Artful Embroidery: Jo Giese’s “Never Sit If You Can Dance”

August 15, 2019   •   By Jill Schary Robinson

Never Sit If You Can Dance

Jo Giese

JO GIESE IS a refreshing inspiration for grown-up women who are not done yet. I look at her picture: beaming smile, long golden hair. She’s wearing the red-rimmed Annie Hall glasses we wore in the ’60s, showing up and showing off, our glee and independence unfettered. I’ve noticed, when I’m working with a group of smart women, sharing stories, revving up action, the topic often turns to our mothers — rather than, as it once did, to guys, children, and achievement (not necessarily in that order).

And so Jo Giese’s new book, Never Sit If You Can Dance, is a slim, rich, and original memoir about her mom, who called herself Babe (she hated her real name, Gladys). The book is suited up in a refreshing format of 13 “Lessons.” Like smart short stories, each lesson glows with tender reflection, with wisps of sentiment — and with bolts of wisdom. A gift we sure can use, Never Sit If You Can Dance is an inspiring collection of advice on how we might enhance our lives now, from Babe, a feisty, loving mom who knew what she was doing.

Jo has been a teacher, a radio journalist, and an activist. She was part of a Peabody-winning team at NPR’s Marketplace and has written for just about every publication you’d love to write for. I couldn’t quite identify what affected me so deeply about her new book; then I read more about Jo Giese. I learned that she’d cared for her husband as he was dying — a heartbreaking devotion that endows a gift of fortitude. You learn to give all you have as you find the faith to give even more.

Jo’s soul gives this book a profound character. There’s not only the rare, cherished mother/daughter story but also a seasoning, a rhythm, that makes Never Sit If You Can Dance so endearing. The generosity it takes to write with such affection, the waves of insight born of courage, and the bravado of a writer who has been there, seen it all, and still puts on a smile. Each lesson Babe taught Jo is no easy game — it’s a custom, a value, a move our current culture could well look to restore. These lessons would reward our families with gestures of actual communication. Might we put on our dancing shoes?

Babe loved embroidering, one of the great meditative arts women used to heal tension and provide the patience required when everything took time. Creative waiting was a skill, and Jo shows us her mother’s lessons, a stitch at a time, with the precision of artful embroidery. The “Lessons” come up as if in a conversation, such as when Jo tells us that she asked her parents about “all that dancing” Babe and Jo’s father were doing, and Babe blurted out: “Never sit if you can dance!”

The book feels so lively: when Jo writes about listening to Elvis, watching Babe dance to his music, I switched “Hound Dog” on my phone and danced the timeless sultry moves.

There are deep memories here of such artifacts as “manners” — bringing flowers or candy on a visit to a friend. This book reminds us of the grace, the comfort of gentle gifts: Lesson Eight, for example, tells us to stand up when we say goodbye to guests, while Lesson 11 explains the value of paying a compliment. The lessons are simple, staged with humor, flittering like butterflies throughout the book. I bet you’ll receive a thank-you note for sending it as a present.

I’ll keep Jo’s book on hand when I’m feeling regret about my family, about attitudes I adopted to detach myself from the nice, good girl of the ’50s I was taught to be.

Jo finds so much in Babe’s 13 Lessons. The book feels knowing and witty: you’ll turn back, what was that? Yes! Lesson Four: About thank-you notes! I laughed. Birthdays and holidays always involved such notes. My father would always read my thank-you notes; if I ever used the same word twice, the note had to be rewritten. And this was when you had to fill the pen with ink (and cope with blotting paper)! But the thank-you note was my introduction to writing. I love Lesson Four.

The most powerful advice might be Lesson Nine, which begins, “People don’t like to be around people who are depressed.” Yes? So this hits hard. “DON’T be depressed.” What about that for a simple idea? Turn it off. “Really?” I ask myself. “Yes,” I say. And I read Lesson Nine again, every morning for a week.

I learned a lot I’d forgotten, or given up, from this book. I remembered the grace, the playfulness, the lift of life. When I’m tough and cranky, I can change my attitude. This clear book makes that change as easy as swinging into dance.

Jo says, at the end, “I’m especially delighted that in this Instagram age, a woman who never touched a computer or owned a cell phone or played solitaire on an iPad had wisdom — earned from a lifetime of living — that has turned out to be timeless.” Jo has introduced us to Babe. I’m turning on Gene Kelly, tapping my feet, twirling in time.


Jill Schary Robinson has written for The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and the Washington Post. She is the author of Bed/Time/Story (Random House, 1974).