How to be a Ballroom Regular
The worries of your common life have released you for the night.
The cat vomit you left next to the couch; your sometimes-boyfriend, who left a message on your machine while you blotted your lipstick with a credit card bill; your goal to become editor of the trite features section of the newspaper and still be a contributor to world peace, etc.; gone, all of it.
The floor is polished, the chandeliers sparkling like the candy dishes of your grandmother when you were a girl. You’re at the ballroom and nothing could be better.
A dapper senior citizen a pimply teenager this year’s Mr. Ballroom Champion- a partner, has extended his hand. And you are there.
And there. And there. The seventy-year-old has turned you out twice already. The adolescent, smiling metal, led you to the middle of the room and back. Mr. Ballroom Champion held you horizontal to the wooden floorboards in a dip so smooth you felt you were reclining in a La-Z-Boy.
But there are no lazy boys here. No casual shoed T-shirted guys with beer bottles or cigarettes dangling from their fingers who will take you to an apartment that smells like gym socks. Your sometimes-boyfriend once called your dance partners sissies and geriatrics, and that was when you knew you’d never have his baby.
Carrying their dancing shoes in plastic bags to the entryway of the studio from the parking lot, these men have shunned chic for careful execution. They express clear intent; they guide; they bear weight; never leave a partner until song’s end. You only talk with them briefly. This is the one place where men can’t distinguish themselves by telling you how they feel.
Disappointment can’t be ruled out, of course. Yes, someone you’ve seen at work-a man with premeditated messy hair-recognizes you. You’re forced, for several minutes, to discuss an upcoming story on the growing number of Internet recipe cooks before admitting grudgingly that no, you don’t think these things would be better with alcohol.
In the bathroom, you regroup. You know a couple of women hovering over the sinks and hear their hardships: a husband who couldn’t hokey pokey to save his life; sweat stains on fitted rayon. You sing the praises of spandex-cotton mixes and baby powder. And though you don’t usually use terms of endearment you say, Honey, leave him on the couch watching basketball. Who needs that?
Still, thinking of the man from work, you shore up your sympathy. Beginners see the ballroom as merely a room where balls take place. They bring up work car maintenance allergies. They can’t help it.
A teacher for the studio, petite leggy with brushstroke eyebrows a short skirt the highest heels of all, stops you later. She compliments your frame, likening it to a carrot rather than a noodle. She talks like this all the time. When she grins, you think she is smarter than she lets on, that she’s simply embraced her role of cajoling left feet, saying, Walk around the barn, take her hand and close the door-no elephant stomps! That’s right, we drink wine, we don’t make it!
The man from work reappears.
He might ask what you think of the layout team. Or the editor the Christmas party the headline meetings. All the while couples are twirling by before you, heads leaned back, some stunning, some awkward, all precious for their talent or the simple existence of their willing forward motion.
Who did you say was your boss? I’ve got the new guy ... the man from work is blathering.
You picture the cat vomit in your living room drying out.
But the music changes just then. One, two, cha-cha-cha. It’s a new song for this crowd, something you’ve heard on your car radio (one, two, brake, brake, brake). You jump involuntarily-but remarkably, so does the man from work. He’s felt a tiny shifting in the air noticed his heart pounds on the one pricked up his ears. He’ll extend his arm and everything has worked out.
Yet the cha-cha makes you nervous. A dance of mixed potential, the syllables of its name would make a laugh except for one letter. This means that to take the cha-cha seriously is a mistake, yet you have danced with people who have, heads held high while they swivel for the triple, a buildup of ostentation. And isn’t this guy serious, a man who talks about supervisors in the ballroom?
To do the cha-cha right, you must laugh with the heart of the dance’s name. You want to beam out the happy irony of every dance-that it’s both real and a dream. That the people are flesh and blood the air carries oxygen the music playing is true. Yet every gesture is gone as soon as you make it. You can’t say later how you moved with another person, a person unknown to you really, with such unity. You can’t say why you like it so much why you’ll do it again why facing another person and flailing your limbs is beautiful to you and even others. And the cha-cha can be all this, or it can be a ruse, a picture of a dance, the impossible.
You clear your throat. He is loose, unafraid to pause in the fullness between steps-pause and move you, move himself, and this is promising. He varies the turns smiles smiles smiles so you can tell at once that he finds he loves what he’s doing. Your bodies will syncopate, the lead and the follow as tight as a mirror, flowing so easily the hierarchy is lost as a blissful moment steps forward and holds you both.
He won’t mention his job again. And if you see him later at work, you’ll only grin and keep walking. That’s enough, just as sharing a dance is enough to know that you love him, just as you loved the seventy year-old the teenager Mr. Ballroom Champion. Even the ones who are not very good, who step a count ahead hold your arm pointing to the sky say out loud "five and six and." their lips mouthing a rhythm mantra, you love them, too. Because they have taken your hand, they have allowed themselves the vulnerability of attempting grace in public, they’re trying, for God’s sake, and so many people won’t even do that.
You’ve tried, and it hasn’t always looked good, but at least you weren’t sitting down with your hands in the peanut bowl. And sometimes it has been divine, as if everything you usually think to be tiresome-the sometimes-boyfriend the cat a piece you wrote about old ladies and bone density-has a beauty worth tears of joy. But to cry would be too regular, though weeping also is lovely, you see. Better to keep the trace of a smile on your lips and feel the hotness of your face, the air around you blowing like whispers from the distant blades of the ballroom’s ceiling fans.
And twirl around and around. Soak it up, because what else is there? What else but to move and breathe and watch the other dancers pass beside you, smiling and nodding calmly but saying, really, How did we become so fucking extraordinary? Why do we deserve all this?
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