A History of Dancing

By Anna Oberg

I shall not dance.

I shall not dance.

I shall not dance.

I shall not dance.

I shall not dance.

Raleigh, North Carolina. Swift Creek Elementary. I’m in fifth grade, standing in the school gymnasium. It’s early evening, springtime. Golden light streams in through the high windows on the west side of the building. The basketball hoops are wound up to the ceiling, their nets casting crisscrossed shadows on the hardwood floor.

Music pumps through speakers on the stage adjacent to the court, where the dance floor is established. Loud, but not too loud. Loud enough for us, because we don’t know any better, but not so loud as to make it impossible for the teachers to gossip with one another at the dim edges of the room.

I don’t remember what I’m wearing, but the other girls wear dresses. They spin, sparkly and colorful, skirts flaring as they twirl, mostly dancing with each other. Garish, my mom would call this attire, but I’m fascinated by the sequins, the glitter, how this glitz picks up and discards the waning light as I look on. Tiny sparks that spin like specks flung from a disco ball.

Occasionally, a slow song begins, and a boy gingerly crosses the space, asks a girl to dance. They sway, gazing at the floor, not touching. It is all shyness and innocence, this first dance.

My dad and I have a deal—I can go to the dance as long as I don’t join in. It’s a religious thing. Dancing is forbidden. Something about modesty. I want to be allowed to go, so I agree.

I stand off to the side, watching. I don’t really mind; I like observing. Eventually though, I find I’m waiting for something else to happen—some calamity. For the lights to go out, the music to stop. The dancers forced to reckon with the full evil of their action. I anticipate some unnamed, unexpected punishment, some hint of the direness my dad’s voice conveys when he tells me dancing is wrong.

None of this happens, of course. I stay there a long time until another feeling blooms in me. A wild delight wells up from the soles of my feet. I don’t register it at first, but I’m moving—almost imperceptibly, involuntarily. It’s the music, the light. The subtle romance. The room is transfused with beauty. Small feet dance in time to an old song, and it’s like watching peony petals flutter on a breeze. I’m transfixed.

My body lists, one way then another. It is slight, then more steady, this deep communion with my environment. I’m on my toes, my heels. Back and forth, slowly.

I let the tune stir through me. I recognize it then—freedom, lightness. Nothing that should elicit guilt. Or shame. An escape hatch has opened. My body has entered the world.

I open the car door, get in. We pull out of the parking lot, a thick, blue dusk falling behind the tall trees. I know it’s not the first thing he says to me because my dad isn’t that way. He’s not cruel or unsparing on purpose. But, the fact remains: rules are rules, not to be bent or broken. He asks, eventually—somewhere between the school and home—did you dance?

I do not lie to him.

I will think of a consequence, he says.

I spend the better part of Saturday morning at the kitchen table, writing sentences. Fifty, a hundred. The words amass on the page, the pages multiply. I write the words over and over, trying to decide where the emphasis lies. What is important here? The I? Or the negation of the action?

I shall not dance.

I shall not dance.

I shall not dance.

New Orleans, Louisiana. I’m twenty-three, a newlywed. Nearly every evening after it rains, I jog by a live oak in Audubon Park whose branches are so heavy they grow into the ground and reemerge from the soil. Every time I pass by, I pause, held by a spell this tree casts over me.

I remember it best under a slate sky, anvil clouds marching toward dusk. Darkness arrives with the end of the storm. There is a serpentine wall nearby, hedging off the neighborhood adjacent to the park. The brick fence brings to mind an old friend who described such a barrier on a road trip we took up east in college. Something about how Thomas Jefferson came up with the design, modeled it after the motion of a snake. The wall dances, a pregnant then hollow undulation of bricks, weaving in and out of the last light.

I think: this is Eden. A tree and a snake.

It’s a strange way to grow—down, into the earth—but it seems necessary as the branches fight gravity’s grip. It’s a symptom of depression, elegantly drawn by nature’s hand. How sometimes it’s inevitable—you enter the dark before being born again into something else. Every time I pass by, I think of growth suspended. The branches abandon the frame for a time, only to reenter it later.

Years intervene. I adhere to my promise. I shall not dance. Movement is only intentional. I allow it to be rigorous for a time, running mile after mile, day after day, wishing for that remembered lightness. I lift heavy weights, substantial enough to shape and reshape my form. Secretly, though, I wonder if I’m breaking my vow, the one I wrote over and over again at the kitchen table. I wonder how running or lifting—as music washes over me—is any different than swaying in the gym. I feel the motion deeply—but, running is linear, and dancing is serpentine. I wonder if by swearing not to dance I have agreed to follow the path for a certain kind of life. A linear life.

I’m thirty when I move to Colorado. Deep in the mountains, running becomes something else. It is no longer a point A to point B endeavor. On trails there are obstacles. Each step is uneven, requiring me to swerve around boulders and clamber over downed trees. Many times, the path oxbow-bends tandem to some cold, driven river. And I wonder—how could this be wrong? This dance I do now, my feet connected to the earth as I fly along in the sunshine.

Estes Park, Colorado. I’m thirty-seven, now. I pour bourbon, add ice. It is blue hour. The winter sun has dropped behind the Divide. My family is out, gone for the day. Something in the twilight teases me. I rattle the ice, take a sip, close the blinds. I click through a few songs, settle on one. Turn up the volume.

It takes a moment, but soon, I feel it. The lightness. That release. I’ve been underground, and this is my rebirth. I return to that stale gym in the fifth grade, afternoon light streaming in, and I understand—I have been complicit. I have let my own branches tie me to the earth.

The music comes, and comes, and I sway. The motion untethers me.

Finally, I dance.   

About the author

Anna Oberg is a professional photographer based in Estes Park, Colorado. When she's not arranging family portraits with the perfect view of Long's Peak as backdrop, she focuses on writing tiny memories and small stories. She has been published in Cleaver Magazine, Burningword Literary Journal, Causeway Lit, The Maine Review, decomp Journal, The Festival Review, and Split Rock Review, among others.

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