A few years ago I became seriously interested in learning ballroom dancing and had a fabulous time pursuing the endless work and pleasure that entails: lessons, both group and private, showcases, competitions in California, Florida, Colorado and New York, winning thin gold-gilded cups and lots of plaques with little stick-on gold labels signifying first and second places (mostly) that reminded me of the good stars for behavior I (sometimes) received as a girl.
I especially enjoyed the gorgeous custom-made costumes and the high-heeled dance slippers, the most comfortable I’ve ever worn, even after hours of on the dance floor. The dresses and the shoes held echoes of the ball gowns and tiny slippers of my mother’s youth which added to their unacceptable appeal—chiffon, beads, sweeping skirts, low-cut necks, flounces—all the decorations of the girlish look we have mostly, wisely, left behind.
Then I stopped because I was under contract to write and I knew that the hours I was spending in the dance studio would seriously interfere with the hours I needed to spend at the computer. Dance, like every other discipline, requires consistent, escalating effort. I wasn’t willing to do less and inevitably fall behind.
There is little dancing now here in Santa Fe although a decade or so there were four or five places, since torn down or converted to something else. Dancers generally only drink water, so as this town became increasingly gentrified and increasingly expensive, the rough-and-cut bars that had space for dancing were no longer even marginally profitable. We still have La Fonda, the delightful old hotel on the Plaza, and Bill Hearne still plays Country Western there a few times a week, but that is about all we have: Two Step, Swing and Country Waltz.
I finally gave away all my competition ball gowns except for my two favorites: a dreamy pastel blue and an outrageous gold with cutouts everywhere.
Then, at a dismal moment a few months ago, I decided to take a few lessons. At the back of my mind, I knew that most of my friends remark on my dancing, not my books—somewhat frustrating but also bearing a truth. It’s easier to look at performance than it is to read, and in a certain way, performance contributes more, especially for a writer like me, who deals in dark subjects.
Dancing with my friend and teacher, Lawrence Black, brought me back to the essential basic, for dancing and for life: posture. Stomach in, tailbone tucked under, shoulders lowered, back doing most of the work rather than arms. In fact the arms are loose, limber, moved from the back rather than from the shoulders, which is the reason dancers have such beautiful, articulated backs.
The old tunes, mostly from Broadway musicals and pop songs from the last fifty years still stir me with their mothball perfume of romance, and moving across a floor with a partner is still the best way of moving I know, outdoing even tennis, hiking and skiing, although skiing shares some of the skill, daring and flow.
I’m not interested in doing the work that is needed for competition, and I feel I sucked all the juice from that orange, although now I would perform in an age category that is not, to say the least, crowded. But that is not incentive enough to interrupt the satisfactory flow of my writing as I move into page 365 of my biography. The flow of the written word carries some of the suppleness and delight of the flowing steps that cover the dance floor.
It is one of the sad mysteries of life that so few men want to dance. My father was accomplished, sweeping my little mother around the floor with the expression of delight we see most consistently on the faces of dancers. But he was the exception. If men knew how drawn we are to dancers, they would surely overcome the self-consciousness that afflicts them in so many other areas of life and can make them joyless partners.
Enough of that. I will dance—we will dance—as long as we have feet and legs under us, and that is all that matters.