Clap! Clap! Dr. Wheeler cut off the music and motioned for us to join him in the center of the auditorium. As we flocked to him, he scanned the group, seeming to mentally calculate each student’s strengths and weaknesses. I fixed my gaze on the floor, and just when I thought it was safe to look up, I caught his eye. I glanced away, but it was too late. He’d spotted his prey.
It was the middle of the first semester of my senior year at the university, and I’d finally accumulated enough credits to snag one of the coveted 50 spots in the most popular elective on campus: Ballroom Dancing.
Taking my right hand, Dr. Wheeler ushered me to the middle of the group. As I placed my free hand on his shoulder, I marshaled my anxiety into choreography.
Back, left, together, forward, righ—
He stopped us, lowering our arms. “Your weight,” he began, still holding my hands. Hot, syrupy shame coated my insides as every red blood cell in my body rushed to my face.
“Your weight—you’re not letting me feel it, not letting me move it as your partner. Instead, you’re anticipating the steps I’m going to take and then doing them on your own. You have to let me feel your full weight because that’s the only way I can truly lead you,” he concluded. And with a curt nod, he dismissed me.
Head bowed and cheeks flaming, I slunk back to my original partner. The music started up again and all around me couples whirled. In each pair, the women floated, dipped, and spun in little orbits around their leads.
“You have to let me feel your full weight because that’s the only way I can truly lead you.”
A requirement of Dr. Wheeler’s class was attendance at the bimonthly Friday Night Dance Parties. Hosted by the university’s Ballroom Performance Group and open to the general public, these parties drew everyone from retired couples sporting their Sunday best to lone fraternity guys in polo shirts, lurking near the groups of single girls. Any awkwardness in the air would dissolve the moment the music began, as feet and limbs found their home inside the rhythms of Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, and Michael Jackson.
The first time I attended a party, a woman in her late 50s captured my attention. She was wearing a black bell-bottomed jumpsuit and a gold belly chain, but it wasn’t her outfit that caught my eye. It was the way she moved with her partner, a bald gentleman in Judge Doom frames. Any time I wasn’t dancing, I found myself staring at her. Samba, waltz, swing—this woman flowed into every step like a time lapse of summer thunderclouds, a burgeoning force of grace sweeping over the auditorium floor.
Grace like that can’t be choreographed. I doubt she was reciting the basic steps in her head, trying to anticipate the moves and do them on her own. I chalked up her performance to innate talent. But after my encounter with Dr. Wheeler, I knew the secret sauce wasn’t skill. It was surrender. She dared to do what I could not: fully trust someone else with all of her weight.
The thing about Dr. Wheeler’s diagnosis of me is that it transcended the dance floor. In most of my relationships, I held myself back, never daring to fully exhale because I was afraid of being hurt. So I channeled my anxiety into perfectionism, believing that if I could do everything on my own, then I would never have to risk being vulnerable. And no relationship of mine suffered from this disordered behavior more than my relationship with God.
If I could do everything on my own, then I would never have to risk being vulnerable.
I wanted to trust Him. I did. But truth be told, more than intimacy with God, I wanted to be safe. I didn’t want to open myself up to disappointment or pain, which history had taught me were inevitable the moment I trusted anything more than I trusted myself. So I dedicated myself to doing all the right steps—prayer, worship, fellowship, study—all in the proximity of God, meaning our relationship had the appearance of trust without the risk.
While God isn’t out to get me, I would not say that safety is very high on His list of priorities for my life. But freedom certainly is. And it took a public confrontation from a rather eccentric dance professor for me to finally connect the dots: Freedom requires surrendering control. It requires vulnerability. And that’s always going to feel risky to me, but there’s no other way to be free.
If there’s any partner I can trust to lead me, surely it’s God. Though it was—and still is—terrifying to rely on His grace more than my ability, the moments of wild abandon that surrender yields are worth it. In the midst of the thrill is a certain peace, and within that peace is the knowledge that I don’t have to know all the steps. He requires my presence, not my perfection. And when I no longer have to monitor my feet, I’m free to look at His face and delight not in choreography, but in communion with Him.