If you have to walk on thin ice, you may as well dance
Grandma Elve Halvor loved to dance. After high school, in the early 1930s, she moved from the farm to the big city of Seattle and her passion was going out dancing. A child of Swede-Finn immigrants, music and dancing were a way her family transmitted culture, and that’s how she met my grandfather.
Seventy-five years later, that passion for dancing runs in my blood. My introduction to dancing came in the fourth grade when my parents began sending me to the Runeberg folk dancing group. Every Monday night we would meet in the Blossom Gulch Elementary School Gym, where Leola Baumgartner and Olga Hosking steadfastly worked to pass on their love of dancing and the art of the polka and schottische to a group of distracted 11-year-olds. We girls quickly learned to dance the lead parts, as that got us out of dancing with the boys. It would be much later before it occurred to me that I simply wanted to dance with girls. In the meantime, I eventually figured out which boys could actually dance, and learned the joys of following with a talented lead.
I mostly quit dancing in high school – waltzes and polkas weren’t ‘cool’ – and neither were the Scandinavian costumes we wore, or so I thought. But when Olga or Leola would call to ask if I’d join the group for a performance at a nursing home or at the Scandinavian Festival in Junction City, I’d say yes, and I’d enjoy it far more than I let on.
I moved to Alaska a decade or so later, a big culture shock after attending seminary in the Bay Area. As a new pastor and a pretty ‘new’ lesbian just coming out, my first attempt at a social life was … Jazzercise. I had a love/hate relationship with Jazzercise. It felt good to be moving, the music gave me energy, and it was a lot like dancing. But it was excruciating each week as I longed for community and would wonder endlessly if any of the other women there were gay. I’d watch for wedding rings, and was reminded again and again that I was surrounded by young, straight, married moms with young kids – women leading a life practically the polar opposite of my single, mostly closeted lesbian existence.
Finally I discovered dances at the Pioneer Schoolhouse and Thursday nights at Mad Myrna’s. It took about every ounce of courage I had to make the long icy drive from Eagle River to Anchorage in the dark and walk into the bar all alone. But once I did, those years of waltzes and polkas paid off. It didn’t take me long to pick up the two-step and learn some country line dances. More importantly, I finally found the community I’d been longing for. After months of getting to know a new church community, I was amazed at how much better the women’s community seemed to be at welcoming a stranger. It took a while to get used to the initial conversations … “I haven’t seen you before. Are you new to the state?” Clearly I wasn’t in the Bay Area any more! And then there was the awkwardness about my job.
“What do you do?
“I’m a, um, (whispers) pastor.”
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” she’d reply, certain she hadn’t heard me correctly.
“I’m, uh, a pastor.” (shocked silence)
But eventually the conversation would continue, and my new friends would make sure I knew about the Grrlzlist, Identity, Celebration of Change, an upcoming concert, and had I met the woman across the floor yet?
When my church decided to spend several months discussing homosexuality, and I sat through those discussions painfully and awkwardly closeted, escaping to dance afterward kept me sane. I found refuge in the arms of new friends, two-stepping across the floor, and was reminded that I wasn’t an alien, and that dancing was always an option.
It’s been said that if you have to walk on thin ice, you may as well dance – dancing during those months kept me from falling through the ice and drowning.
Since then, I left that congregation and have spent eight years loving being a hospital chaplain. Thursday night dancing (thanks, Jack Klauschie!!!) ended, replaced by monthly dances at the Pioneer Schoolhouse, and then Wednesday night line dancing at Mad Myrna’s began, as well as women’s dances at the Snow Goose and A Street Event Hall a couple times a year. This week we celebrated the last night of line dancing at Myrna’s for the season, and celebrated our fearless leader Deb DeProspero, who’s kept us dancing through the years. She’s ready to pass on the baton, and we hope that Wednesday night dancing will continue in the fall under new leadership. And perhaps it’s time to bring dance walking to Anchorage?
It’s been a while since I’ve danced a hambo, and my grandmother is no longer with us, but her dancing costume hangs in my closet. I’ve fallen in love on the dance floor, more than once, and with every step I take, I continue a rich heritage of dancing, from both my Scandinavian ancestors and from the many lesbians who have danced before me.
About the author: Susan is glad to be from the line of Lutherans who didn’t believe dancing was sinful. She is a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor and has mostly gotten used to being the ‘lesbian poster child’ in her church. She finds the Sacred all kinds of places — on the dance floor, in the mountains, in church, at a hospital bedside, in the midst of a heartfelt conversation, running along the coastal trail, in music that makes her cry, and stories that make her laugh.