Scott Farrell comments:
A knight is more than a warrior. Knights, lords and ladies of the Middle Ages were also expected to display the “courtly graces” at feasts and gatherings, and one of these graces was skill in dancing. On the surface this might seem silly — a demonstration of just how frivolous chivalry really is — but as author David Anderson reminds us, there is an underlying sense of compassion, sincerity, fidelity and respect wrapped up in the simple act of dancing. In relationships, as in a dance, we often stumble, step on each other’s toes, get frustrated and feel bored, but a knight in shining armor must have the grace to overcome those setbacks without losing the rhythm. Getting beyond selfishness, anger and apathy requires gallantry and confidence. In this essay, excerpted from the book Breakfast Epiphanies, we are reminded that chivalry is a crucial element in any intimate relationship based on trust, honor and sincerity.
When my wife and I set out to learn how to dance, we did not expect to practice. We wanted to waltz like Maria and the captain in The Sound of Music, and we naïvely assumed that our expert instructor, Larry, would show us the basic trick to waltzing and then we would start twirling and gliding. Instead we spent half the hour learning how to rise and fall with every beat, how to place each step – Drive with that foot, he would insist, No, heel first! – and the other half learning three measly steps. (The poster board on the easel listed 27. We won’t be waltzing in public until our silver anniversary.)
When the hour was up, Larry gave us a sheet with the 27 moves and told us to go home and practice. “Next week,” he said with a big smile, “I’ll turn on the music and we’ll start with a little dance recital.”
The next day we put the coffee table in the hallway and moved the living room furniture against the walls. Practice began. Someone looking in the window (and don’t think we didn’t worry about that) would have seen two stiff mannequins locked in herky-jerky combat. But we were happily learning how to dance. For a week or more it was all wonderful like that.
It is not hard to dance with someone when everything is just fine. But it is almost impossible to take up a dance position with someone you are fighting with. Pam and I tend not to have explosive fights. (I am Scandinavian and Virgo; I’m not sure what her excuse is.) Our quarrels tend to simmer for days until someone is grown-up enough to suggest we ought to have a talk.
In the middle of such a simmering conflict, however, it is time to go through our paces. “Are we going to practice our dance?” she says. “I guess so,” I say with a passive-aggressive shrug. I put on the music and we stand in the middle of the living room floor like two hedgehogs negotiating an embrace. I take her right hand. Stiff. I place my right hand squarely on her back. She squirms as if to say, “This is stupid – you can’t dance with someone you don’t even want to be in the same room with!” But we lurch forward on the downbeat of Hi-Lilli, Hi-Lo, clomping woodenly through the waltz. It is ugly, but we do it. And afterward we nod at each other coolly as if to say, “So there.”
That dance rehearsal with its pathetic embrace was pure revelation. It may be impossible to dance with someone you don’t even want to be around. But, we discovered, you can practice dancing. You don’t always have to enjoy it, you just have to do it. It’s the only way to become any good at this. When you’re in conflict with your partner, you can’t wait for reconciliation to hold one another and move in mirrored grace. You practice your way through the mess. In other words, dancers dance.
Because it involves intimacy, dancing seems to demand emotion or feeling. Wrong. It’s nice when feeling coincides with intimacy and the outward and visible beauty of a couple’s movement seems a sacramental sign of an inward and spiritual grace. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that one. It happens, but only because you practice.
We are sometimes enthralled by the romantic notion that, in intimate relationships, we ought not do or say anything we don’t truly feel. To do so would be dishonest. Wrong again. Usually we have to go through the motions to get to the emotions. “We are more likely to act our way into feeling,” C.S. Lewis said, “than to feel our way into acting.” The 12-steppers put it in shirtsleeve English: Fake it till you make it.
It is our family custom to hold hands when we say grace. We’ve done it since the children were old enough to join us at the table. Sometimes when we are in conflict, one or another person will decline to join hands. But more often than not we manage to close the circle. This act of intimacy does not mean that all parties are reconciled – the pitched argument continues right after the amen. It is simply a reminder that while we may be in a bitter war, we are fighting with those we dearly love. If action must wait upon feeling, it is impossible to hold someone’s hand – and “insincere” to pray – in such a state of anger. Yet a moment’s thought tells us that intimacy in the midst of conflict is the true test of love. Anyone can hold a hand or say a prayer when they feel like it.
In relationships, as in all of life, we are perfected by practice. It’s the one thing we can do even if we’re not sure we can do the real thing. If you can’t dance, you can practice dancing. If you can’t love, you can practice loving. If you can’t empathize or set aside anger or hold a hand, you can practice doing it. Sometimes the other person can’t tell the difference, and after a while, neither can you.
©2005 David Anderson
About the author: David Anderson is rector of Trinity Church in Solebury, Penn., and a columnist for the Pennsylvania Episcopalian. He has received various awards for his writing, including the Lilly Endowment grant. He lives with his wife, cookbook author Pam Anderson, and his two daughters in New Hope, Penn. This essay is reprinted from his book Breakfast Epiphanies: Finding the Wonder in the Everyday, and may not be reprinted in any form without permission from the author.