Tripping the Light Fantastic

I ran across this phrase when it ended up being the answer to a crossword clue about dancing. I wasn’t familiar with it, but sometimes a combination of words strikes me as so serendipitous, so rich in possibilities, that I just savor it for a while, like a hard candy.

“Tripping the light fantastic” comes from a combination of references, some as far back as Shakespeare and Milton, moving forward in time to a late 19th-century musical comedy. It’s meant to convey a floating, elegant, nimble dance step. That’s nice, but really, if you let your mind play you can come up with images of light dashing through space, finding astonishing hidden corners of the universe, kindling wonder and deep joy. Can’t you? “Tripping the light fantastic” has color to it, movement, music, mirth.

Today I lunched with a friend who was fresh from a week in Arizona volunteering at a camp for disabled kids and adults. She was (as she always is) full of stories, which were ultimately more gratifying than the lunch we shared. One thing she noted particularly about the people with whom she worked was that no matter what the program called for, it was nearly always interrupted by eruptions of spontaneous dancing. Singing, background music, or no music at all were all occasions of incredible demonstrations of fantastic moves by those living with wheelchairs, with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and other challenges. The music (internal or external) awoke something within, set them free to trip the light fantastic.

One night my friend awoke in the dark. From her top bunk, she watched a young girl with Down syndrome dancing silently but with abandon in the middle of the room. Her music was within. After watching a few moments, my friend suggested that since it was late, perhaps she should get some rest. The girl was reluctant to give up her movements of joy, but my friend promised, “We’ll dance in the morning.” “Okay, Mrs. —-,” the girl replied, “we’ll dance in the morning.”

My last blog was about truth, and while I don’t retract a word, it needs some amendment. And that is that truth, when you find it, should make you trip the light fantastic. Now, really, must I add caveats? That other things can fill you with pleasure, and therefore not all “fantastic trips” are full of light? That truth is sometimes weighty and solemn, and therefore it (and we) may not always feel too mirthful or nimble?

Yet all too often what we call truth is not solemn, but somber; not weighty, but grave. We make truth a bludgeon rather than a promise, a measuring rod rather than an invitation.

You may argue, but I do believe that real Truth must be so authentic, so very real, so tangibly, audaciously genuine that even when it’s dark, and there’s no music, we can trip the light fantastic. And, when we can’t, we can always comfort ourselves (and each other) with the promise, “We’ll dance in the morning.”

About K. Mulhern

Kathleen Mulhern teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Denver Seminary, Colorado School of Mines, and Regis University. She particularly focuses on the historical roots of the political, economic, religious, and cultural systems that have contributed to contemporary society.


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