My experiences with dancing prior to ballroom were pretty similar to BenjemanT's. We moved when I was in the fifth grade to a town where all of the kids had been going to school together since first grade, and I was always the "new kid". I seldom had girlfriends or dates; starting with the eighth grade I was sent to an all-boys school, and there were no girls my age in the neighborhood. I didn't come from a family with any tradition of dance; I didn't know any dancers, and this was in the 1970s when ballroom was very much out of fashion. I only ever went to a few school dances, and even when I went I didn't get to dance much. Back then, at school, dancing was something you only did with your date. If you danced with anyone else, that was tantamount to public infidelity. So a guy who went to a dance stag had little chance. (And in fact, a lot of the dances were couples-only.)
Forward to the early '80s and college. I was always broke and couldn't afford to go to clubs much. And when I did, and tried to dance, I got tripped up by that ethic that seems to be common in club dancing that says that if you're a good dancer, you're born knowing how to dance, and if you aren't born knowing how to dance, there is no hope. So I was repeatedly told that I was a bad dancer, and after a while I just gave up. Oddly, the one place where I got something of a satisfactory experience was in (gasp) slam dancing. And the thing about slam dancing? It was mostly guys (think about it), and some pretty rough guys at that. So I didn't get the "dancing is for sissies" thing. That was never a problem for me.
Forward to 1990. The gal I was dating at the time insisted on going to Nashville to dance in the line dance clubs. This was the heyday of line dancing in Nashville, and we wound up in one of the clubs that you used to see on The Nashville Network. First of all, I was not dressed for it. Second of all, they were doing some very complex dances at the time; lots of 64-bar patterns and traveling dances. My GF knew all of them; I didn't know any. I tried my darndest to watch what people were doing and memorize the steps, but it was all just too much. GF tried to push and drag me through some of the steps, which just made it worse. I was an embarrassment on the floor, and my lack of knowledge or skill was screwing up the other dancers during the traveling dances. Eventually she went off to dance with other guys while I sat and watched. I drove a long way, spent a lot of money, and had a terrible time.
So I was a bit taken aback when my DW wanted to take dance lessons. Ballroom dancing? Isn't that what old people do? Paper foot cutouts on the floor? And what do I wear? I don't own a tux! I resisted the idea until we took a vacation in New York (a few months before 9/11) and saw the play "Contact", which contains a lot of swing dancing. I was intrigued, and for Christmas I decided to give DW a "present" of dance lessons. I picked a studio at random out of the phone book, called, and set up a lesson.
I quickly realized some things that kept me going: (1) This was something fun and physical that DW and I could do together. (2) I was intrigued by the relationships between the body movement, the mechanics of the dance, and the music. and (3) I can ask other women to dance with me? Damn!
11 years later, my relationship with dance is a lot more involved; there are a lot of reasons why I dance now. But those three above all still hold.
I wanted to be a ballerina as a kid. I stopped wishing it when I went to high school, as I had realized by then that it was out of the question, my family had to make ends meet. I never ceased to admire and would even "fall in love" with my friends that went to ballet schools throughout my high school years. My first experience of partner dancing at a party when I was 12 gave me the chills; it had to do with dating as Cornutt so eloquently described and I didn't want to be associated with that boy or any for that matter at that particular time. So, that was it; dancing with someone else only meant I was dating them the only exception being my darling brother who danced with me Strauss's Blue Danube throughout my teenage years. Time went by, I met my hubby and we had our first dance together. I’m nineteen: Magic, I'm telling you. Time went by again and as he couldn't dance for some years I even ended up making a scene to him: he had danced at his birthday party with a friend of ours but not with me...But, to me he could decline the dance, to her he couldn't. He was right and I was wrong to be jealous. Time went by, being students and out of work we seldom have enough money to go to clubs and stuff but if we do, we both dance our heart out. And then, five years ago, I get diagnosed with a herniated disc. That was it, dancing was out of the question just like walking was. Two and a half years ago, I go to a dance class while in excruciating pain. The pain is intolerable and I even hide to the ladies room just to cry my eyes out. At the end of the lesson, the teacher I hardly knew at the time told me to just not give in to the pain and my back will be cured. All my doctors had advised me I was not to have a normal life again but his advice was otherwise. At that moment, he had given me hope and I grabbed it. That’s what I’ve been doing, ever since.
I cannot remember a time when I did not need to dance, starting with a photo of me in my crib, standing, both arms up in an open 5th position with beautiful line. How did I do that? I don’t know, but thank you, God, for the gift and for my poor dad who worked two jobs to let me study, until I got scholarships. I took every class I could: beginning with tap as a pre-schooler to the great privilege of studying ballet with a disciple of Balanchine to jazz dance. I danced in a ballet company and community theater. But nature was cruel. I do not have the body people were looking for at auditions and so my career path led me to other options. Strike 1. I was heartbroken, but in hindsite, it saved my body (and my education) and I do not have quite the ravages my peers have. Life went by and I always went to class, fitting it in between school, career, family. Then time took its toll and I required possibly dance-ending surgery, because of years of pointe shoes and high heels. Strike 2. I was reconciled to losing what I love most, next to my family. Under the surgical meds, I recalled the line from Chorus Line (“Look, my eyes are dry…the gift was ours to borrow”). Corny, I know. But the surgeon was wonderful and I can dance again, and adapt to cover my limitations, which are not as bad as I feared. I was back in class, given another chance. Then, one of my children had a horrible accident and I really knew the meaning of heartbreak. How could I dance when she couldn’t? Strike 3? But I knew she wanted me to dance and I forced myself to class to make her happy, crying in the car with the guilt. The thing that brought me the greatest joy now reminds me of my deepest grief. The years have passed, the pain has dulled, and my adult child is a happy, independent, vibrant and active person with a life of her own. But now my body is wearing and jazz or ballet class with 20 –somethings is tough. After some false starts, heaven sent me a latin/ballroom pro, who is an amazing world class dancer and incredible teacher who teaches me as fast as I can get it into my muscles. A kindred spirit who has taken me from baby steps to working on champ technique in less than a year. It is hard, sweaty, intense work, but my amazing husband understands and does not mind my hours away with my pro. Sometimes, after 2 weeks of tech, at our lesson (which is at the same time as the party), I will ask my pro if we can just dance. Surprise me, I tell him. The lights are dim. The music is loud. The floor is sprung. He leads and I follow: cha-cha, samba, rumba, tango, jive. He takes me places I have never been before and always wanted to go. I turn off the words in my head and follow his lead. It has been a long journey, but I can be me again.