Saturday, July 21, 2007


It’s funny how shaving one’s hair into mohawk and dyeing it into a rainbow, then walking 500 miles seem to make a whole lot of other things that used to seem ridiculous seem, well, a whole lot less ridiculous. What inhibitions I had before the walk seem to be fading as fast as my hair dye.

Earlier tonight, I was about to drive home from my friend’s house in DC, but I realized that if I stuck around for a bit, I could buy the new Harry Potter book at midnight. Besides, it was such a nice evening that I thought I’d walk around for a bit; that’s been happening a lot recently.

While I was walking through Dupont Circle, I heard some music and saw a crowd, so I headed in that direction. A big brass band of energetic musicians was standing on the sidewalk, playing some raucous funeral marching jazz. I stood on the street at the edge of the gathering, looking on.

The hierarchy of these events is familiar to all of us. There are concentric circles. First the band itself. Then, there are the people nearest the band who gyrate and hoot and sing along. They are absorbed in the moment, oblivious to those on the outside. The people in the next ring clap when instructed to do so and rock their bodies stiffly. They are constantly looking around at the other people in the crowd, self-consciously trying to gauge who is watching them. Those on the outer edge cross their arms across their bodies and observe from a distance. Sometimes, rarely, they tap their feet. They survey the scene; they do not get involved.

I was standing beyond the dancers. While I listened, I was reminded of being 19 years old and working for The Great Connecticut Traditional Jazz Festival. I thought of how much I loved laughing and dancing with the members of the Young Olympians, young African American jazz artists from New Orleans. In nearly 20 years on the planet, it was one of the first times I had any meaningful interaction with someone who wasn’t a white New Englander.

The music in Dupont Circle wasn’t quite that caliber, but it was pretty good, and I stood primly, dutifully clapping, feeling a bit jealous of the people who were boogying near the center. Then I thought about the last time I danced. It was in Madrid a couple of weeks ago at the All Europe Gay Pride Festival. I was on the street watching the parade. A few other people were dancing. Not many. I looked at them shyly. I sort of felt like dancing, too, but I was embarrassed. Then I decided that I was being silly. I was traveling. They didn’t know me. So I flailed my arms and shuffled my feet and smiled and sweated. It’s so easy to risk foolishness when in a foreign land.

D.C. is often accused of being conservative (and not just because of who is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), so it was refreshing to see people cutting loose. I watched the dancers. We always watch the dancers, don’t we? Although we listen to the music, our eyes are usually focused on the people who are publicly moving their bodies. When I am on the outside looking in, I don’t usually feel critical of the way people dance. I like watching the people with rhythm and coordination, but I like watching the others, too. If I see someone particularly graceless, I admire them. I admire them, and I pity myself for standing still.

Tonight there was a good mix of people gathered around the center. One guy was dancing soulfully while astride his bike. A Latino guy was ineptly trying to use a washboard that a band member had lent to him. I was transfixed by a girl wearing hijab who was a fantastic, sensual dancer.

I kept trying to get myself to dance, but I kept imagining different people I know coming by and spotting me. I felt uncomfortable. I did just what the other non-dancers were doing; I exchanged tight smiles with other people and scanned the crowd nervously. I don’t know why I’m concerned. Most of my friends and acquaintances wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see me near the band, swaying, oblivious to onlookers.

I suddenly realized that I was hoping to see two specific people. I was looking for Luke and Peter; I was looking for the only two pilgrims I know who live in D.C. Somehow, having them with me would have made the risk feel safer.

Just as I was getting really frustrated with myself, I saw this man walk toward the crowd. He was shortish and sixtyish. He had white hair. He wore a suit. I was sure he was going to be too serious to stop. I thought he would keep walking. But he didn’t keep walking. He stopped, smiled at me, and started to move his arms just a little. I looked right at him, and I started to dance. And he did, too. He had moves. We laughed at each other. For a little while, on the edge of the crowd, we danced together.

Soon, I wasn’t searching the crowd anymore (though I was vaguely aware of the two of us being photographed). Soon, I wasn’t even looking at him. Soon, I was just dancing—and smiling.

I walk pigeon-toed. My hair is silly. I’m an utterly graceless dancer. I might feel self-conscious when I do something new, something I’m not good at. I may very well look absurd most of the time. I might make other people uncomfortable with my choices. But those risks must be worth it because trying scary things that I'm not good at almost always make me smile.

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