One Dance Away: A Tribute to John Denver

     December 31, 2017
                    by Corinne H. Smith 


     It was the end of August 1995. My friend Doug and I were attending John Denverís Choices Symposium for the Windstar Foundation, in Aspen, Colorado. For several days, we heard terrific speakers Ė a combination of experts and entertainers -- address environmental topics. The format of the conference made it easy to participate in discussions and to interact informally with the presenters. We even had a chance to chat one-on-one with actor Dennis Weaver and his wife Gerry during a lunch break one day. This was my third Choices Symposium, and I was semi-addicted to the whole atmosphere of the place and the event. It always recharged me and my commitment to the planet. And of course, I considered John Denver to be one of my heroes and mentors. He was the reason I had learned to play the guitar. He was one of the reasons why I was an environmentalist. He was the reason I had made it to Aspen.

     On the final day of the conference, one presenter got us up out of our seats to dance to her special music. We had all been sitting too long, listening to people talk, she said. We needed to get up and jump around. The music was bouncy and infectious. We stood up, linked arms with the person next to us, and started swinging each other around. We were told to change direction halfway through the chorus, swinging our partners in the other direction. People bobbed up and down in the aisles and between the rows of seats. There was a lot of laughing going on, too. Doug and I danced together first, wildly. At the end of the chorus, the leader called out for us to change partners. Now we had to move on to dance with someone we didnít know. On and on, we danced. The music played and we kept going, changing partners at the end of each chorus. The laughter only got stronger. It was clear that we needed to do this, even if it seemed silly.

     Doug and I had been sitting along the aisle in the third row. We were just two rows behind John Denver, who had taken the front row aisle seat. As we swung around to the music, I was surprised to see that John was dancing, too. When we changed partners, so did he. He was laughing just as much as everyone else was. So I saw an opportunity. Each time we reached the end of the chorus, I aimed myself down the aisle in Johnís direction. I danced with others who were also in the aisle. But I was determined to reach John and to be able to dance with him.

     I donít know how many choruses we went through Ė four, five, six? With each partner change, I got closer to John. Then came the moment when my new partner and I were swinging around right next to him and his partner. It was obvious that when we changed again, John would get me and I would get him. We had both already danced with everyone else around us.

     And thatís when the music stopped.

     Wild applause joined the laughter in the air, as people returned to their seats. And I was one dance away from John Denver. One dance away. I was not laughing. I was stunned. One more chorus was all I had needed. One more chorus! Couldnít we just keep going, one more time? No. Everyone was already getting ready for the next presentation on the program. John was already back in his first-row seat. Rats. I reluctantly trudged back to the third row.

     Now, would my life be any different if weíd shared that one dance? I donít know. I would have a good story to tell, thatís for sure. But maybe this is the one Iím supposed to tell instead.

     Before the conference ended, Doug and I stood in line for photo opportunities with John. I had a chance to thank him for his music and inspiration, and Doug snapped our picture. John shook hands with us both; and since it happened to be Dougís birthday, John wished him ďa glorious day.Ē And then we went our separate ways.

Posing with John Denver for a typical fan photo, taken by photographer friend Doug McCartney.
At the Windstar Foundation Choices Symposium, Aspen, Colorado, August 27, 1995.

     Two years later, in the week after Johnís plane went down in Monterey Bay, the television networks rolled footage of John, in a variety of scenes and at various times in his life. Some of it had come from the Windstar Foundation and from the 1995 conference, which turned out to be the last one ever held. The camera had been behind John as he addressed the crowd from the stage, perhaps in his concluding words to the audience. And I could clearly see Doug and me in the third row. We were accidentally part of the tribute that kept airing, over and over, as the media tried to nail down the circumstances of the accident. I sobbed every time I saw it. I had hoped to have some kind of tiny connection to John someday, but certainly not like this. Not as part of a posthumous memorial. I had never considered a time when John wouldnít be here, inspiring me and others with his music and his work. I was devastated. It took me years to be able to listen comfortably to his songs again, and many more before I could play and sing them again myself. Itís still Ö difficult.

     I think back to that day in Aspen, and how we had all laughed as we swung our partners round and round. All I had wanted then Ė and would still be happy with now -- was that one last dance.

     Happy Birthday, John! I hope youíre laughing and dancing again today. And yes, you still owe me a dance.


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