Why Couldn’t We Dance?

What’s your top Music from 2020?

In my former life as Head Coach of a CrossFit gym, I used to ask a daily Question of the Day (I’ve written about the practice before). In the beginning of December, as everyone was flooding their Instagram stories with their Spotify Top Tens, my curiosity was prompted about what music people in the gym listened to in their free time. Now, I must say, asking “what’s your favorite music?” is a poor man’s Question of the Day, this I admit. They can’t all be crafts of creativity. But, since we played music 100% of the time we were in the gym and it was a current trend on social media, I asked “What music have you listened to the most in the past year?” 

I got a lot of standard answers. Artist names you know, genres that dominate certain age groups. I got a few answers I’d never heard of, which you expect as well, there’s always a hip iconoclast in the group. One answer that I’d never heard of, though, stuck out to me: “Jerusalema” by Master KG. This was the answer of one of our members who was originally from Albania. He told me, “No one in the US has heard it, but it’s the biggest song in the rest of the world.” 

#JerusalemaChallenge

I had to check it out. I searched the song on Spotify, there were a ton of versions, many remixes. I listened to what I thought was the standard version. A standard beat to start, a building melody, climaxes and drops back in. Good song, catchy. I then found out that there was an attendant dance to go along with the song. I’ve always been interested in these group dances, going back to the “Tootsie Roll” when I was in middle school, to the snap dance when I was in college, to “Teach Me How to Dougie”, and many more in my post college years; I at least want to grasp the basics, most of them are pretty similar. I searched on YouTube for the “Jerusalema dance”…there were thousands of videos.

All over the world. All ages. Kids, grandparents. Nuns, priests, teachers, flight attendants, athletes, maybe even a few trained dancers. The videos haven’t stopped being posted.  Police in Ireland recently answered the #jeruslalemachallenge from police in Switzerland. The song, originally recorded and released in South Africa in 2019, was a hit in Africa and then spread across Europe and the world, reaching #1 in the charts in many countries. I must say though, few of the videos were submitted from the US, a couple from dance studios. My Albanian friend was right: everyone else in the world was dancing to this song, but we in the US were not joining in. Why?

Not That Kind Of Party

There is one easy answer for why we didn’t jump on the dance craze in the US: the song wasn’t in English. While the rest of the world may be very multilingual or linguistically open, we’re much more rigid here in the states. While that may be true to an extent, that argument falls apart when you look at the success of songs like “Macarena” or “Gangam Style”, international hits with attendant dances and little english in the lyrics. I was a kid when the “Macarena” hit and don’t think I’ve seen a dance craze quite like that.

Of course, 2020 wasn’t a good time for a dance party. COVID-19, ever heard of it? Well, that argument falls by the wayside when you acknowledge that this is a global pandemic. There are plenty of Jerusalema Challenge videos from Italy, where the song was not only #1, but they had some of the most serious outbreaks and harshest lockdowns. For much of the world, “Jerusalema” acted as a unifying source of shared hope and joy.

Therein lies the rub, the US was anything but unified in 2020. There was the largest civil unrest since 1968 in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. We then had a contentious election where each side depicted the other as a mortal foe of the republic: a global socialist on one side against a fascist tyrant on the other. The stakes were too high. No time for dancing.

“Fair enough.” I thought. Not our year to have fun with a global dance craze. We had too much terrible stuff to worry about.

Masaka Kids Africana

As a wonderful by product of my search through the Jerusalema Dance Challenge videos, I came across Masaka Kids Africana, a group of kids from Uganda who post dance videos and songs of their own on social media and YouTube. I started following them on Instagram and one of their posts always brings a smile to my face when it comes up in my feed. I was so treated yesterday, when one of their recent posts came up. I watched the shoeless children dance next to corroding brick buildings, wearing mismatched clothing with the biggest smiles that faces can hold. They are holding joy and light in this world.

Masaka Kids Africana is an organization that cares for orphaned children in Uganda. According to their website, these children have been orphaned due to “due to the AIDS epidemic, extreme poverty, and decades of civil conflict.” So then, we have to ask, was our last year worse than the conditions of orphans in Uganda? The country has had actual dictators, coups, and decades of violence in the streets. Have we been so spoiled, gotten so entitled, lost so much perspective, so completely ungrateful that we can’t smile in the face of adversity. Are we so averse to unity and hope? 

Dance Together

So, we’re left with the question again, why couldn’t the US join in on the dance? Dancing is the physical embodiment of joy and harmony. We have been the embodiment of fear and resentment. You can’t dance while afraid. You can’t dance when ruminating in resentment. You can’t dance with a closed heart. You must give your body over to the movements of the music in a joyful manner. That shouldn’t be an impossible task, despite hardships. We would do well to head the words of Nigerian recording artist Burna Boy when speaking about the dance, “My hope is that it unites us through our divisions and misunderstandings and dance together.”

Distanced

On February 17th, I emailed Tim. Tim is one of my best friends from childhood. We grew up on the same street in a small town in Maine. We went through all the rites of passage one goes through from 10 to 18 together. We played little league together, played in a garage band together, and had consulted each other with infinite wisdom on our first romantic undertakings. He has been living in Shanghai, China for the past year and a half teaching at a school for english speaking students, mostly expat children. I’d been meaning to write Tim for a while just as a general check-in. Though we haven’t seen each other physically in far too long, I think I’ll always consider him one of my closest friends. I wrote to him to give an update on my professional life running a gym in Boston (something I’d told him was a goal years before I even started coaching), to give an update on married life (I got married six months ago, him about a year and a half), and to tell him about my current undertakings in writing and creative work (Tim has always written and has a better imagination for fiction). Oh, I also figured it would be good to check in on the Coronavirus, something that I’d heard was making people sick in China. Of course I didn’t think he would be sick, because he’s Tim who grew up down the street from me, not a Chinese person I don’t know.

It was a few days before I heard back. I’d written a long email and he wrote a long email in response. With us both being writers of a sort, long written correspondence is a nice thing. It makes me think of the correspondence that’s happened with writers throughout history. Ours is of less popular significance, but at least living in a tradition. He certainly had quite the update. His family (him, his wife, and their ten month old child), had been on vacation in South Korea for the Chinese New Year when the Coronavirus outbreak got into full swing. The entire nation of China went into lockdown. Though they enjoyed their time in Jeju, an island province in South Korea, it was too expensive for them to stay there for the remainder of the lockdown, so they’d flown back to the states. As of his first writing, they were staying somewhere outside Los Angeles, making a stop there to ease the strain of the long travel on their less than a year old child. He was teaching his students remotely. Many of them had Ivy League aspirations in the following year, so stopping school altogether was out of the question. At the same time as all of this, he mentioned he’d started a creative writing MasterClass. I’d mentioned my own MasterClass endeavors, so we were both keeping that dream alive. After the hold over in LA, he was planning on coming back east (the US east) for an undetermined amount of time (weeks??). We hoped to be able to connect. This final piece came with unfortunate news: he was coming home to be with his mother, who had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma. He said that the diagnosis process had been arduous, but noted that her current condition was “hopefully not too serious.”  


I wrote him back with a few responses to some points we had been hitting on in the pursuit of creative life, working with others through teaching and coaching, and I also expressed my concern for his mother, but kept a positive attitude. It was my understanding that non-hodgkin’s lymphoma was fairly treatable. He’d seemed fairly confident about her condition, so was I. Since we’d grown up together, I’d known his mother my whole life. She was an impressive woman. She had been the highest ranking member of the Air National Guard at a local base where we grew up. Being the commanding officer of an air base seemed cool when I was a kid. I didn’t really think much about the weight of a woman holding that position. That was just Tim’s mom. Tim’s mom’s job was to be the commanding officer of an air base. Now her job was to get treatment for lymphoma. Luckily her son was going to be home because of a small viral outbreak on the other side of the world. The stars were aligning for her to have some extra support to beat this thing. Of course she would. True to form, I sent Tim another long email. I ended it with some proposals of weekends for us to meet up in person when he was back in the north east. I was also about to go on vacation, so it would take a little time for our schedules to align, but they would. It would be great to see him in person and I could finally meet his daughter, who I’d only seen pictures of on social media.

Tim responded with a short response a couple days later. He said there was a lot he wanted to respond to my email, so he’d write a longer response later. He asked for a quick take on a public intellectual I was well aware of and looked on favorably. I saw the email just before bed one night and gave a quick response. That was it.

I returned from my vacation on March 4th and sent a quick email trying to set up a weekend meet up. I didn’t hear anything. I assumed he was busy remotely teaching students on the other side of the planet, helping his mother, and looking after his ten month old child with his wife in his parents home. At this point the momentum was building in the United States for a response to the Coronavirus. When we traveled home from vacation, the talk on the flight was of work travel being suspended indefinitely. There was a presidential task force. I wondered how this would affect the gym that I run.  We’d have to do more cleaning. 


On March 15th, I finally heard from Tim. I had started to worry that he and/or his wife got sick. Maybe they got quarantined somewhere, as they were traveling in the states after being in China and South Korea. He sent me a text, which came as a surprise since he hadn’t had a normal cell phone to communicate on for quite some time. The text let me know that he wasn’t avoiding me or my requests to meet up. He was texting to let me know that his mother had passed away two days ago. She had a rare blood infection caused by the lymphoma. Those couple weeks that had passed he was dealing with his dying mother.

In those two weeks, I had dealt with the growing storm of domestic worry over the spread of coronavirus. What had been the worry of people in a far off land was now a concern for those in our midst. At this point we had closed the gym. Officially we would closed for two weeks, but everyone was bracing for a longer haul. The process of closing the business I worked for was anxious and tense. Were we overreacting? Underreacting? What would happen with my salary? Would the business be able to withstand this period of closure? A couple days later, the government would have made the decision for us. Everyone was to stay at home. Everything in the city was shut down. The world had changed quite a bit in the month’s time since our first correspondence.


I sent a text back. If someone texts you, it’s polite to text back. Finding the right text to console your childhood friend on the death of their mother is a difficult text to write. I expressed my sympathies and condolences. I said I was there to talk or do what I could. I knew how much she had meant to him. It was a shock to my system to think that one of the stronger women I’d known as a child was now in the age of getting cancer and dying. Selfishly, I thought about my own parents. 

Under normal circumstances, I would travel home for the funeral. In the time of coronavirus quarantine, I didn’t think it would be right for me to go. I’d been in the gym with exposure to a lot of people in the days leading up to closure. At that point everyone was well aware that you could carry the virus and be asymptomatic. We also all knew that someone at my age of thirty six was likely not in a particular danger, but going to the funeral would mean coming into close contact with people like Tim’s dad and my own parents, a gathering of that sort was a casualty of the quarantine as well. I respected Tim’s mother’s life and death, but I would have to do so from a distance. 

My mother, who still lives up the street from Tim’s family, went down and brought them some baked goods. That’s the sort of thing you do when there is a death in a family. There’s nothing really to say. My mother talked to Sarah, Tim’s sister. After considering how many people would want to gather for Tim’s mom’s funeral, the family decided they couldn’t have a typical remembrance during the time of corona quarantine. My mom thought they had something small with the family.

A few days after the text message, I tried calling Tim. He didn’t pick up. I left a message saying I was just calling to check in and talk. Truthfully I was hoping we would talk and end out having a far reaching conversation like we normally would. I thought it could be a distraction for him. I also knew that I wouldn’t have much useful info for him in the way of “what to do if your mother dies while you’re cast out of your home on the other side of the planet and your family can’t have a funeral out of precaution for the spread of disease in a global pandemic.” Not my area of expertise. No playbook to draw from. In the message, I said he could call me back, or not. Whatever he wanted. He hasn’t called. I’ll try and reach out again. We’ve been living at a distance, but everything’s a bit closer to home now. 

Written on April 22, 2020