37: I Hope You Dance

37: I Hope You Dance

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

I Hope You Dance

Story by Tia Sillers

Song written by Tia Sillers and Mark D. Sanders

Recorded by Lee Ann Womack

I didn’t move to Nashville until I was in junior high school. When I was a teenager, I babysat for some musicians and recording artists, but growing up, I didn’t have any real inclination to work in the music business.

As far as how I got interested in songwriting, it’s easier to romanticize about it now than to remember it accurately. I would go to The Bluebird Café a lot when I was in high school and college. You didn’t have to be 21. You could listen to live music seven nights a week and they had early and late shows, so it was a great place to feel grown up. Amy (Kurland) would let me enter from the back door and walk through the kitchen. She even let me sit at the rear corner of the bar sometimes.

All the songwriters there would tell these fabulous stories and these “blue” jokes and puns. They were incredibly witty. That was almost as attractive to me as hearing them perform. I still didn’t think about writing songs. I just studied them as “creatures.” I was drawn to them as “personalities.” Songwriters, as an ilk of people, are just kind of odd. I liken them to pirates. Pirates are not at all like sailors. Even though they’re all out at sea, being a pirate is a far cry from joining the Navy.

Later in college, I decided I wanted to be a novelist or a journalist or something of that sort, and that’s when I first began contemplating writing songs. One summer I went to see Don Schlitz and Rodney Crowell and they just devastated me. I thought, How do they do that? And I remember at that point getting CDs of theirs and beginning to study them.

One of the first things I discovered is that poetry and lyrics are not the same thing. Poetry works perfectly well without music. You can read a poem and feel something without the help of melody or instrumentation. But lyrics really need music to cradle them. That’s something I was drawn to. With a song it isn’t just the music or just the lyrics; it’s the synergy between the two.

I was about twenty when I got serious about writing and I signed my first publishing deal not long after. I was fortunate to have songs on the charts at a fairly young age, so for a long time I don’t think I appreciated how really hard it was to do this.

A few years after I started writing professionally, I was going through a nasty break-up and I went down to the beach in Florida to figure out how to reinvent my life. My mom, who was this crazy, fabulous woman, kept calling me on the phone while I was there. She would say things that were reminiscent of future lines in “I Hope You Dance,” but they were all bad things about my ex, like “I hope he stays miserable,” and “I hope he knows he’s an idiot” — not exactly words of inspiration you would put in a song. But occasionally she would say something more positive like, “I hope you get that light in your eye back” or “I hope you get to travel around the world.”

One night, I was sitting on the beach at St. George Island near Apalachicola and it was just so unbelievably beautiful. There I was, absorbing the deepness of the sea and the vastness of the sand and thinking how I was going to be ashes soon enough and how so little of our life really matters in the big picture. There were seagulls and pelicans flying above me, and a dolphin was coasting in the distance, and I remember feeling so small.

Then all of a sudden, straight out of CSI: Miami, came this huge black Humvee racing across the empty beach — this is a nature preserve, mind you — all the windows were down and loud music was pouring out. The car screeched to a halt about 50 feet away from me and this man got out and he even looked like the guy on CSI, with dark sunglasses and a silk shirt. He got out and he was screaming into his cell phone, cussing up a storm. It was so strange. I remember thinking, “Wow, this guy definitely does not feel small when he stands beside the ocean, and it’s his loss.”

On my way back to Nashville, I got a call from a music publisher who happens to be one of my best friends — Diana Maher. She was calling from Estes Park, Colorado. She said, “I’ve got some of my writers, including Mark Selby, and we’re all up here in the Rocky Mountains. Why don’t you come out and work with us?”

I explained that I wasn’t in Nashville at the moment and she asked, “Where are you?”

I said, “I’m about 50 miles south of Atlanta.”

She said, “Great, park your car at the Atlanta airport and catch a flight to Denver.”

I bought a ticket, arrived that night and spent a few days collaborating with writers, including Mark, who is now my husband, and we had a great writing retreat. We climbed an 11,000-foot mountain and I was scared to death. So the line, “I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance,” came from that experience. The song was slowly coming together in bits and pieces during both of my trips.

I got back to Nashville and had a writing appointment with Mark D. Sanders that next week. Mark D. is the most wonderful man; he’s like a shrink in that he wheedles things out of you that you have no intention of telling. And before I knew it, I was sitting there crying and mumbling and singing this thing I had in my head. I still remember Mark D. saying, “Oh, I think we should write that.”

We went to lunch at a Mexican restaurant when he came up with the refrain at the end, “Time is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along.”

I said, “This is another song, right?”

He said, “No, it’s for this song. Trust me.”

It probably took us another couple of sessions to finish it and then we did the demo. We hired Karen Rochelle to sing, as well as a group of background singers, men and women. The finished product had some flaws. The guitar part wasn’t really working and we had it arranged in a less than inspired fashion. But Mark Wright, the producer, did what a great producer should do — he took it to another level. He didn’t just expect the demo to be handed to him and then try to copy it. He came up with the whole lush arrangement, and it was his idea to add the Sons of the Desert on the background vocals. They are like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, like when Cicero is about to give a speech and all of a sudden the Greek chorus comes out and says, “Cicero must give a speech that is very important to convince the public that he is in his right mind.” That’s essentially what the Sons of the Desert were doing on this record. The texture of their voices was great. Anyway, Mark Wright came up with all of that.

We found out that Lee Ann was going to cut it and it was going to be released as a single, so we were thrilled, but we never dreamed it would win a CMA, let alone a Grammy, and then later be performed at the Nobel Prize Awards ceremonies.

The night we won the Grammy for Best Country Song, the funniest thing happened. Mark and I went up on stage and accepted our award. After our speech, an escort came and ushered us backstage where we got in line for media questions. In front of us were Eminem and Madonna and a bunch of other big stars. One by one, they brought them in front of the reporters and announced their awards and the flash bulbs popped and people started firing questions. When our turn came, they said, “Here are Tia Sillers and Mark D. Sanders, writers of ‘I Hope You Dance,’ which won Best Country Song. Any questions?”

Silence. Not a single question, no flash bulbs, nothing — we just walked off. It was hysterical. So any inflated ego that I might have had while I was on stage was immediately squashed backstage!

I’m intrigued when people come up to me and say, “This song is really for children, right?” because that shows there is more than one way for the song to be interpreted. That’s something that Lee Ann chose to do. She put her children in the video, and that made it magical. But truthfully, while writing it, we were trying to create a list of hopes for all of humanity. It’s for everybody at every age.

A lot of us, when we get to a certain point in our lives, we think that we don’t need to have hopes anymore. And the truth is, we need to have even more hope as adults than as children, because kids already live in a fantasy world. Most kids have the luxury of wishes and hopes. But so many times we adults sacrifice our own dreams and hopes for our children.

The thing that I wanted to impart to someone else with the song is: Even I had to figure out how to have those hopes and dreams for myself again — because I was ending a terrible relationship. Many of the lyrics are very mature. The line, “When you come close to selling out, reconsider,” that’s an adult hope. “Don’t let some hell-bent heart leave you bitter” — that’s not a line you’re going to say to a child. “Loving might be a mistake but it’s worth making” — that’s a realization that only comes from experience. It’s great when younger people say how much they love the song, but I think it’s mostly adults who have really grabbed on to bigger concepts in “I Hope You Dance.”

One of the loveliest things about “I Hope You Dance” was that it was written the way I always imagined writing a song should be. It’s the first lines that move me the most, “I hope you never lose your sense of wonder / you get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger.” So many people lose that hunger as they get older. They lose that curiosity, that drive, that desire, particularly because the vicissitudes of life are hard and can beat you down, but I think it’s imperative in our journey as humans to keep that sense of wonder and hunger at all costs.

I Hope You Dance

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder

You get your fill to eat

But always keep that hunger

May you never take one single breath for granted

God forbid love ever leave you empty handed

I hope you still feel small

When you stand beside the ocean

Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens

Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance

I hope you dance

I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance

Never settle for the path of least resistance

Living might mean taking chances

But they’re worth taking

Lovin’ might be a mistake

But it’s worth making

Don’t let some hell-bent heart

Leave you bitter

When you come close to selling out


Give the heavens above

More than just a passing glance

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance

(Time is a wheel in constant motion always)

I hope you dance

(Rolling us along)

I hope you dance

(Tell me who wants to look back on their years and wonder

where those years have gone)

I hope you still feel small

When you stand beside the ocean

Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens

Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

Dance. I hope you dance.

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