.