It seems appropriate, during this week that I’m preparing to dance on stage for the first time (in Great Bay Academy of Dance’s production of An 1836 Portsmouth Nutcracker), that I share with you my favorite story about dance: Lorrie Moore’s “Dance in America.”
It’s about an aging artist traveling Pennsylvania Dutch County, teaching her craft to kids, and it begins like this:
I tell them dance begins when a moment of hurt combines with a moment of boredom. I tell them it’s the body’s reaching, bringing air to itself. I tell them that it’s the heart’s triumph, the victory speech of the feet, the refinement of animal lunge and flight, the purest metaphor of tribe and self. It’s life flipping death the bird.
I make this stuff up. But then I feel the stray voltage of my rented charisma, hear the jerry-rigged authority in my voice, and I, too, believe. I’m convinced.
I appreciate the sentiment there more and more, the more I teach, the more I try to break down a creative process that continues to mystify me.
But I have always appreciated Moore’s ability to get to the heart of her character so quickly. It’s this ability to avoid beating around the bush that hooked me on this story back in grad school, and that still hooks me now.
I’m also hooked by the sick boy that appears later in the story, the son of the old friend our protagonist is staying with. In much the same way that the girl in “Marlinspike” brings something out of that narrator that he didn’t know was there, the boy in “Dance in America” guides our heroine here toward her powerful moment of catharsis:
“Come here, honey,” I say, going to him. I am thinking not only of my own body here, that unbeguilable, broken basket, that stiff meringue. I am not, Patrick, thinking only of myself, my lost troupe, my empty bed. I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?
“Stand next to me,” I say, and Eugene does, looking up at me with his orange warrior face. We step in place: knees up, knees down. Knees up, knees down. Dip-glide-slide. Dip-glide-slide. “This is it!” “This is it!” Then we go wild and fling our limbs to the sky.
“Dance in America” is part of Moore's collection Birds of America.