On Moving, and Having the Moves Put On (Or: my first lesson in social dancing)

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To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love… (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind; —but when a beginning is made—when the felicities of rapid motion have once been, though slightly, felt,— it must be a very heavy set that does not ask for more… (Austen, Emma)

Although I’ll happily talk to whole roomfuls of strangers ranging from the vitally interested to the hostile and indifferent, put me in cute outfit in a cocktail party and I start to drift forlornly into the nearest corner. Such was the case at a party last year. It was still early in the evening and the friends I’d come with were helping the hostess; with nothing to do but stand around looking decorative, I was starting to feel overcome with self-consciousness, and was assessing various corners for available refuge, when I suddenly found myself being chatted up by the very embodiment of masculine charm.

It became apparent pretty quickly that I was playing my part as the quarry in the evening’s safari. And I didn’t mind at all. In my single life, I’ve been on the receiving end of some very cloddish, amateurish attempts at what could only loosely be called “seduction.” As I’ve remarked in very different contexts in my life—having your taxes done, fixing a flat on your bike, getting anything pierced—there’s a great deal to be said for the pleasure of putting yourself in the practiced hands of an expert. And as succeeding events would show, this man was indeed an expert. The manners! the judicious use of compliments! the attentiveness! the moves! Jane Austen couldn’t have conjured up anything better for me at that particular moment. As Austen (most of her novels) and Ryan Gosling (Crazy Stupid Love) have respectively explained —you just can’t underestimate the seductive power of dressing, behaving, and dancing well.

My suitor for the evening—let’s call him PS, for “The Pocket Square,” because that detail, was, in fact, part of his ensemble—was dressed impeccably. In a city full of straight men all choosing the untucked, blousy, dress-shirt-and-jeans combination as an expression of ostensibly-casual style, which also promises to be figure-flattering—and consequently fools no-one—PS was wearing clothes that fit: a crisp white shirt, blazer, dark-wash jeans, really nice shoes, and the aforementioned pocket square. Of course, this was the outfit, the self-presentation, of someone who was a little vain, who self-consciously put time and effort into his appearance partly to please others, and wholly to get what he wanted—and as part of the overall performance he put on to win me over, I thought it was fantastic.

The party was starting to progress by this point—cocktails were passed around, pleasantries exchanged, flirting energetically conducted. PS struck a judicious balance between the conversation of an interesting, and interested adult (House of Cards, where to bicycle in Boston, travel plans for the summer, questions about me); compliments on my general person; and—when, as part of the party’s theme of Bad Romance, guests were invited to smash open a piñata filled with adult-themed candy—more confidential banter.

The hostess, gauging the mood of the room, next started the music. While many of the men stood around holding beer (I swear, every heterosexual man in this country has at least one picture of himself standing around holding a can or solo cup of beer), PS proffered a hand to a couple of us, and led us out to the dance floor. We started off as one big dancing group, woo-hoo-ing, bellowing along with Britney and Gaga, raising our glasses when commanded by several pop songs. Gradually, the dynamic of the group changed, breaking into smaller groups (including, if I remember correctly, our Amazonian hostess dancing barefoot on the pool table). I found that I had PS’s full attention as a dance partner. He asked if I knew how to latin dance. I confessed that while I’ve danced—in classes, socially—most of my life, I’d never had a chance to try latin.

If you take fitness classes nowadays, you’ve done plenty of latin steps—mambo, cha cha—but that’s nothing at all like dancing salsa or bachata with another human being. While ballroom or social dancing endures, more people like to watch it than do it in contemporary North American culture, so it’s very easy to live your whole life without ever really dancing with a partner. And by dancing, I don’t mean slow dancing at a school dance, or wafting in place with your eyes closed while your friends do the same at the club, but applying technique and patterns as a coordinated effort with another person. I think the last time I’d tried any kind of social dance was when they tried to teach us mortified, embarrassed, squicky teenagers square dancing in 9th grade Phys Ed. But, never one to learn life-lessons or social skills in any particularly conventional order, I have done a fair amount of kickboxing as an adult, and I can say that, salsa, like sparring, demands similar skills in reading your opponent/partner’s body language, watching their eyes while also being attentive to other cues about their next move, adjusting your energy level to match theirs. You can get the footwork down pretty easily, but the hard part is trying to get in synch with your partner, establishing a dynamic connection. It can be tricky. Unless, that is (and this happens less often in kickboxing) you’re partnered with someone who’s trying very hard to convince you to go home with him, and, while you’re a person of maturity and integrity and have no intention of allowing that to happen—are content to let him try. In that circumstance, salsa and bachata are relatively easy.

I’ve subsequently learned that latin dance exists in various social registers: you can dance salsa, bachata, merengue at family picnics, the same way people might polka or square dance—just like all the dances and balls in Jane Austen novels (what, isn’t that everyone’s frame of reference…?), latin dancing can be, simply, a fun, shared skill that allows friends and family to mingle, move, and enjoy some music. Of course the main function of dances in Jane Austen is to facilitate courtship; and latin dance has a similar dimension. Except if The Pocket Square and I danced salsa at Pemberly the way we danced at my friend’s party, I would have been bundled into a carriage and sent off to a Swiss convent the next morning, while papa vowed never to receive me at home again, and mamma wept into her kerchief over my social (if not absolute) ruin. Latin dancing, done in a certain mood, is the realization of every dance-inspired fear for the morals of youth (or whatever) over the ages, from the waltz to the charleston to the twist, to Footloose, to Dirty Dancing. Let’s just say, that that night, no-body put Baby in a corner. In fact, I could say that as far as dancing goes, I had the time of my life.

But—if I can rashly mix metaphors and movie references—it was just that kind of party—there was no breathtaking leap into a lift, a la either Swayze or Gosling. Suddenly the lights were on, everyone was leaving, the clock was striking 12 (well, 2) and like Cinderella, at a certain point I was summoned back to my coach, leaving Prince Pocket-Square calling after me through the crowd: “I’ll text you!!”

Of course I never heard from The Pocket Square again. No Hollywood/fairy tale endings here, I’m afraid—while I didn’t wake up the next morning sleeping in the ashes of the kitchen hearth, I didn’t wake up anywhere else other than my own perfectly virtuous bower. No royal proposals. No setting aside my career to be an entertainer at a Catskills resort. No harm done to familial honor. Probably fortunately for everyone, I ended up with nothing more than a fun story, and irretrievably-raised standards for men’s fashion (seriously guys, there are these things called tailors who could really, really help you out).

Most of all, I was left with the conviction that I ought to be dancing more, and dancing more salsa in particular. Yes, I actually do harbor a completely non-secret fantasy that salsa class will be the basis for a meet-cute to make Jane Austen and Hollywood proud. It could happen. That’s what dancing’s for after all. But never mind what motives got me through the salsa school door—as I’ll explain in my next post, I’ve found that I really love the physical and social challenge of learning a new dance form. The Pocket Square and I weren’t destined to be together, but unlike too many other frustrating, disappointing dates I’ve had, where Baby was, in fact, put in a corner, I came away from this unlooked-for encounter feeling pleasantly Cinderalla-ish—flattered, sought out, wooed—and inspired to try something new that makes me very happy.

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