by Kerra Becker English
Ginger Rogers danced all the same moves as Fred Astaire, but she did them backwards, and in heels! I’m not the first to notice. This quote has gone around in dance circles for probably as long as Fred and Ginger have been well-known. The legendary couple made partner dancing look effortless, but as we now know from the popularity and the weekly drama that comes from watching “Dancing with the Stars,” learning to dance, and dance well, takes effort, patience, humility, and grace.
Years ago, when I was in seminary studying for the ministry, I took up ballroom dancing as a hobby. It was a joy and a relief to leave all that head work behind to slide on my dance shoes and immerse myself in something totally different. I’m no Ginger Rogers, but I have decent rhythm, so over time, I was able to learn the basic steps for a number of classic dances. However, learning the steps is really the secondary part of the process. The first thing that women partners learn to do is follow.
In an age where books on leadership have their own section at the local bookstore, learning to follow is something not being widely taught. Who would sign up for a class called “Excellent Followership” or “Following Well?” To follow someone or something implies weakness in our culture’s contemporary way of thinking. Followers join cults. Followers buy too much from infomercials. Followers don’t become bosses; they are managed by bosses. Following is about subordination. Truth be told, women were once expected to be the designated followers in more places than just on the ballroom floor—a stereotype I’ve tried to avoid all my life. And yet, as I returned from dance class to my regular life of studying the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel of Jesus and even the letters and doctrines of the church, a refrain kept running through these stories, and that refrain was a plea from the Living God, the Holy Spirit, the voice of Christ saying over and over again, “Follow me.”
I’m suspicious that most stories of the spiritual journey, perhaps regardless one’s faith perspective, begin with an invitation from our Divine Source to follow. I was lucky enough to learn through dance that following doesn’t have to be limited to its most narrow interpretation as passive or uncritical obedience. Following well engages the whole person. It becomes completely interactive and attentive to the slightest touch. Ultimately, I’ve found the act of following far truer to the spiritual experience of human engagement with our Source than the vain notion that tells us we’re living our lives in the lead, and that progress is ultimately dependent upon us. Sure, in our person to person relationships, there are times one may be called upon to take the lead, but even then not nearly as often as the plethora of books and motivational speakers out there would have us believe.
So what exactly is it that I have learned about following? I learned quickly that I’m not always good at it and that I follow better when I quit trying so hard to get things right. But through my many dance floor mistakes, I gleaned some valuable spiritual lessons about what following the holy lead is all about. The frequent reminders I received from my dance instructors have become good lessons applicable to living the life of faith.
1. Maintain your frame. (Connection)
Or as a counselor might say it, “Know your boundaries.” Hold on too tightly, vice-grip. Hold on too loosely, spaghetti arms. A rigid hold is also called back-leading and it means that the following partner is not keeping her part of the dance agreement. A flimsy hold muffles the connection between partners. The partner can no longer read the lead’s signals and the dance falls apart. Good boundaries make for good dancers. Lousy boundaries always spoil the result somehow—be it dancing or otherwise.
In the spiritual life, as in the dancing life, true connection begins with an invitation. I like to imagine Jesus extending a gracious hand and leading me onto the dance floor, saying, “Follow me.” In order to be the willing partner Jesus asks his followers to be, I must bring my full self, aware of all my gifts and all my limitations, in order to be able to truly go where he is leading. Known by many names, the Divine Lead will never push nor coerce, and yet I must be willing to connect and learn my part if I am to feel where the Holy One wants me to turn next. Ultimately, I become so well known by my partner that I can trust that any steps, no matter how challenging, will not be beyond my reach, and my partner will not leave me stranded.
Maintaining frame in partnership with the Divine is not necessarily about maintaining a perfect ideology, or perfect obedience, or perfect anything for that matter. A spiritual frame as I understand it is about active engagement, connection, and readiness. A good hold signals to my partner that I am ready to accept being led and will actively go where he’s going. That’s the dancer’s ideal. But this reflection is about my mistakes! I know I am still holding on for control when my instructor asks me, “So, do you want to lead this time?” And I know I’m not connecting enough when he asks me, “Where are you going?” My experience of joining the dance of faith has produced some very similar sounding questions.
2. Your job is to move. (Trust)
Good dance instructors will frequently teach with questions. Recently, a new instructor said to me, “My job is to let you know where to move. What’s your job?” I answered, “I guess my job is to move.”
Following is not about standing still in a tradition, it’s about taking in all that spiritual energy and allowing it to move and expand and grow. Jesus encouraged his disciples to do the very same things he was doing, only better. In John’s gospel, Jesus is teaching his followers about what they must do after he’s gone, and he says, “The person who trusts me will not only do what I’m doing but [will do] even greater things” (The Message, John 14:12a). He fully expected his ministry to grow and expand and continue to evolve. He taught them the steps. Then he said, “Do them better.” When your spiritual teacher tells you to move, MOVE!
Being able to move confidently comes from having complete trust in your partner. It is true that my partner could run me into a wall. I could fall, or be dropped painfully on my behind. I could get my feet so tangled up in Quickstep that I never walk right again. Bodily movement is scary for a buttoned up clergy-type person. Trusting the movement of the Spirit is terrifying for everyone. Not only might I look silly in front of my peers, I might have to love my enemies, or pray for people who hate me. I might have to give of myself more than I want. I might be required to speak a message of justice for the oppressed in a crowd full of oppressors. I might make the wrong move altogether and be put in my place. But movement is a part of the spiritual dance as well. Otherwise, the spiritual connections atrophy and the living beauty of a holy tradition becomes nothing more than its hardened remains.
3. Dance on your own two feet (Balance)
Following is tough. Ask Ginger. It’s harder than it looks. It takes practice to maintain balance through a double turn. It takes instruction to learn all the elements of achieving correct hip action for a Cha-Cha and then be able to do it without clutching on to a partner’s arm for support. The spiritual life is upheld by learning and repeating those practices that enable the practitioners to keep their own balance. Even the very best dance partner cannot maintain balance for two!
Sadly, we live in a world that is constantly throwing us off balance. It seems to be the plague of our contemporary existence. Not enough work, too much work. Not enough money, too much money. Not enough play time, too much play time. And a thousand experts who want to tell us which side we’re on and how to recalibrate according to their expectations!
However, no one can acquire balance for somebody else. A wise instructor can tell when a dance student is out of balance pretty easily, but then fixing it is hard, especially if the student has no desire to make any changes. The student has to feel it. And yet, grounded in the instruction and practice of a long line of faithful followers is exactly how I learned to feel my way toward knowing right over wrong, loving over hurtful, faithful over ambivalent, toward following God’s plan rather than trying to control it or wanting to walk away from it. We don’t give feeling enough credit in our overly analytical world. The ancients often described feeling God’s presence as they were brought into wholeness, into balance. They lamented God’s absence when they were off-kilter and struggling. They paid attention to those lessons and learned about faithfulness as they shared life together in family groups, tribes, and nations.
4. Take one step at a time. (Patience)
Okay, here’s my real stumbling block. I try to finish steps like some people try to finish sentences. I like to show off what I know, or at least think I know. Anticipating steps is one way I disengage from truly being present for the dance. There is a significant difference between dancing a choreographed dance routine and actually dancing with a partner who could change things up at any time. In order to truly follow my partner and not remain stuck in some former pattern or routine, it requires patience on my part to wait for the actual lead. I can only take one step at a time, the step that is being led at the moment, even if my mind wanders three quarters of the way around the dance floor.
I’ve heard it said that if you want to make God laugh, make plans. It’s not that planning ahead is all bad, but in the spiritual life, I know I need to learn how to take direction more. God may change things up on me. And I use the word maydripping with sarcasm. I have found being in step with the Divine to be an exercise in constantly changing direction. And yet, God gives us all the time we need to complete the next step every time. When I am patient enough and connected enough, I know the lead won’t come too early, and it definitely won’t come too late. Honestly, it will be there, exactly on time, no joke. Following is ultimately about allowing ourselves to operate on God’s sense of timing—which may not be exactly what we want, but it will be what we need!
5. Sympathize with those who are dancing life backwards and in heels. (Compassion)
The more I deepen my practice of following, the more I understand that “following” as a spiritual practice rings truest among the marginalized. Jesus chose fishermen and tax collectors, women and foreigners, the destitute and broken-hearted to teach his message about God’s love and ask them to follow in his way. The most prominent biblical story about a person who refused to follow is about a rich, young, male, politically-connected, religious wannabe who asks Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’s answer is, “Sell all you have. Give the money to the poor. And follow me.” We assume it was about the money. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Truth is: he couldn’t do it. Many who are well off, connected, religious, and are among the privileged will refute the suggestion that they follow anyone, even Jesus.
I reluctantly admit that I’m more often like the rich young ruler than the odd assortment of characters who left everything to follow Jesus. I’ve been a collector, a collector of books and charts and methodologies for leadership. I want to count myself among the leaders in this world when my joy actually comes more from what and who I follow than from anything I’ve ever led. Giving credit where credit is due, the best books on leadership share some of the same characteristics that come from wise following. Remember that leaders and followers share the same steps—even if they seem to be going in opposite directions. Compassionate leaders will be connected to their followers, and followers will expect, or demand, that their leaders be inviting, trustworthy, patient, balanced, and joyful.
6. It takes two to Tango. (Partnership)
One of the things I loved most about being enrolled in ballroom dance classes was being able to count on a weekly practice party. There was something both exhilarating and terrifying about entering a room where I would be invited to dance with people better than me, worse than me, older than me, younger than me, more confident than me, or with far sweatier palms than me. Sometimes the partner of choice would be my husband, other times I went alone and danced with anyone who asked! Working out the dance with different types of music and different human partners is one way of recognizing that the holy partnership is far more varied than I ever expected it to be. As Moses learned from the burning bush, God’s preferred name is, “I am who I am, or I will be who I will be.” God may always be the same, but we experience God in many different ways in the different ages and stages of our lives.
For some, this may be disconcerting. Not everyone who signs up for dance lessons thinks, “Oh joy, a practice party.” But it is in practicing (and hopefully improving) our relationships with each other that we begin to understand our relationship with God. God may, at times, be like a parent, a lover, a friend, a boss, a stalker, or a dance partner. Each characteristic catches a glimpse of God, but not all the complexity of God. The Genesis tradition reminds us that human beings were created for partnership, with one another and with our Creator. God pronounces it good for us to take the spiritual journey together, leading and following, following and leading, encouraging one another along the way.
7. Dancing is fun, and life is a dance! (Joy)
Because I took lessons purely for the fun of it, I have chosen to remain a social dancer rather than a competitive one. And yet, there are times it feels as though someone is watching and judging my life like a dance competition. I can hear dance judges Len, Bruno, and Carrie Ann of “Dancing with the Stars” telling me what I did wrong and giving me my score to see if I can come back next week. It’s easy for me to begin to think of God more like the panel of judges instead of like the partner who has been the one cheering me on, guiding my steps, and encouraging me to keep my eyes focused on him the whole way through.
What I have noticed through the lens of “Dancing with the Stars” is that a whole lot of mistakes are forgiven when the couple on the floor seems to be having fun with the dance. That’s the point, isn’t it? Dancing is an expression of the joy of life—the whole range of joy—from the bouncy happy Jive, to the lovers’ quarrel in Tango, to the lilting rhythm of the Waltz. I’m not naïve enough to think that following God’s voice will eliminate life’s painful moments. It doesn’t. But God sometimes can supply just the right music, just the right movement, to remind me that hope and joy are possible even when smiling is not.
Following the holy lead in my life has not necessarily made it any easier or more pain-free. And yet following in Christ’s way has given me meaning and joy beyond anything I could have choreographed on my own. To know that the Living Spirit partners with my spirit allows me to move beyond the critiques of the judges and to care less about the votes of the viewers. When I am following to the very best of my ability, I get lost in the music, and I know then that the dance is even more important than any individual dancer, me included. u
- Have you experienced an invitation to join the dance? Under what circumstances?
- What is your connection with the Spirit like? Who is in the lead? Have you been willing to follow?
- Is God a trustworthy partner? Why or why not?
- What would it take to feel more solid on your own two feet? How could you strengthen your sense of balance?
- Do you allow God to work on God’s time in your life? How rushed are you to make plans and see them fulfilled?
- Who would be your role models for faithful following? How might you emulate those examples?
- Does partner dancing ring true for you as a metaphor of the human/Divine relationship? How might the lead/follow metaphor work in our person-to-person relationships in a holy way?
- In what ways do you experience the joy of being invited by God? of being connected to God? of trusting in God? of being God’s partner in the dance?
Congregations magazine, 2012-09-10
2012 Issue 3, Number 3