If you’re going to dance with your whole spirit, you will learn that every one of us brings to the dance what is fully whole and what is already broken. We dance with broken dreams, with broken bodies, with broken spirits. Even the most accomplished dancer has been broken in some way, and they keep dancing.
This message was offered to the Eliot Unitarian Chapel community of Kirkwood MO on Sunday, July 12, 2020. If you would like to watch the message on youtube, which includes video links of the Elijah McClain vigil which is featured in the message, click here. Many thanks to those who gave permission for us to use their videos in this service.
When my 3 brothers and I were in our teens, my mother decided that she would have failed to raise us properly if none of us grew up knowing how to waltz! She enrolled us at the Rhine Danube German Club in Leamington Ontario and that is where we spent every Sunday evening. At first, it was really awkward! The other kids had been dancing since they could walk. Most everyone already had a partner. Most of the kids were related. But they were glad to have us. My brothers got the official Rhine Danube Lederhosen. I got the official Rhine Danube durndel and even though I was 17 and way too cool for this, I twirled in front of the mirror and felt like Snow White!
Slowly we learned, our clunky steps growing smoother, the dances more recognizable until they became like old friends. Even though it’s been 30 years since I spent Sunday evenings on the Rhine Danube dance floor, if I hear one of our songs, I remember every step.
If you’ve ever danced the waltz or the polka, the foxtrot or the tango, the contra or the square dance, you will know that what is possible depends only in part on knowing the steps. It’s as important to be open to what your partner offers and that your partner is open to what you offer. Even if you’re doing exactly the same steps, to the same music, if you change partners, or you change your approach to the partner you have, it’s a new dance. This is literally our 7th Unitarian Universalist principle in motion – the interdependent web of all things. In dance everything is connected, every bone and muscle, what’s happening in your mind and heart, and what’s going on between you and your partner.
What you also learn, if you’re going to dance with your whole spirit, is that every one of us brings to the dance what is fully whole and what is already broken. We dance with broken dreams, with broken bodies, with broken spirits. Even the most accomplished dancer has been broken in some way, and they keep dancing.
I want to hold close this image of dancing while broken to reflect on where we are today.
Many of us are figuring out how we keep dancing as our lives have become much smaller during this pandemic. We are missing our people, missing the lives we had before, some of us are unemployed or underemployed, making decisions about whether or how to work to stay safe. We are missing leadership. We are desperate for competent compassionate leaders, the kind of leaders that put our well being at the center of their reason for being. We are also trying to keep dancing as this disease targets people of color and the elderly more than anyone else. We are dancing while broken.
And then there’s the protests – every single day since George Floyd was murdered by 4 officers in Minneapolis. This is a dance we have seen before here in St. Louis. Six years ago we were the epicenter when Michael Brown was murdered. We lived with daily protests, supported them with our bodies, with our time, money, food, water, calls and letters and with our own Vigil, which has taken place on the Eliot Chapel steps almost every Tuesday for 6 years.
What’s becoming clear is that the truth we proclaimed back then has gained traction. Six years ago a majority dismissed the truth that our criminal justice system is racist. Today, a majority of people believe that George Floyd should still be alive. The issue now is less about proving that police brutality exists, and more about how to end it. Is reform of the police, abolition of the police or defunding the police what will create justice and freedom?
Clearly the dance has changed. The steps have changed. What hasn’t changed is white supremacy and the systems that perpetuate it. But, we are dancing through the brokenness of white supremacy systems with some new steps.
So let’s get back to the dance. There are generally two different roles in couples dancing, especially if the dance has a European origin, which is the case for the waltz. There is the one who leads and the one who follows. Traditionally, the lead is male and the follower is female, which is totally binary and totally patriarchal, and thankfully, more often these roles are no longer assigned based on gender. I can’t tell you how happy I was when I was able to learn how to lead. I enjoy both roles – leaders and follower.
Another misconceptions about these roles is that the lead has all the power and the follower just follows. If this is your understanding of how the dance works, I’m sorry to say your waltz is never going to hit the charts! I have experienced leads who led so strongly that there was no room for me. I just got dragged around the floor. No fun. No beauty. The real responsibility of the lead is to provide the frame for the follower to shine. A good lead will be almost invisible and their dancing looks effortless. A great follower will be able to fill the frame that has been offered. What this happens, it’s magical and life doesn’t feel so broken anymore.
Let’s explore today’s civil unrest using the image of creating the frame and filling it.
Two weeks ago, a violin vigil was held for Elijah McClain in Aurora Colorado. If you don’t know the story of Elijah, last summer he was walking home from the store. He was 23 and black. He wore a face covering because he had anemia and often grew cold. Someone called the police saying there was a suspicious black man in the neighborhood. The police showed up. They said Elijah struggled with them, but the video shows him begging them for mercy. He died of cardiac arrest a week after a dose of ketamine was used to sedate him. Almost a year later, the officers who responded to the call are still on duty. But the George Floyd murder reignited the Aurora activist community and they have stepped up the pressure to find justice for Elijah. Two weeks ago, the community was invited to a violin vigil. Elijah McClain played his violin for the animals at the local shelter. So many violinists came, it was unbelievable, you lost count, children and adults, with hundreds coming to listen.
The police say that there were some disturbances, that their officers were being pelted with bottles and rocks. From the perspective of many in attendance, the gathering was peaceful and the escalation took place when the police arrived in riot gear.
Soon teargas began wafting over the crowd. You would think that everyone would run home, but that is not what happened. The violinists kept playing, some even standing between the police and those gathered to listen.
We have here two different frames, two different kinds of leads. One frame is represented by the police, who have been trained by the state to see any public gathering as potentially dangerous, unstable and threatening, especially if the leaders are people of color, especially if the gathering in some way challenges established power structures, especially if the focus is black lives. They are too often like the lead who believes that they must control the dance. This is the lead who leads through fear. And far too often, this lead misunderstands who they are dancing with, dangerously misunderstands the gathering they encounter, thus escalating the situation and creating more damage, more loss, more pain, more injustice. For many who attended the vigil, it was a cruel irony that a vigil for a young man killed by the police was met with more brutality.
Then we have the violinists who represent a different kind of lead, who reads those who are following, who shifts their energy and balance to respond to what is offered, who see every dance, every song as a co-creation made by those who play and those who listen. When they encounter brokenness, their gut reaction is to dance harder, play longer. This lead is energized by love.
We are in a sacred struggle for who in our nation will lead and how they will lead. When the violinists continued to play, they challenged a frame based on fear and domination. In our reading this morning, there was a line that seems especially poignant – “I will hold open a space for you in the world and support your right to fill it with authentic vocation and purpose. As long as your search takes, you have my loyalty.” (Author unknown)
As Unitarian Universalists, we are constantly preparing ourselves for how to lead and how to follow. Love is our guide. Compassion, generosity of spirit, understanding, and a fierce commitment to justice making are what we aspire to. This is how we keep dancing, dancing through broken dreams, broken bodies, and sometimes broken spirits.
Today I’ve used this image of the dance to reflect on our struggle for racial justice, but this image can be used in other ways. It can help us understand the dynamics in our most intimate relationships, with our partner/s, with children, family, friends, community, neighbors, this beloved community and our nation.
So this week, undoubtedly the protests will continue. Unfortunately, the pandemic isn’t going anywhere, and so we might as well use this restless time to do some good, to change some hearts, to change some systems, to create and sustain some justice. I would invite each one of us to look around – look into your heart, look out into our community, our nation, look at those we love, and those we struggle to love, and look for the frames. Who is holding the frame. What frame are you called to hold out, and into which frame are you called to step and follow?
As we dance into the brokenness, may the spirit of life and love be with you all.
Copyright Krista Taves 2020.