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18 / CULTIVATE

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I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord; “plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

the CULTIVATING

journal

Dance

August 29, 2021

“This story is dedicated to the little girl I saw in the school cafeteria who danced bravely to an audience who did not understand her gift. I wish I knew her name, but her memory has stayed with me for twenty years. This is also written with gratitude for the friends I grew up with who have blessed my life by sharing their God-given interwoven beauty with me. You make me braver by being you.”



 

Sweat soaked into the colorful ribbons woven into Gabriela’s hair, as droplets ran down her face and lightly dotted the shoulders of her red Jalisco dress. She stood to the side of the portable stage and watched her fellow performers dance to the Mariachi music coming from the little CD player sitting on the edge of the platform. The player bounced slightly with every stomp, which caused the music to skip a little. The music was chosen by the club’s facilitator for their Cinco de Mayo presentation – a presentation they were now performing in front of the entire school.

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

Gabriela was not frightened of the stage. She loved to dance. In her previous school there were lots of kids that shared her heritage, and they would always celebrate Cinco de Mayo with games, food, contests, and her favorite – traditional dances. Oh, how she loved to dance and dance, and she basked in the applause of the whole school when they gathered in the colorfully decorated auditorium. Her parents were so proud and could be found beaming from the back row for every performance, delighting in their daughter and gratified to see the crowd appreciating her offerings, too. 

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

But when her father got a new job, they had to move far away, and a new city meant a new school.  Gabriela made friends relatively easily; she was just like them in many ways. They also loved music, though theirs was different from what she grew up with. This new music captured her heart too, and she loved learning the words and copying the dance moves of her friends. But it could never erase the part of her that felt rooted in her Mexican culture. And, since her friends did not share her heritage or easily relate to it, sometimes it seemed easier to leave that part of her tucked away inside – especially when her friends would make the occasional playful jokes about their differences.

Once in a great while Gabriela would overhear someone at school complaining about those people, and she couldn’t help but feel the sting in the words. Her friends would attempt to comfort her by saying things like “Oh no offense!” or “You’re one of the good ones!” But these words stung, too.

One day, while Gabriela was heading off to class, she passed the school bulletin board, and a brightly colored flyer caught her eye. It advertised an after-school club that celebrated Mexican heritage. She may not have considered joining a club like this back home, but here, where the numbers of Latinos were small, she wondered if it might be a place where her ethnicity wouldn’t feel like a social liability. 

Nervous but hopeful, Gabriela took a chance and joined the club. While she still treasured time with her new friends, every Tuesday and Thursday after school she would walk to room 268 and freely share the part of herself she sometimes felt she had to hide.

Before they knew it, spring had arrived and Cinco de Mayo was fast approaching. The club facilitator, Señora Lucille, a kind woman in her late 60’s with curly brown hair and large glasses, asked how the group would like to celebrate it. Would they have a feast together where everyone brought something to share?  Perhaps they could watch a movie that celebrated their culture? 

“I miss dancing on Cinco de Mayo.”

Gabriela did not mean to say this out loud, but once the words left her lips, she could not grab them back, nor could she turn the tide of exhilaration that washed through the classroom. The group cheered in approval, and Sra. Lucille enthusiastically agreed. A boy sitting in the front row, Antonio, even jumped up on his desk, put his hands on his hips, and danced. They all busily discussed what they would wear and what dances they would perform while Sra. Lucille flew to her filing cabinet and, after searching for a few moments, held aloft an old CD of traditional Cinco de Mayo music.

As her clubmates’ excitement grew, so did Gabriela’s dread. Her breathing sped up and she sank lower in her chair.  What had she done?  The club had been a safe place where she knew she was accepted. But she didn’t feel at all ready to share this part of herself with all her new friends. She wasn’t ready to dance!

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

The day of the dance seemed to come faster than she could catch her breath, and the enthusiasm in her home had well-surpassed that of her clubmates. Her mama stroked her long black hair and kissed her cheek in between declarations that this would be Gabriela’s finest performance. Her abuela had even driven out to help her mama make Gabriela a new Jalisco dress because her old one did not fit her quite right anymore. Gabriela put it on and apprehensively displayed it for the entire family.  “Oh, look at her!”  “Just like when I was a girl!” “They would adore you back home!”  She couldn’t help but twirl a little which provoked her abuela to grab her cheek with one hand and point at the picture of Jesus on the wall with the other. “What a gift God gives you!  Make our people proud!” Her father said nothing, but his eyes were filled with delight. 

Gabriela’s family was not always pleased with her choices since the move, so it felt good to see them happy with her again. Whenever she would borrow music from her new friends, her father would sometimes walk past her room, hear what she was listening to, and shake his head as he walked away. When she would ask her mother to buy her clothes more like her friends, her mother would “tsk-tsk” and tell her that she should be proud of who she was and where she came from. She often felt caught in the middle, pulled in two directions by the perceived expectations of her family and her friends, neither seemingly welcoming of a different aspect of who she was.

Gabriela stuffed her dress into her backpack and ran out the door to catch the bus, forgetting to say goodbye to her family. They smiled at each other and assumed she was just too excited for the dance.  Excited was not how she felt, as she clutched her backpack close and kept her head down on the bumpy ride to school. 

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

The cafeteria was set up as it usually was, except for the small portable stage with a microphone out front and the CD player sitting to the side. Unlike her old school, there were no festive streamers or banners that proclaimed the holiday. No smells of the food from home coming from the kitchen. The chalkboard by the lunch trays said they were serving “Sloppy Joes.” Gabriela actually really liked Sloppy Joes. But what she wouldn’t give for a taste of what they were having at her old school today. She remembered how the head cafeteria worker would spend days cooking a family recipe for Mole, and how the lingering aroma of it would fill the halls for weeks. Her mouth and eyes watered with memory as she made her way out of the cafeteria and towards room 268.

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

The lunch bell rang, and the students shuffled into the cafeteria. The ones who got ‘hot lunch’ noisily pulled trays and collected their meals, while those who brought lunch from home went right to their tables and opened their sack lunches. The room was alive with the usual commotion, including an occasional thrown wadded-up napkin, which always fell short of the trash can. Gabriela and her clubmates stepped out the door of classroom 268 and followed Sra. Lucille in their beautiful traditional garb. They all took their place on the stage and Sra. Lucille walked over to the Vice Principal and whispered in his ear. He slowly stood up and walked over to the microphone, tapped it three times, and gave a lackluster speech on respect and attention. Then, he gestured to Sra. Lucille, clapped twice, and returned to his chair. 

The cafeteria sustained a low buzz of chatter even as Sra. Lucille spoke passionately to the seated students and invited them all to share and enjoy their special day. Gabriela’s eyes darted around the room, catching some looks of confusion and a few scowls. Then she found her family sitting in the back, beaming like usual, which gave her a moment of assurance. As Sra. Lucille ended her speech, Gabriela and a few others stepped off the stage so the performers of the first song could set up for their dance.

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

But when the first dance began, the usual sense of joy Gabriela felt from previous audiences was replaced by a prevailing sense of awkwardness. Many of the students unfamiliar with Mexican traditions felt uncomfortable, and the students participating in the dances began to feel uncomfortable too – growing more uneasy about expressing this part of themselves so boldly to a room of confused expressions, whispers, and occasional sneers.

The CD skipped each time a performer stomped, and Antonio accidentally dropped his sombrero.  Snickering from a few kids began and remained in varying degrees throughout most of the performance. From some, it was the laughter that results from witnessing a ‘blooper,’ but Gabriela also sensed the audible release of derision from others.

But what may have hurt her heart even more were those who paid the dancers no attention at all. The more she looked for delight the less she found. She couldn’t even see her family from the floor level to the side of the stage. With every passing moment her anxiety and perspiration grew, and she wondered whether she could go through with it at all. 

The first dance ended, and a sporadic polite-but-shallow applause muttered up from different parts of the room, including the few teachers who had gathered in the back. The mood of the room seemed to shift quickly from bewilderment to boredom. Polite attention to the ‘exotic’ display had worn down.  During the next two dances, the CD’s occasional skipping was becoming noticeably frequent.

It was now time for Gabriela’s solo dance. The sound of her shoes on the echoey portable stage filled her ears. She took her spot center stage and waited. The track with her accompanying music began to play, but then the CD caught and skipped. And skipped. And skipped again. Sra. Lucille pulled the CD out, breathed on it, wiped it off, and frantically stuck it back in. The disc now skipped constantly, looping the same half second over and over and over. Some students now laughed outright, with one – hiding behind his hat – shouting, “Go back to Mexico!” to which many in the room responded with the guffaws of approval. A teacher looked up from his phone and snapped three times in the general area of the comment before looking back down. The room buzzed with a mixture of amusement, annoyance, and aggravation.

Gabriela needed courage so she looked for her family. But when she did see her father, her heart sank.  The pride in his eyes was replaced by fear. He was worried for his daughter and was troubled by the contrast between how this room accepted his little girl’s offering compared to her old school. He kept looking from the stage to the students to the door, not knowing whether to stay seated, stand up and defend her, or grab her and take her far away from the jeers. He shifted in his seat and bounced his leg nervously… until he saw that his daughter was looking right at him. He quickly tried to smile as big as he could, but it was too late. A tear rolled down Gabriela’s cheek, and she lowered her head. 

But as Sra. Lucille moved to turn off the skipping CD and end the performance, Gabriela motioned to her to let it play. Sra. Lucille was confused but obliged and stepped back. Gabriela listened to the steady skip-skip-skip of the disc. She took three large breaths, and then…

Tap.

Tap.

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.

Gabriela began tapping her foot on the echoing stage, tapping with the rhythm of the skipping disc. She then clapped a refrain and returned to tapping a beat. 

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

She looked to her clubmates, who looked as confused as anyone. She widened her eyes and tapped and clapped in their direction and they understood. They began to tap and clap, too.

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

As her clubmates kept the rhythm, she grabbed the sides of her dress and, still tapping with her foot, began to sway. Back and forth, back and forth, turning her dress in slow circles, rolling her shoulders slowly, rotating her neck a little, feeling the beat. 

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

Gabriela lifted her arms higher and twirled her dress in larger swirls, lifting herself on her toes and bowing her back, then tilting her head up as she spun around. The skipping disc became the backbone, supported and formed by the tapping and the clapping, and her movements in response to each became something that melded the dance she expected to do with something completely new. The tempo was not the same as the song she had practiced to, but when a move in her familiar routine did not fit the new percussive music, she would adjust to it, spinning and popping and stomping, blending her traditional dance with dance moves she had learned from her new friends. Her face grew from one of determination to one caught up in the flow. It felt less like a performance and more like breathing, like gliding, like the embodiment of what she was made to offer in that moment. She felt brave, and she felt free. She felt like who she was made to be. 

“Don’t forget where you come from!”

“Go back to Mexico!”

“Make our people proud!”

“No offense! You’re one of the good ones!”

The voices that told her who she was and where she should be faded with each spin. She became wholly at home in her heritage and wholly at home in who she was becoming. She was ‘good’ – not because anyone said so or didn’t.  Not because she was the same as – or different from – her people. And not because she had assimilated to a new culture at the expense of her old one. She was good because she was Gabriela, and Gabriela was a mixture of many, many beautiful ways that her Creator had expressed His creativity through each culture that met her and found home in her.

“What a gift God gives you!”

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

Tap-tap-tap.  Tap-tap-tap.  Clap-clap.

As she flew into the finale, she heard new taps and claps from five or six scattered students in the audience, but the sounds coming from the back – the work boots and strong calloused hands tapping and clapping like a joyful storm of thunder and lightning – she knew without looking that they were her father’s. Her whole being smiled, and she finished the dance with gusto and grace, whirling hues of beautiful colors and heart-gladdening movements. Sra. Lucille held her finger over the CD player’s power button, watching and waiting with enraptured joy. And, as if they had practiced a thousand times, Gabriela struck her final pose, stomped, and the music stopped. Then, it was over.

To say the lack of applause didn’t affect her wouldn’t be true. Garbriela walked back to her friends and family while most of the students quickly returned to their trays and conversations. Some friends feigned politeness, but their awkwardness made Gabriela wonder if they just wanted her to ‘go back to normal.’ Other friends seemed more enthusiastic and even asked if she could teach them how to dance like her. Her abuela scolded her for not keeping the dance completely traditional. Her mother kissed her cheek and said, “well done,” but Gabriel also sensed a discomfort she couldn’t quite understand.

Then, she turned and saw her father. She unashamedly accepted his full embrace and smiled deeply as he kissed the top of her head again and again. 

Somewhere in the dance, in the mixing and blending and serving of all that she was, she had discovered a wholeness that felt bigger than any disapproval.

 

She still longed to be accepted, but she no longer felt the need to hide. From that moment on, she vowed to give her whole self fully to whoever she was with, wherever she was.  And she hoped that anyone who chose to accept this gift might discover a wholeness within themselves too. 

But when the haunting call of diminishment threatened to creep back in, and it did, when Gabriela most needed to be reminded of who she was, and she would, Gabriela would dance. 

Tap-tap-tap. 

Tap-tap-tap. 

Clap-clap.



The featured image is courtesy of Hulki Okan Tabak.



 

Adam R. Nettesheim

comments

  1. This is so lovely. So real. thank you.

  2. Thank you so much Deane.

  3. Mary Miller says:

    Appreciate this, Adam. All too ofen we look for our sense of self in the approval of others. It must came from within (and our Father). Too many people will reject us for not performing to their expectations.
    Dancing today:) Tap. Tap. Tap.

  4. Thank you Mary! May you dance in the delight of your Father today and always.
    *clap-clap*!

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