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I'm dancing with my mother on Zoom

"Twice a week, we would meet up in this virtual space, bending and swaying and kicking alongside strangers in kitchens and living rooms," writes Diana Renn. (Getty)
"Twice a week, we would meet up in this virtual space, bending and swaying and kicking alongside strangers in kitchens and living rooms," writes Diana Renn. (Getty)

A few months into the pandemic, my mother and I discovered an online Nia dance class. Twice a week, we would meet up in this virtual space, bending and swaying and kicking alongside strangers in their kitchens and living rooms.

Often the music in the instructor’s studio was fuzzy, tinny or out of sync. Happy to be doing something together, we shrugged off tech glitches and kept showing up. The class provided shape to our days and weeks, a safe, physical activity, and a way to assuage my guilt about living 3,000 miles away at a time like this.

My mother was widowed shortly before the pandemic hit. When my stepfather died, she not only lost her husband and companion of 30 years, she also lost her dancing partner.

My mother is a real dancer. By that I mean not a professionally trained dancer, but a person who has consistently integrated dance into her life since her earliest days in ballet. Throughout her adult life she has focused mostly on Scandinavian dancing, even performing with a group in Seattle. She and my stepfather traveled annually to attend dance festivals in Sweden. They hosted international dancers and musicians in their home, and took their guests on road trips to national parks. Through dance, they found adventure, community and lifelong friends.

My feet still trace those familiar lines of ballet moves on the floor while I cook.

I have always admired my mother’s dedication to dance. I did ballet as a child and teen, and have returned to classes now and then in my adult life, but never with the same level of commitment, even though the impulse to dance is always with me. My feet still trace those familiar lines of ballet moves on the floor while I cook. Or I take a surreptitious little spin down the hall on my way to the linen closet.

But my mother has never stopped moving. She danced through her divorce, her career change, her years of caring for my grandfather who had Alzheimer's. More recently, when my stepfather became too ill to dance, my mother took up line dancing at her local senior center, since it didn’t require a partner. I was happy to see her Zoom-dancing, learning a new form — Nia — which could be done in a tiny space, and which didn’t require a partner.

Then I realized something. I was now her dance partner.

At some point in year two of the pandemic, my work and home life resumed its previous level of busyness. The class time and frequency no longer worked for me. Yet every Tuesday and Thursday my mother would text me reminders at precisely 12:25 p.m. my time. (Class?? Are you logged on? I am here!).

Sighing at the interruption, I’d dutifully log on, feeling better when I saw my mother in her Zoom square already warming up. In the grid of 15 other dancers, she always stood out on my screen. She'd be wearing a beautiful, vibrant, flowy shirt, in contrast to the gray sweats and sweater that had become my pandemic uniform.

She was thumbnail-sized, yet larger than life, dancing joyfully and exuberantly.

I attended class when I could, often shuffling through steps with a sandwich in hand, strategically held off-camera. Sometimes work caught up with me and I multitasked, using my precious lunch hour to reply to emails and inhale food in between dance sets. Sometimes I desperately needed to focus at my computer. I would tell my mom I would catch the class on the replay link, good for 24 hours.

More often than not, I wouldn’t catch the replay. As the pandemic dragged on, and my work and household obligations intensified, the class felt burdensome. I even resented it. I couldn’t recall actually signing up for a commitment to dance online twice a week with a bunch of strangers. Between facilitating my kid’s pandemic learning, managing a high-energy puppy and dealing with deadlines, I had no time for leisurely pursuits.

I desperately missed my mother, but wouldn’t our hour or two a week be better spent catching up on the phone? We couldn’t talk in dance class. And on the phone I could multitask, loading the dishwasher or walking the dog.

One Tuesday, the 12:25 text from my mother came in when I was stressed, swamped and hopelessly behind on everything. I felt guilty, though, having missed a month of classes. I decided to log on but with my video feed turned off. I would be there “in spirit.” No one would be the wiser.

I minimized the Zoom screen to a thumbnail and texted my mother to tell her I was there (wherever “there” is on Zoom). I took a bite of sandwich and pulled up my Google doc with my work. Eating and typing, I forgot the time, until I looked up and saw ... my mother.

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There she was, on my document, swaying to music I could not hear. The instructor, whom I had muted so I could concentrate on work, had apparently decided to spotlight some dancers, and my mother was now the star act featured in the free dance segment. The grid of dancers had vanished, singling her out. She was thumbnail-sized, yet larger than life, dancing joyfully and exuberantly. I stopped everything and watched, in awe.

Behind her I could see the familiar bookshelves and family photos in her living room. I turned up the volume. Her gestures became larger and fluid as the music picked up. Back and forth she glided. Taunting me.

No. Beckoning to me. Reminding me of the importance of movement. Reminding me — even though she came to me in a virtual space — of the importance of feeling grounded, of keeping a foot in the physical world.

I closed my Google doc and danced with my mother.

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Related:

Diana Renn Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Diana Renn is a novelist and editor in Concord. Her latest novel for younger readers, "Trouble at Turtle Pond," will be published in April by Fitzroy Books/Regal House. 

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