I love to dance. I enjoy dancing. Unfortunately I only really enjoy dancing to songs made between 1980 and 1986, with a few brief spots in the successive decades just to seem equinaminous. My chief instruction to our wedding DJ was, “You must play the complete, six-minute, version of ‘Tainted Love’ with the first five songs or you’re fired.”
Ask me, however, to dance to anything else, to dance to anything that doesn’t require me to flap my arms and legs and bounce in semi-rhythm to Soft Cell or a-Ha and I am hopelessly lost. My first sign of trouble was when my future wife, Julie, and I attempted t slow dance in order to practice for our wedding reception. Julie said, with considerable tact given the impending circumstances, “You know you could try to do…something.”
It was true. My idea of slow dancing hadn’t evolved since the EJ James Public School gym in 1982, where the technique basically boiled down to “Ohmigod I’m holding onto a girl; I must keep doing this until this Human League song is over.” Somehow I managed to add a few shuffles to the repertoire so not to embarrass Julie on our wedding day (I saved that til “Tainted Love” came on, right at the wire as the fourth song).
It was Julie’s idea that we should take up ballroom dancing. Actually, it wasn’t so much an idea as a romantic notion expressed during a dinner party. But, sentimentalist I am, I kept in mind and when we were finally living in the same city, I suggested it in lieu of a weekly exercise program at the Y. I thought the cha-cha was better than pilates. Lord knows why.
At this point it must be stated that, as a child, my gross motor skills were so bad that every morning for a term I was sent to a room with other uncoordinated nine year-olds where we practiced how to walk and skip and cross a balance beam for 20 minutes. My ability to skip improved marginally, but I still have the gross motor skills of an earthworm. (Okay, maybe not an earthworm. A tree sloth.)
I honestly hadn’t thought of my gross motor skills class for decades until my first beginner ballroom dancing class. I brought a pair of black Rockports and Julie brought some pumps. Every other man seemed to have regulation leather-soled dress shoes and the women wore mary janes that must have been sold as a job lot of rehearsal shoes from a touring company of Fame.
I asked someone, “This is the beginner class?” It was, but I later found out that several of the class members were, in fact, from the intermediate class and were slumming for the extra practice. I was in a class mostly full of ringers.
The leader was a charming man named Guillermo. Actually his name was something like Roger, but he had the laid back charm and skill that made me want to hate him as though he were someone named Guillermo. Ballroom dancing class involved standing on the opposite side of the gym from my spouse and watching Guillermo and the other instructor and mirroring their moves. During this there was music and incessant counting.
“1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3-4, 1-2.”
At this point they would add a quarter turn spin or a cha-cha-cha or some other move. Meanwhile, I was still trying to figure out the first 1-2.
Eventually, we would partner back up and attempt the dance as a couple. I would attempt to move while muttering the count like some incantation to make it work.
Julie was the opposite of me. She was, and is, a natural dancer—she moves gracefully, effortlessly. She could easily master the 1-2s and the 1-2-3-4s and the quarter turn spins and the cha-cha-chas. With me, Julie would soon adopt the same friendly, polite but firm tone I presume she used to keep software implementation processes on track in her day job as a project management consultant.
“You’re not leading with the left.”
“No, no, you need to spin here.”
“Let’s start this from the beginning.”
The rest of the room was moving in syncopation around the room. We kept stopping and resuming. We must have seemed like an ancient Morris mini that keeps popping its clutch in a road full of Saabs driving in third. Eventually, Guillermo or one of his student instructors—keeners, the lot of them—would step in. If we were lucky we would get Guillermo, who was affable, sweet and exceedingly paitient. He had a soothing, FM-radio-ready voice that reminded me, not unpleasantly, of my dentist. If we were unlucky, we drew the taciturn Eastern European I took to calling Igor. Igor’s first words were, inevitably, “You’re doing this wrong.”
I suspect, if I had an hour concentrating on the one dance, I’d eventually maybe grasp some semblance of how it was supposed to work. The problem was, because it was a beginner class, they were supposed to do a new dance every 15 minutes, which started the cycle of frustration again. The following week, we’d pick up the dance we were just doing, but by this point I had little knowledge to accumulate.
I looked to the other participants in the class—the few guys who weren’t ringers from the intermediate class—hoping to see if there was someone worse than me. There wasn’t. Even the couple who danced in the opposite direction to everyone else the first week was getting the hang of it.
“Perhaps I should have a sign on my back saying ‘Special Needs’?” I suggested to Julie.
By week three it was just plain embarrassing. Guillermo and his crack team of intstructors attempted just about every technique they could think of. Repetition, sense memory, having them lead, having Julie lead, and nothing really worked. Guillermo would eventually say, before going to change the iPod selection for the next dance, “You’re getting the hang of it.” It was offered as encouragement but it was also vaguely non-committal. I took encouragement where I could get it—Igor would just grunt in disgust.
Guillermo suggested helpfully, “Maybe you’re a visual thinker.” He attempted to show me the dance playbook with diagrams showing how the dance worked. I wasn’t a visual thinker. The diagrams served to confuse me even more.
By week five, Guillermo and the student instructors took to taking Julie separately during these moments of individual tutoring and showing her the moves. As I watched Julie move around the room like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, I thought to myself, “Well, at least I make her laugh.”
We missed the last week or two and didn’t sign up for another session. Julie still insists I wasn’t bad at the tango. I’m not so sure—I don’t remember if Soft Cell was playing at the time.