A Dancing Compass

So today’s first reading, Dn 3:14-20, 91-92, 95, the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion on seeing “one like a Son of God” dancing in the flames with the now miraculously unbound Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego is one of my favorites.

First, it’s a great story — drama, faith, repetition and rhythm of sound, and joyful witness by God. It was also the first, if not one of the first, mass readings I was ever asked to offer in our parish, St. Mary’s in Ann Arbor. As I stared at the names realizing exactly why nobody had been interested in reading this one, the Jesuit (yes, D2) murmured in response to my humorous attempts with rhythm to get a flow to their names, “Yes, I believe there were songs to that effect.”

When I got home, the magic box enlightened me with Louis Armstrong’s version in the 1951 film THE STRIP (with Mickey Rooney): SHAD-rack, ME-shack-n-uh-BED-neh-go. Love Louis Armstrong’s seamless interweaving of devotion, dance, story, voice, and performance! For fun socio-historical comparison, look at the 1939 capture by “Ford Leary and the boys” version. MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (2020), starring the recently deceased Chadwick Boseman, depicts an example of the deceit by white-owned and -managed music labels of paying on the cheap for jazz song and lyrics and cutting out the African-American composer of the arrangement, performance, recognition, and subsequent career growth in favor of white recording artists.

The Michigan Theater reopened (again) a little over a month ago on February 14, 2021 with a HERO FOR A NIGHT (1927, December 18), a romantic comedy and satire of the many Lindbergh wannabes. For a historical grounding prior to the viewing, Russ Collins, the Executive Director, shared commentary on a series of shorts showing the disastrous trans-Atlantic flight attempts (4 deaths, 3 serious injuries) prior to Lindbergh’s triumph in May 1927. (Someone was taking their elementary school age children?!?!) We also saw a clip of Lindbergh’s takeoff, barely making it off the ground with the extra fuel (no radio nor navigation equipment) and barely clearing the electrical wires at the end of the runway. Noting that the film was made in 1927: people of color are absent (which may be a blessing given the social and cinematic norms of the day) save for five minutes or less of African-Americans incidentally captured in servile roles in the background, e.g., pushing carts and vehicles with white people in them.

After all these months, our sold-out pandemic-sized crowd (100 in an auditorium of 1500) watched a near-century old film in an historically appropriate theater with live organ accompaniment. Such joy! Laughing out loud together as a group, marveling at the sheer goofiness of the film and the amazement of sharing much of a century old experience.

At the end of the film, the hero and heroine land somewhere in Europe. But without radio, navigation maps, or navigating ability — How to identify where you’re at without any shared words / language?  Who and what can connect us?

Dance. 

Our scrappy hero, Hiram Hastings, assures his wife-to-be, Mary Sloan, and future father-in-law, Samuel Sloan, not to worry as they stand in the midst of the town square surrounded by the silent and staring town folk. All things considered, the townfolk are remarkably stoic after having a plane (something never seen before) crash into the end of one of their streets!

Hiram offers a brief dance of the Highland Fling (Scotland) and meets blank stares.  Turkish Dance? Blank stares.  Play acted tip of the bottle and Russian / Cossack dance?  The crowd onscreen bursts into smiles, laughter, shouting, clapping, and dancing … silently .. until we clap to the unheard beat of the film in unison to the newly created live organ accompaniment, awash in our communal laughter and (masked) smiles.  We’re in Russia with our hero and heroine (who have saved the day) … and to prove it, around the hidden corner the Eastern Orthodox priest steps out of the church and welcomes them into be married. 

God is with us in our moments of joyful sacred dance, whether liberating us in the fiery furnace or making us strangers no longer, to God or to each other.

(Probably also with us in that scrumptious TeaHaus dark choco-dipped strawberry macarón the MT handed out as we exited. mmmmmm. Thank you, MT!)

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