A lousy dancer’s defence of dancing, speaking in tongues and other things
Updated: Jan 2, 2019
Written by Pablo Terraza
Long before our early ancestors invented agriculture, they had already discovered the ability of music to serve as a vehicle to externalize the joys, fears, frustrations, and absurdities of consciousness. Whether we were dancing alone or with a partner; alongside parents, friends, classmates, or a romantic interest; in the dark spaces of a dimly lit cave or flashing lights of a dancefloor; in our church, school, bedroom or locked bathroom, music allows us to explore who we want to be, could be and the people we may never be. I discovered this at an early age, in one of the most unlikely of places: the auditorium of my school.
Much like the parent who would take the time to first hug, kiss and and pray with you before retrieving an old wooden paddle half your height etched with scripture to discipline you, the principal of my school (“el director” as it is referred to in Centro America) who also held a prevalent role in our church, brought us to tears with two contradictory tasks: hitting us while we faced an empty wall as a form of discipline, and through music every other Monday morning.
At the time it seemed like there was no clearer choice than to give our lives to Jesus Christ and accept him in our heart. In what a grown up would think of as a miserable Monday morning, us first graders excitedly lined up to start the week in a crowded auditorium without any chairs. The space was intentionally dark, with just enough light for instructors to inspect our tiny hands for dirt under our fingernails, and to make sure the boys’ hair was not too long and the girls’ skirts were not too short. To this day, I still question whether this ritual was to train us on how to act, or to remind our parents how to take care of us.
Either way, there was a decided order, not only in the way we were to present ourselves but in the way we stood in line, similar to tiny soldiers waiting for orders from their general. Kids like me did not resent these restrictions; in fact we found comfort in knowing the expectations; that we were in the right place, at the right time. Following this inspection, we felt the room’s atmosphere shift as the little light we had dimmed further, replaced by a generic organ chime of a cheap Casio keyboard. Though many of us had seen this same performance countless times, at school and at church, our innocent ability to be moved persisted.
I desperately wanted to feel what they felt. I wanted the words and music to transport me to that place where I would become possessed by the holy spirit. But that moment never came. I did not have what it took.
The backdrop to the stage was an uncredited Bible verse in big font letters that read “Todo lo puedo en Cristo que me fortalece” (“I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me”). Though a small, minimalist band composed of not much more than a keyboardist, a singer, and drummer, the awkward sound produced from the distorted speakers were somehow effective enough to move us. While lacking talent, there was enough passion in the musicians’ demeanor to hold our attention. At times, it sounded as if they had tried out several drummers to find the worst one, whose inexperience was startling enough to hold our attention while we were simultaneously comforted by the familiar tone of the keyboard.
If the objective was to convey a sense of passion, they were successful, as the principal was not only a singer but also a preacher. The performance began with upbeat opening hymns which gradually transitioned into slower, increasingly emotional songs towards the end, the tempo perfectly accompanied by percussion and that cheap Casio keyboard. The prayer portion would lead us to the pinnacle point in which the holy spirit would take over our little voices and bodies. The sermon would conclude with a golden opportunity to turn our young lives around by accepting salvation.
Unlike entering an art gallery, this was not a passive experience. We each had a designated role to play. We, the audience, were instructed not only to stand up, but to also sing the words of the sermon and clap along to the beat. Most importantly, we were instructed to raise our arms high in the air, as if anticipating an incredible force to take over our bodies.
The ever-present themes of these sermons were morals such as: why we should honor and listen to authority figures (such as our parents, teachers, the president and naturally, the principal), why our actions had consequences, and of course, subjects of topical interest such as the dangers of being seduced by “ worldly music,” or non-christian music referred to as “musica del mundo,” the dangers of spending time with people who may not have the same beliefs as us (LGBTQ people and atheists), and the dangers of yoga, specifically that clearing your mind makes room for the devil to enter.
Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that the mid-to-late 1980’s in Guatemala had my extended family in full Pentecostal fever. In a matter of generations we had transformed our identities from Catholics to Protestants, from Protestants to Evangelicals, from Evangelicals to Pentecostals, and from Pentecostals to self identified “Jesus Freaks.” In a matter of ten years, our family had adopted a new method to naming newborns, transitioning away from names of poets, singers and actors from Latino-American pop culture such as Maria-Eugenia, Gustavo, Gilda, Irene, Jessica, Manuel, Estuardo, and Adolfo; and giving way to biblical names such as David, Josue (Joshua), Emmanuel and you guessed it, Pablo (Paul). My family firmly believed that following Jesus was not simply part of a religion, it was a lifestyle within “God’s plan for our life.” Within this plan was the heroic narrative that we were the chosen ones, chosen to proselytize the rest of the country and Central America.
Much of the prosperity gospel taught in our school and church equated poverty to ignorance, holding that the immoral choices of the poor and powerful had lead the country down the path of extreme poverty, corruption, illiteracy and teen pregnancy. Schools like mine served as a perfect means to radicalize large groups of of impressionable people, much deeper than a casual Sunday school attendant. Rather, we viewed ourselves as soldiers for this morally elite “lifestyle.” In fact, many students joined programs that eventually allowed them to become the teachers in this ever-growing congregation of churches and schools. Ultimately the curriculum of churches like mine were adapted and adopted at the university level.
This bi-weekly Monday morning ritual would often inspire some of my closest classmates to become possessed, prompting them to speak in tongues and take part in mass faintings. This would confuse me and cause myself to ask “what set me apart from them?” Was I not allowed to take part in this amazing heroic narrative? The zenith of pain, tears and ultimately fainting was a sight to witness, especially as a seven year old sober outsider who somehow could not experience those all-consuming feelings.
I desperately wanted to feel what they felt. I wanted the words and music to transport me to that place where I would become possessed by the holy spirit. But that moment never came. I did not have what it took. Even when I had negotiated through prayer surrendering “musica del mundo” in exchange for strict Christian radio, the compromise yielded no results.
You would think there would be more shame to this happening than this not happening. Yet all I could reflect on were my inadequacies. I wanted to feel the music the way my classmates could. Inability to do so meant that perhaps the holy spirit was not inspired by you, maybe the lord had set a different path for your life, or indeed, the devil had planted the seed of sin, doubt, in you.
When kids mass fainted onto the floor, no ambulances were ever called. When endless tears ran down their cheeks, no tissues were brought and no one was made fun of for showing those emotions. Similarly, no one would ever ask them why they were crying. There was no process of addressing their problems or working their problems out. It was an exercise of simply releasing those emotions. If there was no one other place in your life to get those feelings out, then what better place than there? What better time than now?
This moment was the private space needed to free ourselves from the echoes of our parents and grandparents who had told us many times that “No te queremos ver triste”, that they did not want us feeling sad. This was the time and place to cry, howl, and allow the weight of the world and the misery of life to literally weigh you down into collapsing onto the floor. This was the time and place to speak out in tongues all the things you could not bring yourself to say or ask about life’s unanswerable questions.
These spaces served as places for kids to explore themselves, rearrange the rooms in their mind, and transgress the expectations of what a young child can feel or experience or be overwhelmed by.
Those very unintended exercises of catharsis proved to me the power of music, and prompted me to question who it was that I was praising when I was listening, singing, and clapping along to the music. Maybe we were ultimately not praising anyone but ourselves. Maybe we were were the saviors we had been waiting for. What I took away is not what they intended me to learn. In my own private moment of rebellion, I took away that it wasn’t our creator who needed the encouragement in making our lives better, it was us who needed the inspiration to be better people and reach the highest aspirations of being Jesus-like. Those kids were using the power of music and words to call out the feelings they wanted to feel and the people they wanted to be.
Although I never experienced the release that my peers did in church, I profoundly realized the power of music. Later in life, well beyond the bi-weekly gospels, found a similar catharsis on the dance floor. In my early young adult years, I would sneak into clubs and experiment with what I saw as the limitless possibilities of who I was, who I could be and who I wasn’t; who I could love and be loved by. I had been convinced that whether I had any talent in dancing was irrelevant. In this moment in space and in time, you could build your own character in your own heroic narrative to the beat of the music around you.
Similar to the auditorium of my childhood, the darkness in those dance floors allowed us to explore parts of ourselves we didn’t know and meet the people we could aspire to be. That moment of intimacy and relative privacy created a space in our lives we otherwise would not have.
Though I may be a lousy dancer, there is something vital to finding yourself while losing yourself. For that realization, I have el director to thank.
Pablo Terraza is an immigrant from Guatemala living in the Midwest who hopes to hold on to his accent till the day he dies. He will be happy to make you a mixtape and will likely guess two to three songs that you will love. He has a habit of tying every experience to a piece of music. He is well aware that this may all just be a simulation.