I don't know when I started dancing. Maybe when I learned to walk? Maybe before? Maybe dancing was how I became aware that I was actually alive?
At four I was privileged to see the ballet. So I wanted to be a ballerina for quite a few years after that, which was my whole life, from that perspective.
At age 14, I heard The Rankin Family sing Mairi's Wedding, with a set of reels after it. So then I wanted to listen to Celtic Music, especially from Nova Scotia, all the time. Which introduced me to fiddle music. Which made me want to dance, because dancing is basically inevitable when you listen to fiddle music.
At ages 16 and 17 I took dance class in high school, which was a very interesting and a life changing experience, but not the kind that I exactly enjoy. I responded by writing a lot of poetry and deciding that I was through with dance classes and performances for forever. After all, when you're a teenager you know all about forever.
At age 22 I taught myself Cape Breton stepdancing from Mary Janet MacDonald's DVD Cape Breton Stepdancing - A Family Tradition. Because I was listening to even more of the fiddle music, and had been for some years, and dancing is inevitable. I learned in the basement and that was where I did most of my dancing. But a couple of times musicians and bands from Nova Scotia came to Calgary on tour. When they did I found I had enough nerve to get up and stepdance during their final set.
At age 24 I went to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia with a close friend. I was privileged to experience the music in many different settings, from pub to community hall to dance hall. I danced in the pub and people jumped up to dance with me. Other tourists snapped photos of us, which was a bit ironic because I was also a tourist. I danced in the aisle at the hall in Port Hawkesbury and people asked if I would come back and dance again, how long I was going to stay in Nova Scotia, when I was I going to return, why wasn't I up on the stage. I almost cried. I said I would return "soon." Alas, "soon" is now 9 years and counting. I guess life just got way too interesting in the meantime.
On one of our last days on the island, my friend and I went to a adult dance in Margaree. The locals got us caught up in the square dances. We had a wonderful time. I danced in a stepdancers' queue, though in hindsight I didn't entirely know how it worked at the time. My friend reported to me that someone watching asked if I was "from around here." Seriously one of the best compliments I've ever gotten, for dancing or anything else.
At age 26, as part of my international interlude, I went to Ceolas Gaelic Music Summer School in the Hebrides. Ceolas was a life changing experience, and luckily, the kind I do enjoy. Ceolas was like a wild Atlantic squall that blew a whole lot of cobwebs out of my mind. After that, I realized that I wanted music and dance to always be a part of my life. And it has been. I regularly do ballroom, recreational ballet, West African, and step dance with Dance Through Life, and I don't think there's any kind of dance I wouldn't try if I had the chance.
So why do I dance? Well, it's not about being a career dancer (obviously). It helps with fitness, which is good because I don't "exercise." I do things I enjoy and/or have to do and I get exercise as a result. Performing (i.e. dancing for an audience) is not something that I am driven to do, but I do enjoy it. If I had to come up with one reason, I would say that I dance because it is the most intuitive way for me to respond to music, apart from actually playing music.
What inspired me to write this entry, however, was a video that appeared in my Facebook feed from an acquaintance in Cape Breton. I watched this video from start to finish and I thought: "Wow. This encapsulates why I dance."
The video is a recording of the part of a dance where people take a little break from the square sets and the musicians play for a stepdancers' queue. The video starts partway through the set, and it goes on for a full nine minutes after that, so this is not entertainment for people with a really short attention span. Throughout the set women of different ages get up to dance one at a time (men dance too, but in this video it happens to be all women.) They are wearing street clothes. Naturally, one's eyes are drawn to their feet. A few of the ladies wear dance shoes, but sandals, flats, Sketchers, runners and bare feet all make an appearance.
Along the back wall, the "audience" sits tapping their feet or bobbing in time. "Audience" in quotation marks, because one suspects that at any moment one of the audience will stand up to join the queue, and some do. No one claps their hands except to applaud each dancer as she back steps off the floor. Each woman dances for exactly as long as it pleases her, and one presumes, puts her steps together in the way that suits her and what she hears in the music.
(An aside: It's not that difficult, with some experience and practice, to learn a great many different steps including complex steps. However, I maintain that the real test of a dancer's ability happens when he or she joins a stepdancer's queue. If I include everything I've ever learned, I probably know at least 3 dozen different steps in 4 or 5 different styles. I never can remember more than a third of them on the spur of the moment. But most people can't tell, and the people who can tell are not judging, at least not in a "your-score-is-six-out-of-ten" kind of way.)
When I watch this video, I feel the energy that pulses out of the musicians on piano and fiddle, an energy that resonates with each individual and makes them move, whether that is tapping a foot or joining the queue. The picture is too fuzzy to see, but I imagine the musicians beaming out at the dancers, or at each other, or just relaxed with an expression of deep peace on their faces as they play. People praise musicians for "stage presence," for being able to interact with an audience and involve them with the music through personality, telling jokes, explaining what they are doing. And that is all very well. But even better is when neither audience nor musicians feel the pressure to "show off" for each other: neither to seek adulation nor to ostentatiously offer it, because both parties already understand why they are there, and why they are enjoying it. Watching this video, does one even think: That is the audience, and those are musicians, and those are dancers? No, one thinks: This is a community, and making music and dancing and listening and foot tapping and watching are what they all do.
That's why I dance. Because I want to be part of a tradition and community where people dance and play music because it is what they do, and it makes perfect sense, and it feels like the most natural thing in the world.
Now if you actually read this far, watch the video, all of it, because it is simply amazing.