Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill   of creative effort ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

Early Morning Dancing Gets the Weekend off on the “Right Foot”

First appeared in Indy’s Child in January 2001

I admit I am not as much of a morning person as I used to be. And I admit that I am especially slow to wake up on the weekends. So some Saturdays, as I stumble for the kitchen and the first coffee of the day, the thought of a rousing dance to loud music doesn’t thrill me. Still when the kids call out, “Hey Mom! Come on, we’re giving a recital,” I totter to the living room (mug in hand) because I know in moments I’ll be captivated.

While some kids spend Saturday mornings with Pokeman, Bert and Ernie, or Batman and Robin, our family often spends them with Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young, and Sting. We have found that, instead of relaxing in front of the television after a hectic week at work and school, the best way to unwind is to dance to our favorite music at full volume. Not only is it one of the purest, almost primal, expressions of joy I’ve ever experienced (especially since I can’t carry a tune or draw anything better than a stick figure), it energizes us all for the rest of the weekend and it’s a great way to spend time together.

This practice began when our daughter, Claire, was a newborn. With Claire in his arms, my husband would waltz, after a fashion, around our cramped apartment to strains of Neil Young’s “Dark Horse” or Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” After Claire (now nine) learned to stand up, we’d do a group dance by holding hands and jumping and hopping around the room, invariably collapsing in a heap of giggles, legs and arms. Now Claire, who has become adept at pirouettes and ‘the hip-shake thang,’ is joined by Doug (six years old by now), his pudgy legs often sticking out below a pink tutu — the best 50 cents I ever spent at a garage sale.

Doug’s best dance resembles the way he moves on the basketball court — a mix of tap dancing and dribbling. Slightly hunched over, head down, elbows up, he moves his feet like two pistons, with the delicacy of a jack hammer. There was the time, again wearing the tutu that, in the heat of the performance, he body-blocked Claire and her friend, completely knocking the wind out of them and himself. That one we caught on videotape.

Not every dance is a performance. Most often, in fact, it’s far more spontaneous. Once one person starts, everyone else feels drawn in. Even if someone (guess who?) doesn’t feel quite peppy enough to dance, the enthusiasm and vigor of the kids is contagious and before I know it, I’m also bogeying to everything from Howlin’ Wolf, Guy Kluscevek with his “avant-garde” accordion, the Beatles to Vivaldi and Handel. Afterwards, out of breath and grinning, we all feel better — energized, happy and connected. None of which ever happens after we watch Saturday morning cartoons, I’ve noticed.

Of course, we play the music on our CD player — to my children, records are “those old-fashioned big, black wheel-shaped things.” And, of course, the rules are flexible enough that we dance anytime the spirit moves us, even if it isn’t Saturday morning. Just yesterday, during a tea party in the basement, for example, we all danced to James Brown among the cobwebs and cardboard boxes. Nothing fills my heart like watching Claire dancing hand-in-hand with her dad, gazing adoringly up into his eyes, her face aglow.

There has been some unexpected benefits from this admittedly spontaneous tradition. Both kids have a great sense of rhythm and an appreciation for music beyond “Baby Beluga,” and other Raffi standards. Who knows, maybe they can carry the images of dancing in the living room to their first school dance. With this much practice, hopefully they will step out onto the gym floor more bravely than I did at my first dance.

Research, I’ve noticed recently, suggests that dancing can also help children improve short-term memory, problem solving and creative thinking. These are all good things; embrace them if you like. But for me, dancing is up there with canoeing, camping and book reading: great family activities that create great family memories and give me that warm ache in my heart. You don’t need a better reason than that.

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