In the dance of life, just a word may change it all

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Why Don't We Just Dance?

I grew up in a family that loved to dance, and in a community that loved to dance.

My grandparents were immigrants and it was a common part of their cultures to dance.

Winters are long and hard many times in North Dakota and one of the indoor pastimes during those cold months was dancing. We had dances during lunch hour at school, and we had weekly dances at the YMCA or the Armory or at the Maple Lake Pavilion.

My mother met her second husband at a dance at the Elks Lodge, and they danced themselves into a romance. It was sad to watch Archie's muscles deteriorate from Lou Gehrig's Disease, and their dancing days came to an end.

While I was growing up we danced.

There's a country song performed by Josh Turner Called "Why Don't We Just Dance." The lyrics go like this:

"Baby why don't we just turn that TV off,

315 channels of nothing but bad news on.

Well it might be me but the way I see it the whole wide world has gone crazy,

So baby why don't we just dance down the hall, maybe straight up the stairs, bouncin' off the wall, floatin' on air, baby, why don't we just dance."

Sometimes, I just feel like dancing.

Not too long ago, I received an e-mail from a woman by the name of Ellen Washington who lives in Camden, N.J. She wanted to know if I was the same Doug Dezotell that went to South Junior High School in Grand Forks, N.D. I wrote her back and told her that I was. She responded by thanking me for something I did way back in the seventh grade.

I didn't recognize the name until she told me her story.

Ellen's father was stationed at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, and she and all the young people living on base were bussed into town to attend school there. She was the only African American student in the seventh grade at South Junior High and she felt like an outcast.

At one of our school dances I walked across the gym floor and asked Ellen if she wanted to dance. She was shocked and told me no. I felt bad and returned to my spot on the gym wall.

Ellen wrote, "Thanks for responding to my e-mail. What I wanted to thank you for was asking me to dance at the seventh grade dance. I know this may sound funny to you and I also suspect one of the teachers or principal may have told you to ask me, but it made me feel good in a school that made me feel bad most of the time because of my skin color.

"I tried very hard to fit in and ended up hanging with the wrong people for acceptance. You never really know how something in your childhood is going to affect you in life.*

"One thing I will never forget is the day you asked me to dance, and even though I said no because I did not want to be scrutinized by the other students it made a lasting impression on me.

"I now work with at-risk kids in urban cities who have many issues, and every once in a while I have told my story over the years of how I was treated at South being the only Black student in seventh grade, and how one person can make a difference in how you feel about yourself or people in general."

I remember that day from long ago, and even though I felt bad at the time for having been turned down, I'm blessed that Ellen remembers that day too. And she remembers it as a positive thing.

We never know when a simple thing like asking someone to dance can make a lasting impression on someone's life. Ellen looked at it as an act of kindness. She didn't get to dance with this fella' who loved to "cut the rug," but she remembers me none the less.

I may not be "Dancing With the Stars" material, and some people may have said that what I did was not dancing anyway, but I still like to dance.

If I ever see Ellen Washington again, I'm going to ask her, "Why don't we just dance?" I don't think my wife will mind.

-- Doug Dezotell is pastor of Mount Lebanon United Methodist Church, a former staff writer for the Times-Gazette, a husband, father and grandfather, and a friend to many. Doug may be reached at