Dancing at Twilight

Last week I spent a day swinging through the age groups. I started off in the morning teaching swing dance to three classes of fourth graders at PS 94 in the Bronx. In the evening, I walked over to the Jewish Home for the Aged and participated in “Roseland” night where volunteers dance with the elderly residents. Then I went out swing dancing at Swing 46. When the day started, I thought, “Well this is a natural for an essay.” A nice upbeat story about joy and communication in dance through all the ages of life, right?

But as I sit to write, I find myself haunted by the smell of the home for the aged, the plastic odor of catheter bags, the waxy fragrance of the old bodies, the pinched aroma of the institutional food. Life doesn’t always fit the requirements of a chipper blog post.

The night has turned cool and rainy as I walk to the home for the aged. As I enter, the fresh moist air is overcome by the cloistered institutional smells, the darkness yielding to the shuddering and brittle fluorescent light. I am filled with revulsion and a strong urge to turn around and leave. My spirit appears to be flowing through the bottom of my head and out my right foot.

I meet up with the other volunteers, and am dispatched to pick up the residents that need help getting down to the auditorium. I bridle at the idea of going up to their rooms to harry them out, but this is the system, so off I go with another volunteer. The other volunteer seems inured to this place. She is relentlessly cheerful, sticking her face right into the face of the elderly as she speaks to them. She’s bright and interested, and happily follows along on vague conversations that ramble off topic. I don’t want to follow down those long, meandering, dimly lit hallways of speech because I think I know where they will lead: that cramped inner chamber where the lonesome speakers sit, slumped and in pain, steeped in sadness. What will there be to do then but sit with them and know that they are dying piece by piece, in pain and bored? I am amazed that the other volunteer is able to take positive, optimistic action so casually.

We locate a woman who wants to go to the dance, and walk with her, making slow but deliberate progress back to the auditorium, where the crowd is gathering. There must be about 25 residents seated around the dance floor, most in wheelchairs. There are some residents who still have their mobility and can dance upright. One of these is an erect and gaunt woman, her body mass reduced to bones and ropy muscles that are surprisingly strong. She is 95, her hair going sparse, her teeth mostly missing and she wears a flowered housedress. She loves dancing. “She’ll never say no”, one of the men sitting by her side says. I lead her onto the dance floor and dance with her, holding each of her hands in mine. Her body pivots easily, her arms strong despite their wasted look. We lean away from each other, and then pull toward each other, and her face floats up to mine. Her eyes are milky with cataract and lit with amusement. She smells like my grandmother did, of warm milk and the plastic capsules of medication. “Boo!” she says. We push apart and here comes her face again and she says “Meow!” Apart, together “Ruff! Ruff!”. It’s like dancing with a child.

There is a black man who wants to dance to the funk music. Actually it’s hard to tell what he wants, but the funk comes on, and one of the volunteers is over there talking to him. Did she just happen to be near him when the music came on, or did she decide that black man = funk music? I don’t know. She’s got her face down next to his, asking him if he’d like to dance. I can’t tell whether he really understands the question, nor can I read the response well, but the consensus is yes he’d like to dance, so we help him up out of the wheel chair, and his body is heavy and slack. His balance is poor so I hold him under the armpit while the other volunteer holds his hand and dances. The three of us dance together, she facing him, bright and smiling, me at his side, my arm under his armpit, supporting his weight. I can feel the way he dances, the loose sinking motions like a t’ai chi artist dropping his weight into the ground. And it also feels like maybe he’s in the pocket there, he’s got the loose groove going, he’s sinking his weight just a little behind the beat. He’s really dancing with what mobility he has left. And I feel happy for him, and I smell urine, and I wonder if I got any on my pants.

The wheel chair bound residents are parked in a circle facing the dance floor. I go up to them and ask “Would you like to go for a spin?”, and I am surprised how many answer “Yes!” definitely. They look slyly pleased. Off we wheel, making looping patterns around the floor, and dodging the upright dancers. On one Latin number, we form a wheelchair conga line.

Since I am behind my dance partners, I can’t make eye contact. This is frustrating to me, since I’m used to dancing face to face, reading my partner’s expressions and adjusting the dance accordingly. Standing behind the wheelchair, it’s hard to tell whether my passenger/partners are enjoying themselves – it’s more an article of faith. With some, I can tell. There’s one woman that likes to carry a maraca and play it as we go, so I know that she’s into it. Another sits in her chair, her body flaccid, her feet and lower legs swollen and edemous. But as I push her she shimmies, her hips wiggling in the chair, her fingers snapping, her dark eyes flashing. I compliment her on her shimmying and she looks up at me with her raven bright eyes and says, “You ain’t seen nothing yet”. I am pierced by her indomitability. I pray that I will be able to flirt from a wheelchair as gallantly.

There are others of the wheelchair bound that do not want to be wheeled around. One of these is a woman who sits slumped to the side of her chair, her face slack, and her eyes pained. I ask her several times if she would like me to take her around, holding my ear up to her lips so that her answer can drop in. But she never wants to glide around the floor, and whenever I pass her by, I am scorched by her sadness. I can’t help but look her way and feel my heart curl.

Maybe that’s my problem here at the home for the aged. I have little immunity to their sadness. I’m always sensitive to sadness – prone to it myself. I fall for women with sad eyes. In my neurotic romantic mythology, I think that somehow I’ll make those sad-eyed women happy again. When I’m at the home for the aged, I know that many of the residents are suffering from a sadness that I will never be able to lift, and I feel crushed by it. I shrink from the infection of their sadness, fearing it fatal.

I spent a lot of time over the summer trying to learn to be present. Intimacy, I think, is being able to be present just as you are, and see and touch another person exactly as they are. It’s easy enough to witness someone in the glory of joy and beauty. It takes much more strength to be present for someone in sadness and deterioration. Sometimes I despair of ever achieving that measure of strength.

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