Dancing with grief, hope, and resistance

Dancing with grief, hope, and resistance

The world needs people who resist, and people who don’t let anything keep them from dancing.

Erin J. Walter
A Zumba class at the Wildflower Church Unitarian Universalist in Austin, TX

(Image courtesy Erin Walter)

Image courtesy Erin Walter


On the Monday after the U.S. presidential election, I got locked out of church. I’d had this very nightmare a couple nights before and now it was coming true. (Thanks, lost keys.) When I am stressed or grieving, as I have been about the election and its aftermath of hate crimes and “Hail Trump!”, attention to detail is the first to go.

I would’ve happily left work and crawled back under my covers, but my Zumba students—diverse folks from Wildflower Church Unitarian Universalist and the wider Austin, Texas, community who have come to call dance a spiritual practice—were already pulling into the parking lot.

“I’m sorry, y’all,” I said, gesturing to the locked door. “It’s been a tough week.”

I hoped maybe we could all go home. Instead I heard: “Let’s dance out here!”

I preach the power of the arts to uplift, so even though I was tired in body and soul, I could not argue. We put on “La Bicicleta” by Carlos Vives and Shakira and swayed, stretched, and salsa’ed in the courtyard, in full view of a busy street, Starbucks, and high school students on their way to class.

Puedo ser feliz / Caminando relajada entre la gente
Yo te quiero así / Y me gustas porque eres diferente

[I can be happy / relaxed walking among people
I love you the way you are / And I like you because you are different]

My choreography was far from perfect in this distracted state, but some dance is better than no dance, and I like to think Zumba helps us—myself included—rebel against cultural and personal perfectionism.

We were eventually let into the Wildflower community room, where one woman later slipped off to a dark hallway and wept, grieving over the election and fearful for our community, which includes Muslims, immigrants, and many others who were specifically targeted in Donald Trump’s campaign. “I thought I was ready to go out in the world but I’m not,” she said when I checked on her. She is white, and her husband is of Latino and Native heritage. Like many parents, they are not only processing their own emotions about the election, but are consoling a devastated daughter.

Still, this mom stayed in the class. I felt full of gratitude for her and for all the dancers in our class—mothers, grandmothers, activists, workers, volunteers—and the large and small ways they show up in our community every day.

“You could have gone home but you didn’t,” I hollered, between Pitbull and Sia songs. “You showed up today with courage, patience, and determination, where people could see you. The world desperately needs all of that right now.”

The world also needs ways to imagine a better future, something beyond the rise of neo-Nazis, hate crimes, and the gaping divides that have always been there and which are now on stark display in our nation’s politics. For that imagining—for making a way out of no way, as the African American tradition calls it—we owe a deep debt of gratitude and support to leaders and young people of color in the UU movement.

From the Black Lives of UU’s Revive Love tour with Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost to the work of the Washington, D.C.-based, intentionally multiracial, interfaith group The Sanctuaries (which I serve as a field advisor), multicultural arts groups are leading that new way.

‘One of the greatest threats we now face is the failure of imagination—not to escape the harsh realities we face, but to hold open the real possibility of living otherwise.’

While we were dancing in Austin, Texas, over on the East Coast artists from The Sanctuaries were on a tour in Boston. Raven Best, a black young adult and painter, led events like a large Soul Slam and an intimate workshop on racial healing through the arts at Harvard University.

“With the weight of last week’s election, that release of love and creativity was exactly what I and so many others needed,” Best said upon returning to Washington, D.C. “The trip was a huge confirmation and revived me to continue in the pursuit of happiness.”

The Rev. Erik Martínez Resly, the Sanctuaries’ lead organizer and a Unitarian Universalist minister, said, “One of the greatest threats we now face is the failure of imagination—not to escape the harsh realities we face, but to hold open the real possibility of living otherwise. As artists, we are constantly imagining our way into an alternative future.”

An alternative future is what many of us long for right now. Some of us woke up to that longing the morning after the election. Some discover it along life’s journey. Others have felt it deeply all our lives, as did our ancestors for generations before.

I asked my spiritual director, the Rev. Cathleen Cox, the question that is constantly on my heart, especially now: How do we prioritize the safety, success, and spiritual health of those who are marginalized or most at risk, while also ministering to the privileged and bringing them into the fight for collective liberation? “You meet people where they are,” Cox said, “because that is the only place you can meet them.”

Multicultural arts practices like Zumba and those offered by The Sanctuaries provide an opportunity for different expressions within a collective experience and can be intentionally intergenerational and welcoming to people of varied mental and physical abilities. Even as we follow the same moves to the same music in Zumba (often salsa, merengue, reggaeton, or cumbia), one person can be dancing for the joy of a new job or new love, while another is dancing to release a little of the stress of divorce or parenting, fear or oppression.

At Wildflower, people of many backgrounds and identities are seeking spiritual community. We cannot get the visitor nametags on folks fast enough on Sunday mornings. When they get here, we need to offer not just a place to assume grief over the election, which many white liberals like me have expressed especially strongly, but also a place to lift up joy, resilience, and maybe above all, resistance: glimpses of an alternative future in the here and now.

I keep repeating this mantra that the women of Zumba embodied the Monday after the election: courage, patience, determination. The world needs people who resist, and people who don’t let anything keep them from dancing.