“Put your little foot, put your little foot, put your little foot right there.” I’ve been thinking about dancing this week. Once I get a mental stew cooking for a writing topic, bits and pieces seem to jump out of everywhere and plop into the stew. Last night during one of my usual awakenings, Daddy and I were dancing in the kitchen, which seems to have been where we always danced. Daddy was a Navy cook on a minesweeper during World War II and never gave up his well-honed culinary skills; therefore, Mother, Daddy, Sister Patsy and I spent a lot time together in the kitchen, after moving from Mama’s Place to our new house up the dirt road.
I seem to remember that Mother and Daddy always danced in the kitchen. While the steak seared before requiring attention, they waltzed to a Glenn Miller 45 vinyl on our Zenith Radio Phonograph Combo that sat on a small table close to the stove. While Mother turned the steak, Daddy might ask Patsy to dance the Texas Two Step for Hank Williams Sr. to “find a brand new recipe” in “Hey Good Lookin’.” Re-experiencing our kitchen dance hall, I most tenderly remember dancing with Daddy as he sang in his clear, mellow voice, “Put your little foot. Put your little foot. Put your little foot right there.” I can recall that his efforts to teach me the footwork matching the lyrics often ended in anxious giggles. As Daddy sang, “Take a step to the right. Take a step to the left. Take a step to the rear, but forever stay near,” I seemed to go left when he went right, but I did forever stay near.
In the 1950s and early 1960s dancing was frowned up on in Scott County. During these years in my experience, not a single organized public dance took place. Waldron High School did not have proms; we had banquets. We students did not bother to question why we had no school dances because we knew that leaders went to churches that did not approve of dancing. Period. Although I knew not why, nice girls did not dance. I suppose this attitude necessitated my family’s clandestine dances. As teens, Patsy and I bopped and twisted in our tiny den as Dick Clark’s American Bandstand blared from our black and white console television.
This dubious opinion of dancing was not limited to small-town Arkansas, as the illustrious story teller and humorist, Garrison Keillor, made clear in his version of “Put Your Little Foot.” He sang, “[Name a denomination] like to dance, like to dance. They love choreography, but they do not dance, no they do not dance with a heathen like me.” He continued, “[Name a different denomination] don’t dance much, and they try not to touch, so they dance the beguine with their pastor in between.” Garrison’s delightful parody clarifies my own cognitive dissonance regarding dance. That is, I received conflicting early influence regarding dance — enjoying dancing with family at home, while understanding from outside sources that it was wrong. Thus, I’ve never felt totally at ease with dancing. Perhaps that primal pull between experiencing the exhilaration of dancing and the old misguided opinions foisted upon me are responsible for dancing’s sense of guilty pleasure.
Regardless of these disquietudes, I will go as far as saying, “I am passionate about dance.” After all, Ecclesiastes says there is a time to weep and a time to dance, and King David danced before the Lord with all his might when returning the ark to the tabernacle in Jerusalem. I still smile and tap my feet when Bobby and Sissy cut a rug on Lawrence Welk reruns, and when Mr. Welk dances with one of the pretty young girls, I can hear Daddy point out once again, “See how Lawrence lights up when he twirls a pretty girl?” Sitting in the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, I am mesmerized as the Broadway dancers kick and leap. I have been swept into the sky with Mary Poppins and Bert and identified with Maria’s shyness during her first dance with Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.”
Dancing takes me out of the ordinary and into infinite possibilities. A child dancing in costume can become a Mouse King, a sugar plum fairy or a snowflake. I really believe that four-year old ballerinas watching their teacher and methodically moving to her directions in robot fashion are the ladybugs their tutus suggest. I can dance with Richard Simmons to one of his “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” videos, forget all about COVID-19, and return to the good ole’ days of 1960. I like to dance with my six-year old granddaughters, Anya and Claire, marveling at their supple bodies, all the while declaring that I have never had a limber bone in my entire body. They don’t seem to mind. In fact, during my recent visit Anya asked, “Nanna, will you dance with me for 10 minutes during my Zoom PE class?” Her contemporary moves took a completely different direction from Richard Simmons’ oldies.
I have thought a lot about dance this week. My conclusion is that for me, dancing represents holding on, getting back on the horse, putting one foot in front of the other, grinning and bearing it. I realize that as my family danced in the kitchen, we were stepping out of daily hardships and horrors of war into greener pastures of delightful pleasure. We danced our cares away, just as Daddy, Mother and countless other young people had done in United Service Organizations (USO) around the world during World War II. When I say, “Let the dance begin,” I am telling myself to get up, get out there and do what needs to be done. I’m saying to get out of the mire and proceed with life, just like John Michael Montgomery sings in “Life’s A Dance,” “But I learned something from my blue eyed girl. Sink or swim you gotta give it a whirl.” You know, Montgomery’s description of life as a dance squares with my passion for dance. He sings, “Life’s a dance you learn as you go. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. Don’t worry about what you don’t know. Life’s a dance you learn as you go.”
I recently returned home after visiting daughter Lee Anna in Chicagoland. In August, she told me about personalizing thermal mugs for her team of kindergarten teachers, promising to decorate one for me. When I arrived, she asked me to think of a short, catchy phrase for my mug. Wanting the exact kernel of truth that screamed my name, I opened my consciousness to possibilities. Right away I thought of dance. Knowing a short phrase was required to fit on the mug, I chose “Dance On.”
Mark Twain wrote “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn.” He also wrote, “Dance like nobody’s watching; love like you’ve never been hurt. Sing like nobody’s listening; live like it’s heaven on Earth.”
“Take a step to the right. Take a step to the left. Take a step to the rear, but forever stay near.” Yes, Daddy, I know. Dance on.
Louise Owens Finney is a retired secondary teacher and part-time minister in Fort Smith. She can be contacted at LouiseOFinney@gmail.com.