The other night my boyfriend and I watched Dancing with the Stars, a television sensation that pairs a B-rate celebrity with a professional dancer. The couple has 1 week to learn a new dance, don a skin-tight flashy, often feathered, outfit and show their skills on the polished dance floor in front of a live audience and millions of viewers. People go mad for this kind of programming. And we enjoyed watching the couples, some graceful and fluid like skaters slipping atop ice, and other clunky and robotic, their arms and legs listening to a separate rhythm than the music being aired. It was fun and quite dramatic. And who doesn’t respect the discipline, talent and skill it takes to dance effortlessly, to make a foxtrot, two-step or tango look as easy as walking, an act we do daily and seldom think about?
I thought about this show and its popularity; how many of us really know how to dance? Sure most of us will hop on a dance floor at a wedding reception or when live music is playing – arms waving and hips swinging to the beat – but how many know the steps to these classic ballroom dances?
In the 7th grade, when I was about 12 years old, I lived in dread of Tuesday nights. While not mandatory nor sanctioned by our school, it was an unwritten law that all kids who went to an elementary school in Mt. Brook enroll in ballroom dance at Steeple Arts. My class met on Tuesday nights, 7:00 sharp. And there, in a little red building with a sharp steeple and old wooden floors, we were taught the traditional moves of ballroom. Every Tuesday I was forced to put on my Sunday-school clothes, don a pair of short white gloves and spend an hour at Steeple Arts, under the strict and unsmiling tutelage of the proprietress, Mrs. Coates.
She would instruct us in the step of the night (box step, waltz, cha-cha) and thump out the beat of the music for our pre-pubescent and gangly feet to follow with a wooden cane she held tightly in her grasp at all times. If someone’s feet misbehaved, if a foot dared to break out of the prescribed pattern of the dance, that cane would tap down on the offending appendage and the move would begin again. We danced in fear of the cane, in bodies made rigid and tight by unfamiliar clothing and sets of rules, and the general strangeness of being an almost teen-ager.
Ballroom dance. Such a lovely display of agility, coordination and teamwork. But when I was 12 years old and tried to learn it, it was an awkward display of knees bumping into knees, toes being crushed, sweaty palms resting on backs and shoulders and eyes staring longingly at the wall clock rather than at the partner. So many Tuesday nights spent trying to learn dances that were governed by rules and proper protocol. Hands here. Back straight. Move this foot then that. Head up. The music was similar to the songs I often heard while watching Lawrence Welk with my grandmother. “Ah one, and ah two and ah three,” Mr. Welk would say as he waved his conductor’s wand. I watched because my grandmother loved it, but that music did not touch me in my heart, my spirit, the place inside me where dance lives.
In my basement on Saturday mornings I was quick to jump off the sofa and move crazily to the songs on American Bandstand or Soul Train. I loved to abandon myself to rock music, working myself into a tired and sweaty mass by spinning, rocking and rolling all over the carpeted floor. Neighborhood kids would come over and we’d turn up the volume, use lamps to make spotlights and attempt to mimic the hip, cool dancers we saw on the shows. It was fun, liberating and made me feel good. In contrast, ballroom was like a small, windowless box where I tried to force my limbs to fit. They did not.
No matter how hard I tried to follow the male’s lead, I ended up leading. I heard a different rhythm in my head and my feet wanted to make up their own steps, to forge their own path across the floor. Thump came the cane of Mrs. Coats. Follow the rules. Ballroom is about rules and structure and controlling the body. It’s very hard and the trick is to try to make it look easy.
On Tuesday nights we’d sit, boys on one long bench inside Steeple Arts dance room and girls on the other. Most of us self-conscious, nervous, shy and quite uncomfortable in coat and tie or frilly dress. The girls’ gloved hands rested forlornly in their laps and the boys plucked at the ties that encircled their throats. We were learning the rules of social etiquette, being groomed for the cotillons and debutant parties to come. Sometimes it would be the boys who were forced to make the long trek across the floor to ask a girl to dance. This was bad enough as I sat in anxious anticipation. Would the boy I liked ask me? Would I get stuck with the sweatiest boy in the class? If the numbers were odd, would I beleft sitting on the bench and have to dance with Mrs. Coats? The waiting was agony. But even worse was when the girls had to choose. I hated those periods. I’d set my sights on some boy and begin the slow and dizzying march across the room to extend my hand to him, and we’d head out to the dance floor to begin the work of learning ballroom.
At the end of the hour, parents would line up in their cars outside the dance studio to pick up their kids. When the bell would ring, we’d race out of the building, stripping off ties, coats, gloves, allowing our arms and legs to move freely in the air, our lips to smile and hearts to laugh. Freedom was ours again, at least for a week.
And do I recall what I learned in that year of ballroom dance class? I know that in junior high and high school I went to dances where we were often asked to do a boxstep or simple waltz. We still stepped on each others’ feet, our knees clanked and a familiar awkwardness enveloped me as I focused on counting out the steps rather than feeling the music and letting my body reply naturally. A chaperone would skirt the floor, making sure bodies were at least 6 inches apart. Like all good students, most of us followed the rules, attempting to honor the ballroom tradition and what we’d learned at Steeple Arts. However, when the music changed from a symphonic piece full of strings and pianos back to something more contemporary, with lyrics and drums and guitars, couples would separate and cut loose. Freestyle and singular dancing, either with another or in a small group, was still preferred. And so we’d struggle to find the rhythm of the song, to locate an underlying beat to dance to, moving wildly and happily despite our Sunday school clothes and patten-leather shoes.
I’m certain we looked nothing like those agile, confident kids on Bandstand and few of us could emulate the groove found on Soul Train but at least we were dancing, freely and as if no one was watching, allowing our ears and feet to find the patterns that were right for that moment, that beat, that song. Someone trained in the art of ballroom may think this kind of dance requires no skill, but it does require a willingness to let go, to let the body control the mind and to feel the joy of world where the box is roomy enough for all to be themselves.