The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

Y Comienzo a Bailar (“And I Begin To Dance”)

An intimate portrait of the bittersweet experience of memory, loss, and love

Music: Elizabeth Alexander

Words: Elizabeth Alexander / Augustin Cadena

An intimate and loving portrait of one woman as she prepares for and celebrates El Dia de los Muertos, Mexico’s Day of the Dead.  A dramatic soprano solo binds this poignant narrative together, expressing the grief and joy that are at the heart of this and all bittersweet commemorative feasts.

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

Unlike most memorial celebrations, The Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos) combines grief and joy in an overt way. The holiday’s exuberant depictions of dancing skeletons and festive skulls evoke life and death simultaneously. As with most festive meals there are traditional foods, including bread, chocolate, fruits, tamales and mole. In addition, favorite foods of departed loved ones are prepared, with plates set on the table for them as well — for it is understood that their spirits are also present at the feast.

This thin veil between life and death is what makes El Dia de los Muertos so compelling to me. The tension between past and present is so universal, presenting challenges to everyone who has ever lost a loved one. So when conductor Joe Mish asked if I would write a song in response to this celebration, I wanted to craft a lyric that would resonate on a deeply personal level no matter what culture someone belonged to.

The resulting poem, “And I Begin to Dance” (“Y Comienzo a Bailar”), is an intimate portrait of a woman preparing for and celebrating El Dia de los Muertos in her home. As memories of those she has lost intensify and start to overwhelm her, she senses that her loved ones are still with her, guiding her as she prepares the food, making each present moment a little more vivid, and playing the music that accompanies her own dance.

It took several tries before I found the right person to translate my poem into Spanish. I am grateful to Mariana Soldini for insisting that the poem receive the best translation possible, and to Agustin Cadena for doing exactly that.


Y Comienzo a Bailar
Pensamientos sobre El Día de los Muertos

Al preparar la habitación para los invitados, sacudo la mesa,
el trapo en mis manos, un sepulcro suave para lo que ahora es polvo.
Todo a mi alrededor, cada repisa y cada rincón albergan un pequeño cementerio.

Más tarde, cuando llegan las sombras de nuestras madres y nuestros padres,
las palabras se atropellan impotentes en nuestra boca: los amamos,
los extrañamos, los recordamos.

Extendemos nuestras manos ofreciendo pan, chocolate,
los regalos más preciados de nuestro jardín.

Las sombras no nos responden, ni comen, pero sonríen
de forma imperceptible, como siempre sonríe la muerte —

Así que de repente los tomates brillan en la cazuela azul,
la sal húmeda crepita en nuestros labios
la caricia del viento dentro de nosotros es más fresca y más dulce, y
(segura de que los músicos han llegado por fin)
me levanto de mi silla y comienzo a bailar.

Elizabeth Alexander
Spanish translation by Agustin Cadena, © 2011 by Elizabeth Alexander

And I Begin To Dance
(Thoughts on the Day of the Dead)

Preparing the room for guests, I wipe the table clean,
the cloth in my hands a soft grave for what is now dust.
All around me, every ledge and corner harbors a small cemetery.

Later, when the shadows of our mothers and fathers arrive, words
tumble helplessly from our mouths: we love you,
we miss you, we remember you.

We hold out our hands, offering bread, chocolate, our garden’s tenderest gifts.

The shadows neither answer us nor eat, but smile
in the imperceptible way the dead always smile —

So that suddenly the tomatoes gleam bright in the blue bowl,
the wet salt on our lips crackles,
the wind’s caress within us is cooler and sweeter, and
(certain that the musicians have finally arrived)
I rise from my chair and begin to dance.

Elizabeth Alexander
© 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander



Premiere: Walden Hill Vocal Ensemble / Joe Mish (Rochester, MN)
Choir of Countryside Church Unitarian Universalist / Alison Vernon (Palatine, IL)
Choir of First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco / Mark Sumner (San Francisco, CA)
DeKalb Choral Guild / Mary Root (Avondale Estates, GA)
The OK Chorale / Sonja K. Millichamp, soprano. Unitarian Universalist Church of Midland. / (Midland, TX)
Walden Hill Vocal Ensemble / Joe Mish (St. Paul, MN)