A Father's Dance

Can violence rewrite history? Can family reinvent itself?

A photo of a child's bare feet standing on the shoes of an adult wearing cuffed blue jeans

photo by magbug


I used to prance. As a child, my body held the potential for wildness that I tried to refrain from. But when joy caught up to me, I could not help but move wildly: I pranced, I stumbled, I floundered. My father hated it. He was not a prancer. My father took deliberate steps. He placed his weight exactly where the joke needed it, knew when it would bring out the slash of a smile. He would slide into conversation, masking his true intentions in playfulness, like smoke settling around a room so comfortably, so slowly, that you doze off before the fire hits you. Even when drunk and violent, he never lost his footing. He knew how to hold himself like a man ought to, and he stood and watched as his young son pranced around the yard, into tables and chairs, knocking ice cream down his legs, smashing glassware into tile floors, into the pool, into other, steadier children before telling them, “I’m so sorry, I literally didn’t even see you standing there.”



On our first date, Dalton sat across from me in the cafe at Powell’s Books. We had started at the coffee shop down the street, but it was too cold to sit outside, and I was still trying to warm my hands in my armpits when he started talking about his daughter. Dalton is a stone edifice. He exudes a dorkish peace. He seems to have been built, cell by cell, to move steadily forward. His steps are those of an old man waiting to happen, wandering a park with his eyes and mind in the trees, enraptured in a song. Yet we broached the subject of his fatherhood, I saw there was something that could shake him. I could feel him preparing, the muscles in his arms tense through his cardigan, to disembark if it were a problem to me. We were having a lovely time. I was laughing at all of his jokes, and I couldn’t stop looking at his hands. We both felt the potential for joy ahead of us, but he would have walked right out the door for his daughter—slowly, step by inquisitive step.



As a child, my body was a void that space often tried to fill. Pain grounded me, and through pain and fear I found the limits of the body and, by extension, myself. When my father entered my room, knuckles clenched, I wished to be vapor—to slide between the small edges of a doorframe and vanish into the boundless world. I used to watch storm drains as the hot Vegas rain slushed like soup through them and created instant rivers. One day, my brother and I found one coughing down the drainage pit on the edge of our street, light gray, warm, quick. We lay down in it, trying to lift our small bodies up enough to escape down the street, like a river, until our dad came out of the house, furious. He crept out into the street and dragged us back inside.



At nineteen, I danced at a gay bar in Vancouver. Beyond the haze of damp skin, I felt fear grip me as I tried to choke down my gin. These Canadian men were watching me. My body would fail me, as I was being asked to demonstrate something unattainable: to slip the prison of mind and slot fully into the body. Dance isn’t just about dexterity in movement; it is about relinquishing control. This is a challenge for those whose only way of living is control, who build upon themselves a city of control and push everything that is hurting into the alleyways and basements so that they may live as a small citizen in that city and know that there is nothing, nothing in the light of their little world that can remind them of all the hurt that has been. To dance is to leave that city on a weekend trip. The farther you go from thinking and caring, the greater you begin to move.

In front of me a beautiful man appeared out of the sweat. His head was shaved, and only the wrinkles at the edges of his face revealed his age. This man danced. He danced like the floor was empty, like he was listening to a private conversation of song. He danced like he moved his body purely for the pleasure of movement. He danced into me, and I was swept up into it, the fear whipped out of me, off the dance floor, outside into the line of those who had shown up too late and were waiting for their chance to get in on the action. Hours later, we sat across from each other on a park bench. Miguel said he was fifty-five, originally from Colombia, married to a woman, and had three kids. He came out later in life and had permission to go out once a month and “take care of what he needed to” so he could live with his family. (“That sounds tough,” I said. “It keeps my family together,” he replied.) It felt natural to be held by this man, nearly three times my age, older than my father. Only two hours had passed, and I was already trying to put him in that place inside of me. I couldn’t pretend that Miguel was my father, any more than I could imagine my father dancing. But there was something twisted inside of me that Miguel coaxed out of hiding. When he kissed me, it was like being loved by my father again. I felt just as small and fragile and beautiful as I had always been, underneath the bravado of early adulthood. I was a shivering sort of afraid. I was not lost. Yes, there I was.



Sometimes, I remember my father as my safety: I slip my hand up into his as we walk the dog, and he moves slowly forward, even when the leash is taught against his arm. I hear echoes of my father’s kindness like ripples across the surface of a pool after a stone has been dropped into it. On my tenth birthday, he bought me the largest pizza I had ever seen. His is still the best mac and cheese I’ve tasted. But after the turn, our bodies don’t fit into the same room. When I press my hand flat, extending my fingernails to look at them in a way that’s too feminine, I see he dreads knowing me. It’s not as if I could expect anything else from my father, who started his journey into manhood with nothing to guide him but the pressure to remain stoic. His was a life of terrified masculinity and grasping for control. I know he wanted me to learn to survive before the world gave its worst. This is a father’s dance, to pass on a bitter wisdom, or to let your child stumble into it. Is fear better taught than learned?



At our first concert together, I stood with my arms wrapped around Dalton. His fear ran down his back in hot rivulets. I held this panicked animal, massaging him back into himself. We took its waves, swaying and sweating all over one another. Somewhere near the crescendo of the night, I felt the strength of his resistance give out as he finally let himself fall into the rhythm. His knees dropped; his hips swung. His arms, once tight against his body, reached back and explored mine. He turned, and how we laughed! How we kissed! There’s nothing like dancing with someone you love. Even though he holds his anxiety close to his chest, and mine has settled around me like a pool of sweat, we always return to this dance. He has gotten good at stripping it off, diving into the water to find me. The first time I cried in front of him, it gushed out in broken waves. I tried to push the weakness back inside, where it could safely vanish. He said nothing, rubbed my back, and loved me.



I visited my father in my early twenties, desperate to salvage our relationship, and we landed in the backyard of his gay friends. One of them, graying, smiled at me across the table. My father and I drank and passed a joint back and forth. What a stranger he had become to me: loosening, trying so hard to hold onto his authority. I saw him point in my direction. I caught the words “fat, gay son.” There was the father I had always known. I shriveled away from him, out of my seat and into the kitchen. I wanted to vomit into the sink. His beautiful friend entered the kitchen, crossing the churning floor, while I trembled and clutched the sink. I’ve always been afraid of vomiting, from the days when I would stay home sick and my father would heat me canned soup and rub my back. I was crying—it was the liquor, it was the joint. My father’s friend rubbed my back. I turned and kissed him. It was a deep, terrible kiss. In it I felt contempt and violence, all from me. I hated myself inside of this stranger’s mouth. My stepmother walked into the kitchen, shattering me out of it. We stepped apart, said goodbye. I returned to my father outside, and we went home. I vomited in the bathtub. The next morning, my father and I drove to the airport. We said nothing in the car.



Even when I feel the farthest away from him, I am still his product. I ache for those missing years, between the violence and the healing. Who would I have been with a father on my side? How might I move with a body unbroken? I now know that pain is a one-way door: We either pull ourselves through and keep walking or we slam back against the doorframe, begging to be let into an empty house, empty rooms. One day, long ago, my father dropped a rock into my identity, and the fear rippled out and back. But the surface has begun to calm, and the stone is nestled quietly at the bottom of the pool. One day, I pray, I will forget it is even there.



Here we are, in Dalton’s apartment with his daughter. She storms into the room, blue pajamas and wild brown hair. She is everything five can be and more. She moves directionally, laterally, parrots movement and sounds. She flutters, spritelike, breaking and bumping into everything. But this kid, she’s tough as bricks, her joy unfocused and crystalized. She knows nothing of fear. I scoop her up, and she squirms in my grasp. She shrieks loudly enough to ruin the neighbors’ breakfasts and flops out of my arms. She dive-bombs me. We’re enveloped in her play pretend. We take on her father. He dangles her above the fiery pits of the soft couch. No, she begs, someone save her. Someone always does. From the bedroom, his music plays. She shows off her moves, flapping her legs back and forth wildly. Who are we to deny the invitation? We join in, and a song we all know enfolds us as we dance.


Family, Sexuality, Violence, parenting


2 comments have been posted.

Jordan - Your writing is beautiful! So fluid, honest, and moving. Thanks for telling your story - you are a gift.

Julie McMurchie | May 2024 | Portland

What a beautiful and bittersweet piece!!! You're an excellent writer!

Savannah Szabo | May 2024 | Banks, OR

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