The Dance of Fatherhood

I used to have a quirky but gifted dance instructor who taught us that there are strictly defined roles in dance. She taught “social dance,” which consisted of basic patterns that could be used in any three or four-beat ballroom dance such as a waltz or rumba. Once we learned the patterns, we gained enough confidence to improvise, which is my specialty at weddings.

But here’s the thing. Our instructor still insisted on defined roles even as I improvised my way around the room, crushing toes. In dance, men lead and women follow. This means that men initiate dance, determine when and how moves occur, and end the dance. Women do everything else. Take from that what you will. Just keep in mind it’s Father’s Day.

Another way to look at it is that men form the pillar around which dance takes place. Women pass near and around this pillar like a Voyager spacecraft gaining momentum from the gravitational pull of Jupiter. And there have been more than a few times when I have flung my partner at arms length like a slingshot or yo-yo. Some of them actually liked it. Some of them.

I mention this, because my experience as a father is just that. My job has been to be the pillar around which family life revolves. You may think that mothers exercise that role, especially in an Italian family, and that is true. But where does she draw her strength if not from her husband? I am reminded of the Men’s Warehouse commercial in which George Zimmer tells viewers that at their wedding all eyes will be on the bride, but “her eyes will be on you!” Of course, Zimmer was selling men’s suits, but the same principle applies to fatherhood.

Fathers are the pillar around which the family moves and gathers momentum. They may not do much on their own, but they may not have to apart from providing some financial security. And, as important as that is, emotional security is even more important. In most cases, fathers provide that security simply by being present.

Their lack of presence has led to increases in the rates of violent crime, drug abuse, and abortion. We have all heard the statistics, especially for minority communities. These problems will not be solved with single parenting or infanticide, and those politicians who turn truth on its head by praising these as rights are nothing less than ideological parasites feeding off the vulnerable. If that sounds harsh, so be it. It is meant to be.

To continue the dance metaphor, Borscht-belt comedian Jackie Mason used to criticize people who lived in New York and swore they would never leave because of the ballet. When he asked if they had ever been to the ballet, invariably the answer would be no, not once. “Then what’s the ballet got to do with anything?” he would ask. “Because I know I could go if I wanted to,” they would say. “It’s there.” This is fatherhood: an iconic presence in the background that provides the backdrop against which everything else takes place. But it is a solid background, a foundation, a rock. Like the ballet, “it’s there.”

I know this reflects an older view of fatherhood. Young fathers may find it strange, absorbed as they are with the demands of parenting. Further, they tend to see their role with their partners as interchangeable and not biologically determined. They share everything and achieve a certain equality that way. There is much to commend in this, especially since it may reflect a Trinitarian model of relation as opposed to the more deist model I outlined above.

Still, I can’t help think that something is lost in equality. The idea of complementarity, in which the mother and father are not equal but complement one other, drives some people up the wall. But the two roles are not interchangeable just as they are not on the dance floor. The dancers serve different functions even if they are two men or two women. Somebody has to lead and somebody has to follow. Anything other than that is sparring. And there’s been enough of that already.

Feature image by Brigitte Werner; middle by BernardVerougstraete. This Father’s Day post is dedicated to Margaret Frasula (b. 1925), who died on June 16, 1938 in her mother’s arms. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance.


  1. Yes, Robert, I agree. It seems that it has to do with balance, balance in all kinds of relationships: balance between the reader and writer, balance between the notes, tempo, and keys in a piece of music, balance within a discussion, balance in friendship, and balance for teaching and learning. Balance.
    I have had the privilege of being your student for at least 4 university classes. I think of your interactions with students as a type of “fathering.” It seems like you provided the safety and accessibility to journey in the overwhelming forests of a particular discipline through structure and limits with a tremendous sense of balance in concrete mastery and creativity. So, when I think of the word father, I think of these qualities and when I think of you, I think of balance. Thank you and Happy Day!

    1. Wow. All I can say is thank you.

      Balance is an interesting idea, because I think I achieve balance in writing only over an extended period of time. In other words, sometimes I am too direct, others too meek (including correspondence). But I balance out over the long term. It’s kind of like dieting that way.

      And all this time I have been thinking about the post and how it was not really what I wanted to say.

      I love baseball, especially pitching. But pitching is hard. It’s all about putting the ball where you want it to go. Control. I still don’t have the control I seek in writing. Fastball, sure. They’re easy. It’s the placement that’s the problem.

      I think I just came up with my next post. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Kelly and Astaire, Travolta And The General Hospital Lady, Bojangeles and Shirley Temple? Its not that simple. Sparring? The World is a Stage and we are the mere players. Happy Happy Rob?
    The Hard Ware person is still awaiting the acknowledgement.

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