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Dancing for Hope
Spirituality Column #12

By Rev. A. Stephen Pieters

May 15, 1996

From the time of my diagnosis, dance has been a major metaphor for my life with AIDS. I realized that even though they told me the worst thing possible, I could still dance! I tap danced from the pulpit the first time I preached after I was diagnosed. I tap danced in front of Shirley MacLaine, Elizabeth Taylor, and hundreds of other celebrities and industry people at the Entertainment Industry's first AIDS benefit in 1985. I've made a point of dancing just about every time I talk about living with AIDS.

Dancing has been an effective image of hope for my life with AIDS, because it symbolizes joy, exuberance, and love for life. It stands for keeping up the fight, enduring the worst, and maintaining an upbeat attitude. "Gotta Dance!" -- even while fighting cancer and AIDS. Dancing in spite of it all is what hope is all about to me. Whether it's watching it or doing it, dancing gives me joy, and I find I can't feel hopeless when I'm feeling joyful.

I feel so much hope in dancing, that the book about my recovery from AIDS is called "I'm Still Dancing," and the play about my story is called "Still Dancing". When I played myself in a "docu-drama" called "AIDS US II," I did a soft shoe routine to "Tea for Two", reciting in rhythm all my former illnesses. When I left their Board of Directors, the AIDS National Interfaith Network gave me baby tap shoes with a brass plaque saying "Keep on Dancin'!".

From the first time I saw him dance, Gene Kelly was my favorite movie star. I'm one of the people who actually liked the film "That's Dancing!". If you want to make me really happy, take me to a Broadway show with lots of dancing! Then we can go out dancing afterwards. I do some of my best thinking while dancing. Some of my best sermons have been conceived late at night on a crowded dance floor.

I love the beauty of a dancer's lines. I admire the grace and style which many dancers embody both on stage and off. I have a real weakness for accomplished dancers. They know how to communicate with their whole bodies. I love their poise, their athleticism, their ability to express vibrant emotions with the whole body. I love the joy of exuberant dancing. There is nothing that can express hope and joy quite as boundlessly as dancing.

I believe God appreciates dancing, too. The Scriptures often associate dancing with joy and praise, as in Psalm 30:11, "You turned my mourning into dancing; you stripped off my sackcloth and dressed me with joy," and in Psalm 149:3, "Let them praise God's name with dancing." When joy ends, the dancing stops, as in Lamentations 5:15, "Joy has left our hearts; our dancing has become mourning."

In what is thought to be one of the earliest written fragments of the Bible, Miriam and the women celebrate the parting of the Red Sea with singing and dancing (Exodus 15:20-21). The story of David is punctuated with dancing throughout. When David kills Goliath, it is celebrated with singing and dancing (1 Sam 18:6-7). The people of ancient Israel commemorated other victories of David with dances, such as in 1 Samuel 21:11. David himself praised God with his joyful and triumphant dancing (2 Samuel 6:14-16). It seems God loves dancing too.

It's very hard to confess that in spite of how important dance is to me, I really can't dance, as hard as I've tried... I've always been kind of awkward, stiff, and uncoordinated. I know that I'll never be a featured dancer in a big musical as much as I'd love to. I'm just not very good at it. But that doesn't stop me from being a dancer in my heart, and enjoying all the emotional benefits of dancing. Even when I was the sickest, and least able to dance, my soul danced. And that is perhaps when we all need that dancing spirit the most. A professional choreographer tells me, "Everyone can be a dancer, at least in the heart."

I never doubted for a moment my self-image as a dancer when I was crippled with peripheral neuropathy, wasting, and neuro-muscular damage! I remember preaching at the anniversary service of a Metropolitan Community Church in October, 1985, when I was totally wasted with many of the problems that come with late-stage AIDS. I told the congregation I could still dance anyway, and I "shuffled off to Buffalo" all the way across the altar area. I remember each shuffle pounding my body with pain which reverberated through my skull. I almost fell over. I completely lost my breath. I finished with a flourish of the arm, and even that hurt. The congregation roared. They cheered. They stood up. They seemed to understand: the spirit of dancing, even while dying, is a truly healing gift from God. God gave me life and joy in the face of death. I was a dancer, in spite of it all, and maybe because of it all. It felt like a real gift from God.

Four months later, my "buddy" from AIDS Project Los Angeles, Wade, came to pick me up to take me to a friend's house for a TV interview. Wade, who saw me at least once a week, was shocked when he saw me. I was almost blind. I was totally wasted, with very little muscle tissue left. My dry, grey skin hung loosely from my bones, my hair was spotty at best, and the pain of peripheral neuropathy took my attention most of the time. I had so little energy, that I had a hard time responding to people even by simply moving my head.

Wade carried me up to his car. It took 15 minutes to get me up to the apartment where the camera crew were waiting. Wade put me to bed while they finished the camera set-up. And when they finally propped me up for the interview, Wade had to do most of the talking (this was the true barometer of how sick I was!) The one thing I did manage to say was "Wade dances with me." What I meant, of course, was that Wade kept my spirit going. But I obviously still thought of myself as dancing, even in the dying process, even when I was almost totally incapacitated. My body couldn't possibly dance. I knew in my head that this was true, and yet in my heart, I was still a dancer.

I remember sitting in the wheel chair at the hospital during that same period, my head bowed from fatigue, my shoulders stooped and covered with a blanket. I kept trying to tap my toes on the foot rests. When I couldn't handle that because of the pain, I tapped the arm rests with my hands. I had to keep dancing.

Eleven years later, I'm healthy, muscular, and completely active. True, I'm a klutz, and in spite of lessons and the greatest desire, I still can't dance! But I dance whenever I can. Dance keeps my hope alive. So I keep dancing.

Discover the dancer in your heart. Love, nurture, and encourage that dancer. There's hope in dancing! And everyone can do it. Dancing with HIV/AIDS is a statement of faith!

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