Dance to the Music: A Personal History
“Everything you need is in your bones.” – Mama Nayo
That quote, scrawled on a large sheet of paper, hung from the ceiling in the workshop center at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn., two years ago, when I attended a week-long cultural organizing workshop named for Zilphia Horton. I had, two years prior, moved to North Carolina from Washington State to commence researching Horton’s life and work for a book I will eventually finish writing. These things take time, and nobody has ever written about Zilphia at this length before.
If you want to know anything about who Nayo was, there’s this beautiful blogspot someone created to allow anyone who was touched by her work, to contribute. I never knew her, had never even heard of her until I attended the HREC workshop. But that quote, scrawled on that sheet of paper, has been lodged in my head ever since.
I grew up studying music, from the time I was a very small girl. I played piano first, then — briefly — violin. I studied classical voice and flute, which became my primary instrument. I made a concerted, deliberate decision when my interests guided me to the guitar. Having studied seriously for years, I wanted to learn the guitar intuitively — no teacher, no sheet music, and for the love of god no metronome. Now, almost 20 years after having first picked up the instrument, I still can’t sight read guitar music. I still don’t know what half the chords are called. I know music theory like I know the object I’m sitting in is called a chair, but it’s not someting I’ve ever thought about while playing any guitar. I’m not the person you call for a jam, but I never had a problem coming up with a brand new song if you left me alone with a guitar for 20 minutes. When I was performing all the time, I thought this meant I was supposed to be a guitar player. I took it as if all the other musical study all my life was just filling me with music that I could then channel into the guitar and three-to-five-minute “folk” songs. The fact that meaningful words came onto the page in rhyme, seemed to underscore that.
All along, meanwhile, I also studied dance. Ballet, mostly, until I was a teenager and picked up tap, modern, hip-hop dance. I never understood dance as an avenue of musical study, though, until I found myself in that workshop center in Tennessee, looking at Mama Nayo’s quote.
I had a friend and mentor who once taught me that, as a songwriter, you only get to make half of a song. What you sing and play — the way your voice carries the meldoy and your hands carry the rhythm — is only half of the song. The other half is brought by the people who are listening. If nobody’s listening, your music is undone. If it doesn’t fall on anyone, it’s a waste of breath. Like practicing saying “I love you” to the wall.
To that end, I’ve come to understand, there is something that happens musically when you’re dancing. Sitting and listening to music, you are, whether you mean to be or not, a passive participant in the music. You complete the song by adding your own history, your thoughts, emotional context, expectations. Where you are in that moment makes the song what it is to you, which is half the point. But, when you dance, you collaborate with the musician. It becomes like a tennis match. They bat the melody and rhythm to you, the lyrics flick on light switches in your body. The logic part of the brain that tries to understand what it all means, turns off. You become a vessel for the music, like a voice or a trumpet or a guitar.
It might be hard to believe at a time when the popular way to interact with music is to stand still, staring in the same direction as everyone else, at a person on the stage. Or, with headphones on, looking pensive, sitting still, by yourself. But, dancing is a human tradition, an instinct as deep as singing and talking. It awakens in us a certain power. Like singing or telling your story, you cannot cry and dance at the same time. To dance is to release all fear and trepidation. It is, like making good music, a defiant act. It’s an assertion of personal freedom. It is also a way of connecting with each other. Dancing is such a form of deep connection, people have tried to outlaw it, restrict it, refuse to allow certain people to dance with certain other people. Highlander — where this personal essay began — was once scrutinized by many because white people and African American people danced there, together.
Meanwhile, Zilphia and Ralph Tefferteller, and others, encouraged dancing there because they knew of its healing powers. They understood that, if you get people singing and dancing together, their prejudices and fears and hangups disappear. They come to understand they are made of the same stuff, inclined to the same indulgences, deserving of the same liberties. Dance with a room full of people and, together, you all become like the sail on a boat, being blown by the song. Dancing requires you to shift your balance, rely on your core, literally throw your weight around. It’s a way to loosen up and relax; a way to blow off steam and tire out. Besides, it is a natural thing to do when faced with great music.
I’ve found that, as a critic, if I’m having trouble connecting with the music — when my brain tells me there’s something meaningful but my ears aren’t enjoying themselves — I will sometimes get up and dance. Even swaying back and forth to the rhythm can be enough to open those channels. The connection to the music and lyrics — to the song! — can be so immediate and deep as to completely change the experience of listening to the same recording in the future. I begin to hear with my whole body and being, not just with my two little ears and my brain. Other times, the dance pulls me in for just the three minutes it takes to connect with the song. Then the song is over and I forget it ever happened. I know those records have no staying power because, even in that process of turning myself over to the song, no impression was left. That doesn’t make it bad music. It just makes it fleeting and, ultimately, in my opinion, unimportant.
Four months ago, my daughter was born. It’s been an interesting time, working on the development of new ideas around ND with our new owners (all good things, nothing drastic) at the same time as discovering this child and the way she is coming to understand the world around her. Exhaustive levels of sleep deprivation chip away at the walls of inhibition, awareness, the telling of time, the priorities I thought I had. She is centerstage and everything else is light and sound. As it should be. But the most interesting thing happens when life becomes distilled down to such an abrupt separation between What Matters and What Doesn’t: you find out what parts of you are the foundation. Some people call it auto-pilot. I think it’s more the essence of pershonhood — who I am when I’m not focused on everything and everyone else, because I simply don’t have the energy.
It turns out, there is music in my bones. I dance and sway. I listen deeply or not at all, by instinct rather than by requirement. Yes, it is my profession to consider music deeply. But, it turns out I do that anyway. What’s more, I sing to the baby — songs about the trees and the people, songs about what’s happening in the present moment. Songs come out like Broadway ballads and hair band rockers. There’s the occasional rap. But, mostly, the songs that happen come to the tune of seemingly ancient folk melodies. Their rhythms are accessible and obvious. I don’t have to find something to dance to, in those songs. It feels as though I’ve always known how to dance to them, how to connect with them. I suspect I’m not the only one for whom this is true. What music is in your bones? What makes you dance?
(Real criticism to come… But, by the way, what have I been dancing to? Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, Jonah Tolchin, John Fullbright, the Duhks, and Nickel Creek.)