“Dance In America” is a short story by Lorrie Moore and can be found in the collection Birds Of America, published in 1998. Find it also in The Collected Short Stories. “Dance In America” first appeared in The New Yorker in 1993.
This story may get you thinking about big ideas such as:
THE VALUE OF ARTS VS SCIENCE
“It’s not that I’m not for the arts,” says Cal. “You’re here; money for the arts brought you here. That’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to see you after all these years. It’s wonderful to fund the arts. It’s wonderful, you’re wonderful. The arts are so nice and wonderful. But really: I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.”Lorrie Moore
And the imposter syndrome artists sometimes get, for doing a job at the very top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (and therefore constantly considered expendable).
THE STOCHASTICITY OF LIFE
“We both carried the gene but never knew,” he said. “That’s the way it works. The odds are one in twenty, times one in twenty, and then after that, still only one in four. One in sixteen hundred, total. Bingo! We should move to Vegas.”Lorrie Moore
What does it mean to be selfish? Can you be selfish sometimes and not at other times? Or can the world be divided into ‘selfish’ people and ‘not selfish’ people? When is it okay to be ‘selfish’? Might we throw the word ‘selfish’ around too easily? When we call someone selfish, what might we also be saying?
Nothing is so difficult as to not deceive yourself.Wittgenstein
Sartre’s central tenet of Existentialism is ‘bad faith’. We are all living with self-deception, and unaware of it.
SETTING OF DANCE IN AMERICA
- PERIOD — contemporary (1990s), Fastnacht (“the lip of Lent”)
- DURATION — an evening, with flashes forward to the following day and a plane ride
- LOCATION — The location is right there in the title: America. This story is set in Nebraska. The narrator is visiting from elsewhere. (Moore’s stories are set in the Midwest.) There is apparently a Pennsylvania Amish settlement nearby. (Amish communities are found in two locations in Nebraska: near the towns of Ewing and Orchard in Antelope County, and near Pawnee City in Pawnee County.)
- ARENA — Within Nebraska, the story takes place at an old frat house. The narrator has to choose whether or not to stay at her nearby hotel.
- MANMADE SPACES — Eugene lives with his parents in an old run down old fraternity house which is turned into a character insofar as it reflects the breaking down bodies of Eugene and of the narrator.
- NATURAL SETTINGS
Up in the sky, Venus and the thinnest paring of sickle moon, like a cup and saucer, like a nose and mouth, have made the Turkish flag in the sky. “Look at that,” I say to Cal as we traipse after the dog, the leash taut as a stick.
“Wow,” Cal says. “The Turkish flag.”Lorrie Moore. I believe this is an example of a “Overview Effect” moment in which a character looks up at the sky as a disocciative measure, much like how I pick up my phone and start scrolling when I’m watching the gory part of a horror.
- TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — The lack of scientific technology is crucial here. There is no cure for Eugene’s terminal cystic fibrosis, but his parents live in hope. Eugene has painted Merthiolate on his face, hoping the adults will find him funny. This was banned in the 1990s, and Lorrie Moore would’ve written this story around talk of its danger. (It contains mercury.)
- LEVEL OF CONFLICT — In the wider world of the story, middle-aged people each deal with their decreasing health and fitness which naturally comes as a result of age. Meanwhile, people with disabilities face bigger struggles, often much younger.
- THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — If there’s always someone worse off than we are, do we still get to be sad about our own bodies breaking down, about signs of our own lives coming to an end? Is it possible to be equally sad about both, and should that particular sadness be ‘equally’ distributed? How are we meant to cope, psychologically, with life’s injustices?
CHARACTERS OF DANCE IN AMERICA
First person narrator — her marriage has ended. Her dancer’s body is starting to break down. She is transitioning from dancer to instructor. These days she travels to colleges, giving workshops, but I feel this is a character is at least a little afflicted by the misconception that ‘those who can’t do, teach’. From my outsider perspective, this view is pervasive across America, and must partly explain why America doesn’t pay its teachers respectful salaries. Someone who has considered themselves a practioner and who is now forced to teach is going to be disappointed, especially if they don’t respect the separate but equally professional skillset of teachers. The first paragraph might be read as entirely self-deprecatory, but I still feel a little disappointed by this character before the story properly starts.
Cal — The narrator hasn’t seen her university friend Cal in twelve years. He lost contact with the narrator when he left for Belgium on a Fulbright scholarship. He now teaches at a university near his house — anthropology at Burkwell. Cal shares a similar cynical sense of humour with the narrator and I see why they were friends:
“Yeah, the house.” Cal sighs. “We did once have a painter give us an estimate, but we were put off by the names of the paints: Myth, Vesper, Snickerdoodle. I didn’t want anything called Snickerdoodle in my house.”
When I first knew Cal, we were in New York, just out of graduate school; he was single, and anxious, and struck me as someone who would never actually marry and have a family, or if he did, would marry someone decorative, someone slight.
Simone — Cal’s wife, Eugene’s mother.
[S]he is big and fierce and original, joined with him in grief and courage. She storms out of PTA meetings. She glues little sequins to her shoes. English is her third language; she was once a French diplomat to Belgium and to Japan. “I miss the caviar” is all she’ll say of it. “I miss the caviar so much.” Now, in Pennsylvania Dutchland, she paints satirical oils of long-armed handless people. “The locals,” she explains in her French accent, giggling. “But I can’t paint hands.” She and Eugene have made a studio from one of the wrecked rooms upstairs. … “She had a sister who died young. She expects unhappiness.”
Eugene — Seven years old, with terminal cystic fibrosis. (Over time, cystic fibrosis can damage lung tissue so badly that it no longer works. Lung function usually worsens gradually, and it eventually can become life-threatening. Respiratory failure is the most common cause of death.) This seven-year-old embodies an exaggerated version of the problem the narrator considers herself to be dealing with: an increasingly broken body which is getting in the way of her goals. Both Eugene and the narrator want to continue dancing. The difference between them is huge, however: Eugene won’t get to experience life as an adult let alone as a middle-aged adult. “Eugene’s whole life is a race with medical research.”
Eugene has degenerated, grown worse, too much liquid in his lungs. “Stickiness,” he calls it. “If he were three, instead of seven, there’d be more hope. The researchers are making some strides; they really are.”
Patrick — The narrator’s former husband, who exists only in the backstory, not as an on-stage character. Patrick has called the narrator selfish, and this weighs heavily on the narrator’s mind.
“I’m not married,” I say.Lorrie Moore
“But you and Patrick are still together, aren’t you?” Cal says in a concerned way.
“Ah, no, we broke up.”
“You broke up?” Cal puts his fork down.
“Yes,” I say, sighing.
“Gee, I thought you guys would never break up,” he says in a genuinely flabbergasted tone.
“Really?” I find this reassuring somehow, that my relationship at least looked good from the outside at least to someone.
“Well, not really,” admits Cal. “Actually I thought you guys would break up long ago.”
“Oh,” I say.
STORY STRUCTURE OF DANCE IN AMERICA
[The story] begins with two tragedies of different orders, the broken life and breaking body of the narrator, and the foreseeable death of her friend Cal’s young son, Eugene. These intersect when the narrator, a dance instructor, goes to visit Cal, who she has not seen in a dozen years.Resisting The Intelligence
Narrator is a dancer who has come to Nebraska for two weeks as a Dancer in Schools. She is staying in a Quality Time Inn, but has fled on the last night of her stay there to visit a friend who is married & living in a barely-converted frat house that he’s never bothered to renovate. It is covered with frat graffiti. Their son, Eugene, has cystic fibrosis and is dying. He is 7 and his whole life has been a race with medical research. The husband is someone she knew in graduate school; the wife is a former French diplomat to Belgium and Japan. They keep pots in their attic to catch leaks but fetch them down for cooking. Narrator views a tape of herself dancing for the 4th grade with the child. They dance together, but she forgets to say goodbye to him when she leaves Nebraska.The New Yorker’s copy
All I can think of is how Patrick said, when he left, fed up with my “selfishness,” that if I were worried about staying on alone at the lake house, with its squirrels and call girl-style lamps, I should just rent the place out—perhaps to a nice lesbian couple like myself.
This story asks readers to consider the question: What does it mean to be selfish? We are told that the narrator’s ex-husband — the person who probably knows her better than anyone — called her selfish. After we’re given that nugget, we are invited to think about whether this person really is selfish or not.
Does a selfish person teach the son of an erstwhile friend how to dance?
Does a selfish person think entirely of someone worse off than they are
From what I can gather, the narrator doesn’t think of herself as a selfish person, but since her ex-husband posited selfishness as the overriding reason for leaving her, this has replaced the narrative she has about herself, and she’s pretty invested in not adopting the self-image of a Selfish Person.
So when she sees an opportunity to dance with the young, terminally ill child of a friend, she takes up the opportunity to prove to herself (at least) that she is not a selfish person in the least.
The narrator’s off-the-page opponent is her ex-husband, who has touched on a raw nerve.
The more interesting opposition is Eugene, whose situation is so much worse than her own that he challenges the narrator just by existing. The narrator doesn’t feel she’s allowed to be sorry for herself so long as Eugene is in the world. Unless she spends time with him, she is confirmed to herself as Selfish.
To prove her utter non-selfishness (to herself), the narrator will reconnect with an old friend whose situation is pretty terrible. She refuses to look away.
Eugene suddenly sits down to rest on the sofa, watching the grown-ups. Like the best dancers and audiences in the world, he is determined not to cough until the end.
“Come here, honey,” I say, going to him. I am thinking not only of my own body here, that unbeguilable, broken basket, that stiff merinque. I am not, Patrick, thinking only of myself, my lost troupe, my empty bed. I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?
The narrator forgets to say goodbye to Eugene when she visits his school to give dance classes. She only remembers on the flight home. In the writing of this story, the narrator seems to have learned something terrible about herself: She may be selfish after all.
So what might the reader take away about Selfishness?
The conception of the philosophers, that the selfless act requires a certain inner purity of mind, has always been a caricature. Humans are complicated. They may act for another and yet be unable to escape themselves—such is the position of the narrator here. She is at once selfless and selfish, reaching out across the gap between minds to interact with the life of another and, simultaneously, trapped within her own mind.Resisting The Intelligence
[Moore has the] ability to catch the moment that flips someone from eccentric to unmoored.CONSUMER REVIEW
A switch from “eccentric” to “unmoored” may describe many of Moore’s characters, including this narrator. However, is the narrator of “Dance In America” left residually unmoored?
The narrator doesn’t seem the sort of character who is about to dwell on whether she’s selfish or not. She hasn’t got that capacity. A good number of short story characters are like this, especially those from the Modernist tradition. That said, the fact that she is writing this down suggests a measure of self-reflection.
Take a Katherine Mansfield short story like “Her First Ball“. These two short stories have more than dancing in common. Mansfield’s Leila isn’t going to leave the dance dwelling on how she, too, will be old and unattractive one day, sitting up on that stage like a middle-aged woman. Nope, she’s just going to keep on dancing. Her encounter with the unpleasant old man discomforts her in the moment, but Leila’s way of coping? Move on. Live in the moment.
In the short story form I’m noticing some connection between functionally unreflective main characters and stories which begin in statu nascendi (or close to it). We don’t get much in the way of backstory because unreflective main character themselves don’t think more than absolutely necessary about their own backstories. And since we are basically inside the head of our main character (more so in this one, since it’s written in first person), it’d be ‘out of character’ for the narrator to go on too much about Why-Am-I-Like-This, or what they might to do fix themselves yadda yadda.
The reflection, in short stories like these two, happens in the minds of the readers, not in the minds of the characters.
In line with the Modernists/Literary Impresionists, the reader leaves this story not knowing much other than what happened inside this exact story. The Impressionsts thought it impossible to know the ‘Truth’ of any situation, since ‘Truth’ is a bit of a bullshit concept — everybody’s ‘truth’ is affected by their point of view. It’s impossible to decide whether you, personally, are selfish or not because it would require an unselfish person to even know it.
Most people are able to turn empathy on and off. (Even sociopaths can turn their empathy on, apparently.)
People who can’t do this are known as ‘hyper-empaths’, and for hyper-empaths, the world is a troubling place. Empathy is a finite resource. People who prioritise other people’s feelings over their own are said to be falling into the “empathy trap.”
There is a well-known cognitive bias in which we tend to empathise with a single person enduring something terrible (say, a war) but turn off empathy completely when it is an entire nation enduring that same thing on a grand, collective scale. This is a phenomenon known as psychic numbing.
This is why narrative so often focuses on the story of an individual.
When the narrator in this story ‘forgets’ to say goodbye to Eugene, is she in fact making use of the human facility to keep-on-trucking by avoiding getting too involved in other people’s trauma?
Header painting: by Rauschenberg. The narrator thinks of a Rauschenberg painting when she sees Cal’s frat house.