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Humble enough to keep dancing


My sensible flats feel glued to the rubber mat outside the slick roller rink, and as I watch the teenagers whiz past each other in reckless circles, my mood sinks with the old gravitas, that weighted solemn cut-off feeling that kept me stuck behind the potato chip bowl at high school parties. It’s different now; I don’t have to wave and smile hopefully, or wear flower-bordered jeans, or recognize the hip-hop blaring from the overhead speakers. I’m all grown up, a purposeful reporter here to profile one of the kids. But the old awkwardness never dies. Like kudzu buried under 10 feet of mulch, it lives for its chance to return.

Trying to act my age, I turn my back to the rink and scan the crowd for my subject: Katie, a smart, sweet 18-year-old with cerebral palsy. The first bus unloosed a torrent of white male jocks who ran through the narrow doorway yelling like the home team. In their wake came tall, lean blonde girls, equally muscled. A second busload, this one solidly African-American, sauntered through the door cooler than cool. Now the third busload’s here, a hodgepodge bound by their common indifference to appearance, athleticism and organized fun. I wait like somebody at the airport, but still no Katie.

Finally, after 10 minutes that seem like forever, she rolls through the door. Katie sees me and comes over, and we talk for quite a while, Katie graciously introducing one friend after another. Each skates away after a few polite minutes, heading for the rink.

Finally the music softens. Katie, who’s been waiting patiently for this, asks eagerly, “Would you like to see me dance?”

Startled at first, I remember that she did a wheelchair dance for the school’s International Festival. “Um ... sure!” I try to sound eager, but my stomach clenches. This is bound to be pathetic, an unintended parody of balletic freedom. I could cry for this young woman, who faces the world open-hearted and still believes a miracle will let her walk someday.

She smiles at me and spins her wheelchair, using the motorized joystick her right arm can control. Gliding over to the deserted area by the rental counter, she arcs into a long reverse, then curves forward. The music’s beat shifts and she glides forward, turns, spins one way, spins back the other way, spins again. Every few minutes she stops, lifts her arm from the controls and draws fluid circles in the air. Against the frenzied backdrop of the rink, her dance looks like slow motion, and her motions take on a separate grace. The rhythm she achieves is lovely and deeply satisfying.

I didn’t expect this.

Brought up to believe that “anything worth doing is worth doing right,” I’ve always shied away from areas where I don’t excel. Afraid of asking a stupid question, I rarely raised my hand in school. At 10, I took guitar lessons and sort of enjoyed my heavy twanging and plunking and sweaty-palmed fingering and squeaky slides down the neck -- and then my teacher, a young hippie with better things to do, informed me I had no rhythm, and I quit. In high school, I was uncoordinated, slow to react and mystified by team sports, so I got my mom to fabricate medical conditions sufficiently dire to excuse me from physical education my entire junior year. To this day I say no to parties where I might feel gawky and refuse to take up hobbies I might flub.

If I were paraplegic, I wouldn’t dream of dancing.

When the music speeds into rap’s jumpy rhythms, Katie rolls over to me. “That was wonderful!” I exclaim, and mean it. “You’re really good. How’d you learn all those moves?”

“I practiced in my driveway,” she shrugs, her cheeks pink from the compliment. “I used music by Celine Dion, because she’s really inspirational for me. Especially songs with the word love in them. The word love really makes me feel good.” Katie smiles. “At the International Festival, they gave me a standing ovation. I didn’t expect that. It made me feel really good.”

Katie’s doing what she can do, as well as she can do it, and taking full pleasure from the result. More inhibited kids might call her a showoff, insisting on doing her solo dance in plain view of an embarrassed world. But what allows her to express herself this freely isn’t narcissism. It’s humility.

To be humble is to soften oneself, let down the barriers. I don’t do that. I judge myself and everybody else, all the while wearing a protective cloak of, “I couldn’t possibly. I’m no good at that.” Afraid of criticism or comparison, I hide my inadequacies -- because I can -- and stay safe, competent, mean-spirited.

The music slows again, and Katie glides off, concentrating hard on the joystick, enjoying the flow. She starts a slow spin, and suddenly a tall, grasshopper-legged kid in baggy pants skates past her, looping a wide circle. Their paths intersect and divide so smoothly, it looks choreographed. Then he waves loosely and skates away, heading for the rink to join the others.

Katie keeps dancing.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000