My first dance class this week was in a lovely location by a lake in the middle of the city, and I could hear geese calling as I arrived. The Elks Lodge itself was kind of shabby, but I wasn’t there to admire the décor. I was there to learn to dance. I suspect I will learn much more than West Coast Swing as time goes by, maybe far more than I really want to, but that is also why I am here. Because, OK, true story - I was also there to practice letting myself be led, specifically led by a man. Don’t laugh!! Couples’ dancing is actually a recommended activity for women like me – independent, strong, opinionated, self-sufficient – who are trying to learn this death-defying feat. Phrases like “learning to swim underwater without an oxygen tank” come to mind, but I am doing this anyway.
It’s taken me a few days to absorb my first lesson, and I don’t just mean all the dance moves.
My friend assured me that there would be a good balance of male to female, and she was right. Just as I suspected, of the men in the upstairs beginners’ room (vinyl floor, oldschool paneling, a tiny window), most of them bat for the other team, except for the few who were there with their wives or girlfriends. I appreciated this, and knew it going in, because it meant I could focus on learning to dance and not any interpersonal dynamics. We switched partners often and this is where the lesson came in. Frankly, I have switched partners…um…a few times in my life and I am sometimes left with the question, when all is said and done and the fat lady sings, “Is it me?” And I think the answer is, well, sometimes it is, Sue, and sometimes it ain’t. Sometimes it’s both.
There was, for instance, the dapper old man in his smoking jacket and hat who greeted me with a gentlemanly smile and his blue eyes (who was no doubt a player in his younger days no matter which side he bats for), who encouraged me to keep my forearm parallel to the floor, among other helpful hints, in this formal, bossy, grandfatherly, older-man-to-younger-woman sort of way. I met his formality with my own and was glad he could lead me in the dance in a way that was masterful without being controlling. I could relax with him and let myself be led.
Then there was one of the married guys, who was clearly there because he loved his wife and wanted to have fun with her, but who was just as new at this as I am. He couldn’t get the steps quite right, which he admitted out loud with a sense of humor, and so I found myself encouraging him to be nice to himself as he learned, telling him that he had the harder job of having to lead and that it was all OK. With him, too, I could relax. It was a little awkward, but he was real and he was honest and could laugh about it, and so I could relax and let myself be led.
And there was the skinny, white-haired guy with the big grin and the deliberately sticky-up hair and the spring in his step and the wedding band but no partner who called me “Giggles” whenever it was my turn to dance with him. He welcomed me with a big grin and complete acceptance and delight. He was excited to get to dance with me and I felt free and comfortable in the glow of his cheerfulness and his ready willingness to give me a thumbs up and a big “Yeah, you got it!” during our last dance together, as if he were personally responsible for it. He didn’t expect anything from me except a sense of fun and adventure. I could relax with him and let myself be led.
And how about the young, bearded guy with no rhythm who just sort of galumphed his way through the moves, reeking of alcohol with bloodshot eyes? I just kept hoping he shows up sober next time, and that his girlfriend wasn’t too embarrassed by him. I could relax because he was harmless, but I didn’t want to hang out with him and didn’t bother trying to let myself be led.
And then there was the guy who reminded me in a gazillion subtle ways of the last guy I dated steadily. This guy has clearly been dancing for years – long waisted and lean with a chiseled jaw and those dancer thighs (oh my). He reminded me of Mikhail Baryshnikov, except younger and way taller. But he had the posture of someone who was there reluctantly, like against his will, maybe because his mommy or his coach told him to be. My gut told me he was learning this particular dance the way a weight lifter might take up yoga, just to stay limber. In other words, he was not really that invested in being there, and was just going through the motions. His attention was not fully in the room. He was aloof with me and self-absorbed, avoiding my eyes and only taking my hand at the very last minute.
I was aware of consciously choosing not to flirt with him to loosen him up, mostly because I didn’t want contribute to the size of his already inflated ego, and or to invite that kind of energy between us, especially in case he’s not batting for the other team (there was a little ambiguity there). He was the only person I didn’t flirt with and I flirt with pretty much everybody. He was stiff and led me as if I were…I don’t know, just a task he was trying to get through, a job he had to perform, an object he had to move across the floor so he could earn points with the Dancing Gods. His touch was impersonal and too hard, his steps were too big, and he left too much space between us. He was not thinking of me at all, or considering my comfort. I felt myself stiffen in response to him, and to pull back, unable to soften and just practice dancing. I could not relax with him and let myself be led.
This all felt so familiar, so very much like my recent dating experience (and in case I haven’t made it clear, deeply uncomfortable). And just so I am being totally, abundantly, see-through crystal clear, I am not referring to any physical intimacy with the dating thing, just the dance two people do when getting to know each other.
And ironically, what the dancer dude said to me at the end of our second dance was pretty much word for word what that other guy had the audacity to say to me: “Maybe you should just try to relax.”
I almost laughed in his face. As in, Wow. Really? You are not fully here and present and you are treating me like a project, moving me around like a chess piece, and I'm supposed to relax and just trust you? Hmmmm....not so much.
But then, being a good female, I went inward and asked myself: “Is it me?”
And as always, I suspect the answer is, ‘Sometimes it is, and sometimes it ain't. Sometimes, it's both.'
In any event, what I did in that moment is to take the hand of the next guy in line who was fully present, happy to see me, and honored to join me in the dance.