A SHORT HISTORY OF DANCE LESSONS

 

Some men are meant to dance.  Travolta, Nureyev, Astaire.  And then there is me.   Lessons have been pitched to me three times, and three times I have swung and missed.  I play tennis and soccer.  I like music.  How is it possible that I cannot dance?

The first lessons were scheduled in anticipation of my wedding.  I was thirty.  After an introductory class with several other couples I agreed to a series of lessons, but only if they were private.  My suffering could not be a public spectacle.  After all, I was certain that whatever I was doing on the dance floor was of supreme interest to any person within viewing distance.

On a rational level, I know that the foregoing sentence is silly.  Yet, I cling to it, still.  When I am dancing, every eye in the room is on me and my hopelessly self-conscious movements.

The instructor was a petite blonde.  She was of indeterminate Eastern European extraction.  We were to focus on the basics, namely:  the box step, the foxtrot and the cha-cha (or is it cha-cha-cha?).  In the almost-certainly correct view of the instructor, all of my efforts were deficient.   If I managed proper timing, my head was facing down.  If I held my head up, my frown of concentration was showing.  If I shortened my stride, my timing was off.  If I lengthened my stride, I stepped on my partner’s feet.

While we were engaged, my wife and I were at a resort that had a dance-night.  I hadn’t made clear to my dance-loving fiancé that I did not dance.  I had to sit awkwardly at our table while she was swept away by an 87-year-old man to dance something called the Peabody.  I had never even heard of the Peabody.  I digress.

By the third of our six lessons, I graduated from the box step to the foxtrot.  There were apparently choices to be made in terms of speed, both of the music and of the foot movements.  I chose the slower option on all fronts.  My pace was torpid.  All of the music seemed to be Rod Stewart.    I hate Rod Stewart.

I found that my arms were more competent than my feet.  There were several twirl moves that I was capable of completing with modest success.  Woe is a dance partner of mine who does not like to spin.  Unfortunately, when twirling my partner, my legs revert to pure shuffling, without even a hint of connection to the music.  This presents a problem when the maximum possible reasonable amount of twirling is at an end.

At the sixth and final pre-wedding lesson the focus had narrowed to merely having me appear competent while dancing our wedding song.  It shocked me, therefore, when the teacher came to a miraculous discovery.  Sounding like a cross between the Bride of Frankenstein and Dr. Ruth, she said:  “You are picking up your feet with each step.  You should be gliding.”

“Yes, well,” I stammered, confident that I had been moving my feet exactly the same since the first day.

“You are doing it wrong!” she sputtered, as though I had not been in front of her for nearly six hours.

I was too stunned to ask why I was learning this at the end of the final lesson.  If a tennis player were holding the racket backwards, wouldn’t an instructor realize during the early stages of the first lesson?  Anyway, with the wedding three days away, we resolved not to mess with my fragile technique and I ultimately marched my way through a wedding performance that… no one criticized at all, at least not to my face.

At least fifteen years passed before my next set of dance lessons.  These were presented as a non-choice choice by my wife who explained that “all the ladies in her women’s support group were going to take them along with their husbands or boyfriends’”  It was important, she said, for the “couples” to do something together.

“Couldn’t we play cards?” I asked.   “How about volleyball or tennis?”

“It has to be something that is challenging and that all the couples can do together at the same time.”

“Cooking?  We could cook.  It could be like ‘The Big Chill,’” I suggested.

“They dance while they cook in ‘The Big Chill.’”

She had me.

The group lessons were instructive in several respects.  First, I learned I am not the only male with my problem.  Perhaps, there should be a support group for non-dancing men.  Second, and this is a good thing, we are a more compatible couple than many others, even without my ability to dance.  There was constant tension between the other couples, with strained expressions and snarky comments more the rule than the exception.  Third, the only thing more awkward for me than dancing with my wife is dancing with a partner who is not my wife.

The six couples came together for their first lesson on a weekend afternoon.  The instructor, again, was a petite European woman, but she was the owner of the particular studio and, as such, had a solicitous nature.  She acted as though she really cared and as if she sincerely believed that for several couples among us, this would doubtless be the beginning of a lifetime of ballroom dancing.

“Imagine,” she said, pointing to posters around the studio, “participating in competitions all over the country.”

I shuddered.

Among our six couples, one clearly had danced a lot.  The husband was actually more adept than the wife and was delighted to show off his skill whenever the instructor needed to demonstrate.  The rest of the males hung back, just hoping to avoid attention.  Having had a decade to contemplate it, I concentrated on keeping my feet close to the floor.  The focus was to be dancing the “swing,” which was fortunate, I thought, since that involves a lot of twirling.  The first hour went quickly enough with time wasted on introductions, demonstrations and explanations.  There was little actual movement by most of us and my deficiencies went undiscovered by the instructor and, perhaps, were even shielded, for once, from my wife.

After the first lesson, the couples went, by pre-arrangement of the women, to an Italian restaurant for dinner.  Though I was not enthused about the prospect of joining a bunch of strangers for what amounted to dinner around four o’clock, I was apparently among the cheerier male participants.  Two of the men learned about dinner for the first time at the end of the dance lesson and were clearly unhappy.  One had planned to watch a game on TV and the other planned to go to his gym to work out.  I witnessed a third couple sparring as they exited their car.  My resigned cooperation felt smugly satisfying.

Service was spotty at the restaurant.  Perhaps staffing was limited at that time of day.  In any event, when the meal finally ground to a conclusion, it was clear that the post-lesson dinner was to be a one-time event.   Only five couples showed up for the second lesson.  The missing couple was said to be ill.  We worked on our swing steps, and I enjoyed the relative anonymity of a group lesson.  I also derived some degree of confidence from the incompetence of the other men.  The instructor even complimented me for one of my twirls and made me blush, but I soon realized that she complimented everyone for something.  My wife thought there was hope.

In the third week, the “ill” couple was apparently still “ill.”  And another man was missing due to a rare weekend “business meeting.”  His wife appeared alone, looking uncomfortable.  The instructor decided it would be nice to rotate the men from partner to partner so that the single woman would have an equal chance.  “It’s good to learn with different partners,” she said, to a skeptical audience.

Having been successfully married for fifteen years, it was a revelation to re-learn that women can be lumpy in all sorts of places.  Shoulders and butts can be massive and breasts can be pendulous or flat.  Until you are trying to put your hands around someone and move them, you really cannot know.  Also, unless you are physically close to someone, you do not know how much they sweat, or if their breath is sweet.  Perhaps, accentuated by the anxieties of a group dance lesson, all of these atmospheric variables were acute.

By the fifth and final lesson, only three couples remained.  If only I had had the foresight to develop the “Survivor” concept with regard to dance lessons.  I felt reasonably competent in a slow, not-very-creative version of the “swing.”  I watched the clock.  I delighted in seeing the extent to which the show-off guy was dominating the instructor’s time.  I made sure my wife noticed how irritated his wife was becoming.  And then, it was over.  There may not be any connection, but it did not surprise me when the women’s support group petered out several weeks later.

A Groupon presaged my third and most recent (I dare not say “final”) dance lesson experience.  A studio in a neighboring town was offering a “FREE INTRODUCTORY CLASS.”

“How could we pass that up?” asked my wife.

“How could we not?” I asked, already doomed.

We arrived at the studio where a sign proclaimed:  “New Owners!!!  Fully Renovated!!! Goups Forming!!!”

“What’s a goup?” I asked.

My wife told me to hush.

Our instructor was anxiously waiting.  Alexander was fresh off the boat, or however it is that Russian immigrants arrive nowadays.  He apologized for his English which we could not understand.  Then he apologized for the studio which, he eventually communicated, had an electrical problem.

“Could you, maybe, please, sir and madam, come back next week?” he asked.  “Maybe have music next week.”

“It’s a pretty long round trip,” we responded.

“Round trip?” he repeated, uncomprehending.   “Your lesson, sir and madam, of course, please, will be, how do you say, discounted.”

“It was already supposed to be free,” we pointed out, showing the Groupon.

“Oooooh,” Alexander stammered.   “Let me explain, please, my friends.  That piece of paper is, you might understand, for the old owner.  Not my owner.  You see?”  He pointed to the sign.

We looked at each other and recognized that this was not going well.  Having been mildly cooperative, it appeared that I had dodged another dance lesson opportunity with my dignity and my marriage intact.  I formulated in my mind, as we left, that I might never have to do this again.  Upon our return home, however, a thick envelope filled our mail box.  “Dance the Night Away!” proclaimed the invitation.  I could only groan.

 

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