A Steady Presence

19 September 2019

The first time I walked by myself the half mile through the big, open field to Grandma Carroll’s house I was probably four or five years old. As I walked from my family’s farm house toward grandma’s little white house, my mom stood at the kitchen window, watching my squat legs carry me through the weeds the entire way there. As I got closer, I remember seeing grandma’s sturdy figure waiting patiently with a smile on her face.

Many years later in college, my brain scrambled after too many tests and all nighters as I tried to get school projects done, I drove the hour from Kent State University in Ohio to grandma’s house in the tiny town of Salem. Without letting her know I was coming, I showed up on her doorstep with a backpack and forced smile on my exhausted face. She didn’t ask questions, just opened the door, put the kettle on for tea, and made me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We sat out on the back porch amidst her blooming pink begonias and drank our tea and ate our sandwiches in silence. As I sat there cradling the warm mug in my hands, my hips softened in the chair and my jaw relaxed its clenching. For the first time in a long time, I felt completely welcomed and loved.

In 2012, I took a three month sabbatical from my job running Ecstatic Dance Oakland and went on a voyage of self discovery to Bali. One morning, as the mist was rising off the bright green rice paddies and I sat listening to the rhythmic clanging of the coffee cans that were rigged to keep birds away from the rice, I felt a subtle shift in the air. I looked over at the smoking incense beside me and noticed the smoke rise up over my head and caress me like a baptism. I took a deep breath of the perfumed smoke and closed my eyes for a few breaths as I let the incense seep into my bones, my thoughts on my grandmother. I opened my eyes and saw a huge black butterfly resting on the wall in front of me. I immediately knew my grandmother had passed to the other side, and was offering me a blessing.

A month later, I returned to Oakland and resumed my duties of running the Sunday Ecstatic Dance. While I was on sabbatical, my mother had taken care of running the dance along with the incredible team and volunteers. The first time I was back on the dance floor at Sweet’s, it felt the same as it always had—same musty smell as I walked up the golden staircase, same worn wood floor, same loud music pumping through the expertly tuned speakers, same wild dancers sweating and flailing about. But I was different. I had no Grandma Carroll in my life anymore.

I stood by the edge of the dance floor and paused before I stepped onto it, a moment of gratitude for the dancers that have come before me, for my teachers, and for the miracle of being able to dance on a Sunday morning. I fell into the welcoming presence of Sweet’s Ballroom. I danced alone with my grief that day, moving the loss through my flexing muscles and solid bones and spongy lungs. After wearing myself out, I fell to my knees, my face wet with tears. I sat heavily on the wooden floor, lost amidst the dancers swirling above me, my tears falling steadily as my heart ached for my grandmother’s presence. I felt someone sit next to me. I turned and looked into the dark, soulful eyes of my friend without wiping my tears away. I didn’t have it in me to smile. She looked at me with such kindness, it made me cry even harder. She gently wrapped her arms around me. I wanted to run away, not sure I could receive her comfort, but I didn’t. I let myself be held for the rest of the song, breathing in the floral smell of her shampoo and softening into the warmth of her arms. Then I surrendered my body all the way to the floor and lie on my back with my hands resting on my aching heart. I pressed my hands to my chest, then let them fall to the floor as I felt the sweet caress of the soft music waft over my body. I breathed in the moist, musty air as my heart broke open. I opened my eyes and looked up at the familiar dark red and gold ceiling. I could almost see the shimmering light of my grandma’s ghost up there, watching over us all.

I slowly sat up as the music ended and walked over to the stage like I’d done hundreds of times before to offer a closing ritual for the dancers. As I took the mic out of the stand and felt its weight in my hand, I thought back to my own dreams as my business partner and I started Ecstatic Dance for the first time on May 24th, 2008, in the same space that was holding me with such tenderness that day. I remembered our dreams of filling the ballroom with dancing people. I remembered the fearful uncertainty of how we’d bring in more than the 33 original dancers we had that first day. From the very start, I was invested in the dance. I knew in theory the way to build a strong dance community is through consistency. But I didn’t really understand the deeper meaning of what it meant to be a consistent presence and space that can be counted on week after week to welcome friends and strangers with open arms until the day I was mourning my grandmother’s death.

Like my grandmother did for me in my formative years, the majestic ballroom and the glorious humans inside have welcomed and held me through tragedy and celebration. A few years ago, crushed to my core after a devastating break-up when I could hardly dance, the ballroom held me steadily week after week until I started feeling better. There have been times I showed up on Sunday morning feeling strong, when I could dance for the entire two and a half hours feeling more at home than I have anywhere else in my life. There have been Sundays when I showed up flat and bored with life and a playful dance with a friend would make me laugh enough to break through the numbness—sweet medicine for my soul.

I remember a time when external tragedy struck close to home and one of our dancers, Brian Baker, suddenly died after being swallowed by a rogue wave in Hawaii as he was trying to rescue a friend in need. The dancers came together after his tragic death as we processed our grief and disbelief on the dance floor at Sweet’s Ballroom. We’ve come together more than once because of tragedy over the decade we’ve been dancing together in that space.

Like my grandmother’s home, Sweet’s Ballroom has been a steady presence in my life when things didn’t always feel so steady. Spaces like these are as essential to wellbeing as food and water. Our souls are deeply nourished when they feel the steady presence of places like grandmother’s houses and weekly Ecstatic Dances. Even if we’re not able to take advantage of them as often as we’d like, just knowing they’re there for us can provide comfort.

Author
Donna Carroll

Donna Carroll is the founder of Ecstatic Dance International and cofounder of Ecstatic Dance Oakland. She is a social entrepreneur who believes dance and music transform lives.

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