When I eighteen years old, I was settling a hotel bill with an old man with a Russian accent as thick and rich as whiskey. “I married young,” he told me, suddenly. “And we were very poor.”
He didn’t look at me as he said this, but as there was no one else there, I stayed to listen. “We worked very hard during the week, but on the weekends.” Here he looked at me, a delighted smile on his face. “On the weekends, we danced. And now you are young, so work hard during the week. And on the weekends, dance.”
* * *
Every Saturday at midnight, a local bar throws a party that is nothing so different from any other college bar in the country. A DJ on stage treats party-goers to three hours of deafening music that generally starts out with the new wave of hipster dance music, followed by a round of dubstep—the squawking beats may go down as the first genre that got the Millennial generation whining about “kids these days”—and then finally ends with a blistering set of gangster rap.
They’ve taken to calling all this, rather cheekily, “Midnight Mass.”
If you’ve been to club, you know what it’s like. The lights rumble across the area like an coked up kaleidoscope, with bodies sliding across each other as freely and easily as fish in a pot. The boys jut their arms out in any direction at all, their knees and hips bobbing in staccato rhythms. A few preternaturally gifted fellas aside, the guys are often dependent on finding a partner to make them look good. The girls are more fluid, weaving like stalks in cyclone, their hands occasionally gathering their hair into ponytails to feel some coolness on the slick of their necks and shoulders.
These are generalities, of course. That’s part of the appeal. There aren’t many norms in a dance club.
* * *
It is no surprise, given America’s fondness for originality and individualism, that our style of dance never took on the order and cooperation so common to the rest of the world. The fine, orderly lines of Victorian Era and the textured, boiling circles of tribal Africa are here best summed up by the Isley Brothers: It’s your thing. Do what you wanna do. And what we wanna do, generally, involves the high-stepping, hip-swiveling, shoulder-shimmying, ass-shaking combo now familiar to all. It’s half Elvis and half Britney, all an attempt at Michael Jackson, generally landing closer to someone trying out for Stomp.
Something it’s not is reminiscent of Mass. Midnight Mass is a very ancient liturgical mass held on Christmas, one of the few times of the year the Roman Church allows more than one Mass in a day. On Christmas, in fact, you can have as many as three. Midnight Mass is a solemn one, with about as much dancing as a piano recital. That is, of course, the bar’s joke. “Can you believe us calling something like this a Mass?”
The church—both Catholic and Protestant—continues to hold dancing at an arm’s length. The days of dancing being out-and-out forbidden, as fascinatingly detailed in George Heckman’s 1879 Dancing as a Christian Amusement (“By the sorrows of many pious parents whose children have stifled convictions in the dance, by the death-agony of many youths which this amusement has sent apparently unprepared to meet God, by the grief of parents over many whom it has sent to untimely graves, by the lifelong remorse which many will carry to their graves, by the ample testimony of the world, the Church and word of God against it, I entreat you, touch not the unclean thing”) are behind us, perhaps. But dancing is not widely considered to have much to do with the church.
Which is curious, because the Bible’s references to dancing during worship are abundant. The Psalms, in particular, have little of the dour piety so common to modern worship. “Praise Him with the tambourine and dance!” effuses Psalm 150. “Praise him with strings and pipes!” After Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea, his sister’s first act was to get a dance going. When the Jews brought to the Ark of Covenant back to Jerusalem, David was so giddy with delight that he was literally dancing in his underwear.
That’s difficult for us in these modern times because there’s nothing explicitly Christian about dancing. We tend to associate “worship” with those things that have direct ties to God. We’re worshipping when we sing songs about God. We’re worshipping when we’re doing things about God. Dancing isn’t about anything. And yet. The Psalms seem to communicate that the very act of it is praise.
The very gladness of dance, the abandon of it, is worship. Our bodies, whether or not they’re actually any good at what they’re doing, are moving recklessly. You can release yourself to joy, you can let it overwhelm you, you can move without thinking, let music do your thinking for you, move up, spin around, fall, it’s an embrace, a letting go, a fevered felicity in which your enjoyment of it is inversely proportionate to how much of a damn you give.
And in the throes of such ecstasy, I do not think it would be odd to find God.
“Put your hands in the air!” It’s a command common to cops, clergy and emcees. In every case, they are commanding you to surrender, to throw yourself at the mercy of the moment and accept your fate. In each case, you are forgetting yourself, and submitting to something higher than you. And, in each case, obedience is highly suggested.
* * *
For my last birthday, I was in a car with a group of friends. We had ate and drank. It’d been a good night. We were on our way home when something, I don’t know what, compelled us to turn the music all the way up and keep driving. Out of town, down side roads, through neighborhoods, and finally onto an empty green field where we spilled out of the car and onto the grass, music as loud as we could get it, dancing in a circle under the stars, on the car, with each other, out to the far corners of whatever field we’d found.
Such was my birthday dance, my Midnight Mass—or, as it was first called at its institution, centuries ago—”The Mass of Angels.”
When exhaustion finally set in, I saw that this was a church lawn. A white, lit cross, some three stories tall, towered over us. A coincidence, and a stupid one. But then why the little thrill that set over me? Why the feeling that this—friends, dancing and the cross—were all part of the same energy, all of it mixing and spinning, bursting and, finally, floating up to Heaven as a sweet fragrance?
I had worked hard. It was the weekend.