On Thursday evening I looked over the balcony at Century Ballroom as my friends Katie and Frank danced to the final song of the night on the dance floor below. It was the last night of salsa before I head off to Boston, and the only night of the summer when the club hosts a live salsa band. (I would have liked to think the special occasion was in honor of my departure, but I know it was simply a pleasant coincidence.) Along with the best sounds the ballroom had heard all season, the live music brought out the city’s best dancers, which made for a night of both great dancing and fantastic viewing. Of all the swift spins and fast footwork displayed by the evening’s talented couples, however, the most memorable dance, in my humble opinion, was that last one danced by my friends.
The three of us have gone dancing together at least once a week all summer long. And just as I, a clumsy beginner, went from counting out every step (1-2-3—5-6-7…) to moving unthinkingly along with rhythms I instantly recognize, so too had my more experienced friends improved their dance moves. While it was unnoticeable for me when I first began dancing, I have learned that a personal dancing style accompanies this sort of progress: when one attains a certain level of familiarity with the rhythms, steps, and moves, one’s personal style—which is often a reflection of his/her personality, training, and dance community—surfaces in his/her dancing. Having danced with Katie and Frank for months now, I have gained a great affection for the idiosyncrasies of their styles. For the neat steps of Katie’s three-count turns. For the circular swing of Frank’s hands when he leads in open-position. For the expressions on their faces when they concentrate during a spin sequence, or the sympathetic grins that occasionally break when someone acknowledges a partner’s misstep.
From the ballroom balcony, I treasured every glimpse of these personal tendencies. They were small, endearing reminders that I was not simply watching salsa dancing, but Katie’s salsa and Frank’s salsa.
While watching them, it struck me that I have experienced a similar affection for friends when we celebrate Mass together. Having celebrated the liturgy for so long, we can engage it more naturally, less consciously, and our personal styles break through unthinkingly. Some of us enter the sanctuary with particular habits, or gesture in unique ways, or recite prayers with more or less words. Not unlike salsa dancing, these small stylistic differences often reflect who we are, where we come from, and the community that most often surrounds us. I love noticing these little things because it transforms Catholicism into their Catholicism, our Catholicism—Frank’s Catholicism. Katie’s Catholicism. They are reminders that, in such intimate, personal ways, Catholicism belongs to the people I love.
The basic steps are the same, but with time we all learn to dance them in our own way.