The biscuit dancer
How can I describe the biscuit dance as it once was? If only you could have seen it for yourself. Picture, if you will, the dog who did the dancing - our stocky, high-spirited Weimaraner, Atticus Grey Pony. Big, muscular, ponylike, and springily catlike. A velvety, short-haired coat of lustrous, light-reflecting gray. And picture, if you will, a pony pawing the ground, head slightly bowed, turned a bit to the right or left. So began the biscuit dance, a civilized ritual surrounding the eating of a dog biscuit. Rearing up on his hind legs, Atticus would come plunging down on the biscuit. Rising and falling, he circled it with surprisingly graceful movements until the biscuit was broken. And when it was broken, he ate it. If he was extremely hungry, no performance. But the joyful, joy-giving ''dance'' was not at all an uncommon event at our house for several years.
Then we took Atticus to stay at a kennel - a very fine, lovely one - while we went on a holiday for a couple of weeks. And when we came back, the biscuit dance had vanished. No more preludes to eating one's biscuits, no more art before appetite, or graciousness before gulping. Just ''gimme that biscuit.'' We were crushed. Atticus had been to the kennel before. It had never seemed to affect him much at all. But then we didn't yet know him very well. We have come to realize that Atticus is a very sensitive, aware creature with a rather macho veneer. He never appears to be affected by circumstances. Dissatisfaction with distressing conditions seems to work slowly, invisibly, inside him. Then, even after years of tolerance, there is sudden rebellion or some suddenly visible change in character, behavior, or even health. And so, all at once, we became aware that the kennel experience was having a ''de-individualizing'' effect on Atticus. I couldn't bear to think that our biscuit dancer had lost some of his wonderful spirit. I couldn't and wouldn't accept any loss of identity. Is it possible, I wondered, for uniqueness, creativity, to be simply knocked out of something or someone by external causes? I thought of Samson and his hair. In the end, the hair wasn't his strength after all, I mused. Samson was intact all the time but didn't know it.
Then I remembered an experience I'd had in the third grade with a rather overbearing teacher. Dear Mrs. Johnson - and I'm certain she was doing her own best in that classroom, but we were all choking from lack of ''air.'' I wasn't an especially rebellious eight-year-old, didn't really want to stand out from my peers any more than any other child. But I never tolerated domination from anyone when it came to art. Art, at that time, was to me as Samson's hair was to Samson: bound to my sense of identity. So, when Mrs. Johnson invaded my easel and pots of tempera paint to tell me that I wasn't painting trees correctly, and to demand that I paint them as she dictated, I rebelled. I simply refused to paint my trees in any lollipop fashion, and nothing would move me. My recollection of this incident (or group of incidents) is not clear. I can only gauge the seriousness of the issue by the fact that my mother eventually had to go up to school to speak with my teacher. Mom and I won my case. My trees were never tampered with again.
Talented children, I am certain, are not at all rare. In the case of artistic creativity, parents and teachers often channel it into what they have come to believe constitutes ''good art.'' If children aren't firm in what they feel, and if they aren't ready or prepared to stand firmly for individual expression, is that the end of it - forever? Or can creativity rise up again to do its ''biscuit dance''? Of course, since adults can grasp the sacredness of individuality, they can do much to protect a child's (or an animal's) uniqueness. They can understand how to discipline without breaking the spirit, how to educate many at a time without suffocating original thought. They can refuse to encourage conformity, however convenient.
And as for kennels, this collective dog experience seemed an unavoidable necessity for us. Would it not be possible for kennel owners to take the time to respect the uniqueness of each creature and not treat him generically? Did kenneling have to be a desensitizing, spirit-breaking experience?
As it happened, we weren't obliged to pursue these questions. Atticus took matters into his own paws, as it were. The event that led to the solution of our problem was something we never would have envisioned, because we did not perceive that the creature himself could take part in the solution. The next time we had to place him in the kennel he simply, without warning, decided that the situation was intolerable. He tried to escape. Every ounce of Atticus's individuality boiled up from within, demanding release. For 10 days, starting at 4 each morning, he attempted to tear the door off his pen. There was neither rage nor viciousness involved in this act, for Atticus continued to kiss every face and hand that came his way. The kennel, however, didn't know what to do with him, apart from caring for his paws. The drumming and beating on the door disturbed all of the 80 or so other animals, and, well . . . Atticus Grey Pony was not exactly invited to return. This conclusive event forced us to find a dog sitter, someone to care for him in our home when we were gone. Her name is Didi, and Atticus is very, very happy with her. He ought to be, because Didi really loves him. She is his dear friend. She treats him neither as a person nor as an animal, but as an individual. They are quite remarkable together. Didi is a teacher, and some 160 12-year-olds pass through her classroom each day. She treats them all as individuals, honoring and nurturing their uniqueness. She gets remarkable results.
Atticus eventually gave us a biscuit dance, almost symbolically, as if to reassure us that it wasn't lost. It's a rare event these days. But individuality , if finally realized, doesn't have to be expressed in the same ways all the time, either through biscuit dancing or through art.
And something else rather startling emerged from all this. I always thought (rather arrogantly, I guess) that creatures were either the victims of mankind, or passively dependent on mankind's humane efforts for survival. Not so, if one biscuit-dancing rebel is an example. It looks as though individuality, wherever present, is irrepressible, capable of rising in rebellion against the oppressor. Perhaps the answer for survival can be seen more in terms of partnership and relationship, both human being and creature capable of sharing in solutions.