Teach Me to Dance (Reader’s Digest)

One of my very favorite scenes in the movies is when Alan Bates says to Anthony Quinn at the end of Zorba the Greek, “Teach me to dance.”

“Dance?” Zorba replies, his eyes shining. “C’mon, my boy.”

They are on a beach in Greece and as the zither plucks that familiar tune, Quinn snaps his fingers and starts slowly to dance. Bates joins him, and soon they are whirling and kicking sand. It’s fabulous.

Ever since I was a kid awkwardly doing the lindy at house parties on Long Island, I wanted to be able to dance. Really dance. But I seemed to be born with two left feet. I never got the rhythm. My body didn’t obey the music I heard in my head. I danced the way I swam: wrongly. With my head above the water.

I loved it when Al Pacino as a blind man danced the tango in Scent of a Woman. When Patrick Swayze did his thing in Dirty Dancing. When John Travolta owned the disco in Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction. And, of course, whenever Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly got into it.

But as for me—no hope. Didn’t even try. Even at events where I was with my teenage daughters—I danced with them, sure, but to their embarrassment. Then one night my wife and I went to the wedding reception of our friends’ daughter.  Hiromi was struck by one older couple who dominated the dance floor. It was the groom’s parents, and they glided around the floor like professionals. Both moved with confidence and grace, they looked lovingly at each other with each dip and twirl, they waltzed, they fox-trotted, they tangoed. “I would love to do that,” she said to me as we moved back and forth in a corner. “It’s so romantic.”

“Maybe in the next life,” I joked, careful at least not to step on her feet.

“Remember Penland?” she asked. “We danced then.”

“That was 35 years ago,” I reminded her. She was teaching at the famous craft school in North Carolina and in the evening everyone got together and danced. “And it wasn’t exactly ballroom.”

But Hiromi couldn’t take her eyes off Fred and Ginger in the middle of the floor. “They seem so happy together.”

“Wait a minute,” I protested, “you mean to say after 32 years of marriage we’re not happy just because we don’t dance?”

“Let’s say it couldn’t hurt to be able to do that.”

Now let me say this up front: I love my wife. She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. She’s Japanese, has an exquisite face I never tire of looking at, an enticing figure, a smile that warms, an artistic sensibility and an intelligence that is profound and sincere, a good-hearted nature, and a confidence that envelops and somehow protects those around her. If there’s anything I can possibly do to make her happy, I’ll do it. Learning to dance? I could try. Dancing like that groom’s parents? More than likely impossible.

Naturally, I put off pursuing this particular form of humiliation until Hiromi took it upon herself to find a dance studio (Arthur Murray Studios in Beverly Hills) and gave me a gift certificate for us to learn how to dance as a birthday present. Four private lessons, four group lessons, four parties. There was no backing out and Thursday night was our first lesson. I was more nervous for this than for any exam I remember taking. Given a choice between root canal and stepping all over my wife’s toes in public, I’d have opted for the dentist. But I had no choice. My wife was determined to follow Zorba’s example.

Little did she know that whatever she might have gleaned from Dirty Dancing or Shall We Dance was a far cry from what her feet would be able to accomplish. And she was far more accomplished than I.

“Over the next four weeks you’ll learn the fox-trot, the waltz, the cha-cha, tango and swing,” our peppy instructor Laura told us. She was young, lithe, with legs like Cyd Charisse’s.  “First, you’ll watch yourselves do the basic steps as you move toward and away from the wall mirror. Then you’ll do it with your partner. It’s not that hard if you just remember that ballroom dancing is all a variation of the simple box-step.”

She was so sure, so confident, so much into teaching us, that I began to relax, especially comforted by the deer-in-the-headlights look of the other men in our group. And so we began with the 1-2-3-4, forward step, forward step, side step, side step, back step, back step, side, side. This we could do—some of us stiffly, most of us awkwardly, but like anything new, it just took practice to get one foot to follow the other and the brain to point us in the right direction. But that all changed once we paired off and had to go forward and backward at the same time. Suddenly, three couples were heading toward the mirror, two away. It was like learning to march in basic training—someone’s inevitably out of step.

After a half hour of easy stepping, Laura began to throw in some variations on the simple box, as Hiromi complained that I was side-stepping left when we should be going right. “You’re not exactly getting it either,” I whispered.

“It’s hard to remember,” she said. “Too many rules.”

By the end of the hour we all felt comfortable enough dancing squares that Laura asked for a volunteer to demonstrate what we should practice at home. I stepped forward. “Let me lead first,” she said. No, no, I wanted to say, I can’t follow, I’ve never followed, that’s the girl’s part. But I didn’t say that. I just flushed crimson and got a lesson in how to move another body around the dance floor. Laura was terrific. She knew where to place her hand on my back, how to hold my other hand, and once I allowed myself to be led, I followed her flawlessly. Damn, it was easier to follow than to lead. It was an important lesson: if I was going to make Hiromi happy on the dance floor, I had to be assertive. I had to move her in different directions. She had to feel my confidence. “Now, you lead,” Laura said, and I placed my right hand firmly between her shoulder blades, held out my left, and box-stepped around the floor.

We left that first evening feeling we had accomplished something. Not a state of grace, but we sensed the potential…and the cha-cha, waltz, swing, and tango were still ahead of us. The waltz was easy, the cha-cha a bit complicated, swing hard, and the tango—ah, the tango. That was the dance that won Pacino his first Oscar after seven previous nominations. That was the dance of love. And when we got to it, that was what made us feel we may need more than four lessons. But we spent a lot of time with the tango, and during the group session (where we paired off and danced with other people at the studio) I wound up dancing with another instructor. Like Laura, she was young, long-legged, but she specialized in the tango. “Look into my eyes,” she told me. “Hold me firmly. Don’t take such long strides. Dance!” I don’t know how it happened, but this instructor turned me into a much better dancer. We crossed the length of the floor with confidence, we moved around people, it was almost as if there was a spotlight on us and I wasn’t making any mistakes. Was it me or was it her? I wondered.

“Hiromi,” I said when that dance was over, “come and tango with me. Wait till you see this.” And that’s when I found out—it was her. The word I kept hearing from my wife was “ouch.” I held her too hard, I stepped on her foot, I wasn’t leading the way she liked to follow. What I was learning about Hiromi was that in spite of how good a dancer I used to think she was, she didn’t like structure. She was a free-form dancer, her body moved to music gracefully, but not in the same way as the 1-2-3-4 variations we were being taught.

“After these lessons,” I wondered, “where are we going to go to do these dances? They’re not doing the fox-trot at the Sunset Room in Hollywood.” But as soon as I asked I knew it was the wrong question. Hiromi did too.

Because what I had learned, after just one month of lessons, was that my lifelong desire to dance was not an impossible dream. As long as one is willing to accept one’s own limitations. You look for perfection—you see it in the movies—but that’s where Fred and Ginger live, that’s where Zorba exists. Like everything else I’ve tried in my life—from learning the piano as a child, taking yoga and karate classes, practicing transcendental meditation, even skydiving—you get out of it what you put into it. What I got out of these dance lessons was a glimpse of what it might be like to take the woman you love in your arms and glide gracefully around a hardwood dance floor to music you rarely hear on the radio any more.  There were moments when we both connected, when our feet didn’t fail us, when our bodies moved as one, and in those moments it was as if we were making love. I liked that. My wife liked that. We felt close, in each other’s arms, protected in a way. We were dancing. Just like I had always dreamed, ever since that time I saw Zorba the Greek, oh so many years ago. And when we were home and put on the theme from Scent of a Woman to practice what we had learned, our daughters didn’t laugh at us in quite the same way they did in the past. We stumbled, of course. We weren’t as in synch as we were with our instructor watching. But we were new to this. And when I opened my arms to each daughter and tried to show them the steps, they responded. The laughter now not directed at me, but at themselves. Ballroom dancing is a far cry from hip-hop and salsa but I could tell, just from their willingness to go with me, that one day they, too, would be taking their men to dance classes. Because it’s a beautiful thing, to know how to dance. And even though we haven’t pursued it, and have thus fallen back to our awkward ways at weddings and bar mitzvahs, we have no regrets about having taken those classes. Because it showed us that it can be done. That dreams can come true, if you want it enough. And if you’re willing to put in the time.

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