This I Believe

Chris - Ashby, Massachusetts
Entered on May 9, 2006

I believe it’s OK to Dance – I learned it in New Orleans.

As I drove home last week from JazzFest in New Orleans, I heard on All Things Considered a touching ‘This I Believe’ essay on one man’s belief in the kindness of strangers. Thanks for that enriching, thought-provoking story. With fresh echoes of JazzFest and the music of Bourbon Street in my soul, that thoughtful discourse focused my attention on the importance, for me, of having learned, truly and deeply, at JazzFest, that it really is OK to dance.

Although I’ve gone to JazzFest for the last 6 years, I wasn’t going to make the long trip from Massachusetts, where I live, to JazzFest this year. After Katrina, to me, it felt somehow arrogant, insensitive, and disrespectful to go back to JazzFest and revel selfishly in the great music, when so much pain and tragedy continue to linger in the shadows of New Orleans. But in the end, I decided to go ahead and drive to JazzFest, to savor the JazzFest experience, and with the hope that maybe some of my tourist dollars and enthusiasm for JazzFest might percolate to where they are needed.

I love to dance, as perhaps most people do. In the presence of compelling music, the feet, arms, hands, and legs just seem to move themselves. At JazzFest, many people dance – powerless to resist the excellent music, which flows continuously from each of nine stages at the fairgrounds in New Orleans.

Dancing at JazzFest over the years, I have been empowered in a way I’ve not felt anywhere else. Somehow, at JazzFest, it seems like people don’t judge you. There’s an ethos of respect. It’s like there’s an unspoken rule in New Orleans: you can be green with three heads, if that’s who you want to be, but if you’re not on my case, I will not be on your case. In fact, as long as you’re not hurting anybody, I will defend your freedom – and hope you will defend mine.

For me, that pervasive, unspoken New Orleans vibe translated over the years into my learning to trust my neighbors at JazzFest – and to close my eyes for the music. I discovered I can close my eyes and just listen to the music – and dance to it. Without visual distraction, the music seems richer, more robust, more beautiful. And the dancing is that much more intense. I probably look like looney tunes, when I’m dancing, but hey, people leave me my space. They may think I’m nuts, or not, but they respect my space. And, as I said, I find the musical experience is much more focused, for me, when my eyes are closed, not to mention the fact that it’s easier to ignore the bewildered stare of the random person over there…

Perhaps it works for me because I tend to stay in one place when I dance, so I don’t present a wandering ballistic hazard… And, as I said, I probably look like a fruitcake, but I’m there for the music, and it’s really better for me with my eyes closed.

Having learned at JazzFest that experiencing music with eyes-closed is ‘safe’, I’ve found that I can get away with dancing that way in clubs, concerts, at other music festivals – wherever there’s quality music and enough dancing space to work with. People look at me strangely sometimes, but I have found, virtually without exception, that if I close my eyes and trust my neighbors, I can enjoy my music that way without distraction or conflict.

This wonderful lesson of trust and respect, that I learned at JazzFest, and for which I owe New Orleans a great debt, has really become internalized as a deep and central belief for me: It’s really OK to dance.