On Feet Keeping

Sarah Safsten

I’ve been wondering about feet keeping ever since I first sang the hymn “Lead, Kindly Light” in church, and in the twenty years since. The part I’m wondering about goes like this:
                                   Lead, kindly light, amid th’encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.
What exactly does it mean to keep a person’s feet? If animal keeping refers to the care and maintenance of animals, then does feet keeping refer to the care and maintenance of feet? And this question prompts another: if I were asked to keep some- one’s feet, where would I keep them? In memory? In a box of keepsakes? In the refrigerator, for up to one week? In a photo album? Next to me? And, how would I keep them? Gently? Grudgingly? Good-humoredly?
          After some initial research, I learned that “Lead Kindly Light,” originally published under the title “The Pillar of the Cloud” in 1833, was written by a thirty-three-year-old English clergyman named John Henry Newman. He wrote these lines while on a boat, sailing from Marseille, France, to his native England (Newman, Apologia). During the journey, he became dangerously ill with fever. Perhaps the physical sickness he felt seemed symbolic of some inner spiritual fever too, because his poem reads as a kind of prayer—a plea not for physical healing, but for divine help and spiritual guidance. At the time, New- man was enthusiastically involved in the Oxford movement, a series of endeavors that sought a renewal of Roman Catholic thought and practice within the Church of England (Chad- wick). Perhaps one of his motivations for writing this poem was to express some uncertainty about the Church of England, since he later converted to the Roman Catholic Church in 1845. In any case, it’s likely that Newman borrowed the phrase “keep thou my feet” from the bible, specifically 1 Samuel 2.9: “He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness; for by strength shall no man prevail.”
          But still, I wonder about feet keeping. In one sense, “keep” means to continue doing something, as in keep trying. In another sense, “keep” means to maintain a particular state of mind or body, as in keep calm, keep quiet, and keep safe. And in another sense, “keep” means to pay attention to, observe, or abide by something, as in keep a promise. “Keep” also means to own or hold onto, as in keep the change. And, “keep” means to abide with someone, as in keep me company. Was Newman asking God to own and protect, to pay attention and abide with his feet? To help his feet maintain and continue their daily tasks? I think so. I also suspect he was using the rhetorical figure synecdoche, from the Greek meaning to “understand one thing with an- other” or to substitute a part for a whole (“Synecdoche”). Why would Newman use feet as the part to represent the whole? One reason could be that a person’s feet are their center of balance— their source of support under the weight of earth’s gravity. In fact, there are many idioms in the English language that, using synecdoche, conflate the feet with the body: Put your best foot forward. Get your foot in the door. Stand on your own two feet. Keep your feet. So, when Newman asked God to lead his feet, he asked for guidance for his whole body.
          I guess I have feet on the brain.

          Feet keeping is a high priority for ballroom dancers, who spend long hours honing their abilities to lead and follow each other’s feet. For a long time in the ballroom dance world, the word “lady” was essentially synonymous with the word “follower,” and the word “gentleman” was synonymous with the word “leader.” I have resented this fact for a long time. I have fought, often, with my partners over leading and following. In fact, there’s a stereotype—women joke self-deprecatingly about their bad habit of “back-leading”—where the follower resists the leader’s signals for the movements to come, and instead persist (sometimes even forcibly) in their own way of dancing. Men sometimes joke that they wouldn’t be able to dance their routine but for the help of their woman’s back-leading. But usually, at the end of all these jokes, there’s the implication that the male is the leader (for better or for worse), and it’s the female’s job to follow him.
          In recent years, ballroom dancers have largely stopped defining their role in the partnership by gender, and instead designate one partner as “leader” and the other as “follower.” I am glad for this shift in nomenclature, but even so, I am still the designated follower in my dancing partnership, a role in which I have trained for the past eight years. In truth, I can’t perform my choreography to its full potential without my partner, the designated leader. If my partner gives the signal for me to move in a certain direction, it is my responsibility to move there. Even if I would interpret the music differently, or even if I would rather move somewhere else.
          Despite my feelings of annoyance, I still dance the traditional way (I don’t cause scenes on the dance floor or throw temper tantrums just because I wish I could lead). I don’t feel anger or resentment when my partners lead me. They’re not domineering. They don’t force me to move in dangerous or un- comfortable places. They’ve been responsive, friendly, and kind. I know there isn’t any special honor or prestige in being the leader, but I sometimes want to lead because I feel that I know better than my partner. I want to lead because I don’t feel like listening to or following directions. I want to lead because it’s a good feeling to be in charge, to be The Boss.

          When Newton wrote, “one step enough for me,” did he re- ally mean it? Or was that statement an aspiration, a goal of meekness and humility he was trying to achieve through manifesting it in writing? We can guess that Newman did wrestle with pride for several years. His second verse reflects this:
                                   I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will.
Remember not past years.
Although he was devoutly religious as a young man, he still seemed to struggle to reconcile his own desires with what God seemed to be leading him to do. Perhaps he felt as if God was directing him toward the Roman Catholic Church, even while he was a stalwart member of the Church of England. Maybe Newman hesitated when he contemplated leaving a church he had been attending his entire life. Could this be what he meant by the line, “Pride ruled my will”?

          When I was a beginning dancer, my coach taught me how to follow and taught my partner how to lead. He told us to imagine that our bodies were cars and that our hands were the gas pedals. When we held hands, we could accelerate toward each other at equal rates by pushing against each other. My coach used this car metaphor to help us quantify the level of muscle tone between our bodies and communicate the direction of our movement using non-verbal signals. To practice, my coach asked me to close my eyes and mirror my partner’s move- ments based on his lead. I followed pretty well at first. When I felt pressure on the inside of my right hand, I moved my right hip toward my partner. When the pressure increased, I followed by continuing to move my hip to the right. Next, my partner shifted his weight and stepped toward me. Even with my eyes closed, I could sense this change, and so I followed him by step- ping back. I continued backward until suddenly the pressure in my hands changed. He reversed direction suddenly, but I was too slow. I stepped back when I should have stepped forward. My partner and coach laughed a “gotcha” laugh.

          In 1848, thirteen years after that fateful boat ride back to England, and after many years of spiritual struggle, Newman officially converted to Catholicism. He seemed to have figured out how to follow God’s lead. Of being a follower, he wrote:
                                   Let us put ourselves into His hands, and not be startled
though He leads us by a strange way, a mirabilis via, as
the Church speaks. Let us be sure He will lead us right,
that He will bring us to that which is, not indeed what we
think best, nor what is best for another, but what is best
for us. (Neville)
Mirabilis via. Latin for “wonderful way.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, to be sure. I think all of us hope that God will bring us to what is best for us.
But I wonder how to put myself into God’s hands in a practical sense. Newton described it as a kind of letting go of anxiety, or a choice to trust that whatever happens as evidence of God’s plan for you being fulfilled: “God leads us by strange ways; we know He wills our happiness, but we neither know what our happiness is, nor the way. We are blind; left to our- selves we should take the wrong way; we must leave it to Him” (Neville). I doubt Newton’s spiritual journey was easy, but in the end, it seemed he felt a sense of peace and contentment in following God’s plan for him.
In contrast, I often feel that I can lead myself better than the leader can. As a follower of God, my resistance is sometimes due to pride. But I also think I’m resistant because of doubt or fear. In other words, I don’t know what I’m being led to do, and I’m afraid of stepping in the wrong direction. Let me be clear: I know generally what to do in order to be “a good person”: love other people. Treat them as I would have them treat me. Which means not stonewalling them, snapping at them for being stupid, or punching them on the nose. But discerning more complicated things, like how to reconcile my faith and my doubt, is more difficult.

          In social settings, most ballroom dancing is improvised; leaders choose steps based on the partnership’s shared knowledge and skill level. But competitive ballroom dancing is choreographed, planned, and set in advance—dancers often will practice the same routines for years, even decades. Even though both the leader and the follower already know the order of their steps, they still practice the techniques involved in leading and following so that their movements feel authentic—flowing organically from one partner in one moment to the next.
As we danced, my partner and I practiced refining the points of leading and following in our choreography. He said things like, “Can you wait for my lead here?” Meaning, you’re moving before I’m ready. I said things like, “Can you lead me more clearly here?” Meaning, make your hand mirror the path that you would like my body to travel. To use Newman’s words, canyou keep my feet better?

          If I were to practice leading and following with God, I would ask for clearer direction on how to move forward on my spiritual path. Make your lead mirror the path that you want me to travel. It is not my place to tell God how to lead me, but nevertheless, communicating with heaven is so often abstract, con- fusing, and frustrating. How can I be connected to a Being I can’t touch? How do I know if I’m moving in the right direction? How am I supposed to mirror God’s movements? What if God is testing my ability to follow, and I’m drastically off course? Is there even a lead at all, or am I straining at empty air? I’ve started to kneel beside my bed before I go to sleep each night. I stay there for a time, feeling my heart throb in my ears, feeling my feet start to go numb and tingly. I offer up my own muddled mess of doubts and hopes and feelings, straining to feel any communication from heaven. I remember what Dylan Thomas wrote, and try to follow suit: “I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.” I try to discern the spiritual leads prompting me toward my own mirabilis via, and I can almost hear the music playing. I can almost sense the rhythm. I can imagine the kinds of steps I might possibly take. But I can’t feel a lead—an impulse or indication of when or where to start. The only thing I feel is a general sense that God wants me to be happy, and to use my agency to make choices that result in happiness for me, and also help those around me. That’s like the leader saying, “I want you to dance.”

          During one recent dance class, I was particularly stumped by the intricacies of leading and following. It was early fall, and the mid-morning sunlight shone in through the large east-facing windows in the dance studio. I, along with the other dancers in the room, were slightly sweaty and out of breath from our efforts to improve our rumba technique all morning. My coach watched us dance the routine again, then turned off the music, and asked us to gather around him. He then started explaining the con- cept leading and following in a way I hadn’t heard before. He addressed the men in the room directly, and said, “It’s not about trying to trick your partner. Instead, you should be making it as clear and easy to follow your lead as possible.”
He then turned to the women in the room and said, “It’s not about trying to read your partner’s mind. It’s not about try- ing to guess the right steps. Instead, you need to maintain your internal rhythm. Continue moving to the music, and don’t anticipate the lead that is coming. Live in the moment.”
He then spoke to us all as a group and said, “Leading is about listening. The leader offers a lead like a gift to their partner, but can’t dictate how that person receives it or interprets it. Both partners need to be sensitive to each other.” I stood there in my high-heeled shoes, shifting my weight from foot to foot. I felt relieved that I could stop the futile exercise of trying to read my partner’s mind, relieved that I could stop worrying about what step would come next.

          Maybe my conception of my role as follower has been lack- ing in imagination. I used to think that all a follower had to do was trust the leader to dictate what they should do next. I thought obedience was the only required skill, and a fairly easy one at that. But through time and practice, I’ve learned that being a follower doesn’t mean I wait for my leader to tell me what to do, like a soldier waiting for orders. Quite the contrary.
Being a follower means taking responsibility for the presentation of my craft. Being a follower means actively revising my own artistic choices: to turn as slowly as if moving through honey, or as quickly as the recoil of a tightly wound spring; to stretch all my muscles and bones as high as possible, suspending myself into weightlessness—or to compress the space between my bones and muscles until I become low, grounded, and as heavy as a mountain. Being a follower means claiming my own identity as a dancer as something that is nuanced, complex, and unique—something that cannot be reduced to a set of instructions my partner gives to me through pressure in my hands. My own agency plays a big part in the beauty of a dance.

          Thinking of my relationship with God through the lens of ballroom dancing is helpful to a point. This metaphor gives me some sort of terminology I can use to make sense of my connection to God—some kind of framework through which to interpret the signals I send and receive from earth to heaven. This metaphor helps me think of God as my partner, a com- passionate person who wants to take care of me and help me realize my full, powerful potential. It helps me think of God as a person with whom I can play, brainstorm, and argue.           But this metaphor starts to break down because in real life, my dance partner is not a divine, omniscient, omnipotent God. In real life, I don’t get immediate feedback on how well or poorly I followed a spiritual lead, nor can I dictate which kind of lead God gives me. Real life is more improvised than it is choreographed. So, as I write this, I start to question the ability of a single metaphor to describe the nature of an infinite, inscrutable God. Metaphors are certainly helpful in conceptualizing certain elements of my spirituality, but they will always be limited. In short, God will always be bigger than my metaphors.           But as dumbfounding and frustrating and mind-blowing as it is to recognize God’s bigness, it is also freeing and empowering. If I accept that there are some things about God I will never understand in this life, then I can stop trying to read God’s mind. I can stop worrying about what comes next, and instead take ownership over my spiritual steps in this present moment. I can choose to put my feet in God’s keeping.
           Because, God, we both know that I’m using synecdoche here, and when I say keep Thou my feet, I’m really saying, keep Thou my soul. Keep me company. Keep me safe. Keep Thou my dancing and my essays. Keep Thou my faith and my doubts. Keep Thou my plans and hopes and dreams. I’ll try not to anticipate or second guess, but keep dancing to my internal rhythm.
         Lead Thou me on.

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