Dancing at Strawberry Festival Was a Delight

It offered a glimpse of what is possible.

In Montana in the ’70s, if you asked one of the young and hip how they were doing, you might get an odd response: “Can’t dance.”

No one ever explained the phrase to me. We took it as a cryptic reference to boredom or the burdens in someone’s life. No money, no girlfriend? Who knew?

Back then, dancing brought 20-something year-old me out of my shell. Sweating on a crowded dance floor, I felt tribally connected and met for the first time a part of myself eager to celebrate a primal joy, even a wildness, in being alive.

I can’t imagine myself at that age going through the COVID pandemic. Over the past year and a half, our world has gotten so grim and contentious. There’s been little to celebrate. And we learned that, perversely, dancing together could kill you. This island community got the message. We dutifully distanced from one another and did most of our connecting digitally. And we took care of one another.

With our local vaccination rate high, and the glorious summer weather arriving, we were at last freed and itching to celebrate. The main street was closed, bandstands were set up in parking lots. Through the weekend, people mingled with delight. Faces young and old were soft and welcoming. Spontaneous, heartfelt reunions erupted steadily. Joy and gratitude flowed easily.

People were ready to have fun. A Saturday full of music was brought to a close by Publish the Quest, a local and beloved band. As midnight neared, hundreds of beaming islanders of all ages coalesced under streetlights like a body of water with music rippling through it. It was time to dance.

A friend knew of my determination to be part of the festivities. He teased that I’d be “tearing up the asphalt!” I knew that couldn’t happen. In the 50 years since those Montana days, my desire is as strong as ever. But what dancing means to me now, and how I approach it, have had to age along with my body. Saturday night, surrounded by a crowd mostly younger than us, Lornie and I found ourselves simply standing in place, peacefully swaying and nodding with the rhythms and movement around us. As never before, I felt connected with, grounded in and fulfilled by the spirit of community and celebration.

An Indigenous elder, Steven Charleston writes that we humans are called to help one another through times of darkness, division and despair. In doing so, we can climb together toward light, truth and hope. This vision culminates, Charleston says, as we do what all people and tribes were created to do together: we dance.

That Saturday night was more than a good time. It offered a glimpse of what is possible. I’m here to tell you, we can dance.

— Tom Craighead lives on Vashon.