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SERMON: Lessons from Country Dancing
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[An earlier version of this sermon was delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville yesterday morning.]

As some of you know, I grew up in Berea, Kentucky, which is a small town about an hour south of Lexington. Its population when I was a kid was in the neighborhood of 8000, which shocked me when I looked it up last week, because all these years I've been saying it was a town of 800 people. Don't I feel like a doofus now. At any rate, it felt that small - there were maybe a dozen Asian kids in the entire county at the time, and this was long before the Kroger stocked things like bok choy and wonton wrappers on a routine basis. I could not wait to get out of there: I was book-smart but socially clueless, and so acutely miserable that killing myself crossed my mind on multiple occasions, as did running away. However, I couldn't think of a foolproof way to off myself or to survive on my own, and the one thing I knew for certain was that they were all-or-nothing propositions: if I didn't get them right the first time, I'd automatically lose all my other possible routes of escape, and I'd end up even more trapped than before.

So, instead, I played "Thunder Road" a couple hundred times on the boombox in my bedroom, and I devoured issues of Seventeen behind my music stand, and I had the biggest, broadest smile in my high school graduation picture, because by then I knew I was Chicago-bound. When the dorm closed for the holidays and for the summer, I took the last possible Greyhound bus back to Madison County, and caught the earliest one back to the Windy City. It would actually arrive in Chicago around 5 or 6 a.m. -- several hours before the dorm allowed the students back in -- so I'd sit in the station's Burger King, nursing a hot chocolate or a Coke until it was okay to head to Hyde Park. There have been several years since then where I didn't set foot in Kentucky at all, and when I did, up until I turned thirty-seven, it was never for more than three nights at the most, except for the week after my father died, when I was in charge of arranging his memorial service.

This changed after my mother was diagnosed with cancer. During 2007 and 2008, I ended up spending a fair bit of time in her house, first to help care for her, and later to renovate it for sale. During most of these trips, I ended up driving into either Richmond or Berea to log onto the Internet -- either at the public library, which neither town had when I was a kid, or at one of the cafes with free wireless. During one of my stops at Berea Coffee and Tea last summer, I came across a brochure for the Christmas Country Dance School, a program hosted by Berea College during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day.

If you had told me twenty years ago that I would willingly choose to spend a week's vacation in Berea, I would have called you thirty kinds of crazy. I've mellowed out some since 1987, though -- enough to show up to several school reunions, and to come to terms (to some degree, anyway) with being Asian and Southern while not quite fitting in with other Asians or other Southerners. By last July, I'd also come to realize that Berea was a town that I would have found perfectly charming from the get-go if I had come to it as a tourist: it's renowned as "the folk arts and crafts capital of Kentucky," and it's got quirky restaurants and cute stores -- I'm wearing earrings made by an older woman who named her shop Hot Flash Beads (she loves to say, "I can't do anything about the flashes, but I can at least make you look cool." And her business cards are printed on paddle fans). I've enjoyed nosing around artsy little towns in other states, so it seemed less than rational to keep seeing Berea as somehow more isolated and provincial than, say, Saugatuck, Michigan, or Abingdon, Virginia.

So I skimmed through the Christmas School brochure, and when I saw that there was a class on sword-dancing, my fate was pretty much sealed, and I sent in my registration a week or so later. I'm a complete wuss about a lot of things, but I also have a wild streak of curiosity that sometimes trumps my general inclinations towards cowardice and comfort. This has led to me trying out activities such as skydiving, firewalking, and contra-dancing. Of those particular three, contra-dancing is the only one I've had any inclination to try again, but it's also the one I regard as the scariest.

And the reasons for that are deep-seated: they took root back when my middle school classmates mocked my dancing, and being a high school wallflower even after I finally learned how to move my feet. There's not wanting to run into people I know when I'm not confident about what I'm doing, and there's not wanting to be a nuisance around people who do know what they're doing. I also have a fairly pronounced fear of being trapped in group situations, and of being forever judged by my mistakes rather than who I become. Put another way, it's easier for me to be a beginner around people who don't know me, especially if the odds are good that I won't see them again for at least another ten or twenty years. I first heard about contra-dancing when I lived in Michigan, but the first time I worked up the nerve to try it out was on a road trip through North Carolina and Virginia. The first time I attended a Unitarian Universalist worship service was on a business trip to Denver.

The place I went to in Asheville was the Grey Eagle, and the main lesson I took away from there was how to keep from getting dizzy, which is to keep my eyes totally focused on the person dancing with me. There are plenty of analogies that can be drawn from that -- be present in the now, dance with the one you're with, etc. -- but truth to tell, I didn't think too hard or long about it at the time. The evening at the Eagle was fun enough that I went to a couple of Nashville dances, but then other commitments got in the way, so the opening dance at Christmas School was the first time I'd gone to a dance night in over seven years.

I almost didn't go -- the classes hadn't started yet, and I kept thinking up excuses such as my pantyhose being hosed and an overdue sonnet I needed to finish, and I eventually told myself to quit being ninny and to at least stop in for a couple of dances. How bad could it be?

It wasn't great. But it wasn't bad, and already there were moments where I found myself wishing I'd known about the school when I was younger. I danced one dance with a lovely man who I later found out was the Japanese thread-ball teacher, and I watched a couple others, including a Scandinavian set that was so haunting and sweet that I wouldn't have missed for the world. There were dozens of quilts hanging from the rafters of the gym, and over a hundred couples whirling around the floor, and it was such a sight to see.

But I also think Christmas School would have been wasted on me if I'd gone in my teens or twenties, because I would have been too much about trying to fit in, or being angry about being hopelessly different, or being frustrated at being a beginner, or being envious of people who were more athletic or coordinated or charismatic or what-have-you. This is not to say that these things don't plague me now, but in my teens and twenties, I was far readier to blame other people for my own inadequacies, and not especially open to hearing that I wasn't ready for x or a good fit for y. One of the things I've managed to learn over the years is that sometimes the timing or place really, truly isn't right, and it's as true for church participation as it is for dancing: every now and then I stumble into a conversation with or about someone who tried out Unitarian Universalism and found it wasn't for them, or who spends their Sundays somewhere other than in a church -- and they're a little nervous around me, and I have to explain that I know Unitarian Universalism isn't for everyone, and that church isn't for everyone. It is not fair to expect any denomination or congregation to be one-size-fits-all, and it does not diminish the beauty or negate the truth of a song -- literal or metaphorical -- when some people are enthralled by it and others are unmoved.

This is far easier to say than to accept, though -- it takes a certain solidity of faith and of self not to feel threatened or rejected when someone doesn't love or respect something of importance to you. And part of the challenge of faith, of dancing, and of almost any other interaction between two people is figuring out the right amount of self to bring to the connection. The fourth night at Christmas School, I danced the closing waltz with Jim Morrison, a longtime sword- and Morris-dancing teacher, who twirled me around for a few minutes and then gently asked, "Do you realize why our knees keep colliding with each other?" And when I admitted I didn't know, and that I'd appreciate pointers, he explained how it would actually be easier for him to lead me through the waltz if I provided more weight as a partner. That is, I needed to lean back into his hand so that he could steer me more firmly into the directions we needed to go.

For me, this was a major revelation: I'd known about providing resistance through my hands and arms when salsa dancing, and it was something being covered in the beginner English dancing class as well, but in the waltzing I'd done before then, I'd made a point of being extremely light on my feet, like a feather, thinking that that would make me easy for my partners to steer. I have to say that it pleases my feminist soul to hear that I needed to be more present rather than less -- although, in waltzing with several other partners during the week, it was also clear that some men were simply better at being partners than others, and it didn't necessarily correspond with experience or age.

Which leads to the lesson imparted during the final session of the beginners' English dancing class. The instructor had been chatting with another instructor about the stages that dancers go through, in which "phase 1" dancers (beginners) tend to be focused primarily on the mechanics -- getting the steps right and not screwing things up for everyone else -- and once they're comfortable with that, they become "phase 2" dancers who become intent on extracting all the joy they possibly can out of the dancing experience... which is fine, but then there's yet another level, "phase 3," where a dancer discovers how there's even more joy to be had from making things fun for others (as opposed to focusing just on their own pleasure). Part of Katy's point was that some phase 2 dancers are less than tolerant of phase 1 participants (that is, not at all interested in dancing with rank beginners), and she urged us phase 1 folks to recognize that it wasn't personal: "Just think to yourself, 'I'll see you when you're in phase 3.'"

And that was the point when I realized what my next sermon to y'all was going to be about. Because these stages, they apply to so many things. I've seen variations of them at church, where people start out in phase 1 -- wondering when to stand and sit, where to go, and what to say. And then, once they're comfortable, they're part of the phase 2 in-crowd, where the church becomes more about what they're finding there, be it religious education or support for their personal issues. And some of the phase 2 folks, they're not especially able or interested in how to reach out to phase 1 people -- it's someone else's job, or they don't have the energy for it, or they're caught up in the pleasure of being phase 2 and what it's giving them. But after a while, many people do progress to phase 3, where they've developed the skills and know-how and discernment not only to work with the phase 1 and phase 2 folks, but to enjoy raising other people's games and helping them realize their gifts. I'm overgeneralizing here, of course -- some people are already phase 3 from the get-go, and others of us will forever slip and slide among the levels -- but nonetheless, these phases reflect a common progression of competency and compassion: it takes a certain level of confidence, self-awareness, and perspective to be generous and tolerant towards other people.

And to behold someone good at what they do, and to witness generosity and good humor -- oh, it is a beautiful thing. During the last night of the last official dance at Christmas School, which was a waltz, there were three single women who linked their hands together and gracefully began to circle around the hall, and that was lovely to watch -- and then, all in fun, they cut into a young couple and "kidnapped" the woman, whereupon she linked hands with them and now there were four women waltzing as a ring -- and the man pretended to be shocked at becoming partnerless, but then he paired up with another man and danced the rest of the waltz with him. They were both slim and handsome, and fantastic dancers, and I love that I have this memory now, of the men and women in that dance - a memory that's larger and lighter than the hard little kernels of bitterness that I've carried with me since my grade school days.

I've grown up a fair bit since then, and Berea has grown as well -- it has at least two Chinese buffets now, as well as the green-certified cafe and the library. This isn't to say all is well or forgiven -- there were incidents after my mom's death when I'd write to friends and say, "I'm remembering why I spent most of my teen years in a state of feminist rage." But Christmas School kept surprising me in good ways where gender was concerned -- there were hairy, bearded, unquestionably masculine men dancing in calico skirts -- not kilts, skirts -- with no fuss about it, because skirts are more comfortable -- and during the storytelling gatherings, there were many people doing needlework as a matter of course -- and they included teenaged boys crocheting away, and tough guys working on their temari balls, and some of the teachers made a point of trying to use gender-inclusive language when calling the dances -- and for me, that's a marvel: my elementary school classmates included Pentecostal girls who exclusively wore dresses because they believed the Bible prohibited them from wearing pants -- pants being men's clothing -- and I once played basketball against a girl wearing an orange nylon skirt in order to comply with that injunction. Given its focus on traditional arts, I'd expected -- and to some degree, feared -- that Christmas School would be populated primarily by conservatives and fundamentalists with rigid beliefs about gender roles, and it was both a relief and revelation to find that that wasn't the case at all. (There were also surprises about how un-traditional some of the dances were, especially at the afterparties -- "Ring of Fire" as a contra-dance was incredibly wrong and ridiculously fun.)

Over the centuries, dance has been used as a metaphor for the work of religion. Hymns such as "Lord of the Dance" and "My Dancing Day" celebrate the invitational and inclusive possibilities of faith, with words of calling one's true love to the dance. As we move forward in our lives, with our faith, let us have the courage to be dancers -- in the broadest sense of the word -- and the generosity to encourage others to dance their best as well. Amen and alleluia.

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