Joy and Sadness

by Nicole A. Hershey

12-year-old Nicole

I have a shelf in my apartment dedicated to nick knacks, figurines, and ornaments people have given me after dance performances. This picture sits in a frame on that shelf. At first glance, I see what any dancer would see – my knees aren’t straight, my turnout doesn’t exist, and what are my hands doing!? But it keeps its special spot on my shelf because this is a photo of a moment that changed my life.


I didn’t start dancing until I was old – eleven. I took two classes: ballet and praise and worship. Praise and worship met on Saturday mornings, and we learned choreography to popular Christian music. I completely fell in love with my teacher, Miss Angie. I saw her perform a solo to a song called “I Can Only Imagine.” If praise band music isn’t your jam (and I would not blame you one bit), it’s a song wondering what our first day in heaven might be like. I asked her if I could learn it, and she happily said yes.

A year later, an old family friend died. My whole life, Lauren had used a motorized cart to get around because he had some form of muscular dystrophy. My family knew Lauren and Carolyn, his wife, through a semi-annual Christian family retreat we went to (Camp Farthest Out, if you’re curious). Lauren loved kids, and my brother, my cousins, and I would argue over who got to ride on the back of Lauren’s cart, and who got to “drive” sitting in his lap. Once in a while, he’d even let us honk the horn.

When my mom found out Lauren had passed away, she called the family and offered me to dance “I Can Only Imagine” at his funeral. She informed me I’d be performing when I got home from school that day. I felt a little weird about. I’d never seen a dance at a funeral before (or since).

There’s an image from the service that’s painted in my mind: Carolyn was sitting in the front pew, dripping with grandchildren. There were one or two on her lap, one or two snuggled under her arm, and a few who had been in the pew behind her standing around her shoulders. I looked at her and saw streams of tears on her face, and a look in her eyes of… was that joy?

She sent me a thank you card that said, “Nicole, I saw Lauren up there, dancing with you, and dancing with God.”

I didn’t know you could feel joy and sadness at the same time.

I didn’t know dance could be something more than a fun performance.

I didn’t know dance could be bigger than myself.

I didn’t know I could help heal something in someone else.

Y’all, I’m sad I’m not going to be with you on Palm Sunday, dancing our dramatic gospel reading.

Dancing has always felt like my gift from the divine. It’s been my favorite form of prayer since I was eleven, my window to commune with the divine. It feels like a holy practice, and dancing in a sacred space feels like the intersection of spirit, body, and mind. I’ve had performances that are great career moves and performances in front of hundreds of people; Palm Sunday is one of my favorites.

I know it doesn’t require an audience to feel these things – I can find Spirit by dancing in my living room. But having people bear witness does make the energy more potent.

There is so much we are collectively grieving during this pandemic. So, I’m reminding myself of the lessons I learned at a funeral 20 years ago:

We can feel joy and sadness at the same time.

We can give each other something through things that come easily to us.

We can give something bigger than ourselves.

We can help heal something in each other.

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