Sorrow and redemption on the dance floor after the Big Bad Break.
Photos by M. Cynecki
Light rain from a dark sky sprinkles upon my face as the medical technicians wheel me outside the ballroom on a stretcher and into a waiting ambulance.
"Huzzah!" I cried to my friends before I left them.
"Huzzah!" they replied in unison, perhaps a few in tears.
Now it's as if the sky is crying, distressed at the unfairness of a slip and fall that ravaged my right arm in the middle of a joyous Highland Fling. Morphine deadens the pain from the damaged limb, but I can feel my heart breaking.
Water flows from my eyes as I ride through the streets of Flagstaff in the back of the medical transport, still wearing my kilt, puffy shirt, sash and diced hose. The party is over for me much too soon, and now I lay trapped in a nightmare I cannot end. All I want to do is dance again.
The sadness festers through the surgery and two days in the hospital. My parents arrive, and visitors offer their words and kindness. I grow tired and angry of my gown and the tubes and the needles and the oxygen hoses. I long to sleep. I long to turn back time. If I had only worn those other shoes or danced less fervently.
"I will dance again!" I tell myself and my friends. "I will not wait until next August! I will put on the kilt and finish what I started!" I will dance with every lady I can.
I pray to God for help. Please, O Lord, get me through this. Ease my sadness and suffering.
I will not carry the baggage around for 15 or 20 years, like memories of my rotten 8th Birthday Party, where I slipped at a skating rink and broke my arm before the presents and the cake.
Future balls with my history-loving friends will come, I remind myself. Wear your kilt to this one or that one, a friend tells me. It won't come soon enough to keep my broken heart from festering.
A week passes. The arm is mending but the heart needs help.
A new opportunity emerges as I sift through several websites Saturday morning. Round The House is playing tonight’s Contra dance at the usual place in Tucson. It’s a Celtic band. I know the steps. I know the crowd, sort of, and they won’t mind if I come in the full Highland regalia. The idea excites me. I have to do it.
The words of the Highland Ball's host ping through my head: "A Scotsman always gets up."
Anticipation builds throughout the day and ramps up as I change into my plaids. On go the checked stockings and kilt with sporran. Another puffy shirt and my Stewart Royal tartans follow -- and non-skid shoes.
We're off to the ball! I get there at 7:15, 45 minutes before start time, long enough for me to explain myself. The lady at the door looks me over with a surprised grin.
“I know I’m a little early, and I know I’m a little overdressed,” I say to her as the Happy Highlander, eager to get back on the floor. I explain why I’m here, pointing out the cast on my right arm and what led to it. I explain the story again to the caller.
I hope to go through a few refresher moves beforehand with some other newcomers. There aren’t any. Everyone shuffles in a few minutes before 8:00, bypassing the refresher course at 7:30, leaving me to go through a few moves with the caller, who’s convinced I know the figures. She cautions me I may want to simplify some moves, given my healing arm and the directive to “give weight” when turning your partner in some situations.
“You might want to substitute an arm swing,” she coaches.
Contra’s spin-happy, centrifugal style is still a challenge for me, having come from the tradition of graceful bows and courtly movements with a light touch, always showing gentility to the ladies and treating every one of them as a queen.
The crowd of eager dancers pays little mind to my kilt and tartan and colorful socks. One of them is excited to see me in one of my historical outfits.
“We need to put some swords down for you!” he jokes.
I very well might have to dance a solo, given the mathematical hurdles. Normally, I don’t have to worry about finding unaccompanied ladies. But it seems I’m the only one here tonight without a partner. Two teenage girls are here, but they’re alternating between reading in the other room and dancing.
Ladies in need of a partner go fast. They don’t look about, standing wistfully on the floor. The men scoop them up, and without bowing for crying out loud!
Not me. It’s time to turn to the seated few. I approach a lady and ask in my Scottish brogue, “Are ye in need of a partnah’?”
It works, and we are soon circling left and right in figures, chaining the ladies back and forth, swinging our neighbors and partners and performing all the moves up and down a long set of dancers. Figures flow into and out of another and the caller’s words fade into the music of Round The House. My eyes connect with every lady as we spin through swings.
Occasionally I get lost or stuck after progressing to the end of the line. “I think I did that wrong,” I mumble, often before a lady reaches out to swing me again and catch me up to the next figures. The sweat flows after only after one dance. I hold my breath as ladies take my healing arm.
If people are oblivious to the kilt, fewer notice the hard casing on my right hand, half-covered by an 18th Century work shirt.
“Oh, you’re in a cast,” a lady notices sheepishly after wondering why I can’t grip her on a swing as tightly as the rest. Another kindly indulges my desire to balance with one hand rather than two, trying to keep unnecessary force off my right fingers.
That includes clapping, too. “Huzzah! Huzzah!” I shout after each dance, unable to bring both my palms together.
Many ask what happen to my arm, and I explain how I’m making up for what happened a week earlier.
“You look good in a kilt!” a lady compliments.
It's not the same as dancing with We Make History. It can never equal the fellowship I enjoy with my most cherished friends who share my enthusiasm for the dance. However, others watch out for me. A few ladies have seen me here before, and they inquire how I’m holding up. Quite well, thank you. I need some more water.
I only sit out three or four dances, either because I’m without a partner, or because I need my breath. Yet standing still is not an option, and while the rest of the room whirls and circles, I jig off to the side, lightly, arms at my side rather than over my head.
When a final waltz plays, the lady who greeted me at the door joins me as her partner. As usual, the lady is a much better waltzer than I am, and I look down at my feet to maneuver into the proper steps.
“Don’t worry about your feet,” she encourages. We waltz on.
I try a progression step with her. I know it, mostly. She doesn’t. We revert back to the two step, eyes to eyes.
The music slows to a close and I sink into a deep bow, my left hand still joined to her right. I silently cherish the warmth of the moment for several seconds, knees and head both giving honor to my partner. I slowly rise and thank her.
Round The House plays one more waltz: an Irish lullaby. This time, the lady and I dance solo, but beside each other. I glide into another improvised minuet, a freestyle, freeform ballet of stepping and twirling around the floor with hands outstretched in a graceful position. She proceeds beside me in her own inventive figures. I keep thinking we might end up back in each other’s hands, but we don’t. It’s all right.
When the last note expires, I breathe deeply with an enormous sense of thanksgiving, feeling my sweat-soaked shirt again, my head tilted towards Heaven and my eyes closed. Thank You, O Lord, for helping me find another opportunity for joy in a kilt.
“You heal that,” the caller tells me after the dance.
“I will. But my heart needed healing too, tonight.”
“I’m so glad I could be a part of it,” she replies, hugging me.
I fall into bed exhausted but happy. The painful memories shall fade. Happier thoughts shall take their place. Any day I can dance in a kilt is a good one.
Dancers form up lines again, shaken but prayerful, desiring to honor the wishes of the injured Highlander led off the floor in a stretcher to the cries and responses of “Huzzah! Huzzah!”
The band plays a reel, an enthusiastic reel. Inhibitions against joy dissolve away as the dancers merrily spin themselves around and around, up and down each set.
“You know, this is a Christopher dance,” a lady observes.
“Huzzah!” another dancer cries.
“Huzzah!” others respond.
Across the hills, the Highlander longs to be with them again. In his prayers and dreams, he is.